All Change At Arsenal (Station)

PRE-MATCH
16.00 hrs Sunday, 12 August 2018, was the scheduled kick-off time for a new era at the Arsenal with the visit of the awe-inspiring new kings of Manchester, and of the Premiership, City’s Pep Guardiola.

There could be no better measure of the change that our new boss Unai Emery had been tasked to engineer to a team that had become too stationary and easy to beat. Guardiola it was who had read the last rites to the old Arsenal and Arsene Wenger at the Emirates when City last visited on Thursday 1 March 2018; I was there as a witness to the burial.

It was a cold night with the snow of the late-running winter still on the ground. Not being one who would normally buy the match day programme or scarf I bought both that night because I knew we were at a critical interchange in the journey of Arsenal football club. An encounter that was scheduled to last 90 minutes was over in just 30 minutes as we were 0:3 down before we could gather our senses; and it could have been six. Ripped to shreds from the first whistle, we couldn’t even get close enough to them to foul them let alone share the ball. This was a humiliation of a former idol, who had overstayed his time, by a protégé reminiscent of the beating that Larry Holmes reluctantly dealt to Muhammad Ali in the great man’s last fight. For those of us who were Wenger loyalists to the last, the final whistle could not come quickly enough that night.

A mass clear out was what we needed but it was the last thing that gentleman-Wenger would have given us had he stayed. The task instead fell to our new man Unai Emery.

The early signs were promising for the simple reason that the team was looking uglier. Those who know me know the premium that I attach to having a physically ugly player as a holding midfielder in contrast to those who the Prof had been deploying to this spinal position. These, since Vierra, have been pretty boys like Wilshere and Denielson; Lucas Torreira, on the other hand, looks as scary as a holding midfielder should look. I also like the rugged look of Stephan Lichsteiner who will let young Hector Bellerin know that pretty pony tails is not what is required in that wing back position. Credit for the new uglier look must go to the new Committee of Selectors in charge of player sales and purchases. Even at the shareholder level there are signs of decisive change with the majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, calling time on the Tom and Jerry like tussle over the ownership of the club, and the loyalty of the more vocal fans, by moving to buyout his long-standing corporate stalker, the Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov.

POST-MATCH
As the players lined up in the tunnel the difference between the two sides was palpable: The boys in the blue corner were the reigning champions looking to retain their crown; the boys in the red corner were coming out to be critically assessed by the football viewing world to see who would make it through to the next chapter of Arsenal Football Club and who would be moving on in the January Sales.

The edgy-mood of the boys on trial was set by the new captain Peter Cech as he bounced from foot to foot like a boxer about to enter the ring. That Emery had chosen him to captain the first Premiership game of his reign was not so much deference to the prowess of the City strike force but an indication of the priority that the new manager was attaching to the defensive frailties in the team which he had inherited. It was, therefore, ironic that we lost this game not due to poor defending at the back but because of poor finishing upfront.

In the second minute, before the City boys could get to grips with the new dynamics of the team, Rambo Ramsey had a chance to give the new manager the welcome he deserved. Put through the middle of the City central defenders, the ball sat up beautifully for him to crack it in with his left foot; instead he attempted to hook it over the City keeper with the outside of his right foot and, in so doing, blew the opportunity to set the stadium alight. Just six minutes later, Cech was being called into desperate action as he saved at the near-post after the dancing Raheem Sterling had discoed his way past three of our defenders.

It was but a temporary reprieve as five minutes later, a poorly directed clearing header by Bellerin went straight to his opposite number in blue. The grateful Mendy played the ball wide to Sterling on the left just outside our 18-yard box who, in a flash, zipped to his right across Bellerin and our new holding-midfielder, Matt Guendozi, before whipping the ball past the un-sighted Cech into the net. The quality of the finish was sharp and deadly.

In the 20th minute, it was our turn to test City: Bellerin tamed Maitland-Niles’ cross-field ball nicely with the instep of his right boot before, in the same moment, slipping the ball through the legs of the onrushing Mendy into the City 18-yard box. Then, without breaking stride, he smashed the ball with the outside of his right boot goal-bound. Unfortunately the banana shot did not have enough cut on it to evade the City keeper but we did at least sweat him.

