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“See that man on the wall. He is why you are named Patrick.” It is pre-match, and Dr C is showing his young son around the Arsenal for the first time. I feel privileged to be a part of that day. It’s an emotional one for all sorts of reasons. The Hillsborough 96 were commemorated before kick-off and whenever we host West Ham some of us are reminded of another who never came home from a football match. Patrick and his generation are the future and thankfully football is a much safer inheritance for them.

A short stroll around the North Bank terrace outside the ground provided a first view of the stone that we purchased for Gooner Terry. A huge thanks to all of you who contributed.

The game itself offered up the oldest of footballing clichés, a true game of two halves. Five changes were made to the side that booked a return to Wembley on Saturday, including a welcome return for Laurent Koscielny and a first start for Kim Kallstrom. The visitors certainly carried the greater threat in the opening half. We can thumb our noses at their direct approach, but Andy Carroll is a clear advantage when playing the Fat Sam way, and it took some determined defending to nullify his menace.

We weren’t without opportunities ourselves but they were few and far between. Olivier Giroud came closest to opening our account before the visitors snatched the lead as the half was drawing to a close. Nocerino cut in from the right flank and although Wojciech Szczesny managed to save from him the rebound was headed home by Jarvis. There remained enough time, however, for Lukas Podolski to level the scoreline having been set up by Santi Cazorla, back to somewhere near his best.

I’m not sure where the team found some semblance of form and confidence in the second-half, but find it they did, and treated us to the best forty five minutes of football at the Grove since the FA Cup quarter-final over a month ago. Ten minutes in we had the lead. Thomas Vermaelen lofted the ball into the box and Giroud killed the ball with his left foot before nutmegging the ‘keeper with his right. It was a sublime finish and lifted both team and crowd.

Podolski might have netted a second from a free-kick, but he was only going to be denied until the 78th minute. Substitute Aaron Ramsey headed Giroud’s cross into the path of the German and a left foot volley high into the net ended West Ham’s resistance. It was no more than he, and Arsenal, deserved.

So there was much to reflect on as I killed time in the bar at Paddington awaiting the last train home. Hopefully the second-half performance, allied to our progress to the FA Cup Final, will enable us to build a little momentum over the crucial closing stage of the season. If we can keep Per Mertesacker and Koscielny fit then that solves one of the issues of recent weeks. The improvement in Cazorla and Mikel Arteta was also evident and welcome. Biggest of all though may yet be the boost that Giroud must have got from his twentieth goal of the season.

An emotional night, indeed.

We’ve teamed up with Arsenal to offer a lucky 12-16 year old reader a pair of tickets each to the Gunners’ Premier League game with West Brom on Sunday 4 May 2014.

The tickets will be in Arsenal’s ‘Young Guns Enclosure’, which has given thousands of young supporters the chance to watch each Category B and C weekend match at Emirates Stadium this season for just £10.

Thanks to the generosity of Arsenal’s partners Indesit, the Gunners will be making available a total of 500 complimentary tickets for 12-16 year old supporters to the final home match of the campaign. More details can be found at Arsenal.com/JuniorGunners.

For the chance to win a pair of tickets just answer this question:

Which young Arsenal star recently became the first player born after Arsene Wenger joined the club to feature for the first team?

-          Serge Gnabry

-          Gedion Zelalem

-          Yaya Sanogo

So if you and a friend (must also be 12-16) want to be at the final home game of the season send your answer to competition@goonerholic.com before midnight on Tuesday 22nd April. Please include your name and email address so Arsenal can contact you to make the arrangements if you are the winner.

For more information on Arsenal’s Young Guns enclosure and how to get hold of tickets, visit www.arsenal.com/yge

Another contribution about Saturday’s FA Cup day out at Wembley, this time from Wind, wide-eyed student, enthusiastic supporter, and all-round good egg. Thank you so much for sharing your day with us here. This is the last of a trilogy of guest posts on the semi-final. Please also take the time to read the excellent contributions from Arthur and bath in the previous pieces. Cheers all.

Disclaimer – Wind recommends that ‘holics take at least one break in the middle of reading the following post as he will not be held responsible for repetitive strain injury of the eyeballs, carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists or any other ailments caused by even the edited length of this post!

The day started with me waking up late on the day of my maiden appearance at Wembley Stadium. Not late enough to not edit my FPL team, but late enough that my plans to meet up with some top gooners from the Twittersphere were slightly delayed. A quick tepid shower was had, the outfit for the day was decided (my biggest debate was between Arsenal shirt under or over hoodie, I went for over in the end) and I was ready to leave. I was fairly calm in the days running up to the game but my nerves showed in the end, as I spent 20 mins looking up and down my house twice for an Arsenal drawstring bag that was already on my back.

