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?

ANC December 2018 – Season’s Beatings

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

There are eight fixtures in December, so much rotating of the squad to be done and, with any luck, we won’t slip too much further behind the league leaders.

First up are Everton away. The Toffees are in the lower half of the table and Marco Silva is under pressure, but he should be okay against us and our inability to find the net in a Premier League ground other than the Emirates. Whilst Alex Iwobi has taken his pace (and not much else…?) to Goodison, there isn’t a great amount to fear from this lot, I feel. Any side that plays Cenk Tosun as the fulcrum of its attack isn’t to be treated too seriously, right? And so it proves. Everton offer little in terms of threat. Silva makes the frankly bizarre decision to play left winger Iwobi in central midfield, and they give Leno a bit of an afternoon off. Luckily for them we’re as toothless as ever. There are some good chances, all fluffed, and the match ends with hopeful long shots from my brave boys that go nowhere. 0-0, back end of Match of the Day fare. Oh well.

In our midweek game we’re at home to Watford. As our risible away form continues to keep us off the pace this is one we have to win and indeed we should piss it, quite frankly. Former Gunner Danny Welbeck is in the Hornets attack, but on the whole they’re a pretty average opponent, with only Gerard Deulofeu serving as someone on whom we need to keep watch. Again we’re lumpy and listless. It’s as though we’re playing in a shell, working hard not to concede anything but refusing to take advantage of our pace in attack, and it’s especially irritating as there’s nothing to fear except apparently fear itself. Mesut Ozil scores on the cusp of half-time to spare our blushes, and a little later on David Luiz scuffs his penalty kick to keep it at 1-0, which turns out to be your final result. The points are good. The performance is a concern.

On the road again and if we can’t bag a victory at Aston Villa, rock bottom on five points, then we might as well give up and go home. In this one I start thinking it might be my fault. Away from home I tend to opt for Rice as a defensive midfielder and drop Ozil to the bench, which makes sense for reasons that should be obvious, but it adds a note of caution to our game where it maybe isn’t necessary. It’s only late on, the match goalless and time ebbing away, that I make the decision to bring on the bug-eyed hero and he sparks a blizzard of attacks rewarding us with two goals and our first away win in ages. Pepe finds the net, as does Ozil, and there are more questions for me to consider.

AIK at home is a nice contrast from the tension of the league and a celebration of our group winning exploits in the Europa League. Fielding the second team we simply run riot against considerably lesser opposition. Reiss Nelson claims the match ball for scoring four goals. Willock, Smith Rowe and Ozil add to their accounts as we sweep to a majestic 7-0 walkover that is entirely warranted. It’s been fun. The group has been royally smote with not a point dropped, 25 goals scored and a mere two conceded. For our troubles we will face Sparta Prague in the first knockout round. The board expects me to make it to the final – this in a competition that still contains the likes of Napoli, Borussia Dortmund and a certain Manchester United.

We maintain our fine form at home in the league with a forgettable 1-0 result against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Pepe hits his penalty kick straight at Patricio in the first half, before Demarai Gray latches onto Ozil’s through ball to put us into a decisive lead. The other talking point is a clumsy challenge by Traore on Bellerin that will keep the full-back out for a month. Thanks for that.

Christmas is looming, and our treat is entertaining Liverpool at the Emirates. You’ll recall them beating us in the season opener so there are thoughts of revenge on our minds, and added to that is an opportunity handed to Mesut Ozil. The German has been complaining about his lack of appearances, a strange moan as he’s played often enough. But it occurs to me that perhaps this should be his chance to shine. He’s supposed to be our best outfield player, after all, and this might just be the chance to place him in the shop window. Coooo-eeee Paris Saint-Germain, over heeeere! As it is Ozil doesn’t disappoint, or at least he’s in the line-up for a winning performance. The Pool are without Salah, and they’re leggy after being taken to extra time in their midweek Carabao tie, so it’s a good time to play them and we prevail 2-0. This I put down to superior fitness. Lacazette and a rare Ceballos screamer do the damage, while Luiz and Sokratis continue to impress in keeping Roberto Firmino firmly under wraps.

Ozil stays in the lineup for our Boxing Day trip across London to Crystal Palace. He’s impressive, laying off a killer ball for Pepe to pounce in the first minute before Lacazette scores to put us two up with most of the match still to play. Pepe adds a third late in the second half as it becomes clear who has prepared fully for this and who’s plied the anonymous Zaha with eggnog the night before. Roy Hodgson gets sacked as a consequence of this defeat, a result that propels Palace into the bottom three. They’ll replace him with Claude Puel, which to my mind doesn’t sound like a glorious answer to their problems. At least Roy will get more time to play Warhammer.

A busy holiday period climaxes with Manchester City at home. The opposition are a point ahead of us in first place and if that isn’t going to make us raise our game then I don’t know what is. As daunting as City always sound, in reality they are riddled with injuries. Sane, Bernardo, Cancelo, Fernandinho, Ederson and Mahrez are all out. De Bruyne and Aguero are pretty much running on empty, so this is a unique opportunity to do some rotating, with Nelson, Holding and Guendouzi all starting. We score with 39 minutes on the clock via Demarai Gray, but it’s 2-1 to the visitors at half-time. A defensive lapse in concentration allows the lethal Aguero through to fire past Leno, and moments later an Ozil foul outside the area gives De Bruyne the chance to produce one of his specials. I bollock the players at the break, more through frustration at a victory that should be ours slipping through our fingers. But it does the job. City’s efforts have obviously drained them. They’re done in, and our superior fitness tells as we enter the game’s final fifteen minutes. The unlikely hero is Ainsley-Maitland Niles, who’s on for the wilting Ceballos. From midfield he scores a quick brace, and then Lacazette confirms the points as the Blues launch late attacks into our area and we take advantage with a speedy counter.

A victory that puts us atop the Premier League as we enter 2019 then, with a mighty fine goal difference and, critically for season expectations, a ten point gap between ourselves and Chelsea. We’ve beaten the away hoodoo and downed some very good sides at the Emirates. To show their gratitude Sir Chips and his groovy pals offer me a new, three year contract, which will pay me an additional £25,000 per week. I ask for an increased transfer budget as a condition for signing it, which they graciously reply to by stumping up an extra hundred grand with the caveat that I have to land them the league title. Er, you’re okay, fellas.

