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One grew up in a Black Forest village in Baden-Württemberg, another in the seaside Basque cultural hub of San Sebastián. One had a mediocre playing career in Bundesliga 2 albeit with a bit of cult following among the supporters of the only club he played for, another played top level football for some of the most decorated and supported teams in Europe. One carries himself with the bonhomie – part authentic, part practiced – of a regular patron of the local pub after his first few drinks, the other dons a signature armor of inwardness and unapproachability under the well-tailored suit of charm.  

But both are ferocious competitors. Singularly driven, passionate, uncompromising, completely dedicated to their profession, and with more than a hint of madness in their eyes. The kind of madness that is mostly indistinguishable from genius, especially when it brings what others like to think of as success. The kind of madness that doesn’t handle failure very well, in themselves or in others.

Even before he brought Liverpool back to the kind of successful years that their fans have been missing and craving for nearly three decades, Jürgen Klopp had become one of the most admired and analyzed coaches in football. He got Mainz promoted to first tier football for the very first time in their history, eventually even achieving an unthinkable UEFA cup qualification. The blueprint for his signature gegenpressing was born here, and he perfected the execution of that template in an exhilarating Borussia Dortmund side that for a few years broke the permanent supremacy of the Bavarian superclub in German football.

Compared to the illustrious career of his opposition manager in this weekend’s marquee match, Mikel Arteta has merely started his managerial journey. Always a football savant, and a master of meticulous details, he is now at that early stage of his career where he is still in the process of learning to live with the inevitable gap between the territory of the land and the map he drew in his mind, and to make his creative ideas flourish within that domain of uncertainty and chaos.

Since Messieurs Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac, Pauli, Schrödinger et al. shook the foundation of physics – and consequently, the epistemology of science itself – with the formulations of quantum mechanics, the gap between the microscopic world of indeterministic observations and the everyday life of macroscopic solidity has been screaming to be explained in terms that satisfy mankind’s unquenchable thirst for a knowable, explicable world. Of all the postulates that have been put forward – from many-worlds theories to statistical interpretation – the Copenhagen interpretation, named after the Danish capital (and the hometown of Niels Bohr) where over many a spirited discussions spread over a stretch of years – especially between Bohr and Heisenberg, but also Pauli and Dirac – an intellectual framework that can accommodate the startling counterintuitiveness of quantum world was established, remains the most widely accepted paradigm. Far from established on the Popperian pedestals of falsifiability, and not even a robustly defined set of principles, but more of a what Heisenberg had liked to call “Copenhagen spirit” – maybe more accurately it can be called the Copenhagen school of thought – it encompasses multiple, even contradictory, perspectives all of which accept the intrinsic indeterminability of quantum mechanics, and the fact that as we approach macroscopic dimensions the quantum theories start to predict a world that resembles the ones depicted by classical physics. While this doesn’t quite satisfy our need for a solid metaphysical ground beneath our feet, the Copenhagen interpretation – with its almost Kantian combination of rigor and humility – allows us to proceed and progress in creating more and more sophisticated mathematical models of the universe, understand and explore the world, and invent technologies that by now ought to have obliterated human sufferings if not for our propensity for destructions, of self and of others. It is a framework that is remarkably resilient in its functionalism.

No matter how meticulously the team prepares for all eventualities, and no matter how much insight and foresight the men on the sideline possess, a football match is inherently chaotic. One can create a loosely defined framework of principles to form enough awareness of the proceedings to ensure one’s overall aim of forward looking movement and progress. While that framework will be successful if it has a recognizable spirit, it should also be able to accommodate contradictions and malleability, and not to be fixated on predefined immutable ideas.   

I myself would love to see Arsenal play with a higher degree of creative freedom, with an unscripted, joyful unpredictability where players express themselves with moments of inspired courage. A little less orchestrated sight reading, a little more harmonic and melodic improvisations. I have no doubts that our young squad – and their young manager – will evolve towards a lesser knowingness but greater wisdom, and I think once that happens we will see a collective that is significantly greater than the sum of all its parts.     