With a potential disaster averted and my Mum’s oyster card with glorious, shining week bus pass wheedled away from her (the life of a student, eh?), it was time to leave the family home. Disappointingly, my Semi Final ticket hadn’t arrived in the post on Saturday morning (it was supposed to have come by Thursday at the latest and most likely won’t have been delivered in a pyrrhic manner when this post is published). Thankfully, I had taken the precaution of getting a duplicate printed, waiting for collection at Wembley Stadium.

Cash for the day was transferred and withdrawn and the journey began in essence. After emerging from Holloway Road Station, the first stop of the day was Piebury Corner for a truly exquisite ‘Thierry Henry’ with mash and gravy. Worth every single bit of £7, it was just something else and I may just have to return on Tuesday for a different pie with the same mash and gravy. I didn’t manage to make it to the Tollie for a pint before heading to Wembley as I saw the party of Gooners that I was supposed to have met hours earlier at Piebury Corner departing as I approached.

One Underground journey to Wembley Park Station later and we were joined by a multitude of Arsenal fans. Upon exiting the station, the view was of the giant arch of Wembley Stadium flanked by buildings, towering above everything else in the immediate skyline.

The travelling party began to dissolve into various groups as tickets had to be given to various Gooners in the area etc. I myself had a ticket to collect and so it was off to the West Ticket Office. After navigating my way there (quite confusing really, sort the signage out Wembley!), the photographic ID was quickly flashed to a lovely attendant behind the glass and I was a Semi Final ticket up.

I made my way to the ‘Wembley Village’ area near the stadium where street bars were set up so I could meet some of the initial travelling party that departed from the Tollington. All of the bars in the area surrounding the stadium were set to close at 4:00pm and I joined the queue around 3:50pm with a pint or two of cider in mind, but I was turned away by the security staff. After checking out the other street bar in vain, I managed to convince one of the security guys at the first one to let me through (“I can’t go in there (Wembley) dry mate!”) and I relieved my thirst & attempted to quell my rising nerves to the tune of £4.90 a pint. As painful as those prices were, you do what you must on certain occasions, as I’m sure you fine gentlemen and ladies know, and that was one of them.

Pre match chatter undertaken on the matter of the Arsenal starting line-up, it was time to head into the concrete and glass monolith. I was the only person out of us sitting in the East End of the stadium so I said my goodbyes and made my way over to Entrance D. I’d heard so much bad about Wembley prior to the game, and how it can’t hold a candle to the Emirates. Now after having been to the former, I concur with those sentiments but my exact words after entering my block were “Flipping hell.” It was a sight to behold for the first time indeed as the pitch of the Emirates was, and my seat was duly taken, conveniently next to the stairs. They played The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’ over the PA system, which was a nice touch as we were able to sing Giroud’s name along to it, it was actually the first time I’d heard the actual song!

The game kicked off and the Ox could have put up ahead in the first 30 seconds but his touch was too heavy and it wasn’t to be. As surprised as I was that Sanogo started, one thing that I appreciated was that he didn’t hide and kept on trying with the chances that he either made for himself or were made for him. On the flipside, I felt that he could have had another 120 minutes and he still wouldn’t have managed to put the ball into the net, such was his luck on Saturday that nothing at all would come off for him. In my opinion we were on top in the first half, but our attack just lacked that cutting edge to slice up their defence.

The second half was pretty much more of the same for me, with hope rising and being tempered in a steady cycle until one of their players collided with Monreal. Michael Oliver allowed play to go on, leading to their penalty as the BFG slid in late. From the moment it was awarded, a sense of disbelief came over my block and it translated into stunned silence at what we were seeing, if it could’ve been converted into words, it would’ve spelt out “Not again”. My neighbour stared ahead blankly, and his neighbour had his head in his hands. Gomez dispatched it but the cry of “Arsenal! Arsenal!!, Arsenal!!!” soon went up again. We looked a far better side when Gibbs entered the fray, the left side looked ‘alive’ for lack of a better adjective, and you can pretty much pinpoint our resurgence from his substitution onwards.

The period between us conceding and Mertesacker’s header was the tensest of the entire game for me and seemingly many others in Wembley, exponentially many times more than the period of extra time or the penalty shootout at the end of the game. I believe that this was because the negative scenarios caused by the result remaining the way it was were set to ‘loop’ in everyone’s minds, perpetuated by the Everton’s result putting us into 5th in the Premier League and the recent memories of losing to Birmingham in the Carling Cup Final of 2011. As a result, from what I could see and hear and feel, the team was willed on in a different way than what you would usually see at the Emirates.

Many other Arsenal fans were turning around, constantly imploring the rest of us to give more to support the lads, and as a result of the heightened atmosphere I was pounding my thighs with my fists in frustration when we’d come tantalisingly close to the equaliser, screaming my throat raw in support, attempting to will them on with my entire being. I even tried to start a chant of “Red Army!” something that I’d chickened out of doing on many an occasion at the Emirates when things were nowhere near as bad.

