ANC September 2019 – All-English XI

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

I am committed to not only transforming the squad to an all-English group of players, but I want to do the same with my staff also. Nevertheless in a fit of irrational sentimentality I agree a new contract for first team coach Freddie Ljungberg after it’s announced he has completed his coaching qualifications. Anyone who watched him play will understand why. The guy was fantastic, and he bleeds Arsenal. If I’m very lucky some desperado will trigger the waiver that allows him to manage elsewhere before his new deal expires in 2023.

The international break comes and goes without event. We return to action with a routine home game against Southampton. By anyone’s measure this should be a walkover, and as I’m learning the players think so too. Even giving starts to some of the team’s lesser lights makes this a somewhat jaded performance from the boys. Gray scores after 21 minutes and then that’s it. Your entertainment for the afternoon is complete. Nothing left to see here. A win’s a win, of course, and we go through the motions of creating lots of chances while giving the Saints little to do in return, but it isn’t vintage work. I put some of the blame for this on Nicolas Pepe’s shoulders. The Ivorian was injured throughout pre-season and is clawing his way back to full fitness; when Nelson’s been in the team we’ve looked so much sharper.

There isn’t much time for us to sit on the ground and tell sad stories, and indeed there’s nothing much to say when the team has played five in the league and won five. Besides, it’s only a day or two before we’re off to the Netherlands to face Ajax in Champions League Group A. You’ll recall we played this lot in the semi-final of the Europa League and prevailed. The ‘Sons of the Gods’, as I’ve heard no one call them, have enjoyed their usual summer by letting other teams pick over their riches. Pieire, Onana, Promes and Neres have all gone. Huntelaar has switched to PSV in the twilight of his career. They’ve gone for Bjorn Johnsen of AZ as their new striker, and can showcase an Arsenal connection with Theo Walcott joining on loan. We had the opportunity to (re)sign Walcott. We didn’t take it up. Some old dude called Arsene Wenger tells me to make sure we mark Ziyech. Thanks fella, this is why we pay scouts, no? We win 2-0 through Nelson and Grealish, but the game’s more notable for Ajax’s physicality. As they go behind their frustration grows. I replace Lacazette with Wilson, who lasts a few minutes before going down to a clumsy challenge, leaving him with a twisted ankle and up to a month out. A similar injury to Ross Barkley, which will remove him from contention for a comparable length of time, ensures we finish with ten men.

Now that we are no longer in the Europa League we can play Saturday matches again, or how about the Friday Night Lights, which is what we get when we travel to the Britannia Stadium to take on Stoke City. The Potters have invested nearly £50 million in their return to the top flight, on nobody we should really concern ourselves with, though Aleksander Mitrovic is a potential problem for any defence. The first half ends goalless. Stoke have an unwillingness to gift us victory, pressing hard and causing disruption, and they even have a couple of chances that with better forwards might have done some real damage. I’m worried, but I needn’t have been. After the break we switch up to a higher gear that the home team can’t match. In the 51st minute, Pepe announces himself by firing in a shot that sails over the entire massed defence and straight into Hansen’s net. Soon after he slips his marker and heads in Chilly’s corner from point-blank range. A David Luiz special makes it 3-0, a beautiful free kick that’s so accurately placed it looks like we’re cheating. There’s still time for Pepe to clinch his hat-trick when he’s on hand to benefit as Stoke’s defenders get the ball away from Nketiah. Wonderful stuff from the Ivorian, who for the first time looks like the marauding presence he was throughout all of last season.

I take the opportunity against Huddersfield Town to do something that until recently was most unusual, and name an entirely English starting eleven. Butland, Chambers, Chilly, Holding, Fry, Cook, Willock, Nelson, Maddison, Smith Rowe and Nketiah take the field of our Carabao Cup clash. The experiment ends with a 3-0 win, but Maddison lasts 13 minutes before going off. A twisted ankle deprives us of his services for a month. By the end Dael Fry has been ruled out for a week also, this time suffering a bruised thigh. It’s a bad tempered outing for the Terriers, who are left to chase shadows and finally get reduced to ten men when Jonathan Hogg is sent off for a second yellow. They fail principally to deal with Eddie Nketiah, who scores a delightful brace and could have had more. The third is an own goal, courtesy of a Nelson free kick that rebounds off an unlucky defender and into his own net.

We’re preparing for the visit of Watford when we learn we will get West Brom at home in the next round of the Carabao Cup. Another Championship side, some big banana skins missed, in a competition we wouldn’t mind winning this time. It’s a further newsworthy item that Britain will be leaving the European Union at the end of the season, something we shouldn’t have too many issues with given the way we are moving as a squad, though it may affect the price of English players. I don’t think we’ll get much trouble out of the Hornets, nor do we. Danny Welbeck gets one gilt-edged opportunity but shoots wide, which reminds me why he was let go in the first place. We show little reticence when we attack. Lacazette sets one up for Pepe before scoring himself, nodding in Trips’s free kick. In the second half, Chilly hits a long ball deep from his own path into Lacazette’s path, who beats the entire defence and volleys beyond Dahlberg to make it 3-0 and the game.

So, few surprises from the September schedule, which sees us unbeaten, clear in first place and showing that we can exist with injuries in the squad. Six fixtures in October will take in Leipzig and Roma in the Champions League, and a certain Manchester United – with our eyes on the developing spat between Ole and Luke Shaw – coming to town.

ANC August 2019 – The Salah Factor II

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

The period between seasons, that of buying and selling players and rebuilding your team into a so-called crack unit, is my favourite in the game. The pressure of overseeing matches is off, and it becomes all about the planning, those hopes and dreams piled into new signings who may just about be the missing pieces that prove you are indeed the football genius you always thought you were and now the world needs to recognise it.

But ultimately there’s only one way to show if that’s the case – start the new campaign and prove your quality. Things kick off with the Community Shield, a competition known to an old skooler like me as the Charity Shield, or the one that had Manchester United against whoever finished second. We’re facing Liverpool, who have augmented their ranks with Paulo Dybala, Quincy Promes, Theo Hernandez and Lorenzo Insigne. Terrifying I’m sure, but they’ve lost Mo Salah and that makes them seem a bit less human. We line up in our classic 4-1-2-2-1. Leno’s in goal. Sokratis and Luiz play in central defence, with Chilwell and Trippier the full-backs. Rice is DM, with Cook and Barkley the engine room in midfield, Nelson and Gray on the flanks and Wilson up-front. Eight English players starting, on our way to the Nationalist utopia dreamed up by the boardroom.

What none of us bank on is how unprepared the Pool are for this one, or maybe it’s the case that the Salah factor is everything. The match statistics will show that the action’s fairly even, but we have four clear-cut chances and win 4-0. Everything we do goes right. In the 21st minute, a David Luiz free kick taken just outside the D floats beyond the wall and defies Becker. Liverpool try to redress the balance, but without their Egyptian they’re just not as forensic in their attacks and we deal with everything until both sides have shuffled their packs deep into the second half. The opposition’s forays by now are more desperate and leaves gaps for counter attacking. With 76 minutes on the clock, Gray fires a cross in, where Jack Grealish is bombing beyond the defence to beat the offside trap and poke it home. Then Lacazette is allowed to make his way through a line guarded by Lovren and Gomez to volley into Alisson’s net. In time added on, Declan Rice comes out with the ball after a melee deep in our half. He fires a long pass to Lacazette, who again finds himself onside and one on one with the keeper. There’s only one winner. A superb victory against dangerous opposition, which gives me real hope that everything will turn out all right.

The league calendar opens with an away trip to Newcastle United. The Barcodes retained Steve Bruce after he guided them to giddy heights of 13th, and he’s augmented his ranks with Rangers’ Jon Flanagan and Raul Jimenez, the tricky striker from Wolves. All the same this should be as soft an away day as we could hope for, and in classic style we make hard work of it. We’re ahead as early as the third minute. Wilson and Dubravka are involved in a tit-for-tat exchange near their goal line. Schar ploughs in to help his keeper and only succeeds in nudging the ball over the boundary to put us 1-0 up. Great. Open the floodgates! Except that doesn’t happen. Brucie Baby makes the decision to go for damage limitation and we fail to score again, while barely being threatened by the ‘weight’ of their attack, indeed the only occurrence of note is an injury to Almiron, which given the way he’s playing is quite possibly the best contribution he could have made.

We’re off the Istanbul next for the European Super Cup, which will be played against Manchester City. Good idea right, two English clubs in the match so let’s host it at the opposite end of the continent. Amid sweltering conditions, we go ahead in the first half when Wilson breaks through City’s defence to latch on to Ross Barkley’s long ball and volley past Ederson. We’re on top at this stage and ought to put it beyond reach, but we don’t do that and the Blues grow in strength after the break. Two prosaic goals from Aguero and Sterling, scored via a combination of pressure, virtuosity and rare defensive napping, hand the trophy to the opposition. It’s a game of two halves. We could have won, and that’s encouraging, but we’re discomforted at handing victory to a league rival.