The conventional wisdom suggests that Arteta will rotate his starting eleven just a little bit to best suit the occasion, and I won’t be surprised to see Jorginho at the base and Rice as the left sided number 8, or even Havertz returning to that role, but I think Arteta will start the same eleven as against Nottingham Forest in the midweek, with Martinelli and ESR combining to put pressure on Liverpool’s adventurous right side. 

Raya

White – Saliba – Gabriel – Zinchenko

Ødegaard – Rice – ESR

Saka – Jesus – Martinelli    

Enjoy the game everyone! Let this be the day when the mantle of the manager for the legitimate best team in contemporary English football is passed onto the young man from San Sebastián, from the hands of the veteran from the Black Forest. Jürgen Klopp deserves every bit of respect and admiration that he has earned fairly with his impressive managerial career, and let us Arsenal supporters bid him a respectful auf Wiedersehen, but only after we sing our very own super Mikel Arteta and his wonderful red-and-white squad to a dominating victory.

Come on Arsenal!

I like Nottingham. All the Midlands games are amongst my favourites, Villa, Leicester, Wolves. But I particularly like coming to Nottingham. In West Bridgeford, for those of a sporting inclination, you are spoilt for choice. On the river Trent, athletic looking men and women propel row boats around, although, in January, it’s a chilly old pursuit. Dominating the scene as you come over the bridge from the City proper is the grand and historic old cricket ground of Trent Bridge, where I have tickets to watch a day of the test match against the West Indies in July (I will also be watching cricket at Lords and the Oval. These are the activities, together with watching The Arsenal, inter alia, that fill the days of a retired and sport loving gentleman. For those of you still punching the clock I say to you, your time will come). In late January, Trent Bridge shivers and waits for summer, but takes part in the winter sporting life by opening its car parks and hostelries for those going to the football at Forest or Notts County, just the other side of the river.

The City ground is just 10 minutes from Trent Bridge – more of that shortly. But first on the agenda was food and an old favourite. Hard by Trent Bridge, opposite the Trent Bridge Inn (now, alas, a Weatherspoon’s. O tempora! O mores!) lies the Bombay, Bridgeford . We pushed open the door and immediately walked into enticing aromas and, at 5.45 before a 7.30 kick off, absolutely heaving, with every table taken, mostly by folk in Forest replica shirts. Luckily, anticipating this, I had booked and we were quickly shown to our table. Poppadum’s and Cobra beer were quickly served. The first mouthful of Cobra, as always, hit the spot. We gave our attention to the menu, which is broad and eclectic, the standard dishes mixed in with ones you will never have heard of. We ordered curries, dhals, rice and of course naan breads. The naan breads at the Bombay are the best I have had in this country and, as regular readers will know, I have some experience in these matters. The service was impeccable and all the food tasty.

As we reached the filling up corners stage the team news came in. To our delight, ESR was in the starting XI. Declan and big Gabi made it through their late fitness tests. Replete, and ready for football, we paid up and made our way to the City ground. Forest’s home, like all the most evocative grounds, is reached through streets of terraced houses. The set up for away fans is perfect, giving us about two thirds of the Bridgeford lower tier. We were towards the corner flag, about nine rows back, with a fine view. Around 2800 enthusiastic Gooners joined us (more than 5% of the capacity as is normal – naturally we sold out our full allocation at, I believe, 15 credits). Now we all know that, as a club, Forest’s zenith was in the late 70s, early 80s when, under Clough and Taylor, they won the league and the European Cup (twice). Their pre match big screen entertainment focused almost exclusively on this era, with the green sweat shirted sardonic features of Brian Clough seen extensively.

As the game began, with Arsenal kicking away from us, a ritual call and response is required by contract when we visit Forest or Villa (West Ham have started doing it as well which is, frankly, risible)

Champions of Europe! You’ll never sing that!

Champions of Europe! You weren’t even born!