I didn’t participate in the booing of Podolski’s substitution because I don’t need to be ‘seen next Tuesday’ by anyone and he just wasn’t that effective on the day. In all honesty, I was surprised that he came off for Giroud as I was expecting a straight swap for Sanogo like vs Everton in the previous round. I’d also like to point out, that Arsene Wenger went 4-4-2. Fair enough it was a desperate attempt to get back into the game, that worked but seeing is believing people. Maybe there’s still time for him in the remaining 6 games of the season to show more of the change that we thought was genuinely occurring in the first half of the season.

For all the bravado that was and could be shown externally, internally I was slowly sinking into a maelstrom of negativity and doubt, and then Mertesacker scored and it was dispersed into sheer joy and relief. The last time I’d celebrated a goal with as much raw, undulated passion and vigour was Giroud’s goal vs Swansea this season to put us 2-1 up, partially because it represented salvaging our season in the league potentially. Mertesacker’s goal represented salvaging our immediate relative sanity as Arsenal fans, the remainder of our season as a whole, and our manager’s job all in one.

Kim Källström did a great job anchoring the midfield predominately on the left when he came on for a shattered Ramsey, and could have scored the winner with a wayward volley attempt towards the end of extra time. Even later than that as he had the last attempt of the game but soon after it was time for our keeper to take his place on the goalline. I was a bit worried when Wigan won the toss and obviously chose the east end of the stadium where their fans were situated, but with my older neighbours bricking it, I decided to be the calm one in the ‘All will be well.’ guise, even though it was my first ‘live’ penalty shootout. And indeed it was well.

Personally, Fabianski’s performance in that shootout especially and the match as a whole was enough to convince me there and then that he should start in the Final. I don’t see how Wenger could begrudge it to him after his heroics but there are more domestic games to be played and it will be Szczesny starting them. Who starts the final is surely not a foregone conclusion by any means. Giroud and Cazorla’s chants were sung for them as they dispatched their penalties and I booed the Wigan players as they stepped up to take their respective penalties until I had exhaled all of the air in my lungs.

Mad celebrations with all in reaching distance around me over and the players well applauded as they celebrated with the fans in the west side of the stadium, I turned photographer for myself and a fellow fans who asked before playfully being told to go home by the stewards as one congratulated me on the result with a handshake. The tube journey back towards North London (free due to open barriers at Wembley Park Station and a Gooner attendant at Holloway Road Station) was particularly memorable, We were kept truly entertained until it was time to switch lines.

I reached the Tollie with my friends Mario and Christa who I know from Twitter and we were finally able to wind down with drinks, pork scratchings and crisps, it really is the simple things in life that give you the most pleasure.

In summary, it wasn’t the greatest match that I’d ever watched in the flesh but it was a great day, with great friends and gooners throughout and a great ending. I doubt that I’ll be lucky enough to get a ticket to the FA Cup Final but I’ll always truly be content that I got to witness what happened on that day, especially when I consider my uncertainty that I’d even get a ticket for the occasion in the first place. A dogged, but resolute performance imbued with character. Onwards & forward to our game vs West Ham on Tuesday, and you can bet your house that I’ll be there, roaring the lads on.

Come On Arsenal!!!

Again I owe a huge thank you to one of ours. Bathgooner, as some of you know, is great company on a matchday, but he has also been hiding his creative skills from you, until today. Thank you so much, bath, for helping me out of a hole this morning. Here is his take on yesterday’s win.

Job done but there have been better times at the dentist. The team selection was a bit of a surprise. Sanogo was to lead the line instead of HFB – a surprise 4th start in such an important fixture. Perhaps this was the result of an FA Cup promise like the widely publicised agreement producing the expected replacement of Szcz by Fabianski. Or was it the replacement of a knackered forward by a thrusting young warrior?

We started briskly with the clear intention of gaining an early lead and Sanogo forced a save from the Wigan keeper with an early downward header from a fine Ox cross. A bit more pressure followed without achieving that lead. Gradually the first half settled into a somewhat handbrake-heavy holding pattern with lots of possession, little penetration and no threat from Wigan.

Ramsey was busy and willing, making some early forward runs and incisive passes. Ox was energetic and seemed to have the beating of the Wigan fullback but he saw too little of the ball as it was passed round the backline and midfield. Wigan had the odd spell of passing through our midfield but never threatened Fabianski. On our forays, Sanogo’s touch was generally poor and Poldi was pretty anonymous apart from a decent free kick effort that went just wide. Sagna fired a ball from a corner across the goal. A ball over the top fell nicely for Sanogo but his touch was heavy and though he got a shot away, Carson blocked it. The first half finished with a sense of a game that hadn’t really started.