ANC November 2018 – Beach Bums

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

Middlesbrough replace the sacked Jonathan Woodgate with none other than Guus Hiddink, the sort of ambitious managerial appointment of which I really approve. We have problems of our own. Arsenal have been terrific at the Emirates, less so elsewhere, and to emphasise the point we entertain Newcastle United and batter them 5-0. The Geordies look eminently beatable, in fairness, and they do little in terms of attacking, trying instead to sit back, soak up our forays into their half and launch counter attacks. They get plenty of the latter, but fortunately their forward line is spearheaded by Joelinton who would struggle with a barn door for his target. As for our efforts, Pepe and Gray both bag two goals, Lacazette gets the fifth, and there are great performances by Ozil and Ceballos as we sustain pressure on the Magpies throughout. Terrific stuff, even if it answers none of my questions about the team’s inconsistencies.

Neither am I going to discover anything new about the lads as they travel to the rather beautiful Croatian city of Rijeka in the Europa League. This place really is picture postcard pretty. It’s due to be European Capital of Culture in 2020, and it’s easy to see why with its Olde Worlde town centre and beaches to die for. If only we could spend a bit of time here, alas there’s a massive Premier League tie to follow at the weekend and we are present to play a game. Given the city’s delights, you could believe the football club to be an afterthought. They aren’t at our level, as we demonstrate in the first half as Lacazette and a daisy cutter from Willock give us a quick two goal lead. Before half-time Colak heads in a corner, which at least keeps us honest and reminds us this is a contest. The busy Willock adds a second, and there’s an own goal resulting from ugly scuffles in their penalty area, to seal a 4-1 victory.

With two matches remaining we have already clinched qualification to the knockout round, indeed no one can challenge our first place position in the group. Given opposition from the mighty footballing nations of Cyprus and Sweden you’d expect nothing less.

Before the next international break there’s the small matter of a tie at Old Trafford and Manchester United to settle. Our recent record against the Red Devils is execrable, and sadly I do nothing to break this with a performance that’s good but lacks cutting edge. Marcus Rashford scores for the home side, yet otherwise we do all the running and just can’t find the back of the net. Aubameyang has the pick of our chances, robbing Lindelof who’s dwelling on the ball but producing a tame shot that insults keeper De Gea. Later, Pepe makes a wonderful dash from the halfway line, breaks into the box, and instead of crossing for Lacazette goes for glory, but the angle’s tight and the keeper knows exactly where to place himself for a straightforward save. It’s a really poor result. We could and perhaps should have at least got something from it. As it stands we have travelled to another ‘big club’ opponent and failed to get anything from them.

We wait around for a further fortnight and hope to hell that nothing befalls our players. The only bit of misfortune is Emiliano Martinez’s tight hamstring that keeps him out for a few days; it’s not the sort of devastating setback that has us sitting on the ground to tell sad stories. I recruit some new members of staff – all English, of course, because that’s the sort of club we are now. Andy Woodman, co-author of the smashing Woody and Nord, becomes our goalkeeping coach with the Under 23s. No less a figure than Alan Curbishley takes over the Under 18s, leading a team that includes former Boro midfielder, Mark Proctor. Mesut Ozil is still moaning about his lack of playing time. I tell him he’s an important player but that doesn’t mean he gets to start every match, which actually seems to mollify him. Strange boy; the quicker I can get him off the books the better. He started the season like he was on fire, but recently his performances have oscillated between good and anonymous, and I can’t pay someone so much for such a wayward return.

Sheffield United come to Londinium at the resumption of hostilities. The Yorkshiremen are 19th so I’m expecting the most predictable of victories, but we’re crap and at half-time I tell them so. It’s 0-0 at this stage, and I am fed up with the thought of dropping points against sides we should be opening a can of whup ass upon. The problem’s Ozil, who’s having one of his most wandering of afternoons. Once I take him off, pushing Ceballos up and introducing Maitland-Niles, a sense of fluidity and pace returns to our attack. Gray has us ahead on the hour mark, then he turns provider for the predatory Aubameyang. Two assists. Two goals. The final score of 3-0 looks like a fair enough result, yet it wasn’t gained without trouble.

We have retained our position of third in the table, but the United defeat has cost us and only their inability to kill off teams elsewhere has stopped them from leapfrogging us. At the end of October there was a single point between us and first place, but Liverpool are on a winning run and the gap is now up to four.

That leaves the meaninglessness of APOEL Nicosia and a journey to another pretty city in foreign climes, like Berlin of old a divided community. We keep an eye on Roman Bezjak, APOEL’s tricky forward, and otherwise rotate in the kids and second stringers. Teenagers like Willock and Smith-Rowe have generally been too much for our European opponents. The former has us ahead after nine minutes, another treat of a shot that rifles into the net from range. Much later, Smith-Rowe scores our second when he heads in a 35 yard raking ball from the right wing by Hector Bellerin. Maitland-Niles adds a third after some neat passing play between Guendouzi and himself. The Cypriots dominate possession, but that’s okay when their time on the ball involves passing among defenders in their own half. They have the complete absence of killer instinct that I would expect from them, and pleased as I am with the result I’m aware we have done this without moving out of second gear. There’ll be tougher challenges ahead.

ANC October 2018 – Chelsea Two Times

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

A busy October schedule starts with what appears to be a home banker against Brighton and Hove Albion. ‘Appears’ is the key word. We mount attack after attack in the first half, peppering Matthew’s Ryan goal with shots and of course he plays like Peter Shilton in keeping us goalless. Some of the football on display is lovely. We stroke the ball around in a way to make any passing aesthete purr with delight, but there’s no end product. It’s like optimal Wengerball out there, the beautiful game and yet strangely pointless. It isn’t too long after the break before I’m bringing on Mesut Ozil, swapping Guendouzi for Maitland-Niles to give us a stronger cutting edge in midfield and removing Auameyang for Lacazette. Still, it’s a penalty that undoes the visitors in the end. Stephens brings down Pepe in the area as a free kick is fired in, and the young Ivory Coast winger duly dispatches his spot kick.

Following the game, I’m forced to deal with an issue involving Shkodran Mustafi. The German is unhappy over his lack of playing time, but there’s a reason why he’s been involved as little as he has and I suspect both he and I know exactly what it is. My answer, that I’ll use him in the cups, isn’t satisfactory for him, which I can appreciate, and I suspect we may lose him in January with several clubs hovering. One of these is Barcelona, which is a little inexplicable to my mind but maybe they want to find a replacement for Vermaelen to warm their benches.

