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Merry Christmas Gooners!

Arsenal ended the first half of the season (which to be pedantic is not the first half of the season as only 14 games have been played) five points clear of the pack after a 2-0 win at Molineux tonight. It was a measured performance, far from the commanding effort we saw at Stamford Bridge last week but Wolves were obdurate opponents.

I had a very strange day today. It was streaked with a mixture of normality interspersed with some odd moments. Mrs TTG and I made our way up to London, she for a school reunion and I to Ashburton Grove for the match. Nothing unusual there save for the fact that the match was a Rugby League match – the World Cup semi-final – which we lost surprisingly since we beat the same team by about fifty something points a few weeks ago. It went to a golden point and Samoa got it. A very surprising result following on from an amazing result at the Emptihad where Brentford took all the points against Citeh, a result very few people expected and one which ensured we would top the table over the World Cup break whatever happened at Molineux, and also at Christmas. If only Leeds could hold onto a lead it might have been even better! 

Our game with Wolves therefore came without quite the pressure it might have had, although watching Arsenal, even this team, makes me nervous. Wolves had their new manager in the building, even if he wasn’t officially in charge and they gave us a difficult first half. We enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession but sadly lost Granit Xhaka early, with what looked like the effects of an illness. After the game Arteta mentioned that several players had the same bug. He needed very early treatment and was eventually replaced by Fabio Vieira. Vieira is a VERY different player from his namesake Patrick; he really needs a good course of protein and gym work to build him up but he has a silky touch with his left foot which was later to stand us in good stead.

We dominated the game without looking continually incisive and on 8 minutes Guedes who looked offside to me tangled with Saliba on the edge of the box. Nothing nasty was given, which, given that GSD’s favourite VAR official Mike Dean was in charge, was surprising. We had two players sent off here two seasons ago and Martinelli was sent off for two offences in 6 seconds last season, so we had a precedent for calamity here.

Guedes fired over later but the main attacking protagonist in the first half was Jesús who had a goal ruled out for offside, hit the bar and flicked a header wide. Wolves sat behind the ball and denied us space out wide where Saka and Martinelli were well contained. It was a pretty flat first half but we were not hugely troubled. We clearly needed to move the ball faster!

The second half began in a similar fashion but we broke the deadlock in the 55th minute as our quicker passing paid off. Jesús found Vieira with a delightful ball and Paddy lite chipped it over Sá for Ødegaard to just beat Saka to the finish. After this the main danger was the huge and fearsome Adama Traoré. Ramsdale bravely foiled him after a one two with Guedes. Ramsdale took a blow to the throat from which he made a blessedly quick recovery after blocking an effort from Traoré. Wolves tried a number of substitutions but lacked a focal point in a lightweight attack and Gabriel and Saliba were largely untroubled at the back.

The game was effectively settled in the 75th minute with a not dissimilar goal from our first and the same eventual scorer. Martinelli robbed the Wolves right back and backheeled the ball to Zinchenko who hit a hard cross which was deflected to Martinelli. His shot was blocked and fell to Ødegaard who blasted it in. After this, we ran the clock down sensibly and made a lot of substitutions bringing on Cédric, Nelson and Elneny for Vieira, Saka who was not at his best tonight and Zinchenko who I thought was less effective than I suspect Tierney might have been. He is not match sharp yet and that may be why he made a number of small mistakes.

Like last week, I thought Partey was immensely effective throughout the match. Tonight, he was hugely influential in an understated way but he is a massively important cog in this team. Ødegaard stepped up tonight and executed a particularly beautiful turn at the end. He is another understated player but he does a fine job. Ben White was similarly excellent as he so often is and Gabriel Jesús was a one man attack without the goals. Whatever, he is immensely valuable to this team.

So, who honestly thought we would be 5 points clear of Citeh at the break for the World Cup? We are 8 points clear of the Spuds with a game in hand, 15 ahead of Liverpool and 16 ahead of Chelsea. These are heady times but we face the unpredictability of this break for this ghastly World Cup. Many players will be injured, mentally and physically exhausted and who knows what the impact on the title race will be? But, how exciting is it that we are even asking that question with a very strong vested interest?