No sooner are we back in Blighty than we are prepping for the visit of Bournemouth. Shorn of Cook and Wilson, Eddie Howe has replaced the latter with Fabio Borini, the crappy Italian who is best known for failing to score goals while at Sunderland. He does the same here, very busy but not so effective, the definition of a headless chicken. In the meantime we score three to put the match beyond reach. Nelson, Barkley and Grealish have all found the net by the half hour mark and we spend the rest of the time holding the Cherries at easy arm’s length.

The following weekend sees us at home again for the visit of Leicester City. Eagle-eyed readers will be aware that our revolution has been built in part of the recruitment of young Foxes, Gray, Maddison and Chilwell, the former someone who made an excellent contribution to our title winning exploits; the latter two players we are excited about getting to know. Rodgers has recycled little of the cash we donated to him, though he has added Benjamin Mendy to his ranks, the £10 million signing something of a coup to my mind. Last year we won this one 8-1, and while we don’t repeat that scoreline we still produce the goods in a fine, commanding 3-0 result. Maddison puts us in front after two minutes, and after battering their defence it’s two substitutes – Lacazette and a late one from Smith Rowe – who pad out the scoreline. Where Leicester are concerned, conceding five fewer goals this time must be seen as an improvement, but it’s worrying for them that Vardinho does next to nothing in attack and they have no alternatives to use.

August ends with the international break on the horizon and Gareth plucking from our ranks for his England team. Butland, Chambers, Holding, Chilwell, Rice, Barkley, Wilson and Cook are picked for the senior squad. The Under-21s are graced with Willock, Nketiah, Nelson and Smith Rowe, and Arsenal players augment the younger sides also. My hope is that he sees sense and starts picking Gray, Maddison and Grealish before too long, even if the latter deserves a slap from time to time – it’s his face; you know what I mean, I’m sure.

Before that happens, we have to cross to the cosmopolitan west of the capital to take on Chelsea. Fat Frank is still in charge, and at the end of his team’s transfer ban can start moulding it in his own image. Or, as is his way, he can promote more members of the Academy, those players who are used to shooting off on loan year after year. They have added Wilfried Zaha, a £50 million capture from Palace, and bizarrely enough view Celtic’s Olivier Ntcham as the answer to their post-Barkley midfield problems. All the same it’s a tough away day. We go in front early; a lovely move featuring cross field passes galore ends when Gray’s shot is parried, but only into the path of Reiss Nelson who makes no mistake. Chelsea flex their collective shoulders, march straight up the pitch and equalise. Zaha takes advantage of a lapse in concentration between Trippier and Leno, snaking in to pinch the ball and poke it into the net. We bash each other about for a while after that, both highly capable defensively and nullifying the attacking forays. In the 51st minute, Barkley wins a free kick deep in their half. His effort beats the wall and is saved by Kepa, but Sokratis is on hand to prod the rebound home and by some miracle is ruled onside. I shuffle the ranks a bit at that point, giving Dael Fry his first taste of first team football when he replaces David Luiz, who’s having an unusual off day. We hold out. Nelson wins the attacking plaudits but I would give the match ball to Declan Rice, who has controlled his big area of the pitch like a dervish, popping up everywhere and continually causing problems for our blue opponents.

The early table looks like this, with Arsenal occupying one of three unbeaten positions at the top. Chelsea are rock bottom, having claimed one point for their troubles so far, which is a situation I’m sure won’t last though it may do for Frankie. A truncated September schedule sees the start of our Champions League campaign. We’re in a group with Roma, RB Leipzig and Ajax, which I would rate as tricky but not insurmountable. The Carabao Cup has put us on the road to deepest, darkest Huddersfield, with league ties against Southampton, Watford and promoted Stoke also on the horizon.

Book Review – 89: Inside Arsenal’s 1988/89 Season

Occasionally I will break away from the site’s latest challenge to cover some media that touches on football management – a book, film, TV show, even the odd focus on Football Manager itself.

Arsenal have become my second team over the years, especially as the top places in England’s highest reaches have become the preserve of a few select clubs. It’s easy on the surface to see why I should choose the Gunners. As a Middlesbrough fan, I am suspicious of really good sides that win lots of matches and hoover up titles, and there’s something essentially fragile about Arsenal that makes them the ideal pick. Few teams have such a talent at wresting defeat from the jaws of victory, of letting their supporters down, and it’s a quality with which I can empathise wholeheartedly.

The love goes back years. I remember the pre-Wenger era, when Arsenal were a relatively mechanical, careful and prosaic set-up, built on a formidable defence and working on a safety first mentality that never made them much fun to watch. All the same when they happened to play both English cup finals against the same team, Sheffield Wednesday, in 1993, I was firmly in the Londoners’ camp. This was swimming against the tide. Ron Atkinson’s side was a wonderful, cavalier outfit, entertainers, showcasing the silky skills of England winger Chris Waddle whose career was undergoing a renaissance following his adventures at Italia 90 and with a European Cup clinching Marseilles team. Arsenal won the two games, for good measure controlling both so that Wednesday descended into the ugly plod that played to their opponent’s strengths. No one watching these games in the University Common Room was satisfied with what happened. I was delighted.

I think the origins for this strange relationship lie in the events of 1988/89, the season Arsenal first won the League title after years in the wilderness. They had been a top flight staple for what felt like forever, but there was nothing special about them and manager George Graham was constructing a squad based on no-name players. Liverpool represented the real elite. Everton were a top side; Tottenham were spectacular under Terry Venables and there was always Manchester United, very slowly clawing their way back to respectability with new manager, Alex Ferguson, spending a lot of money on big names. The campaign was a muddy slog, as I recall. Liverpool were the team to beat and Arsenal were just about keeping pace with them, just as at the other end of the table Boro’s rebirth following their dalliance with bankruptcy was finishing with relegation. It culminated in the rarity of a season finale to end them all, a final fixture played between the title contenders at Anfield in which the Gunners had to win by two clear goals in order to claim Division One.

As was the case in those days, ITV held the rights to televise live matches, and this one, played on a Friday night, feels to my mind to have been watched by everyone. Nobody gave Arsenal much of a chance. The Pool were in amazing form, resurging after the recent tragedy of Hillsborough as though every goal and each victory was a tribute to the 96 lost lives. It felt poetic that they should stroll their way to the title, like it was right, and so it was possible to simply discount the opposition. Teams simply didn’t go to Anfield and win matches. It never happened, let alone the scale of the task facing Arsenal that evening. No one told them that, of course, and what seems clear is that, unlike Liverpool, they approached the fixture knowing they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. They had a plan.

I was nearly 17 at the time. A sixth former, the era for me was punctuated with discovering the delights of my home town’s night life, something I was denied on my first visit to a nightclub when I was cautioned by the police for the crime of underage drinking. There wasn’t a lot to really enjoy at the time. The late eighties weren’t an especially happy place for a Teesside teenager, nor was going to the match recommended with hooliganism still a thing and the government seemingly working to destroy it, so watching Arsenal produce their moment of high drama represented a genuine highlight.

Obviously all this happened a long time ago. I’m in my late forties now. Football in England is in thrall to the Premier League and while there’s never been more of it on television the paywalls make seeing it a limited experience. I guess there’s a case to be made for the 88/89 season finish being the best of all time – in my time I would suggest that it is. The only possible comparison is the climax of the 2011/12 campaign, the Agueroooooooooo! moment, but Manchester City were supposed to win that game. Arsenal’s task was immeasurably tougher, and they did it and in the process captured (some of) my heart.

This book is a companion piece to the 89 documentary, and much like that recommended film is a compilation of peoples’ voices – the Arsenal players, George Graham, supporters, staff, Liverpool fans, and so on. Capturing all those memories is a very special thing. For anyone who remembers it the individual passages are a treasure trove, and there are some special sections on the Hillsbrough tragedy, from April of that year, and about David Rocastle, the midfielder who retired from football too early and died much too young.

I listened to the audiobook version, read by actor and Arsenal fan Alan Davies. The whole thing was entirely absorbing. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

ANC Summer 2019 – Ringing the Changes

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

With a good transfer budget and the potential to rake in more from player sales, this is a pivotal off-season for us. I have two members of the squad I want to hawk as soon as possible – Martinez and Mustafi – and three on loan who need to come off the wage bill. ‘Bigger’ clubs want Aubameyang, Bellerin and Tierney, and while these three are stars the possibility to sell them for good fees and source replacements is pretty much irresistible.

Arsenal have a pre-season tour of the USA, enjoying sweet victory over LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City and Sacramento Republic, and a crappy draw with our affiliate, Colorado. We finish the string of friendlies with a 2-0 victory over Lazio at the Emirates, which takes in goals from Smith Rowe and Gray, and restricts the Roman team to next to nothing at our end. By this time the make-up of the squad has changed heavily from the group of players who landed us an extraordinary double in 2019.

