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Whatever happened to Lucky Arsenal?

The phrase "lucky Arsenal" was coined as far back as the 1930's. It referred to Herbert Chapman's teams balance of defensive solidity and attacking guile and the penchant the club enjoyed for winning games against the run of play, Arsenal were also referred to as "the Bank of England" club. Unfortunately, 80 years later, luck seems to be a precious and rare commodity as far as the modern Arsenal are concerned.

The reality of course, is that you do make your own luck A good example of this in football, might be, that when you find yourself clear in the box with just the keeper to beat, then don't shoot straight at him, another example might be, that when you are six yards out and presented with a free header, try getting it on target, that way, you have a chance of scoring.

Last night, Arsenal should have been three up by half time. That they weren't was purely down to sloppy, ineffective finishing. I have rarely seen a more disjointed United side (or the Viv Nicholl's 11 as I like to call them - ask your Mum), totally there for the taking. A good, competent side, with real grown up professionals (Chelsea for example) would have had the game home and hosed by the interval. It was a fairly typical performance from Arsenal, plenty of movement, good passing, chances ctreated and spurned, there you go, your make your own luck.

Van Gaal, played there centre halves, with the undemonstrative and shaky Smalling as pack leader. He was relying on Van Weasel and Rooney up front, with Shaw and Valencia as wing backs. To further help the Arsenal cause, Shaw went off after 15 minutes. Although Arsenal were missing Koscielny (and we are really missing him), but faced with this United side, Arsenal should have won the game easily. We palyed smartly, I was impressed in the first half by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlaine, Sanchez looked a little jaded, understandably, but Jack Wilshere was always looking for the ball and distributing it intelligently and was playing with a controlled aggression.

In truth, Wilshere could have easily have walked when he lent his head (a la Pardew) into Fellaini but the Belgian's superior height meant that Jack connected with his sternum as opposed to his face. Also, Arsenal are now benfitting from referees reticence in punishing England imternationals, we started with five yesterday. When I saw that Mike Riley was the appointed official yesterday morning, my heart sunk. I've previously written about our issues with this individual, but overall, his mistakes were evenly distrbuted between the two teams. Wilshere could have gone, but then so should McNair for his ankle cruncher on Wilshere, watch it again, he gets nowhere near the ball and takes out Jack's ankle studs up. As yet, I haven't heard how serious his ankle injury is. Fingers crossed for Jack though, he's really becoming an excellent player.

In a match to which United barely contributed, it took a piece of freakish luck to get them on the score sheet. Although it was Arsenal's persistent lack of defensive composure that created the opportunity in the first place. The aren't enough leaders in tis Arsena l team, in fact, apart from Wilshere and maybe Mertesacker, I can't think of any. As a result, there is a nagging tendency for Arsenal to resemble startled rabbits in their own 18 yard box. The Gibbs own goal was emminently avoidable, but it also had a taste of the inevitable about it as well.

United were 1-0 up, without having a shot on target. What followed was even more inevitable, Arsenal decided to throw everything at the ten men United had put behind the ball. This involved having all ten outfield players (all ten!) camped in the oppostition half. Therefore, when United did get a shot on target in the 86th minute it was from an unmarked Wayne Rooney, comical.

Giroud came in, looked very good and scored a cracker and that was it, beaten 2-1 by a bunch of chancers. I've rated Van Gaal's teams in the past, the 1995 Ajax team in particular, but I don't rate him. I think he's a charlatan and will be found out sooner or later. Perhaps this is happening already, 90% of his team's supporters are muppets, but there is a hard kernel of followers who will look at yesterday's performance and acknowledge that they were very, very lucky to win that game.

Will Arsenal's luck change in the near future? I doubt it.

By Ian Byrne

Follow me @RightAtTheEnd and I'll follow you back.
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Jack Wilshere - Potential finally coming to fruition?

Many of us will have watched Jack Wilshere's performance for England last night and felt a degree of vindication. Jack was excellent and the Scottish newspapers in particular were very fulsome in their praise. This prompts the inevitable questions: Is he close to consistently playing as well as he can and secondly, in which position is he most effective?

Wilshere has been man of the match for each of England's last two games. The paradox is that in both matches Wilshere has been played as a defensive midfielder at the base of Roy Hodgson's diamond formation. The reality of course, is that the elements of Jack's game that have led to him being awarded the accolade twice, have nothing at all to do with his defensive work. Jack Wilshere is either, a number 10, or best played on the left side of two midfielders. Simply, he is at his best, when he is on the ball and moving forward.

Jack made his debut for the Arsenal six years ago and his name was being mentioned widely in the local North London press in the "one to watch" category well before this. Born and raised in Hertfordshire, Wilshere is one of the most gifted footballers of the last few years and was singled out for special praise last week, when Xavi Hernadez was interviewed on the BBC. Xavi was suggesting that Wilshere is one of the few English footballers able to play the style of the game practiced in Catalonia and Spain.

There a pockets of supporters who either don't rate Jack Wilshere, or choose to point out that "he has never reached his potential". I've heard this quite frequently and strangely enough from (some) Arsenal followers. To my mind, Wilshere's biggest issues are related to the injury sustained at the start of the 2011-2012 season in a friendly against the New York Red Bulls. Jack didn't play a single game in that season and in the following campaigns was absent for significant parts.

Hopefully now free of the problems clustered around his ankle ligaments, Wilshere is sure to become an automatic starter for both club and country. The question is "where to play him"? 

I've been committed to Arsenal playing a 4-2-3-1 formation away from home against high quality Premiership and Champions League teams for a while, these being the matches that inevitably define a season. With the current playing staff, I prefer Jack in the forward three, but only because I don't have enough faith in Arteta or Flamini to function alongside him, they're not good enough. Jack wants to go forward and therefore, were the club to buy a recognised central holding player, then I believe he could play as part of two deeper players. This doesn't seem very likely, as our manager has decided that we can do without the requisite number of defensive footballers in the squad as laid down by common sense and perceived football wisdom.

What Mr Wenger does understand, is that this current Arsenal team's DNA runs directly counter to the club's tradition of defensive solidity. They want to play football and they want to score goals, With Theo Walcott nearing fitness, Alexis Sanchez playing superbly and Danny Welbeck proving to be a canny investment, I believe that it's Wilshere that the team should be assembled around, not a disappointing, fragile, £42.5 million Mesut Ozil.