The second half was more of the same with a bit more activity from Poldi. Wigan were keeping a high line and pressing Arteta and Ramsey whenever they got the ball from the centre backs. They had clearly watched the videos showing how to neutralize the Arsenal attack and were doing a pretty good job of it. Their offensive efforts were extremely limited but on one of the very few occasions they got into our box they got a break when Per slid in on one of their runners and the ref gave a pen. The ref did seem to have to think about it before he gave it but on replay it looked a pen. In the build-up to that incident Nacho went down holding his groin after a challenge just inside our half thus causing the break that led to it. It looked like a foul to me but the ref didn’t see anything wrong with the challenge but Nacho had to be stretchered off before the pen was taken.   Fabianski came close to saving the pen but it was 1-0 to Wigan and it  really felt like the boys had 20 minutes to keep Arsene in a job.

Either the stimulus of going one down or the appearance of Kieran Gibbs on the left that seemed to wake us up. Sanogo stabbed an Ox cross wide. Suddenly our left side was alive and Gibbs and Podolski interacted well to create several chances. Poldi took a knock and the boss replaced him with HFB to a generally negative reaction from the crowd. However the net result was a 4-4-2 formation and much more goalmouth action. Sanogo hit the woodwork, drew saves from Carson and Gibbs had a shot cleared off the line. After a spell of pressure BFG got on the end of an Ox cross ball from the left of the D to the far post and it was 1-1. The BFG was the happiest  lad on the planet and brought a huge sense of relief. I cannot recall any major chances thereafter and so we were into extra time.

Kallstrom made his second appearance in an Arsenal shirt to replace an absolutely knackered Rambo and generally acquitted himself well. We pressed throughout and in the first 15’ Sanogo produced a neat turn and shot in the box that Carson tipped over while in the second 15’ a tiring Ox struck the bar after a lovely move left him with a rare clear sight at goal. Wigan’s biggest offensive efforts were a couple of feeble dives in the box and a couple of corners well cleared. Apart from a brief wander out of his area to little purpose (fortunately with no negative end result) Fabianski wasn’t called upon to exert himself. And so to penalties.

It felt as if Arsene’s future hung on a game of chance. Fabianski pulled off two great saves of their first two pens (one low left, the other low right) to give us a great start whilst Arteta, HFB, Kallstrom and Santi executed their penalties perfectly, giving a very dynamic Carson no chance at all. Wigan’s 3rd and 4th were scored but by then the confidence inspired by Fabianski’s first two saves seemed to carry us through. (You really do need to forgive his past blunders now, Steve T).

In summary, Fabianski was not stretched in 120 minutes and apart from the pens had little to do. The defence was generally solid but Gibbs for Monreal was a definite upgrade going forward. Arteta, Santi and Ramsey beavered away constantly but with too little end-product. A fit Ozil would certainly add value. Ox looked our best option until HFB came on but saw too little of the ball. Sanogo is mobile, has more pace than HFB but is well short of the finished product and for me was a surprising starter in a game of this importance. In truth, Poldi adds too little to this team. HFB was another definite upgrade and the ball retention up front and link play with runners markedly improved when he came on.

Thus your request has been duly fulfilled Zico. Not pretty. Laborious. Exhausting for all concerned. Make no mistake, this team is desperately in need of an injection of creativity and confidence. The rest of this season is going to be sweaty. It will, however, end with a day out for us all at Wembley.

 

Big thanks to the first of two guest posters today. Regulars will know Arthur the Gooner wears his Arsenal heart very much on his sleeve, and I am very grateful to him for contributing on this bleary-eyed morning. Enjoy, all, and thanks again Arthur.

I’m no blogger, just someone who looks after the team and the club to push forward. This game was not only for the fans but also for Arsene Wenger. His last life line? Surely the boys were up for it? The team sheet said it all Sanogo up front, confidence was not our best friend at the time. No wonder Arsene said this:

“Wigan showed why they knocked out Manchester City in the quarter-final, and for a period we had everything against us, but we showed some character, resilience and nerve to do it.”

Most of us thought it’s not going to be an easy ride. The team sheet made me wonder but nothing spectacular was going to take charge. I just knew for some apparent reason this was going to one of those afternoons! Confidence was flat and no wonder why but we had to dig and I believe we just did that in a way.

We started on the bright side, first fifteen minutes I thought we are going to score and take the lead. Instead we dropped off and allowed Wigan to make those runs at us. First half was decent enough but no where near the Arsenal we love to see , the Ox was the only player who pushed it forward and it almost paid off. We didn’t take our early chances, game leveled after that and we played with that fear or as some prefer to describe it a handbrake. I know my nerves kicked in at half time. I was livid in a way, crying out for some sort of reaction from the players and from the Le Boss.