Exchanges complete, we settled into the game. A familiar pattern quickly emerged. Forest fell into a disciplined low block, with little enthusiasm to get forward. We made lots of passes, had a huge amount of possession (about 80%) but we rarely tested Arsenal old boy Matt Turner, were a bit slow recycling the ball and seemed to be trying to score the perfect goal (never heard that before). Smith–Rowe was bright and effective and almost played Jesus in but he put it just over. Gooners were supportive and loud in their singing but there was a feeling of frustration as the half time whistle went with the game scoreless. It appeared that we are still struggling with the low block. We were firing in shots but they were being blocked.

Halftime: Forest 0-0 Arsenal

We started the second half much better, moving the ball quicker and swapping our front three around to pull the defenders out of position. Ǿdegaard was everywhere, pressing hard, recycling the ball, involved in everything. Saka was looking dangerous, Martinelli less so. I increasing think I would like to see Martinelli and Jesus swap positions.

But we were getting behind the Forest defence as they tired and we raised our level. Ǿdegaard laid in Saka who struck a good right foot shot, partially deflected, towards the corner of the goal. We were right in line with it and it took a good save from Turner to deny our golden boy. A lovely piece of football saw interplay between Saka and Ǿdegaard before Jesus was laid in on the six yard line. He struck his shot with power, but it rebounded from the junction of the post and the bar. Should have scored really.

The pressure and our patience was telling. Our forward press, led by Ǿdegaard and Rice, kept winning the ball back in the Forest half. On 65 minutes we forced a throw in on the Forest right. Zinchenko took a quick throw in to Jesus in space in the area (when I watched a replay of the game this morning I heard the TNT commentator say “the flag stays down”. Of course it stayed down you numpty. You can’t be offside from a throw in). Jesus did what we’ve been imploring the team to do which was to drive in on goal and shoot. His powerful shot squeezed through Matt Turner’s legs (I say credit a great finish) and we were one up.

From the Bridgeford lower after the limbs had subsided, an aria rose into the cold Nottingham air.

Oh Mik Arteta called him.
Said now’s your time to shine.
‘Cos I’m collecting Gabi’s
And I’m going to make you mine!
They say he walks on water
And turns it into wine
Oh I believe in Jesus
He’s Arsenal’s number nine!

Forest 0-1 Arsenal (Jesus 65 minutes)

We were moving smoothly through the transitions as Forest pushed forwards. Another great move saw Jesus to Ǿdegaard to Saka (this combo worked so well last night) whose fierce shot was blocked. After 70 minutes Havertz came on for ESR who had made an excellent contribution.

Forest gave the ball away badly in midfield. Ǿdegaard picked the ball up and put Jesus away on the left. He made ground rapidly and made an excellent pass to Saka, unmarked in the inside right position in the box. He took one touch and then rifled in a right footed shot into the corner of the net. Turner had no chance. A great goal.

This time it really was pandemonium in the Bridgeford end. We were sure that was the winner. And when everything calmed down and glasses and phones had been retrieved, Saka’s song rent the air.

Bukayo
Saka!
Running down the wing
Saka!
Hear the Arsenal sing
Saka!
We’re gonna win the league!

Forest 0-2 Arsenal (Saka 72 minutes)

Now the choir was in full voice. We ran through the repertoire, including informing the Forest fans that they had only come to see The Arsenal. And of course that we won the league at Anfield, we won it at the Lane, Stamford Bridge, Old Trafford (no-one can say the same). So Paddy got up got a rare airing.

As the clock ticked around to 77 minutes, Jesus, who had been excellent, came off for Eddie, and Martinelli left for Trossard. We learnt later that Jesus had been carrying a knock but insisted on playing. He was the game changer. I love watching Jesus.

Well we’ll just see it out we all thought and we were almost right. Trossard looked very lively, making space for shots and holding the ball up well. Until, in the 89th minute, a long diagonal went over Zinny’s head (a reprise of the AA/Salah goal from earlier in the season). The ball was headed towards the penalty spot and Awoniyi bodied Saliba out of the way and tucked it past Raya.

Forest 1-2 Arsenal (Awoniyi 89 minutes)

We faced 5 plus several minutes of added on time. We faced one more test of nerve as some head tennis in our area bobbled about but finished safely in Raya’s hands. The final whistle went and it was celebrations all round. Ben White and Zinny were having words at the final whistle. Arteta said he doesn’t mind that and the players have to hold each other to account. I 100% agree.