Middlesbrough sack Woodgate, who’s guided them to dead last in the Championship, and we’re off to Sweden for our Europa League date with AIK. Ah readers, remember when this lot amongst other Swedish outfits carried cheap fodder for Championship Manager sides? I especially remember one Daniel Andersson, the AIK frying pan-handed goalkeeper who could be bought for £250,000 and became immense. Those days are long gone now. Bargains are relatively thin on the ground and nigh on impossible if you restricted to signing English players. The current AIK have international forward Tarik Elyounoussi in the ranks, yet even having named a side full of kids we’re good for a 3-0 win. Pepe scores before the break, as has become custom, and then we showcase a rarity from Mustafi that results from a scruffy penalty box scuffle, and a rifled shot from outside the area courtesy of Joe Willock. I’m delighted for the latter. A 19 year old who has risen through the youth ranks and might just about have the world at his feet one day…

We’re in the most navigable of Europa League groups, which means I can field second stringers ahead of Premiership fixtures. The best side I can put out is assembled for our visit to Chelsea, still a formidable side despite their transfer ban. Fat Frank is trying to change the Blues philosophy to incorporate a more expansive style, a change from the Mourinho-Sarri safety first mentality that made these games such a trawl. As it turns out, I have to take responsibility for our 2-1 defeat here. Kante has them ahead after ten minutes, volleying into the net from outside the area, a great goal but also a criminal absence of marking from ourselves. We spend the rest of the half trying to find an equaliser and manage it shortly before the break when Aubameyang nods Pepe’s lovely cross past Kepa. I decide that drawing is a perfectly acceptable result at Stamford Bridge and switch things to make us more cautious, lots of time wasting and retaining possession. Big mistake. Chelsea get steadily more adventurous and finally reap the rewards with Giroud’s headed winner. At this stage we’ve had our ninety minutes. There’s no opportunity for the Gunners to pull it back again, but it’s been coming and I have to hold my hands up. We stopped trying to attack them and invited the pressure.

The international break begins, hateful as it is because there’s nothing worse than losing a game and then having a fortnight to stew over it. The trickle of players unhappy about their playing time is threatening to turn into a flood. Mesut Ozil isn’t happy, ditto Calum Chambers and Sead Kolasinac. I’m beginning to lose patience with them by this stage. We’re playing a lot of matches and constant rotation is necessary. They must see that, right? Of the three new complainants I’m most sympathetic towards Calum, who has the slightly uphill battle of shining in his role ahead of a certain Hector Bellerin.

At the end of the Interlull we are entertaining Tottenham Hotspur, a tie that’s important to some people, I suppose. Our main rivals are always a handful of course, and I would have a lot of questions to answer if we failed here. We don’t. After 70 minutes of tedium we explode into life. The substitutions of Auba and Pepe for Lacazette and Nelson add impetus, and we go ahead when Kolasinac crosses for Reiss, who finds the gap beyond Lloris. Expecting a resurgence from Spurs, we actually get very little. Lacazette adds to our account late on for a straightforward victory. All the enemy get out of it is injuries to Eriksen and Son, so we feel not only have we done the immediate job but also a service for other sides.

At home again for the visit of Croatian comers Rijeka we run riot, winning 5-0 as the visitors can’t find any solution to Emile Smith Rowe – who nets a hat trick – and the further brace from Lacazette. It’s a lovely, decisive performance against lesser opposition, in which everything comes together so well that I don’t need to make any substitutions until very late in the game. One more victory in our Europa League group and we are pretty much through.

Back in Blighty, we don’t have to travel far to face West Ham. Despite selling Declan Rice to us they’re a decent outfit, and my developing concerns about our form away from are exacerbated with a bad tempered and niggly 0-0 draw. The best players are the defenders, also former Arsenal keeper Lukasz Fabianski who works hard to stop the attacking instincts of Demarai Gray, about the only player out there to try and make something happen. Worse still are the drawn matches elsewhere that we have failed to take advantage of. We could be top at this point. Instead we’re third behind the predictable league leaders.

October finishes with another trip to Chelsea for our Carabao Cup encounter. For me it’s a further opportunity to give some game time to the likes of Holding, Maitland-Niles and Smith Rowe. The opposition clearly don’t feel the same way and field their best eleven, which kind of pays off when Jorginho and Pedro are both forced off with injuries – all to do with tired players and not heavy tackling, you understand. It takes 72 minutes for Giroud to put them ahead, and a short time after that Pepe has produced an equaliser. This is better from us. We’re refusing to let them control the game, but neither of can produce a winner. The tie results in penalties. Aubameyang misses his. Ceballos sends his kick into the sky rather than Kepa’s net, and Chelsea are incisive in their efforts, knowing as well as I do that Bernd Leno is prone to just flipping in some random direction when he’s on the spot.

Heading into a busy November, I have worries about our away form, and some concerns about Aubameyang’s ability to do the primary job he’s here to do. I know that a match will come when he explodes and scores four goals, but he’s looked pretty awful for most of the month and we have been relying an awful lot on Nicolas Pepe’s emerging talents.

ANC September 2018 – Steady Progress

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

Two weeks of international activities take place, a fortnight of boredom as we’re all desperate to make up for scrabbling a draw against Bournemouth. The transfer window closes, our signing of Declan Rice remaining the biggest bit of business. Elsewhere Manchester United have snapped up Iago Aspas (£36 million), Andrea Belotti has jouned Spurs (£30.5 million) and Man City persuade Juventus to sell Daniele Rugani to them for little over thirty mill. West Ham spend some of the Rice money on James Ward-Prowse, a midfielder who’s kind of on my second tier of targets.

Hostilities resume in the middle of the month with a trip north to meet Burnley. Sean Dyche’s men pride themselves on their heavy homegrown influence. There’s something enviable about the number of English players they field (seven compared with our three), and perhaps this makes up for their relative lack of quality. They’re decent enough, as their prolonged Premiership stay attests, but I’m expecting a win. It doesn’t happen quickly. The first half is dull, the sides dancing round each other like two heavyweight boxers before they really start getting stuck in, and there’s precious little to report. They don’t do anything to especially trouble us, but the same’s true at the other end and I let them know at the break that it isn’t acceptable. Ten minutes into the second half and we’ve won a free kick twenty yards out. David Luiz elects to take it and rifles a virtuous shot around the wall and into the net. I decide to take it, changing the tactics so that we are cautious rather than positive in our approach. It ends 1-0 to us. We have restricted the Clarets to three off-target shots, which reflects brilliant work from our defenders. It hasnt been the prettiest exhibition, but it’s done the job.