Therefore, play Jack where he's most effective, as the left of two central midfielders in a 4, or in the middle of a 3. Last year he scored the Goal of the Season and in that passage of play, Wilshere's movement, touch and control demonstrated exactly why Hodgson should be pinioning his diamond around a Milner or a Henderson, not the 22 year old from Hitchin. The inch perfect pass for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlaine to score at Celtic Park last night (from an advanced position) demonstrates still further why this young man is a footballer who is most adept at creating play, not stopping it.

By Ian Byrne

Follow me @RightAtTheEnd and I'll follow you back. I'm also very interested in your comments on this or any articles published.
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Arsenal - Red and White Laughing Stock

Apparently Arsenal may have subconsciously underestimated Anderlecht last night, is there any chance that our glorious leader will subconsciously neglect to collect his pay packet for this month? I doubt it. It's the manager's job to ensure that his team underestimates no-one and no team, Wenger's comments cast an interesting light on defeats such as Bradford City away and Blackburn Rovers at home. However, the purpose of my blog isn't to demand the manager's head on a stick, there will be enough internet warriors out there looking for that outcome.

Instead, I'd like to cast my mind back to a time when Arsenal supporters could walk around London, not impervious to criticisms of the club, but at last able to point out that we were no pushover, that the players could and would (literally) fight for the shirt.  If we scored first in a match, we would often win that game 1-0, those were the days when our defence was the stubborn element at the club, not the manager.

It was February 2011, when the Arsenal managed to throw away a 4-0 winning margin against Newcastle, but last night was worse. We were winning 3-0 at home, but the warning signs were there from the start. Arteta enjoyed some reasonably favourable comments until he was withdrawn, but one of his primary tasks is to block wholes making it difficult for the opposition to get into dangerous territory. From the off, Anderlecht repeatedly got behind Arsenal's porous "defence", the real difference between the sides was that we were more efficient going forward. 

One of the principle reasons for this is that Arsenal are hopeless at tackling. 

Watch Chelsea carefully, when their players tackle, they do so, in a traditionally effective manner. Chelsea players (all of them, not just midfielders and defenders) try to get face on to the man with the ball, they make it hard for him to rush past and then they kick at the ball. I use the phrase "at the ball" advisedly; they are trying to win the ball from an opponent, by going for the tackle with controlled aggression, but at the same time, they are placing a small risk on being injured, albeit marginally. The key is to regain possession.

Arsenal players don't tackle like that. Arsenal players prefer to run alongside their opponent, they tend to waft their feet/legs towards the ball in the hope that they can swoop the ball away to safety, I am convinced this is one of the reasons Arsenal players suffer so many muscle tears and strains. Gael Clichy was amazed on arrival at City that he was actually encouraged to tackle in training. 

Arsenal don't block space by standing up, they allow the player to get level with them, and if their half-hearted attempt at a "tackle" doesn't come off, then that player is already close to getting beyond our last line of defence. This smacks of the players trying to avoid getting hurt and as your Dad told you when you were a kid, you are more likely to get hurt pulling out of a tackle than by going in 100% to win it. We invite trouble onto us by lacking physicality in key areas and at key times of the game.

Admittedly, the first Anderlecht goal was offside and the penalty slightly questionable, but don't blame the referee. Let's face it, we didn't deserve to beat the Belgians in Brussels, we were hopeless. Perhaps this was karmic, but 3-0 up at home with only 30 minutes of the game to see out? Get your men behind the ball, it's simple. Our manager is a tactical cretin when it matters most.

Yesterday, I wrote a blog speculating that the arrival of Alexis Sanchez might lead to an inculcation of a winning mentality at Arsenal. Fat chance of that on the basis of the last thirty minutes yesterday evening.

By Ian Byrne

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Arsenal V Anderlecht - Players to benefit from Sanchez factor?

44 years ago, Arsenal ended a 17 year trophy drought by beating Anderlecht 4-3 on aggregate to win the Inter-Cities Fair Cup. Tonight, the club can reach the last 16 of the Champion's League if they beat the Belgian team again and BVB beat Galatasaray. There seems to be a lighter feeling around the club, primarily down to our Chilean striker. 

Alexis Sanchez is a "proper player", the supporters naturally adore goal scoring strikers, but Sanchez is more than that, he is a real fighter, he hates losing and the passion he has the for the game is humbling. Look at the way he tracks back, never fails to show for the ball, he's exemplary. Perhaps, one of the reasons behind his purchase was a hope that this spirit for the game might infect the squad with a greater winning belief? 

However, as a natural "glass half empty" Arsenal supporter, (following the club when it was managed by Don Howe has long lasting effects...,), I have to question what would happen if we were to lose the industrious Chilean for a spell? It probably won't happen, I have seen at least two decapitating challenges on Sanchez, bizarrely each judged as yellows by the referee, and he has got up, rubbed whichever part of his anatomy has been targeted and carried on the game with exactly the same combination of enthusiasm and skill as before. How many times did Van Persie go missing when the rough stuff started? 

In this regard, Sanchez reminds me of Jose Antonio Reyes, I think he was genuinely short changed at Highbury, Henry never took to him, but I remember the way he stood up to the Neville brothers cynical attempts to end his career at the Theatre of Muppets. Like Sanchez, Reyes had the same tenacity and desire to want the ball in areas where you would get hurt. That took real courage, especially when referees (cowed into meek submission) were happy to let United exhibit the same hatchet tendencies of the worst Argentinian club teams of the late 1960's. 

It's too early to talk about a new spirit at the club, Arsenal have won just three games on the bounce. In the first of these, a preposterous win somehow conjured from one of the most inept European performances in memory against Anderlecht in Belgium, I loved Sanchez's reaction at the final whistle. Faced with his team mates (as they usually do) celebrating the smallest victory as if it was the largest triumph, he looked disgusted and pointed them back to the dressing rooms. Pure class, that is a winner's mentality, but with an implicit understanding of the rights and wrongs of the world's greatest sport.