So, that’s our last league game before Christmas. An ecstatic C100 felt compelled to bare his remarkable torso and was caught on camera in an early Christmas celebration. Merry Christmas, Holics. Let’s hope the lead stays in place.

Fearless

Soccer Football – Premier League – Chelsea v Arsenal – Stamford Bridge, London, Britain – November 6, 2022 Arsenal’s Gabriel celebrates scoring their first goal with teammates Action Images via Reuters/John Sibley

So accustomed I have become to see us play in the Premier League this season on Sundays I had completely overlooked that this weekend’s away match at Molineux is a rare Saturday evening affair. Fortunately, I read this wonderful (possibly the best, if you haven’t heard of them yet) Arsenal blog called “Goonerholics Forever” where a bunch of misty eyed — but with a steely resolve and an overdeveloped sense of humor – Gooners keep talking about Arsenal in honor of their spiritual leader, the inimitable Goonerholic, who had sadly left us way too soon, and one of their posts sent a jolt of reminder to me that I need to write this preview today, not tomorrow.

But it is only a pleasure and a privilege. And while mentioning ‘Holic in the previous sentence, the thought came to my mind that how much he would have loved this version of talented, hungry, humble, disciplined Arsenal team and their fearless approach to the game. And I must confess that at a time when some of the worst proclivities of mankind are on brutal, shameless display, it has often been very difficult to look forward to weekend football. And yet, for that very reason enjoying the simple pleasure of watching Arsenal play felt a kind of defiance, and also a source of inspiration. Good people outside the Goonerverse may have kept their admiration limited to Arsenal’s results and the performances, but I myself – and going by the full-throttled singing reverberating across grounds home and away, may be also the match going fanbase – found an emotional resonance that I felt goes beyond the regular connections of a football fan, beyond tribalism, beyond pride, beyond the vicarious triumphs. The only explanation I can offer – aren’t we always a mystery to ourselves? – is that the kind of lucid fearlessness that has characterized Arsenal’s performances this season is perhaps a glimpse into what I myself can strive to be.  

Not that we always played swashbuckling attractive football, or always played with tactical acumen, or always shown the right know-how to control matches. We have shown all those qualities to indicate a team that is constantly growing in abilities and confidence, but not consistently enough to be called anywhere close to the finished article. However, what we have consistently shown is the ability to respond to any situation, especially difficult situations, with resilience, camaraderie and an unpanicked focus on the end goal – unruffled by persistent thuggery or incompetent officiating. That kind of authentic courage is a rare quality, whether on a football field or in a nation. It is not entirely impossible that my impression of the Arsenal team is somewhat influenced by witnessing such rare courage on a larger, grander, national scale, as it has been unfolding in a troubled corner of Europe.

This last match before the unfortunate hiatus in the league season offers Arsenal a golden opportunity to strengthen their position at the top until the season restarts after Christmas, when different players will resume their club duties with wildly different levels of rest, physical/mental preparedness, and as a consequence teams will likely to find it very hard to maintain consistently good form and even by the unpredictable nature of the premier league, results are likely to throw up surprises with unexpectedly high frequency.

Arsenal has ten first team squad members traveling to this unique winter World Cup in the desert, but not all of them are expected to go too far in the knock-out rounds. The Brazilian duo of Martinelli & Jesus, the English trio of Saka, Ramsdale, White, the young Frenchman Saliba and maybe Xhaka captaining the Swiss team are the ones likeliest to go far enough to require post-World Cup recovery to potentially render them not fully ready for our first match at home on Boxing Day once the season resumes. I myself think the encouraging showings by Reiss and Eddie notwithstanding, and even considering ESR’s likely return from injury, we will struggle significantly in the final third if all three of our current forwards cannot return to the squad quick enough back to their absolute best. 

