Last monkey off the back please

After a pretty decent set of results yesterday, seeing both Spuds and Saints duke out a draw and Liverpool fail to score against West Brom away, we come to some proper football today and an opportunity to almost certainly confirm Champions League status against the eventual champions of this season in Chelski.

I think first and foremost we need to make sure the top four is secured. Aspirations on finishing second are all fine and dandy, but we need to make sure we hit our bare minimum target first, then look to win the FA Cup and go into the summer on a high. 

We can’t catch Chelski, but we can lay down a marker for next season, as well as get that Mourinho monkey that is hanging over Arsène’s neck. And no matter what he says about it not being between them, he will be as frustrated as anybody with this record of no victory in 13 attempts. What probably annoys him the most – and it annoys us Arsenal fans too – is that it’s used as the tactical stick to beat Arsène with. For every game that Mourinho has not been defeated against Arsenal with, another aspersion is cast over Le Boss and his ability to counter the ways of the Portuguese one, so a victory today will give everybody more belief that Arsène and Arsenal can go into next season looking to make it a great one.

We know how Chelski will set up today. They will have their standard back five defenders, then Matic in front and probably the same tactic as last weekend, with Zouma also sitting deep. Mourinho will look to be solid defensively and frustrate Arsenal. He will want to give us the ball like he gave United last weekend, then use his creative players to counter or sucker punch us if we commit too many men forward.

That’s what we had to avoid: falling into his trap and playing the game he wants to play. We need to be as defensively resolute as possible and minimise the impact of Hazard in particular. Fabregas will be booed but he won’t be dissuaded and I fully expect Costa to have slurped down some elixir of life and suddenly be 100% fit from the start. 

Our game plan has to be to utilise our skilful players to unlock a stubborn Chelski back line. Giroud will cut a loan figure up top if Alexis and probably Ramsey don’t get closer to him and if ever you need his little flicks and ’round the corner’s to come off, I think it’s a game like today.

I think this will be a very tight match up and when you have games that are probably decided by one goal, you need players with he vision of Mesut Özil to be able to see that eye of a needle pass, just like he did last weekend. Last time he was up against Chelski he was playing through injury and at he time was accused of playing poorly. I hope today he has a point to prove, because I think he and Santi can impact the game possibly more than anybody. When you’ve got players who can operate well in confined spaces and thread quick interchangeable passes in between opponents, you need them to be on song to taste victory, so I hope we see the best of the Spaniard and the German this afternoon.

Defensively I’ve seen talk of a recall for Bellerin, but I don’t think that’s something that Arsène will countenance, as he’ll want the experience of our French full back over the raw pace and enthusiasm of Hector. On the opposite flank there’ll no doubt be a return for Nacho and likewise in goal for Ospina. If Big Per is fit he’ll play but I wouldn’t risk it if there’s any chance he could exacerbate his ankle problem at all. Gabriel is more than capable of doing a decent job and with Le Coq in front and Kos behind him, I’d be happy enough that we’ve got a strong enough team to cope.

I’m never confident going in to games against Chelski, so why break the habit of a lifetime, but I am as desperate as you to see us win. It’s not an impossible feat. They are flawed like every team in the league, it’s just not often that those flaws seem to be exposed, so when we get our chances we simply must take advantage of them.

Come on Arsenal, let’s destroy the last bit of hoodoo that remains over the team, let’s win. 

Gearing up for next season by overcoming the final psychological barrier

Happy Friday to you and it’s a Friday in which Arsène’s presser has tale easy taken place, he’s given us plenty to talk about, so let’s get to it.

First and foremost, the team news, in which the only real doubt from last weekend is Big Per. I haven’t fully re-watched all of the semi-final back yet (which by the way, I’d urge you to do, if only to see just how awesome Mesut Özil is), but in real time the challenge made on him looked from where I was standing like a nasty one, so I’m not surprised that he’s rated ’50/50′ by the manager. Personally I’d rest him so we can be sure he’s available for the remaining games of the season. We’ve got an able deputy in Gabriel and with Koscienly seeming to be back to his best and only playing one game per week, we can be happier that we have a defence that can cope, so why take any risks?

