Unsung Hero: Alex Manninger

When memories of the double winning Arsenal side of 1997/98 are recalled, the mind often jumps to the obvious heroes: the famous back five (or six, even) of David Seaman, Nigel Winterburn, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Lee Dixon, with Martin Keown in the supporting cast; the brilliant midfield pairing of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars’s extraordinary pace down the wings and, of course, the PFA and Football Writers’ Player of the Year, God himself, Dennis Bergkamp.

 

Though a particular component of the back five spent a significant proportion of the season on the sidelines. An injury to a goalkeeper is unlike an injury in any other position. I wrote about the difficulty of the role of substitute keeper in this, coming to the judgement that the best types of player suited to the job were younger players, eager to prove themselves (wherein there is a prominent risk) or older, more experienced ‘keepers, who are experienced enough to be assured when thrown into games with little warning. At this point in the 97/98 season, Arsenal were in the running for the league title (or more accurately, were ‘in the chasing’), despite being significantly behind league leaders Manchester United when Seaman got injured. Enter 20-year old Alex Manninger. To step in for the goalkeeper who is arguably Arsenal’s greatest would have been a terrifying task for most ‘keepers. Manninger, however, saw it as his chance to build a reputation; it was a chance he seized.

 

The Austrian’s first league game would be against Southampton at the end of January 1998, while the team had not kept a clean sheet since the start of December. As is customary for a second choice ‘keeper, he had a heart-in-mouth moment as he miscontrolled a Steven Hughes backpass, almost allowing David Hirst to give the visitors an early lead, but the tight angle left the Saints’ forward unable to finish. He was far more assured when next called upon, producing an excellent save to block a Matt Oakley volley and later strongly saving an attempted chip by Matt Le Tissier. Three second half goals from Bergkamp, Adams and Nicolas Anelka saw Arsenal to a comfortable 3-0 win. A promising début for him, but by no means a particularly notable one.

 

His next game was a 2-0 win over Chelsea, in which he had little to do. The next, another largely uneventful win, this time a 1-0 against Crystal Palace, was illuminated by another acrobatic save from Mannninger, from a long distance shot by Simon Rodger. Next up, a trip to the Boleyn Ground; a place where Arsenal have long had a tendency to, let’s say, ‘Arsenal’ things up a bit. With no Bergkamp or Ian Wright, attacking force was lacking. Arsenal’s own lack of goals could have seen them leave East London with no points, rather than the one with which they emerged, were it not for Manninger’s efforts. He made two more outstanding saves, one from a long range Eyal Berkovic strike, the other a fantastic recovery stop from John Hartson after the Welshman had managed to round him. Four league games; four league clean sheets.

 

He conceded his first Arsenal goal in the FA Cup, a week later, to West Ham, as the game ended 1-1, forcing a replay at the Boleyn Ground, which would come 9 days later. But in that period were two games that would arguably amplify or destroy any chance Arsenal had to win their first league title since 1989. First up were Wimbledon, a game which had been rearranged due to floodlight failure in the first sitting in December. Again Manninger played the role of hero, as Arsenal withstood a second half onslaught to hold on for a classic ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’-style win. Next was the big one. The one that were Sky Sports in existence in their current format back then, would receive similar hype to the recent (disappointing as anything) Manchester derby did. A win would put Arsenal only six points behind United, but crucially, with three games in hand. A win, for the first time all season, would put Arsenal in control of their fate.

 

The game was to be Arsene Wenger’s Waterloo. Manninger himself needed pain-killing injections to be able to play, but performed incredibly well. His game was typified by, among numerous caught crosses, his two one-on-one saves from Terry Sheddingham (or ‘Teddy Sherringham’ to those unfamiliar with the Football Ramble) and Andy Cole. For his own effort, Sheringham picked up the loose ball after Cole had been tackled by Keown. With space, although admittedly on his weaker left foot, he struck his shot towards Manninger’s near post; he did well to save it, but the real merit of the stop was that he forced it out to the barren right-hand side of the box, nullifying the threat of a potential rebound. The save from Cole was far more difficult and impressive. After catching the ball from an Arsenal corner, Peter Schmeichel launched a long ball towards Cole. The United centre forward stood behind the centre circle and was hence offside, but this was missed by the linesman. He sped towards the Arsenal goal, with Adams sprinting behind him. The presence of the Arsenal captain forced him wide and, like Sheringham, onto his weaker left foot. His offering was a low, hard drive at Manninger, which was brilliantly turned over the crossbar. The score remained at 0-0, and would continue to do so until Adams’ long ball was flicked on by the head of Bergkamp, and then the head of Anelka, releasing Marc Overmars to score the goal that would win it. A monumental win and a sixth straight clean sheet for Alex Manninger.