On the other hand, we will have some key players fully rested during this month-long break and that should counterbalance some of the concerns about players’ unavailability: Ødegaard, Gabriel the defender, Zinchenko, Tierney, ESR (hopefully he recovers completely by then and with enough practice under his belt).

Returning back to the immediate concerns of the away trip to Wolves, my predicted starting eleven has no surprises.

Ramsdale

White – Saliba – Gabriel – Zinchenko

Partey

Ødegaard – Xhaka

Saka – Jesus – Martinelli

The 4-1-2-3 is purely a nominal formation. As many here have already observed, Arteta’s team attacks with all the five front players down parallel channels, Zinchenko drifts in towards the left sided central midfield position next to Partey, and the three- man defense of White-Saliba-Gabriel stays as high up the pitch as possible, relying on their qualities on the ball and athleticism to thwart breakaway attacks from any quick turnovers. The superior technical qualities and the calmness in possession of Partey and Zinchenko also allow Arsenal to play rapidly and incisively through opposition press without losing tempo.   

Arteta and his coaching team are meticulous in preparing specifically for the opposition with often surprising but highly effective tactical tweaks – Tomiyasu as a left back against Liverpool to cut off the long diagonals to Salah was an inspired move, and like a Holmesian de-puzzling to Watson, feels obvious only after the genius has been explained – and I am sure they will have something special in mind for the dangers of Traore or Neves. I haven’t followed Wolves closely – well, haven’t really followed them at all – this season but a look at the league table and their recent run of results tells me that they haven’t been as consistent as often have been the case in recent seasons. The team still has many seasoned internationals, some technically gifted players in key positions and despite the recent spate of managerial changes retain the high pressing physical qualities that make them very hard to beat, and anything less than our very best will be punished.

It is possible that the World Cup bound players would be – albeit unconsciously and not intentionally – little less committed in fifty-fifty challenges compared to what they have shown until now, but I am hoping the spirit of fearlessness and that admirable professionalism that now runs through the spine of this team would be enough to see us through. In our last two league encounters – both in February earlier this year – we had beaten them 1-0 away before winning at home by a similarly slender margin of 2-1. We should expect a tight and cagey affair like those two games, but a match to ultimately turn comfortable for us towards the end, giving us a 3-1 victory is my (acceptedly optimistic) prediction.

Enjoy the match everyone. Come on Arsenal!

Arsenal were knocked out of the Carabao cup at the first hurdle as they gave up a 1-0 lead to lose 3-1 to Brighton (AND Hove Albion) at the Emirates on Wednesday. We took the lead thanks to a superb curling effort from Eddie Nketiah after an outstanding solo run and pass from Reiss Nelson. However, we were undone by a penalty from former Gunner Danny Welbeck and a couple of exceptional second half finishes from Mitoma and Tariq Lamptey.

Whilst some fans may be disappointed by the loss as it can be viewed as an opportunity for a trophy and a day out at a Wembley car park, it was obvious that this competition was the least of Mikel Arteta and Arsenal’s priorities. Many may be reminded of the days where Wenger would use the League Cup as an opportunity to blood the youngsters and play eight 16-year-olds which was always exciting and probably one of the reasons we never won it under his tenure, but most clubs have bigger squads these days and will just give run-outs to some fringe players. And that’s what Arteta did making ten changes from the win at Chelsea. There was a first team debut (and probably one to forget) for the Estonia number one, Karl Hein, Cedric got a rare start, Lokonga was given another go and we went with a front three of Nelson, Marquinhos and Eddie. 

The opening 15-20 mins were low key, both teams trading off pot shots from outside the box. But on 19 minutes we broke the deadlock. Nelson received the ball in his own half, turned away from a couple of Brighton midfielders, carried the ball into the final third before laying off an excellent pass to Nketiah who had peeled away to the left-hand side. He opened his body up and curled in an excellent finish high into the top corner. An Henry-esque finish! It was a goal that showed that Eddie is much more than just a fox in the box. I have been waiting a long time for him to score a goal like that. I think he is very underrated by most Arsenal fans but for me, he gets into a lot of premier league sides. One of the best back up strikers around. 