With the factual stuff completed yesterday, the questioning turned to that record, with Wenger being his usual dismissive self when asked about his history with Mourinho. His assertion that it is not a duel between the two of them may be true in terms of who can actually impact the result on the pitch, but it’s a stretch not to believe in a pattern when the run goes as far back as it does. Whether Arsène believes Jos has the hoodoo over him remains to be seen, but the fact that we already know that Jose will play a certain way to catch us on the counter with a deep-lying defence shows that tactically at least, he knows how to play Wenger teams. I must stress at how much that pains me to say, because he really is a reprehensible man, but he’s one that knows how to pick up points on big games.

This game on Sunday feels like the last garrison of the psychological battle this current team must break down. We’ve already overcome the ‘no silverware’ hurdle, we’ve safely knocked down the ‘can’t beat United/City’ barrier and in doing so in both league and cup, we’ve also successful navigated past the ‘can’t beat a big team away from home’ iceberg. It just feels like an Arsène Wenger win over Jose Mourinho would be a positive step in the preparation for next season and a proper go at the league.

Because let’s face it, everyone has given up on the title this season, with a gap that I don’t even think Arsenal could bugger up if we were ten clear of our rivals with six to go. We’d probably give it a good shot, but I still think we’d see it through if roles were reversed.

I think, if you read and listen to what Arsène is saying, he’s also lost the belief that it could be done. Five points? Maybe. Three points? Definitely. But ten? Nope.

So for us, this weekend feels more about laying the foundations for next year. Everything feels like that’s the case. (Try to) Finish second, (try to) win the FA Cup and then go into summer positive that the team can be title contenders in 15/16. Arsène was asked about Hazard and Alexis and in a similar theme to what I’ve just said, effectively declared ‘if he doesn’t win player of the season this season, he’ll be very close next season. Again, Hazard has had time to adjust to this league, so with a full pre-season and a year under his belt as an Arsenal player Alexis will be better prepared for this league and I believe he’ll only get better. Much like our squad. A couple of tweaks and shuffling of some squad players and we’ll be in good shape I think.

Coquelin’s importance and ticket supply/demand vs PR

It’s Thursday, the countdown to the top of the table clash between us and Chelski is now rolling in to full-on ‘countdown’, the players are starting to trickle out little tit-bits of information and Arsène will no doubt give us an injury update later on today before addressing the press tomorrow (unless his pressed is pulled forward to today). 

Francis Coquelin is on the official site talking up the challenge of Fabregas and Hazard. For me, this represents one of the most intriguing duels, because both Chelski players have impressive offensive stats (if you take into account the whole season you can excuse Cesc’s supposed dip in form into 2015 to date) and they come up against a guy who has as equally impressive stats since he established himself in the first team as our number one ball-winning defensive midfielder. 

The focus on Le Coq will be to shield the back four, but his pace and discipline will be called into question more than anything else this weekend, because I suspect Chelski will try the old ‘rope-a-dope’ style formation to try to catch us with too many bodies pushing forward and on the counter. As shoddy as United were at The Emirates, I expect Chelski to employ the same tactics. So the role of Le Coq will be to ensure he doesn’t go all ‘Alex Song’ on us and try his hand at a number ten-esque playmaker style of play when we will have plenty of those on the pitch already. 

I’m pleased that he’s readily available to talk to the official site now. He seems to be becoming the modern day Johan Djourou – a PR teams wet dream – but he’s showing that he’s got the minerals to back up the talk with the walk. Or tackle. It is funny though. We all rolled our eyes whenever another player took to the official site to talk up the team, the mental strength, the belief, four years ago, but these days you kind of believe it. We seem to be able to dig out results more frequently, which adds to ones own sense of happiness and wellbeing, the net effect of which being that we are quite happy to see players talk up the team on the official site. It’s amazing what winning a few – nay, a lot – of football games can do. Us football fans really are quite docile when our teams are winning you know.

