FArewell

So what’s been going on this week?

Unless you have been hiding in a cave somewhere without electricity, you would have already known that this evening Manchester United beat Tottenham 2-1. The Spurs have now drawn one and lost one game since that game¬†where Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane claimed the same goal, Kane one that had a dubious brush off his shoulder obscured by a goal post. The Spurs’ poor run of form since that game can really be attibuted to slightly strange statistics; a breakdown of team spirit caused by Harry Kane doing his team mate in, in a quest to become the top scorer of the Premier League (give it up Harry, because Mo Salah will ensure it never happens), as well as – slightly odd – a team wanting Harry to do it, and hence threading every ball to him in the hope that he can bolster his tally. The problem with statistics, as every player who has been on one can tell you, is that you become so focussed on the numbers it alters and eventually ruins your game. You try too hard and end up losing the natural form of your game that gave you the attention and recognition in the first place.

In the National Basketball Association (NBA), one player was so desperate to continue his streak of getting double-figure rebounds (that is, ten or more), that he deliberately shot at his own team’s basket and missed in order to get the tally!

But the story of the week is not Tottenham Hotspur, nor is it Manchester United, who on balance, will be meeting Mourinho Old. That’s right, I predict a Manchester vs Chelsea FA Cup Final. Mourinho vs Conte. Lukaku vs his old team – one of them anyway. But that’s not the story of the weekend.

The main story is that Arsene Wenger is retiring. And what a way to announce it. On the eve of the FA Cup semi-final, which in itself for so many years had been the saving grace of the losing Arsene regime, the Gunners revealed that he would be leaving at the end of the season.

But while most waxed lyrical about how Wenger revolutionised things in England with his approach, one should not get too caught up in the plaudits. Instead, Wenger leaving Arsenal is like the deathly end to a terminal disease. You are sad, but you are also relieved because the pain and suffering can finally be over.

And let’s be cynical. Why did the Gunners choose such a time to announce this decision? Let’s play devil’s advocate here.

Wenger and Mourinho have never got on well. The latter calls him a specialist in failure, and Wenger famously shoved the Portuguese on the touchline in a game against Chelsea. Announcing it on the eve of a semi-final, where Mourinho would likely advance (and he did), would be like stealing Mourinho’s thunder. The fact that it was Spurs playing as well would be a way of undercutting their neighbours, the Gunners overshadowing the build up to Saturday.

This coming Thursday and next Thursday Arsenal play Atletico Madrid over two legs. The first is at the Emirates this Thursday. Deciding the manager’s future and publicly declaring it means that players go into Thursday’s game wanting to do their best for the manager, wanting to win one big competition for him, and the fans can be united behind the team, because whether you like him or not, there will be no more Wenger Out banners, no light aircraft, do battle lines among the fans.

They will need that against Atletico Madrid; I’ve said before, the road to Europa League glory goes through Atletico Madrid.

Wenger’s announcement is a way of leaving on his own terms. He will not let the result against Atletico be seen as influential in him leaving, had he decided to announce it later. He’s set it out, now he hopes the team can rise to the occasion by beating Atletico, however hard it may be.

Either way, it’s the end of an era. Question is, if Arsenal lose over two legs to Atletico, would it make any difference to you if Wenger had stayed or whether he had left?

Lack of English representation

Should we take it to be a conspirital snub? For the World Cup in Russia in 2018, there will be no British referees for the first time in 80 years.

Those of you open to conspiracy theories may link this to the recent British government’s decision to expel Russian diplomats after a critic of Vladimir Putin was found assassinated in a quiet British countryside town. It is as if the Russian establishment is trying to say “Mess with us and forget any chance of a quiet life”. After a British expulsion of Russian civil servants, the Russian followed with a tit for tat response that triggered a world wide anti-Russian foreign service backlash.

So – the World Cup next year will be held in Russia. Do you think that any pressure was put on FIFA, a governing body plagued by corruption, to not have British referees?

