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Jack Wilshere - Potential Finally Coming to Fruition? Arsenal - Red and White Laughing Stock Arsenal v Anderlecht - Match Preview Arsenal Blow Hot and Cold, Again
I've started to hate watching Arsenal

Another installment in Arsenal's underwhelming season. Crystal Palace are a decent, competitive team, but 16th in the league before yesterday's kick off, some good players but eminently beatable. But what was so frustrating about yesterday's performance wasn't the result, it was the manner of the display.

Alan Pardew is a competent, shrewd coach, and up until Christmas his South London team were over performing against expectations and our 2-1 victory at Selhurst Park was a good result - it's a hard place to win, but we needed an own goal to do so. We also played the Eagles in August, when the majority of matches go to the form guide. Nevertheless, they should have been there for the taking yesterday, they were pretty much safe from relegation, and with a point from the Emirates, certainly are now.

Before watching the Arsenal V Palace match, I'd seen most of the Old Firm SFA Cup semi final and Leicester V West Ham. These were blood and thunder games, you'd be staggered if Celtic V Rangers wasn't and for Leicester, needing three wins (and still doing so), the fixture against West Ham was huge. Both matches didn't disappoint, thoroughly enjoyable, passionate examples of British football, not necessarily at it's best, but with all the composite values associated with football on this island; passion, energy, tackling, spite, anger, aggression, commitment.

How many of these were really on display yesterday in north London? It's a slight misunderstanding, that Arsenal's footballers aren't passionate about their club. They are very aware of their responsibilities and I'm sure were "gutted" not to beat a team anchored to the bottom of the league at home, the manager seems to receive most of the criticism, but the players have to hold their hands up too. I saw a lot of performances like yesterday in the 1980's at Highbury, mainly in the earlier part of the decade when we were manged by the late Don Howe. 

From 1980 onwards (until 1986) Arsenal never looked like winning anything, we would usually qualify or the UEFA Cup, but that was it. Accordingly, matches were tepid, we were missing quality footballers never replaced and we had become a faded shadow of ourselves, employing a mix of "over the hill" players there for the cash and the prestige and some youths with heart but whose lack of accomplishment pointed to a failing picture within the club. Simply, we were crap and we knew it.

Attendances suffered, looking at programmes from the period, average gates rarely troubled the counter much past the 30,000 mark. So it's very difficult to under estimate the huge change that the arrival of George Graham brought in 1986. There wasn't a revolution as such, George, a real Arsenal man, understood what needed to be done. Standards which had slipped were rigorously tightened, he was even nicknamed Gadaafi due to the extent of his despotic demands. He put in place a clear footballing philosophy, worked closely with the youth set up and started giving those players a chance and bought cannily; Smith, Bould, Dixon etc...players we needed.

Three things happened; Arsenal started winning, attendances went up, the crowd started to enjoy their football again. What we were watching wasn't Ajax 1971, but we could understand what the manager an his players were trying to achieve and correspondingly we got behind our club. Match days in the late 80's were fantastic, the semi final against Everton when there were over 50,000 is one of my favourite games ever,

Thirty years on I can't say the same. I don't look forward to matches with anything apart from trepidation, I'm sick of seeing us lose sloppy goals, like Bolasie's equaliser yesterday and Cart Horse Carroll's hat trick last week, but we don't threaten much either. We don't inspire any more, we flatter to deceive, but in every game there are moments of true excellence and that seems to be sufficient for the manager and his coaching team to believe that "we are still going in the right direction". Well, we're not are we? It's patently clear to anyone watching that this isn't working.

We're a bit crap, we know it and so does everybody else.

By Ian Byrne

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Wenger - Stalin to Mr Bean

Fact - Football supporters have very short memories and very little sense of perspective.

Back in the "dark days" at Arsenal, when the club had sacked George Graham and were pondering whether recruiting Bruce Rioch would be a good idea, I remember saying to a fellow supporter, that I'd be happy with any manager able to pick a team capable of putting a few passes together. I suppose I was demonstrating exactly the lack of perspective that I see in spades on twitter after the latest setback affecting Arsenal Football Club.

