Bring me the head of the Dead Snake

Morning all,

the dust has settled somewhat following Sunday’s drama, and if anything illustrates how quiet things have gone from the club’s point of view, it’s that one of the main stories on the official website is the news that Luis Boa Morte is joining South African side Orlando Pirates of the Caribbean.

This is the same Luis Boa Morte who last played for the club in April 1999, coming on as a 65th minute sub in a 0-0 draw against Southampton at The Dell. The only thing notable about that game was the fact that Kaba Diawara started and Mark Hughes was all elbowy as he chugged around in a Southampton shirt. Here’s what the long-gone but much missed Red Geezer had to say about it at the time:

The peculiar Southampton manager, scouse ‘hardman,’ David Jones, said after the game, talking his own brand of complete bollocks, that ‘the boy Vieira knew that he had been in a game.’ This translates, broadly, that Vieira had been elbowed in the face by Mark Hughes and kicked black and blue by the Saints’ ratpack. Good old Hughsie also kicked Adams and nearly eviscerated Martin Keown before finally succumbing to his usual yellow card.

This broadly summed up the game; an hour and a half, that seemed a lot longer, of tedious football, punctuated by niggly Southampton violence. Some people might see Southampton’s performance as ‘spirited’ but it was no more than opening up all the cages at the zoo and letting all the animals run around. If I lived in Southampton and if this was the only ‘entertainment’ in the area, I’d think I’d rather sneeze into a hankie and watch the snot coagulate than watch this grisly bunch of gimps go through the motions.

But Boa Morte was involved:

Arsenal’s best chance came from a Boa Morte flick, helped on by Anelka, that Kanu lashed at inside the box, towards a completely empty goal. Even as we were up on our feet and cheering, Francis Benali, appeared from nowhere and cleared the ball off the line. Bugger.

Francis Benali, eh? There’s a blast from the past. It’s not often a footballer can maintain two simultaneous careers but he played lots of games for Southampton as well as dancing around like a madman for Frankie Goes to Hollywood and I guess we can only applaud that. Anyway, good luck to the Dead Snake, I’m sure he’ll have a fine time in South Africa and I look forward to tomorrow’s Arsenal.com missive giving us all the details of Paul Shaw’s move to the J-League.

Back to reality (yes, I’m sorry, we have to), Mikel Arteta is about the only Arsenal voice you can find this morning and as you’d expect from a senior professional he’s playing down any talk of dressing room crisis, saying:

All the players are supportive of Wenger, there are no divisions. When we’ve had bad results the fans get upset with the manager but that’s normal in football.Wenger has done so much for the club that he deserves the confidence of the fans.

I’m not sure that the reaction we saw on Sunday could be classed as ‘normal’, to be honest, but again we have seas to sail and the less stormy they are the better. You don’t have be Johnny Insightful to know that certain things are being said because they need to be said. They don’t really deserve much in the way of analysis, they need to be taken at face value and we need to move on with our season.

Meanwhile, after his display against United, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has caught the eye of England manager Fabio Capello, apparently. Which is understandable, why wouldn’t a clearly exciting young English talent be of great interest to the national team manager? I just hope that there’s at least a small measure of common sense taken when it comes to his progress.

We know we live in a world where one moment you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread that shoots lasers into the eyes of John Terry, and the next you’re nothing but a mouldy old loaf that has is being fed to Water Sheringhams, but the hype machine loves nothing more than to build people up. There’s not much we can do about it, in fairness, but I’d hope that Arsenal fans don’t contribute too much to it.

It’s quite normal for a player to come into a team and impress due to their youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy, but once the element of surprise wears off they can struggle a bit. Remember Theo. Scared the life out of everyone with his pace until after a while left backs realised that if you just push him out wide he’ll generally run the ball out for a throw before turning around and blaming someone else or giving those Action Man eyes to the linesman (remember the Action Man that had the thing on the back of his head that you could move the eyes? Yeah, those eyes). Ooh, scary Theo!

There is obviously huge potential in The Ox. People talk about Arsene Wenger not spending money but he has, essentially, paid a club record fee for a kid coming from League One. I don’t think it’s something he himself will worry about, he seems level-headed and well-grounded, but we can’t overlook the fact that despite his talent and his performance against United he is still pretty damn raw. We need to accept that he can make a contribution between now and the end of the season, it might be slight, it might be considerable, but let’s not put the weight of expectation on him either.

