Olympiacos fallout: what would Dandan say?

February 29, 2020

Perhaps it was time for a bit of a wake-up call.

Admittedly there are wake-up calls and wake-up calls. I am usually roused from sleep by the gentle vibrations of a Fitbit watch, thrumming silently on my wrist at the appointed time.

Our Arsenal wake-up call was more like a glass of icy water in the face of a deeply sleeping innocent.

Defeat at home to Olympiacos, an all-round poor performance and out of the Europa League (our best chance of making it into next season’s Champions’ League). Splash.

The comments on Arsenal Arsenal yesterday aptly captured my mood and reaction: the sense that whatever uptick in performances we have seen since Mikel Arteta arrived has merely papered over fundamental cracks; that our squad needs root-and-branch changes; that our club probably needs new owners who care whether we win or lose; that our return to being properly competitive looks as distant as ever.

And yet…

Writing this more than 24 hours after that horrible game I feel I have a bit more of a sense of perspective.

In the early years of this blog there was a wonderful contributor called Dandan, who wrote Posts and commented most days. 

Dandan was not exactly in the first flush of youth, but a long lifetime of supporting Arsenal had taught him many lessons: lessons he gladly shared with us. 

His time with Arsenal had more ups and downs than the Andes. He had seen success and failure; boring mediocrity and ecstatic highs; he had seen our greatest rivals gloating in triumph, and he had seen them ground to dust beneath our boots. All of this gave him a level-headed outlook and a zen-like ability to never get too upset about a bad game or a bad run of games.

Dandan is sadly no longer with us, but if he were, what would he be saying today? I suspect it would be a reflection on what it is to be a football supporter (a commitment that is both a blessing and a curse).

Perhaps he would muse on the attitude of fans of clubs like West Ham or Fulham, supporters who have never come close to experiencing the sort of successes with which we Arsenal fans have been spoiled, yet who still follow their team through thin and thin.

Or how about those who follow teams in the lower leagues? What must it be like to support Stevenage or Macclesfield, down at the bottom of League Two? Yet both these clubs have loyal fans who turn up week in and week out and take their medicine.

The point is not that, as Arsenal fans, we should accept failure without caring. Rather it is that, at a time like this, the Dandan voice whispering in my ear would probably be reminding me about what it is to be a supporter. 

We are not like the many American sports fans I know who shift their allegiance depending on which team is doing well. We stick with our team for life. It’s like a marriage contract, where the crucial line is “for better, for worse.”

As it happens, and with the pain of losing to the Greeks having subsided somewhat, I don’t feel things are as bad as they appear to be.

We had a bad game. Some fans seemed to categorise Olympiacos as a bunch of semi-pros who barely had a right to be on the same pitch as our Arsenal heroes. Yet the Athenians were in the Champions League this year (unlike us) and they are running away with the Greek Super League. They were never going to be a pushover.

And disappointing though our boys were, they are still the same players who, since Arteta arrived, have thrashed Manchester United and Newcastle, outplayed Chelsea for most of a match which ended in an unlucky defeat, outfought a good Everton side barely a week ago and have been generally solid and difficult to beat.

Almost every team has a bad day at the office now and again. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool currently look unbeatable, but in his first couple of seasons on Merseyside the Dippers had some terrible performances and results. Klopp and the club learned from them and continued to improve and build. We can do the same.

Indeed, many of the wise commentators on this blog made that very point when Arteta arrived, saying we must expect ups and downs and that we needed to keep a sense of perspective. Well, we’ve just had one of the downs.

If we despair now, what does that say about our belief in the new coach? Are we really saying that there’s nothing he can do to fix things? Do we really have that little faith in him?

Undoubtedly there are problems. I am not arguing that we could not have better players or that we might be better off with owners who actually invest, but I am also prepared to wait and see how Arteta responds to this challenge. If he is the man and manager we all hope he is, then times like this will be the making of him.

Can I also just add that I am not criticising anyone who commented yesterday. I agreed with pretty much everything I read and I’m certainly not trying to pick fights, just to get a bit of emotional distance, that’s all.

