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Pat Rice gymnastics

Tim Stillman Column

Howdy Arse lovers. I write a few hours in advance of the fixture with Olympiacos. Far from ideal as it’s likely you’ll read this in wake of that game. But it was so nearly worse dear reader. I did originally flounce off in a massive huff and refuse to produce the column altogether. This was until my lawyer forced me to release a statement explaining that it had all been a misunderstanding. Then Blogs bore down on me brandishing that belt with the really big brass knuckle and I relented. He smelled of rum.

I’m rather hoping the Bolton victory at the weekend- our first by a three goal margin since February – has set us on the road to recovery. But I’ll admit I’ve been hurt adopting this way of thinking too many times before. Arsenal’s road to recovery is too often littered with road works, Junction 6 pile ups and annoying fucking caravans that seem intent on hovering in your lane.

I think the best note to start with on reflection of the weekend is to pay tribute to our captain and talisman Robin van Persie, who reached 100 Arsenal goals. A richly deserved milestone that once again makes the mind do Pat Rice-esque somersaults pondering what he might have achieved with greater fitness levels. The blistering volley at Charlton in 2006 will surely register as his greatest effort. But I think my favourite would be one of his many efforts against Blackburn in our last season at Highbury.

I’m tempted to recant poetically about this period being his coming of age in the side. At the time it felt as though he was cementing his place as Henry’s strike partner, but in retrospect it’s when he started to flower into Henry’s successor. But really, I think I love that goal because that preening uber cunt Savage tries to cynically take him out en route to goal, but succeeds only in looking a total dick.

Of course this has led to the newspapers making a big fuss over the length of time remaining on van Persie’s current deal. As it happens, they’re about a Pat Rice triple jump attempt behind the Arsenal populace, who have been acutely aware of the situation since the summer. There’s also anxiety over the fact that van Persie switched his agent to Darren Dein recently. Dein, as we know, seems to act as a kind of David Dickinson figure at London Colney, desperately looking to relieve us of our most valuable wares on the cheap.

Robin van Persie

It’s not a situation I’m going to pay too much mind to. I may be leaving myself open to accusations of naivety here, but I really don’t think van Persie’s main driver is money. (Though of course I’m sure it’s still important). Ultimately, I believe his impression of his future will be forged by what happens on the pitch. I have already allocated plenty of brain space to worrying about that, so I’m choosing to take the economical approach. Cranial efficiency, people! Either that or I’m headed for a brain tumour the size of Kolo Toure’s arse.

Our little worry eggs have been hatching even further this week with the news that Jack Wilshere’s ankle injury required surgery, which keeps him out for 5 months. The collective wetting of knickers over the quality of the medical care he received has predictably erupted. As I pointed out in this column a fortnight ago; Arsenal’s prognosis has been cautious throughout because they knew this scenario was a possibility.

I spoke to my own physiotherapist about Jack’s injury last week (because my knees make Ledley King look like the Iron Man). His informed, qualified assertion was that, for a stress fracture in the ankle, standard procedure is to put it in a protective boot for 6-8 weeks to see if it heals. If it doesn’t, you operate.

Whilst it is a shame for Arsenal and for Jack that his layoff is now so prolonged, I don’t think this will be the worst thing for him – provided of course he makes a full recovery from his ailment without long term consequences. For a start, he is 19 and it looks as though he will be playing at the top level for the duration of his career. The physical relief of 6 months watching daytime TV and rom coms could do his body some good.

It may also just dull the glare of expectation on Wilshere. Second season syndrome tends to taint the coverage of your performances – even when they don’t necessarily dip. The media’s “build ‘em up and knock ‘em down” modus operandi, plus the football supporters’ constant desire for a new shiny toy ensure that. Wilshere might be, perhaps unwittingly, shielded from that. It’s not a disaster for the team either. Jack isn’t our best player yet. If he continues progressing at the same rate, he will be very soon. But he’s not yet as integral to us he could be in a year or two.

In the meantime, provided they stay fit of course, I think Arteta and Ramsey can pick up the baton. I’ve been very impressed with Arteta since his signing. I think he adds an authority and quiet assurance you get when you sign a 29 year old, seasoned performer. Arsenal have been sporting a young midfield for a few years now and I think one of the team’s big weaknesses has, consequently, been their adaptability to in game situations.

That is to say, the nous to realise that you don’t really need eight players forward when you’re a goal up in injury time. You don’t need to panic and thrash around like a horny teenager if you’re being held 0-0 after 60 minutes. Arteta has a composure and an intelligence about him that transmits. Plus, he has the ability to either sit deep and allow Ramsey to plough forward, or else go for the jugular himself. Not only does he have that ability, but he has the intelligence to pick his moments too.

I think he’s taken a lot of the load off of Ramsey and Song and that really showed in the Bolton game. Neither player featured much in the first half of that match. Both looked a little lost. Arteta was probably our standout player in an otherwise impoverished half. But after the interval, both his midfield deputies grew in stature. See Ramsey’s role in the first goal. Arteta isn’t Cesc Fabregas. He was never going to be. But I think he’s looked a fine addition thus far.