With Jack Butland signed, there’s absolutely no need to keep Emiliano Martinez any longer. The Argentinian, who spent last season wearing his own personalised groove on the bench, is valued at £7.5 million, and that’s exactly what we get as AS Saint-Etienne win the bidding war to sign him. I didn’t expect him to fetch so much, so everyone’s happy with this one. In Butland I feel we have someone to actually challenge Bernd Leno and might even take over as the regular starter at some point.

Paris Saint-Germain are waving wads of cash at Hector Bellerin. As reticent as I am to lose the services of a homegrown star, I’m equally minded of his unenviable history record, also the availability of Kieran Trippier, who Atletico Madrid have transfer listed. I offer the Spaniard and PSG produce a casual £51 million stake to make him their man. So it’s goodbye to Hector, a cracking player and a victim of the team’s decision to produce an all-English side. Trips can be signed for £12 million, which makes acquiring him a formality. Statistically we are now worse off in this position, but Bellerin was always going to be difficult to replace and Trips is a sound replacement.

Manchester City produce a non-negotiable bid of £46.5 million for Kieran Tierney. Another player I am not keen on losing – would they take Kolasinac instead? Oh well, thought not – but naturally the player’s love for the club badge suddenly drops when he realises there’s a big money deal in it for him. The Scot goes, now considerably wealthier as part of Moneybags FC, who for good measure blow further huge amounts on Milan Skriniar and Federico Chiesa.

Two names crop up instantly as starting left-backs – Leicester’s Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw of Manchester United. They’re similarly aged and about as good as each other. Ole wants nothing to with any offer we can make, but as the asking price for Chilly goes up it becomes possible to conceive of making him ours. Ultimately we get him for £44 million, with various bonuses and add-ons that will raise the total figure to nearly sixty. He had better be worth it.

Shkodran Mustafi is a target for Wolves, but refuses to agree terms with them – the Black Country lot find satisfaction with Jack O’Connell instead. As for our player, he turns out to be willing to go to France and play for Patrick Vieira at OGC Nice. £15 million is the final figure, a sum that suits everyone. we replace him fairly cheaply, picking up Middlesbrough’s Dael Fry at a price of £11 million. Boro have had a bobbins time in the Championship. Even under Guus Hiddink they have finished lower mid-table and gained an unwanted record for the number of drawn games they’ve achieved. Fry at 21 years old joins Holding as the back-up defenders to Mustafi and Luiz. Earmarked to ultimately replace the latter, Fry has bags of potential and I hope to see him develop this season before the Brazilian’s age becomes too much of a pressing concern.

Dani Ceballos’s loan term with us comes to an end. Even if I could his very Spanishness means I have no chance to making his stay permanent, and luckily I’m not too arsed. Ceballos was good enough without ever being terrific, let alone essential. Chelsea have transfer listed Ross Barkley, who absolutely is at the level to play in our central midfield, or even in a more advanced role. £35 million does the trick. It’s a lot to pay but he’s a good player who did little wrong at Stamford Bridge last season. Thinking about the future, we snap up two 16 year olds from Brighton. Greg Hackett is an advanced playmaker who operates from central midfield, while Oliver Doyle plays more in the number ten position. The pair cost more than £20 million, a big outlay for two prospects who are consigned to the Under 18s and ordered to work hard. I shouldn’t have any problems with Alan ‘Curbs’ Curbishley looking after their development.

Galatasary finds £9 million for Mohamed Elneny. He won’t be missed. Granit Xhaka joins Norwich for what I consider to be a cut-price £11.25 million, but what can you do? Our fouls count breathed a sigh of life without the combative Swiss midfielder being a factor, and to be frank I was happy to find a buyer at all. Selling Henrikh Mkhitaryan becomes a bit of a battle. Forced to drop the price again and again, I am eventually able to remove the Armenian from our roster when Galatasaray produce £20 million. The after-effects of the vastly inflated salary we were paying him haunt us still, as the deal involves us honouring £84,000 of his weekly wage for a further four years, which is shocking yet better than the two hundred grand he was drawing for kicking around in the reserve team.

A transfer ding-dong threatens to break out over Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson. The usual big clubs in England want him, and we’re no different, making an offer that will amount to £44 million overall. The 27 year old, who scored 20 league goals for the Cherries in 2018/19, opts for us in the end, turning down the chance to play second fiddle to Harrington at Tottenham. This acquisition eases my conscience about seeing the back of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Real Madrid produce a titanic £73 million to make him theirs, a huge amount for someone entering his fourth decade and who I remember principally for producing howling misses, watched through gaps between my disbelieving fingers. With Eddie Nketiah promoted to the first team after a good season on loan at Leeds, I now have three fine strikers from whom to choose; hopefully they will make me not regret my decision here.

Aston Villa are relegated and this makes Jack Grealish look for a move elsewhere. We don’t need him, but the opportunity to sign a young English attacking midfielder who can play in just about every position across the front really appeals to me, and he’s available for £20 million. It’s a bargain, and I’m optimistic that having the kid in my side will lessen my inclination to smash his smug face in whenever our paths cross.

Lucas Torreira wants an improved contract. I respond by offering him to other teams. He’s a hell of a footballer, but unfortunately he’s Uruguayan and I really want Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook, a 22 year old who can play either centrally or in defensive midfield. The latter doesn’t come cheap. Eddie Howe drives a hard bargain for someone legitimately viewed as a crown jewel in the making, and the deal we eventually strike amounts to a potential £72 million. As for Torreira, a slew of chancers try their arm but he can’t resist the pull of Barcelona when they come knocking. £39.5 million for the diminutive star, joining a squad that’s still dominated by a world class short-arse.

Callum Gribbin signs for the Under 23s after being released by Manchester United, and we pay a grand £51,000 for another prospect, Jamie Soule, who’s been placed on the West Brom list and, duly acquired, promptly heads out to Oxford United on loan. With a few scouts retiring, we appoint Robbie Cooke from Leicester. He arrives raving about James Maddison, the Foxes’ attacking midfielder who we could get for around £45 million. It’s highly tempting, and I mean highly, but drafting in Maddison would leave Mesut Ozil surplus to requirements. Still, fortune favours the brave and perhaps it’s time to part ways with the German, who is considered by the coaching staff to be entering his waning years as a player. Maddo on the other hand is exactly the type I want for my set-up – young, English, talented and fiercely determined.

Selling Ozil becomes a drama in its own right. His valuation is £60 million but we’re never going to get that sort of money. So I drop it to 50 – nope. 40? Nada. 30? Keep going… In the end I am forced to let him go to AC Milan on loan for the season. The Rossoneri pay nothing towards this, which means I’m saddled with meeting his enormous salary while he does a job for someone else. And yet it’s almost worth it. Losing Ozil, even temporarily, means I no longer have to address the problem of an entitled superstar who is used to getting pampered treatment from whichever club is lucky enough to have him while being choosy about the level of service he is prepared to offer in return. I have to remember that I am not responsible for signing him, nor paying him the luxurious wages he is due to draw from us for another two years. Honestly, there are times when I have considered arranging for a ‘little accident’ to befall him, but perhaps loaning him out and hoping he has a great year that prompts Milan to take him on permanently will suffice.

It’s a blizzard of a transfer window, one in which I have reshaped the squad entirely. From eight English players in the first team we now have 18, and this should ensure I can recruit more carefully in the future with greats like Sokratis and Luiz difficult to replace and almost certainly costly to do so. I’m happy with the squad. We have more options now, can rotate more consistently and with any luck we’re capable of coping better with the higher demands that come with Champions League football and defending our title. We’ve been listed as fifth favourites for the Premier League – City, United, Liverpool and Tottenham, since you ask – but our aim is of course to repeat our achievement in 2018/19.

For the record, Liverpool sign Dybala and Insigne, but lose Salah to Real Madrid in a £103 million transfer, the highest of the window. Spurs have genuinely augmented their defence with the terrifying Koulibaly, and picked up Bruno Fernandes to replace the PSG-bound Eriksen. Big money sums have been spunked on Carlos Soler, Florentino Luis, Gedson Fernandes and Shoya Nakajima at Old Trafford, and they’ve permitted potential transfer target Jesse Lingard to move to Wolves. We’ve got Liverpool in the Community Shield and in the European Super Cup we’ll face Champions League winners Man City at Besiktas’s stadium in Turkey. But all that’s a story for another day.

ANC Summer 2018/19 – The Year That Was

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

Time to review the squad and what they achieved as individuals. Overall I could hardly be happier with them. 2018/19 was supposed to be a transitional season in which we were considered sixth favourites for the Premier League title, and yet we grew in strength as time progressed, with the defence particularly stout and some fine attacking play rewarded. I remember the great Arsenal sides put together by George Graham, based on defensive responsibility, and then the more cavalier Arsene Wenger years, and I like to hope we have achieved the best qualities of both era.