If Dandan were still with us he would have said all this in a much more articulate way than me, but as he watches from the great North Bank in the sky I would like to think he’s nodding in agreement with the general sentiment.

RockyLives


A Ray of Hope on a gloomy horizon

February 28, 2020

So the result and the way we played were hugely disappointing! We conceded two cheap goals on set pieces where our defending was suspicious.

Leno was again guilty in the build up and in conceding goals and Bellerin was just horrible the whole game. Luiz had a tough night as well. Xhaka went back to his old slow habits and Ozil was also unseen for large parts of the game. Pepe was rather unsuccessful in creating danger and Laca was also not too good but he hardly got any service.

So out of the competition, probably no European cup for us next year and we will also now lose Aubameyang this summer.

But there is a slight Ray of hope:-

Auba is still with us and we better enjoy his goal scoring while we can.

Saka can be considered a starter now for us.

In a sudden twist of fate, Mustafi is now actually our most solid defender.

As we look to next season already, we know that we need new players and maybe a new GK as well.

Bellerin needs to be challenged big time at RB, Kola will need to go and a better LB option is also needed and we still need two CBs as it is time to get rid of our Greeks and maybe send Holding on loan.

At DM, we still need a player and if we don’t keep Ceballos, we need a player there too. We’ll need to replace Aubameyang as well.

But we have Saka and we have Martinelli and Arteta and this gives me hope.

COYG!

RC78


Arsenal v Olympiacos pre-match

February 27, 2020

Europa League football is upon us tonight and we have the return leg against Olympiacos at The Emirates. Last week’s game finished 1-0 to us and having scored an all important away goal we’ll be looking to add more to our tally and not concede (obviously).

I’m sure North London has a fair amount of Olympiacos supporters in residence and so the stadium should be packed and rocking for this game. Night-time football is so special and even though it’s not the Champions League, a European game under the lights has that inspiring feel about it. Now that we’re in the knock out stages of the competition there will also be a nervous edge. With the big prize of Champions League football for the winner of this competition every care must be taken to progress.

This was Arteta’s response when asked about how important European football was to the club and whether it affected his team selection.

“We have three different routes to Europe. We have to try to maximise the three of them and we go game by game,” he said.

“That’s all we can do at the moment because the objectives are still so far behind.”

It’s quite difficult to predict Mikel’s line up for games now that we know that he chooses players on their performance in training rather than reputation. I’m hoping that Saka managed some rest after Sunday but was also able to impress Arteta so that he is included tonight. We are short of left-backs now that Kolasinac is injured too.

Tonight I would hope to see Pepe, Martinelli and Lacazette ……… so how does he fit Aubameyang in?

Bellerin should return at right-back with Mustafi (first name on the team sheet after recent performances) and Luiz paired at centre-back.

Torreira should start alongside Xhaka with hopefully Ozil just behind the front three. Only who will the front three be? The FA Cup game on Monday could see some of these rested so lets play the best team tonight and progress in the competion.

Here’s my stab at a team …….

Leno

Bellerin   Mustafi   Luiz   Saka

Torreira   Xhaka

Ozil

Pepe   Lacazette   Aubameyang

It’s snowing heavily out of my window which is not great but according to all sources it’ll stop by midday. I’m looking forward to the game.

COYG

peachesgooner

 


An Uplifting Tale from the 1992-93 Double Cup Winning Season

February 26, 2020

Another story from that important (to me) Double Cup winning season (and apologies to those  AAers who’ve heard it before).

At this point in my professional career I was still teaching Physical Education and had designed a new GCSE course to satisfy the young sportsmen and women in my comprehensive school entitled Sports Science. It had both a theoretical and practical structure.

The largish group of 26 were an enthusiastic and talented group who were a pleasure to teach and we had great fun for the two year course. At the end of the very last practical exam (assessed by external examiners), the kids asked me to stay behind in the Sportshall for a few minutes. To my astonishment, one of the smallest and most roguish boys pulled out a gift for me to say thank you for my efforts.