Right, that’ll be that. Just a quick update the book/Paypal situation. There isn’t one. I’m still waiting and having been talked out of finding Paypal’s offices and repeatedly firing a bazooka at it by Mrs Blogs, waiting is all I’ve got. Hopefully there’ll be good news sooner rather than later.

Till tomorrow.

Robin’s response to Robin’s reaction + thoughts on coverage

Usually, after a defeat like the one we experienced against United, and one in which the main talking point wasn’t the football itself, there’s a tendency for the club to go into lock-down mode.

Not this time though. We’ve got a reaction from various players to what’s gone on, not least of which is Robin van Persie’s exclusive in The Sun (why there and not the official site?!), in which he sets the record straight about his reaction to the substitution of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He denies any falling out with Arsene Wenger, saying:

I was not having a go at the boss on Sunday — I was just sad to see Alex leave the pitch as he just gave the assist for our only goal.

I was not questioning his judgment. I know it’s not my place to challenge what Arsene Wenger does. When Arsene makes a decision, it is based on a lot of information that everyone else might not know about.

There is no problem, there is no conflict and there is no controversy. The boss knows that, I know that, the players all know that.

The world we live in demands controversy, because controversy sells papers, creates clicks and page views and everything else, and such is the speed at which information is taken in, digested, then plopped out to make space for something new that you can, quite literally, write any old crap without having to back it up. There are so many people hungry for news that there are always enough people to believe, thus giving vague credibility to, stuff which is absolute fiction.

The old saying about if you throw enough shit some of it will stick is never more accurate. And the people with the shit on their faces don’t seem to mind too much because it’s not actually real shit. For example – the story that that Robin van Persie handed in a transfer request after the game – nonsense. And bollocks. And nonsensey bollocks. And bollocky nonsense. With a big curly turd sprinkled with hundreds and thousands on top.

It’s not helped when reaction to the game, visceral and all as it was, is driven by the media. It’d be a very interesting experiment to have two groups of people. One who view a game with no Sky/ESPN soundtrack, no pundits pre and post game, and the other saturated by post-match interviews, ‘insight’ and the rest, then ask them questions on how they perceived what they saw. I’m pretty sure there’d be huge differences in the responses.

I mean, isn’t there enough to talk about and discuss from Sunday without having the agenda set by others? Do we really need Gary Neville to speak on behalf of Arsenal fans and validate thoughts many people have already? People talk about him being a good pundit but his stuff about Arshavin, who I fully accept is not doing it for us, not liking ‘our women’ is just mindless beyond belief. Yet folk are happy to pick up that stick and whack the Russian with it as if we don’t have enough sticks of our own. And we have sticks of validity and righteousness, not of great twattishness.

Anyway, Robin’s response is just what you would expect from him. It’s timely, it says all the right things and to be honest I never saw that much wrong with his reaction in the first place. Again the idea that ‘Oh, an open show of dissent from the captain, that’s not good’ is just more fuel for the fire. If the fans in the stadium can react because they didn’t want Oxlade-Chamberlain to come off, why not a player who is directly affected by that change?

It doesn’t mean he hates the manager, it doesn’t mean he hates the club, it doesn’t mean he wants to leave, it doesn’t mean he’s going to gather up all his toys then put them in his pram simply so they he can throw them out in a gesture of grand defiance, it just means he’s a player who is a) in tune with the fans and b) one who is driven to win games. He knew that The Ox’s removal – whatever the reason behind it – made that more difficult. Whether he’s the captain or anyone else is irrelevant in my opinion. This is a classic mountain/molehill territory and does little but obscure the more pressing issues far more worthy of discussion.

And for me the obvious question is: what the fuck are we going to do to get ourselves out of this run of form we’re in? According to Robin van Persie:

We are all committed to doing the very best we can to bring success to The Emirates. We are not giving up on a top-four finish, no way. We have the FA Cup to look forward to and the Champions League. We will all be giving 100 per cent to make sure we bring one of those trophies home, hopefully both of them.

Let’s all stick together and fight.

While Wojciech Szczesny says:

I am confident that we will pick ourselves up, will win games and get our position in the Champions League. We’ve been there before and we have reacted very well. I think we’ll do the same thing again and make sure that this club goes in the right direction to finish the season where we should.