Let's not forget that although those days seemed pretty grim, it was only two years after a period when Arsenal had won five trophies (two leagues) in a six year span. My gripe, and that's all it was, a gripe, was that Arsenal were falling behind our competitors in terms of playing style and competitive calibre. To be frank, the football in the last few months under George was poor, his early teams were unfairly criticised for being long ball and gung ho, but in the last days, that criticism was very valid.

Bruce Rioch was appointed, and the football did improve - marginally, that Arsenal had paid £7.5 million to acquire the services of Denis Bergkamp obviously helped, but the manager lasted only one season. In 1996, Arsenal shocked English football by recruiting a largely unknown (I had no clue who he was...) Frenchman, then managing a team in Japan. 

The rest is history, and it really is, Wenger won the double in his first full season, built one of the most exciting sides seen in any league, shattered Manchester United's dominance, fundamentally changed the way football was coached and managed in England, as well as leading the strategy for the building of new training facilities and a brand new 60,000 stadium. Such was Wenger's involvement in the delivery of the new Colney that he had a say on the design of the coffee cups.

20 years on and he's still with us. His salary is reputed to be somewhere between £9 million and £11 million a year, his position at the club seems to be as solid as reinforced granite - in effect,  the Chief Executive reports to him, but after some encouraging results this season, the inability to beat Watford, Swansea, a frankly crap Manchester United side are looking exactly what they are, indications of a manager whose tactics and overall approach aren't cutting the mustard anymore. 

The Stalin - Mr Bean quote was levelled at the former iron Chancellor, Gordon Brown by Vince Cable in the House of Commons (apparently they are good friends....) and perfectly summed up the then PM's demise. Brown, like Wenger, seemed to be the last to realise that his powers had waned and he found himself in the type of negative mode, whereby, the harder he tried to get things right, the more they went wrong.

Sadly, our glorious leader finds himself in the same, leaky boat. Arsenal haven't played well for months, we were proficient against Tottenham, did a "good job" against City at home, but haven't played really well since beating Manchester United 3-0 in October 2015. It's the same every week, we swarm around opposition team's massed defences because they invite us to do so, as they know that's how to play us. Sanchez, a genuine top draw footballer, collects the ball wide and turns inside the full back time and time again - almost always nullified by a centre half, Joel Campbell can't buy a regular starting berth, neither can Danny Welbeck. Match after match we create a host of half chances convert the odd one, here and there and rarely look like winning unless we score first.

We will get hammered in the Nou Camp, and will probably draw, at best at Goodison Park. So in the space of three weeks we will find ourselves out of every competition. Tragically, the nature of corporate management and ownership dictates that we are stuck with our odious, unambitious owner and board of directors. For the record, they are the real problem, but their go-to man, who collects over £27,000 a day, must answer for another season of disappointment.

He's a class act and his done great things for Arsenal, so he deserves a dignified exit and conclusion to his 20 year tenure, but it must end.

By Ian Byrne

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Leicester City - The most important league game since 23rd February, 2008

We all remember that early kick off on Saturday 23rd February 2008, the abiding memory of the day is the appalling injury suffered by Eduardo Da Silva who was the victim of a catastrophe of a tackle by "footballer" Martin Taylor. There were two goals from a very young Theo Walcott, a late meltdown by captain William Gallas, as Arsenal dropped two points, a trend they were to continue by drawing with Villa, Wigan, Middlesbrough before losing to Chelsea. By the end of March, the title had been lost. Arsenal finished the league in 3rd place.

This team was capable of far more. Based around a midfield of Fabregas, Hleb, Flamini and Silva, with Van Persie (when available) and Eduardo or Adebayor leading the line, and with new signing Sagna, Gallas, Toure in a capable defence, it was a team able to play excellent football in intricate patterns and at pace. I was at Anfield that season as we were knocked out of the Champions League at the quarter final stage and can remember Arsenal's second goal as clear as day, the Walcott sprint with the lovely crossed pass to Adebayor. Fabulous, fast attacking football, but with an Achilles heel.

Therefore, it was a team destined always to be the bridesmaid. Perhaps there was something missing? Maybe it was the blend of age and experience that was slightly out of kilter, the injury to Eduardo was decisive, Almunia wasn't an adequate replacement for Jens Lehmann and selling Diarra mid-season was very short sighted.