We will have to decide who to keep and who to lose, and this assessment of the players ought to offer some clues as to what will happen next. As an early spoiler, I can report that we have agreed a £10.5 million fee for Stoke’s Jack Butland already. I’d wanted Butland all along but ran out of money last summer. Armed with a fresh kitty of nearly ninety million at the end of April, I bid for the keeper early as Stoke looked like good candidates for promotion and wanted to get in there before they went up and the price escalated.

There’ll be more business over the course of the summer, but in the meantime here are my thought on the boys who were made to entertain you…

Goalkeepers

Bernd Leno (German, 27, 60 Appearances, 41 Clean sheets, 6.95 Rating)
Bernd played every minute of the season for us, an ever-present who started a colossal 60 games and was rather impressive throughout, ultimately winning the Premier League’s Goalkeeper of the Season award. While you can attribute a very good overall defensive effort to our conceding of 12 (twelve) goals throughout the league calendar, it remains a staggering achievement and will no doubt help his cause to become the German national team’s third choice keeper.

Emiliano Martinez (Argentinian, 26, 0 Apps)
Emiliano who? The Argentinian signed for us way back in 2011, is homegrown and not even vaguely good enough to be in the side. There’s got to be a reason why he’s made 14 (fourteen) appearances in all competitions over that lengthy period, right? Emiliano played mainly reserve team football all year, didn’t disappoint and never excelled, and I will be looking to cash in on him with Jack Butland about to join and hopefully producing some real competition for Leno’s starting jersey. Just think of all the keepers who have been and gone since Emiliano joined – Almunia, Fabianski, Mannone, Szczesny, Ospina, Cech, Leno – and you start to get a general idea of his real worth.

Right-Backs

Hector Bellerin (Spaniard, 24, 23 Apps, 0 Goals, 5 Assists, 7.35)
Urbane and metrosexual Spaniard who remains a bright prospect on the pitch, albeit with genuine injury concerns that will almost certainly spell his doom (as an Arsenal player, that is). The main impression he left across 2018/19 was of someone who struggled with fitness. When he played, great. But then he was out for a month and then, while building his match fitness with the Under-23s, suffered an injury relapse that removed his services for a further four weeks before embarking on his long convalescence back to the starting line-up. He did go on to figure in the latter stages of our Europa League campaign, and there’s little doubt that on his day he’s far superior to anyone else at right-back, but man, those setbacks…

Calum Chambers (English, 24, 36(1) Apps, 1 Goal, 7 Assists, 7.48)
In reality Calum isn’t even a proper right-back. He’s a centre-half who has ‘filled in’ as required, only he turned out to be so good at it that he more or less made the role his own over the course of the campaign, and his lengthy spell in the first eleven while Bellerin was injured was immensely productive. I have concerns that he doesn’t seem to have developed much during the season, almost as though he should be training in a different position to the one he’s been playing, but he has proved to be at least a very useful squad player.

Left-Backs

Sead Kolasinac (Bosnian, 25, 25 Apps, 0 Goals, 6 Assists, 7.31)
Bosnian international left wing-back who’s had a good year, albeit one in which he has fallen behind Kieran Tierney in terms of his overall importance to the cause. The truth is that Sead is being played out of his natural position – he isn’t really a full-back – and this no doubt has a knock-on effect where his effort is concerned; still he rarely let me down. He also has an aggressive streak that made him more card-liable, and he needs to bear in mind the fine line between competitiveness and outright thuggery.

Kieran Tierney (Scottish, 21, 35 Apps, 0 Goals, 7 Assists, 7.54)
A shining light in the Scottish ‘production line’ of talent and someone who emerged as our default best left-back during the season. Kieran has English as his dual nationality and I wish this meant we could keep him, however he’s as Scottish as deep-fried Mars bars and a queue of teams is developing for his signature. This could prompt a big money move for him, one that’s well deserved I feel, but we will miss him when/if he goes. His thrilling work on the left flank ultimately ended with him being named the Player of the Tournament in the Europa League.

Centre Backs

Rob Holding (English, 24, 22(2) Apps, 2 Goals, 1 Assist, 7.44)
Flexible and developing English centre-back who is definitely improving, though he has struggled to break into the starting line-up with Sokratis and Luiz so eminent. Nevertheless Rob gave a good account of himself, was especially prominent in our continental campaign, effortlessly nudged ahead of Mustafi as our first reserve and showed that he had an eye for goal. He’s going precisely nowhere.

David Luiz (Brazilian, 32, 40(1) Apps, 3 Goals, 0 Assists, 7.30)
Hands up who doubted the crazy-haired Brazilian’s ability to be a good Arsenal defender? Yeah me too; someone who always looked like he had a mistake in him at Chelsea (and who can forget his sterling effort in opening the gate for the German attack during that game in Brazil?), he instead produced a stunning season’s work. If I could choose a player of the year then I think it would be him, a graceful and brilliantly organised defender with real footballing intelligence, whose contribution in replacing Laurent Koscielny, taking over the captaincy and lending the side a tightness at the back upon which all our success rested. Just superb; such a shame he’s (i) Brazilian (ii) in his thirties.

Shkodran Mustafi (German, 27, 17 Apps, 1 Goal, 2 Assists, 7.55)
When I started here the much criticised German defender looked fine. His squad status had been reduced to that of a rotation player, which seemed about right; on the whole a good guy to have around. But then it started going wrong. Mustafi was quick to complain about his lack of playing time despite being rotated regularly with the other defenders. When he was on the pitch we conceded more goals. His individual stats seemed okay but we were just more porous and that did for his chances of starting. A peripheral player who’s unhappy with his lot, has pretty much unified the rest of the squad against him, and will be sold as soon as possible in the summer. A shame, but absolutely for the best.

Sokratis (Greek, 30, 41(1) Apps, 0 Goals, 1 Assist, 7.21)
Tough as old boots Greek international centre-back, and by happy coincidence a perfect complement for David Luiz. The more physical, aggressive and granite hard alternative to David’s cultured performer, it’s possible to view Sokratis as an old school thug, but he’s effective with it and ended up with a paltry six yellow cards and zero dismissals, an excellent return when you consider the range of forwards that he was asked to deal with. He made a decisive difference to our overall defensive effort, and quite frankly I love him, though I wouldn’t want to come across him in a dark alley.

Midfielders

Dani Ceballos (Spanish, 22, 33(11) Apps, 2 Goals, 9 Assists, 6.88)
Our loanee from Real Madrid was pretty good in the Mezzala role, occasionally used in attacking midfield, without ever making me wish we could sign him permanently. A regular starter by default, mainly because he was ahead of Maitland-Niles and Willock in terms of development, there were too many moments when he could simply vanish from the field of play to make him invaluable to the cause. We wish him well and look forward to bringing someone in who’s basically better.

Matteo Guendouzi (French, 20, 23(15) Apps, 2 Goals, 4 Assists, 6.95)
As a rule I’m not a fan of box to box midfielders. I like to use someone in the deep lying role and another to support the attack, whereas the game Matteo brings is a bit of one and some of the other, specialising in neither. To his credit, the French youngster with the David Luiz haircut never embarrassed himself, worked like a Trojan, scored some critical goals and was generally an effervescent presence in matches and training. The danger is that he will steadily become increasingly peripheral as the side changes around him, and I may be tempted to sell if someone asks after him.

Ainsley Maitland-Niles (English, 21, 16(35) Apps, 6 Goals, 1 Assist, 6.87)
Every side should have an Ainsley, I feel, an Academy product who is too reliable to sell, too flexible to not have some use, too promising to even consider selling. Past managers have used him as a full-back, but Ainsley is clearly a central midfielder by trade, able to operate as a Mezzala or playmaker, He’s improved during the season, putting himself on a par with Ceballos as the number one choice for his position, and I expect to see more of the same next season.

Mesut Ozil (German, 30, 34(2) Apps, 9 Goals, 8 Assists, 7.33)
A pleasant surprise. I’ll confess to getting a touch of the Unai Emerys when it came to Mesut, not sure if I could trust him until he called my bluff at a difficult point in the season, demanding to either get picked or be sold. I took the chance, gave him a consistent run in the starting line-up and he rewarded me with some terrific form that was the catalyst for our long unbeaten run, effectively leading to the title. All the same, doubts remain. As he always could, Mesut has the capacity to play anonymously, just as much as he can be in the thick of the action, orchestrating all our best work. Who knows from game to game which Ozil you’re going to get, or why…? Then there’s the matter of his wages, those bank-groaning £350,000 weekly pay-outs that we could invest in three major players if we were only able to get rid of him. Despite his heroics and generally good play this season the German is failing to attract alternative suitors, making ours a marriage of messy inconvenience. One thing for certain is that as long as he’s on the books we will ever find that salary to be a millstone.