And whatever you think about our ability to do that, or the squad’s shortcomings, at least we’re going at it with the right attitude. The reality is there is a lot of football left this season, there is time to turn things around, and there is no choice but to keep going and try and get ourselves back on track. We’ll be aided by the return of some injured players, hopefully sooner rather than later, and it remains to be seen whether or not recent form and our squad deficiencies will spark some transfer activity.

It’s impossible to look at where we are at the moment and not think we need some kind of a lift. Of all the players out only Wilshere and Sagna would really provide that. Get Gibbs and Diaby back and people’s immediate reaction is to open up a book on how long they’ll last before they get crocked again, so maybe the manager and those up above might be more inclined to do some business in January. I wouldn’t hold my breath but I would cross my fingers and hope though.

Arsenal v Man United – By the numbers

Finally for today, Leopold has been busy over on the real ANR. Lo! Behold the future – his soothsaying skills and scrolls of wisdom chart Arsenal’s past and what’s to come. Go read and follow Leopold on Twitter.

And that’s yer lot. Till tomorrow.

Arsenal 1-2 Man United: a watershed moment

wenger_united_home

Match reportVideo

It’s interesting that even this morning the focus appears to be on a controversial substitution when the bigger issue is the fact we’ve just lost our third league game in a row, taking our total of defeats in the league this season to eight.

When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s number went up in the 74th minute many of the 60,000 at the stadium made it quite clear what they thought of the decision. The youngster had been Arsenal’s best attacking player and had, just minutes before, set up Robin van Persie for Arsenal’s equaliser. The boos turned to cheers when his name was announced and back to boos when Andrei Arshavin took to the field.

It felt huge. Not just from a footballing point of view, as in the heat of the moment the substitution was hard to understand, but the reaction itself was aimed not at Arshavin (who suffered collateral damage) but at Arsene Wenger. Never has there been such a display of outright mutiny towards the manager. And the effect it had on us was palpable.

It killed our momentum in all kinds of ways. The team suffered, the fans suffered, and in the end it’s hard not to think it had a bearing on the result. Afterwards the manager defended his decision, saying:

Oxlade-Chamberlain had started to fatigue, started to stretch his calf, and was not used to the intensity. He was sick during the week. Arshavin is captain of the Russia national team. I have to justify a guy of 18 who’s playing his second or third game? Let’s be serious.

I have to stand up for the substitutions I made. I’ve been 30 years in this job and have made 50,000 substitutions and I have to justify every time I make a decision? I do not have to explain to you every single decision I make.

It’s cold light of day time and I still can’t quite get my thoughts clear on this. On the one hand, the logical part of me says that there must have been a reason Wenger took him off. He was aware enough of Arshavin’s shortcomings to start Oxlade-Chamberlain in the first place, and after a display in which he caught the eye and presented a real threat to the United defence, what would make the manager decide to chuck on a guy he unceremoniously dropped for an 18 year old in the first place?

There was talk that he was beginning to cramp up and if that is the case, and with none of us being privvy to the physio, medical team and behind the scenes info like his sickness during the week, then it makes a lot more sense than Arsene Wenger deciding to take off our best player and replace him with a guy whose form and motivation have been in the toilet for a long time now.

On the other hand though, it’s hard not to wonder if this wasn’t just a decision Arsene got really, really wrong. Such is the mood at the moment that he has no wiggle room at all. People who questioned why on earth The Ox was taken off were in no mood to accept what appears to be a perfectly logical explanation. And that in itself is telling.

Again, I don’t think it was the introduction of Arshavin that sparked the reaction. Had the board read 14 : 23 I don’t think there would have been anything but polite, but muted, applause for the change. Yet what happened wasn’t just about taking Oxlade-Chamberlain off. It was a symptom of a wider malaise, a sign that the trust in the manager is being eroded and that our fanbase is become increasingly polarised and disaffected, which is never a good sign.

If the Oxlade-Chamberlain decision sparked ire like never before, there’s little talk of the manager’s decision to withdraw Johan Djourou at half-time for Nico Yennaris. We know he rarely makes half-time changes, but Djourou’s torrid first half left him with no choice and the move was a good one. In a way I feel sorry for Djourou, he’s not a right back, and ask any centre-half if they like playing full back they’ll tell you no chance.