Back home in midweek, we entertain Cypriot giants APOEL Nicosia in our Europa League opener. The scouts are telling me to keep careful tabs on striker Linus Hellenius, but in truth this should be straightforward enough. Again we’re playing on the sluggish side. I’ve given game time here to the likes of Willock and Smith-Rowe, and neither let me down though some of the work elsewhere is disappointing. Ozil is notable by having one of those matches where he just wanders, both mentally and in terms of personal effort. Lacazette has us in front after 33 minutes, turning in a precision cross from Nelson, and that’s about it from a first half that’s one for the completists. At least we’ve stopped APOEL from doing anything of note, a picture that changes after the break when a rare away team attack results in Kolasinac bringing down Bezjac in the area for a penalty. This isn’t in the script, but when you have hotrods like Kolasinac in the line-up these things can happen. Fortunately, the leveller wakes us up. We score a futher two goals, both from Lacazette for his hat-trick, and clinch the points.

We’re at the Emirates again for our Premiership tie at the weekend, this time against Southampton. Reiss Nelson has pulled his back and won’t be available for the rest of the month; the upside of this is that we are forced to rely on Nicolas Pepe, who tortures Bertrand for 90 minutes as we ease through 2-0. Aubameyang adds to his personal tally, but it’s Pepe who shines, both making the Gabonese striker’s goal and then scoring one of his own. It’s a very good, professional bit of business, with the Saints restricted to pot shots and everyone looking quite comfortable.

The September league table looks worse than the situation actually is, because most teams have played a match more than we have. Win our next one and we will be in second place, and while the Manchester clubs look in damn fine form it’s worth bearing in mind that they have both stopped winning game after game, suggesting a human level about them that isn’t always apparent.

We still have our Carabao Cup commitments to deal with before ending the month. At home to Cambridge United, this ought to be straightforward and so it proves. With more than 50,000 souls inside the Emirates Pepe runs riot once again, scoring twice and setting up goals for Lacazette and Smith-Rowe, the last particularly sweet as it’s drilled in from an acute angle. The Us work hard, but they’re a League Two side and that makes all the difference. We do all the damage in the first half and spend the second holding our minnow opposition at easy arm’s length. For our efforts we’re rewarded with an away day at Chelsea in the next round, so it could be fortunate that the competition is not considered a priority by Sir Chips and the board.

ANC August 2018 – Very Good, Very Bad

The season kicks off in the harshest possible way, with a visit to Anfield and mighty Liverpool. Sigh, remember when this lot were ambling around the upper mid-table? That seems a long time ago now. The current European champions and title contenders are as strong as ever, relying still on their superb front three but naturally you’d do the same if you were in Jurgen Klopp’s shoes, wouldn’t you? I pick what I see to be our strongest starting eleven – Leno in goal, Bellerin and Kolasinac flanking Sokratis and Luiz at the back, Rice as defensive midfielder behind Ceballos and Torreira, Gray and Pepe on the wings with Aubameyang up front.

And it’s a horror show. At half-time, the scoreline is somehow 0-0 but we’ve done nothing but defend, trying to keep SMF at arm’s length while rarely bursting into the opposition half ourselves. There’s an effort by the players to be fluid, but it’s difficult when Henderson, Fabinho and Keita are acting as breakwaters and block everything. I bring on Lacazette at the break, and swap out Ceballos for Maitland-Niles after an hour’s play because we aren’t changing the course of the match at all. The only crumb of comfort is that we have somehow kept Pool from scoring. Leno’s a hero, staving off the blizzard of shots, while the centre backs work with authority. Then it happens. After Hector has made his significant contribution by knocking Mane out of the action, knowing the sub Lallana has far less danger about him, he also has to deal with Robertson and is to blame for letting him lash in a 75th minute cross that Firmino voleys past our keeper. This rouses us into pushing forward a little more as Liverpool defend their lead, but we can’t find a way through. Van Dijk is such a cool figure and deals well enough with our attack, and the contest ends limply with a 1-0 home win.

In truth no one expected miracles and I suspect if I was offered a close defeat with no injuries beforehand then I might have taken it. But there are losses and then there are uninspiring walkovers, and despite the scoreline we were stuffed royally. The one consolation is that the tie is now played and we won’t have to go to Anfield in the league again this season.

In a marked contrast we entertain newly promoted Norwich City at the Emirates the following weekend. They shouldn’t be any match for us, despite the presence of full-back Max Aarons, who we’re scouting. In a game that could be defined as the epitome of flat-track bullying we cruise through it 3-0. Swapping Rice for Ozil to give us more options in attack, and introucing Mustafi for Sokratis in an effort to rotate the central defenders, Gray has us in front after five minutes and it isn’t long before Ozil rouses himself into life to make it 2-0. I even have the luxury of making substitutions based on fatigue, and it’s Nelson, on for Pepe, who converts Auba’s assist to seal a fine win. The statistics don’t lie. We have 26 shots, 14 of them on target, while for the Canaries Samu and Pukki do little as they rack up a paltry three shots.

It’s a fine professional effort, one we hope to take into our next fixture, at home to Leicester City. This ought to be a closer fought thing. Brendan Rodgers has done well with the Foxes and is building a young, ambitious squad. He’s replaced Gray, the player we signed from them, with Andros Townsend and Bosnian winger Edin Visca. Several players in their line-up are coveted by us, notably Chilwell and Maddison, with Harvey Barnes also on the radar.

In the sort of season start that you wouldn’t wish on anyone, Leicester are pointless coming into this one, losing to Chelsea and Manchester City, and we pile on the misery. Sometimes everything just goes right. We win 8-1, reacting to Mendy’s 43rd minute strike (at which stage it’s 3-1) by opening a proper can of whup-ass. In spells of sustained carnage when every attack looks as though it might result in us hitting the net, we launch 20 shots on target and torture the Leicester defence, especially Jonny Evans who looks every inch the ageing pro who misses partnering Harry Maguire. If I had to guess I’d have to say the loss of Slabhead has been catastrophic. Rodgers hasn’t replaced him – surely he could have bought an entire suite of defenders with the money he received. By the end, Auba has scored four goals, Gray has a hat-trick and even Rob Holding has found the net when he heads in Pepe’s searching corner kick.