Declan Rice  (English, 20, 26(24) Apps, 0 Goals, 0 Assists, 6.89)
Poor Declan. Statistically one of the side’s more average performers, the contribution he made was vital. Played most often away from home, or brought on to shore up the defence as we guarded a 1-0 lead, which happened often, he made a huge difference. Deployed in the anchor role betwixt defence and midfield, he broke up attacks, made himself available for passes and in turn had the side’s highest average for passes completed, impressive in a team that ranked among the league’s best in this area. Most of his distribution was of the short and easy nature, finding someone nearby and then instantly finding space for the return, yet this so often ensured we could recycle the ball smoothly and retain possession. All this from a lad who’s only 20 and has more than a decade of this service to provide. Quietly and without fuss, Declan has become one of the Gunners’ most important players.

Lucas Torreira (Uruguayan, 23, 40(12) Apps, 3 Goals, 4 Assists, 7.03)
Uruguayan deep-lying playmaker who has answered the requirement for someone to terrorise central midfield, cause problems for the opposition, retain possession and help to spark attacks. More importantly he hasn’t made me regret my decision to send Granit Xhaka out on loan for the season, effectively ending his time at the club, in favour of Lucas who’as a real pocket rocket, a 5′ 6″ ball of energy who can do the job and do it cleanly, and it’s the latter element that compares him most favourably to Xhaka. Like Declan Rice, he doesn’t win too many plaudits for the job he does, but I think he’s great.

Joe Willock (English, 19, 11(5) Apps, 5 Goals, 3 Assists, 7.49)
Plucky youngster (he was 18 when I took over) who represents a great future for the Arsenal. Joe was used mainly in the Europa League, specifically in the group matches, where even as a teenager he ran riot against pretty much every challenger. I played him more sparingly in the league as there were better options and I preferred to focus on his development, but going forward things look bright for him. Think of a younger Jack Wilshere, only consistent and much, much less injury prone.

Right Wingers

Reiss Nelson (English, 19, 26(16) Apps, 7 Goals, 14 Assists, 7.09)
For me Reiss is the team’s best emerging talent, a right winger who improved significantly as part of the first team set-up and threatened the place of Nicolas Pepe towards the end of the season. His pace was terrifying and technique levels excellent, but what really impressed me about him was that, like many of his fellow youngsters, he seems determined to develop and to produce for the team. I can’t ask for any more from this native Londoner who is now catching the eye of Gareth Southgate, even as a callow 19 year old.

Nicolas Pepe (Ivorian, 24, 34(11) Apps, 23 Goals, 6 Assists, 7.43)
Expensively acquired in the weeks before I took over, Ivorian international Nicolas has had an explosive campaign, justifying his high transfer fee by ending as our top scorer, which is really impressive when you consider the calibre of our strikers. Nicolas scored some really crucial goals along the way, though fans’ signature memories of him will no doubt centre around one of those mazy, dribbling escapades in the opposition half, the ball glued to his feet and defenders failing to rob him as he bears down on goal. A valuable member of the side.

Left Wingers

Demarai Gray (English, 22, 44(3) Apps, 20 Goals, 5 Assists, 7.26)
We spent a lot of money on Demarai after our initial target – Jaden Sancho, no less – wanted nothing to do with us. That’s changed apparently. Jaden is now ‘extremely interested’ in a move to Arsenal, and I bet he is too, but Demarai has been such a revelation that I’m not sure we will even bother. A handy goalscorer and blessed with natural pace, many of his goals have come at critical moments – that brace at the Etihad in April, which handed us the league title – and overall he’s made an important contribution to the cause. He’s worth more than the large amount we paid for him, which is impressive work.

Emile Smith-Rowe (English, 18, 13(16) Apps, 7 Goals, 1 Assist, 7.17)
Young English winger who spent three years before this one in the Academy and has never been out on loan, so he’s a real unknown quantity. My plan was to use him sparingly this season and then try to draft in someone like Sancho, but Emile has confounded me by getting better and better. Performing well in the Europa League group stage and in one tie scoring a hat-trick, he has broken into the Premiership side as a genuine alternative to Gray and potential challenger to his place in the starting eleven. We’re all very excited about him, this kid who refuses to be left out of the reckoning and shows a real determination to succeed.

Forwards

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Gabonese, 29, 29(14) Apps, 20 Goals, 8 Assists, 7.10)
Widely considered to be the jewel in Arsenal’s crown, despite his fine goals haul and generally positive play I’ve been a little bit disappointed with Pierre-Emerick. Too often he’s appeared listless and anonymous on the pitch; so many half-time substitutions and ultimately I will confess to preferring Lacazette overall. Still, his are the highest standards, so anything less than sparkling goalscoring feats of strength are going to leave his supporters feeling blue. One lesser known fact about him is his flexibility, the willingness he showed to fill in on the left wing and do so with confidence and verve. Now approaching 30, time isn’t on his side and Real Madrid want to sign him, so I might take this opportunity to cash in while his stock is high.

Alexandre Lacazette (French, 28, 35(12) Apps, 18 Goals, 9 Assists, 7.06)
Since the arrival of Aubameyang there’s been a sense of Alex being the junior partner in a stellar strike partnership. The Gabonese is the perfect forward, they say; quick and deadly, whereas Lacazette is slightly the lesser in every category. Well, allow me to retort. I’ve just found the Frenchman to be the better all-rounder, more like a complete forward. We all see Firmino as the ideal to aim for – Alex is much closer in his technique and approach, less the clinical marksman and more capable of drawing in his fellow forwards and dragging away defenders. That’s how I see it anyway. The numbers favour Auba; I prefer Laca overall, the man who forced his way into the reckoning at his illustrious teammate’s expense.

ANC May 2019 – The Road to Baku

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

We might have clinched the Premier League, but the season isn’t over. No Sir, not by a long shot. For the record, we win our last commitment in England, a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace at the Emirates in which Maitland-Niles and Smith Rowe score the goals and Kolasinac rules the left wing. It’s a very fine performance by the second eleven, the number of youngsters on the field suggesting that the future looks bright. I’m especially impressed with Emile Smith Rowe, still only 18 but showing little fear of whatever challenge I put him up against.

So the final table looks like this – the division was won with a 12 point margin, which makes it look as though it was very easy. Absolutely not the case. Many of our victories were tight 1-0 affairs, though we turned out to have a rock solid defence and a level of consistency our rivals simply couldn’t match. We finished third in the goalscoring charts with 73, but it was at the back that the source of our success could be found. Overall we conceded a staggering 12 goals, keeping 29 clean sheets, and this by some distance was the Premier League’s best defensive performance. It’s probably for this reason that David Luiz was our top rated league player (and second in the entire division to Man City’s Laporte). We also got Pepe, Tierney in the top ten individual performers. Pepe was our highest EPL scorer on 15 goals – Marcus Rashford and Callum Wilson led with 20 apiece. we missed out on the Footballer of the Year award, which went to Laporte, but Bernd Leno was a clear Golden Glove winner, and the keeper joined Luiz, Pepe, Torreira, Gray and Aubameyang in the Team of the Year. Yours truly was of course named as the best manager.

In the Europa League, we travel to Amsterdam to take on mighty Ajax in the Johan Cruijff Arena. Nobody is expecting an easy time of it, not when the opposition contains Champions League heroes like Van de Beek, Ziyech and Tadic, though it’s nice to see they have emerged as a home for Ricky Van Wolfswinkel, perhaps my favourite footballer name of all time. Van the Man will come on in the second half and demonstrate exactly why he never made it as a striker in the English top flight, but never mind because we fail to score either. For once, we are dominated broadly by the Dutch side, Veltman and Blind especially impressive in a tough defence that keeps us quiet and builds their attacks, yet there’s little of any huge note from them and taking a 0-0 scoreline back to Blighty seems like a reasonable outcome.

At the Emirates, we play a more open, attacking game and sweep to a quick 2-0 lead. In the second minute, Aubameyang profits when an unseemly tussle in the Ajax area trickles out to him and his predatory instincts take over. Shortly after, the black shirted defenders allow Bellerin to lope up the entire length of the pitch. His cross picks out Gray for the most prosaic of strikes into the net, and at this point it all looks very simple. But nothing more happens until midway through the second period. Tadic finds Van Wolfswinkel with a raking, cross-field pass, the sort of gorgeous bit of play that would prompt Max Von Sydow in Escape to Victory to stand up and applaud. Luiz, in a super rare lapse fails to cover the striker, instead letting him soar beyond the line to push his shot beyond Leno. And now we’re worried. If Ajax score again they’re through. In desperation I try and shore things up by swapping Ozil out for Rice. I needn’t have been concerned. It isn’t long before Nelson is firing in a cross, which Gray reaches to make it 3-1. Another vital Demarai Gray effort, scorer of perfectly timed and very important goals.

It turns out that we will be playing Wolverhampton Wanderers in the final. The Midlands team beats Napoli 1-0 at Molyneux and then holds out for the draw in Italy, finding an opponent whose best player – Mertens, obviously – is suspended makes the attempt much more straightforward. Wolves last reached the final in 1972, when they lost to Spurs 3-2 back when these things were decided over home and away legs. I think they will make for decent competition, but on the whole I’m far happier playing them than I would be if it was the Neapolitans.