Whichever, the results are there on record, this team finished 3rd in the league, was knocked out of the Champions League by a Liverpool team that finished seven points behind it and let's not forget took hidings off Manchester United in the FA Cup and Tottenham at the semi final stage of the League Cup. Accordingly, it was a group of players that promised much and delivered nothing.

This Sunday's game against the extraordinary current vintage of Leicester City is just as "big" as the match eight years ago against Birmingham City. Like the 2007-2008 side, this is an other fine Arsenal team, but seems to lack the hallmarks of a truly great side (1970-1971, !988-1989, 2003-2004). It has two superstar outfield players in Ozil and Sanchez, a superb and highly experienced keeper in Cech, a functioning back four, and options in midfield that should allow the team to defend or attack. Good enough to beat Leicester City? Definitely. Will they? Well......

Another critical home game that comes to mind is the demolition of an excellent Norwich City side on May 1st 1989 (like Leicester enjoying an unexpected league challenge that season). Although far later in the calendar, this resounding victory was the injection of confidence and belief that was hugely important in the last stages of that successful league campaign. Sunday would be the perfect platform for a repeat. It's best not to place undue importance on earlier matches against league opposition in a given season, but Arsenal did hammer Leicester 5-2, Alexis Sanchez being almost unplayable in the away tie last September.

To beat a first rate Leicester side and don't just concentrate on their front three, their defensive shape against Manchester City last week was the equal of anything George Graham organised, Sanchez and Ozil need to click. Vardy looks as good as anything I've seen this year, fast, aggressive, super confident so not the game for the big German, Gabriel and Koscielny give Arsenal a chance of containment and tracking.

In midfield, I'd pick Coquelin and Ramsey, with Joel Campbell on the opposite wing to Sanchez, he doesn't give the ball away in dangerous situations with the alarming frequency of Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlaine and Giroud, badly in need of a goal, will be just as useful defending set pieces.

It will be a tight game, one Arsenal have to win, while hoping for a draw in the 4.00pm Sunday game. Will they win? Well.....

By Ian Byrne

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Can Arsenal win the title?

It's a moot point as to where the run-in begins in a league season, but as far as I'm concerned it began the day after Arsenal went to Southampton and were hammered 4-0, since then, Bournemouth and Newcastle United were defeated at home and Arsenal managed two away draws against Liverpool and Stoke City (one away victory in 34 years).

Yesterday's draw at Stoke was an important indicator of Arsenal's ability to win the 2015-2016 title. Most supporters will be relatively happy with the two points from the last two away games, as they were probably the fairest results. The most important aspect of both performances, however, was the ability to dig deep; away at Liverpool, to get back into the game, and at Stoke, to battle gamely against a physical team and a referee willing to "let things go". 

This is a quality that's hard to define and almost impossible to build on a training pitch. It's forged rather than acquired and it is the foundation of all successful titles winning sides. It can be described as backbone, fighting spirit, call it what you will, but Aaron Ramsey's header off the line and the blocks and tackles made by the hugely under-rated nacho Monreal, are just as important as Mesut Ozil's sublime assists.

Arsenal lead the league with 44 points after 22 games. I believe that the title will be won this year with as few as 78 points, therefore, to take a very old fashioned over simplification, if Arsenal win all their home games and draw all their away games, bingo! However, sadly football isn't like that and for Arsenal to win the title, the crucial games are:

  • 24th January - Home to Chelsea
  • 28th February - Away at Manchester United
  • 5th March - Away at Tottenham
  • 19th March - Away at Everton
  • 7th May - Away at Manchester City

Much has been made of Arsenal's poor record against other "big 5 clubs" and with good reason, it's been rubbish, but this season things have improved. City and United were dispatched quite comfortably, albeit at home and there's never been a better time to play Chelsea, Tottenham and Everton away are always difficult, but if Arsenal can secure eight points from these fixtures, I would feel that the first title in 12 years might be on.

You will notice that I didn't include the home fixture against Leicester City on February 13th as a critical game, and this is because I feel that Leicester will slip away, the away game at Arsenal follows matches against Tottenham, Stoke, Liverpool and City. They are having a fantastic season, but I feel that they are one injury away from losing momentum.