That leaves me finally to congratulate the Arsenal Ladies side who completed another all conquering treble on Sunday. Birmingham City- their closest rivals to their Superleague crown- were swatted aside with relative ease in a 4-1 final victory. Rachel Yankey’s second goal in particular was a standout moment. Congratulations again to them and bon journee to you, dear readers. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

Olympiacos preview + pressure and Arsenal injuries

Football, as much as we all love it, can really make you despair at times. The mercenary, money driven ways of some players are what put people off the modern game. That Tevez last night, eh?

What a complete and utter bastard. The reason Beauty and the Beast works is because beneath it all the beast has a heart of gold, or something. If the beast went around the place eating up Beauty’s family and eviscerating her pets that romance would never have happened. Just because you look like a monster doesn’t mean you have to behave like one too.

Anyway, I cannot envisage a situation at Arsenal where a sub would refuse to go on. It just wouldn’t happen. Especially not in a Champions League game. And especially not tonight. Maybe though, that’s because we don’t have any subs.

Out injured for tonight’s game are: Koscielny, Walcott and Gervinho on top of the already injured Djourou, Squillaci, Vermaelen, Wilshere, Benayoun, Diaby and probably a load of others I’ve forgotten about. The dearth of centre-halves means that Alex Song will partner Per Mertesacker at the back which means we’ll have to get our FrimCoq out in midfield. I suspect he’ll go for Frimpong but I think, in a European game where physicality is not quite as important as in the Premier League, I’d quite like to see Coquelin.

With two of the first choice front three out as well it’ll mean a return for Andrei Arshavin, who the boss says works hard in training but just lacks some confidence, and a possible start for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The other options are Ryo Miyaichi or a change of system that would accomodate Marouane Chamakh but I can’t see that happening.

So, I think it’ll be: SZCZ – Sagna – Mertesacker – Song – Gibbs – Frimpong – Arteta – Ramsey – Arshavin – The Ox – van Persie

The manager admits the injuries are a bit of a worry:

You cannot go through the season with nine injuries. Throughout the season, the squad cannot cope with that, certainly not.

Thankfully tonight’s game is at home, against opponents we should beat, and I think we’ll cope all right, but in the longer term having that many players out will mean you’re found wanting at some stage. After the draw in Dortmund it’s important we get three points on the board tonight, not just for our European campaign but to maintain some momentum ahead of Sunday’s trip to that pee-pee infested heck hole.

Arsenal’s reputation in Europe is still strong but Olympiacos know that times have been tough lately. Their keeper says:

Arsenal are always a dangerous team but this season they don’t offer so much fear as in the past. This season you can see that Arsenal are more vulnerable and Olympiakos could win if we play with intelligence.

It’s up to us to offer more fear but you can take nothing for granted with this Arsenal side. The back to back wins over Shrewsbury and Bolton are the first time we’ve done that since Feb 2011 when we beat Wolves and some Spanish outfit you probably haven’t heard of. So if we’re less scary than we were it’s because we cannot produce any kind of consistency. Another win tonight would go some way to achieving that.

If there’s pressure tonight then Mikel Arteta says that’s necessary at a club like Arsenal:

You expect pressure. A club like Arsenal has to be in that situation [at the top in the Premier League and Champions League]. If they are not, it means people are not expecting big enough things. That is what we all want, hopefully it will stay like that and we can respond to it.

Fingers crossed they do that tonight, another solid performance defensively is important too, and you need only look at what happened at Old Trafford last night to realise the old cliché about their being no easy games in Europe is true (for the most part).

Meanwhile, the manager has explained Jack Wilshere’s injury in more detail and defended the way the club have handled it. There has been criticism as another apparently short-term injury has Vermaelened itself into something longer, but Arsene says:

It’s unfair because the club medical staff haven’t made any mistakes on that front. During the period in the protective boot, the fracture he had didn’t heal. Once that was clear, what I’ve been told is that we had to go in quite quickly to repair it and that’s why we decided to do it so quickly.

The current problem is a consequence of an old injury which was aggravated whilst playing for England against Switzerland and maybe it could have all been sorted more quickly. But if criticism is to be handed out it’s only fair to do that with the full facts and none of us have them. What was Jack’s role? Should he have told the medical staff his ankle was bothering him all summer, when he went on holidays etc?

All the same, away from individual cases about which we don’t know everything, Arsenal’s injury record overall does raise some eyebrows. We know the club have been concerned about it enought to make the players wear those GPS bras and the like, and maybe it does warrant some investigation. If that does happen it would need someone to look at another club with similar circumstances (e.g young squad, big pitch, playing in four competitions) to see if their record is better or worse. And if it’s better then try find out why.

A look at the physio room website shows that Man United have more players out injured than us at the moment. This is a Man United who are top of the league and in flying form. So, even if you have injuries, you can cope if your squad is deep enough, or if the quality of your squad can enable you to get through periods when a lot of players are out. Perhaps, instead of slating the medical team – who I’m pretty sure know what they’re doing, what with their years of study and experience and qualifcations – we look to find another way to cope.

Injuries are part and parcel of football. I think we take a very insular look at our own problems which aren’t so different from anyone else’s and maybe use them as an excuse. If only we had X player or Y player. If. If. If. As the saying goes, you win nothing with Ifs.

Right, that’s that. There’ll be live blog coverage later on. If you’re stuck in work or away from a TV you can get live, up to the second text commentary of the game on your computer and/or mobile device. And, as always, if you fancy a flutter, you can sign up with Paddy Power and get up to £50 in a free bet.

Till then.