When matters turn to off-field issues however, sometimes nothing can prevent exasperation, with the latest hot topic is once again the price of match day tickets. West Ham have played the ultimo PR card this week by announcing their reduction in tickets for the first season of their new life in the Olympic Stadium. It has – rightly so – been lauded by fan groups, the Premier League and various other bodies and individuals with an interest in the game, as a great move. 

It is a good move and with all of the increasing TV money tumbling in to each team almost every season, it does feel like the right thing to do that match day goers can experience the live game at a reduced price to the norm, but I don’t think anybody is truly believing that this is the crack in the damn that will see all other Premier League clubs follow suit, are they? 

This is very much an isolate instance. West Ham are in a position where they have a stadium that they simply have to fill. I pick up copies of The Metro and Evening Standard and over the last six months I think I’ve seen a full page ad taken out by the Hammers offering people the chance to watch “The last season at the Boleyn Ground” next season. That’s West Ham’s 32,000-odd seater stadium in which season tickets haven’t been sold. Supply is simply outstripping demand.

West Ham know this, so their plan is clearly to create the same amount of cash in the new stadium, but bringing the price down by half means they need to sell double the amount of tickets. It’s fairly simply economics and shows a unique position the Hammers are in.

What they’ve cleverly done however, is to spin this as much as possible as a club that has listened to the plight of fans everywhere and has reacted, by reducing ticket prices as a way of showing that they are listening. I’ve seen Karen Brady interviewed in print and on TV no less than six times in the last week. She’s no mug; she has realised the awesome PR opportunity and is milking it for all its worth. You can’t really blame her, or West Ham, because if free PR is there to be taken you have to grab it with both hands. But let’s not pretend that this charm offensive is anything other than a fortunate coincidence of the fact demand outstripping supply here.

For Arsenal the reverse is clearly true. We have a waiting list that, in theory, will see my wife (The Management) get a season ticket in about 20 years time. Supply is well and truly dwarfed by demand. Would West Ham have taken this step of reducing tickets if that was the case for them? Would they have said “doubling Matchday ticket revenue is one thing, but think of all the great PR we’ll get if we half the price of tickets instead”? Doubtful. Great PR isn’t worth an extra million quid per Matchday to football clubs and so I don’t expect any of the big ones to reduce ticket prices any time soon. As much as we’d like to see it. In fact, why would any team reduce prices? The teams towards the bottom end of the league are already in a different financial league to those at the top, so by reducing their tickets if the big teams don’t, would only increase the fiscal gap further.

So I think we’re stuck with the situation we’re in for quite some time. 

Anyway, there’s enough negativity online without me adding to the energy like that pink ooze in Ghostbusters II, so I’ll end on a humorous note that we can all chuckle about: Michael Owen still believes Raheem Sterling is better than Mesut Özil this season. Oh Michael, you are funny.

Competition stifles the national game in Europe

I tried to watch the Champions League last night, but soon got bored after the two favoured teams to go through pretty much made light work of their opponents, with Porto discovering that beating a Bayern team in the first leg only makes them angry. They should have taken a leaf from our book and had their bellies tickled so they can have a go in the Allianz last night. 

Diego Simeone can’t work out – with all the money we have in our national game – why our teams can’t perform in the latter stages of the competitions. There’s probably not one single factor that contributes towards it, if we’re all honest, no silver bullet or anything else. Arsène has spoken of the fact that there’s only three domestic cups teams can win and so it’s not easy to be one of the three in the whole country, but the odds become even harder when you think about Europe, with greater teams playing in a competition. 