Full time: Forest 1-2 Arsenal

A big win. Not the perfect performance, but taken on balance we played well. We found a way. Plaudits to Jesus, Ǿdegaard, Rice and Saka. Partey due to come back in. Liverpool awaits on Sunday.

The M1 played silly buggers on the way home but we were back indoors by midnight.

A good, if not great away day out in West Bridgeford.

It seems improbable but we play only our second league match of 2024 and only our third in all so far this year when we meet Nottingham Forest at the City Ground on Tuesday night. When someone mentions Nottingham Forest to me I am transported back to January 1959. My grandfather arrived at our house round about midday on the first Saturday of the year with two tickets for a third round FA Cup tie between Forest and our nearest club – Isthmian League’s (when the Isthmian League was the strongest amateur league in the country) Tooting and Mitcham, at their homely ground about a mile away:  Sandy Lane. I was heartbroken at not being able to accompany them although at seven my mother wouldn’t let me go in the freezing cold to a  primitive ground filled to the gunwales.

I followed progress as best as I could on Grandstand. Forest were a good First Division side but to everyone’s amazement they trailed 2-0 into the second half. Tooting were then subject to two enormous bits of bad luck. Firstly a pass back hit a rut on the awful, frozen pitch and skipped past the keeper into the net. A few minutes later, the Tooting left-half chested a ball in his penalty area and whipped it clear. The referee gave a penalty. Afterwards Murphy of Tooting showed the mark of the ball on his chest. It was an appalling decision and the penalty was converted, the game drawn 2-2, and in the replay Forest triumphed 3-0. They won the FA Cup that season for only the second (and last) time in their history. Had VAR existed the FA Cup would have had a different name on it that season.

I attach a link to the replay game here: https://youtu.be/_4yOnZy5O2I

It wasn’t the greatest period in Forest’s history (that came under Clough and Taylor when they won two European Cups) but it defined Forest to me as a seven year-old, soccer-mad little boy who had never seen a professional game then. I’ve seen them many times since, not only at Arsenal but at Chelsea, Fulham, Palace and a small ground in N13. I’ve even seen them play at Bristol City and Norwich.

Forest are a very old club. In 1865 a group of shinty players met at a pub called the Clinton Arms (now renamed The Playwright) which lies at the junction of Nottingham’s Shakespeare Street and North Sherwood Street. A proposal to play association football instead of shinty was agreed (football is a LOT less dangerous than Shinty!) and Nottingham Forest Football Club was established. It was also agreed that the club would purchase twelve tasselled caps coloured ‘Garibaldi Red’ (named after the leader of the Italian ‘Redshirt’ fighters). That is how the club’s official colours were chosen. Matches were originally played at Forest Racecourse, the source of the word ‘Forest’ in the team’s name.

Forest have played their home games at the City Ground since 1898. They have won two European Cups (now the UEFA Champions League), and are  one of six English clubs to have won the European Cup. They have also won one UEFA Super Cup, one League title, two FA Cups, four League Cups, and one FA Charity Shield. The club has competed in the top two tiers of English football since its admission to the Football League, with the exception of five seasons in the third tier. Its most successful period was under the management of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which included back-to-back wins in the then European Cup in 1979 and 1980.

Forest famously demonstrated a benevolent and charitable approach to their rivals and helped clubs like Liverpool, Arsenal and Brighton & Hove Albion to form. In 1886, Forest donated a set of red shirted football kits to help Arsenal establish themselves. It is a nice link between the clubs. Many years later as if to pay them back for their generosity we sold them Joe Baker, one of the best strikers in our history and a great favourite of Goonerholic – and me! Forest also donated shirts to Everton and helped secure a site to play on for Brighton.

Fast forward to the present day and we find Forest struggling in 16th position in the Premier League having lost three of their last five games. They are now managed by Nuno Espírito Santo, after parting company with Steve Cooper. He managed to weld thirty new players into a functional squad last season and kept them up, ensuring survival in their final home  game with Arsenal. Their owner Evangelos Marinakis also owns Olympiakos and famously was blamed for giving a Covid infection to Mikel Arteta in 2020, which led to the temporary shutdown of English football in March 2020.