When we resumed I thought to my self here we come, for some strange apparent reason we do play better in second half’s especially this season so why not to grab winner at this stage? My wishes and prayers came to a halt when in 63rd minute McManaman took to the ball, drove into the penalty area and for all the players to make a mistake it was Per Mertesacker who committed the foul. Michael Oliver pointed for the spot kick. Penalty converted and same old song was ringing in ears here we go again!

After their goal we regrouped started to have some sort of belief that would carry us over to the other side. We pressed and pressed and got rewarded and yet again out of all the players Per Mertesacker managed to find himself in the box to deliver the equaliser.

The game finished one each after 90 minutes. There was no time to reflect but we had to keep going.

Extra time was rather unlucky for the Arsenal, Ox hitting the woodwork didn’t do us any justice. I honestly didn’t want this game to go into penalties I was worried for too long during the game and thought we would not get there if push came to shove. How wrong was I?

I’m not the flamboyant person when it comes to penalties, I was strolling around in my living room backwards and forward. Fabianski in goal, the penalty expert, what on the can go wrong? He saved the first two and that was enough, the players converted and the game was won as it should have been in 90 minutes.

We weren’t the best we can be but we got there in the end and that is all that matters!

No matter how many you have seen there is still something special about FA Cup semi-finals. This one is no different. There is a nervous anticipation that has been amplified by the recent league performances. Winning twice at Wembley now has added significance for the manager and indeed the supporters.

It doesn’t help the nerves that I have seen bad as well as good befall us at this stage. Sixteen, that was how old I was when spending a couple of hours in the overfilled Leppings Lane end watching Sunderland, then of the second division, end our dream of three consecutive finals in 1973. I still can’t watch or think about losing to ‘them’ in 1991 when we lost only one league fixture all season. As for Manchester United, more than once, ugh.

The good ones will always live long in the grey matter. Stoke in successive years, ‘them’ twice, and most tiring of all the epic battles with Liverpool in 1980. I think the traveling faithful were as tired as the team by the time we edged the fourth game at Coventry, and the team were knackered, which would cost them in two Finals at the season’s end.

So another lower league team stands between us and another day out at Wembley with the prospect of ending that ‘nine years without a trophy’ narrative. Some of us have been through much worse. Of course Wigan are a lower league team with a difference, being the holders of the trophy. Following last year’s Final victory over Manchester City with a quarter-final win at the City of Manchester stadium this season is quite a double.

Then there are the injury doubts we may or may not have. Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs are all in that camp, but all three were spotted at training today (Friday). Everything crossed here, because frankly we will be very much down to the bare bones without them.

Now I can wax lyrical about us playing free of the tension we have felt in the league in recent weeks, but that would be just nonsense. There is a different but very real pressure on the team to perform at Wembley but strangely the ‘almost expectation’ that a shock is in the air may just help a little psychologically. An early goal would free us a little but more importantly we must avoid conceding first. Wigan showed against City they can defend for their lives when protecting an advantage.

The ‘holic pound is placed in the belief that we will get that early goal and take charge. 11/1 isn’t great odds on a 3-0 win, but only to be expected against a Championship team, albeit a very good Championship team.

So that is it. To those fortunate enough to be going, have a great day. I know our Esso and a good mate are taking a couple of excited lads for their Wembley debut. What a great way to enjoy the event that is a Cup semi-final. Sing your hearts out for the lads and see what happens thereafter.

Come on you riproaring Gunners!

Black Monday

Twenty four hours on. A good night out helped to ease the gloom that followed our performance at Goodison Park. Reading a couple of quality blogs this morning brought it all back. Most of you I suspect will have read Arseblog and A Cultured Left Foot today. I suspect they reflect the changing mood of a large number of people given what I have seen on social media sites in the last twenty four hours.

Now at the outset I should just recall the fact that we are in a very good place in the FA Cup. Two matches from the oft-mentioned missing silverware, and on paper we are far and away the strongest squad remaining in the competition. From what we saw in the last quarter of the match yesterday we are fortunate to have Aaron Ramsey back again just in time for the run-in, and hopefully his energy and enthusiasm will rub off on those who have lost confidence and touch in recent weeks.

The six, or hopefully seven, remaining fixtures still offer the likelihood of a fourth place finish in addition to lifting the famous old trophy. Would we have taken that after the Villa debacle on the opening day of the season? Some most certainly would have. Unfortunately though that now has to be considered against the knowledge that we were top of the Premiership at the turn of the year and an expectation was created that we would be in contention for the title to the season’s end.

What has followed is made worse by the memory of the way we closed out last season with eight wins and two draws. Our last nine Premier League matches, starting with the spineless collapse at Anfield, have yielded just two wins. Yes, we are unfortunate to have lost the likes of Laurent Koscielny, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, and Theo Walcott at the same time, but the squad players we have are experienced internationals. It is astonishing the degree to which a seriously talented midfield has fallen out of any semblance of form.