However, things began to unravel soon after. Welbeck was sent through, it looked as though Hein would get there first but he slipped on the turf at the worst possible moment and as a result he could only bring Welbeck down and it was undoubtedly a pen. Thankfully Hein was only shown a yellow. Welbeck dusted himself down and calmly sent Hein the wrong way. I noted that he didn’t celebrate which I liked because he always celebrated when he scored against United! 

We started the second half strongly, creating several chances. Eddie hit the post with a fierce drive with the keeper well beaten. Shortly after, Marquinhos sent in a dangerous cross from which Nelson’s header was well saved by the Brighton ‘keeper. It looked like it would only be a matter of time before we restored our lead. But it was Brighton who went in front. They broke down our left-hand side after an impressive switch of play. Sarmiento drove forward and fed Mitoma who had come on as a half time substitute, the Japanese international took a touch and curled it past Hein. We huffed and puffed but couldn’t regain our rhythm. Twenty minutes from time Brighton got a third. Tariq Lamptey waltzed past Cedric with ease and poked his effort into the far corner. From that point onwards the game seemed to fizzle out from an Arsenal point of view, and we were out of the energy drink cup. 

Time will tell if that proves to be a blessing or not, but you sense that it probably will. The 4th round is bizarrely scheduled for the 21st of December just three days after the World Cup final. On a night where Spurs, Chelsea and West Ham also went out you get the feeling this will only free up space in the hugely congested calendar. And for the people who say we have thrown away a chance of a trophy, I would say, we are top of the league, through to the round of 16 in the Europa League and we still have the FA cup to look forward to in the New Year. So, make the judgement yourselves. Personally, I don’t believe we have the squad to compete on four fronts. I don’t think that’s a reflection of our transfer business, more just an indication of how ludicrous it is to have two domestic cup competitions. Quite frankly, no one cares. 

If we win at Wolves on Saturday night this game will well and truly be forgotten. And that’s a game of much more importance anyway. Onto the next….

Tonight, we face Brighton & Hove Albion in the Third Round of the Carabao Cup (aka The League Cup to us oldies). Since the euphoria generated by the spirited style of our now customary victory at the Bus Stop in Fulham began slowly to dissipate, huddles of Gooners have been debating whether to potentially throw this tournament in the bin to allow our slim squad to sustain its hitherto remarkable charge for the Premiership title. 

There’s a strong lobby to rest our entire first XI, play the back-ups and some of the kids and see if they are good enough to dispose of Brighton but not really care if they don’t. This is based not only on the heavy schedule that our first teamers have just come through (with flying colours) but also on the fixture congestion to come in the new year if we continue to participate in this tournament. Thus, it is argued that we will have fewer mid-week commitments in the second half of the season and will be able to concentrate the energies of our first XI on the Holy Grail of the Premiership. It is not an unreasonable argument given our small squad and the predictable pressures to come in January through May. However, I suspect Mikel Arteta does not share this view.

Of course, in the Wenger years, the early rounds of this competition were used to test the kids, often with astounding success, and as the team progressed through each round more experience was added to match up against more challenging opponents. That approach did bring some limited success. During this era, I was lucky enough to attend three dispiriting finals. The first was against the despicable Portuguese’s Chavs in the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff where we were done by two virtually identical Drogba goals after an encouraging opener by the enthusiastic young Theo Walcot. The second, back at the new Wembley, saw an injury ravaged Arsenal line up lose 2-1 to an uninspiring Birmingham City side with long-term rumoured transfer target, Obafemi Martens scoring the winner in the 89th minute after that famous mix-up between Sczcęsny and Koscielny. We had been so dominant, I was optimistic that we could pull the fat out of the fire in the remaining 4 minutes of added time but it was not to be. The third Wenger final and the first named ‘Carabao’ was a predictable 3-0 thumping by an imperious Citeh outfit in Pep’s first final with Citeh. The gulf in quality was sickening. That overly personal reminiscence was to illustrate the fact that we have unfinished business in this competition.