One element that gives ground for optimism to Arsenal, is the availability of first team players. Arsenal have (hopefully) suffered their injury crisis, as they usually do in the first half of the season. Alexis Sanchez will return against Chelsea, soon after, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky will be fit and ready. Francis Coquelin is not far away and I would anticipate the new signing Elneny slotting in quickly. Although the first half of the season was softer, more home game against league rivals, the size and depth of the squad available in the second half of the season is a positive picture.

By Ian Byrne

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Olympiakos Away - Flashback to November 25th 2003 - Arsenal destroy Inter at the San Siro

We've been here before don't forget. Just over twelve years ago, me and my good mate Trev, met early in the morning at Heathrow for the flight to Milan Malpensa and then spent an enjoyable day "preparing" for the fixture that evening. The weather was persistent drizzle as we took the metro and the tram to the Guiseppe Meazza. As we all know, an Arsenal team missing uber warrior Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp (flight tied), and critical defenders; Martin Keown and Lauren, literally massacred one of the better teams in Europe, a club with a history steeped in the folklore of catenaccio, a team which had beaten Arsenal 3-0 at Highbury by 5 goals to 1. We even had Pascal Cygan playing at centre half!

However, the mists of time are a wonderful thing. Yesterday I looked at a transcript of the game and it's easy to forget that although this was Thierry Henry at his unplayable best, let's not forget it was 1-1 at half time and we didn't string a pass together for 25 minutes, and though the second half performance was fabulous, the last three goals were scored in the final five minutes. Nevertheless, the result did the trick, it was in many ways the springboard of belief that the Invincibles needed and was a critical turning point in the season.

Back to Milan - we took our seats, and then we stood on them for 90 minutes and witnessed one of the greatest away performances by Arsenal in Europe, although Henry received most of the plaudits, I remember Edu's performance as being excellent in particular. After the game, we were kept back for almost two hours, the local Carabinieri demonstrating their colours and lack of good humour and we exchanged with a solitary Gooner, who seemed to have watched the game from behind the Internazionale director's box. Eventually, Trev and I ended up in a restaurant bedecked in black and blue scarves and shirts until the very early hours, and we were treated like a form of football supporting royalty, truly, truly memorable.

So, can we do it again? Of course, there's a chance. We're missing key players, as the 2003 San Siro side were, and the knowledge that the game has to be won lends it the simplicity of clarity. I assume that the manager will play the same team that beat Sunderland on Saturday, therefore a return to the Karaiskakis Stadium for Joel Campbell and it's a huge night for Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil. We're missing our two best players in Sanchez and Cazorla, but the back four is settled and we have a world class keeper to boot.

There will be goals, so I'm going for a see-sawing 3-2 victory to Arsenal.

By Ian Byrne

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Moneyball and how and why Wenger lost the magic touch

I'm re-reading Michael Lewis' Moneyball for the third time. If you haven't read it, or you've just seen the film, check it out, it's fascinating and really well written. The premise of the book is how the General Manager of the baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane (below), built one of the most successful teams in the States on a shoestring budget and consistently beat teams with three or four times the budget of his own.

Beane used a myriad of approaches to achieve this. However, the starting point was to challenge the essential foundations on which major league baseball was built and then by analysing specific data to isolate which aspects of the game led to a winning team, buy players who would fit the team's modus operandi, at a heavily discounted price, dictated by his meagre budget.

Therefore, a realisation of what is actually critical to winning matches and exhaustive player analysis was crucial to the continued success of the project.

The similarity to the earlier years of the Wenger project at Arsenal is quite compelling here. Wenger is feted as being responsible for revolutionising the way clubs trained and prepared for games and never spent "big" on players, as his competitors did. The question of interest is why has Wenger abandoned the player acquisition rules of Moneyball and has instead drifted to the dark side, spending £77 million on two footballers? It feels that only players of established high value are being brought into the club, and more pointedly and of more direct concern, when these players aren't available, no one is brought into the club. So what changed?

Wenger's addiction to his laptop and the player performance figures he craves is well known, I assume that this tendency to fire up ProZone is still a big feature of his analysis and preparations. It's when you examine Arsenal's transfer policy, that the ground-shift becomes clearer. Billy Beane's Moneyball policy is dictated by budget, but also a draft system which he played to his enormous advantage. European football, is in a more privileged position, as players can be transferred for a fee whilst in contract, as opposed to a system in MLB which is based on a a players serving a six year lock-in post draft and then being available as a free agent, or players moving between teams depending on their wage demands. This system has been in place since the 1970's.