Our own keeper, apparently not content with the threats to his goal that the City boys already posed, came close to scoring the mother-of-all-own-goals, in the 21st minute, when he narrowly missed his far post with what was intended to be a pass to Bellerin. Fortunately for him, the comic moment was quickly forgotten by a brilliant double-save that he pulled off five minutes later: first collapsing low, at full stretch, to defy a Mahrez free-kick that was fast-bound towards the inside of his right-hand post, before bouncing back up to block the scavenging Laporte’s effort to make a meal of the loose change from the save.

An unfortunate injury to Maitland-Niles in the 34th minute gave us an opportunity to see the 34 year-old Super-Swiss, Lichsteiner, at work. His arrival saw a swift end to the marauding runs that City’s miss-named Kyle Walker had been making down the right wing. Much more than steel, Lichsteiner brought creative support down City’s left flank to our strike force. If only our remaining laggards, Ozil and Xhaka could take a leaf from the drive of this 34 year old iron-man because, apart from the confidence which comes from having been such runaway-champions last season, the striking feature of the City team is that all the players play at the same energy level (Liverpool do the same). You simply cannot have a situation where Ramsey and Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang are chasing down opponents, while members of the second line of defence are in a lower gear.

In the 44th minute we had a chance to go level when the ball broke for, the normally clinical, Aubameyang just outside City’s 18 on his favourite foot but he missed the target by an indecent margin. We went in at half-time 0:1 down, but we were by no means out this time round.

Another break from the Wenger ways that I was hoping for was from the stubborn practice of making no changes to an obviously sub-optimal side until the 65th minute of every match at the very earliest. Emery duly obliged me in the 53rd when he substituted Ramsey for Lacazette and in quick time, Lackadis-Lackadat was making his skill and physical presence felt and offering a more natural partnership with Aubameyang.

In the 55th Minute a chance fell to him to level the scores from just outside the centre of the City 18 yard box but he sliced it wide. That he was not alone in suffering from off-season rust on his boots became apparent a few minutes later when the normally lethal Aguero found himself clean through on goal, after a rare mistake by young Matt Guendozi. With only Cech to beat, and with De Bruyne offering himself on his left, he succeeded only in hitting Cech. Our reprieve proved short-lived once again when, a few minutes later, Bernado Silva whipped a ball that had been cut back to him from the touch line by the marauding Mendy past a stranded Cech to put City 0:2 up.

We should have had a penalty in the 66th minute when Mendy roped Mustafi down by the throat to stop his run for a corner. We then had two goals (rightly) ruled offside before Ozil, in the 84th minute, demonstrated why he remains a very costly ghost from the Wenger era. The City keeper must have gone colour blind momentarily when he mistook Ozil’s red shirt and white face for Mendy’s blue shirt and black face. Our £300,000 a week man only had to do the basics of cushioning the ball with the instep of his favourite left foot and he could have chosen at his leisure which side of the City net to pass the ball into. Instead, elephant-like, he passed the ball back to the grateful City keeper with his first touch thus killing off any hope of a late comeback.

The final word must be reserved for our debutant young holding-midfielder, Matt Guendozi (who has to be a relation of Chelsea’s David Luiz however distant!!!). He showed energy and intelligence in almost everything that he did. He looked even more assured when Terrier-Torreira came on in place of the ponderous Xhaka.

OK we failed the first big test of the new era yesterday but there was no shame there. We have another chance this weekend against Chelsea and so here is my wish list for the manager: I would like to see the Guendozi-Torreira partnership in the middle of the park from the beginning and the Lacazette-Aubamayang partnership up top with Lichsteiner in at right-back and with Maitland-Niles if fit (or Iwobi if not) replacing Ozil. Then our opponents will know that things have really changed at the Arsenal.

The Voodoo Football of The Red Devils

Something very unnatural happened at the Emirates the other day when Arsenal met Man Utd which I still can’t get over. The stakes in that game were high: for the winner was the right  to the best view of the rear end of Pep Guardiola’s, out of sight, Man City team. The same fixture last season had seen Arsene Wenger break the spell that Mourinho had over him in Premier League fixtures. He was determined to show that it wasn’t a one-off.