Some people have put it down to mentality, to English teams not being strong enough to cope with multiple competitions, or even to the fact that teams on the continent play a different brand to us over here. I think that has something to do with it. We play at a higher intensity, more physicality and referees who are happy to have the game as robust as it is. But I think more than anything else it’s the competition that the English teams face that makes it harder for them to progress.

If Arsenal play Monaco on a Wednesday night, you can be damn sure that Monaco have had an easy couple of fixtures sitting either side of them, because their league isn’t as competitive. Or, they’d have played one of the big teams before/after a tie, but not two with a Champions League game wedged in between them. You just don’t get that in the Premier League. You have competition all of the time and that’s the reason we have the most marketable and profitable league in the world. 

By the way, as an aside, I don’t want you thinking we lost our two legged tie against Monaco solely because of the fixtures we had before and after it. There were a multitude of problems with that first leg that have already been analysed so I won’t scratch at a wound that appears to be scabbing and healing over.

Spain, Germany and France are so elitist when it comes to football, that the league is nowhere near as competitive, which allows for teams to – if not fully rotate – certainly mentality wind down before and/or after a Champions League Matchday. So I don’t think there’s anything we can really do. It’s all a bit ‘ying’ and ‘yang’ you see: you want the best league, you might not have the best teams then, because competition will dictate that the elitism of the other leagues will see the top two – possibly three – clubs of the other major leagues having their pick of the best players, as well as the bigger TV rights, ensuring the other clubs remain also-fans in a division where the top two are already decided.

But what about Arsenal news, eh? Well we’re still on slim pickings I’m afraid. There’s talk of a Per Mertesacker minor sprained ankle which will keep him out of Chelski, but as I said yesterday, the ability for Gabriel to slot in as well as he already has means that we should be covered well enough. Let’s just hope it’s not a longer term injury, because despite what people have said about Per this season, I still think our best defensive pairing right now is him and Koscienly. They’ve played together for longer and so have a better understanding of each other’s game, they compliment each other well and Gabriel is still adjusting to the pace and physicality of the league. I think he can still perform well for us this weekend, I just think Per has a lot to offer and isn’t as exposed when he has Koscienly beside him.

John Moss will be the FA Cup final referee, in an I humane level of trolling by the FA, so expect there to be much missing of penalties, obvious fouls and for him to take an age to waddle up to where the ball is after a quick counter attack. Still, it could have been worse, Villa could have been gifted Antony Taylor.

Ha, as I type this, I’ve just past Wembley. See you soon old friend, I am getting used to it being a regular occurrence and I like it.

There’s not really a lot else going on that I fancy talking about to be honest with you. Transfer rumours about Palermo strikers just feel draining. We’ve got a whole summer of this ahead so why start now? I don’t want to click bait anybody, this is just my Arsenal world where I can brain dump whatever’s on my mind, so transfer speculation just wears me thin. 

I’m sure Jose will have plenty to say that will wind me up enough for tomorrow, so I’ll take my leave, wishing you and yours a good day.

Aching and hating – or at least not respecting

I don’t know how Mikel Arteta does it you know. Or Tomas Rosicky. Yesterday evening I lumbered my way around a five-a-side pitch for an hour, picking up two blood blisters on the soles of my big toes, as well as aches in parts of my body that I didn’t know could get aches.

Perhaps it was the fact I haven’t played any kind of football since last summer, but at 32 years old my body still hasn’t come to terms with the fact I can’t prepare for football in the same way as I did ten years ago i.e. Leather the ball at a ‘keeper for five minutes. Warm downs were a waste of time. Not any more they’re not. Ice baths? You’re having a laugh my friend. So the fact that Micky and Rozza can both get themselves through matches and training in a week deserves a tip of the cap from me. Metaphorically of course, because I’d look a little silly a) wearing a cap in my suit, and b) tipping it to apparently nobody as far as the other commuters on this Metropolitan line train are concerned.