I was also pleased by the, thus far, safe return of Theo Walcott, apparently close to a contract extension. Walcott is the type of player, like Sanchez, that defences hate. He pushes full backs deep into positions they don't want to be trapped in and a front line involving both is very promising. So enjoy the game tonight, and whichever deity you pray to, make sure you say one for Alexis Sanchez's continued good health.

By Ian Byrne

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Arsenal Blow Hot and Cold - Again

I woke up yesterday in a positive mood, Hull at home, three point banker you'd have thought. I remember watching Arsenal pulverise Hull City in the League Cup in the 80's, it was the first time I took my little brother to Highbury. We slaughtered them and standing in the Clock End, heartily took the piss out of the few hundred brae souls who had made the epic journey to North London on a wet Wednesday night. How times change.

Football matches turn on a single moment and yesterday, that moment was on the 17th minute when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlaine dallied on the ball for a second too long when he should have shot and scored. That would have put Arsenal 2-0 up and from there we would have scored again. As it was, Hull rallied well, Credit where credit's due, Steve Bruce is doing an excellent job and I may have been unkind when pointing him out as a Fergie brown noser, job jumping, leaving clubs in the lurch (ask supporters of Palace, Huddersfield etc,,), fat get. He may be all of those things, but he's also a talented and resourceful football manager.

Hull's equaliser was a shocking error by the referee and the linesman, how they missed Diame's attempted decapitation of Flamini was extraordinary, but what was Mertesacker doing not playing to the whistle? Fine, have a barney with the ref' when the goal's been scored or the ball's dead, but in the meantime, play on. This a German international with over a hundred caps. However, the goal that really made my blood boil, was Hull's second. Straight from the kick off, they completed a passing move, culminating in an easy cross and a free header. Mertesacker again, what was he thinking of? He had his man in his sights and then chose to watch the ball, losing Hernandez completely and presenting him with a gift of a goal.

I know Arsenal had a "makeshift" defence, but both goals were scored through attacks on our left flank and neither Bellerin, or Monreal were guilty for either. Get well soon Koscielny and Chambers.

Arsenals' fightback showed decent spirit and it's not easy to play through a ten man defence. But Arsenal's weakness is exactly that - we are too keen to try and "play through"  defences. How many times do you see our players trying to thread balls though impossibly tight gaps? There are two tried and trusted methods of breaking down massed defences, getting the ball wide and, as the great Jock Stein once said "fire it into the box, you never know where the ball might go".

Eventually, the pressure amounted to an opening carved by the spiky and resilient Sanchez (turning out to be a great signing) and a top flight finish from Danny Welbeck. So, a 2-2 draw at home to Hull and we are 11 points behind Chelsea already. What does this result tell us?

We've played 8 games and won 2, Palace at home and (surprisingly) Villa away. So far, we have played well in patches, we were very good for the first 20 minutes yesterday for example. But when we have been faced with a team with decent quality and a consistent, tight game plan, we've looked unlikely to score. Admittedly, we have an injury list longer than a teenagers lie in, but we should still be beating Hull City at home. On the positive side, Walcott will make a difference and Ramsey is not fully fit yet, there are also Giroud and Ozil to come back in the next few weeks. Add Debuchy and Koscielny to the mix and the players are there.

Let's not delude ourselves however, the league is a scrap between the northern and southern lottery winners (Chelsea and City), but if we are able to play a settled team we can establish a degree of momentum. Because at the moment, we are just lurching from one average performance to the next.

By Ian Byrne

Please feel free to follow me @RightAtTheEnd
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What's wrong with Arsenal's midfield?

None of the four English teams in the European Champions League have emerged with any deal of credit after the first stage. Liverpool were the only team to win and that was courtesy of a late penalty against the team supposedly ready to assume the mantle of group whipping boys. Chelsea threw away a goal lead (although I love Mourinho's face when he accuses other teams of parking the bus), City struggled to make an impact against Bayern and Arsenal were torn apart by a fast, mobile, attacking BVB.

The first games are always tricky, but Arsenal have often started with an away tie but usually won. However, right from the off the alarm bells were ringing as wave after wave of yellow players scythed through Arsenal's disjointed back lines. Admittedly, we started with young Bellerin at right back and his inexperience was exposed repeatedly, but it would be disingenuous to blame one young player for what was an abject performance.

Let's not disguise it either, Arsenal were flattered by the scoreline, we could have been four down at half time. The shape, disarray, poor decision making, bad covering and marking were identikits of the way Arsenal played against Liverpool and Chelsea in away fixtures last season. What was particularly galling was that the team had played very well (in the second half extremely well) against City last week and although we had carried Ramsey and Ozil again, still looked as strong as one of the most expensive teams in the league.

So what went wrong on Tuesday? I avoid twitter during and after matches - because I like watching the game and in the aftermath of matches, twitter is hardly the place for dispassionate analysis. However, I can imagine that there were vociferous accusations that the result against Dortmund would have been different if the manager had signed a "DM" in the summer. I see this alot and there is some truth in it, if there was a replacement for Patrick Vieira (because that's who we've never replaced) out there in the marketplace, for  decent fee, I'd be frustrated if Arsenal didn't try and secure him. The point is, there isn't. Carvallho is a good player, we should have and did try to sign him, but there is a financial level at which the fee demanded by the selling club is inappropriate.

Furthermore, the game has changed. These days teams using players like Yaya Toure are rare, very rare and most teams depend on a holding two at the base of their midfield, especially away from home - why? Because it works, that's why. I felt very sorry for Mikel Arteta the day after, he was slaughtered in the press and the blogs. He didn't play well (he wasn't alone), but the way the manager sets up the team at the outset of the game causes Arsenal significant problems time and time again. Dortmund were very unlucky not to score early in Tuesday's match, and if they had, as opposed to scoring just before and after half time, we would have suffered a battering. Any shape we had would have evaporated and the gaps would have been huge.

This is not about whether Ozil is being played on the wing or centrally by the way. It's about marrying the right attitude with the right shape. On the morning of the game on BBC Radio 5 Live, John Lukic said that Arsenal should set out to get a point in Germany. He was spot on. We should have expected BVB, in front of a huge, vocal crowd, to start quickly, and the smart move would have been to play Arteta and, one of Ramsey, Wilshere or Oxlade-Chamberlaine, in front of the back four. Ozil and Sanchez needed to drop deeper and stay there, until the impetus of the early attacks had been weathered, it's simple, get enough men behind the ball and make it difficult for them.