They have struggled at home this season but on recent visits to the City Ground we have lost 1-0 (last time in the league last season), and gone down twice in the third round of the FA Cup – 4-2 in 2018 and 1-0 in 2022. Our intrepid travellers Countryman100 and CountrymanJunior were present for our last two defeats, and will be back at the City Ground on Tuesday night. That is sterling support at this time of year.

So what might we expect? Forest appear to have a number of injuries, including Awoniyi who notched against us last season and at Arsenal in the first game of the season. Morgan Gibbs-White is their playmaker and is reportedly doubtful for the game. But they have the squad to cope, at least numerically! On Friday night they produced a stalemate in a 0-0 draw in the FA Cup fourth round at Bristol City . Hopefully this will have drained their energy before they meet us. We may welcome back Thomas Partey at last ( although he is likely to be on the bench) and expect Rice and Gabriel to recover from their injuries sustained against Palace.

My suggested team is

Raya

White — Saliba — Gabriel — Zinchenko

Rice — Odegaard — Havertz

Saka — Jesús — Martinelli

Trossard may retain his place out wide and Jorginho may replace Havertz to provide more control in midfield but I suspect Arteta will play quite an attacking side as Arsenal really need to win this match.

A lack of energy should not be a problem for us.  Fresh from our trip to Dubai we had a comfortable runout against Palace last week and might fear ring rust rather than fatigue as we face a vital game. Forest away has often been a game that was pivotal in Arsenal seasons that ended in triumph. In the first double season we won 3-0 at the City Ground in our run-in to the title. In  1979 we were drawn to play Clough’s almost unbeatable team at the City Ground. Dave Faber recounted the peril of being chased to and from Nottingham Station by a welcoming party of Forest thugs. When he arrived at the match he saw a marvellous defensive display garnished by a classic Stapleton header which took us back eventually to Wembley where we beat United. In 1989 George Graham’s emerging side thrashed Forest 4-1in Nottingham in an early indication of the quality we had. That season ended in glory at Anfield.

Will we be able to produce a similarly significant performance on Tuesday night? The following facts from the bookmaker show pretty positive trends

• The most common result in matches between Nottingham Forest and Arsenal FC is 0-1. 3 matches have ended with this result.

• During the last 8 meetings with Nottingham Forest playing at home, Nottingham Forest have won 4 times, there has been 1 draw, and Arsenal  have won 3 times. The goal difference is 11-10 in favour of Arsenal.

• During the last 15 meetings, Nottingham Forest have won 4 times, there have been 2 draws while Arsenal  have won 9 times. The goal difference is 29-13 in favour of Arsenal FC.

• Arsenal’s last away win against Nottingham Forest was in 2016.

The bookmaker (Oddspedia) suggest Forest are 7-1 to win, a draw is 41/10 and an Arsenal win is priced at a shade under 2-1. Those are very unattractive odds but Bet365 are offering 13/2 for a 2-0 Arsenal win and were I a betting man that would be my wager.

NES is a canny, if slightly negative manager and the first goal on a cold January night will be very important. Forest will attempt to play at a high tempo but the impact of an FA Cup tie a few days before will be significant and if Gibbs-White is absent that will be very important. Expect us to have the bulk of possession (as usual) but let us hope we use it better than we did in Nottingham last year and in some of our recent less creative performances.

This is a chance for us to prepare for the titanic clash with Liverpool in a positive frame of mind and to continue to further fuel a renewed title challenge. Safe travel to the Countrymen and let us hope they return full of a super East Midlands curry having witnessed a fine Arsenal performance and a comfortable win.

I got my first car as a college sophomore. It was the missing piece in my freedom puzzle. A 1988 black, Plymouth Reliant K-Car sedan with red, leather interior; that car shuttled me around north Florida and up and down the U.S. east coast during most of the 1990s. It ran great but, occasionally, the engine just wouldn’t start no matter what I did. The Arsenal of this past Festive period (especially the part where we failed to put the ball in the back of the net) called to mind memories of the Black Hornet when the damned engine just wouldn’t start. 