Leicester aren’t that bad and will no doubt bounce back. Neither are we that good, something we realise when we go to Bournemouth before the international break. It’s 1-1, a tie in which we’re pinned back in the first half, succumbing to a strike from Billing, before resorting more to an attacking style in the second and Aubameyang turning in Nelson’s cross for the equaliser. But we’re blunt, and players who were heroes previously, like Gray and Guendouzi, are very ordinary here. My real concern is the difference between how we’ve performed at home and on the road. At the Emirates we won twice at an aggregate score of 11-1. On our travels we have claimed a solitary point. The caveat is that Bournemouh are no one’s idea of a bad side. They might be small by Premier League standards, but they’re organised and maximise their abilities. I don’t think many teams will find it easy to get anything from Dean Court.

Here’s the table, a picture that I would probably accept if it was the final one as it puts us in fourth place and means I will have met the requirements of Arsenal’s board:

The draws for the Europa League and Carabao Cup could hardly be kinder. We’re at home to Cambridge United in the latter, while the continental group stage puts us in a straightforward group alongside APOEL Nicosia, AIK and Rijeka. Ones for the kids, in the classic Arsenal style.

The first four league results raise several questions:

1. Are we going to be crap away from the Emirates? Liverpool was fair enough. We were beaten by the better team so it’s disappointing but whatcanyado. The Bournemouth draw was more of a concern. Considerations include the need to settle in new players and the fact the Cherries are routinely a better side than they are given credit for, but we were a bit limp for long swathes of this game and there’s no denying it. Why? Why, after the way we demolished Leicester did we play so flatly? Over-confidence, perhaps? Not as good as we think we are…?

2. Players can have up and down matches but Dani Ceballos stands out as someone who has struggled to make an impact. Like many Arsenal lads, Dani is a young man with room to develop and improve, and I’m sure he will, but I’m not even certain that I’m using him properly. He can work naturally as a deep lying playermaker or a mezzala and so far I’ve been using him as the latter; maybe he should operate in the deeper role. Perhaps the answer is to swap him and Guendouzi, play the long haired Frenchman in the more advanced position and we’ll see the best of Ceballos. This is an area of the squad where we are heavily resourced, so there’s some rejigging to do in order to find our best options, and ultimately Dani is only here on loan. Longer term, it doesn’t really matter, but he’s got bags of talent…

3. Mesut Ozil – is he much better than I think he is? Like any sensible manager I have different home and away tactics. At the Emirates we deploy Mesut from the start, but on the road we got with Declan Rice instead and have the ability to bring Ozil on should the situation require it. In our victories over Norwich and Leicester the German was massive, putting in two outstanding bodies of work. Most people who take on the Arsenal job find him to be a complete enigma, and the usual – and usually correct – course of action is to replace him as quickly as possible, if for no other reason then because of what he earns. But maybe he is the dynamic, creative presence who can make a difference, and in that light it’s possible he deserves more playing time.

Book Review – Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough

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.

I can’t remember exactly what prompted me to read Provided You Don’t Kiss me: 20 Years with Brian Clough, by Duncan Hamilton. Perhaps it was its status as a major sports book of the year award winner, more likely the subject matter. Surely Brian Clough is the epitome of a real-life Football Manager game, someone who went to unfancied provincial teams and guided them to the unprecedented heights of winning league titles and even the European Cup. He did this first with Derby County, and later hit nirvana when he clinched the continent’s biggest trophy in consecutive years while at Nottingham Forest.

Then there’s Clough himself, an endlessly fascinating character who enchanted a prosaic and grey football scene with his massive personality, his outspoken opinions and the way he was good with a quote. In some ways he was his own worst enemy, far too controversial and basically a gobshite who the Football Association viewed as being far too dangerous to be allowed anywhere near the England job, at the time the most prestigious job of them all. Throughout the 1970s Clough was by some distance the best English coach. He should have been in charge of the national side. It’s quite possible to imagine him emulating and even improving on Alf Ramsey’s record by inspiring England to more honours than that one World Cup, and it’s kind of tragic both for him and us that he didn’t get the opportunity. It would have been an experience, but at the same time it’s clear he’d have flirted ever with dismissal. His views. which he wasn’t afraid to make public, would have had him on permanent sack watch with the old farts at Lancaster Gate.

Instead we have his unprecedented antics at Derby and Forest to look back on, and to wonder what might have happened… Duncan Hamilton was a young sports reporter for the Nottingham Evening Post when Clough was Forest manager, and got high levels of access to him. It’s hard to imagine a modern head coach giving the media such close contact, but Clough enjoyed espousing his opinions with the press and would give hours of his time to Hamilton, allowing the journalist to paint a rounded picture of him and finally, years after the manager’s passing, to write this excellent memoir.

And top notch it is. Hamilton not only admired his subject but covers to an exhaustive length why Clough could never be England manager. His love of a drink was legendary and is discussed here in painful detail. Easy it is to picture the pressures of the job compelling Clough – a working class guy from the far corner of the country in Middlesbrough – to turn increasingly to the comforts of the Scotch bottle, which he did, all the time, and in the end to destructive levels. His successes at the City Gound made him an untouchable figure, allowing him to lord it over the boardroom and becoming virtually unsackable, a bit like Wenger at Arsenal lingering in the job long beyond the time he should reasonably have moved on. Clough outlasted his key ally, Peter Taylor, the quieter half of the partnership that won all those honours. The pair fell out and Taylor left, which ensured Clough would never be as great again and Forest started a steady period of decline that led finally to their relegation in 1993. The manager could be as abrasive and explosive as he was charismatic and a hero. He thought nothing of public bollockings, even deaing out ‘clips on the ear’ from time to time, actions that exposed the darker half of his personality.