All of which means more and more have come to question the manager’s position. That isn’t a crime, as long as you aren’t adding to the mindless bile that has been flung in his direction from the hard of thinking. I get that fourth place and the FA Cup will satisfy his strongest supporters. Equally I understand those who are now voicing concerns and suggesting that a Cup triumph might be a fitting way for the great man to bow out. Clearly anything else would increase the pressure on him to consider his options carefully.

Through the years of famine most who read this blog stayed four-square behind Arsene as he kept us in the Champions League, something I often argued as the minimum requirement. One of ours has championed the ‘are we the best we can be’ given our resources for some years now, and this season was the one in which clearly greater funds were made available to the manager for squad building. For us once again to be scrambling for fourth place is a disappointment given where we were in January.

Watching Olivier Giroud (thirteen Premier League goals this season, the same as Lukaku who many are praising to the heavens) struggling for form and confidence whilst falling victim to the boo boys only highlights the lack of striking options we have. For this to be the case having gone through two transfer windows and adding only the raw Yaya Sanogo is, for me, a long way from being ‘the best we can be’ with the resources available. I know we cannot compete with the financially doped in West London or in the city of Manchester but that is an unrelated point. We have the funds available to have signed some real quality and have failed to do so.

I take no pleasure from admitting for the first time that Arsene’s position is seriously under question. An FA Cup and a couple of stellar signings in the summer might sway many back behind the man who deserves enormous credit and respect for what he did for so long. Perhaps Arsene is a victim of his own influence. Revolutionary when he arrived, now though his methods have been copied by those with whom he is in competition. Time has moved on, and perhaps it is time for another vibrant young manager to be given his chance?

It seems likely that Arsene will choose the time of his going. The current board remain supportive and not without reason. A win next Saturday will buy him time and provide a lift for both club and support. Anything else, and it will be sad to see him suffer yet more vilification. Bow out with a bang, Arsene. Nobody in the game deserves it more.

So Goodison Park on a Sunday afternoon was always going to be the sternest test of our final six fixtures, but for a different reason. Instead of being a test of our title credentials it has now become an important game in terms of Champions League qualification. Everton, four points behind, but with a game in hand, need a result as their run-in looks much tougher than ours, on paper at least.

The team news is a mixed bag, as ever. Aaron Ramsey, surely a contender for footballer of the year had he stayed fit, is back in the squad. Surely he will make the bench at best, but his return is more than welcome. Nacho Monreal also returns, which is timely given that Kieran Gibbs is a doubt.

Everton too have their injury problems, with Jagielka and Pienaar among those ruled out. They haven’t beaten us in fourteen meetings, so at least we have that in our favour. There is, however, a feeling on Merseyside that the bluenoses have made great strides under Roberto Martinez and European football next season would be a just reward for their efforts.

I am guessing that Monreal for Gibbs will be the only change from the team that battled so hard for a point against Manchester City. That side certainly earned another opportunity to gain a result in a key fixture. Victory for the visitors wouldn’t secure fourth place mathematically, but it would be a big step towards that, and indeed keep us just about in the hunt for a top three berth and automatic Champions League qualification.

The ‘holic pound seeks some value and I am staggered at the 25/1 on offer against a 1-3 away win. It says a lot about how the bookies view our chances. A 1-1 draw and Everton winning 1-0 or 2-1 are the shortest odds. If we can find a little bit of our early season form we could just do it so I am putting the pound, and not much more, on that impressive away win. It would complete a profitable weekend on Merseyside, given I had the winner of the Grand National in the works sweepstake.

Apologies for the brevity of the preview. I am on a notoriously slow wireless connection in a Reading hotel where I will be watching the action tomorrow lunchtime. The report may not appear until I get home on Monday. I hope you have enjoyed (or are enjoying) your Saturday, and the results on Sunday go in our favour.

Have a good one, ‘holics.

Regulars will be familiar with the wit and passion that Trev brings to the comments, or ‘drinks’, that follow each piece. They will also know that Trev is currently recovering from painful knee surgery that, somewhat ironically, has enabled him to write a piece about the possible reasons for the injury situation that causes all manner of ill-informed comment on social media sites. I will let Trev introduce himself, and his thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to put this together for us Trev, and we all hope your own recovery picks up apace.

I have run my own Sports Physiotherapy practice for 24 years, having trained under a tutor from the National Centre for Sports Injuries, in the diagnosis and treatment of muscular-skeletal injuries and conditions. Treatment consists of a range of manipulative soft tissue techniques and osteopathic manipulation.

Like most Arsenal fans, I find our continuing injury situation frustrating, not to say infuriating. Unfortunately, I fear some of our woes may be of our “own making”. Here are a few thoughts…

So why do Arsenal get so many injuries ?