I'm conscious of a contradiction here (having maintained that Arsenal needed two holding midfielders), but in a competitive game of football, players have to make decisions about where they need to be on the pitch at certain times, especially when they haven't got the ball. They are allowed to move and change positions, they're grown ups, it's not table football, they are not pinioned at a specific point because they are attached to a steel rod.

Tomorrow we go to Villa Park for  3pm kick off - how nostalgic! Villa are on the move again, the management team of Lambert and Keane are working well and making an impact. So the smart thing to do, would be to assume that it's going to be a tough afternoon and that for large periods of the game, we won't have the ball. Arsenal should play Welbeck (more about him in a future blog) in front of three midfielders - Oxlade-Chamberlaine on the left, Ozil in the middle and Sanchez on the right and behind these, Ramsey and Wilshere as deeper lying holding players. Will Mr Wenger pick that team? Probably not, he never does what I think he should do and he's the man in charge with the track record etc...

It's not just about who you pick though, it's about the decisions they make.

Worse of all, I'm still none the wiser why we had to play in that awful blue strip, looks like something from Gladiators.

By Ian Byrne

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Arsenal's Transfer Window - Missed Opportunity?

Credit where credit is due, when the window opened, if I thought we would end the period with Sanchez, Debuchy, Ospina, Wellbeck and Chambers I'd have been happy, to be honest I would have complained about spending £16 million on an unproven 19 year old, but hindsight and a few promising appearances are wonderful things. As it is, we have spent £82 million (that's a fortune in our terms) on some very good footballers. 

However, we didn't buy a replacement for Vermaelen and the fabled defensive midfielder's capture still eludes us. I do believe that we looked at some alternatives for the former but it didn't happen and although we did bid for Carvallho, we pitched up short. I think this points to a dual flaw; despite the reputed change in the decision making structure at Arsenal, in that the manager now recommends players and the recruitment team does the deals, Wenger's influence is still too keenly felt. Of course he's the manager, but look at the relative merits of those brought in this summer.

The manager has always been in thrall of existing superstar players (he just never signed that many) and as soon as the Emirates induced financial drought abated, he bought Ozil, so he couldn't resist Sanchez - and thank heavens he didn't, he's a top, marquee signing of the type we've been shouting for. Furthermore, Wenger loves to be seen as the prime mover in the development of young players (overall he's done this successfully) so the £16 million for Chambers was a classic Wenger buy. Debuchy, Ospina and Wellbeck are established, highly rated club players with some international pedigree.

So it seems to me that as long as Wenger is calling the tune, we will see Arsenal players selected in his image and the direction the manager wants us to take and continue to follow. The second issue is more do with organisational structure. The blueprint (excuse the pun) for talent acquisition in the premier league, is Manchester City. Every season, they sit down in October to assess their targets for both windows and endeavor to complete the signings early in both periods. They have the right people in place and are capable of working on multiple targets concurrently. Arsenal don't do this, on the last day of the window, our leader absented himself to manage a team in a friendly in a Rome.

If Arsenal had signed Carvallho and Hummels as well as the existing five signatures, as supporters we'd be in seventh heaven. Not signing  a centre half to replace Vermaelen was plain lazy and stupid. We now have three players to cover two positions and only two established proponents in these vital roles - not good enough. It is often said that Wenger does not acknowledge defence as an equal component to attack in footballing terms, the lack of new additions in this area of the team confirms this.

Moving forward, the next two signings at the club need to address this weakness in the squad - will it happen? Your guess its as good as mine, but overall, from an attacking perspective, an excellent window. I'm especially interested to see how young Danny Wellbeck does, and I like the prospect of the club playing more British players, whether this is intentional or not.

By Ian Byrne

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Alexis Sanchez must not be the new Arshavin - bad news for Giroud

Andrey Arshavin was one of the most talented footballers Arsenal Football Club have signed in the last ten years. He offered Arsenal just about everything a forward should; pace, vision, passing ability, shooting, dribbling, the lot - not great in the air though...
In his first half season (he was signed in the January 2009 window), he made 15 appearances, scored six goals and made nine. At this juncture, our esteemed leader was keen to use Arshavin in his favoured role, essentially a wide player given a license to roam. His first league goal, against Blackburn Rovers, was a work of genius, he danced the ball in from the right wing, executing a flick finish from a ludicrously tight angle.
Arshavin went on to stagger Arsenal supporters and staff with a four goal haul against Liverpool at Anfield, the first time a player had scored four goals in away fixture since the second world war. This was a real player, someone who could score and make goals in bucket loads and had the unusual ability to change a game in an instant.
The following season, Arshavin scored ten goals in thirty appearances, the season after that he scored six in thirty seven. So what was the reason for these diminishing returns? Quite simply, when he was played, he was used a wide player, a winger prompted to push the ball down the line, to supply drag backs for the increasingly erratic Adebayor. To his credit, he plugged away, but it was clear to everyone that Wenger had lost confidence in the player and the Arsenal crowd, always very quick to turn on one of it's own (Ramsey the season before last for example), joined in.
It was only a matter of time before, Arshavin was loaned back to Zenit St Petersburg and he leaves a very shallow footprint in Arsenal's history. Arsenal supporters lack of appreciation of genuine talent is nothing new, I had contemporaries who loved, really loved Malcolm MacDonald (massively over-rated goal grabber), but couldn't stand Brian Talbot - who was twice as important to the team. Look at the abuse Gilberto Silva received, in actual fact, he was one of the most effective footballers I've seen in a red and white shirt. When supporters lament the lack of the club's success in replacing Patrick Vieira (impossible), what they really mean is we can't replace Silva.
This leads to me to my central concern over our new signing from Barcelona.
Firstly, it's critical he's played in his chosen position. Apparently, Sanchez is possessed of an open, good humoured personality. His disposition may need to serve him well. Although, he is keen to play through the middle (actually making runs in the old fashioned inside right and left channels), Wenger's comment that "we need to assess where he plays best - he is very flexible" causes more than a frisson of concern. He made his first start for Arsenal in the pre-season game against Monaco, Sanchez started on the wide right, with the comparatively pedestrian Giroud through the middle.
The result wasn't great, Arsenal were far more fluid the day before, when Joel Campbell and Sanogo played. It's great that Arsenal have options and the manager will be able to rotate the team this season, but he needs to know "his best eleven". In my mind, that entails Alexis Sanchez leading the line with Giroud being used as an impact centre forward.
Let's learn the lesson of recent history, play Sanchez where he can really damage our opponents. The only person happier about his signature than me and you, is Mesut Ozil.
By Ian Byrne
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Wenger's Time Machine - Back to 2000/2001?