After the short hop to Azerbaijan (the poor supporters), we take a 19th minute lead when Ozil’s shot rebounds off Patricio and into his own net. The Portuguese keeper’s method is unique – he doesn’t even raise his hands to save the effort, just stands there and hopes his body will do the rest. Then the Pepe Show takes over. His hat-trick starts in the 38th minute, when he rifles his shot through a sea of defenders into Patricio’s far corner. After the break he scores once again from outside the area, taking advantage of the goalie’s clear lack of vision. His third comes from a corner, Torreira’s header (and what can you say about a defence that allows a short Uruguayan to have a free header?) diverts off the Ivory Coast winger’s noggin and into the net. We run out 4-0 winners, and we deserve to do so. Wolves have come to defend. They place five players at the back and leave Diego Jota on his own, isolated up front, and they hope they can counter-attack their way through to victory. Big mistake. All we need to do is make sure we press Traore and on-loan Gnabry responsibly and the rest sorts itself out.

A competition in which the board has expected us to achieve the final ends in victory. Arsenal have scored 45 goals, by far the best total. Lacazette is the Europa League’s leading scorer with ten individual goals, though they’re shared out elsewhere. With an astonishing average rating of 8.00, Kieran Tierney is named Player of the Tournament. In fairness, we often felt we were superior to our opposition. The group stage was a joke round, a case of blooding youngsters and building confidence, but we stuck to the task and did what we needed to do, and we might as well enjoy it while we can because it’s the Champions League for us next season and my feeling is that the easy matches of the Europa will soon fade into a distant, dreamy memory.

ANC April 2019 – Sporting Glory

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

Entering April, the situation is clear. If we win all our league games then we’ll be champions by the end of the month. If we win most of our league games and mess up at the Etihad, we’ll lift the title. If Manchester City blow it then we can do it easier still. Everything’s in our hands. Only we can damage our chances, and while Arsenal have a long and proud history of disappointment there’s a resilience to the side that makes me hopeful we’ll see it over the line.

Talking of disappointing teams our heavy schedule begins with leaving out the welcome mat for Everton, who in classic fashion are firmly in mid-table. Marco Silva is talking about trying to keep his job, while on the field they’ve been something of a non-entity. We restrict Kean and Sigurdsson to feeding on scraps while Pepe puts us in front when he switches places temporarily with Aubameyang, the striker crossing for him to volley home. And that’s it. But it’s good enough. City have tied with Wolves at Molyneux, increasing our lead to seven points.

We remain at the Emirates for our Europa League quarter final tie with Borussia Monchengladbach. The Germans bring Dennis Zakaria, a Swiss international midfielder who is on many bigger teams’ radars, but look fairly negotiable otherwise. In another performance built on strong defending we win 1-0. After half an hour’s play, we are passing the ball around the opposition penalty area. Bellerin and Tierney make quick exchanges; Nelson fires into the box where Demarai Gray somehow receives the ball while surrounded by three defenders and nets beyond a flailing Sommer. We really control this one, winning out in all statistical areas, so to come out with a single goal advantage seems a bit like it’s setting us up for a banana skin in Munich.

City have beaten Norwich in the Premier League, but then lose further ground with a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford. This one features a rare Matic goal as we all get the impression United are doing all they can to stop their rivals from winning anything this season. We’re on the road to Watford, a fixture I can’t help feeling is one where we going to come unstuck. This isn’t a comment on the enemy, who are sixth in the table but should be beatable, more a sense that the squad is being stretched and can’t keep this form going forever. Except we do. Pepe scores in the first half and then Doucoure gets himself dismissed in the second when he chops down Guendouzi from behind. That pretty much ends the game as a contest with the boys a now yawning nine points clear in the table.

The good times continue in Europe, where we face the Foals (I’m not trying to type that name again) to seal a place in the semi-finals. With several players rested and Rice in to anchor things, this becomes the stage for Gray to shine upon. Towards the end of the first half he lays the ball on a plate for Lacazette to shoot us into the lead, before collecting Chambers’s cross to score one of his own. Undone and uncertain what to do now, Borussia start fouling, picking up several yellows before Stindl lashes in a late consolation. It’s over. We get Ajax in the next round. The Amsterdam sleeping giants have done for PSV, while in the other semi-final Wolves will get the not inconsiderable task of overcoming Napoli.

We now have the fun task of fulfilling four league matches in nine days. With the end in sight, we batter Aston Villa at home. Holding takes over from Sokratis in defence, the Greek behemoth starting to feel the weight of all those games, and things go well at the back as we nullify a paper-thin Villa attack. The trouble is we can’t score either. The first half ends goalless despite sustained pressure, raining hell on Kalinic’s goal with Lacazette especially profligate. Realising they’re playing okay and keen to redress the situation, Villa do us a favour when Guilbert gets himself sent off after the break for his dangerous challenge on Kolasinac. When we don’t instantly capitalise, they help again; Chester brings down Ozil in the area to earn himself a booking and us a penalty. Pepe puts it away, then Torreira and Aubameyang score to end it with an emphatic 3-0 victory. This more or less relegates the opposition, ending a brief stint in the top flight for a former perennial participant.

Three days later, we’re at home again to Manchester United. Everyone knows that we can’t be as wasteful here as we were against Villa. Say what you like about Ole’s men, any side that contains Pogba, Martial, Rashford and, er, Aspas, deserve some respect. Fortunately they’re cack, putting in a real half-hearted session’s work while, Ceballos aside, we are allowed to run riot. I’m stopping myself from wondering whether Solskjaer has ordered his side to take this one easily, give us the best chance of winning the title, as Aubameyang scores either side of half-time and Gray adds a third to seal the points. Job’s a good ‘un.

And so it comes to this – get any result in our next match and we’ve claimed the Premier League for the first time in fifteen years. The trouble is the opposition, our main rivals Manchester City, and a squad of player so talented that we aren’t sure to whom we should pay the closest attention. Aguero? Okay, but that allows more space for Sterling and Silva to do their funky thing, oh and De Bruyne. And Gundogan, etc. Gray gives us an early lead when he latches on to Nelson’s cross to fire past Ederson, and that’s it for the first half. Mounting City pressure but nothing decisive. In the second they come ominously to life, no doubt inspired by a Guardiola guys – Guys – GUYS shellacking. My defenders look ever more strung out as they’re tested again and again. On the hour mark, Cancelo makes a ranging run into our half and slips the ball in field to Aguero, who’s tackled crisply by Ceballos. The ball trickles out of his possession and starts rolling towards our net, where Sterling gets between Sokratis and Leno – the latter racing from his line – to reach it first and slot home. Twenty minutes later and they have the lead. Aguero swings a ball to the far post, where not a single defender is waiting but Bernardo is. The Portuguese simply has to swing his shot at a narrow angle and Leno can’t do a thing about it. Pep orders his men to stay behind the ball and defend their lead, which turns out to be an error. Given room to roam, we pile forward and Lacazette finds himself behind the last man. Firing his cross across the goal line, Gray is unmarked as he sweeps forward and heads it into the net. 2-2! We prepare for the onslaught and we get it, fat chunks of time where the clock seems to grind forward and we’re made to defend to the last man. But we can do that. We’ve been foiling opponents throughout the season, and for all their efforts City can’t find a way through.

We’ve done it – the title is ours! We’re all so happy that the second string eleven I put out against Wolverhampton Wanderers up in the Black Country produces a classic one-nil to the Arsenal result, Rob Holding producing the winner as we once again flex the power of our defensive muscles.

And that’s April. Eight games that put us in the penultimate round of the Europa League and lands us the Premier League. I’m so pleased. We can now play our best eleven for the semi-final against a formidable Ajax set-up, and reflect on a really rather good campaign that saw us restore the traditional gnat’s chuff tightness of the Arsenal and add some of the Wenger years’ incisive attacking. And to think I’ll have license to break this lot up in the summer…

ANC March 2019 – The Salah Factor

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

I’m being interviewed by Kelly Cates on Sky Sports News:

Arsenal are unlikely league leaders T, can you tell us what the secret to the team’s success is?

Well Kelly, when you take everything into consideration, judging it match by match, given all the circumstances and obviously at the end of the day, I think it all comes down to the fact I’m probably the best manager in the world.

A thankfully quieter March that includes the international break kicks off with a home tie against West Ham United. We drew with this lost at the Anne Boleyn, earlier in the season when things were simpler and we didn’t have a Premier League title to fight over. Clearly we want better this time around. The fucking old cunt has spent heavily on his squad, racking up an outlay of £171 million, which I find quite staggering considering the team is still fairly average and sitting in mid-table. We mass five yellow cards, badly behaved by our standards, or possibly just zealously officiated. But we’re also pretty good, winning 3-1 via Torreira, Ozil, and a late slice from Nelson after Ricardo Horta has made things interesting by netting from close range. The little Uruguayan is making himself essential to the cause, but praise is due also to Aubameyang, who creates two chances and spends his time drawing defenders towards him.