The first part of this piece sets out some of the anatomical and physiological basics which underlie the possible answers. Stick with it if you can. I sincerely hope you think it was worth it by the end – should anyone make it that far !

Whether an Arsenal footballer, a little old lady, an all-in wrestler, or a blog writer, there are some physiological truths that apply to each and every one of us. The one at the root of this article concerns muscle function.

In the human body, the muscular system does a few things, some of which may not be immediately apparent. For example, the muscles store the ingredients required to generate medium term energy – that is to say, while the sugars needed to fuel a 100m sprint are all in the blood stream, the 1500m runner will derive their energy from the muscle stores, and the marathon runner will eventually burn up fat reserves.

The muscles also create a pumping system which cleans the body of the waste, such as acid and oxidant, created by generating energy. Most obviously, the muscles generate the forces which move the body around, and slightly less obviously, the forces which prevent it from moving too.

To explain that last point – whenever an injury occurs in the body, be it bone or joint damage, trauma, bruising, strain or inflammation, the muscles around the injury site go into a protective contraction – ‘if it can’t move, it can’t incur any further damage’ is the theory. This protective contraction reflex, or spasm, also kicks in whenever a joint is stressed to more than 70% of it’s flexibility or strength limits.

That contraction may resolve itself as the injury state improves – sometimes it does not. There are ways of “kidding” the body’s nervous system into releasing the protective contraction, and it is important that this is ensured as the body returns to health, otherwise continued contraction and compensation for injuries can result in postural changes.

The body will try to accommodate imbalances as far as possible which, over time, can lead to changes in many parts of the body. Eventually, something has to give but detecting and correcting all the affected parts can be a difficult and lengthy process.

None of that is peculiar to Arsenal Football Club, but the more injuries a player suffers the more complex the problem becomes. And it is our young players that seem to be more injured than most.

I believe that is because Arsenal players tend to have been  promoted to first team level at a younger age than at most other clubs. Connective tissue – the tendons and ligaments that give stability to joints – does not mature and harden in young males until the age of around 21.  Arsenal’s style has been based on ball retention, committing and unbalancing opponents, thus inviting challenges and moving at high speed. All this results in higher risk of catching, tearing and twisting injuries, sometimes, in Arsenal’s case, to 16-20 year olds.

Once that connective tissue is damaged as a teenager, it is very hard to get a perfect repair. Any resulting instability, damage or trauma  in a joint will result in the soft tissues reflexively contracting to immobilise and protect the joint. Contracting  muscles, operating at a shortened length, are more likely to suffer further tears or strains.

The Arsene Wenger model of recent years has tended to be to use leaner players for their quickness and agility, and we have had a lot of smaller, shorter players who rely on technique and passing rather than the more mature power runners of his earlier years at Arsenal, when we didn’t seem to suffer these injury pile-ups.

When we played Chelsea a few seasons ago, compared to their players, we were on average several inches shorter and many pounds lighter. Arsenal players have, therefore, been under more physical strain just to try to compete. Over 90 minutes of top level football the body could well be into fat burning for energy conversion as muscle supplies run out. As our players are so lean, they could struggle for energy from fat sources which will result in fatigue and possible injury.

Our injuries seemed to lessen once we began to recruit older players, and while we have had serial offenders like TV5, TR7,  and a mystery situation this season with Lukas Podolski, most of our current crop has been to those immature, younger players like The Ox, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Ryo Myaichi, and now Aaron Ramsey who is struggling to recover from a thigh strain, and the still young Yaya Sanogo who arrived with a bad injury record that is continuing.

Abou Diaby’s situation is a bit of a freak but he has clearly never properly healed, van Persie only had an injury free season when he was 27-28 yrs old, and Kieran Gibbs has only recently been less plagued by injury as he has matured, but even he is now struggling again as the season lengthens out.

Compare those players to Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny, Arshavin, Olivier Giroud and the signings of Wenger’s earlier years who joined at an older age and have been relatively injury free.

What causes consternation among many fans is the now customary “3 week” syndrome. The club probably does not want to let rivals know exactly what the injury situation is, but fans would clearly like to.

Podolski, for example, was forecast to be out for  ” 21 days” immediately after the game – “6-8 weeks” by the following morning, which had become 13 weeks by the end of November with another “3 weeks” to go. Apparently his hamstrings had virtually shredded themselves, but supporters were not told what the problem really was. That  is very frustrating for supporters, but it is the club’s decision to handle the situation that way.

The latest situation with Kim Kallstrom will not have helped to dampen fans’ angst, although it may have been a ‘business’ decision to take him, which Arsene has subsequently explained.

The Aaron Ramsey thigh strain is the latest mystery and, personally, I am struggling to see how a lad leaves the pitch looking relatively comfortable at Christmas and is struggling to be back for a late Easter.

However, rather than simply incompetence, it is more likely that Arsenal’s playing style of close control and ball retention, coupled with the employment of a lot of young, relatively small, super lean players is what tends to result in these clusters of  injuries.

