Arsenal FC vs Southampton FC

The build-up to this game could not have been worse. The atmosphere at Arsenal has been about as toxic as it’s ever been, on par with Arsene Wenger’s final years certainly.

The players have not been performing. There’s been a distinct lack of style and organisation on the pitch and results have suffered. Recent outrage and controversy surrounding Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil have left the club reeling inside and out. Arsenal FC are once again a laughing stock.

The blame has largely fallen on the shoulders of one man, Arsenal’s head coach Unai Emery.

The fanbase are almost unanimous in their belief that Emery is no longer the man to take this famous club forward. Everyone has their own method of voicing their opinion but ultimately the belief is the same: Emery is not the man for the job.

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Heading into this game, this Saturday 3pm kickoff against Southampton FC, many hoped Emery would be out of the picture but alas the Spaniard is still here, still in charge (seemingly). Our North London neighbours didn’t dither with the uncertainty surrounding their manager; Spurs spent the international break facilitating the release of Mauricio Pochettino and hiring of Jose Mourinho. A match made in heaven.

Arsenal, for some inconceivable reason, are sticking to their guns, stating that Emery has the full support of the board and the club. Results must improve though, because it’s clear he’s on borrowed time. After a string of limp and uninspiring performances, the visit of Southampton had become a must win game – dropping points to relegation candidates is no longer acceptable. It never was.

With that in mind I caught the train into London around midday and met my Dad, brother and nephew for a quick lunch. Central London was in full Christmas shopping mode already, which made finding somewhere to sit down and eat a chore – we settled on a nearby Shake Shack. Good burgers, great fries, and an outstanding milkshake left me a happy man. With our bellies full, Dad and I bid farewell to the others and headed north.

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Usually when I go to Arsenal I like to get there early and take in all the sights, browse the shop, go to the pub and all that. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been before, it’s still part of my matchday ritual. However, Dad isn’t quite as sentimental, so on this occasion we got to our seats with 15 minutes to spare.

Within minutes of the kickoff, we wished we hadn’t bothered going at all.

I’m not going to do a full match analysis. By now you already know what happened and that’s not really what this blog is for.

I will say that right from the start we could tell Emery’s tactics were wrong. He opted to play five at the back but this did nothing to stem the Southampton attacks. Arsenal were outnumbered in midfield and couldn’t deal with the Saints’ press, especially when they insisted on playing out from the back, something this squad are just not capable of doing. When Danny Ings scored after 8 minutes to give the visitors the lead, it felt inevitable. Arsenal simply could not stop surrendering chances.

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Alexandre Lacazette equalised after 18 minutes but despite the fine build-up and finish for the goal, it did nothing to upset the tone Southampton had already set; they continued to press and move effectively through a non-existent Arsenal midfield. The referee didn’t help matters and was generally abysmal in everything he did.

At half time Dad and I discussed changes and I felt one of the centre backs needed to be sacrificed for a substitute, preferably Pepe. Emery must have been listening, as that was exactly the change he made at the break.

Pepe’s introduction initially brought some balance to the side but it was clear to all that the Ivorian’s confidence is dangerously low. He missed what was essentially a one-on-one that could have changed the game entirely, the winger opting to pass instead of shoot, only to see his lame attempt blocked and cleared. Pepe also saw a scuffed attempt ricochet off the bar, after a great run and cross from left back Kieran Tierney. Pepe never recovered from the setback and was largely absent from the action for the rest of the game.

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With just under 20 minutes remaining Southampton were awarded a penalty, and I got to experience my first VAR moment in person. I don’t enjoy VAR when I watch on TV and I am firmly in the “VAR is shit” camp when attending games in person. Bernd Leno made a fantastic save to deny James Ward-Prowse from the spot but the ball fell kindly to the Englishman and he made no mistake with the rebound, 2-1 to Southampton.

Things were turning ugly in the stands, and emotions and anger were poured onto the players and manager from all sections of the stadium. Southampton deserved their lead wholeheartedly and should have increased their advantage more than once. Only wasteful finishing saved Arsenal’s further embarrassment.

Finally relief came, and it was Lacazette on hand again to salvage a point in the dying moments of injury time (an astounding 7 minutes, thanks to VAR and Southampton’s endless time wasting). Gabriel Martinelli, on as a late substitute, crossed from the left to pick out Lacazette in the box and the Frenchman made no mistake poking the ball home for 2-2. He didn’t celebrate though, and the team must have known that rescuing a draw at home to 19th placed Southampton is not nearly good enough.

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More booing from the fans followed the final whistle and despite Laca’s late goal, there was no joy to be found from it. A 2-2 draw is better than a 2-1 loss of course, but given the circumstances and the expectations, this Arsenal performance was about as bad as I’ve ever witnessed. The heat surrounding Emery continues to rise and surely a decision about his future will be made sooner rather than later.