Still, against all the less savoury aspects are those ridiculous achievements. Forest were then, as now, a second tier club. Their crowds weren’t enormous. Even though contemporary football was a more level playing field than the closed shop it has become, it shouldn’t have been possible for a side with their limited outlook and – on the whole – players signed cheaply to do what they did. Picture Leicester City’s Premier League win in 2016, but achieved more consistently and with far less cash, and you start to get the general idea. It’s rightly made him a legend.

This book, by someone who knew Clough well and had sufficient access to him to write a beautiful and balanced account, is essential. The impression I’m left with is of an endlessly complicated man, desperate for publicity and for love, essentially using bluster – and, sadly, more and more alcoholic measures – to mask a deeply ill at ease personality that lacked confidence. He emerges as flawed, at times pathetic and yet mostly impressive, possessing charisma to spare and on occasion very unpleasant. In short, human.

If the story of Brian Howard Clough interests you – it should! – and you want to explore his feats further, try the documentary I Believe in Miracles, a film that tracks Forest’s rise from nowhere to the pinnacle of European football, soundtracked by a medley of funky contemporary tracks. You might also like to check out The Damned United, a novelisation about the mere 44 days Clough spent as manager of Leeds United. It didn’t work out. The book, by David Peace, emphasises some of the big man’s less likeable aspects, while the movie adaptation, which stars Michael Sheen, focuses more on the importance of Clough’s success-spinning partnership with Peter Taylor, played here by Timothy Spall.

ANC Summer 2018 – Pre-Season Spending

The bookies have listed Arsenal as sixth favourites for the Premiership title, in other words last placed of the league’s big six. That seems fair enough, though I have set our target with the board of achieving a Champions League slot. We will either hit that goal, or mine will turn into a short challenge. Still, it hardly appears an outlandish outlook to me. Remember when the Gunners were top four perennials? All I want to do is go back to those times, which in more recent seasons have been heady and out of our reach.

You all know the teams that stand between us and that aim. It’s fully anticipated that the crown will be contested between Manchester City and Liverpool. They’re both top class sides, with elite managers and squads made to make your mouth water. And yet they aren’t perfect. City are missing Leroy Sane for the best part of the season and don’t look particularly interested in replacing him, while the Pools’ reliance on their ‘big three’ front men makes them a bit obvious. Any injuries to those players, and the magic is sullied. Obviously it’s easy to say that when you aren’t planning on how to deal with MSF, and by happy chance our opening fixture is a trip to Anfield. Oh well, at least we’ll get it out of the way.

Tottenham Hotspur are probably next in line and, as much as it brings a bit of sick up into my mouth to say it, they do look pretty good. While the board’s reluctance to invest in the squad implies quite wrongly that it’s at an optimal level, the likes of Harrington, Debbie, Son and their buddies can destroy anyone. We’d love to knock them off their flipping perch.

Under the aegis of Frank Lampard, Chelsea are of course suffering their transfer ban and enter this period without their best player in recent times, Eden Hazard having pitched over to Real Madrid. Without the Belgian they are that bit less toothsome in attack, though the Blues’ real strength lies in that industrial midfield of Kante, Kovacic and Jorginho. Again, a few injuries and they might start getting into trouble; there’s a terrific layer of young talent underpinning the first team, but youth also means naivete and potentially something to exploit.

And then there’s Manchester United, now managed by Ole in an effort to end the cruel and unusual period when Jose Mourinho failed to improve their prospects. United will always possess some threat level, even if they’re light in attack following Lukaku and Sanchez’s departures and the club’s decision not to add replacements. A lot depends on Rashford and Martial, and if either drops in form or gets injured then all that’s left to the coach is youngsters. All the same, some of their signings – Wan-Bissaka, Maguire – are enviable in the light of our mission.

Even behind the traditional top six the Premier League contains numerous outfits that can cause problems. It’s tempting to laugh at Everton’s massive splurges without getting results, but Marco is building a pretty good side there. Leicester and Bournemouth are English-heavy squads we hope to cherry-pick from, both very capable. Wolves, West Ham, Crystal Palace and even Brighton are all potential banana skins.

Our hope is to hold our own against the other big shots and try to maintain a consistent winning pattern elsewhere. We’re close to having a squad with two good players for each position; defensive midfield and left wing stand out as areas to address. Our scouts ascertain that Dortmund don’t want to sell Jadon Sancho, and for that matter he isn’t at all interested in swapping Germany for London, so he becomes one to chalk up for the future.

The choice on the left becomes Nathan Redmond or Demarai Gray. They’re similarly valued and are broadly the same in terms of attributes, so it looks like a £30 million outlay either way, and in the end it boils down to age and scouting recommendations. The Southampton man has a 66% rating, whereas Leicester’s Gray breaks the 70% threshold (which is the point I start getting interested) and is two years younger, having just celebrated his 23rd birthday. And so Demarai Gray becomes my first signing, joining Emile Smith-Rowe as one of two very tricky left wingers.

We need a dedicated defensive midfielder, and there seems no better choice to my mind than West Ham’s Declan Rice, a 19 year old who is already hitting international class levels. The trouble is that he’s going to cost. The deal we thrash out will work out at £76 million, much higher than the player’s actual value and ensuring there’s pretty much nothing left in the transfer budget. The latter isn’t so big a deal. Arsenal have no dire needs elsewhere, even though I would love to add Jack Butland as a better back-up goalkeeper than Martinez. The pressure that comes with such an enormous price tag is a concern. If it all screws up I’m going to look a Charlie, however in the end I decide it’s worth the risk. A good DM can make an enormous difference. Think Vieira. Think Keane. And Rice does look pretty much the finished article, already in possession of fine physical attributes and, crucially, a high level of determination. In him I see a future Arsenal captain, and besides that there’s no chance of signing anyone who’s anything like as good for less money, so we seal the deal.

Rice’s arrival makes the lingering presence of Grant Xhaka no longer something we need to endorse. A decent holding midfielder, the Swiss collector of refereeing cautons is now behind Torreira and Guendouzi in the pecking order and I can’t justify keeping hold of someone who earns £100,000 per week and does nothing. We could get £20 million for him, but ultimately other teams are as lukewarm about the yellow card-friendly deep lying playmaker as we are, and we end up letting him go to West Ham for a year on loan. What a sickener. I could have lumped Xhaka in as a makeweight in the Rice transfer, but at least they are paying most of his wages. Xhaka therefore jons Elneny and Mkhitaryan as potential problems for another day.