 

Quite aside from the league, there was now the matter of that FA Cup quarter final replay against West Ham. Dennis Bergkamp’s early red card meant that Arsenal would be with missing their best player and primary creator for not only the rest of this game, but the next three ahead. In spite of this, Anelka managed to grab a goal just before half time, giving the leaders an important lead. This, like the wins that preceded it, would have to be one of the ‘ground out’ variety. Manninger made two quite marvellous saves from John Hartson efforts and a wonderful reaction stop from a Stan Lazaridis header. The breakthrough eventually came from the Hartson, following a mistake by Dixon, and the game would now go to extra time. Here, Manninger made more fine saves Lee Hodges, Berkovic and John Moncur. Arsenal failed to re-establish a lead. Arsenal’s second penalty shootout of the season was awaiting them (the first coming in the third round against Port Vale). In the second round of attempts, Christopher Wreh started by missing completely, but was spared any great ignominy by Manniger managing to get the slightest of touches on West Ham’s next taker Hartson’s penalty, forcing it against the post. The third set of takers both scored. Rémi Garde blasted his own high over the bar. Arsenal needed Berkovic not to score if they were to remain level. And Manninger saved them again. He flew to his right and pushed it away, keeping Arsenal level. Now it was sudden death. The fifth set of takers scored. Tony Adams then scored his own scuffed effort. All the pressure lay on Samassi Abou, who struck his penalty against the post. Manninger’s heroics had sent Arsenal to the semi finals.

 

This was to be Manninger’s last notable contribution of the season. He featured in the two final, meaningless league losses against Liverpool and Aston Villa, at which point the league title had already been secured. Manninger never got another real run in the Arsenal team again and left on loan for Fiorentina at the start of the next double winning campaign of 2001/02, leaving permanently for Espanol the next summer. Since then he has lived the life of a substitute goalkeeper. Where so many other unsung heroes’ contributions have been noticed and subsequently sung, Manninger remains generally forgotten by most. 97/98 – quite rightly – is remembered as Dennis Bergkamp’s year – or as the great swansong of the famous back five, but with that in mind, it is easy to forget what that season could have become without that extraordinary set of performances from Alex Manninger.


Why Tottenham Failed

 A brief note – these are screenshots from a thread of messages on Facebook and I’m only including them to disassociate from this article in The Telegraph, not as an attempt to show off about predicting Spurs’ collapse. You just need to see the archives from the old blog to see I have predicted plenty wrong over the course of this year (Bolton for 7th place and Swansea to be relegated are particularly embarrassing ones, with hindsight), but I wanted to assert that these have been my thoughts through the whole season, I’m not just borrowing the thoughts of Jeremy Wilson!

 

Failure, in itself, is subjective. One man or team’s failure can be another’s idea of success. If you were to ask anyone connected with Spurs at the start of the season what they would have considered to be a ‘successful season’ the vast majority will have replied ‘finishing in the top four’. In the end, finishing fourth was a failure, even before they had any chance of Champions League football taken from them by Chelsea’s win over Bayern Munich. At one point in the season, they were in third place, with a gap of 13 points between them and fourth place Arsenal. They finished fourth, a point behind them.

 

The brunt, if not all, of the blame for their collapse must rest with Harry Redknapp. He was the one who completely failed to keep Spurs’ collective feet on the ground. While they were flying high in January, he ran with the press’ line of their being title contenders; he believed the hype, and the squad followed suit. In what is by far his biggest job in his time in management, he showed his own inexperience, which only exacerbated the problem of his squad’s inexperience. In promoting them as potential champions, he gave the squad the idea that they were of similar quality to the Manchester clubs and so were far above the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea behind them. The subsequent games against City, Arsenal and United rendered no points, which had calamitous effects on the morale of the squad. Would they have been similarly damaging if the squad still believed their sole objective was to finish in the top four? The likelihood is no. Those losses destroyed their unrealistic title ambitions and so deflated their rising hot air balloon of belief. But after the loss at the Emirates, their lead was cut to 7 points – still a significant margin. They mustered just one win in their next eight league games, allowing a rejuvenated Arsenal to not only close the gap, but to leap up into third place, which they managed to hold on to for the rest of the season. In spite of the loss at the Emirates, if they still only expected a top four finish (or top three, considering their position at the time), they would probably not have collapsed as they did, and the fault for that must lie with Redknapp.

 

As well as his mistakes in what it supposedly his strong suit – his man management – he made just as many errors in his ‘weak area’ of tactics. He barely rotated his squad through the first half of the season and the resulting injuries in the second half of the season came as no surprise to anyone. The lack of rotation led to players like Michael Dawson (before his injury), Niko Kranjcar and  Jermain Defoe, as well as Roman Pavlyuchenko and Vedran Corluka (until their departures) and becoming unhappy with their lack of playing time, creating a disharmony within the squad. This was quite easily brushed aside when their form was good, but as it began to falter, this was one of the issues that contributed to the collapse. Upon Aaron Lennon’s injury, rather than play Kranjcar on the right hand side, at which he is perfectly adept, he chose to stick him in his stronger position on the left hand side, moving Gareth Bale to the right, thus diminishing the threat of his most threatening player. Then he tried Bale through the centre when Rafael van der Vaart picked up an injury. Bale showed all the signs of a player believing his own press, playing as if he believed he had the ability of Lionel Messi and the mentality of Cristiano Ronaldo. Redknapp again failed to keep a lid on his players’ self-perception, as well as failing tactically. In terms of the transfer market, where it was plain for all to see that Spurs needed strengthening up front, he chose to bring in Louis Saha, who had scored one league goal in eighteen months before joining them and Ryan Nelsen, whose various injuries meant that he had played just one game through the season. The term ‘panic buying’ does not seem to extend far enough. With Saha’s arrival, he decided to alter the 4-2-3-1 formation that had served him well to a 4-4-2, incorporating Saha and Adebayor and compensating for the missing van der Vaart. After their defeat at home to Norwich, Redknapp chose to blame the fans, claiming that they had pressured him into switching from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. Then after the season’s end, he chose to blame the players; although in the past he had led many of us to believe that the chairman dealt with all that.