Dad and I filed out of the Emirates with the other supporters and began the journey home. In the week building up to the game I was seriously considering buying the new Arsenal home shirt, as Adidas have done such a great job with our kits this year. I delayed my purchase though, and decided that if the team played well on the day, I would reward myself with buying the shirt after the match was over. If the team played awful, then I wouldn’t give the club more money they didn’t deserve.

So in hindsight, at least I saved myself £60. You can always find a silver lining if you look close enough. Even, apparently, at Arsenal Football Club.

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AFC Bournemouth vs Manchester City

Champs Defeat Cherries 1-0

Everything was set up for a perfect Saturday. In the morning I had planned to meet my friends in the pub and settle into a prime spot for the North London Derby. The afternoon would be spent at nearby Twerton Park, taking in Bath City’s promotion push against Truro City. I had it all mapped out, a great day of football.

Then an offer too good to refuse just dropped in my lap.

How would you like two tickets to go see Bournemouth take on Manchester City? For free?

I would have been mad to turn down such an opportunity, and so it was that I found myself on a train bound for sunny Bournemouth, and not in the cosy confines of the local pub.

Born and raised in the shires of south Dorset, a journey back to the county of my birth is always a trip I enjoy, and having only recently visited Bournemouth in the summer, I was excited to return and see Eddie Howe’s Cherries once again. The hosts had the unenviable task of facing Pep Guardiola’s squad of stars, the sky blue juggernaut that is Manchester City. A tiny part of me must admit how excited I was at the prospect of seeing those world class players in person.

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Before I delve too deep into the details of this trip, I should probably answer the question you’re surely asking:

How did you get these tickets for FREE?

Camila, our dearest friend and fellow Bath City supporter, was able to acquire the pair of tickets from a friend of hers but sadly for Camila, work commitments prevented her from attending, which is how they found their way into the grubby mitts of Caleb and I. Camila, being the best person in the world, offered them to us at no charge, purely out of kindness (and possibly blackmail… what does she have on me?) There are not enough thank yous in the world to bestow upon our favourite Colombian, but hopefully this little gift will show some of our appreciation.

Thanks to her incredible generosity, Caleb and I pulled into Bournemouth station at midday and met my uncle, a fan of the Cherries for over 60 years. A short drive to the ground followed and as it was Caleb’s first visit to the Vitality, a trip to the club store was a must. The club had their replica shirts reduced by 50%, down to the bargain price of £22.50, and it took all my willpower to resist purchasing one. I had already succumbed to temptation on my last visit, buying one of the navy Umbro training jackets (seen in this post’s pics), but the thought of adding another football shirt to my collection definitely crossed my mind.

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As kickoff to the North London derby approached, the three of us made our way to the 1910 club bar so we could watch the game on their big screens. My uncle was very patient indulging two Arsenal fans for 90 minutes and a late penalty miss. He was even kind enough not to pile on our misery at dropping two points. Despite the result, the bar was a great place to enjoy the game, a very relaxed atmosphere and it was quick and easy to get drinks.

When the final whistle blew at Wembley we left the bar and went straight into the ground, just as the teams were completing their warm-ups. Being in the southern stand we had the Man City players in front of us and for about 5-10 minutes we geeked out. “Oh my god that’s Aguero! There’s Sterling! Look how close we are to Ederson, I can see his shit neck tattoo!” I must admit I was a little giddy to see Mikel Arteta just a few feet away as well, one of my favourite Arsenal midfielders in recent years and Pep’s right-hand man.

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The sunshine in the morning had disappeared by this stage and the sea breeze off the coast brought it’s distinctive winter chill. It finally felt like attending a game in early March. We found our seats (with generous legroom) and settled in for the show.

The game was a tightly contested affair, albeit dominated entirely by the team in blue. That sentence may seem contradictory but Bournemouth were impressive in their organisation and resilience, and did a fantastic job containing the City threat. Bournemouth’s Dutch centre back Nathan Ake stood out in particular, and shepherded his defensive line to repel the City attacks again and again.

With the visitors enjoying 82% of possession, Bournemouth were so busy defending that whenever they did win the ball, they couldn’t do anything with it. Even young playmaker David Brooks, a revelation since signing last summer, was unable to get the Bournemouth attack going. The hosts were simply missing too many key players to give City a real test, as Callum Wilson, Lewis Cook, Jefferson Lerma, and a host of others missed out due to injury or suspension. Bournemouth ended the game with nothing to show in terms of attacking purpose: no shots, no shots on target, not even a lousy corner.

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City on the other hand were essentially flawless, with Guardiola classing this as one of their best ever performances in his post-match interview. At times it was like watching a training ground exercise, the players were so at ease keeping the ball, moving it around to tease the Bournemouth players out of position. Defensively, they never let Bournemouth enjoy a moment on the ball without pressure from every angle.