To Beane risk is mitigated by purchasing numerous options at a low price, as opposed to the one-off superstars that he can't afford anyway.

Since Bosman became law in Europe in 1995, the canny manager was able to plunder undiscovered jewels from the market, if his club's scouting policy and ability to move quickly was equalled by a supportive board. This was definitively the case at Arsenal, who bought brilliantly, below is a selection of player's bought in the 1996/97 season alone:

Marc Overmars bought in June 1997 for £7 million.
Patrick Vieira bought in August 1996 for £3.5 million.
Manu Petit bought in June 1997 for £2.5 million
Nicolas Anelka bought in February 1997 for £500,000          

These four players were bought for £13.5 million and sold for £68 million. Each was a risk in some way, they were either young and untested, or in the Dutchman's case, deemed to be a massive injury concern, but it was classic Moneyball, they were bought on the cheap, because they each offered Arsenal something different, but something the club needed, furthermore, their re-sale value was huge.

When you scroll through the seasons, the footballers of this vein, brought into Arsenal include Thierry Henry (an unloved substitute at Juventus), Freddie Ljungberg, those two for a combined fee of £13 million, and the list goes on; Lauren (£7m), Edu (£6m), Pires (£6m), all five were Invincibles.

At this time, Arsenal had a massive asset, one overlooked and given little or no credit by anyone at the club these days, including the current manager, David Dein (below). Dein loved the Wenger project almost as much as he loved the club itself and was formidable as a sounding board, hustler and deal maker. He was exceptional at getting the transfers across the line and used his considerable influence repeatedly.

When I consider why Mr Wenger didn't buy one single outfield player this summer and why, of his seven purchases last summer, only Sanchez has featured as a regular, I can only conclude, that were David Dein still at Arsenal, things would be fundamentally different. 

Dein wouldn't put up with the manager's dithering. Arsene Wenger is now in his mid-60's, but his ineffective transfer policy isn't down to age, sadly, it's down to arrogance. The relationship he enjoys with Arsenal's absent owner and the way he is able to dictate to the CEO and the board, has allowed him to occupy a position where he has to answer to no-one. When you lose accountability in an organisation, you lose effectiveness and decision making, you create a vacuum.

Therefore, the days of the Wenger (Moneyball) project aren't numbered, they've gone.

Come back David, we miss you.

By Ian Byrne

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Arsenal Transfer Window - Incompetent and Ineffectual

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - the more that things change the more they stay the same.

In an article from Arseblog from last October, which introduced Arsenal's new Head of Academy, Andries Jonker, he highlighted that it was critical that the club completely overhaul it's scouting network. After a transfer window, in which Arsenal bought one player, Petr Cech, this necessity has been brought into even sharper focus, or has it? Arsenal needed a keeper, Cech wanted to stay in London, did we need an extensive scouting network to spot that one?

The purpose of a scouting network is to provide a list of targets and for the management to decide which is the highest priority. I assume that the scouts are doing their job, as there are frequent references in the press and the blogs, of scouts being present at matches to check out a specific player. I also know that players like Koscielny, for example, were scouted on numerous occasions, I think he was watched over 30 times. So the scouts are in place and presumably fulfilling their obligations. There was an interesting line in the interview with Jonkers, when he said a crucial aspect of the scouting network was to find players "who are at the right age to work with Wenger immediately".

To me, that would point to footballers of an age and experience to go straight into the first team squad, but Jonkers is Head of the Academy and therefore, the more worrying undertone, is that the club's scouts are prioritising players who are the right age for the Academy, therefore in an age group of 16-20, as opposed to established footballers.

At the start of the window, Arsenal needed to sign three players, the keeper was signed, but there was only speculation about signing a centre forward and Arsenal were never linked in any meaningful sense to a holding midfield player. After the early move for Alexis Sanchez in 2014, who was secured in early July of that year, supporters would be forgiven for thinking that there had been a shift in the club's transfer policy. The events of this window confirm that it's a case of plus ca change...