Greater maturity, bigger physique and more powerful players seem to be the answer to more than just the fitness problem that we have in the Premier League.

Does that mean Arsenal should recruit an army of Stoke type giants ? Most definitely not.

But finding players who can combine the physical and technical requirements of Arsene Wenger’s style of football is a very hard task.

Grateful thanks to Takeabowson for stepping into the breach at short notice, particularly as it dawned on him he might be commenting on a proper hiding. Fortunately that didn’t transpire. Thanks TaBS for helping out again.

“Bit busy tomorrow mate. Do you fancy writing this one up?” asked the Guvnor over the pre-match pints.

Rueful grins were exchanged. The prognosis amongst the conoscenti for a successful afternoon was that it would take a significant realignment of the stars for Arsenal to take anything from a City side fresh from emphasising their local hegemony in Manchester with some style. I hesitated. Writing this one up looked to be something of a poisoned chalice, and having vented my spleen somewhat after the anaemic and one-paced display against Swansea, I could only do “Desolation” once in any given week.

“There’s a pint of lager in it for you if you do …”

Well there’s an offer that I usually (always) find difficult to refuse. The deal was duly sealed with fingers firmly crossed.

As team news filtered in, it became clear that Arsene had resisted any urge to make what limited changes his injury-ravaged squad afforded. Sanogo, Kallstrom and Gnabry all remained on the bench, with Podolski for Oxlade-Chamberlain the only change to the starting eleven that had looked so flat against Swansea. The message was clear – We go with what we have, with Arsene’s renowned faith in his players once again to the fore. There were, however, two significant changes to how the team set up, if not to personnel. Cazorla was restored to a more central role whilst the more mobile Flamini rather than the ailing Arteta was given licence to play the slightly more advanced role of the double pivot. Both decisions would yield dividends.

Initial impressions appeared to bear out pre-match concerns. City dominated possession in the opening quarter of the game and knocked the ball around with a swagger and a confidence that has been so sorely lacking from our game in recent weeks. Twice they were able to make significant inroads down Arsenal’s left in the early stages, and when Podolski was carelessly caught in possession on the quarter hour mark, their goal duly arrived, care of two passes and a helpful riccochet from the post. 1-0 down then, and at that stage it looked like it might be another long afternoon.

This was the moment of reckoning. Would the goal provoke another implosion of confidence that we have become used to watching when Arsenal are up against title challengers? Not a bit of it. Roared on by a nervous yet defiant home crowd, Arsenal began to feel their way into the game. With our big German effectively marshalling the troops at the back we remained solid and cohesive, and that sense of solidity began to spread throughout the whole side. Though genuine openings remained scarce there was a willingness on the part of the boys in red to mix it, to go toe to toe, to compete, and to show that they would not be lambs to an oil-funded slaughter. This was to be no abject surrender. Half time arrived with the score still at 1-0, but there had been enough to suggest that hopes of a comeback were not merely the preserve of the fanciful.

A Podolski cross had had the City rearguard panicking. Rosicky, injecting drive and momentum at every opportunity had taken a tumble in the area, and whilst Dean was probably correct in his assessment that he had gone looking for the outstretched leg, I’ve seen ‘em given. Flamini had had the ball in the back of the net, the linesman’s flag cutting short the premature celebrations. Still behind then, but City knew they were in a game.

Two crucial minutes in the second half changed the game. Sczcz spilled a cross and the ball thankfully rolled just wide of the post. A second City goal at that stage would surely have put the game to bed. Having used up a life, Arsenal seized the momentum. First Cazorla, back to his very best, stung Hart’s hands with a fizzer and then with Arsenal keeping City firmly on the backfoot with a fine passage of one touch passing we got our reward, Podolski’s cross swept in with some aplomb by Flamini. His celebration said it all. Enough is enough. The frustrations of the last week were to be banished.

The goal  was more evidence of that old adage that goals change more than the scoreline. Belief flooded through the side and it was Arsenal who looked the more likely side to go on and win. It was crucial that we scored again whilst on to top. The opportunity duly arrived. Cazorla played Podolski in but his shot found the inside leg of the fortuitous Hart and went the wrong side of the the post. It was to be the closest we came in the remaining half  hour of a thoroughly absorbing contest to turning one point into three.

Back in the Pub, the mood was in stark contrast to the one that had followed the draw on Tuesday. It has been a while since a home draw has been greeted like a win, and though there was a little frustration that we hadn’t managed to turn such a full hearted display into victory, the performance was such that it will hopefully give succour for the rest of the Season.

Reasons to be cheerful then? Certainly. Will parts two and three follow as we head into season-defining games at Goodison Park and Wembley? No idea. Time to buckle up and keep singing Gooners.

Slainte.

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