Even when Kevin De Bruyne and John Stones were forced into substitution through injury, City’s rhythm and playing style was not effected in the slightest.

In fact, it was substitute Riyad Mahrez who got the goal to secure the result for his Manchester brethren. Ten minutes into the second half and with City’s pressure starting to mount, young Ukrainian left back Oleksandr Zinchenko (who was immense all day) worked well down the flank to get the ball to David Silva. The Spaniard brought the ball under control and fed it out wide to Mahrez, whose first time strike seemed a little scruffy, but had enough zip to beat Artur Boruc at his near post. On the replay, Boruc will be devastated he let the relatively tame effort get by him without more resistance.

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After the restart Boruc did everything in his power to redeem himself, as he single-handedly kept the scoreline respectable for the rest of the afternoon. City’s hold on the game only intensified when they took the lead and multiple efforts from Aguero, Sterling and Mahrez were all beaten away by the big Pole in goal. He deserved the man of the match award for keeping the result from getting out of hand.

Sadly his teammates were unable to muster any sort of response in the face of such overwhelming superiority. City simply had a better player in every position, and that’s to be expected given the financial gap between the two clubs (which I hate and disagree with immensely, but that’s a topic for another time). Even with the disappointing result, Bournemouth can take solace they weren’t on the end of a hammering like so many experience against Guardiola sides.

Eventually the referee brought an end to proceedings and we made our way out of the ground to the sight of the City players celebrating in front of their travelling support.

Despite wanting to see Bournemouth win (if I had such a thing as a second team, they would probably be it), I have to admit that seeing players like Aguero and Sterling at the peak of their powers, and just metres away from me, was a sight to behold.

That aspect of the football experience, seeing the best players in the world, is still a novelty to me, and one I treasure at that. I hope that feeling never wears off.

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Arsenal FC vs Huddersfield Town

Terrific Torreira Dispatches Terriers

With ten minutes remaining at the Emirates Stadium, my shoulders were beginning to sag as I slipped further down the back of my seat. The score was only 0-0 but my faith was beginning to wane. Not my faith in Arsenal and their players, but faith in myself.

My friend Mark often jokes that I am a bad luck charm at Arsenal. He has a point to be fair; we have only witnessed a single victory together, when a Santi Cazorla brace dispatched Aston Villa in 2013. Admittedly, my record at the Emirates with Mark has been mixed but on this day it began to grow decidedly negative. With time winding down and Arsenal still struggling for that crucial breakthrough goal, the familiar feeling of despair began to take hold. That cursed feeling.

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves though. Let’s start at the beginning.

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Mark was my companion for this Saturday journey to see Arsenal take on Huddersfield Town. An Arsenal fan since his early years, with legitimate family links to north London (unlike myself), Mark had only recently been to see them in action, and was lucky enough to be present for that classic north London derby win last weekend.

The Gunners entered the day on an impressive 20 game unbeaten streak, whereas their visitors from Yorkshire were hovering just above the relegation zone. Understandably spirits were high as we boarded our train, London bound.

As we transferred onto the tube and negotiated the changes between Paddington and Arsenal, Mark and I spotted a variety of other fans making their way to their respective games. A group of Oxford United fans decked out in blue and yellow caught Mark’s eye, as he hails from that land, and they reminisced about The U’s before we bid them farewell on their journey to Peterborough. It’s a large part of the enjoyment I get from the football commute, exchanging pleasantries with fans from different clubs. “Good luck today lads, although we’ll need it more than you I expect!”

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As we got closer to our destination we were met by other Gooners, including a father and son who had travelled down from Hull for their first game, and a young American chap taking his son to his first football experience. It’s amazing how something simple like football can bring people together from all over the world.

We soon emerged from Arsenal station and made the short walk to the ground. The wind was bitterly cold and whipped across our exposed ears, leading Mark towards the Armoury, in need of a new hat. We had arrived at the superstore pretty early and were lucky the crowds hadn’t filled up the aisles yet. Mark spent a few minutes picking out a knitted bobble beanie and new scarf, as well as a pair of the brilliant bruised banana socks I had also acquired a few weeks ago at the Wolves fixture. I showed remarkable restraint not to buy anything but the matchday programme.

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By now it was getting close to lunchtime so we set a course for the Holloway Road and Piebury Corner. I thoroughly enjoyed my recent visit there with my Dad and Caleb, and had waxed lyrical to Mark about these wondrous pies. He opted for the Dennis Bergkamp (chicken, ham and leek) with mash and gravy, and felt like fate had played its part, with the naming of his favourite pie after his favourite Arsenal legend. I enjoyed my Sol Campbell (jerk chicken) with roast potatoes so much last time that I opted for the same again and was not disappointed. A trip to Piebury Corner will now be considered mandatory for every future Arsenal game I attend.