 

Some have chosen to attribute their collapse to the persistent rumours about Harry Redknapp taking over from Fabio Capello after the Italian resigned from the post of England manager. With this, they conveniently ignore that when the rumours were at their peak, in the week immediately following Capello’s departure, they produced arguably their best performance of the season, soundly thrashing Newcastle 5-0. While the talk remained in the following weeks, it was by no means as prominent as it had been before their game against Alan Pardew’s side. What it did give the team was an excuse, so the manager and players could be exempt from blame. Their collapse began when they lost 5-2 at the Emirates, handing the momentum back to their North London neighbours. Here, it was their inexperience that saw them lose their way. They panicked and fell apart and continued in that vein, but there was little connection with the fear of Redknapp leaving.

And it would be unfair to place all the on-pitch blame for their slump on Emmanuel Adebayor – all the players must share a portion of the blame, but anyone who has watched Adebayor will know that his moves always follow the same trajectory. There’s always an excellent six month spell, and then mediocrity. This has been evident to any who have followed him. The fact that no one at Spurs saw fit to take this into account is quite frankly baffling, especially as his importance became evident during their early run of form. He scored only four goals between March and May – two against Swansea and two against Bolton. They were games in which wins were needed, but at the true ‘crunch time’, he was conspicuous only for his absence.

 

Redknapp must be held largely at fault, but if one is to play the blame game, the players must also be accountable. Redknapp’s clear lack of trust in those outside his preferred first eleven hit the confidence of those fringe players, while his own tactical forays only strengthened the argument that tactics are no forté of his. Their failure was purely circumstantial, but they ran the risk of missing the Champions League despite finishing fourth when it became clear that Chelsea were in with a shot of winning it and when handed the most golden of opportunities to re-overtake Arsenal with only one game remaining, but threw it away with a draw at being terrible’s poster boys Aston Villa. Now, with the players’ egos suitably inflated, they want Champions League football or, in the cases of van der Vaart and Adebayor, they want it back. They risk an exodus this summer, and it was one which could so easily have been avoided.


The End of the Terror and the Start of the New Napoleonic Era

It is difficult to forget France’s now infamous 2010 World Cup. Many words can be used to describe it: shambolic, disastrous, disgraceful and egregious are a few that spring to mind. Even with their 2006 World Cup, in which they reached the final, in mind, the Raymond Domenech era is one better forgotten than remembered for the French. After that winless, mutinous tournament, the captain of their World Cup winning team of 1998 was given the chance to lead his nation to further glory, as coach.

 

Although things did not start as rosily as they had hoped and expected for Laurent Blanc. As a means of punishment for their actions in South Africa, every member of the 23 man squad who attended the tournament were banned for one game (or more for the more notable offenders), which was to be Blanc’s first, a friendly against Norway. In spite of the fact that even with 23 of the better players missing, they were still comfortably able to put out a respectable side, they fell to a 2-1 loss. And while 18 of those 23 were available for their next match, which was the start of their EURO 2012 qualification campaign, another, more embarrassing loss came, this time at home to Belarus. Where it had seemed that Domenech was the cause of all the problems, perhaps this had not been the case.

 

But since that match, which came on 3rd September 2010, France have not lost a game, in competitive or friendly capacities. They restarted with a win against Bosnia-Herzegovina and while a side with the ability of France’s should not be finding teams outside of the world’s top 10 too difficult, a young and very talented Bosnia side, who were playing at home, would have fancied their chances against a team who had not registered a competitive win since November 2009 (the first leg of the notorious play-off with Ireland). France came through as ordinarily they would, in a rather unremarkable 2-0 win, but, at risk of cliché, it started their regeneration. They would pick up two further 2-0 wins in the qualifiers against Romania and Luxembourg, but greater tests lay ahead in their approaching friendlies, with the challenges of England and, more potently, Brazil facing them.

 

They did not so much come through unscathed as they did glowing, or as much as one can glow from the effect of victories in friendlies. France looked supreme in the game with England, dominating possession and making an admittedly rather experimental England look rather foolish in a 2-1 win, which did not reflect the ease of the visitors’ victory. Brazil were to provide a far stronger opposition, but they too would be beaten, as a Karim Benzema goal gave them a deserved 1-0 win.

 

As they gained momentum, it was clear to see that the team was changing from the one of which Laurent Blanc had initially taken charge. Two players who had been shunned from the squad by Domenech – Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema – were apparently benefiting from their extended summer break and both having excellent seasons for Arsenal and Real Madrid respectively, while another who was snubbed by the astrology fan was Philippe Mexes, who had also begun to force his way back into the national setup. Meanwhile, a core of new players had begun to emerge, as they always have done for France. The likes of Laurent Koscielny, Adil Rami, Yohan Cabaye, Yann M’Vila and Jérémy Ménez were now emerging as viable national team players, and others would follow suit. There was a spine of extraordinary talent starting to form for France and it remained relatively youthful, with all the aforementioned players being under 25 and many others of a similar age were growing in stature and ability.

 

Draws with Belarus, Romania and Bosnia-Herzegovina were the only hiccups in the remainder of their qualification, which saw them finish top of their group. By the time this had happened, the 2011/12 season was very much underway, and new candidates for places presented themselves, and many of those who had done so earlier only strengthened their arguments for earning a spot. Mathieu Valbuena, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Olivier Giroud had all started the season very well for their clubs, as had Hatem Ben Arfa, which softened the fears created by Samir Nasri’s new-found role on the Manchester City bench and Yoann Gourcuff’s being secretly replaced by his considerably less talented twin brother.