As far as Arsenal are concerned it is all eyes fixed towards Sunday’s game against literally the most hated team in the world. In the papers yesterday I saw an article saying that people respect the points total Chelski have amassed, but not Chelski, which is probably quite accurate. The Chelski assistant boss to Jose has been quoted as saying he doesn’t know why Chelski aren’t being given more credit. It’s the kind of inward-looking arrogance, added to a list of other unsavoury factors, that pretty much speak for themself if you ask me. From the fan base to the management, the very fact you have a senior member of the coaching staff whining about why everyone isn’t rolling out the red carpet, tells you all you need to know. They complain the most, harass the refs the most, have the single most bleaty manager in the world – complaining about he media ‘campaign’ then using the media to perpetuate his own agendas in acts of extreme hypocrisy – and have a catalogue of players who are just, well, unsavoury. Divey, rascisty, spiteful (Cahill on Alexis) and arrogant, they will never win any popularity contest. If we win the FA Cup we’ll get double the fans in Islington in the following days.

That’s why this poxy record they have against us is even more nauseating. They have the Indian Sign over us and I’ll be honest, I’m not expecting much more than a draw on Sunday. Chelski will let us have it and catch us on the counter. But more of that in the days to come.

As a quick aside – does it still feel weird to hear Cesc talking about coming to the Emirates for a win – as an opposing player? His largely anonymous self in the second half of the season has helped to make me forget about him, as has my own refusal to watch Chelski scrape another game through a ‘keeper error or similar fortune, but with him appearing in front of us again on Sunday we can’t ignore him. I just hope the game passes him by.

As for us, it’s the ankle of Big Per that we’ll all be concerned about, but I suspect we’ll have to wait a couple of days for any kind of announcement will be made. I’d be surprised if he’s back for the Chelski game, but in Gabriel we have an able deputy, so I think we’re covered. For the big effin’ German it will be more gutting if he’s ruled out for any prolonged period of time. Not just because it could mean he misses out on the final, but also he could end up losing his place altogether, if he’s out and Gabriel plays well enough to retain the first XI jersey. That’s the luxury Arsène has at the moment, as Theo and Jack are finding out to their detriment, but if it means that we are continuing our good form then I’m all for it.

It’s all still rather quiet in the Arsenal world at the moment, which is exactly what we want ahead of Chelski, because no doubt Maureen will stoke the fires towards the end of the week. So let’s just continue to bask in the fact we have an FA Cup Final ahead of us and enjoy the rest of the sunny week of weather we have.

Catch y’all laters.

Surprises dished out, but it doesn’t change what we need to do

So how about that then, and Arsenal/Liv….oh…

Come on now, hands up who legitimately thought that Aston Villa would be the victor in the other cup semi final yesterday? Certainly not me and certainly not the English press. That guy you always see carving the name of the team on the trophy was already at ‘pool’ if you believe what all of the pro-Liverpool hacks would believe, so for Villa to spoil the party makes this weekend all the more juicy to savour, as there’ll be no ten minute BBC montages of Steven Gerrard’s career to endure, nor comments about ‘fate’, ‘history’ or the ‘romance of the cup’. Well, maybe a little bit of the last one, but at least it won’t be Scouse directed. 

What this means for Arsenal in practice is little, however, because we’ll still have Premier League opposition to overcome and after the meal we made of the Reading game and Hull in the final last year you can’t expect anything but a tough game. Villa also have a track record of playing us away from home and getting a good result, so when the game does come around then we’ll have plenty to worry about, regardless of how Villa finish the season.

For us the attention can now firmly turn towards the league and whilst the title is, unfortunately 99.9% gone for us, we still have the opportunity to grasp the runners up spot. Hey, it’s not what we want – especially with Chelski the victors – but if it means that we can continue the momentum by keeping our good form going into next season, I think Arsène will be looking at next season as one in which we’re going to have a right to at the league.

