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How time flies? It seems like only last month that I was writing a Leicester preview. In fact on checking I find that it was last month for a Carabao Cup tie that we won handily 2-0 at their place. This time of course it is a Premier League fixture and, as we showed against Liverpool, the result in one can have little bearing on the other. Looking at our team from the Carabao night in Leicester, probably only 3 or 4 players from that victorious XI are likely to start and I imagine that will be similar for Leicester too. Of more relevance perhaps will be the 1-1 draw at our place last July. A game we really should have wrapped up before Eddie Nketiah’s sending off saw us hanging on for a point at the end of a frustrating night. Time to right that wrong and I am sure we would all enjoy the irony if Eddie came on and scored this time.

Actually, I have been looking forward to this game as well as our next few fixtures because they offer us an opportunity to see where we stand with some of our supposed rivals for a Top 4 spot this season. Over the first five games we have played Liverpool and Man City away, our two toughest games of the season, as well as Fulham, Sheffield Utd and West Ham, who, with the greatest respect as always for their little teams etc. etc., were sides we need to be beating. Now, happily it’s time to see how we do on slightly leveler playing fields. Our next six games include Leicester, Man Utd, Wolves and the Spuds all of whom may be considered by some to be at or around our current level in footballing terms. Not I, I hasten to add, as in my own considered opinion they’re all shit and we’ll wipe the floor with the second-rate lot of them. However, talk is cheap and now it will be up to Mikel and his daring young flying machines to start proving me right.

The Line-up

There are several decisions for Mikel to make this week. However, goalie is not one of them and Leno will start. The whole “we shouldn’t have sold Emi” discussion is now starting to make my eyes glaze over quicker than you can say Mesut Robinson and if only for that selfish reason I hope Bernd will be back to his best after a rare bout of hiccups (hiccoughs for the traditionalists amongst you) in Vienna during the week. Honestly, who amongst us has not made a shoddy pass or two on a European trip? Moving on, options are limited at the back now that Rob Holding is out and you know they really are limited when people talk about rushing the mercurial Mus back into the fold. Recently, it seems to be widely accepted that Mus had improved under Arteta, however personally I believe he was never quite as bad as claimed and conversely I don’t believe he has undergone any miraculous transformation now either. We simply defend better as a team – and that is down to Mikel – and as a result our defenders are less exposed to embarrassing situations. Regardless of the accuracy of that assertion I hope Mikel will stick with the Luiz, Gabriel, Tierney trio this time though Luiz’s lack of pace is a worry in this particular game. Our next Ropey League game seems a better moment to ease Mus back into the side. With Runarsson behind him come to that, as he needs a start too. Back to today and I think we all expect to see Thomas starting in the center of midfield for this game but it takes two to tango so who will he be partnering is the question. Whether ‘tis to be Xhaka, Elneny or Dani will partly be guided by the opposition I wean. Leicester plays a quick counter-attacking game and mobility would seem to be essential as we look to counter the counter. I believe you may see where I am leading here but just to spell it out Xhaka would not be my choice of partner for a quickstep. Though it will disappoint some I know, including me really, I think we will see AMN rather than Saka for this one. Another question is around the front three and Mikel has spoken this week of the need to get Auba more involved although he was careful to say that does not necessarily mean starting him more centrally. I hope we will keep faith with Laca for the moment. Considering that he scored in our first three PL games some of the criticism I’ve read recently seems somewhat harsh. I can accept he has not looked sharp enough in a couple of games but his main job is to stick the ball in the net and three out of five this season ain’t bad. If he is fit then my guess is Willian will start again too, though I hope Mikel has been reading to him from The Big Book of Productivity this week.

My stab at the XI would be…

Leno

Luiz – Gabriel – Tierney

Bellerin – Thomas – Dani – AMN

Willian – Laca – Auba

Considering Saka and Pepe both scored against Sheff Utd and bring a lot to the table offensively leaving them out feels a bit harsh but I can understand why Mikel would do it, especially when we’re bedding in a new central midfielder and have a slightly unbalanced back three.