At the beginning of the match, all the omens were good especially as it seemed that Mourinho had left the spare team-bus back in Old Trafford or else it was held up in heavy traffic on the M1 north of Watford. Our relief was to prove short-lived. What he had brought along instead, was worse; much worse. His new weapon was nothing less that the most powerful form of Voodoo!

The first manifestation was on our defenders. We were wearing our home strip, red breast with white sleeves and Man Utd were in all black so that the difference was clear. The sun was shining and the sky was cloudless so that visibility was good. There was therefore no natural reason why Lauren Kolscieny, our captain, should have played the ball square to his opposing captain of the team in  black having won the ball so adeptly to set up a counter-attack. But that is what he did and Antonio Valencia received the ball with glee leaving Khalashnikov-Kolasinac heading the wrong way down, fast, down the wing.

As the ball was played into Pogba on the edge of the box, his feint drew in four of our players in panic ( Mourinho must have been working the pins on the dolls at that point) before he laid the ball neatly back into Valencia’s path. The juju could be seen at work again as the ball sailed through the legs of both Nacho Monreal and Peter Chech, one after the other, and into our net.  It was 1:0 to Man Utd and we were only 3 Minutes into the game.

No sooner had we recovered our composure than the juju was back at work again in tying the legs of our Schodran Mustafi together under harassment from Jessi Lingard. He had dropped his shoulder once to lose the chasing striker; when he attempted to turn back in on his right foot, instead of playing the ball safely away with his left foot, his brain went into momentary relapse. By the time his head cleared and our sore eyes re-opened, Lingard had placed the ball past our un-rushing keeper to graze the inside of the post before nestling into the bottom of our net. It was partly Calamity-Xhaka’s fault in delaying the pass a tad too long. As it was, the only artistry on show was Anthony Marshall’s sublime lay off with the outside of his boot to place the ball into the path of his on-rushing team mate. With just ten minutes gone, we were 2:0 down to our arch enemies both goals being the outcome of generous endowments by our defenders.

But this was Mourinho and Manchester United: all my hates were in the one place. It became clear that I was not alone in my anguish as our players, to a man, now stirred and rose to the occasion, playing like the damned. Every pass we made was with purpose and every tackle was with ‘bad intention’ (ala Mike Tyson).In one attack in the 32nd minute we rattled the bar and shaved the post in the same breath.

Our reward came in the 48th minute with a goal that was quintessentially Arsenal. Sanchez,receiving the ball at the edge of the Man Utd goal, spotted Ramsay making one of his trademark foraging late runs into the box on the blind side of the Man Utd defensive line. When the ball came on cue, he could have attempted to edge it past De Gea first time but that is never the Arsenal way when you can find that last pass. What he did instead was magical and unexpected. He calmly cushioned the ball back to Lacazette on the edge of the six yard box who in turn calmly picked his spot past the completely isolated and befuddled Man U goalie. I foresee that that team goal will be the subject of many doctoral theses in sports psychology in years to come.

As we huffed and we puffed and we threatened to blow United away, only one man stood in our way: that sorcerer from Spain, De Gea, masquerading as a goalkeeper. There was one double save in particular that he pulled off that merited a call for the clock to be put back for him to appear before the Inquisition to confess his devotion to the occult and to forces from the underworld. Iwobi had drilled the ball square into Lacazette inside the enemy camp with guards stationed all around. The Frenchman expertly cushioned the ball with the instep of his right setting it up for an instant full-force strike with his left. De Gea had no right to save that shot as it was taken fast, low and hard from close up. Though the ball was past him De Gea somehow clawed it back.

As if that was not enough, as Sanchez moved in to lift the loose ball over the Spaniard then prostrate on the ground, the sorcerer managed to raise his left boot just in the nick of time to block the effort. Had that ball gone in we would have ripped them apart as we were on fire. It did not and that was the point at which that game was lost to us. The end was predictable as we knew that it was only a matter of time before United would hit us on the break which is precisely the outcome that Mourinho had requested from the team’s witch doctor. You now know why these guys are called the Red Devils.

The Battle of Turf Moor

To a man they came with revenge on their minds, players and supporters alike.

The wounds from last season’s clash, when this recently promoted side took the mighty Arsenal all the way only for us to steal victory in the dying seconds, were still blistering. This time Burnley were bent on our annihilation.