 

There was another difficult task ahead of them in the form of a friendly, this time against my (and many others’) tip to win the EUROs, Germany. A lineup which featured Débuchy, M’Vila, Cabaye, Nasri, Valbuena and Giroud won 2-1 in an extremely convincing fashion against a Philip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger-less Germany. Their next friendly would, against Iceland, be the first in preparation for the finals and was a chance for many players to prove they were worthy of making the final squad of 23. Though it seemed some had forgotten this when they were 2-0 down after half an hour, looking defensively atrocious (especially Patrice Evra), prompting many a comment that the two players to emerge with most credit from France’s first half were Laurent Koscielny and Gael Clichy.

 

After the break France had a renewed vigour and intensity, which soon paid off when Débuchy bundled the ball in after it fell to him at the far post. The two substitutes who made an outstanding impact were Franck Ribery and Giroud, who exchanged a glorious one-two to create the equaliser. Sprinting inside from the left, Ribery gave the Montpellier forward the ball, and he returned in a deft, nonchalant chip back to the Bayern Munich winger, who finished coolly. The third came from a lobbed ball to Giroud from Mexes, which he knocked back down while running in the opposite direction, straight into Rami’s path, who finished precisely to give France the win, extending their run of unbeaten games to 19 games.

 

To a degree, the game exposed their defensive frailties, but Koscielny, Clichy and M’Vila will be given their chances to impress on Thursday, in their friendly against Serbia, by which time the full 23-man squad will be announced. They are by no means favourites and have not been dealt a particularly easy group. If Roy Hodgson manages to successfully implement the tactics he wants to with England they will be frustrating for France, and Sweden and Ukraine will be difficult for them to beat. But with the ability within the squad and the momentum they are carrying with them, they have the potential to slip beneath the mainstream radar and surprise many who still remember the shambles of 2010 and associate them with the completely different outfit whom they will meet.


A Season of Growth or a Season of Recession?

It is often said that the stats never tell the full story. On the face of it, who can question whether Arsenal have improved or declined since the last season? The final standings of the 2010/11 season saw Arsenal with 68 points, having acquired 19 wins over the season’s course with 72 goals scored; for the next season, 70 points were earned, with thanks to 20 wins, with 74 goals scored and most crucially, a place higher in the league table, moving from 4th to 3rd.

 

But going into the 11/12 season, Arsenal had lost their captain and best player, Cesc Fabregas, as well as the man groomed to replace him, Samir Nasri, in arguably the most important position on the pitch for Arsenal’s style. They conceded 6 more goals (43 in 10/11, 49 in 11/12) and lost 10 games, compared to 8 in the previous year, but drew fewer. The Arsenal of 10/11 very much fitted the Arsenal stereotype. They were young, talented and fragile. They seemed to be incapable of holding onto a lead, dropping 11 points from winning positions while they strove so weakly for the title, dropping two-goal leads on two separate occasions to Tottenham and somehow conspiring not to win against Newcastle when being 4-0 up and against Liverpool when they had gone ahead in the 98th minute. They were lacking in Arsene Wenger’s favourite term – ‘mental strength’. While they were meant to be in the running for the league title, after their catastrophic Carling Cup final loss against Birmingham, they managed just 3 wins in 16. Their season’s end was so poor they managed to slip from comfortable second to just-about-fourth.

 

Here lies the difference between the teams of 10/11 and 11/12. Where the former side regained just 7 points from losing positions all season, the latter managed to recover a staggering 24. Despite their horrendous start (worst in 58 years, in case the media hadn’t told you enough), they recovered, and put together a run between October and December in which they won 25 points from a potential 30, before the ‘second crisis’ took hold. This was the result of an overworked midfield, which was understaffed with the long term absences of Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby adding to the burden of losing Fabregas and Nasri, with only Mikel Arteta coming in for that position, whose absence was the catalyst for this mid-season slump. On top of this, and perhaps more prevalently, almost every single fullback option they had was injured, though this was not the fault of squad depth, as one cannot reasonably account for their first, second and third choice fullbacks all being injured at one time. Even losses in February to Milan in the Champions League and Sunderland in the FA Cup – all but destroying their only chances to end their silverware drought – did not send the team into another period of poor form. Flanking these losses were wins against Sunderland in the league and the then high flying Spurs (flying too close to the sun, one might say). This was the middle of a run of seven consecutive wins, which featured the aforementioned difficult clashes with Sunderland and Spurs, as well as late wins away at Liverpool and at home to Newcastle. The ability to put together this kind of run was something which so potently missing from the previous year’s team and, with the aforementioned 25 of 30 run from October to December, this string of results (between Blackburn in February and Manchester City in April), Arsenal picked up 27 points from 30, slipping up only at QPR. While the tendency remained to throw away silly points, they were a team which was more akin to a classic Arsene Wenger Arsenal team. The best example of this is the 1997/98 season, wherein they were 12 points behind Manchester United at one point yet managed to win the league. This building of a siege mentality has been very poignantly missing from Arsenal in recent years, but with a more experienced group of players, it seemed as though this had become present again.