Without trying to make excuses for him, because his performance was poor and he should have done better, he was hardly helped by having the defensively raw Oxlade-Chamberlain and the ineffectual Walcott switching wings throughout the first half. By 25 minutes in it was obvious that United were targetting him, often he had both Evra and Nani to deal with, so why didn’t our management do something about it? Why, when we’re playing guys out of position, don’t we do more to help them when they’re struggling rather than make them scapegoats?

Once again our full back issues came back to haunt us. Djourou was poor for the first, he didn’t close down Giggs well enough, but Vermaelen was at fault too, losing Valencia who headed home to make it 1-0. As for their winner, in some minds this morning it’ll be Andrei Arshavin waving Valencia through, clearing a path for him to square to Welbeck, but Arshavin’s admittedly piss poor attempt at a tackle happened well outside the box.

He then skipped through Song and Vermaelen as if they weren’t there so blaming the Russian is easy but it was hardly all his fault. And I’m not trying to be critical of Vermaelen, he’s just back from injury, you can see by the way he moves around the pitch he naturally gravitates to the centre of defence, and once again we haven’t set ourselves up properly to help get the best from a player out of position.

But it all comes back to that moment when Oxlade-Chamberlain went off. The debate as to whether it was a medical necessity or just a terrible decision by Arsene Wenger will roll on and on, I’m sure. Robin van Persie’s reaction has become a talking point too but I’m sure we’ll hear more about that from the captain in due course. He’s a conscientious man, not one for open dissent, and will realise what inferences will be drawn from it. To me his reaction was no different from that of many of the fans who were dismayed to see our most effective attacking player come off but I suspect he’ll be more inclined to believe what the manager, who he trusts and respects, tells him.

As I said at the beginning though, the substitution is a talking point but not the real issue. The real issue is that we’re now 5 points behind Chelsea, we’ve lost three league games in a row, we’ve lost eight games already this season, and I that is clearly the source of the underlying frustration. Before the Fulham game Arsene said, “it would be stupid to lose points because we don’t have a left-back.” We’ve now lost 9 points since then and our lack of a recognised left-back and a right-back has been a larger factor in that than any misguided/unfortunately enforced substitution.

It is a tough position to be in. We have all 4 full back at the club out medium to long-term and players available on loan are generally damaged goods in one way or another, but our attempts to get through with the players available have not worked. The solution? I wish I knew. Do you buy and find yourself with a squad overloaded with full-backs or take an inadequate player on loan? There’s nothing to say results would have been any better with someone like Wayne Bridge in the team.

So while I feel for the manager in that regard the way last summer was handled, along with results so far this season, brought about yesterday’s reaction. I maintain the only thing you should ever judge a manager on is results. If he signs players you don’t like or don’t rate, or makes changes you can’t understand, but the team rack up the points, you’ve got absolutely no cause for complaint. This season, however, results mean that Arsene is open to criticism like never before.

Above all else this morning though, I can’t help feel sad at what we saw yesterday. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a kid making his first Premier League, had a game he’ll never forget for all kinds of reasons, not least of which was the open hostility to his removal from the game. Arsene Wenger, a man I have enormous respect for because of all the great things he’s done for this club, was the subject of that hostility and it wasn’t at all nice to witness.

I fully accept there are people that would like to see a change in management. I suspect after yesterday that number has grown, but for all his stubbornness (which used to be one of his greatest assets, let’s not forget) to see the crowd turn on him like that was unpleasant. It felt like something of a watershed moment. End of days, kind of stuff.

The reality is there’s a lot of football left this season and we’ve got no choice but to pick ourselves up and get on with it. You do wonder if a line has been crossed, if it’s gone too far to ever be the same again, but in the short-term winning some games would make things a little better. That’s where we’re at.

Till tomorrow.

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United preview – a game of huge importance

Morning all,

and let’s start with some good news, for a change. Word is Thomas Vermaelen could be in line to play against United later on. He trained with the first team yesterday and assuming all went well it means he’ll start the game at left back. It’ll certainly add some solidity to a back four which could really do with it at the moment, but we ought not to forget that our defensive issues aren’t simply the domain of that group of players.