From the first whistle they came at us like a squad of jihadis under the command of Mullah Sean Dyche. Their pace was relentless as attack followed attack. The team talk must have been that life on earth was the first half and heaven – full of all those vestal virgins waiting to massage their limbs- was the second, because they threw everything at us.

The thing about this Burnley team is that, though they are very English in their composition and in the energy they bring to their game, they are technically gifted and play attractive football. This is no West Bromwich Albion or Stoke City nor indeed Mourinho’s Manchester United. There was a memorable moment when their Johann Guomundsson roasted our Nacho Montreal (not an easy thing to do) by doing a Kanu-like swivel to bring the ball on to his right foot before unleashing a venomous shot that had Peter Chech well-beaten and left our right-hand goalpost quivering to its roots. But we were determined to show that the victory over Tottenham was not a one-off. We dug deep and threw our bodies on the line led by our own dervish, Shkrodan Mustafi, a one man squadron at the back.

We only managed to bare our attacking teeth once in that first half. That was when Alex like-this-like-that  Lacazette gave his Burnley marker the slip by allowing the ball to run down their left flank before spinning round to meet his package on the other side. Knowing that his marker was in hot pursuit, and that Aaron Rambo Ramsey would be haring into the box, he swept the cross in low, first time. Everything was right including Ramsey’s decision to take it, also first time, with the instep of his right boot. Only his execution was a shade shy of perfection as the ball went over the bar.

Having failed in their plans to crush us in the first half, the second half was all about us. It was a matter of when and how we would score, not if. Granite Xhaka was at the heart of the events.

I had been having misgivings about him, particularly as to his penchant for playing loose cross-field balls and getting us into trouble without any obvious compensating ability as a holding midfielder. His passes were typically square rather than penetrating and his tackling was reckless but most times non-existent. But in this game he showed what he had on both fronts.

When his poorly taken corner fell short and was headed out by the first man, it looked like a Burnley break was on and that we had been put in trouble yet again. However, the granite-one chased back and caught up with the Burnley hopeful just as he entered our half. Picking his moment, Shaka put in a sliding tackle from behind. Had he got it wrong it would have resulted in a booking; but he got it just right relieving the bemused Burnley man off the ball.

His next major contribution was decisive. Finding himself centred just outside the Burnley 18 yard box, he called for Jack Russell Wilshere to lay the ball into him. As it came, he first tamed the ball with the studs on his left boot before flighting a perfect ball on to the head of Sead  Kalashnikov Kolasinac who nodded it on into the path of our always moving predator Ramsey.

The two handed push on Rambo’s back from the Burnley defender by which he was felled would have been enough to jumpstart any car on a wintry morning. It was as clear a penalty as I have ever seen. It was only controversial because this was the 93rd minute of what been a very close contest and there was raw history in this encounter.

Lacazette having been substituted, the responsibility for plunging the knife into the hearts of the Burnley warriors from the penalty spot fell to Alexis Sanchez. He is a natural with many things on the pitch except penalty taking. Where he was going to put it was poorly disguised; only the pace on the ball saved the day as the net bulged signalling a dramatic final score of 1:0 to the Arsenal.

And thus to the victors, in the Battle of Turf Moor, went the spoils of all three points moving us back up where we belong, in fourth place and above Spurs.

Careful Who You Run Into

This year marks the Thirtieth anniversary of the issue date of my driving licence. I’m proud to say that there has not, to date, been a single blemish on it and neither, too, on my motor insurance accident record. But then something happened a month ago.

As I was driving along this single-lane road, I came unto the T-junction to take a right into the Bishops Avenue in Hampstead Garden Suburb. As an aside, if any Bishops did ever live on this road they will roast in HellFire as this is the billionaires’ quarters in North London; I was of course merely passing through. Anyway, back to my tale.

Four cars passed on the near side and two cyclists followed closely behind.  Seeing that the road was now clear on both sides, I went into my right turn only, behold!, for a BMW X5 to emerge on my inside from nowhere. He had driven down the wrong side of the road to try and do the same manoeuvre ahead of me. Was I driving in London or Lagos? I asked myself.