 

Where they had held realistic dreams of the league title in 10/11, suggesting this at almost any moment in 11/12 season would have seen you laughed out of town. 4th was the cause of much anger and bitterness on the part of the fans, as anything below 1st would have been, while the next year, 3rd was treated with glee and relief. This was because the perception was that Arsenal had receded as a club and while they had a higher points total and league position, they finished 19 points behind the top two. Their 11/12 total of 70 points would still have seen them finish 4th in 10/11, and their defence – with valid excuses, admittedly – was far worse in 11/12.

 

It would be wrong to argue that Arsenal’s team of 11/12 was better, player-for-player – any team who loses Cesc Fabregas will be considerably weaker for it (unless they have the option of replacing him with Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta) and the loss of Nasri was also a major blow, meaning the team and squad are individually weaker. However, they appear to posses a unity and collective strength which has been absent from teams of recent seasons. Despite their higher number of points and wins, they were far further away from the top two teams.

 

But this season, rather than ruin Arsenal for the years ahead, as it threatened to at the start, has perhaps been the marker of a slight change for the club. The foundation of a team who ‘knows how to win’ is there, where it has not been going into other seasons. It has been a season of consolidation, but with the platform prepared, a good summer could see them make significant strides very quickly. If the team’s weaknesses are addressed, there is nothing to say they cannot start challenging for the title again next year. This season itself has been one of regression, but their maintenance of stability in status in this season could propel them to even greater heights in the years ahead.


The Arsenal End of Season Awards – AKA ‘The Persies’

Best Player: the easiest category by a considerable distance; who else but Robin van Persie? Handed the captain’s armband after Cesc Fabregas’s departure, he rose to the task of leading a team in dire straits back to the Champions League places after its worse start in 58 years admirably, with 37 goals in 48 games. The irritating stat going round about Arsenal’s would-be position without him just shows how important he has been this season. In what is really his first full season, not being hampered by injuries as he has so often been in the past, he has evolved as a goalscorer and has become possibly the best and most complete striker in the world, and, growing into an outstanding leader both on and off the pitch. A fantastic season for the Dutchman.

 

Worst Player: a tough choice, but it is a battle between Marouane Chamakh and Johan Djourou. The award probably goes to Djourou, on the grounds that he played a lot more, albeit out generally of position at right back. He had a very strong 2010/11 (its end notwithstanding), but failed to replicate those performances and his poor showings at Right Back exacerbated the fullback crisis; on top of this, his foolish and pointless dismissal at Fulham was the catalyst for the collapse, while his sub-par performance at centre back in the FA Cup against Sunderland was by no means helpful as they lost their last chance of ending their 7 year trophy drought.

 

Most Improved Player: Laurent Koscielny. For someone written off by many he has fully repaid Arsene Wenger’s faith in him. He has had an excellent year at the back for Arsenal and ended it with the league’s highest number of interceptions (91, average of 2.8 per game), ‘last man’ tackles (9) and tackles (85). If he builds on this season as he did on the last, he will soon get the recognition as one of Europe’s best centre backs.

 

Best Signing: Mikel Arteta. There was some surprise when Arsenal paid £10,000,000 for the 29 year old Spaniard, but he has been brilliant through the season. Playing as a deep-lying pivote, he had the highest number of completed passes in the league before his injury against Wigan, which ultimately ended his season. Until the final game against West Brom, they had won no games without him in the side, typifying his importance to the team. Metronomic, disciplined, managed to keep Alex Song mainly in check (quite the feat) and pivotal to Arsenal. Run close by Per Mertesacker, who was instrumental to the maintenance of order in the backline until his unfortunate injury on the potato field pitch at the Stadium of Light; an encouraging first season from the very, very, very tall German.

 

Worst Signing: perhaps it is a little harsh considering his minimal playing time, but it has to be Park Ju-Young. He looked lost in the League Cup game with Shrewsbury and although he scored with a very nice finish against Bolton, he spent most of the game offside, again looking hopeless, with Andrey Arshavin’s strong showing making him look a lot better than he actually was. Ineffectual against Marseille; another very poor game against Manchester City in the next round followed. From this point he would only feature again twice in the season: as a last minute, panic substitution when there really were no other options, against Manchester United and AC Milan. The manager has such little faith in him that he felt loaning in a 35 year old Thierry Henry was a better option than him, while Marouane Chamakh was at the Africa Cup of Nations. With performances this bad one wonders why Arsene Wenger bothered even buying the former South Korean captain; there are some theories suggesting he was a commercial signing, but if he was, this has backfired rather nastily, as Arsenal’s popularity appears to have nosedived in South Korea. Perhaps he was just a panic buy who did not work out? One thing is for sure: Arsenal fans will not be too happy if he stays at the club this summer.

 

Best Goal: a difficult one, as there have been some magnificent goals for Arsenal this season. Robin van Persie’s second against Chelsea springs to mind as a favourite, as do Thierry Henry’s against Leeds and Mikel Arteta’s against Manchester City, but in terms of quality, the following three take the plaudits:
3) Robin van Persie vs Tottenham: after falling 2-0 behind Arsenal needed something special to claw back not only the game, but their season. Bacary Sagna’s header had got them back to 2-1, but van Persie’s equaliser was of the Bergkamp levels of sublime. A poor clearance from Benoit Assou-Ekotto meant the Dutchman picked up the ball on the edge of the 18-yard box with his back to goal. With the ball sticking to his left foot, he turned, beating two players, evaded a tackle and curled it perfectly into the far corner.