And then we’re whisked off to Barcelona for the first leg of our Europa League encounter with Espanyol. It says here that our opposition are the Catalan city’s second team, presumably to someone or other, and there are few faces I instantly recognise in their line-up. Esteban Garay, the former Real Madrid attacking midfielder, looks like the one to watch, but as things progress it becomes clear their more terrifying line of attack come via Matias Vargas, a 21 year old Argentinian winger who causes constant problems for Bellerin in his comeback match. Our man survives in the end, as do we with the contest devolving into a dull 0-0 stalemate. We don’t really like drawing, but everything’s set up for a successful return leg at the Emirates. We dominate on the whole, creating more opportunities though neither of us has a clear cut chance, the indecisive outcome of a match that will make no one’s highlight reel.

At the weekend we’re back to Sunday football as a consequence of our continental antics, so I watch with glee as bottom placed Aston Villa force a 1-1 draw out of Manchester City. The Villans are as sure fire a relegation contender as Roy Keane is one misplaced comment away from blowing his top, so it’s a sensational result. We need to take advantage in our trip up north to play Newcastle United, who are hovering just above the bottom three. I make the normal pre-game noises about the board keeping faith with Steve Bruce, whereas in truth his is a terrible, under-invested side with a toxic owner, going nowhere very quickly. They’re poor in this game, letting us eke out a 1-0 win via David Luiz’s virtuously struck long shot. That happens in the 28th minute. The Codes’ reaction is to pack the defence with still more numbers, showing no sign of venturing out of their own half until very late when Sean Longstaff at least shows a bit of a spark. No matter. The result puts us five points clear.

Our thoughts turn to the trophy competitions and consecutive fixtures in the Europa League and Football Association Cup. First there’s Espanyol in the return leg of our Second Round tie. They’ve replaced Garay in attacking midfield with Pablo Piatti, who I seem to recall was a must-have player in older editions of Football Manager but due to his Argentinian nationality hell to get through the red tape work permit regulations. We think we’ve done enough in Spain to set up victory here, something Mesut Ozil happily agrees with when he collects the ball on the edge of the D from Nelson’s pass and curls his shot into the net. Four minutes are on the clock, and in classic continental fashion this leads to a first half of gritty, largely uneventful stalemate. Aware that the opposition need a single goal to really put us on the back foot, I press the need to put this game beyond them. Holding has a goal disallowed straight from kick-off, before an undaunted Ozil fashions another beauty to defy Diego Lopez. Minutes later, as Espanyol start to press their attack Nelson wrestles the ball from Bernardo and lopes up the pitch. He lashes his cross into the box, where Guendouzi is rather criminally unmarked and point-blank on goal. He can’t miss, and doesn’t. The Catalans find the tie slipping away and get some consolation via Wu Lie’s delightful goal, struck from 25 yards out, but by this stage it’s all been over some time ago. We avoid some big names in the quarter finals by landing a contest with German tongue twisters, Borussia Monchengladbach.

On to Liverpool at home in the FA Cup. They have Salah back in the ranks and, after a stalemate first half, he makes the difference when he crosses from the right wing to the far corner, where Jordan Henderson awaits to slot the ball beyond Leno. Nightmare, right? It would be, but we’re made of sterner stuff and march straight up the other end to force a corner. Ozil floats in a delicate ball that gets juggled around the area and Liverpool can’t clear it, before it drops to Gray on the edge of the D who has the space to lash his shot past Alisson. Fifteen minutes later, we’re ahead. Ceballos picks out Lacazette who finds he only has Matip and Clyne to deal with, not Van Dijk, and volleys home. At this stage I think we’ve done it. Lacazette has another priceless opportunity and shoots wide. And naturally you can’t discount Salah, the little Egyptian who finds a way past Leno with moments left to send the tie into extra time. We’re at the 115th minute. Shaqiri sends a free kick into the box where Bellerin – who’s had a wretched game trying to cope with Lallana(!) – fells Milner quite blatantly. Liverpool get the penalty. Fabinho puts it away, and for the first time this season we have been defeated at home. Bugger.

The Scousers will go on to beat Watford in the showpiece to lift the FA Cup. We get to ‘concentrate on the league’ and know that victory in the away game against Sheffield United will maintain our unlikely five point lead. If we can only beat the relegation threatened Blades we will have some daylight in first place. Unlike the Citizens we don’t stuff it up. Lacazette, Guendouzi and the match ball winning Pepe score the goals in an overwhelming attacking performance that includes restricting the home side to a single half-chance. They’re as good as you might expect a struggling team to be – Billy Sharp’s all right, but there’s little else for us to worry about.

Despite the FA Cup setback, we’re in a lovely position and if things go our away we could even win the league in April. It’s going to be a busy month, however. Eight fixtures, four important league matches packed in at the back end that takes in a key tie at home to Manchester United before we have to go away to the other Manc outfit in what will no doubt be a fingernail-unfriendly afternoon.

ANC February 2019 – The Business End

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

The situation is clear. We have a chance of lifting the Premier League trophy. We are two points clear of Manchester City, with a slightly better goal difference and having played the same number of matches. We have a few injuries, the most worrying being a recurrence of the twisted ankle injury suffered by Hector Bellerin during a reserves game that will rob us of his services throughout February. Ceballos and Nelson are doubts. And the games are piling up. It isn’t the best time to be forced to contest an FA Cup replay, which we have to do after drawing against Southampton, and that means eight games to slog through during this short month.

We start with two away matches at St Mary’s, facing Southampton first in the league and then that damn cup tie in midweek. The Saints are 12th in the table, so our fingers are crossed for this, especially as Ralph Hassenhuttl has rewarded Shane Long for his lumbering yet successful performance against us by dropping him from the team entirely. That’s total management for you. Instead they go with Lewis Holtby up front, an even more enigmatic choice as he isn’t actually a striker. Our plan is to deal with Nathan Redmond and that doing so should equate to solving Southampton. The league match is a salty, bad tempered affair, played in freezing south coast conditions and pockmarked by the referee waving cards around furiously. Pepe noses us in front just before the break. It seems like we should be able to prevail after that, and just to underline the point Southampton have Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg sent off for a second yellow card.

An away tie at Birmingham City awaits for whoever wins our FA Cup replay, again at St Mary’s. Southampton refuse to pick Shane Long once more and I don’t allow Mustafi to step anywhere near my starting eleven, so 3-1 to us is probably a fair outcome. On this occasion the Saints fall away as Aubameyang puts away a ruthless hat-trick. The striker is being tracked by scouts from Manchester United and Real Madrid and I’m wondering just how much we can get for a predatory yet 30 year old African forward. Nelson and Tierney have great games, turning both flanks into supply lines for the attack, and Southampton’s very late reply by Kevin Danso is the sort of goal you concede when everyone has mentally gone home already.

We’re off to the romantically named American Express next for Brighton and Hove Albion. Manchester City keep winning their matches so we have to match their pace, and fortunately the Seagulls present no significant challenge. All the damage has been done by the 46th minute, by which point we’re 3-0 ahead. Brighton are okay, but they can be bullied and we overload our attack. Ozil, Maitland-Niles and Gray score the goals. All three result from sustained pressure in their penalty area, the kind of enduring nightmare for home fans who can see such melees result in shots on goal to which Matthew Ryan can be susceptible. The scoreline’s fair. We rack up 19 shots, including ten on target as the opposition find that breaking out of their half to be a precious and barely exploitable rarity.

Prague is a beautiful city. The beer’s cheap and the old city centre a pastel-coloured delight, but it’s cold in February and we’re here for a job to do rather than take selfies on the Charles Bridge. Sparta Prague is a name to conjure up classic, old school European nights, but honestly I’ve little idea how good the team is these days. Much like the Czech national side, their flagship club appears to be suffering hard times. I’ve heard of striker Vaclav Kadlec but the rest of the side is a mystery waiting to happen, so you can imagine my pleasure when they score with five minutes on the clock. Heck, are they really, really good underneath it all? Is our Europa League adventure going to end here? No, it turns out. Lacazette replies with a hat-trick to counter Aubameyang’s three goals against Brighton, or maybe he’s using the occasion as a shop window because we are aware that Manchester City’s scouts are taking notes on him, with Nelson the main provider. Tetteh ensures the evening ends interestingly by making it 3-2, unless it’s just the case that we’re a bit more vulnerable due to fielding Mustafi for this one, however I feel those three away goals should make the tie a formality.