As the rear passenger side of his vehicle made contact with mine, I honestly can’t say whether it was the pain of the dent in my unblemished driving record or the damage to my beautiful silver wheels that I felt more. Whichever it was, it was only increased by the audacious comment of the young driver as we both pulled up. “What was that about then?” were the words that my still slightly befuddled brain discerned. “What did you say?” As my eyes narrowed he saw the wisdom in not pursuing that line of dialogue. “OK, calm down” were the wiser words that came next only for him to return to his original insanity by asking “didn’t you see me coming?”

His audacity was breath-stopping. He had driven down the wrong lane to jump all the cars that were ahead of him in the queue: an act of criminality of itself with potential hazard to any vehicle that might have been turning into that lane from the Bishops Avenue. He was now compounding the misdemeanour by disclaiming responsibility for the collision. His calculation was that he had a passenger in his car that he could call as a witness while I was alone.

When such is your agenda, the last person you want to run into is a litigation lawyer, for one. That he didn’t respond to my rejoinder question: “How many lanes do you see on that road we turned out of?” did not matter as the next thing was that a good citizen and driving instructor, from @batchdrivingschool, slowed up to hand me his card saying “I’ve got it all on webcam if ever you need it”. With that I knew the case was slam-dunk but it seemed as if this joker-driver was slightly deaf, as well as been very daft, as he gave his insurers an entirely different version of the events which had himself at the head of the queue at the junction.

I waited for him to spin his yarn out fully with his insurers, to the point that they were hotly disputing liability for the damage to my car and my claim for a courtesy car, before I landed the ‘AJ uppercut’ with the webcam evidence showing him driving down the wrong side of the road.

I didn’t know what car I was going to be getting as a courtesy vehicle but I did want that joker-driver to feel some pain for his recklessness and his audacity and to be a little more careful next time. I have to say that I could easily get used to this Porsche 911 Carerra Turbo my insurers have laid on for me at the expense of his insurers. It’s an animal!

Correction: The Reported Coup in North London Was Not a Coup

This is the season of fake news. It had been reported that Arsene Wenger’s long reign at Arsenal was at long last over. The word on the street was that the Old Dinosaur had lost his teeth and his hunger. He had won nothing of note for decades. The eagle-eye that he once had for players of quality had lost its focus as he limped on with failed products like Theo Walcott. The clearest evidence for the case against him (of which I became persuaded at the end of last season) was the progress being made down at The Lane.

While Arsenal stagnated and regressed, Tottenham Hotspur, the old enemy, received an infusion of new blood: new manager, new players, new stadium and new vision and belief rolling out new talents like Harry Kane and Dele Alli even after cashing in on players like Gareth Bale and Luka Modric. When Spurs finished above Arsenal last season for the first time in decent memory and followed it up by upending Real Madrid in circumstances where Arsenal had in the past been humiliated, it seemed very much as if power had finally shifted from London N7 to London N17.

After the loss to Man City, this North London Derby was billed to mark the final eclipse of the old leader at Highbury by the fresh thinking Mauricio Pochettino of Spurs. Lose to Spurs at the Emirates and the call for a brain transplant at the Arsenal would have become irresistible. Spurs came with purpose and with all their big tanks: Kane, Alli, Eriksson, Dembele and Sisouko under the command of Captain Hugo Lloris.

But like his fellow President for Life, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Old Man Wenger wasn’t ready to let go; not without a fight. From the first whistle the Arsenal boys were superior. Tottenham came with a plan to bully the Arsenal physically with the power of Mousa Dembele complimented by the muscular running of Mousa Sisouko. But the Arsenal boys were defiant. This was for the glory of their club even if not for the survival of their leader.

There were no buses to be parked by either team. This was toe to toe, man for man and measure for measure. Mustafi was immense for the Gooners at the back effectively taming Harry Kane . At the other end Alexander Laca-this-Laca-that Lacazette was making the Spurs defence dizzy with his runs. Meanwhile on the left lank was the sub-battle of Sanchez v Sanchez. The Arsenal one got the benefit of the referee’s call in one clinch. The resulting Mesut Ozil free kick saw Mustafi power a header into the top corner to give us a 1-0 lead in the 36th minute. Five minutes later Sanchez scored the winner when he powered the ball into the roof of the Tottenham net from close. You could see the hope drain from the legs and faces of the Spurs boys. Beating Real Madrid at home was one thing. Beating a wounded Arsenal team in their home ground from 2:0 down was too much to ask and Comrade Wenger continues his iron rule.