The Opposition

It’s Leicester. They have had an oddly inconsistent start to the season though they have the same 9 points as The Arsenal. Three wins, notably 5-2 against Man City and 2 home defeats to Aston Villa and West Ham. The good thing about Leicester is we know exactly what they will do and there is no need to go into any great detail. We need to deny Maddison, Barnes and Vardy the opportunity to play though our midfield and get behind our defence, we need to be aware of Castagne and Justin overlapping on either flank, and of course we need to watch out for Vardy’s elbow to the side of the head. Jamie has a good record against us, 10 in 11 games I think though they’ve only won three of those, but the fact is he should have been sent off in about half of them from memory. Perhaps if all our players wear headgear a la Cech the referee might get the message though I very much doubt it. I also don’t doubt that Rogers, a noted toad, will say it’s accidental but he does it against other teams too and it is so obviously not accidental that you would have to be conniving or incompetent not to see a pattern. Rogers is clearly conniving so let’s hope the referee is not as incompetent as Kavanaugh in the last meeting. Anyway, just to be clear, you’re not a master of the dark arts, an old-fashioned battler or any other polite euphemism Jamie, you’re just a cheat. Having got that off my chest, I am sure we will all warmly welcome Leicester today. And of course send them home with nothing.

The Holic Pound

After a good win in Vienna to boost our confidence, let us hope that the visions in blue reap the wild wind of our increased confidence and are sent packing to the strains of a softly sighing lament (That’s enough Ultravox thank you, Ed.). I believe it will be another tactical game with Mikel unwilling to expose us on the counter and so we will have to be patient. But we have learned to be patient over the last few months, so that allied to the fact the Leicester defence is not that great, suggests to me we will grind out another 2-0 win. The odds are a fairly skinny 9-1 but a win is a win.

Finally for this preview, the image at the top of the page is rather an oblique reference to a recent issue. I have read that the game is being screened in the UK at an add-on price of 14.95. That is more than I pay a month in Japan for access to all PL games. Just for one game on top of the pre-existing exorbitantly priced bill of fare. It is a disgraceful rip-off and if they had any sense of shame the PL would be embarrassed to even ask such a sum. It is of course entirely your choice but I do know that I would not pay. I’ll stop on this issue there as this was mainly cheap stream of consciousness thinking anyway.

Have a great day all and I hope we will be celebrating our fourth league win of the season about this time tomorrow!!

Copyright Getty Images

Ah the Europa league group stages. The quickening of the heart, the thrill of the occasion, the sheer glamour of being one of the elite. Well, maybe not. Spoiled by umpteen years in the Champions League, Arsenal fans tend to regard Europa League Group stages with all the excitement of a third round league cup game away to Nottingham Forest on a wet Tuesday night (see notes, passim).

But here we were in Vienna and Dr Faustus’s learned preview told you all there was to know about our opponents. An unusual factor of last night was that there were 3000 real fans in the stadium. Would that stimulate our boys to greatness or would we be cowed into submission? With multiple recent injuries and niggles (Willian, Ceballos, Holding) the team was:

Leno, Soares, Luiz, Gabriel, Kola, Pepe, Partey, Elneny, Saka, Laca, Eddie.

Under the EL rules, the rest of the named squad can sit on the bench and five may be used as substitutes, so 10 Arsenal players lounged in track suits.

The sound track was slightly weird because it was real, loud chants and enthusiasm as Rapid Vienna attacked, silence at other times. I think I remember …

The first 10 minutes were a little chaotic with lots of misplaced passes. An excellent move saw Eddie running from the left at the Vienna back line. He slipped in Saka, who was often playing in the inside left channel.  He got the ball stuck under his feet and the move ended tamely. The Austrian defence seemed vulnerable to pace. On 14 minutes, Pepe picked up a misplaced pass and drove down the right flank. For a while it was 3v3 until Pepe was chopped down. The resultant free kick from Cedric found Luiz who powered an excellent header towards the corner of the goal and forced an excellent save from their keeper. A few minutes later, a counter attack was launched towards our goal. After some good work in the box the ball was deflected awkwardly towards Leno, who clawed it upwards and then caught the rebound. Partey made a good move upfield, opening the defence for Saka, but he couldn’t get his shot away. Partey had made a good start, progressive passing and direct forward running. The Arsenal faithful online were purring.