 

2) Robin van Persie vs Liverpool: a game in which Arsenal were under the proverbial cosh for the majority, going 1-0 behind through a Laurent Koscielny own goal, but claiming an equaliser shortly after through their leading goalscorer. From then on, chances were relatively sparse for both teams, with Liverpool having the better of them. 8 minutes of added time were awarded after Jordan Henderson TOTALLY ACCIDENTALLY clashed with Mikel Arteta, causing a lengthy stoppage in play. In the third of the eight minutes, Alex Song had a few yards of space either side of him. He spotted van Persie lingering on the blind side of Jamie Carragher and lobbed a spectacular through ball towards him. Arsenal’s captain snuck behind him and with all the calmness of a man asleep on a memory foam mattress, side-footed the ball in at the near post, displaying sublime technical skill, and it was enhanced further by its being in the 93rd minute at Anfield.

 

1) Robin van Persie vs Everton: a clean sweep for the wondrous Dutchman in the ‘goal of the season’ category. On the day Arsenal celebrated their 125th anniversary, it was fitting that the final scoreline was 1-0 to the Arsenal. A drab much made memorable by one of the finest technical volleys seen in many years. Another Song chipped through ball, but this time van Persie was further back, on the 18-yard line. As the ball dropped over his shoulder, he timed his strike perfectly, and his the first time volley into the far corner of the goal, as Tim Howard stood helpless. In front of so many club legends, a goal worthy of the occasion.

 

Best Assist: there is clearly only one candidate for the award, but which one? He has had a few notable ones. The aforementioned Everton and Liverpool ones spring to mind, along with the pass for Thierry Henry’s return goal, but there is one standout – his sudden transformation into Lionel Messi for the first goal against Borussia Dortmund at home. He took the ball down the left wing, sprinting past two players and while Mats Hummels recovered and chased him down, he produced a marvellous piece of footwork to bamboozle him and Lukasz Piszczek before crossing the ball right onto van Persie’s head for Arsenal to take the lead. Wonderful piece of play.

 

Best Moment: there is only one option for this. 5 years after leaving, he returned and within 10 minutes of being re-introduced, he got his 227th goal. Thierry Henry’s returned transcended words and is a moment that will go down as one of the greatest in the modern history of the club. There is little more that can be said about it.

 

Worst Moment: the losses at Swansea, Milan and Manchester United were low points, but personally, I found the 2-1 home loss against United particularly grating; the way so many of the fans turned on the manager who has given them so much was shameful and reprehensible, on top of losing a game to a rival. Though it is trumped by the loss at Ewood Park. After the flurry of late signings and the win against Swansea, it seemed finally as though Arsenal’s fortunes were turning. Going 1-0 was encouraging, as was, following letting the lead slip, recovering and going 2-1 ahead. Then two avoidable own goals andanother goal from a set piece later, Arsenal were 4-2 down. Marouane Chamakh’s only goal of the season proved no saving grace. It was made all the more painful by the fact that it seemed their form had improved, and it was a downfall completely of their own making to plunge them further into the ‘crisis’ with which the media were so fixated.

 

Best Game: Arsenal 5-2 Tottenham. The recovery from the third or fourth crisis of the season. At 2-0 down, Spurs stood 13 points clear of Arsenal. Hopes and ambitions of 3rd and St. Totteringham’s Day were fading away, until Bacary Sagna’s header gave Arsenal a route back into the game. The goal from van Persie, Rosicky’s first goal in 50 league games and a brace from Theo Walcott, whose performance epitomised Arsenal’s turnaround. He had a shocking first half but grew with the game, eventually scoring the two goals which sealed the game and the humiliation of, as Sagna called them, “the enemy”, which eventually proved to be the catalyst for their hilarious collapse. A great day for Arsenal.

 

Biggest Tosser(s): the Stoke fans who booed Aaron Ramsey for having the nerve to have his leg broken by Ryan Shawcross deserve an honourable mention, but it has to be Samir Nasri. He left Arsenal for money, took on the role as benchwarmer, got a league winner’s medal by virtue of this and chose to rub it in fans’ faces, as well as making snide remarks all year back at them. Although credit to him, he does give as good as he gets with regard to stick from fans, but has made little effort to thank Arsenal and Arsene Wenger for making his move possible and making him the player he is today. The embodiment of ‘wastrel’.

 

Tweet of the year (The Andre Santos Award): Andre Santos’s glorious Twitter page could have an article of its own. Just last week, he managed to get ‘West Brow’ trending worldwide after incorrect naming of the Baggies, after just days before claiming that the team must be “well fit” to get a win at the Hawthorns. Which leads to the greatest tweet in Twitter’s history, again connected with West Brom. After the 3-0 win at home to West Brow Santos, in the early stages of learning English, Santos took to Twitter to announce “Verry good win gays!!!”, which gave him cult hero status among Arsenal fans on Twitter – who are a vast, vast group. His whole page is a sea of smiley faces and exclamation marks – he even has his name down as ‘André Santos!!!’. His seemingly permanent happiness makes it impossible not to like him and his unconventional ways.


Indesit Football Event

On 16th May 2012 I had the pleasure of attending the Indesit Football Tournament at the magnificent Emirates Stadium, among the esteemed company of Sian Macalarny, the GoonerholicRob Marrs and Dan Mobbs, among others.

 

Before the actual football started, we were congregated on the pitch, by the dugouts, when Dan and Adam took a football and despite not strictly being allowed, ran onto the empty pitch. I quickly followed, and here I opened my Emirates Stadium account; an account which was promptly closed a few minutes later. But still, I’m basking in the glow of scoring a rebound tap-in at the Emirates, after my attempt at a Panenka-esque chipped penalty was saved.