The Lineups.

After winless results from our last three premier league matches, we needed to take all three points hosting a hapless Palace team. I admit, however, the team news of Trossard starting in place of Martinelli didn’t convince me that we would begin the game with all pistons firing. As we’ll see, that substitution might turn out to have been a master stroke. Arteta relied on a now familiar formation at the kick-off:

          Raya

White—Saliba—Gabriel—Zinchenko

        Ødegaard—Rice—Havertz

            Saka—Jesus—Trossard

I am unsure what to actually say about Palace. Although I have no time for the way they treated Vieira, I still have a soft spot for the Eagles. Selhurst Park is one of the grounds I have personally attended (a solid venue), and Roy Hodgson seems a reasonably honorable man. A longtime servant of the game, he just seems to be that guy who always has a few Werther’s Originals at the ready in his coat pocket. You know…for the kids. But, that said, Palace have been so poor. Injuries, questionable personnel moves, and a toothless attack have transformed a solidly mid-table team into one, I fear, destined for a relegation scrap. Happily for us, Roy set-up to constrict central spaces and perhaps eke out a draw:

    Mateta

Eze—Hughes—Lerma— Schlupp

  Mitchell—Guehi—Andersen—Richards—Clyne

    Henderson

Perhaps it was the lack of Dubai’s sun and warmth or maybe it was the angst of expectation, but, after a rousing, scarf-waiving rendition of North London Forever, Arsenal’s attack didn’t exactly roar to life. We possessed the ball, probed, and recycled. Ødegaard did Ødegaard-things, Jesus did Jesus-things, and we took the territory meekly offered by Palace. Our offensive engine did threaten to sputter to life as the lively Benjamin White made some confident, early passes over the top to Saka, as well as a couple of bold overlapping runs and Trossard won a corner from an incisive Zinchenko line-splitting pass. It’s obvious now that, while the gaffer was visiting Salt Bae, set-piece coach Nicolas Jover was busily putting the lads through their paces in Dubai. Rice’s enticing delivery, and a pick scheme that would have made Bill Laimbeer proud, allowed our under-appreciated sparkplug, Gabriel (Big Gabby) to head home at the far post.

Arsenal 1 – Crystal Palace 0.

After the precedent set by the VAR debacle at St. James’ Park (you know, that two hands pushing into Big Gabby’s neck is not enough of a foul to rule out a goal), imagine my consternation as the stalwarts of competition integrity in Stokely Park contrived to take several minutes to review a manifestly good goal. I went to kitchen to make myself toast and a coffee.

Ten minutes later (I kid, I kid), being unable to find a reason to deny, again, a manifestly good goal, the scoreline was affirmed…and we celebrated again.

Palace roused a bit, and solid play from the serviceable Eze forced the Arsenal backline to pass the ball a bit too much in our final third for my liking. From one of these episodes, Saliba (cooler than the underside of the pillow) Cruyff-turned in our penalty area and passed to Raya who, despite not much pressure, “cleared” the ball straight to the opposition. Raya’s mistake created one of Palace’s only threats of the game as Lerma forced Raya into a good save at his near post. Arsenal increased their intensity, pushed Palace back, and won another corner…this time from the right. Saka dutifully provided the floated cross to the far post, and picks from Trossard (big credit to the wee lad for going in amongst the “trees”) and White again freed Big Gabby at the far post to nod home off the back of Henderson’s noggin.

Again, VAR contrived to give the supporters at the ground a chance to join the queue for a pint (and give yours truly time to fix a delicious breakfast sammich of bacon, egg and cheese on brioche), but could find no rationale to rule out the goal. As a Parthian shot, however, the Dubious Goals Committee acted swiftly to award the score as an own-goal. Notwithstanding this slight, Gabriel was immense on this day. His intelligence, his physical presence and his competitive fire sparked us to life. It’s up to us to keep that fire going in the second half of this season.