We were dominating possession, but Vienna seemed well drilled. They looked most vulnerable down the flanks, with Eddie and Saka seeing a lot of the ball. Laca was pinged for a foul, disputed the decision and picked up a silly yellow. The referee was already demonstrating that he thought he was the star. We were getting lots of opportunities to get the ball into the box. From a free kick, Gabriel was caught upfield after a swift counter. It was developing into a great RV chance until Partey slipped in and nicked the ball away on the edge of the box. Unfortunately, two minutes later, a Partey flailing arm caught the opposition player full in the face. He got a yellow, but it could have been worse. I remember Sol Campbell being sent off for a very similar offence. Laca was caught offside from a ball over the top. Saka slammed the ball into the net, but the very fussy ref produced another yellow. Bit of inexperience there from Eddie.

From a crowded left side, the ball was whipped into our box. Kara skilfully turned Luiz and fired a shot just wide of Leno’s far post. Three minutes of injury time saw a goalless first half end. We had had 70% of possession but only one shot (header) on target. RV looked like a team unbeaten all season, solid at the back and dangerous on the counter. There was work to do.

HT Rapid Vienna 0-0 Arsenal

No changes as the second half began. Immediately, Eddie stuck his elbow into the face of an RV player. Luckily the ref didn’t see it and VAR isn’t being used in the group stages. He would undoubtedly have been sent off, either for a second yellow, or maybe a straight red. Then Saka was hit on the elbow in our penalty area. It was marginal, with the ball hitting his elbow, but I think that might have been given in the Prem. Nothing given. We were riding our luck.

On 50 minutes we over complicated at the back. Leno to Luiz, who passed back to Leno despite two men lurking. Leno gave it away when he should have put it into row 27 and Rapid Vienna scored easily through Fountas. I could hear Bathgooner fulminating in Somerset about “pissing about in the box”.

50 mins Rapid Vienna 1-0 Arsenal (Fountas)

On 58 minutes, a nice piece of interpassing put Saka onto the by-line behind the defence. A good cross couldn’t find a man. Once again Leno passed straight to an RV player. He saved the shot but, frankly, was looking a bundle of nerves.

After an hour, Arteta made his move. He brought on Auba for Eddie and Hector for Cedric. We immediately seemed to have a better shape, with Auba playing on the shoulder of the centre backs. Partey found Auba with a delightful chip. The ball broke to Gabriel who made progress upfield and was scythed down by Kara. Another yellow card. A good link up between Auba and Laca led to another foul outside the box. Free kick 25 yards out, taken by Auba. Way too high. As I said the in last match report, whatever this new set piece coach from Brentford is doing isn’t working because the dead balls in the first 65 were absolute pony.

And then, as if to chastise your correspondent for the last paragraph, came the equaliser. Pepe was flattened by Ritzmaier, on loan from Barnsley. Another yellow card and a chance to put the ball in from the right wing. Pepe dusted himself off and drove in an excellent cross. Luiz got there first and nodded it past the goalie who was in no mans’ land. It brought back memories of Luiz doing just that for Chelsea against us.

71 mins Rapid Vienna 1-1 Arsenal (Luiz)

Less than a minute later, a third error from Leno with his boots. After coming miles out of his area he hit the ball against Luiz who seemed to have the situation under control. The ball fell to an Austrian player, with the goal gaping, but Luiz managed to harass him sufficiently to make him fire over. Phew! We were trying really hard to shoot ourselves in the foot and Leno was officially having a Weston.

But then, just as we were rocking, came a really sweet goal and a touch of class. Elneny in the 10 position on the D produced a Cesc-like pass inside the full back to find an excellent run from Hector who had stayed onside. He squared it and there was Auba for a tap in, with no defenders within five yards. As Mr Wenger would have said; quality.

74 mins Rapid Vienna 1-2 Arsenal (Aubameyang)

On 78 minutes, Partey raised a foot in the centre circle. Free kick given, of course, as it should have been at the Etihad last weekend. But like the Murphys, I’m not bitter (much). Balls over the top were now proving productive as the Viennese defence tired. Luiz found Laca and Auba well onside and seemingly through. We should have scored a third, but Laca got in a tangle and it came to naught. On 84 minutes, Willock and Tierney came on for Laca and Saka. The board went up showing four minutes of added time. Leno picked up the eighth yellow card of the evening for time wasting. With one minute to go, Reiss Nelson came on for Pepe.