 

The four teams competing were Arsenal, managed by club legend Robert Pires (more on him later); Shakhtar Donetsk, managed by the brilliant Jean-Pierre Papin; Paris Saint-Germain, with Gianfranco Zola at the helm and AC Milan, who were being coached by former Milan forward Daniele Massaro. The first game was contested by the hosts and their visitors from Ukraine. The final score was 4-1 to Shakhtar, in a comprehensive victory, illuminated by a glorious chip on the 18 yard line by the one Shakhtar man with no number on his back to make it 3-1, as well as a free kick closer to the centre circle than the penalty box which put the proverbial icing on the cake, paving the route to the final for The Miners, and confining Arsenal to the third place play-off, wherein they would face the loser from the game between PSG and Milan which would follow.

 

While the Parisians provided a stronger challenge for their counterparts than Arsenal had Shakhtar, they were cast aside by the eventual champions. Milan had an unrivalled efficiency and verve in their games, and eventually ran out as deserved winners, reigning victorious in the final. Although Arsenal took the lead in their third place play-off with a delightful outside-of-the-boot shot from their only female – and incidentally their best – player, they were unable to stop PSG clawing them back and grabbing the lead, and taking the third place spot. Third and Fourth places both got trophies for their troubles, which I am sure will have delighted Arsene Wenger, in the ground his side call home! On Arsenal’s team, there was a player clad in the number 2 with the surname ‘Pastore’ above his name. Was this perhaps a first Emirates outing for a potential Arsenal signing?

 

The main event of the day for me personally was the half an hour granted to the other bloggers and me to talk with Robert Pires. In spite of his slightly fractured English and my worse French, the six of us were engaged in a conversation which took in everything from his favourite goal for the Arsenal to his potential plans for the future and whether he wished to make the leap into management, while not yet being retired from the game. The former number 7 managed to look resplendent even in a white Arsenal tracksuit, and does not appear to have aged a day since 2002. If anything, he may even look slightly younger.

 

The highlights of our conversation were his description of Arsene Wenger as a “second father”, saying he was “fantastic” both as a man and a manager. His favourite goal, unsurprisingly, was this piece of artistry against Aston Villa, while he confirmed the rumour that in his short time with the Villains, he did in fact stay in his flat in the Highbury Square Development and take a taxi up to Birmingham every day. He discussed the idea of becoming a manager, but admitted that the pressure of the job would be difficult to handle and that his preference would be a role in the backroom staff (although there are no instant plans).

 

What was very heartening to hear was him talk about the friendships he has retained from his time at Arsenal. In recent years, yet far less so this season, Arsenal have had a very split squad, in contrast to the Invincibles, whose unity one of their overriding features, and was no small factor in their success. He talked about the contact he maintains with Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, as well as Jens Lehmann, with whom he played five-a-side a few weeks previously (though claims he was “not very good” outfield), although he has forgiven him for his Paris (ahem) misdemeanour. Another he mentioned was Patrick Vieira, whose Twitter feed makes for painful reading for Arsenal fans, but he alluded to his happiness for his friend, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri, the latter of which was greeted with something of a swift silence among the Arsenal contingent at the table!

 

Though this silence was nothing compared to the brief moment of terror caused by a brief miscommunication on the part of the language barrier. Sian, asking a question so many Arsenal fans have asked of one another, asked of Pires “what do you think of Tottenham?” Those who knew the terrace chant smiled among one another, though these smiles were swiftly wiped upon his answer of “I love Tottenham, Tottenham are my team”. The table was stunned at this answer. Either he could feel the surprise emanating from us, or he had pre-planned this beautiful play on words as he continued “I scored many goals against them”; the smiles returned to his and our faces as the conversation continued. I prefer to think he knew the reaction his saying “I love Tottenham” would have among Arsenal fans.

 

Following the end of the conversation, autographs were signed and pictures were taken, at which point I was confronted by a brief moment of horror, realising that I had forgotten my old ‘Pires 7’ shirt at home. A look out of the glass front of the Emirates showed not only a Highbury engulfed in rain, but one confronted by a nasty bout of hale stones. Still, with an H&M umbrella as my only means of protection I sprinted from the Diamond Club, umbrella aloft, flailing in the wind, probably looking oh so ridiculous, toward Arsenal Station, from whence I ran faster than I have in some time, picked up the shirt, and restarted the sprint. Only thankfully now the thunderbolts and lightning (which had been very, very frightening me, though I have no idea what Galileo would have made of this all) had ceased. Upon returning, a more haggard form than the me that had left the Diamond Club 15 minutes earlier, Pires signed my shirt. As a man of Arsenal, it was my very own religious pilgrimage (round the corner and back).

 

The day was completed with a tour of the Emirates Stadium, which was even nicer than I remember it being on my last tour, just after its opening, back in 2006. We visited the home dressing room and the media area before returning up to the Diamond Club, to end the day.

 

I’d like to thank Adam and Jess from WeAreSocial for organising the day, as well as Indesit for creating the whole competition. And a final, massive thank you to Sam for recommending my name for it. As you can probably tell, I had a great time!


The Toughest Role In Professional Football

It is not one whose immense difficulty is recognised enough, primarily because it is so rarely in a position to be recognised. The substitute goalkeeper plays rarely and must use these occasional matches to make a lasting impression on their coach and their teams’ supporters. The nature of the goalkeeping position means that rotation is not a regular occurrence in league games, as it is with most outfield positions, so domestic cup games generally act as the platform for them to showcase their abilities.

