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!

Arsenal cup keyword tagging: concentration and non-complacency

If I was to try to to do the keyword tagging and search engine optmisation of the Arsenal team manifested in physical form today, the one word I would lace throughout any team talk or mindset or thoughts going through each players mind would be: concentration, non-complacency. These are the two things that we must see for the duration of today’s FA Cup semi final against Reading. 

We are the overwhelming favourites today, there can be no doubting that, but we have all experienced the loss of seeing this Arsenal team believing it’s own hype and as a result imploding on a catastrophic scale. When they believe all that is needed is attendance in order to taste the sweetness of victory, we almost always seem to come unstuck, so I hope every player has a mantra in their mind of:

Be professional, treat the opposition with respect, but show why we are a league and 37 places above them.

The key to today’s game has to be to not get beaten by our mentality. I mean no disrespect to Reading, but with Arsenal in the form they are in and Reading in the form they are in, there should only be one result really. But we can roll out as many cup cliches as is needed to ensure that we still do the business this evening, because we’ve seen it before, in the Champions League this season (Monaco), the FA Cup last season (Wigan – although I know ultimately we went through) and against Birmingham in 2011. That was a horrible day because the odds seemed just as stacked against Birmingham as they have been for Reading today. 

Don’t bottle it Arsenal, please, because it feels like two victories in this competition and a continuation of our league form over the next month and a bit will see the entire Arsenal fanbase go in to the summer more excited to see what we can achieve the following season than for a long time.

Last year, we all believed that the winning of the cup was the breaching of the trophy dam that had starved us from trophy watery goodness (I’m sorry for the terrible metaphor, but I’m getting excited now, so I’m obviously all over the place), so another FA Cup trophy this season will have us truly believing this team can kick on. But we still have a lot to do. It starts now and finishes at the end of May. 

Now that the apprehensiveness and caution has been articulated, let’s move on to the fun part, because WE’RE ONE VICTORY AWAY FROM A CUP FINAL!! This is awesome people. This is what we live for and the highs of seeing the Arsenal players lift trophies is exactly what we all tune in or turn up to see. The game this afternoon will not be easy, but we can lay down another important marker and maintain our momentum going into the Chelski game next week with a good win today.

Arsène’s choices are numerous and you have to feel for those that don’t make the squad this afternoon, because there will be some very good players who will have to make do with being suited and booted and that will make them gutted. But for us it shows the enormous level of quality we had and competition that will ensure those that do play are on their toes for every game. The back four will probably remain the same (Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscienly, Monreal), with only a change to the ‘keepers confirmed to take place. Hey, that’s fine by me because right now the difference between Szczesny and Ospina is negligible.

Midfield will no doubt see Coquelin breaking up the play with his “I love to tackle. Come at me bro” mentality being exactly what we need in a battle, but after that six it becomes a little harder to guess what the manager will do, because he could rotate a number of players. For example, would any of you be surprised to see Welbeck replace Giroud up top? Arsène did it in the game against United and last season’s match up against Wigan saw Sanogo ahead of the Frenchman. I know the circumstances were different on these two occasions – Welbeck having something to prove on his old stomping ground, as well as Giroud suffering on field last season as a result of off field shenanigans, but it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see that change. Likewise, I don’t know why, but I have a weird feeling he might start Walcott. I can’t really explain why and it feels like the England international has been frozen out since he returned from injuries, but he’s played in all of the cup games bar United and I wonder if Arsène will give him another crack. Especially as he was on the official site talking him up this week, plus the fact the papers have been awash with rumours of him wanting to sign a new deal. Stranger things have happened, you know?

Alexis will play wide left, but if Walcott is wide right, it means one of Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil miss out. Two of the three are FA Cup final goalscorers and the other one is a club record signing. Care to have a stab at who would miss out? I would guess Ramsey. Cazorla has been the most form player of those three and Özil will be perfect at finding pockets of space in between the Reading defence and midfield on that massive Wembley pitch. It would be harsh son the Welshman but that would be my prediction. Which if Rambo was reading this right now he’d probably be delighted with, because everything I predict usually ends up with the opposite happening!