We have a comprehensive programme of pre-season friendlies to play, including a training camp in the States that takes in games against MLS opposition. Hello to Gareth Barry, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and other ageing Englishmen plying their late-career trades in the USA. Fitness levels improve. At the Emirates, we draw 0-0 with Lazio, a frustrating affair because we fail to score. On the plus side we never look like conceding, mainly thanks to the Gegenpress working and our nippy forwards keeping the Romans on the back foot. Things culminate in the Friendly Cup, taking place at our home ground with Liverpool looming on the calendar. We beat New York City 3-0 in the semi and get Galatasaray the following afternoon, the kind of fever pitch fixture that literally no one is talking about. Typical Arsenal – talk about a cup half full…

For all the evident lack of arsedness from our fans, we prevail 2-1 on the day, Smith-Rowe scoring early before Nakoulma equalises just before the break. In the second half we start piling on the pressure, Lacazette producing a winner to which the Turks – featuring Radamel Falcao – can find no response.

ANC Summer 2018 – Squad Review

It’s a well known fact that Arsenal have one of the Premier League’s cash richest budgets. It’s part of the attraction to be honest, this blank sheet of potential that I can treat like my own personal plaything. As a new boss with it all still to prove, I am on a one year contract that pays me £125,000 per week for my services, enough to rent a glamorous maisonette in Streatham with its own bathroom and even running water facilities. Dave lives next door. The club’s initial demand is that I qualify for the Europa League, however fortune favours the bold so I upscale our ambition to making the Champions League places, the yearly target of yore, and for this I am handed a transfer war chest of £97 million with plenty of room to play with in the wage budget. The Gunners can spend up to £2.65 million per week on salaries. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but to place that into context there are four Premiership sides that pay better – Manchester City (£4.18 m) are predictably the highest rollers; Man United have £3.65 million to spunk over the ungrateful likes of Alexis Sanchez, Fred and Matic.

Arsenal’s roster is naturally one of star names, though some of the best are overseas players who I will need to replace over time and almost certainly with inferior talent. Still, it’s what we voted for, right? Based on the Pro & Friends data update, which recreated the football world as it was on 10 September 2019, here’s the squad and some suggestions for future replacements.

Goalkeepers

While not on the same level as some of his peers, Bernd Leno is a perfectly good goalkeeper for Arsenal. Petr Cech’s retirement means he is also unchallenged in his position, with Emiliano Martinez in the first team as a back-up option only. Though the latter has been on the books since 2010, his handful of appearances and many loan moves should give an indication of his actual worth. Matt Macey is a very distant first, and for me not good enough for the team.
English prospects – the obvious one to scout is current England net-minder Jordan Pickford. I also like the look of Jack Butland, still bumming around the Championship with Stoke, and if ever Angus Gunn ever comes close to realising his obvious potential at Southampton then we could have a third option. If only Joe Hart ever got over his snub from Pep. He appears to have been in a perpetual funk ever since.

Right-Backs

This position remains the province of Hector Bellerin, the long-haired foppish dandy who seems to exist as a perpetual two fingers raised to Daily Mail readers. I love him. He’s homegrown. Unfortunately he’s also Spanish. Arsenal and Stephan Lichtsteiner parted ways in the summer, which is good news for both parties, and as default back-up we now have Calum Chambers, who’s very English. There’s some debate over whether the 24 year old is a right-back at all or if he should be playing centrally. The answer’s probably a bit of both, more likely the latter over time, but for now he’s welcome as an alternative to the injury-friendly Hector.
English prospects – the best right-backs, Kyle Walker, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Trent Alexander-Arnold, are clearly out of our reach. Nathaniel Clyne is on Liverpool’s transfer list, but this isn’t a position I’m looking at as a priority this summer, and I’m waiting to see when Kieran Trippier falls out of favour at Atletico Madrid. Perhaps 18 year old Max Aarons, who’s looking to test his development with Norwich in the Premiership, is the answer here.

Left-Backs

Arsenal have two good left-backs, both of whom are foreign and therefore on a relatively short leash. The club made the frankly fantastic decision to sign Kieran Tierney from Celtic as he’s one of the best rising stars in his position, not to mention the personification of a continuing point to football in Scotland. Bosnian Sead Kolasinac is more suited to the wing-back role, sadly one we don’t utilise, but is perfectly adequate as a full-back, though it’s this factor that is likely to limit his stay with us.
English prospects – I’d really like to keep the hotline to Leicester City open and sign Ben Chilwell, but the Foxes are assembling a Tottenham style reputation for hanging on until the price tag becomes excessive and at this stage I don’t want to blow large amounts on Chilly. Danny Rose is an older possibility, and the likes of Ryan Bertrand and Kieran Gibbs are on the longlist. Manchester United’s Luke Shaw quite often ends up on their transfer list, so I will be keeping an eye out for the latest manager to overlook him entirely. Younger alternatives for the scouts to keep tabs on are Everton’s Lewis Gibson, and Josh Tymon of Stoke who’s on loan at Famalicao.

Centre-Backs

I’ve always thought the disparity between Arsenal’s defenders on FM and how they perform in reality provides a genuine clash. Hopefully it will be the same here, with the starting pair now defined as David Luiz and Sokratis. The former I see as playing best within a back three, the one with the license to roam about, spark attacks and so on, but we don’t use this formation so my wish is that the hair bear bunch turns out to be better than his real life antics would suggest, and that Sokratis is more than a one note clogger.

Shkodran Mustafi is still on the books, again a players who works much better for me than his error-riddled reputation would suggest, and while teams are interested in his services I’m reluctant to sell until a replacement becomes available. Finally there’s Rob Holding, the unit’s only Englishman, and quite a good one in a squad rotational sense. Only the need to source talent elsewhere stops me from making some changes here, this and the lack of alternatives we can afford or who are as good as what we have already.
English prospects – I doubt I’ll ever get my hands on Harry Maguire, John Stones or Joe Gomez, for reasons that will be obvious. Everton’s Michael Keane could come to us, or we might be able to coax the likes of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones out of back-up hell at Old Trafford, but in all honestly I’m not sure any of them are good enough, let alone names that are made to make your mouth water, and it may all depend on the price. Newcastle’s Jamal Lascelles and James Tarkowski, improving all the time at Burnley, are being watched.