With thirty three days still to run in the current transfer window, Arsenal have signed four players. Like most bloggers, I have spent a great deal of time bemoaning the club's lack of tangible transfer activity, however, I have been more than pleasantly surprised by Arsenal's acquisitions so far this summer.
Whether the £64 million spent so far is a reaction to the club finally winning a trophy, or more likely, a significant change in Wenger's contractual participation in transfers is moot, but let's face it, these are very good signings. I was just about to cross the Channel Tunnel when the BBC confirmed that Arsenal had completed the transfer of Alexis Sanchez. To be frank, when Arsenal have been linked with world class footballers in the past, I have a feeling of momentary excitement, only for common sense to arrive and trample all over any degree of anticipation. So when I read reports of Wenger meeting Sanchez in the World  Cup, I almost immediately discounted them.
Gradually the story gathered pace, finally being confirmed on July 11th. It is a huge signing. Sanchez is not only one of the best players in the world, but he is also exactly what we need. Last season's marquee signing Ozil, became Europe's King of the Assist at Real Madrid, by firing passes into the channels in front of Cristiano Ronaldo. Sanchez offers the same outlet, speed and finishing expertise. So, congratulations to the acquisition team at Arsenal. The club has been crying out for a world class striker and we have picked one up for £35 million, a snip, less than half of a Suarez or a Rodriguez.
It was disappointing to see Bacary Sagna leave, but Debuchy is a great replacement and young Chambers is a very interesting addition to the squad. I have a feeling that he'll make a mark in the team, but not as a right back. I wouldn't be surprised to see him as a deep midfielder. Having signed a good goal keeper in Ospina, Arsenal must strengthen in the defensive midfield area, the cash is obviously available and there are viable alternatives out there. If you are going to spend £16 million on a 19 year old with less than 20 league appearances, then surely we can spend £20 - £25 million  on a top class defensive midfield player?
The last time Arsenal spent heavily and brought in significant numbers of players was 2000 - 2001. Over a 12 month period, the club recruited Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Lauren, Edu, Wiltord and Kolo Toure, among others. These footballers were crucial to the double winning team of 2002 as well as the Invincibles. Primarily funded by the sale of Overmars and Petit, the ambition of the transfers served the double purpose of strengthening the squad as well as the supporter's sense of themselves and their relationship with their club.
If Arsenal go on to recruit a central midfielder and a central defender, I think the feeling of that time can be emulated. Admitedley, Wenger was building on a better side 14 years ago, but Arsenal have got the trophy-less monkey off their back and finished only 7 points behind the northern lottery winners in a season when key players were missing for huge chunks of the season.
So for once, the future's looking bright, the future's red and white?

By Ian Byrne
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Play Rooney - Drop Gerrard

Big game tonight, England have to avoid defeat to have a chance of progressing to the last 16 of the World Cup. A draw might suffice, but it would be nice for England supporters (and novel...) if the national team could finish the group with back to back victories.
There was quite a lot of froth surrounding the defeat to Italy. These days the hacks place unity of opinion very highly and there are very few voices of dissent but they were broadly correct, that in patches England played quite well. Raheem Sterling was excellent, when he had the ball and the forwards also worked well when they didn't have the ball. However, the Italians are masters of tactical preparation and their decision to attack Leighton Baines as opposed to Glen Johnson was very effective.
Steven Gerrard was never in the game, Jordan Henderson didn't feature, Wayne Rooney didn't provide any degree of cover for the hapless Baines and the back four looked shaky as a unit. On top of this we leaked a goal from a set piece and our marking for the winner was all over the place. So, all in all, if the press had decided to go for the jugular, there was ample evidence to do so. However, I get the impression that the media like Roy Hodgson and therefore he's being cut a good heft of slack.
The Manchester United punditry crew (count them on BBC - there's enough for a seven a side team), have been keen to talk about the undue pressure of attention on Wayne Rooney. The agenda seems to be, not whether or not he should play, but where. Rooney's goal record at major competitions, with the exception of Euro 2004, is abject. But he is fit and he has had a good season. In a way, he's the apposite of Danny Wellbeck, who is actually effective for England but very ordinary for his club side. Despite this, Rooney should play and he should start behind Sturridge. I think that in the unlikely event of Rooney scoring, he'll score again, he looks like he's suffering from a sharp bout of constipation.
The keeper is a no-brainer and I would stick with the same back four. I'd play Sterling - Rooney - Sturridge - Wellbeck again. However, I'd change the midfield, rather than the Liverpool duo of Gerrard and Henderson (one can't run, the other isn't good enough), I would pick Lampard and Milner. This won't happen of course, Hodgson will definitely pick Gerrard and Henderson again. But the manager can improve on his tactical performance and substitution decisions. Roy has said, quite rightly, that World Cup games are 14 man matches. Therefore, when it's not working - change it. That means that Barkley and Wilshere should feature earlier if and when England's passing gets stodgy.
Having three or four mobile, technical strikers is one thing, but if you can't get the ball to them, they're not much use to England. This Uruguay team has two great strikers in Suarez and Cavani, but their midfield is pedestrian and they are missing two defenders (one injured, one banned), so the game is there for the taking.
By Ian Byrne
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Arsenal Speculation - Anxious days before the World Cup