HT: Arsenal 2 – Crystal Palace 0.

As the second half kicked off, my feelings mirrored those I saw on Arsenal X, nee Twitter. The two goals were great, just what the doctor ordered, but our attack was still sputtering. Our three forwards, although active, hadn’t put the ball in the back of the net. We needed Saka and Jesus to get going. This time, Raya, making amends for his errant first-half clearance, claimed a speculative cross from Hughes and set Jesus free with an excellent toss. Jesus exploded down the right and played an inch-perfect “squared-ball” to an onrushing Trossard. Trossard, having acres of space in the middle of the park, sat Clyne down and fired the ball into the stranded Henderson’s net. What a finish! An open-play goal, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in weeks.

Arsenal 3 – Crystal Palace 0.

The third goal really knocked the stuffing out of the Eagles and provided an opportunity for several substitutions (speaking of stuffing, did you know that Benjamin Franklin advocated the turkey as the U.S. National Bird…not the Bald Eagle?) After a knock, Big Gabby was replaced by Kiwior. ESR came on for Havertz; Nketiah spelled Jesus; Martinelli replaced Trossard; and, most worryingly, Jorginho subbed on for Rice who, evidently, complained of hamstring tightness (at the time of writing, there was no further update on Rice’s injury status). Now, to be clear, these substitutions did not all occur contemporaneously. Indeed, Smith-Rowe’s most dangerous contribution took place from a slightly overhit Jesus pass. Smith-Rowe was unable to control the pass for a shot, but he made a solid thirty-minute cameo and a case for more playing time. Kiwior did Kiwior-things, and Jorginho and Nketiah both made solid contributions (more on this anon).

More interestingly, and disregarding the sample size of one, I wonder if Arteta chose this match to experiment with bringing Martinelli off the bench to run at tired legs. Trossard was subbed off in the sixty-ninth minute, and Martinelli’s pace immediately brought Arsenal’s offensive engine roaring to life. Midway through stoppage time, Eze lost the ball on the Palace attacking left, Nketiah drove at the stuttering Palace backline, and played an exquisite through-ball to Martinelli. The medium-sized Gabby accelerated into the box, opened his hips, and, channeling the great Henry himself, passed the ball around the hapless Henderson into the far corner of the net. Cue celebratory limbs.

Arsenal 4 – Crystal Palace 0.

As Palace vainly looked to the heavens for a savior (Jesus, however, was already safely ensconced on our bench) and Roy fumbled in his coat pockets for another piece of hard candy, Jorginho enabled the coup de grâce. Just a minute or so after the goal, Saliba collected a Henderson clearance and passed the ball off to Jorginho who clipped it over the weary Palace back four into Martinelli’s path. The lad had his Ferrari engine purring as he reprised his initial strike with another Henry-esque bending finish. Bravo!

FT Arsenal 5 – Crystal Palace 0.

The final whistle mercifully came. The Palace fans unfurled several banners decrying Yank ownership and a lack of shared vision. I can empathize, but I did feel for Roy who cut a lonely figure on the touchline staring forlornly at those expressions of opprobrium. However, I am not a Palace supporter, and this, thankfully, is not a Palace blog…so, take that you Eaglets!

Conclusion.

We needed this performance and these three points. I can hardly believe I need to say this, but we’ve only four losses. We’re only two points off the top spot, and there are so many games left to play. With any luck, this victory will be the octane-booster we need to get the forwards scoring again. I was intrigued to see Saka switching to the left several times during this match. Perhaps that can give the offense a different look? Maybe Trossard and Reiss-Nelson can provide the left-side opening act that sets the table for Martinelli to give us thirty-five or forty minutes of hell-for leather attack? Maybe Smith-Rowe or a returning Vieira can help preserve Ødegaard’s cutting edge? If we get a few returns from the injury table and put together a good run of wins, who knows what could happen?

If you start us up…(maybe) we’ll never stop.

MCMBD.