He explained he was doing a weekend job, to make some money, at the Adidas factory in London responsible for producing Arsenal’s match shirts. Although copies of the FA Cup shirt were made available to supporters to buy that season, the League Cup shirt was restricted to 11 plus sub, all printed at the factory he was working at.

Only it wasn’t! Knowing I was an Arsenal nut, this young man persuaded his boss to print a 13th shirt and here it was presented to me.

Unbelievable! Made me very proud and in fact weep briefly. I will never regret 23 years teaching kids.

Written by LBG

Arsenal 3 Everton 2 … thoughts from the game …

February 24, 2020

A few random thoughts from the game from RockyLives …

What was Kola doing for the Everton opener? We have been excellent at holding a high defensive line on set pieces and on this occasion everyone did just that… except Kola, who went racing after Mina like a dog after a cat. It directly led to the goal as two or three Evertonians would have been offside from the free kick if he had held his position.

Luiz’s weak header didn’t help. But after the ball came back in I don’t understand how that goal was allowed to stand. I thought they had changed the rules about high feet in crowded areas, making it an automatic offence? Calvert-Lewin’s foot actually hit Luiz on the head (and if the Brazilian had gone down I’m sure the goal would have been disallowed). Have they rescinded that clampdown on high feet this season?

Maybe Kola’s injury (looked like a dislocated shoulder) was a blessing in disguise as it brought Saka on and led to our equaliser. Saka’s form continues to be spectacular (Sorry Sead…I feel bad making this point).

Xhaka played well overall (good pass to start the move leading to Eddie’s goal) but several times he passed straight to the opposition. Admittedly they were forward (progressive) passes, but I’ve noticed that he telegraphs his passes sometimes and oppo players are often able to anticipate them.

Richarlison is a nasty piece of work, but I loved how quickly Bellerin got in his face when he had the gall to start berating Ceballos after just clobbering him.

Auba played a captain’s innings today. Great work covering back at times.

I see Leno’s taken stick for Everton’s second. I’ve looked at it about 20 times and I think he was unlucky and pretty much did all he could have done. He made himself big and did all he could to make a block but the ball took an unlucky rebound. We need GiE to weigh in on this one from the Goalkeepers’ Union…

Ceballos and Ozil were excellent. Leno too.

Mustafi was a close run call for MotM in my opinion (I know RC disagrees) but it should go to Auba for his two goals and all round play.

Eddie took his goal so well. That was an encouraging moment.

Pepe is starting to feel like he deserves his place in the team.

I thought Torreira was sloppy when he came on. It can be hard to get straight into the pace of the game when you come on as a sub, but Terrier put us in trouble several times. Maybe explains why Arteta is not starting him?

Overall, we may have ridden our luck a bit at times but I felt we were the better team for most of the game, even though Everton played very well.

Project Mikel continues to inspire confidence!

RockyLives

And these Players Ratings from RC78

Leno had a great second half and kept us ahead. Bellerin seems our weakest player these days.

Mustafi and Luiz did not have a good day in the office but kept their cool and did not make any major howler. I was really impressed by Lewin and Richarlison – quality players.

Xhaka and Ceba did not play great in the first 15 mins and in the last 30 mins but Ceba put in a lot of efforts.

Pepe had a frustrating game I thought but he delivers an assist and did show some glimpses again – I think he really needs to read the game better in terms of pacing his runs because he seems at time either too far ahead or too far back.

The Saka-Auba axis on the left worked wonders again but Saka needs a rest. Maybe Soares will come in now.

As for Nketiah, he took his goal really well and could have gotten another one – his work rate was good but he also had many poor touches.

So another win but a more worrying one as we saw some of the ugly Arsenal face with the defensive gaps and playing too deep at times. Happy with the win but Arteta must find a way to make us more compact still. 4 points behind 4th place and 3 points ahead of 12th place – strange league this year.

COYG!