FT Rapid Vienna 1-2 Arsenal

In the end, a good start to our Euro campaign, even if it was both laboured and nervy. The ref was awful, but we probably got the rub of the green with him. Rumour on Twitter afterwards is that he got home and promptly carded his wife and children. Partey had a stunning full debut, making tackles and interceptions, refusing to be shaken off the ball, making forward runs and utilising a wide range of parting. He ran the midfield. It’s going to be very interesting to see him up against James Maddison on Sunday.  Gabriel also had a very good game, as did Luiz. Honourable mentions for the quality of the goals, from Pepe’s pinpoint free kick finding Luiz’s perfectly timed run and jump, to the fabulous ball from Elneny leading to the slide rule cross from Hector. Leno had a stinker and needs to regain his confidence, especially with the ball at his feet. Our two summer signings were the stars.

Partey, Gabriel, Auba and Saka are the spine of this team, all signed or resigned this summer. Bravo. We have to improve our game going forwards to make more chances. Our goalkeeper is having a wobble. Stick with him. We have a multitude of young players who may train on, or may not. Some players, who it was fashionable to knock, like Elneny, Xhaka, Hector and Luiz are very solid squad players and leaders. Pepe and Willian have lots to prove.

Until next time.  I’ll see you in the drinks.

Courtesy of Getty Images

It remains a source of disappointment and no little anguish that for a club of our history, stature and success in English football our records in European competitions don’t do justice to the various wonderful teams we have had in our history. This is most relevant, and painfully so, to the few magnificent teams that one Arsène Wenger had assembled especially in the first decade of his remarkable tenure. The most painful to revisit of those failures would have been the 2006 Champions League final loss, but personally for me the peerless team of 2003-2004 season not winning the Champions League remains the biggest what-if of those years.

The Europa league, however underwhelming it might be compared to the prestigious billing of its wealthier cousin, is definitely an opportunity to improve upon that record.  Our last European success came in UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 93-94, when a solitary goal from Alan Smith and a typical rearguard action from the much-vaunted George Graham defense saw us victorious against a free-flowing charismatic Parma side. Since then the Cup Winners’ Cup has been discontinued and merged into what used to be the UEFA Cup, which then later mutated into today’s version of Europa League.

Winning the Europa League of course is also another avenue of getting back into the Champions League where we used to be a permanent presence for two decades, even after we stopped being the very best in the premier league, even when our best players were leaving for greener pastures without being immediately replaced by expensive buys. The last few years of doldrums and chaos may have made us forget the relative serenity of those times – at least relative serenity to some of us who acknowledged that achievement without losing appetite for greater ones – but with the signs of visible progress being made under our new manager and what appears to be enthusiastic backing of his squad building exercise by the hierarchy there is hope that at minimum we will recapture that degree of consistency and then move on to the next level.

This will be our fourth consecutive year in this second tier of European club competitions. We lost in the semi-final to Atletico Madrid in Arsène’s last season, 2017-18. Europa League specialist Unai Emery – with four titles with Sevilla – then took us to the finals in 2018-19 despite abysmal domestic form in the second half of the season, relying significantly on the individual brilliance of Aubameyang and Lacazette and their mutual understanding in the attacking third, but structural chaos and the lack of self-confidence in the team eventually caught up with them to underperform and capitulate in the final. In last season’s Europa League group stage the Arsenal team, comprising a handful of youngsters, occasionally thrilled us with some free-flowing high scoring football that stood in stark contrast to the team’s turgid performance in the league and rapidly worsening results that eventually brought an end to the short-lived Emery era. The superb Bukayo Saka especially caught the eye, and while he was a far from unknown entity among Arsenal fan base given his glowing reputation from the Arsenal youth set-up his partner in excellence in those matches —  a teenager brought in from the fourth tier of Brazilian football — was an equal source of joy and given his anonymity until then also a cause for pleasant surprise. Gabriel Martinelli unfortunately has been sidetracked since the post-pandemic reopening because of an injury sustained in training and subsequent surgery, we can but hope for his prompt return to the team.

We lost, somewhat unexpectedly, in the round of 32 last season to Olympiacos based on away goals rule despite a magnificent overhead kick goal from Aubameyang at home. The loss came a little before the pandemic enforced halt to the season, and once the season resumed we increasingly morphed into a much more tactically astute and structurally organized team that relied as much on its defensive resilience and tactical maturity as on the excellence of its goal scorers to arrest the slide in the league and against all odds to win the FA Cup. The kind of last minute loss we had suffered at the hands of Olympiacos in February we can safely say will be an extreme rarity going forward while Mikel is in charge.