Fresh Slate

Palace at home, a fixture that some Arsenal teams in the recent past must remember without fondness.  In April of 2016, the season we should have won the title but faltered to allow Leicester City to live their dreams, Palace scored on a late counterattack, and the game ended 1-1 bringing home the sense that Arsenal’s title challenge was all but gone.  This fixture’s history also includes the Emery era debacles of 2019, including the 2-3 loss in April when Mustafi’s defensive lapses had a direct role in all three Palace goals; and the 2-2 draw in October when the substituted Xhaka told the booing crowd what they should do.  It seems fitting then to recall those games as a warning because Arsenal’s season now teeters on the edge of a mid season collapse, the club having lost three games successively in all competitions. 

Fourth-placed Arsenal will kick off the second half of their season on Saturday lunchtime, home to Crystal Palace.  I say that despite the fact that the Gunners have already played 20, or one more than the exact half, of their 38 fixtures. But the way the team appeared to have switched off in their New Year’s Eve defeat at Fulham suggests not only that a complete reset is required, but that the Fulham game must be consigned in the players’ minds to the season’s first half.  

Arsenal have not taken all three points since their December 17th 2-0 home win against Brighton, so a positive result is imperative for the team to maintain any kind of title push.  The successive defeats to West Ham and Fulham concluded a miserable end to 2023 when the Gunners won only one of their last five league matches, scored only five goals in their last seven matches in all competitions, and fell out of first place.  Due to the Premier League’s new winter break, and the club’s warm weather training in Dubai, Arsenal have played only one match in 2024, nearly two weeks ago when they bowed out of the FA Cup to Liverpool despite dominating play and creating numerous chances in the first half.

The opposition

Assuming they manage to avoid relegation, Palace are likely to end the season in the bottom half of the table as they have done in every season but one since they were promoted in 2013.  But Roy Hodgson knows how to frustrate attack minded opponents, and Palace can be expected to deploy a deep block of defenders in an attempt to prevent Arsenal from finding the perfect through ball.  

The Eagles have won just one of their past 11 matches while suffering six defeats in that stretch, and they currently sit five points clear of the relegation zone in 14th position. In their 0-1 FA Cup defeat at Everton on Wednesday, Palace struggled to create opportunities while Hodgson’s substitution of young forward Eze was met with boos by some away supporters.  Hodgson commented later, saying “I wouldn’t have wanted to see Eze taken off either, but we play on Saturday and we need people like Eze who is one of our very best players.”

In this season’s reverse fixture, our second game of the season, Arsenal’s 10 men kept a gritty away clean sheet playing with the seldom seen back five of left-back Tomiyasu, the recipient of two cheap second yellows, center-backs Saliba and White, right-back Partey and keeper Ramsdale.  Raya, Gabriel and Zinchenko, all three of them first team regulars since that time, started on the bench.  Ødegaard scored the game’s only goal on a penalty kick that was won by Nketiah from a quick free kick that caught the defence napping.  Seeing as the Palace defense will almost certainly be difficult to break down again, Arsenal might need to come up with another instance of free kick magic in this one.

Arsenal XI

Left-back Zinchenko missed out against Fulham and Liverpool due to a calf problem but if he has recovered, must go right into the team.  If the Ukrainian can’t make it, Jakub Kiwior stands ready to make his third successive start in his place.  In Arteta’s pre-match presser he was non-committal on the question, saying “We are touch and go with a few, that’s what I would say.”  But parsing Arteta’s words a bit further, other than a few tactical tweaks the team worked on in Dubai, I would not expect to see any changes from this familiar set-up:

Raya

White  Saliba  Gabriel  Zinchenko

Ødegaard  Rice  Havertz

Saka  Jesús  Martinelli 

The ‘holic pound

Seeing as it’s an early kickoff following the winter break, I wouldn’t be surprised if the game begins slowly and halftime comes around without any goals scored.  But I’ll take a punt on the giant awakening in the second half, and the Gunners putting two second half salvos into the Palace net, with our defense keeping a clean sheet.  It’s anybody’s guess really, how well we will respond, but I’m inserting a tinge of optimism into the new year’s uncertainty, and predicting a refreshing Arsenal 2 Palace 0.

Have a good one, ‘holics, and Happy New Year to all who’re still reading.

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