Steven Howard in today’s Sun continues with his critical note about our prospects to win the Title. He calls us “The Great Pretenders”. It makes for a good headline but in fairness to him he makes a point that is on the minds of all of us. Have we got the inner strength? Can we stay focused and brave as the final laps come into view? Does squeaky bum time start earlier for our team than other title contenders? The answer is We Do Not Know but let’s remember that we came back twice during the match to equalise and then went ahead. Two years ago we would have folded. So we are work-in-progress. We are better than we have been but can we show the mental resolve and stay strong and continue to fight? You are brave to answer “Yes” but I do. We came back at Anfield and we came back against Hull in the Cup Final after going two down. Where critics have a point is that we do get nervous. I mean the players get tense and so do we supporters also get tense and you can feel it at the matches. However we have seen out a number of slender leads this season.
By the way Steve Howard was the reporter who gave us this headline in December 2014 – Don’t this lot realise they must axe Wenger
As I often remind myself I have never coached any football team so what are my credentials for giving an opinion? Zilch. Well intentioned amateurs rarely know the essence of football management but it does not stop us from expressing an opinion. About tactics I know very little but one thing I observed at Anfield was the second ball challenge. Under pressure a defence clears a ball. It is what happens next that is so important. Winning the knock down. Taking possession of the ball and either clearing it with a hoof or playing it out. To win second balls we need to be effective at winning 40/60 balls and that is mental aggression, determination and physical bravery. And if there is one doubt I have it is in this area. Maybe Theo overran himself for their first goal but all over the pitch there are battles to be fought for the second ball by every player. We have to win the challenges more than the opponents and when we have possession we have to make correct decisions under real pressure about booting it upfield to clear our lines or passing it as we move upfield. But win the majority of challenges. Have we the physical presence to do that – is that what you see in Ozil and Theo and the Ox? Have we enough guts?
As we fought to contain Liverpool in the last 20 minutes my mind flashed back to the win against Parma in 1994. We were under the cosh from the 17th minute but held out and it was not just the back four or Seaman. My heroes that night were two under-sung players – Kevin Campbell and Paul Davis. So often they managed to hold up the ball, slip a pass, recover possession and deny Parma the ball. It also relieved the pressure on the defence. They were wonderful that night especially the slightly built Davis. Those are the qualities I have in mind. Show that application and we can make Mr Howard eat his words.
A cautionary note about making a big signing at this stage of the season. I say this because Piers Morgan – always looking for the headline moment – castigates Wenger for not flashing a £100m for Lewandowski today. Again the past can help us. Man City were odds on to win the title in 1972. They lashed out big money for Rodney Marsh. He didn’t fit. The team could not adjust to his strengths. They lost their way and in a thrilling end to the season Clough’s Derby County came through to win against Leeds and Liverpool as well as Man City. Another example was Keegan flashing the cash for Asprilla at Newcastle. Asprilla was a great player and scored wonderful goals (he played for Parma against us at Copenhagen but was blunted that night by the excellence of our back four). The point is that Newcastle had to change tactics mid-season to accommodate the new arrival and it did not work and their title challenge filtered away. So what is my point? Be wary of big signings in the middle of the season. Stick to the Larry King show Piers.
I was really taken aback by the animosity, not to say hatred, that was piled on against Arteta at Anfield. By all means have a view on a substitution and it is the big decision for any coach. It does take up time and it does upset the rhythm of the opponents but it can also upset the continuity of the team. You win some and you lose some. But Liverpool’s winner had three moments – first the pass from Henderson, second the head down from Benteke, third the follow up from Allen. So far as I could see Arteta was not at fault with failing to close down Henderson or challenging Benteke or tracking back with Allan. But the bile? It goes back to my point about Jon Sammels who was hounded out of Highbury. Sometimes the crowd – or the mob within the crowd – can hate big time. Disappointment Yes by all means, but Hatred No. Reserve that for Fascists and bullies not for players who have served the Club so well.
Has Cech got away lightly with their first goal? Did he have the option of palming the shot away to the corner flag instead of to the incoming forward? Remember that great save by David Seaman in the final minutes of the semi-final against Sheffield United when he palmed away Brown’s header. No two shots are the same and maybe the ball came at Cech too hard but none of the critics had anything to say about it. Maybe he can be cleared of responsibility but there is a danger that we treat him as a God and as being above suspicion.
Fabianski the Flapper was at it again. There was a poor clearance leading to a goal for Sunderland. A shame as he was a great character and did much to help the Club at a critical time – shoot out against Wigan?. But he was always a little mad. Remember his dash at the end of the Hull final to dispossess Blake? Thankfully Gibbs managed to get back and usher the ball out of play. Those with more years than me will remember the name Charlie Preedy who played in the 1930 FA Cup Final win over Huddersfield town. He unsettled his defence with sudden challenges outside the area and was eventually replaced by Frank Moss who went onto play for Arsenal during their hat trick of title wins. You have to be a little dull and undemonstrative to be a top keeper – Jennings and Seaman come to mind. Bob Wilson might disagree.
Mohamed Elneny, says the Sun today, has completed his transfer “subject to the completion of regulatory processes”. Does this mean just paperwork or is there still a question mark over his permit? He sounds right for us and the quotes from him are all positive and he is reputed to be a “toughy” but is he another 5’ 8” player?