So, while the PL remains the primary priority, Europa is not a competition that we will take lightly. Thankfully the group we are in helps the team to avoid the rigors of travels to far-flung corners of the Balkans or what is essentially almost Central Asia. Our away journeys will be limited to a few hours of flights to Austria, Norway and Ireland. The first of those journeys will be to play against one of the mainstays of Austrian football for the last hundred plus years and the most successful team in the Austrian Bundesliga with 32 titles – SK Rapid Wien, or Sportklub Rapid Wien, or Rapid Wien, or Rapid Vienna …

However their last league win was in 2007-2008, since then the titles have been won mostly by the local nuveau riche RB Salzburg, and one apiece by the surprising Sturm of Graz (similar to Leicester winning the PL) and Rapid’s Vienna derby competitors Austria Wien.

While writing this review I was hoping to find some morsel of historical rumors tying Rapid Wien even remotely to the one of the many luminaries that brightened the glorious cultural and intellectual atmosphere of fin de siècle Vienna. Maybe it was Freud who turned one of the early stars of the Rapid Wien team towards football from his previous boring existence of a banker’s son? Maybe Schoenberg whistled out a tune in café – before serialism stole his soul — which became the melody for the team chant? Maybe Robert Musil, already a sportsman and a military graduate, played a few matches with the Rapid Wien team while studying at the local University? :–)

Still certain of the fact that if I really look for such connections I will definitely find them, I decided to save myself from such troubles and save you all from reading a prolonged panegyric on one of the most influential “time-in-place” of modern European civilization.  Yes, you are welcome. :–)

So, forgetting the city, and focusing purely on the club: in the current season Rapid Wien is in the second position in the Austrian league now, two points behind the Salzburg after four matches. They started the season with a 4-1 home victory, followed by an 1-1 away draw at Graz, an 1-2 away victory and a 3-0 home victory against LASK, who are also in the Europa league this year.

Rapid’s current squad primarily consists of Austrian footballers, with one player each from Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Bosnia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Japan and North Macedonia. There are no popular names known across Europe. The overall quality in Austrian Bundesliga is a few levels below the more prestigious leagues in the neighboring Germany and Italy. The peak of Austrian football was most likely in the inter-war years when Rapid Wien even won the German league in 1941 where the top Austrian teams were playing following the annexation of Austria to Germany. Since the war they have had great success in the resumed Austrian league, and a few memorable seasons in the European competitions including couple of final losses at the Cup Winners’ Cup, one of them being against Everton in 1985.

Similar to Arsenal, Rapid now are managed by one of their very own, an Austrian international and one of the most popular players in Rapid’s history. Dietmar Kühbauer has been the manager of Rapid since 2018. He sets up his team mostly in 3-5-2, and his next preferred formation is 4-2-3-1, sometimes switching between formations within the game. He also prefers his team to play out from the back, and while attacking Rapid often overloads the final third with five players joining in, two players sitting in the middle to recirculate ball and three-man defense staying up high.

For a detailed tactical analysis of our opposition on Thursday, I recommend https://totalfootballanalysis.com/head-coach-analysis/dietmar-kuhbauer-rapid-wien-2019-20-tactical-analysis-tactics .

Playing at home, I think they will retain their attacking style but most likely will be a bit more cautious about maintaining the high defensive line. Arteta has slowly started to morph his team towards a more possession-centric football and I am guessing he will like to continue to hone the 4-3-3 (or more likely the 4-2-3-1 variation) system, using counter-attack after drawing the opponents in, as much as the patient build-up play from the back through the lines, as two alternative tactics for reaching their goalmouth.

Looking at the injury news on the club website, Holding will be out until the next interlull. But Mustafi is back whereas Mari and Chambers are still working back to full fitness. There are some niggles being reported for Willian and Ceballos as well. Given the importance of our weekend match against Leicester – a solid six-pointer as they say – I think Arteta will not risk starting with any of Aubameyang, Gabriel (who has been playing nonstop), Pepe (especially given Willian’s injury), Bellerin or Kieran.  

This may also not be the match for our new Icelandic goalkeeper to earn his debut given that any mistake by him will become amplified especially if we end up not winning, maybe a match at home towards the later days of the group stage after we are somewhat comfortably placed at the top will be a game where he takes the field. However, I think we will see Partey earning his first start-up and if the team is comfortably poised withdrawn early to keep him ready for the weekend.