As a team we need to be ultra-focused today and if we put in the effort, as well as cutting out the individual errors that have cost us goals in recent games, we’ll make life a lot more difficult for United. In midfield I think Tomas Rosicky will come in to replace Arteta. It’s clearly not a like for like swap but he’s the best option we’ve got and despite not scoring for over two years in the Premier League can still offer a bit of forward drive from midfield.

Up top I guess it all depends on the fitness of Thierry Henry. If he’s fit enough, he’ll start. The manager might talk up the efficiency of Andrei Arshavin but those of us with functioning eyes know what he’s at there. A couple of recent assists are welcome but not enough. When you play United you know they’re going to work hard all over the pitch and we can’t really afford to carry a player whose workrate has been suspect for the majority of his Arsenal career. He really did put in a shift against Leeds but you just can’t be sure he’d do the same again.

The other options available to the manager include putting Benayoun out left, or, if he’s feeling really brave, letting loose Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Part of me would love to see that. The unpredictability of a talented youngster could cause United problems they haven’t prepared for, but equally a game this big could be too much too soon for him. And it would also deny us a weapon from a bench which doesn’t have much depth in terms of attacking options.

Alex Ferguson says this morning that if you stop Robin van Persie you stop Arsenal. Which is true, in a way. We come back to the problem of not spreading goals out around the team, but the obvious flaw in that from our perspective is that even if you don’t stop Robin van Persie Arsenal are vulnerable. He scored against Swansea, should have scored another, yet that big old self-destruct button was there waiting to be pushed.

As we’ve said even small mistakes at this level get punished. And look, if a good Swansea team can take advantage then you can be quite sure United will. This goes back to focus, to the need to do the simple things right, not over-complicate matters and above all else real energy in our own performance. We know well where their threats come from, but equally we have players who can hurt them.

Last time the two sides met Arsenal ended up humiliated. There’s no other word for it. Arsene has played down talk of revenge but Robin van Persie has said that what happened at Old Trafford is a motivating factor for him. And so it should be for the rest of the team. I know you can look at it with a cold, analytical head, view it as just one game (and a freakish one at that) and move on, but that’s not how people look at football, least of all players. If they’re not even slightly pumped up to try and bury those ghosts then I’d be very worried indeed.

Aside from that, however, the more pressing issue is the league table. Chelsea’s draw against Norwich was disappointing for them, I’m sure, but it still means there’s now a 5 point gap between us in 5th and them in 4th. The importance of this game is not simply because it’s Arsenal v Man United, or Arsenal looking for revenge for the 8-2 debacle, it’s because we badly need three points today.

We’ve been here before with United. When Cashmir Na$ri scored two goals back in 2008 it came after that sickening 4-4 against Sp*rs and a defeat away at Stoke. Last season, when Ramsey scored the only goal of the game, it was a momentary bright spot in what was a truly horrendous run of form. Today we go into the game on the back of a disappointing festive period and two league defeats which we’ve lost from winning positions.

It’d be fair to say we need something to lift the spirits as well as lifting us up the league table. This time though, if we do get a result, we need to use it as a platform to embark on another good run of form, like the one we showed from September to December. The one that lifted us from 17th to 4th (briefly). United will provide a serious, serious test to a team that is struggling for form and confidence, but hopefully with our good home record, a crowd that really gets behind the team, and a good performance it’s one we can pass.

In other news there’s a good piece in the Observer from Amy Lawrence on Wojciech Szczesny. I know he’s made a couple of dodgy decisions recently but criticism of him seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There’s no doubt whatsoever that’s he significant upgrade on those who came before him in recent seasons, and while he might do well to pay attention to Liam Brady’s words (in the article), we shouldn’t forget he’s still a very young keeper and still learning the game.

People often draw comparisons with Joe Hart but fail to mention that Hart had a full season out on loan, where he could develop and make mistakes without the pressure of being a big club. Szczesny has been thrust into our first team, which is not a bad thing, but a little understanding that players have to make errors to learn from them would be welcome. To me it’s very much short-term pain for long-term gain for Arsenal.

And finally, exactly five years and 1 day ago, Arsenal played United at the Emirates. We won 2-1 that day, the goalscorers Robin van Persie and Thierry Henry. What odds, eh?

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Right then, time for breakfast, then nail biting. Come on you reds!