One person perhaps not fussed by the decision is Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman has always been critical of English referees, saying they don’t work hard enough, and as we have seen from past examples, always criticising them when the odds are against him.

There will also be no British referees running the unpopular VAR system.

Arsenal face Stoke this weekend and are hotly expected to win, but don’t put it pass Stoke to pull off an upset. Arsenal traditionally don’t have a good record against hungry teams – you can debate if you like if this reflects on the lack of mental strength, or complacency – and often when you expect Arsenal at home to win against lower opposition, they disappoint, and the Wenger Out brigade returns. Remember Ostersands? Arsenal had a 3-0 first leg lead and then lost 2-1 at home to the minnows. Stoke is arguably tougher than Ostersands, and are an incredibly physical team who will try to resort to put Arsenal off their beautiful passing game with a bit of Northern welcome.

It appears more make or break for Arsene Wenger than Paul Lambert. Lose this one to Stoke, and he can really forget about a top four finish, and the fans won’t let him off for a poor result.

So close, yet so far

Chelsea missed another opportunity to progress furtherin the Champions League when they ere beaten 3-0 at the Nou Camp yesterday.

The competition has traditionally been dominated by Spanish and German giants, with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona regularly making it into the top four. While you may see it as them having strong teams, one cannot help but wonder if the weaknesses of their leagues help in some way or not. After Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, which other team in the Spanish league do you know of that can regularly pose a threat to other teams?

Chelsea’s loss in the Champions League means the FA Cup and a top four finish suddenly look like they have taken more importance. For many teams, the FA cup is the only chance of silverware now – particularly the big spending ones of Man United and Chelsea. Chelsea are almost guaranteed at least fifth place but need to overhaul a deficit of four points to overtake Liverpool or Tottenham and Liverpool to qualify for the Champions League next season.

Do you thinking Arsene Wenger is quietly smiling before this evening’s match with AC Milan? Only Manchester City and Liverpool have chances for European glory, and Arsenal are also in the fold thanks to the Europa Cup. Never mind that the latter is actually Champions League Division Two; teams are so desperate for success that if you took a rusty metal plate and called it the Universal Champions trophy, which would be contested among a professional football team and three other under-11s teams, the teams would still take it, and the hollow success. The shame!

Alexis brings Arsenal poison to Manchester

Man. Man. Man.

Second-placed Manchester United recorded a shock loss to Newcastle this afternoon. The Magpies, many many places below, somehow managed to conjure a 1-0 win against the cash-rich Reds with Pogba, Lukaku, and Sanchez, all in the team.

It just goes to show spending money doesn’t necessarily transfer to winning.

You could say the same thing again.

Arsenal have splurged millions on Mkitharyan and Aubameyang and the summer signing Lacazette is now the third choice striker! Like United, they have splurged millions on the front line, also tying Ozil down to a new contract.

Strengthen the defence! Strengthen the defence! Strengthen the defence! If you are a seasoned Arsenal fan, you would have known that is where the problem lies.

Actually, it seems the problem lies with the gaffer.

Tottenham showed Arsenal who currently rules the roost in the North London derby and are the best-placed London team now in third.

How have they done it? With a solid backline to complement a good front line.

It’s not rocket science – as Newcastle showed. Defend well, and catch the offensive team when they are tired or mentally unprepared.

The best teams always play a solid back four.

Managers out of control

Is Arsene Wenger off his rocket again? The Frenchman has recently made the headlines again for his claim that “English players are the best at diving”. We can be absolutely certain that he is not referring to Tom Daley. Hot off the game of Liverpool and Tottenham, where Harry Kane, using his clout as one of England’s top players, went over in injury time, expecting that referees were not going to flag him up for diving and won his team a penalty which was later saved, Wenger offered his comments about how the art of diving is being refined by English players.