Mikel will also need to find a place in the team for Nelson, Joe, and AMN. Whether he starts with Eddie or Lacazette upfront will definitely tell us who will start in the weekend. I think Ainsley may get a chance in his preferred right-sided winger/midfielder role, often cutting in and allowing Cedric to drive and cross which is his best quality.

My predicted line-up:

Leno

Soares – Mustafi – Luiz – Kolasinac

Elneny – Partey  

AMN – Willock – Reiss

Eddie

We will have Xhaka, ESR, Lacazette, Saka, Pepe and Kieran on the bench, in addition to Rúnarsson as the back-up goalkeeper.

Starting the tournament with an away victory against what will be the toughest opposition in the group will be most welcome, and it will also help us with regaining any confidence lost in the last weekend’s narrow defeat. My prediction is a hard-fought 3-1 win, with goals coming from Eddie, Reiss and Joe.

Happy viewing everyone!   

Sometimes the irony of a moment grabs you with memorable intensity. I had been interviewing over Zoom for a part-time warehouse manager for a food bank of which I am a trustee. We were discussing a minimum wage job and the applicants were outlining how sad it was that the position existed in the first place.

Meanwhile in a parallel, incomparably richer universe FIFA were looking to mount a major power grab which would see them form an 18 team European Super League.

As the banner headline flashed across my screen, aside from the irony that two such disparate worlds exist I wondered if this was the end of supporting Arsenal as we know it.

Five English teams are allegedly in talks to join the league. The first four are fairly obvious and the fifth will almost certainly be either Arsenal or their historically significantly less successful rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, who have always struck me as impostors in any ‘Big Six’ of English football. At this stage it throws up a conundrum. Despite reservations about what this might mean for the experience of supporting Arsenal how would we feel to be excluded for eternity from the richest bonanza in European sport? Especially if our place was usurped by S***s a team who have never won the Premier League and who haven’t won the top division for almost sixty years, as the clock on this website will tell you.

A consortium of banks led by J.P Morgan are supposedly putting together a package worth around £4.6 billion and offering untold riches to those taking part. If you are included Champions League qualification is a given. Fail to be included and you must labour (if you are lucky) in the Europa League at the very best. Forget any chance of signing or retaining world-class players or ever dining at the top table of European or English football again because the gap between the super-rich and the rest will be huge and will increase year on year.

Expect legal battles that will consume years of hostile posturing, provide gigantic legal fees and which will tear the structure of football apart. UEFA will not let FIFA, an organisation that I thought had been discredited beyond measure under Blatter, make an uncontested power grab that would render them impotent and immeasurably poorer.

There will be grave and understandable concerns that this is all about money and the future of the game will be scarred beyond recognition. But honestly what did you expect as big organisations like the Fenway Sports Group, the Glazer Family Foundation, and of course KSE have entered the English game?

Altruism and a desire to see English football flourishing for its own sake was never on their agenda, and for those who bemoan that imagine if you are not able to compete financially because your backers can’t or won’t compete with the very biggest boys. How frustrated would you feel then?  It is highly likely that with this on the table KSE were prompted to write big cheques for Aubameyang’s new contract and the release clause for Thomas Partey.

But imagine if Daniel Levy with his new super stadium with its echoingly empty trophy room is rebuffed. Do you expect him and all the other clubs slipping off the really mouth-watering gravy train to go quietly? Cue legal arguments that will tie up clubs all over the Premier League for years.

I will look at Arsenal‘s situation in more detail in a second but imagine if you are, say, Leicester. You never expected to be part of a power cartel  dominating English football did you? But you might expect to be involved in European second-tier football on a regular basis. Is that a fate they might accept? But would Everton, Wolves, Aston Villa, West Ham and Leeds United accept it? With some of the best players in the world in the Premier League it is likely that the competition will be highly lucrative and glamorous but without the carrot for all but the lucky five of top European football. How could they keep their best players? 

What might this mean for Arsenal?

Firstly, which side of the great divide will we be on? Given the European links that Dein and a bloke called Wenger, who is a major player at FIFA now, have forged in the past, and add Arsenal’s international support to the third most successful playing record in English football history…it is highly likely that if we are talking about five English teams we will be one of the five. If it is four then we will definitely miss out to four richer and more recently-successful English clubs.