We are in the phony war that proceeds every transfer window with the additional interest provided by the World Cup being staged in Brazil.
The righteous and completely necessary investigation into FIFA's award of the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar in extremely murky circumstances shouldn't colour the award of the imminent competition to Brazil. If England is the birthplace of modern football, then Brazil is the emotional centre of the sport in the 20th and 21st centuries. Personally, I can't wait for the first game between Brazil and Croatia on the 12th of June and although I anticipate that matches in the "classic" bracket will be in short supply, the tournament is in Brazil for good reasons and the atmosphere surrounding the games will be extraordinary. There have been teething problems, construction delays and tragically, fatalities but Brazil is a country finding it's feet in the first world and has deserved the award of the 2014 World Cup.
This can't be said for Qatar, Russia I can understand to a degree, although I am almost certain that money has changed hands to secure the 2018 tournament. But Qatar? If you fancy some interesting and illuminating holiday reading, try Andrew Jennings book: Foul! It explores how and what FIFA has become, and it's an extraordinary tale of back scratching, corruption, bribery, threats and malevolence. In the midst of the book, you find yourself reaching the conclusion that how come it took so long for Qatar (or a similar "country") to be awarded the World Cup? Sadly, a country's expectation of being awarded the finals is directly related to the financial leverage it can apply.
Back to matters Arsenal. We have two representatives in the English squad, but a further ten will be playing for France, Germany, Belgium, South Korea, Spain and Costa Rica. Over the next few weeks I'll blog about their involvement and I'm sure we'll all tune in to see how our players fare in the games that they play in. We'll also look for indications as to who the manager will sign, the World Cup is a fantastic shop window, but it's too easy to find yourself buying the Emperor's new clothes. Hands up who remembers Liverpool signing Salif Diao, world cup hero, Anfield zero? Incidences of similar mistakes are legion. So you have to be careful, which is why I feel confident in Mr Wenger's judgement, if anything, he's anatomically programmed to demonstrate extreme caution at all times.

But what do we need? Definitely a right back and a goalkeeper to replace Sagna and Flappers, but also a centre forward and a holding midfield player. Current betting has Arsenal being linked with Serge Aurier, Lars Bender and Wilfredo Caballero. As for strikers, the vacuum of information has raised speculation temperatures to the heights of linking Mario Balotelli to Arsenal, blimey! You'd have thought the football writers would be far too busy with the World Cup then to come up with stories that far fetched.
Like me, you probably check "newsnow" or a similar aggreagator on a fairly regular basis. My advice - ignore them, their business model is as transparent as FIFA's is not. They work on the premise that you'll be sufficiently exercised by a link to a story about Cesc Fabregas buying a copy of the Islington Gazette to click on the link in the vain hope you'll then explore every advertiser on their page/site. Don't do it, don't fall for it. Protect your own mental health and just enjoy the football.
By Ian Byrne
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Arsenal win the FA Cup! Will it be 1930 or 1979?

Let’s start with the good news – we won the Cup! Arsenal’s first trophy in nine years and a record 11th FA Cup victory. I was delighted for the manager (the recent painful years melted away from him in the moments after the whistle), the players and critically, us, the fans, the poor mugs that pay for everything. This was an exceptional match as opposed to an exceptional game of football.

If you are going to give your opposition a two goal lead; at least have the good sense to do so in the first ten minutes. In three of their most important matches of the season, Arsenal conceded very early; in the FA Cup final as well as the league matches at Liverpool and Chelsea – Arsenal let in 8 goals within the first 20 minutes. Mr Wenger decided to start with his 2nd choice goal keeper and although I wouldn’t blame Fabianski directly for either goal, I think Szezesny commands his goal area with more authority and gives his defenders more confidence.

Arsenal’s defensive shape was once again chaotic, irrespective of whether you mark man for man or zonally, you have to take responsibility for your actions and defend your goal in a professional manner. When Arsenal had a corner for example, Hull City packed the six yard box forming a wall of black and amber, Arsenal left pockets of space all over the area which were too easily exploited. This may be the ugly side of the game, but it is the side which Arsenal have to improve upon.

Hull City were very spirited but also played very good football in the first 20 minutes, in fact they started the final as well as any team I can remember. They moved the ball well; they had a game plan that comprised getting the ball to the wide areas and then hitting Arsenal in its soft centre, Hull also played for set pieces and, it has to be said, pressed every advantage from the early stages of the game, including time wasting in from the first minute.

From 2-0 down, Arsenal hit back in emphatic style, Alex Bruce (as good as anyone on the pitch on the day), gave away a na├»ve free kick which Santi Cazorla dispatched just under the cross bar with superb skill. From this moment on, I believed that Arsenal would win, but didn’t we make long, hard work of it? This was due, in part, to Hull’s obdurate resistance but also to the joint effect of Giroud having one of his off days and let’s face it, he has to be at the top of his game to be good enough to play for Arsenal and Podolski deciding to play hide and seek for 50 minutes. Add to the mix, the lack of pace we suffer when Theo Walcott is unavailable, Ozil choosing to play only the last half hour, giving the ball away cheaply….

Still as the game went on, Arsenal did exert telling pressure and improved, I felt we grew into the game and improved when Podolski was replaced by Sanogo. I can’t help but like this lad, but he makes Niall Quinn look like Johan Cruyff. However, he was game, he showed for the ball and his sheer gangly, cluttered enthusiasm seemed to upset Hull’s back three, in part due to his habit of doing precisely the opposite of what was expected of him. Maybe I’ve got him wrong and he’s actually a genius, and I’m sure he’ll improve, but the performances of all three of our “strikers” demonstrate why we need to spend a significant sum on a proven central forward in the summer.

Hats off to Laurent Koscielny, who was excellent from the point we were 2-0 down. He was both sharp and brave to score the equaliser, albeit from a corner that wasn’t. A quick memo to Steve Bruce here, I agree it wasn’t a corner, but by the same token, you are supposed to take free kicks from the point of the offence, not nine yards further forward (nine yards!!) and had you been playing your old club Manchester United, you would have conceded at least two and probably three penalties.

I think the manager delayed bringing on Wilshere and Rosicky for too long, but as the match went into extra time, it was becoming clear that their introduction was crucial. Hull were tiring badly and as gaps appeared Arsenal’s player of the season, Aaron Ramsey, hit a perfect shot into the bottom right corner. There was still time for Hull to go close twice, but after 90 seconds of injury time, the whistle went and Arsenal had won the FA Cup.