We have long underperformed in this competition, probably often as a result of prioritising others.  We reached consecutive League Cup finals in 1968 and 1969, losing both – to (VERY) Dirty Leeds and Swindon Town respectively. The Guvna, Dave Faber, could provide a riveting eye-witness soliloquy on both those finals. We finally won the three handled pot in 1987 by beating Liverpool 2-1, after being 1-0 down, through two goals by Champagne Charlie Nicholas to give Gorgeous George his first trophy as Arsenal manager and returned to the final the next season only to lose 2-3 surprisingly to underdogs Luton Town, after being 2-1 up, goals by Hayes and Smith being insufficient given a penalty miss by Winterburn and defensive ineptitude by Caesar. That game was a sliding door moment for George who subsequently brought in Bould and Dixon to create the famous back four. We did win that pot once more, in 1993, 2-1 against Sheffield Wednesday (whom we also beat, after a replay, in that season’s FA Cup Final) with goals from Merson and Morrow after being 0-1 down. That final may be most notable for Tony Adams practising his future Strictly partner-lifting technique on Steve Morrow only to drop him and break his arm. His technique has clearly come on leaps and bounds since then though!

I expect Brighton to take this tournament seriously. They have never graced the final let alone won the competition but they are having a great start to the season, sitting in 6th place 13 points behind the leaders (who could that be?). Their coach, Robert de Zerbi has said he is treating this match like a Premier League game and expects his players to do the same:

“It will be a test for many players, but when we wear our shirt we must play seriously and we must try to win.

“it’s a very important game. I can make some changes in the first 11 but, for me, the cup or a friendly is like a Premier League game. There’s not a big difference.

“It’s important to always win, but it’s most important to play seriously. If we want to prepare in the best way for the next game against Aston Villa, we have to play well tomorrow – 100%. The best way to arrive in the best condition next Sunday is to play well tomorrow.

“I want 11 players who show the same respect as in the last game against Wolverhampton Wanderers. When a player has that mentality and plays the same way in a Premier League, in a training session, this is the mentality for me.

“Every time you wear the shirt, you always give 100% – this is the first part of mentality. The second part is to play with bravery, courage and personality against teams, whether they are bottom or top of the table.”

Sentiments we can, in truth, all get behind. As many Gooners opine, we want to win every game and win every competition we enter. Tonight is no different.

I expect Mikel Arteta to treat this game as he did the Europa League group games, selecting his back-ups and leavening them with first choices who are selected on the basis of game time already accumulated with the likes of Saka and Martinelli playing only part of the match, if needed. Some kids may be on the bench but I don’t expect a different approach from the Europa League. We can deal with fixture congestion in 2023 in 2023. At this point in time we should try to stay in every competition. Who knows what the fall-out from Qatar will bring? Hence, I expect a team like:

Turner (if fit)

Cedric, Holding, Gabriel, Tierney

Ødegaard, Elneny, Sambi

Vieira, Nketiah, Nelson

After all, there’s only one further game to play until the despicable WC in Qatar interrupts the season and many players get a six-week period of R ‘n R with three friendlies to play whilst others are condemned to running around in a baking hot sand-pit for the aggrandisement of a venal collection of middle eastern potentates.

The Holic pound is still going to Ukraine but I predict 2-1 to the Arsenal.

Sadly, the game is not being broadcast live on television anywhere in the world so apparently there won’t even be streams. Those not going can listen to the ‘radio’ commentary on .com but we will have our own eye-witness reporter in attendance and his match report will be posted here tomorrow.

Arsenal won by a goal to nil at Stamford Bridge at Sunday lunchtime for the third season running as they reclaimed their two point cushion at the summit of the Premier League table. Mikel Arteta’s side largely dominated proceedings in West London, and in truth probably ought to have scored more. However Gabriel’s goal just after the hour proved decisive.