If we are in a European Super League expect sky high admission prices (imagine the cost of around fifteen European games!). It is hard to see how a  full Super League could be accommodated in the time available for a feasible season, plus a number of Premier League games! Would there be time for the FA Cup and would anyone in the big five play their first team in it?

Possibly the Premier League might shrink but it won’t shrink much (cue more legal battles) so the season might be extended and the Big Five will probably need much bigger squads which they could clearly afford .

Would there begin to be pressure on the Premier League? Might the European Super League try to tempt members to make it a full League and persuade them to ignore their domestic leagues or play a shadow squad in that league? (unlikely if the Premier League retains high grossing TV deals but the real big bucks for TV will come with involvement in the ESL). 

The knock-on effects that were predicted for the EFL during the recent putative takeaway ‘Project Big Picture’ will again be a matter of debate. Will the small clubs become increasingly marginalised or…might people who really like football decide that they and teams below them in the pyramid represent the true beating heart of football? Might this be a necessity if top football clubs court the corporate pound and price out the less affluent fan?

These are huge questions but answers are harder to give when facts and an awareness of how far negotiations have progressed are difficult to come by.

For us as fans it is so hard to take a clear position. When I thought that the formation of the European Super League might mean that we would substitute  games with Wolves and Everton for PSG and Bayern Munich (which we might very well lose!) I felt as did others on this blog that we would find domestic football more meaningful and accessible. Remember, if we do make the ESL we might languish towards the bottom of such a League.

But would we make that conservative choice if we are unable to compete to sign stars like Partey or Aubameyang or if we find that Bukayo Saka and his ilk will not extend their contracts because they want to play in the ESL? While the ESL exists you want and need to be in it. If the plans are scuppered we could imagine a decent future without it but money of this magnitude provides a momentum that is irresistible. The genie is out of the bottle as far as reorganisation of European football is concerned and the money men will not be denied.

For those who care deeply about the soul of English football (and this includes me) this is a sad day even if it is a day that provides a possible profitable watershed in Arsenal football history. And if we are not part of the plans that will reshape the game, our great club will be marginalised, possibly for ever.

Saka – our Man of the Match

It’s December 2016. My son and I have made the journey, deep in December, to the Etihad. After 5 minutes, Alexi Sanchez puts Theo through and he scores. The visiting Gooners go mad and taunt the City fans. Come to see the Arsenal! You’ve only come to see the Arsenal! Unfortunately they then hammered us, in play if not in the scoreline. It finishes 2-1 to City and it could have been eight. Half time in that game was the last time we led against the Oilers. The year before a Santi Cazorla (I so miss that little man) inspired 2-0 win was the last team we beat a “big six” (I hate that phrase) club away. So we travelled in hope that our newly minted team would travel to the Emptihad, a fine stadium for away fans and considerably better than Old Toilet, and come away with points. Cos’ points mean prizes. Liverpool, Everton and Chelsea all dropping points earlier in the day added to the optimism, together with City’s previous hammering against Leicester.

Before the game the team was announced as Leno, Bellerin, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney, Saka, Xhaka, Ceballos, Willian, Auba and Pepe. On the bench Runarrson, AMN, Luiz, Elneny, Partey (as thought, 36 hours with the team wasn’t enough to get him in the starting XI), Eddie, Laca. However as kick off approached it was announced that Holding had been injured in the warm up and Luiz took his place.

For City it was Ederson, Walker, Dias, Ake, Cancelo, Bernado Silva, Rodri, Foden, Mahrez, Aguero and Sterling. No de Bruyne, which was a bonus because he always seems to play well against us.

It looked like another of Arteta’s fluid formations, with real attacking options on the flanks. Auba through the middle looked like the way of the future, but, in a surprise Arteta tactical move he played on the left in the first half, with Willian playing a false nine.

In the first ten minutes, the sides matched up like mirrors. Both playing out from the back, both pressing high. Mahrez was looking dangerous, once with a left foot shot and once with a right footed cut back that Aguero headed over. He should also have been booked for a cynical shirt tug on Pepe as we broke. Two minutes later Rodri was booked for the same offence on Saka.

20 minutes gone and we were looking organised at the back but toothless up front. Saka was looking lively in midfield but the false nine wasn’t working and Walker was effectively bottling up Auba. However on 23 minutes, an excellent pass from Mahrez left Aguero running at our defence. He slipped in Foden, who turned Hector and fired in a shot which Leno could only parry to the penalty spot. Sterling fired in the rebound.