Leno – 7.5

Bellerin – 5.5

Mustafi – 6

Luiz – 6

Saka – 7

Ozil – 6.5

Ceballos – 6.5

Xhaka – 6

Pepe – 6

Nketiah – 7

Auba – 7.5

Kola – no grades and Douzi neither, not enough playing time.

 


Toffees pose sticky challenge: Everton preview

February 23, 2020
New bosses go head to head

Today we entertain an Everton side rejuvenated under the managership of Carlo Ancelotti and certain to give us a tough game.

The Italian took up his post at the same time as Mikel Arteta was given the reins at Arsenal and both new men have got off to impressive starts.

Arteta has stabilised the good ship Arsenal, which had been listing badly towards the end of Unai Emery’s spell in charge. We have lost only once under him, an unlucky defeat at the hands of Chelsea, and there has been a noticeable improvement in performances.

Everton, meanwhile, have suffered only one defeat since Ancelotti took over, and that was only by the odd goal to Manchester City. Their form now is in sharp contrast to their struggles prior to Ancelotti’s arrival.

The danger men for the Toffees are Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin, who have scored nine goals in eight games between them. But I’m sure I’m not the only Gooner fearing the curse of the returning player. Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi both seem to have dropped down the favourites list at Everton but either could hurt us if selected. 

Nevertheless, I’m sure Arteta will want to focus more on what we can do to them rather than the other way round.

Injury wise we should be in relatively good shape. Torreira and Ozil are both available and while Bellerin and Sokratis are “being assessed” they also are likely to be in contention.

My predicted team is this:

Leno

Bellerin – Mustafi – Luiz – Saka

Xhaka

Ceballos – Ozil

Pepe – Lacazette – Aubameyang

When you think of where we were a few months ago it’s extraordinary that Mustafi is now a shoo-in at centre back. The German had become a lost cause on a par with the Charge of the Light Brigade, Rourke’s Drift and the Spartans at Thermopylae, so it’s a credit to him for sticking at it and the manager for rehabilitating him. Let’s hope he keeps this up.

David Luiz, meanwhile, is on his best run of form since joining Arsenal and seems to relish his partnership with Mustafi (with the German taking prime responsibility for dealing with aerial threats while Luiz plays a more anticipatory role).

If I was choosing the team I would probably go with Torreira and Xhaka to anchor the midfield, but I have a hunch Arteta will stick with the midfield formation that produced a four goal win against Newcastle.

In that match Ceballos played a key role in freeing up Ozil to dictate the play, which he did with aplomb. I think Ceballos will get another chance today unless Everton’s more dangerous goal threat (compared with the Barcodes) persuades El Patron to be more conservative and go for the Terrier.

Up front I don’t see us going with Eddie again. Lacazette now has two goals in two games and Arteta will hope to see that run continue. I also see Pepe keeping his place after his good performance against Newcastle, probably his best game for us since he joined.

I feel a little nervous about this one. Everton’s confidence is high and they have their eye on European football next season, so they have plenty to play for. 

Let’s hope we get the ball to Saka as much as possible. He’s on a wonderful run of goals and assists and will be raring to go. And if Pepe puts in another Newcastle performance we have a real threat from both flanks.

Meanwhile Ozil, of course, can unlock any defence when he’s on form, and there are signs he is enjoying the new regime at Arsenal.

We’re good enough to win it if we take our chances but I would not be surprised with a draw. 

A win would put us only three points behind the Spuds and allow us to start dreaming about the top five or even the top four.

Come on you Gunners!

RockyLives


What next for AMN?

February 22, 2020

One ‘B story’ from our trip to Athens this week was the fact that Mikel Arteta preferred to play a lumbering Greek colossus at right back rather than the man who has most regularly occupied that position for us over the last year and a half.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles was on the bench and came on for a few minutes towards the end of our victory over Olimpiacos, but his exclusion from the starting eleven has led to speculation about where he stands in Arteta’s estimation.

So what do we think of Ainsley?

I find him a bit of a mystery, to be honest. Terrific name, of course. I always have the urge to append “MP” to it. Indeed, perhaps we should start referring to him as the Honourable Member for Colney.