As for Reading, from what I’ve read and heard, they will look to get the ball out wide and play with pace on the wings with McCleary and Robson-Kanu looking to get in behind our full backs and whip balls in to the giant Russian Pogrebniak. It’s why with the pace of Bellerin I would have thought we’ll see him instead of Debuchy, but perhaps there is a recall for the clearly more rapid Kieren Gibbs on the left? It’s an option the manager needs to ponder today.

The other fella to watch out for will be the on loan Chalabah, which sounds more like an Arabian war cry than a professional League footballer, but having spoken to my Burnley mate last weekend (he was on loan from Chelski to Burnley last season), I know that he is apparently a bit of a beast in the defensive midfield role and so might have something to say in this game.

We need to be up for this from the off. If we establish a high tempo possession based game within the first 15 minutes like we did against Liverpool, then I think we’ll be alright. Reading played an almost full strength team in midweek whilst our boys had the week free, so the can be no excuses for any kind of lethargy. Do the business in the first half Arsenal, then let’s finish it off in the second, please.

What did she wear?

Confidence, concentration and waiting

It’s nearly here folks, time is almost upon us and although it’s not the FA Cup final but the seminar Wembley, I’m still mega excited. Imagine what I’ll be like tomorrow when it actually comes around to kick off?

We have already had the prologue from Arsène; possibly eager to cocoon the players in a hotel today so that they safe prepared well with him observing, so the pre match presser was bought forward to Thursday just like a normal away game. The good news from yesterday’s media briefing is that – Arteta and The Ox aside – the squad is fully fit, healthy and able ahead of the clash against Reading tomorrow evening. The headache – one I think I’ll ponder more on tomorrow than today – is who will start and what will be the key challenges we face. That’s one Arsène has admitted he hasn’t decided yet, other than Szczesny, but I suspect he’s scribbled down some of his options already despite what he’s been saying to the media. 

Arsène was at pains to stress that he has two competitive goalkeepers and that Wojciech had trained hard and needs to be kept fresh by playing in the cup games. I can see what he’s saying and he’s certainly staying consistent to his policy of ‘keepers in cup competitions (bar the Championd League,  of course), but it’s fairly obvious how much Szczesny’s stock has fallen since Southampton. Talk of his exit may have been fuel for the fan discussion online, but it’s not something Arsène would entertain and right it’s probably best if it’s parked until the season ends.

Right now the squad needs to prepare for Reading in a way that will see us get through. Again, Arsène was asked about how his team would approach the tie and sensibly enough, he spoke of needing focus, not understimating a Reading side with nothing else to play for and ensuring that they stay focused. The talk is right, the action needs to mirror it, because we have recent history of underperformance in the cup against lower league teams. You only have to look at last season’s FA Cup semi to see a case in point.

But we’re in a better shape mentally this season, in terms of league standing, confidence and playing staff. Arsène will have the pick of the litter tomorrow and he has admitted that it will be tough choosing, talking about the confidence and ‘luxury’ that a winning run gives all of the players, with that the hardest thing in football to maintain. He’s right and he’s also right when he says how quickly that can be broken. Defeat tomorrow – not beyond the realms of possibility – and the season may just feel like a laughing gas balloon full has just popped. I don’t even want to countenance that just yet. I’d rather focus on the hope of an Arsenal win, Villa win, then Arsenal cup final win. Yep, I’ll have that thanks, if you’ll please.

I was also hoping to read on the official site, a tactical breakdown of Reading from Le Coq, who played against them for Charlton during his loan spell. Unfortunately, like most footballers who have had all personality media-trained out of them, we got little else but a few generic sound bites (“in the FA Cup you never know”, etc etc), so there’s not really much more to gleam from what’s on the official site at the moment. Now we just have to play the waiting game…

…Are we there yet?

…now?