The question is, will it be like winning the 1930 final, which heralded a platform for a period of genuine competitive status in fact, dominance, or 1979, which stands alone in between two sterile eight year trophy droughts?

Apparently, our manager will sign a new three year contract today, whether Saturday’s victory is a precursor to an era of genuine challenge or a one off, is largely down to him. It was good to see our owner at Wembley, hopefully this peculiarly granite reptilian might have been moved by the sight of how his employees and “fan base” react to actually winning something? We will see.

I’ve not written a blog since my father passed away on May 4th. My love of football was passed to me directly by Jim Byrne, a lifelong Celtic supporter who loved to see attacking, passing football. He idolised Charlie Tully, the star of Celtic’s 1950’s team and saw Real Madrid destroy Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960 at Hampden Park. He coached a local football team from also rans to unbeatables and claimed that the Spanish World Cup winning team had stolen his coaching ideas!

One of my favourite memories was of Dad at the Emirates, approaching Paul Davis and chatting with him amiably about how Arsenal had moved the ball that afternoon and comparing it to the late 80’s midfield. Paul couldn’t have been nicer. Goodbye to a real football man – RIP Dad.

By Ian Byrne

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Arsenal - Mind the Gap

I really enjoyed both semi-finals in the Champions League this week, two fantastic performances from the Madrid teams. It’s been fascinating to see the subtle shift away from possession passing this season, as both Barcelona and Guardiola’s Bayern have been out thought and out fought by Atletico and Real respectively. Does this mean the end of tiki-taka? Probably not, but it has demonstrated that virtues such as strength, shape, determination, and power are equally important as movement and passing.

It also underlines the gap between the two Madrid teams and Arsenal. We have a lot of ground to cover to catch up and that assumes that the Spanish sides will stand still. Of course, Atletico will sell two or three players to balance their books and ultimately Diego Simeone will move on, probably to Italy, but they seem to have the knack of sourcing and attracting high quality players on a budget. Real are possibly the biggest club side in the world and their performance against the so called wunderkinds of Munich was fabulous, people wax lyrical about Ronaldo, but Modric demonstrated what a class act he is and fair play to Bale, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see the young Welshman choke at the Bernabeu, which he certainly hasn’t.

Of course, Arsenal’s immediate challenge is to compete with Manchester City and Chelsea, but it’s a useful exercise to compare and contrast against the best in Europe, especially as our manager covets the European Champions League trophy above all others and it appears a racing certainty that he will be top man at Arsenal until 2016. The truth is that we are a country mile behind a team that we beat 1-0 in their own ground on the way to the final in 2006. For a simple reason, they have better footballers who seem to be far more motivated to win the biggest of games.

As its season ticket renewal time, expect our CEO to trumpet the depth of our transfer chest, but someone needs to unlock it and we need to start the process of buying the five or six players we need sooner rather than later. I think we need to emulate Manchester City, in one respect, they have an army of scouts and executives in play, which allows them to execute their transfer business quickly and early in the cycle. I’m always unsure whether Dick Law is a real person or just a composite name given to Arsenal’s transfer department, but if he really exists, he needs to have a good summer. Its World Cup year, so buying the best players is that much more competitive.

I read this morning that we are being linked with (I hate that phrase), Lars Bender. The young German is a type of player that we need to attract, but our sharpest need is for a striker. Giroud does a job, Podolski – who I really rate, doesn’t seem to have the confidence of the management team for whatever reason and Sanogo will get better, but is very raw. Therefore, we need at least one central striker with genuine pace. We will also need to replace the players that are leaving, that’s a right back, centre half and goal keeper.
Irrespective of who we seek to sign, Arsenal also need to address the thorny issue of wages moving forward. Bacary Sagna will leave in the summer (and fair play to him, he’s been great for Arsenal) and if he ends up with the northern lottery winners he will treble his wages. Why will Manchester United be able to attract top players without being in the Champions League? Because they pay their centre forward £300,000 a week and a 31 year old with dodgy knees £250,000.
I’ve been quite impressed with the way Arsenal have equipped themselves in the last three games, nine points, nine goals and only one conceded. As usual, we finish the season proficiently as we have to, to ensure Champions League qualification. However, at some point after, hopefully, Arsenal have won the FA Cup, the board need to sit down with the manager and his team and decide what the limit of this club’s ambitions really are. Do Arsenal, with the best stadium in Europe’s greatest city, really want to win the most prestigious European competition? I think they do, the question is, are they prepared to spend the cash necessary to do so.
By Ian Byrne
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Arsenal V West Ham - Gunners spike Hammers

First things first, it's always a great pleasure to beat a team managed by Thugster in Chief, Sam Allardyce. No matter how poorly regarded Arsene Wenger might be by sections of Arsenal supporters, he is still streets ahead in the popularity stakes in relation to the low esteem in which Allardyce is held by the majority of West Ham supporters. Brought up on teams that, from the mid-1950’s looked to continental Europe for inspiration, training generations of young footballers that passing the ball on the floor was the only way to play the game, West Ham fans must be spitting blood having to pay to watch the football this troglodyte turns out. He’s lucky that the porn baron and knicker seller that he reports to are equally dismissive of West Ham’s traditions. Surely if the Cearns family were still in charge, he’d be facing the exit door? More likely, he’d never have been hired in the first place. Sam if your own supporters boo you when you lose it’s not good, but when they boo you after you’ve won?
The game itself was predictable. When Arsenal score first in a game it’s a case of okay! When Arsenal concede first, it’s a case of oh no! Characteristically, we were far too open in the first 20 minutes and hadn’t set up to counter West Ham’s (very obvious) tactic of using their wide men with an inevitable diagonal cross to Andy Carroll, who fortunately for Arsenal, looked every inch the cart-horse he has become. Surely this isn’t the same player who scored against us in a Newcastle shirt three and a half years ago and who led the line brilliantly that day? Kim Kallstrom looks like a player, he reads the game and it was interesting that it was he who used his positioning to alter the shape of the midfield, as opposed to the established players, Arteta and Rosicky. I’m a big Tomas Rosicky supporter but he let himself down last night, specifically when he gave the ball away very carelessly and then reacted by kicking out and getting booked – stupid.
I’m starting to get the impression that we have become a “mood team”. Consider the performance of Santi Cazorla. I’m with Charlie Nicholas on this; he has gone missing from whole matches and rarely delivers the quality he threatens to. Last night, in the 24th minute, he collects the ball, with a delightful change of feet, loses two markers and slips the ball into the area for the non-existent Giroud (more of him later) to run onto. Santi, now in a stare of high gudgeon, decides that he will actually turn in a shift which eventually results in a great through ball to Podolski for the equaliser. Fortunately for us, the “mood” improved in the second half when Arsenal scored early enough to remember that they are a far better team than West Ham and decided to give them a football lesson. What would have happened if the score at half time had been 1-0 to West Ham?