The guys at Eighteen86 London were in attendance for the day, and had a stall outside selling issue one of their new fanzine. Creators of some very stylish vintage Arsenal gear, their new mag Poison Lasagna appealed to me immediately so I stopped by and purchased a copy before we left for the ground.

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Mark and I had planned to waste a bit more time around the stadium before heading through the turnstiles but the wind had really picked up, now with added rain. With the skies so grey the decision was made for us, so we ran for shelter and headed inside. We climbed our way up the Clock End steps and settled into our seats for the rest of the afternoon.

It was soon 3pm and the game got underway, Arsenal fielding five at the back with both Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette up front. The firepower was there to put Huddersfield to the sword but the visitors set out to disrupt Arsenal’s rhythm, and constantly broke up the pace of play with little fouls here and there to slow things down.

Sadly the referee fell for it and the flow of the game suffered enormously. The frustration in the stands continued to grow with every cynical trip and refereeing mistake. Yellow cards were given out left and right. Things were made even worse when Arsenal wasted two glorious chances, as Aubameyang shot just wide from close range and Lacazette lost his footing when it appeared much easier to unleash a shot on target.

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The struggles on the pitch began to be felt and reflected by the supporters. What I’m about to say might not be well received by the majority of Arsenal fans but I have to be honest: the atmosphere at the Emirates is regularly underwhelming.

I appreciate that doesn’t come as news to a lot of people, but having been to a variety of games this year across different levels and leagues, it pains me to admit that my team are sorely lacking in the noise and atmosphere department. Opposition fans sing Is this a library for a reason.

At half time, the woman sat beside Mark joyfully boasted she had just seen Jack from Love Island in the tunnel, and sadly that summed it all up.

Mark had only recently witnessed the demolition of Spurs six days prior, and was surprised at the difference between that raucous atmosphere and the lacklustre one that greeted us for the visit of Huddersfield. I suppose it is much easier to get hyped for the visit from your hated local rivals than a northern team with a relatively young Premier League pedigree.

Perhaps my biggest gripe belongs to the tired and monotonous Arsenal, Arrrsenal, Arrrrrrrrrsenal chant. I’ve never been the type to stand on his chair and bellow every single chant the club has ever sung, but I do like to join in when the songs are creative and worthwhile. That song does not belong in that category.

Nevertheless, Unai Emery’s men seemed appreciative of the support they did receive and pushed hard for a goal but could not find the breakthrough. Lacazette cruelly had a goal chalked off after rounding the keeper, for being offside apparently, despite the ball being played off a Huddersfield defender. It only helped incense the crowd even more.

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In the second half Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were introduced but didn’t really have the desired impact, with Iwobi failing to impress in particular, his touch letting him down regularly.

The only shining light was the young Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira. The diminutive 22 year-old, riding a streak of man-of-the-match awards, was absolutely everywhere, snapping into tackles, breaking up Huddersfield attacks, always pushing his team forward. Torreira had a pile driver shot just turned wide by Huddersfield goalie Jonas Lossl in the first half that had me out my seat in premature celebration.

He saved his best until last thankfully. With seven minutes remaining on the clock, Torreira pushed further up the pitch, joining the attack as Aubameyang found himself with space in front of goal. The Gabon striker couldn’t unleash a shot but managed to contort his body just enough to send a chipped cross back into the centre of the six yard box.

And who should be there to meet it but Arsenal’s tenacious midfield general Torreira, who leapt like an acrobat to bicycle kick the ball past Lossl and send the home fans into rapture. It’s one of the best goals I’ve ever witnessed in person, and my view was perfectly unobstructed. I could not believe he had the audacity to even attempt such a shot.

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Mark must have squeezed the breath out of me in celebration, as I released a sound with such a guttural joy that my vocal chords were shredded beyond recognition. The euphoria and relief that went around the ground was incredible, and finally the atmosphere came alive, as a chorus of the famous 1-0 to the Arsenal rang out from all of us. You only sing when you’re winning, right?

Despite an astounding seven minutes of injury time, Huddersfield had nothing left in the tank. They had travelled with a strategy of disruption and pressure, and fair play to them, it worked for the majority of the afternoon.

Ultimately though, Arsenal’s quality shone through and even when they weren’t at their best, they had enough in them to get the result. It’s often said that good teams win even when they aren’t at their best, so it’s a very positive sign from the Gunners that they can grind out a result when necessary. Under Emery’s stewardship this group are doing some remarkable things, and the future looks brighter by the day.

And, much to my relief, Arsenal won for me.

Now Mark can quit giving me so much shit about curses.

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