First of all, that is an unequivocally silly statement to make. Wenger himself has English players within his Arsenal team, so it would be an awkwardly embarassing insinuation that the ones in his team are learning how to go over, how to initiate contact and how to fall properly. Has the Premier League become so competitive that teams are sending players to ju-jitsu lessons to learn how to land on the floor without injuring themselves, then looking for contact in the game?

This is not the first time Arsene has opened his mouth and said something he shouldn’t have. Referring to his team’s defeat by Manchester City in November, he accused Raheem Sterling of diving then. Wenger seems “locked in” in his ideas that the manager should take the heat off his team, and seems to be saying something controversial to avoid any discussion of his team’s form in the league, or to take away the media attention on his defence – or lack of defence, not that the courting of Jonny Evans has failed. But the problem is that each time Wenger thinks he is deflecting attention away from his players, he really – by attracting media attention – is drawing attention to it. Yesterday, the media would have been happy focussing on Antonio Conte’s poor form at Chelsea, and how Chelsea managers don’t last very long in the owner versus manager battle. That story still had long to run. The only thing is now Mr Wenger has accused English players of diving, after the Tottenham game, ahead of the North London derby where Harry Kane will be in attendance.

Is it a clever move to say things that will ignite your opponents? Wenger probably hopes that his comments may influence the game such that if a Tottenham player like Kane goes down again, the referee will be less inclined to blow his whistle. But he is out of touch to think that. If anything, the subtle attempt to influence the officiating is such a distasteful act that any referee would probably blow the whistle just to annoy Wenger.

And if one of his English players go do down under a Tottenham challenge, don’t expect Wenger to eat his words.

The point is – if you haven’t got anything to say, don’t say it!

Arsenal players probably play best when the focus of expectation is not on them. But Wenger’s recent talk is probably going to just put them under the media glare again. So despite the new improved attack, don’t expect them to emerge winners at White Hart Lane this Saturday.

And Antonio Conte? The longer his war of words with the team continues, the less it does for him.

As a supporter voiced on BBC Radio 5 Live, the fans just want to see the old Conte from last year back again, they don’t want to see him whinging about things, especially considering how much he is being paid. They just wish he would get on with the job.

And Wenger? Arsenal fans probably wish he would step away from it now.

Strike Farce

The Premier League transfer window has closed and some crazy deals were done, and some crazy deals were not done. But thankfully, no one should be talking about Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil leaving Arsenal ever – it is time for the press to find a new angle!

Speaking of Arsenal, who was the biggest winner in the Arsenal – Chelsea – Dortmund strike triangle? Aubameyang’s release from Dortmund could only take place if they got Batshuayi, and Michy Batshuayi went to Dortmund on condition that Chelsea could sign Giroud. How complicated! It’s like being in a chain! Did the teams – specifically Arsenal not learn already from their transfer story in the summer, when A.S. was supposed to go to Manchester City on condition that Arsenal secured the services of Thomas Lemar? It is complicated when the deal involves two, but when it involves three … well, let’s just say luckily for Arsenal they managed to pull it off. If Giroud had missed going to Chelsea, you would have yet another striker going on strike. Like Riyadh Mahrez at Leicester.

Giroud’s aim to get regular football was with a view to getting selected for the World Cup. He had not been playing regularly for Arsenal and was worried he might be overlooked for selection. At 31, this would probably be his last World Cup, unless he does a Miroslav Klose and manages to keep up his intensity for another four years. His reluctance to leave London was because he had recently become a father for the third time, and the support network of friends and family are really based in London, where he has been since joining Arsenal in 2012. Arsenal’s deal with Chelsea with Giroud will be for an eighteen month loan, which suits Giroud because he gets to play first team football for World Cup selection, Arsenal get their new front three some regular time to play together, and then Giroud comes back to join them – possibly – or secures a permanent deal.

Chelsea have got an experienced Premier League striker to back up Morata. Win win for both.