We think of him as one of our crop of exciting young players, but he has made 90 appearances for the first team, which makes him something of a fixture. For most of those appearances he has played at right back, covering the long term injury to Hector Bellerin, although he sees his natural position as right midfield or right wing.

It’s fair to say his performances have not always convinced supporters that he could be a permanent answer at fullback, but there has also been an acceptance that he has done pretty well on balance in the role. He is athletic and strong enough to get up and down the line well.

I find his on-field demeanour fascinating. He adopts an impassive expression whatever the circumstances: a crucial sliding tackle to prevent a goal – nothing; trip over and fall on your backside to let the opposition in – nothing; we’ve just gone three goals up in a tough game – nothing; we’ve suffered another embarrassing defeat under Emery – nothing. I’d hate to play poker with the guy: he could be holding a full house or a lousy seven high and you’d have no clue either way. Perhaps the expression (or lack of it) is meant to be cool, or maybe that’s just the way he is. But I was genuinely shocked when I found this photo on the club website:

Mystery smiling man spotted at London Colney

Who was this charming, good-looking, happy individual? Surely not the Honourable Member for Colney? And yet it was. I’m probably a silly old fart, but I would love to see a bit more of Ainsley Maitland-Smiles on match days.

Ian Wright, one of the most natural goalscorers ever to have pulled on the famous red and white, said in his Desert Island Discs interview this week* that he could not understand modern players who don’t express joy when they do something good and I’m with Ian. Every fan in the stadium or watching on their sofa would give their left arm to play for Arsenal just once… and if that miracle ever happened they’d have a Cheshire Cat smile on their face from start to finish.

I don’t mean to criticise AMN for how he conducts his face. Every man is captain of his own boat. But I wonder if opening up a bit and sharing his emotions would enhance his relationship with the supporters.

Obviously how he looks takes a massive second place to how he performs on the pitch. An Arsenal player could look like the Elephant Man, Gollum, Dobbie the House Elf or Wayne Rooney and no-one would care one bit if his skills were those of a Dennis, Thierry, Liam or Patrick.

So how does AMN play? We have already mentioned the fact that he has seldom had opportunities in his preferred position. As a makeshift right back he has generally been OK (but no more) as a defender, and OK (but no more) going forward. When he has had one or two chances to play in midfield he has, to my memory, been unable to impose himself to any great extent.

Now his place is under threat in both positions. Hector is mostly fit again as our first choice right back and we have signed Cedric Soares as back up. Meanwhile in the right midfield/right wing role AMN is up against the likes of Martinelli, Pepe, Nelson and Willock.

So is the game up for Ainsley?

My feeling is no. It is not going to be easy for him, but I want to see him fight for that right wing berth. We have seen that Arteta’s style is to allow a way back for any player who puts in the work and does enough in training to force himself into the manager’s thinking. Ceballos, Mustafi, Guendouzi to name but three have benefitted from this approach.

And AMN has been given an advantage that most wingers don’t get: he has had a thorough grounding in how to be a fullback at the highest level, an understanding which will massively enhance his contribution if he does get to start at right wing. We can already see how Saka will be a better forward because of the experience he has been soaking up at left back. AMN too could end up forming a terrific relationship with his fullbacks thanks to this grounding.

Ainsley may not have Saka’s potential ceiling, but he has the ability and physical attributes to be a new Ray Parlour: strong, fit, tireless and with enough skill to make a significant contribution. Where the Romford Pele once ran riot, could the Goodmayes Zidane do the same?

The key thing will be a run of games in the first team, and Ainsley will only get that opportunity through hard work and application (possibly with a bit of luck thrown in, in terms of injuries and suspensions to other players). 

I’m not prepared to withdraw my vote from The Hon. Mr Maitland-Niles MP just yet.

What do you think?

RockyLives

  • If you haven’t heard Ian’s Desert Island Discs you really need to listen to it. It is full of Arsenal stuff and is moving, funny and revealing in equal parts. You can hear it via BBC iPlayer if you’re UK based.