I expect this week to be a quiet one to be honest. We’ve got seven more days before we play that horrible lot, to which the focus will surely be to remove this pesky Mourinho hoodoo he has over Wenger, then the plan will be to get as much distance between us and the chasing pack so we can spend the countdown to the cup final enjoying the inporoving weather and The Arsenal.

Quite who Arsène plays in the upcoming matches will be a tough one to work out. He said post-match that the reason he bought Debuchy back was because he wanted to protect Bellerin from suffering any injury setbacks in his ankle, having played well recently, so perhaps he will still be given a shot after a week’s rest? It’s probably doubtful, but the options Arsène now has at his disposal are scarily good, if even say ‘field two teams’ good with everyone fit at the moment. In fact, with the way things are going, you almost want us to hurry up and get daylight between the teams in third and fourth below us, just so the manager can rotate the team and have a look at everyone before the final comes around! Never thought we’d see that during the wilderness years of Denilson, Bendtner and Squillaci, did we?

Tis’ a good day to be an Arsenal fan. The sun is out, the team is in form and even this touch-tight Metropolitan line train isn’t causing me any irritation. 

Long may this continue! Well, at least until June, then if we can start all over again in August, that would be great!

Making life hard, but doing the job. Just.

Well we don’t half make life hard for ourselves, don’t we? I mean this was a Reading team who were 18th in the Championship, with a season of inconsistent performances, but very little to play for other than this game and so I suppose this was always going to be a little bit more difficult than we’d all hoped it would be. After the game I went for a curry with some of the lads I went to the game with and one Reading fan said to a member of my party that if Reading played with that much effort every week, they’d be chasing down a promotion spot, which pretty much shows how beyond their usual level our opponents were. 

As for us, I think it’s fair to say we were a little below our normal level, as we struggled to find any sort of rhythm. Perhaps that was down to squad selection, as Arsène decided he was going to opt for a wee bit of rotation for the game, replacing Bellerin and Monreal with Debuchy and Gibbs, as well as Welbeck up top. But that was it really, so I don’t think that level of rotation should have affected our fluidity as much as it did. Perhaps it did have an impact though. Take Gibbs for example. I’m always of the opinion that players need a string of games to be able to play at their optimum. We’ve seen that with Monreal and a consequence is that whilst Monreal is getting better and better, Gibbs looks to be suffering on the basis of this display. He looked a bit cumbersome in possession, was a bit better going forward, but was out of position for the Reading goal. 

Perhaps too the same can be said of Szczesny and the fact he isn’t playing, because it was his howler that bought Reading back into the game and he has hardly done his campaign for re-election into the first team on a regular basis any good. 

Up top I thought Welbeck had a tough afternoon. He’s a willing runner, but the way in which Reading sat deep at times suggested to me at half time that he was going to endure further frustration after the break. So it would come to pass in abundance after Reading equalised. They say deeper, content to let us have the ball and say ‘come on then, break us down, if you can’. We couldn’t do it enough in regulation time, but we had plenty of chances towards the end. Ramsey danced around the ‘keeper and hit the post, Gabriel saw a header saved onto the bar by Federici and Reading held on to take us to extra time.

The nerves inside the ground were palpable. The atmosphere was one of singing, but apprehensive singing, so it was all kinds of awesome when Alexis scored his second of the day. When you are finding it difficult to overcome a stubborn opponent, you need to have a special player that is the difference and Alexis was that yesterday. He megged Federici in the first half and not to be undone by Szczesny’s shocker in the second half, the Reading ‘Keeper was on hand to let Alexis’ shot slip through his grasp and into the net in extra time. So often cup competitions are ones in which goalies are made heroes. Yesterday was clearly not one of those days. We saw the match out after that, as Reading were clearly mentally and physically shattered by that point, so it ended with the result that we wanted, if not the way in which we wanted it. I’ll take it. I’m sure you’re feeling the same too.

And right now, that’s all that matters. Oh, and I got on the tele too in my yellow Invincibles shirt, so that matters too! 

See y’all tomorrow!