And Batshuayi? I can’t say I know what Dortmund would make of him in the long term, but then again he has not really played much apart from the lead in to the transfer window when Conte gave him chance to peddle his skills as advertisement. He may have scored two in his debut against Koln, but remember that this is the initial rush of showing a new team what you can do – the difference is how he can keep it up in the long term, which of you’ve not played regularly for months, means you are going to struggle.

Don’t forget that the Bat man scored two in a game against the Bundesliga’s bottom club. Of course he would do well. It would be like Henrikh Mkitharyan debuting against Swansea.

Hang on. He did.

Where will Arsene Wenger play his new three? Make no mistake, he is probably reserving them for use in the Europa League. He has realised he is not going to get back in the top four, and is doing a Mourinho to get Champions League football by the back passage. And with three superstars ahead of him to take the flak for poor performances, at least Mesut Ozil can play creatively without worrying. And watch for Wenger to blood his new buys into the team with games against Ludogrets and Sevilla. And Alex Iwobi and Chuba Akpom to lead the line in Premier League games.

What a thought!

Still can’t quite play in tune

New look Manchester United complete with piano-playing new forward Alexis Sanchez visited Tottenham last night, but the Chilean, the first to play for the big club Manchester United, could not quite inspire his team mates to the same result as they did over Yeovil United. He may have made his debut to a winning one, but as Sanchez discovered, playing against a Premier League side is still as tough as it gets.

Manchester United were down to a goal within eleven seconds, just one of the ten-second goal held jointly by Ledley King and Alan Shearer. After that Tottenham defended well and continued to dominate the match, with bad luck also affecting United, their substitute Marouane Fellaini having injured himself within seven minutes of coming on.

What is the shortest stay a substitute has had on the pitch before leaving? One of the shortest that comes to mind must be Steven Gerrard’s, he who was sent off within minutes of the restart after coming on as a second half substitute.

Sanchez played the whole game yesterday but must have been tormented by the White Hart Lane fans who continued to remind him he may have switched shirts but is still unable to beat them.

His fellow striker Olivier Giroud has joined Chelsea, so that makes it two strikers who have left Arsenal and leapt straight into Champions League teams. In their place Arsenal now have Mkitharyan and Aubameyang, two individuals who bring threat of pace, but difficulties for singing fans in having to think of new songs.

Lacazette, Mkitharyan, Aubameyang. Maybe Arsene Wenger is clearing out the whole front line, combining with Ozil who recently signed a new contract until 2021, and then his defence consists of the back three and Kolasinac and Bellerin. The combination would be good to watch were it not for the fact that Arsenal team still leaks in goals.

Next year is probably Arsene Wenger’s last year, if not this one. If he doesn’t succeed next year, then he has really no excuses left.

New calls for Wenger Out

To be fair, it was the Arsenal defence, not just Cech.

But it highlights the posture taken by the team. Don’t score, then hope not to concede. Aim not to concede, then try to score.

Get defensive cover. Forget Aubameyang, who will only become another Sanchez. Plug the hole where it matters.

Maybe a change in thinking is required, which is where a new head may be better.

Being creative from within

How do you stop a bucket from leaking? In the world of Arsene Wenger, it seems you keep trying to fill it with more water.

If you believe that to be a silly analogy, wait till you see it in reality. The Gunners, out of the top four spot despite splashing out nearly fifty million on Alexander Lacazette, have lost Alexis Sanchez, but still don’t believe they have enough firepower in the squad. Olivier Giroud is still languishing in the wings, Theo Walcott has gone to Everton, but Arsene Wenger is now courting Borussia Dortmund disenchanted striker Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang, a bad boy with a reputation that may disrupt the locker room atmosphere more than the Alexis Sanchez transfer saga.