Birmingham City await for our fifth round FA Cup tie. Fourth in the Championship, the Blues are contenders for promotion but we should be able to prevail through this one, despite the absence of David Luiz due to a minor injury. Holding’s a fine alternative, especially as he now wields a new contract (we sort out fresh deals for Nelson and Smith Rowe also this month), and though the game has only one goal in it, Gray’s 20th minute strike from a Nelson assist, we’re never in danger of cocking it up. The home side manage one shot on target, in reality a tame effort by Alvaro Gimenez that Leno has to wake up for a few seconds in order to catch, and that’s the sun total of their threat. In the quarters we will have the infinitely more dangerous prospect of Liverpool at home.

In the return leg of our first round Europa League contest, we win 4-0 against Sparta Prague to set up a tie with Spanish outfit Espanyol. Another hat-trick, this time from Aubameyang who benefits from the precision crossing of Kieran Tierney on each occasion, and a late ribbon on the bow courtesy of Ozil. In the pick of the round, Borussia Dortmund win 6-2 away to Ajax, but still go out as the Dutchmen had spawned the first leg 5-0. With the likes of Blind, Van de Beek and Ziyech, and ageing striker Huntelaar, the Amsterdam outfit are formidable and possibly have the tie of the second round, against Manchester United. The top seeded team still in the competition turns out to be none other than ourselves. No pressure then.

We receive this year’s complement of Academy prospects, the usual mixed bag with a few genuine prospects – 15 year old left back, Les Owen, looks very promising… is it too early to say ‘the new Ashley Cole’? – and we go into our home league game against Chelsea knowing that Man City have slipped up against their traditional bogey team, Crystal Palace. The opportunity is there for us to pull clear, particularly as there’s an away day at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to come next, and Chelsea are missing several players for this one – no Giroud, Emerson, Christensen or Pulisic. We can’t blow it, and we don’t. Ceballos puts us ahead on 11 minutes, and Pepe turns in Guendouzi’s assist early in the second half to seal a grand 2-0 victory. Chelsea have six shots on target, but it’s Batshuayi rather than Giroud and we can deal with him. Fat Frank and I exchange the traditional pleasantries in the post-match banter, before he spits his dummy out when I tell the press they have a good team. Good old Frank, always combustible when he thinks he’s being mind-gamed.

A month spent predominantly on the road ends with the short hop to our noisy neighbours, Tottenham Hotspur, now managed by serial Serie A winner Massimiliano Allegri. They’re 11th in the table, but facing the likes of Harrington Kane and Debbie Alli is always hard going, and perhaps in retrospect getting away with a 1-1 draw is fair enough. The kick in the teeth however is that Kane’s equaliser comes so late. For most of the game we’re in front. We take a first half lead when Tierney’s cross deflects off the meaty thigh of Vertonghen and into his own net, the sort of comedy goal you always want to get against your bitter rivals. And we’re comfortable. The lead’s deserved. Spurs fanny about about on the ball a lot without causing much trouble. Until late. Aurier’s cross into the box meets Harrington, who has managed to get on the right side of Sokratis, and the rest of the story writes itself.

And so a chance to remain five points clear of the Citizens lasts but briefly. That said, we’re very happy to be here, albeit in the position of needing to win and win and win as the Manchester team point blank refuses to give up the chase. Liverpool have already qualified for Europe courtesy of their Carabao Cup victory. We’ll face them in the FA Cup in March, a month that carries two weeks off for international football that, at this stage in the season, almost comes as a relief.

ANC January 2019 – What Transfer Window?

The continuing adventures of the Arsenal Nationalist Challenge – you can read it from the start and follow the guidelines here.

The new year brings with it the possibility of strengthening the ranks via the January transfer window, or at least it would if we had anything left in the budget. I tried squeezing more bread out of the Arsenal board as a condition to signing my new contract. They refused and then I signed it anyway. What’s left is around five hundred grand, and in a world where Lazio can spend £7.5 million on 33 year old Ashley Young it’s clearly not going to stretch very far.

The one English player of any significance who’s available is Manchester United’s Phil Jones. Not the sort of world class star made to excite the fans, is he, and yet I consider it seriously. Jones could step into Mustafi’s shoes, if only I can sell the unsettled German. At the beginning of my tenure big Bundesliga clubs were prepared to offer a lot of money for him, which I turned down. So I hawk Mustafi around. Leicester are interested and bid close to twenty million, which is more than enough than I would need to cough up for Jones, but the player rejects the move and so that’s about it. Looking at it on the bright side, we could have ended up with Phil Jones.

Before the window closes we will even lose our minuscule remaining budget as part of a bonus clause paid to Leicester for Demarai Gray hitting a playing target. It’s therefore a quiet window, in which Everton’s slight interest in Calum Chambers is kept at arm’s length and no one wants any of our other players.

The month’s business opens with us two points ahead of Manchester City and facing Norwich City at Carrow Road. By now I consider our away day blues to be more or less conquered, and so it proves as we grind out a 1-0 victory courtesy of Ainsley Maitland-Niles’s 23rd minute strike. It’s all we deserve after a consistent attacking effort. Pepe is excellent, dribbling through danger at will, and his piercing ball into the box finds Lacazaette, who is heavily marked and picks out the midfielder, who is not. Ozil is pretty anonymous in this one, frustrating his own demands to play all the time, yet really it’s only the Norwich goalie channelling the spirit of Peter ‘the Cat’ Bonnetti that keeps the scoreline down.

The FA Cup campaign starts with one of the toughest possible ties – away to Chelsea in as fixture we’ve lost twice already this season. The Blues did for us on penalties in the League Cup and personally I thought we warranted better than what we got on both occasions. I don’t admit it publicly, but any excuse to sully the media love-in for Frank Lampard will delight me. As in our previous visits it’s an attritional affair that won’t provoke any stiffies among the game’s aesthetes. Statistical elements like shots taken and possession are shared more or less equally, and we’re pleasingly sharp in defence as good efforts by the Chelsea line, notably Pedro, are batted aside. A wonder strike by Chambers, the result of some patient build-up play and the right-back lashing in a daisy cutter that confounds Kepa, decides it. Our reward is Southampton at home in the next round.

Still on the road, we travel north to Leicester City and a team we demolished 8-1 much earlier in the season. Even a country idiot (see below) will be aware it’s going to be much harder this time, and the Foxes will seek vengeance in this life or the next. Well, we’ll have to assume it’s the next because we win 2-0. Another very sound defensive effort, two goals from Pepe, and the sort of encounter in which Declan Rice really proves his quality. I feel for Rice, my defensive midfield specialist who cost a fortune and is considered by many to be an enormous waste of money. I respectfully disagree. The 20 year old has an unglamorous but critical job – breaking up attacks, linking defence and midfield, always making himself available for the purpose of recycling passes and retaining possession – and does it very well indeed.

At home, we restrict Bournemouth to one shot on target in running out 2-0 winners. Torreira conjures a rare and spectacular goal in the fourth minute and Luiz converts a penalty just after the break to guarantee the points. The visitors are clearly out of form and mind-numbingly wasteful, treating the ball like something to get rid of quickly (they have 39% possession) and the likes of Callum Wilson are virtually anonymous, which suits us.

All this should make our FA Cup tie against Southampton a formality. I use the opportunity to draft in a few back-ups and this of course turns out to be a big mistake. Two words for you – Shkodran Mustafi, and his ability to make a big daft lump of a forward like Shane Long look like Robbie Keane. Mustafi’s struggles remind me why I was happy to let him go. If only that had happened. Long has Southampton in front after half an hour, and it takes until the game’s latter stages for us to redress the balance. Aubameyang equalises, and then we all watch aghast as Long skins Mustafi and then squeezes the ball past Leno. We think we might be going out at this point. Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way, right? But the Saints aren’t great. Approaching full-time Bertrand scythes down Nelson in their penalty area. Pepe dispatches the resulting penalty and we get away with the replay, almost certainly one played without Nelson who is taken off with an injury that will turn out to be a gashed lower leg and at least two weeks out. Thanks very much, Ryan.

The month’s play closes with Burnley at the Emirates. The opposition are as brittle and niggling as you’d expect. They cause an injury to Ceballos that will remove him from consideration for three weeks – I could terminate his loan at this point, but he’s actually playing rather well as a Mezzala for us and, well, we need the bodies. A volley from Gray, the culmination of some delightful linkage between Pepe and Lacazette, produces the match winner, another one-nil to the Arsenal set of chants, and that is just about all there is to report. As difficult as they are to break down, the Clarets offer precious little threat of their own.

So January ends with us retaining our slender lead in the table, but a worrying build-up of injuries as the heavy calendar takes its toll on the players’ health. The next month will start with two away ties at St Mary’s, but in the meantime there’s transfer deadline day in which to take part. I counter the rabid excitement of SSN’s Jim White by rubbishing speculation about Calum Chambers leaving, and agreeing loan offers for a few Under 23s. Otherwise there’s nothing to report. No cash therefore no action. A quiet window overall is symbolised by Charlie Taylor, a Burnley full-back punctuated by his very averageness, going to Crystal Palace for £11 million. Wake me up when it’s all over, will you?