The most impressive team this term has been Manchester City, who have spent £158 million in this window, most notably signing Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne, for £49 million and £54 million respectively. City have a similar scouting network to Arsenal, but the fundamental difference is that they have an executive tier that reviews progress and meets regularly to decide the steps required to prioritise player purchases and take action. At Arsenal, Dick Law is the principle negotiator, but it's the manager who has the final say. He prevaricates, he gets cold feet, he changes his mind, we lose players, again and again. You could win a World Cup with the footballers that Arsenal have missed out on.

When questioned about Arsenal's lack of transfer activity, Wenger preferred to shift the conversation to dissecting Manchester United's signing of Anthony Martial. This transfer has raised eyebrows, £36 million for a 19 year old who scores a goal in every four appearances? It does reflect however, a club that is willing to take a qualified risk. Because taking risks is central to running a business, when we recruited a manager who had been sacked in France and was managing a club in the Japanese J-League, that was a huge risk.

When the Glazers bought Manchester Unite the reaction from the supporters was so fierce, that it forged the creation of a new football club for disenchanted fans to channel their fury. Ironically, under these owners, United have spent enormous, eye watering amounts of cash on players of varying quality - over £250 million in just over the last year and pay weekly wages of £300,000. Which leads me to question what lies at the heart of the problem for Arsenal and it's lack of new recruits. Is it the scouting network, or is it the ownership model?

The simple truth is that Arsenal are owned and led by a small group of individuals who have turned the club's home ground into a corporate shopping mall (Myles Palmer), by prioritising match day attenders as customers as opposed to supporters and have managed to discard the essence of a very proud football club in less than ten years. In all businesses, the strategic direction comes from the very top. Arsenal chooses not to compete with the major forces in European football on acquiring the very best, because it doesn't want to. We don't need a new scouting network, we need a new ownership model.

By Ian Byrne

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Game of two halves? Same old Arsenal.....

Under the existing FA rules, Arsenal should have won last night's game 1-0, Aaron Ramsey's goal, from a delightful through ball from Santi Cazorla, was onside. However, when you take a step back and consider the match in the colder light of day, then a draw was a fair result. Ironically, the late replacement centre halves managed to keep a clean sheet.

I never actually heard an Arsenal supporter pre-season, claim that the team were genuine title challengers, in their heart of hearts, they didn't share the certainty that Chelsea or Manchester City fans did at the start of a campaign. However, there is the unspoken voice, the one you hide from supporters of other teams, that was hinting that having won back to back FA Cups and after one of the most exhilarating performances at the new Wembley, that this season would be the closest Arsenal have been for over ten years.

That voice that has dropped to an even lower register after the first three games. Arsenal were very poor against West Ham, good in patches against Crystal Palace, and very disappointing in the first half against Liverpool and in the second half, played in the exact manner that has been frustrating Arsenal supporters for ages. More of the same...

After a bright start (and a perfectly good goal being disallowed), Arsenal chose to stage a perplexing meltdown, caused by players making difficult passes at tight angles and therefore ceding possession to a Liverpool team, pretty weak and very beatable to be honest, that grew in confidence. Liverpool actually felt sufficiently emboldened to discard their manager's "space management" theory and attack an Arsenal team, whose performance by the half hour mark was littered with mistakes. 

I felt for young Chambers, who had a shocker and in the first half, and the only Arsenal outfield players that could hold their heads up were Coquelin and Monreal. Thank heavens, Petr Cech loves living in London because without his experience, Arsenal would have been 2-0 down at the break.

The second half was an improvement, Gabriel in particular stepped up to the mark and Chambers calmed down sufficiently to concentrate on being a stock centre half. Arsenal remembered that an integral part of passing is ensuring that the ball ends up at the feet of a team-mate and began to threaten. Both Sanchez and Giroud came close, and as he does, Ozil began to flourish in space and actually ask for the ball. Ramsey looked dangerous cutting in from a wide position and Giroud started to lead the line with a modicum of aggression.

However, the result was a stalemate, only Sanchez came close, grazing the post and Mignolet was able to make two comfortable saves. With the exception of 2011-2012, this is the worst start to the season, for six years. There is just over a week left in the transfer window and although I' be very surprised if Arsenal sign anyone of real note or value, the manager needs to listen to his "inner voice" and his supporters, we need a top striker and soon. Anyone for Cavani?

By Ian Byrne

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