If you have been following the Arsenal team for a while, even as a neutral, you would realise that the problem is not that Arsenal have a problem scoring goals. The major problem they have is that they concede them at the back, in the latter stages of the game. Even with a 2-0 lead in the last ten minutes you can never really relax, because you know that the moment they concede one, their mental fragility means they will almost end a match with a draw. Ever seen the Arsenal defending in the last ten minutes? It is like pinball. Just whack it away, catch some breath, await the next attack. How could Steve Bould still be in a job?

The Gunners had been linked with West Brom captain Jonny Evans, who learnt his craft at Manchester United. Evans has also been linked with other clubs but at the moment, with only six points separating the ten teams in the bottom half of the league, it is unlikely the Baggies would let such an influential player leave at an important time like this. Evans has an escape clause in his contract, he can leave if they are relegated and so the club appears more likely to keep him until the summer. They would get the same amount then for him as they would now, so it is no point disrupting their team and scrambling to find another replacement in an ever closing transfer window.

This is what the money buys you, you see. It is not just the player itself, it is also to pay you for the inconvenience of seeking a replacement. The teams that are better at doing that, such as Burnley, groom players at different positions and sell them out to other teams without difficulty. Harry Maguire left to join Everton and Burnley are actually in a better table position after him. Nick Pope has been between the sticks for a few months and has established himself well. Will their previous goalkeeper – um, anyone remember him? – be sold on for more cash?

Arsenal should have looked to shore up at the back instead of trying to buy more firepower at the front. Apart from Jonny Evans, was there actually no one across all the leagues in Europe that actually interested them? You might argue that in their wings they actually have Callum Chambers, who featured for other Premier League teams last year, as well as Rob Holding, who has played in the league. Perhaps they are looking at this stage for someone who actually has Premier League experience because time is against them and they cannot afford to groom someone foreign from scratch.

The problem with playing with a back three is that of the current likely defence of Nacho Monreal, Laurent Koscielny and Skhodran Mustafi, only Monreal seems to be still fast enough to catch up with the zippy wingers and strikers of the other teams. Mustafi has on occasion tripped over his own feet, and is not good playing the ball. Koscielny has the personality of a warrior and a captain, but his skills appear on the decline. The same goes for Per Metersacker, whose height would have been useful would he have been younger and less injury prone. But Monreal, a traditional left back plays like one and perhaps is more offensive minded, playing like a wingback more than anything else. Have you noticed how many times Monreal gets forward? It seems like at Arsenal everyone wants to get forward and score, but on the counter not everyone wants to run back, or has the pace to. Not everyone is as zippy as Hector Bellerin, who has attracted attention from Juventus, and even Granit Xhaka, the hard man reputedly protecting the back four, is more interested in the long range pot shots than the marking, as he displayed against Liverpool.

Arsenal really need someone good with the ball, comfortable with playing it out, not panicking and whacking it out. Can they get someone like that?

Actually they already do.

Here’s an idea worth considering. Instead of leaving him even further down the striker’s pecking order, why not get Olivier Giroud retrained as a centerback? He already plays in that part of the pitch anyway, just at the opposing end. As a striker, he is comfortable holding the ball at his feet, and he does not panic. At 31, he has the maturity of a leader. And he is good at heading the ball and winning it. With Giroud, you get a proven international at the back (yes, I know Koscielny and Mustafi too) but with presence. He is also quick on his feet. If you think the idea of centre-backs and centre-forwards rotating positions is ludicrous, you only need to go back as far as Paul Warhurst, who played centre-forward despite being a centre-back for Sheffield Wednesday. Called into action after injuries to the squad, he was a prolific scorer too.

You have to feel for Giroud. Dropped down the pecking order after Sanchez and Lacazette and now even the departure of Walcott is appears that Arsene Wenger will not even trust him to lead the line. Getting him to play centre-back would be a way of getting him in the game, getting someone with presence to shore up the line, and improving the Arsenal defence enough to win games.

It may be a radical idea. Think of it as a creative idea. Do you think the Arsenal team need more creativity by going after Aubemayang? No, they just need to be creative within their ranks to find solutions.