23 mins. City 1-0 Arsenal (Sterling)

We came back well. Saka danced into the area, beating Cancello and then hammered in a shot from which Ederson made a fine save, pushing the ball over for a corner. From the corner, some ping pong left Willian free on the right and he whipped in a cross which Pepe headed wide. A spirited response.

On 35 minutes, for the first time our play out from the back broke down and Leno had to save well from Foden. Something was not right up front. Auba was not getting a kick and Willian was ineffective and easily brushed off the ball. Saka was the only one demanding the ball and Pepe was getting isolated. However on 39 minutes, KT3 won the ball on the edge of their area and after a couple of passes Saka was left 10 yards out with only Ederson to beat. Again he hit it well but close enough for Ederson to turn over. The tattooed keeper was having a fine game. A moment later Auba was finally put through but yet again Ederson saved. Auba had been flagged offside but replays showed that it would have been overturned by VAR (we hope). Those five minutes, and Ederson’s contributions coupled with our (marginally) less than clinical finishing were to prove turning points in the game.

Right on half time Xhaka found Saka in space on the left and the ball was fizzed across the six yard box with no-one on the end of it. From the ensuing corner Kyle Walker had a very high foot which brushed Gabriel’s head. I remember being at the game and seeing RVP being sent off against FC Thun at Highbury in the Champions League for the same offence (but milder) in midfield and Gary Neville was convinced it was a penalty but nothing was given and VAR seemed to ignore it. Mane’s elbow at Anfield, now this, we weren’t getting the breaks against the big clubs away. Still we were making chances and seemed very much in the game. Half time and a restorative dram was needed.

HT City 1-0 Arsenal

The half time review showed just how good the Ederson saves were – our boys hit the target each time. Praise the keeper don’t blame the striker. No changes at halftime. We started well with the ball swept left to Auba who whipped in a lovely cross to Pepe who rose like a salmon but headed the ball straight at Ederson. Make no mistake, the chances were there to win this game. Pepe seemed to jar his knee in landing after the header but after treatment was able to resume.

On 63 minutes, Cancello raked Tierney’s Achilles with a rather nasty foul. Correctly another yellow card was given. Pep’s team can play some lovely football, but they don’t eschew the dark arts either.

In his first game since June, Aguero had looked very dangerous but was subbed on 64 minutes for Gundogan. Interesting.  A central midfielder for an out and out striker. Was Pep moving to what we have we hold.

On 67 minutes there was yet another yellow for City as Saka (again) was chopped down by Diaz. Unfortunately Luiz took it and fired over. With free kick specialists Willian and Pepe on the field why was he allowed to take it? Why do all Brazilians think they are Carlos Alberto?

Immediately following this Willian came off for Laca. In the first half of the second half we were definitely the better team. Could we press on and take advantage?

On 76 minutes it was almost the David Luiz Etihad horror show take 2. Cancello (who played rather well, so he should for £60m) turned Tierney into a pretzel before fizzing a ball across the box. Luiz stuck out a despairing foot and the ball just, just, went wide of the post. Phew!

With ten minutes to go, we were looking a bit leg weary and lacking in ideas. Kyle Walker, finally beaten by Auba brought him down on the edge of the box. Pepe and Laca prowled. Pepe fired over. Another chance gone. Perhaps we need to work harder at these free kicks?

On 82 minutes, 10 million Twitter accounts tweeted Partey time! From Madrid to Manchester via Ghana, Thomas made his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt, on for Xhaka. Pepe came off for Eddie. We were huffing and puffing but just couldn’t win the ball back. Were we playing too deep? Yet another DM came on for City, Fernandinho coming on for Foden. Four minutes of added time shown but City efficiently kept us at bay.

FT Manchester City 1-0 Arsenal

I thought everyone played well (excepting only Willian, who was ineffective) and it was a competitive match. Saka our best player, but honourable mentions for Xhaka, Gabriel and Tierney. I haven’t seen the stats but I felt we matched them in good chances made, with Ederson key to their win. I thought a draw was probably the fair result, but them’s the breaks. The defence now looking good but we need to work on that front three to find the best blend. Partey will make a difference in midfield. The two hardest away fixtures are now out of the way. Thursday night is Europa night. See you there.

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