Defensive Midfielders

While we have several players who call themselves DMs the only one who can really do the job is Lucas Torreira, the diminutive Uruguayan who adds some genuine bite to the avenues between our defence and attack. Worryingly Torreira isn’t a natural DM, and so the position is an absolute and immediate priority this summer.
English prospects – the obvious ones are Eric Dier and Declan Rice. There’s a strong possibility that Spurs will never sell, and whilst I think the Hammers might, they are likely to want a king’s ransom for a player considered to be at the heart of his country’s future. Elsewhere, Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook might very well have a brilliant career in prospect, and I’m not even going to mention Jordan Henderson because we’re never going to get him.

Central Midfielders

Arsenal are very well stocked in midfield, without remarkable players but all capable of doing a good job for us. In the deep lying role Torreira is probably the best, with Matteo Guendouzi a young and natural heir. There’s something nicely winning about watching David Luiz’s bastard son develop into the role. Still only 20 years old and a superb prospect, though unluckily for him he’s very, very French. This leaves Granit Xhaka as a surprising distant third choice. Once considered a midfield general, the Swiss international is now better known for racking up cricket scores in his foul count and I may very well look to cash in on him. Mohammed Elneny is out on loan to Besiktas, who we all hope will meet his £16 million agreed fee.

The Gunners have Dani Ceballos on loan in the more advanced position. A bright spark of a 23 year old who I hope will link up well with the attacking areas, he’s here while we hone and sharpen Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Joe Willock into first team regulars. Both are English, could very well grow to dominate their area of the pitch and might end subsequent headaches about spending big on replacements.
English prospects – I think Ross Barkley would be a great signing, but Chelsea’s transfer embargo means they won’t ever sell him. Even if Spurs dealt with us, they’d be honour bound to hold out for a small fortune for Harry Winks, who certainly wouldn’t be worth the outlay. Nathaniel Chalobah and James Ward-Prowse are potential acquisitions for an area of the team that will need to become more English, though I’m not sure they are really at our level.

Attacking Midfielders

Step forward Mesut Ozil, Arsenal’s own riddle wrapped inside an enigma carted off on the bug-eyed mystery boat. I find managing the German to replicate too well the wayward talents he brings to the cause in real life – brilliant one week, anonymous the next, and earning fabulous money that I’m always inclined to spend elsewhere. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is off on loan, so everything really depends on how Ozil is feeling, and that’s a worrying position in which to find myself. I don’t start with an AM too often, mainly in home games where I expect us to dominate, and that’s one way of limiting the effect he can have on our affairs. But it shouldn’t be like this. Paying a player £350k per week (nearly three times the amount I earn as manager) ought to mean we are getting an outright legend, someone who can make us forget Robert Pires used to play for Arsenal. It’s a real concern that Ozil has the ability to be that man, but not necessarily the inclination. In past Arsenal games, I have more or less ended up giving Ozil away to end his tyranny over the wage bill, but the hugely priced English alternatives could mean we’re stuck with each other for a while. Pass the Ibuprofen.
English prospects – Barkley again, but the real target is Debbie Alli, almost certainly someone we will never ever get our hands on. James Maddison, currently making waves at Leicester, is another costly possibility. We’d love to make a cheeky play for Phil Foden, but Man City will simply not allow their favourite son and single bona fide homegrown player to leave. And what about Jack Grealish, the kid with the smug face you want to slap, who’s come up with Aston Villa? Could he have the answers?

Attacking Right Wingers

In this version of the data Reiss Nelson has returned from his productive loan spell with Hoffenheim and is fully ready to contribute to the cause. A highly regarded future talent, Nelson is still only 19 and in a previous Arsenal game developed into a bit of a star, challenging no less a figure than Kingsley Coman for the starting place because (i) he has all the physical attributes required to make it work (ii) I am the best manager in the world, don’t you know? Even better for us, there’s no dependency on him to hit the ground running. Arsenal invested heavily in Ivorian winger Nicolas Pepe, who’s like a more developed version of Nelson and can hold down the place in the short-term. A healthy position to be in, all told.
English prospects – aside from the obvious Raheem Sterling, talent is relatively thin on the ground. Jesse Lingard is more suited to a central role, and while we could make an emotional play to bring Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain back into the fold I’m not sure that’s really the answer. Arsenal could yet look to Theo Walcott, still only 30 and part of the Everton set-up, but again not a convincing solution. Perhaps we can wait until City tire of Sterling, or he of them…

Attacking Left Wingers

This is more of an issue. In the 2018/19 season Arsenal could pick from Danny Welbeck and Alex Iwobi. Neither was entirely convincing, the latter in perpetually ‘developing’ mode and Welbeck more often than not at the mercy of the club doctor. Both are now part of Arsenal’s history, and in any event Iwobi had opted for Nigerian nationality and is therefore ineligible. The only remaining first team option is Emile Smith-Rowe, a youngling of whom we expect good things but he may not be fully ready yet. Aside from players who can ‘do a job’ in the position, the alternative is 16 year old Bukayo Saka, a good prospect though only a sadist would use him in the first team right now.
English prospects – in a position we need to find someone for immediately, the name that springs to mind is of course Jadon Sancho, an insanely perfect fit for Arsenal but someone who has no interest in leaving his current club, Borussia Dortmund, at this stage. Other possibilities include Southampton’s Nathan Redmond, and the Leicester pairing of Demarai Gray and Harvey Barnes. We could also work to get Welbeck back, but that wouldn’t be much of a step forward.

Strikers

The winning work of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette was a bright spot in Arsenal’s 2018/19 campaign. Neither is anything like English of course, and the former is 30 years old, but they are both star names for us and ensure that looking for a new striker is just not a short-term priority. A good thing too. Finding anyone as good as these two with spending needs elsewhere in the squad is a task beyond even the greatest scout.
English prospects – not ideal. Tottenham would rather crash the plane than sell their crown jewel, hefty-chinned striker Sir Harrington Kane, to their deadly rivals. Marcus Rashford is likely to cost a small country’s GDP, and at this stage isn’t minded to be anywhere other than at Old Trafford. Bournemouth have placed a premium price tag on Callum Wilson, his generation’s Darren Bent. Jamie Vardinho’s too old. Daniel Sturridge isn’t good enough, ditto Danny Ings and various other chancers. We might need to hold on until one of the two Dominics – Calvert-Lewin and Solanke – get good, if indeed that ever happens.