What Cazorla’s performance also underlines is that it’s not just the manager who is desperate to play in the Champions League.
We have four league games left and an FA Cup Final, surely the manager has to swallow the inevitable and play Podolski. He is unlikely to track back and is one dimensional, but when that one dimension comprises making good runs into the box with a hammer of a left foot able to smash the ball past the best goal keepers – play him. Giroud on the other hand is increasingly looking like a stodgy version of Mark Viduka – just not good enough, play him too and then sell him in the summer. Good to see Aaron Ramsey having such a positive impact on the game however, his header for Podolski's second was superb.
On the topic of signings, I thought that the best player on the night was Matt Jarvis. He’s exactly the type of player that our polymath manager would never consider signing – far too conventionally English premiership. He looked very sharp, ran the line very well, worked hard and crossed the ball brilliantly.
Finally, I’d like to comment on the Hillsborough Commemoration Service yesterday. It was nicely done, very Liverpool and I can’t be the only football supporter who is wondering how many more layers of depth and quality does Roberto Martinez have?

By Ian Byrne
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Arsenal V Wigan Athletic - The most important game of the season, but to who?

On Saturday at seven minutes past five, we will kick off against Wigan Athletic, the current FA Cup holders but a team playing in the second division of English football. I think it’s very important to remember that it’s also been chosen as the day to mark the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. The FA’s idea of a minute’s silence at six minutes past the hour, followed immediately by the start of the match is both apt and sensitive; let’s hope it’s observed impeccably.

For a club like Arsenal, going 9 years without a trophy is ridiculous. If we beat Wigan, we’ll play either Hull City or Sheffield United in the final, it’s almost too easy. However, straight away, I’m concerned that we have a home game against West ham three days later. The Champions League is Wenger’s Holy Grail; I have two conflicting thoughts on the Wenger era since 2005. Firstly, that no other manager in the world could have kept Arsenal in the Champions League year after year, but secondly, through his desire to win this trophy, he has sacrificed Arsenal’s ability to win other trophies at the altar of this elusive competition.

The manager has already stated that Fabianski will start in goal, but news that Aaron Ramsey will also start the game, isn’t necessarily a sign that we will be fielding the strongest team available – he might feel that Ramsey needs another game in his legs before the real challenge, finishing forth (again….) I am also suspicious when I read reports that Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gibbs and Rosicky might be out injured, this starts to look like a continuation of the Wenger strategy of relegating the FA Cup and prioritising (pre) qualification for the Champions League.


I would go further; this has been the centre of Wenger’s seasonal planning and execution for so long, that we have acclimatised to this approach and accept it far too readily. Have a look at the teams in the Europa League quarter finals this evening and ask yourself, how many would we beat? I think three out of the eight. This necessarily shines a highly critical light on our manager and beggars the question as to what conversations actually take place between him and the board about targets set at the start of the season? Does anyone on the board have the backbone to insist that the club’s long suffering supporters are being asked (yet again) to fork out increasing amounts of cash for yet another repetition of the last season, and the one before that and so on….The reality is that not only do we need a new manager, we need to seriously ask questions of the board and most of all, our absent owner.

This is how a Wigan season ticket holder sees Saturday, Dean Goodfellow has been a regular at the DW Stadium for almost ten years:
"Tomorrow literally depends on which team he plays, typically he has been making between 4-5 changes a game! The general defence/midfield spine has remained the same though: Ramis/Boyce at the back, McArthur/Gomez in midfield with McManaman or Mclean wide and generally alternating games/halves.  
Up front I think he will play Fortune (not great) or he could plump for Powell (on loan) from United as Maynard is cup tied. Powell is a bit of a glory boy but is an undoubted talent at Championship level (Rosler plays him as a bit part player, not sure why). He also plays in midfield, supporting the front man so that could be an option (I would personally put him up front).
Ones to look out for:
 ·         McArthur (my man of the season) 150% commitment to the cause, Wigan just don’t look the same side without him. Didn’t play the 1st half against Millwall on Tuesday night and it was a shocking performance, he came on at the start of the 2nd and there was a noticeable difference.
·         McManaman or Mclean both wide men with pace in attack, not scared to run at defenders.
·         Boyce the fans favourite (150% every week)
·         Ramis solid and never panics! Even though he was about to jump ship twice in January but failed both medicals – he’s doing great for a crock.
 One who could make a difference is Gomez, it depends on which Jordi turns up though – he will either flourish or flounder. Maloney off the bench could make a difference but has only had one comeback game."

Nevertheless, any Arsenal team should beat Wigan Athletic. They played brilliantly to win the FA Cup last year, but they were relegated and sold three of their best footballers. I’d be keen to see Ramsey play alongside Kim Kallstrom. Wembley is a big pitch, similar to the dimensions of the pitch at The Emirates. Flamini is suspended; Arteta looks cooked, rest him for Tuesday night and try the Welshman and the Swede as a holding two, with Ramsey being encouraged to get forward when he can. He looked fresh when he came on against Everton, the only bright spot of the afternoon. My feeling is that since Giroud played out that comedy with that “model” before the away game at Anfield, his form has been in the khasi, but I would assume that he will feature up front and I would definitely start young Gnabry, his pace and directness will terrify Wigan. I also think that this game is nicely set for the recently disappointing Santi Cazorla. He owes his manager, and us, a game.

So let’s enjoy the afternoon, respect the occasion and demonstrate to the manager and the board how important the FA Cup is to us, the supporters, by raising the roof.

By Ian Byrne


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