Arteta made one change from the side that thrashed Forest last weekend, with the welcome return of Zinchenko, as the Ukrainian came in to replace Takehiro Tomiyasu who picked up a knock on Thursday. Kieran Tierney remained on the bench despite his stunning goal in midweek. Arsenal started brightly as they so often do although there wasn’t an awful lot going on in the way of clear-cut chances for either side. Gabriel Jesus provided the game’s first bit of spark as he danced round a couple of Chelsea defenders before his shot was blocked by his Brazilian compatriot, Thiago Silva. And Jesus was in the thick of the action again as he got on the end of Martinelli’s fantastic ball following some breath-taking football from Arsenal. However, the Son of God headed wide when he really ought to have scored or at least forced a save from Mendy. His goal drought will be a form of concern for him especially as we are now only a fortnight away from the World Cup. Luckily for him, Richarlison is also Brazilian.

As far as Chelsea are concerned, there was little to get excited about. Aubameyang struggled to get into the game (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) and the former Arsenal captain was booed by the away fans on his every touch. All eight of them. Meanwhile, Saliba had Havertz and Mount in his back pocket and Chelsea created very little if anything in the opening half. The game had a bit of a strange feel to it as these early kick offs so often do. But Arsenal would’ve gone in at the break the happier of the two sides.

Arsenal again started the second half strongly winning a succession of free kicks and corners. The imperious Thomas Partey headed wide from a corner and then Jesus forced a decent save from Mendy with a low and fierce drive from a tight angle. And finally, the breakthrough came. Saka drove a low and dangerous corner which looked to be heading all the way in, but Gabriel was there on the goal line to make sure as he poked the ball into the roof of the net to send the away end into delirium. Get in. There was some hilarity as Aubameyang was taken off reinforcing the belief that Mikel Arteta made the right call-in shipping him out. Once again, he was invisible in a big game only someone else is paying his hefty wages now.

Chelsea were now forced to press for an equaliser, yet it was Arsenal who looked most likely to nick a second goal. First, Saka sent an effort flying over the bar from a tight angle, and then Odegaard also fired over after outstanding play from Gabriel Jesus who again danced around a couple of defenders before the Norwegian squandered his effort. Would these missed chances come back to bite Arsenal? No was the resounding answer. Chelsea huffed and puffed but did not come remotely close to blowing the Arsenal house down as Ramsdale was largely untroubled.

There was a late scuffle in the corner between Xhaka and the poisonous plastic Italian that is Jorginho. Xhaka laughed at him. He wasn’t alone there. The ref blew his whistle, and we began to celebrate something that we have now become accustomed to in recent years and that is a win away at Chelsea. Once again Arsenal were given another demanding examination and once again, they passed. With distinction. Tottenham, Liverpool and now Chelsea have all been put to the sword by Artetaball. Mind you, we still haven’t played anyone half decent yet, I suppose.

We now sit pretty at the top (as we have done since August) on 34 points from a possible 39. We really are quite good. Better than a certain soulless, oil rigging organisation from Manchester perhaps? Time will tell. But today was further evidence that we can go toe to toe with Manchester City right to the end. We’re going more than toe to toe with them now. Maybe we should be asking ourselves if they have what it takes to go toe to toe with us? I think there is a certain inferiority complex amongst some Arsenal fans which I can understand to some degree given that we are eighteen years without a league title and five years without a top four finish. But a golden opportunity has slowly began to present itself, mostly of our own doing of course. Let’s give ourselves some credit. It is not as though City have had a slow start to the season as they have done in the past before recovering to canter to the title. Results wise, they’ve been largely dominant as ever, winning 10 games from 13. But the problem for them is we’ve won 11 from 13. Against, I would argue, mostly the better teams. The bulk of their squad will be heading to Qatar next week, most of them starters for their respective nations. The same cannot really be said of our players. The general narrative has been that we will drop off after the World Cup due to injuries and fatigue. But we have the least players going of any big six side. That is a perk of having a young squad. Yes, City have a larger squad but that doesn’t make them immune to injuries or fatigue. I’m not wishing injury on any City players, but it is part and parcel of elite sport. Like I said, time will tell. But personally, I don’t think we’re going anywhere. I think we’re quite happy to stay cosy at the top. Onto the next….

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