 

90 minutes every six weeks or so leaves no chance to build momentum or grow off the back of a good performance. Indeed, if a backup goalkeeper makes a mistake in a cup game, they are tarred with the label of error-prone. The position of goalkeeper requires a lot of mental strength and self-belief, but the constant demoralisation of being placed on the substitutes’ bench week after week will take its toll to varying degrees, depending on the character at hand.

 

The difference between many goalkeepers at the highest level, ability notwithstanding, is their confidence. The best goalkeepers will have an impenetrable wall of confidence and belief in themselves. One of the worst things a goalkeeper can do is let mistakes beget further mistakes. Victor Valdes, in November’s El Clasico, showed this on as big as a stage as possible. Valdes is an unorthodox goalkeeper and like Edwin van der Sar, Rene Higuita and many others before him, he takes on the ‘sweeper keeper’ role, acting almost as an eleventh outfielder. Part of this his all round play is passing the ball short to his defenders, rather than kicking it long. This backfired horribly on him during Barcelona’s clash with Real Madrid, culminating in the hosts taking the lead within 30 seconds. Immediately following his error, his passing was askew and he looked suspect but as the game wore on, he did not let the mistake get the better of him. He continued to pass it short, staying true to Barcelona’s style. He demonstrated his own confidence and how vital it was to his team’s and his own success.

 

Valdes was a figure in Ronald Reng’s book ‘A Life Too Short: the Tragedy of Robert Enke’ during the German stopper’s spell in Catalonia. Enke’s time with Barcelona shows the difference in the required mentality between a first choice goalkeeper and a backup. As he had grown with local side Carl Zeiss Jena before moving onto Borussia Monchengladbach and Benfica, he had grown to thrive on being first choice and had been worthy of the role wherever he had gone. Coming to Barcelona, he was confined to the bench and was given his first chance in a Copa del Rey clash with Segunda B side Novelda, though by this time, self-doubt had begun to creep up on Enke and he was a shadow of the goalkeeper he had been when he left Benfica. His lack of self-assurance manifested itself upon him and he had an unfortunate hand (though it was not completely of his own doing) in the humiliating 3-2 loss than ensued. Although he impressed in a later Champions League match, the damage was done and he was never given a fair run at the Number One spot in Barcelona. He was loaned to Fenerbahce of Turkey in order to get his career back on track, though his crushed confidence led to him being at fault in a 3-0 defeat. When his confidence disappeared and he began to doubt himself, he fell to pieces, inducing a bout of depression which almost led to him quitting the game.

 

Enke’s recovery with Tenerife and Hannover showed as much as his spells at Monchengladbach and Benfica that he had the ability and the mentality to be a first choice goalkeeper, but being a second choice at Barcelona damaged him. Reading this chapter of Reng’s fantastic book, sympathy is renewed for the second-choice goalkeeper: the likes of Lukasz Fabianski, Brad Guzan and Henrique Hilario. Fabianski looked a promising young ‘keeper and was well regarded among Arsenal fans until his mistakes in the FA Cup Semi-Final against Chelsea. Since then, he has remained a predominantly bit-part player and has only looked convincing during a run of games as first choice which was cruelly cut short by injury. Since then, Wojciech Szczesny has claimed the role as first choice for himself, for both Arsenal and Poland. Fabianski must be content with occasional Carling or FA Cup games and looks relatively shaky and uncomfortable when he plays.

 

Guzan was forever in the shadow of his fellow American Brad Friedel for his first three years at Aston Villa. He played fairly well whenever called upon, but following the sale of the veteran to Tottenham, Villa chose to sign Shay Given, rather than allow Guzan to develop. Following the Irishman’s hamstring injury in December, Guzan got chance to prove himself, but in spite of a runs 9 games in which he put in solid performances, as soon as the Irishman recovered, he returned to his position on the substitutes’ bench. Hilario is a very different case, as he is not good enough to be first choice goalkeeper at a club like Chelsea, especially with Petr Cech ahead of him, but he continues on the payroll and never looks particularly good when he plays.

 

The best backup ‘keepers to have are young players who are vying to break into the team. They accept their roles on the bench and still have the desire and belief to try and force their ways into the team when given the chance. But even within that, they must have the right attitude. Goalkeepers young and old will invariably make mistakes. Physically, it is by far the most unique position in the game but it requires such unwavering confidence and self belief that many with the ability to become great fall by the wayside in one way or another. The pictures of Joe Hart grinning at the camera after Thomas Vermaelen’s effort flew just wide of his far post in Manchester City’s fixture with Arsenal in December, as well as his ‘psyching out’ of Scott Sinclair when the Swansea man stepped up to take a penalty against him (which Hart subsequently saved) show that he does not seem phased by even the most important of occasions. For a goalkeeper with his talent, that mentality and approach will see him go far on the road to becoming a world class goalkeeper – a path on which he is very firmly set.

 

While the majority of ‘keepers do not share Hart’s talent, nor his propensity to brush off pressure, many would be far closer to the former with a pinch of the latter. It is imperative to a goalkeeper that he does not panic, but when all their opportunities are condensed into such small time frames, a substitute ‘keeper is likely to panic under the pressure. The misery the bench induces Saturday upon Saturday can be crushing and it requires massive strength on any backup’s part not to let this get to them.