Monday, 14 April 2014

Happy Ending in Saigon [Arsenal 1-1* WBA, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam]

For a moment there I was starting to think that Vietnam had become a curse of disappointing results, seeing the humiliating defeat at Goodison Park followed a draw at home to Manchester City. I was back in Ho Chi Minh City for this one.

It really looked like it wasn't going to be our day. Creatively, Arsenal were poor, cautious in their approach to every move, which resulted in an attacking performance matching the fluidity of an elephant's carcass. There were few chances for either side, but the point-blank Sanogo header into Carson's feet early in the first half should have been the goal that made things comfortable.

The comfort-ometer went in the other direction though. Mertesacker made a rare mistimed lunge on Callum McManaman in the box, and although there was a delay in the penalty taking due to Monreal's injury (double-ugh), it didn't put off Jordi Gomez from converting to put his team in front. With 63 minutes on the clock, Arsenal were one-nil down in the Semi-Final, and an all too familiar feeling was making its way to the pit of my stomach.

But, Arsenal managed to find a way back into the game as Wigan sat back to try and defend their lead. With Giroud coming on for Podolksi, there were more chances to hold the ball up in the attacking third, creating space and opening up the pitch for more opportunities. You have to give the guy credit, he may not be the most instinctual finisher, but he holds up the ball very well and he's one of the best players in the country at doing this. With Giroud on the pitch at Wembley, we were finding time for other attackers to get into space and open up the opposition's defence.

Eventually, on the 82nd minute, Mertesacker made up for his error by heading a scuffed shot from Oxlade-Chamberlain beyond Scott Carson. It was club-captain stuff. We're not talking about diving diva Arteta here, or out-of-favour (but still starting) Vermaelen, this was sheer determination and enterprise - if it hasn't convinced the Big Fucking German's peers, critics and manager that he should be wearing the armband next season, then nothing will.

Consequently the game went into extra time and penalties were looming. An Arsenal team winning two penalty shootouts in a single season was a task not worth thinking about - I personally drank seven pints of Saigon Red between the 91st minute and the 120th. The Ox hit the crossbar during this time but, other than that, there was only going to be one way to decide the match.

Fortunately for Arsenal, Fabianski, 'The Other Pole in Goal', showed his worth and denied Wigan's first penalty from Cauldwell. Arteta took the first for Arsenal, and scored one of the best penalties I've seen this season, hitting the side netting beyond the despair of Scott Jackson, who was too busy trying to orchestrate a bollywood music video with his shimmying around. Fabianski then played hero for the second time in as many minutes, guessing which way Collison would shoot. This was it, our chance. Up stepped Källström, a wise last-minute, last-ditch sub by Wenger, and he calmly tucked it away. All we had to do was keep our cool, and for the first time in a long time, we did. Cazorla scored the fourth after Giroud had netted his, and Wigan were out. Wembley here we are come!

We are now in the best position to win silverware in years. Now we just have to focus on a top-four finish. So that'll be another five cup finals then!


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Everton 3-0 Arsenal [Hanoi]

Note - due to the crappy internet in Vietnam I'm struggling to upload photos. You can check out my Flickr Page soon (link to the right) which should contain some snaps once I find a better connection. GOTR

Good Morning Vietnam! Hello rest of world. OK, first things first, before talking about this stunning country, I need to clear something up.

I've found it very difficult to write about anything Arsenal-related over the past few weeks. Put simply the team has depressed me to the point where I've given up hope and (temporarily) lost most of my passion for the club. Arsenal FC is, right now, an embarrassment to its fans and its stakeholders. If it were possible to discontinue interest in the club, I would attempt to do it. But, it's a love affair that can't be broken, so we must soldier on with this constant pain until the people that are 
paid to make decisions, actually make decisions. Until that happens, I'm afraid to say Arsenal is a sinking ship and, as usual, it's the fans that bear the brunt of it.

Yesterday I watched Chelsea systematically break apart a resilient PSG team. Now this is really hard for me to say, but you'd be a numskull if you couldn't tell by the emotions of the players and the fans, let alone that trollop Mourinho, that there is some real fighting team spirit in that club. It is something that Arsenal completely lack, and it simply has to be down to management. I think it is utterly disgraceful, unprofessional even, for a manager to constantly blame his players for shortcomings. I have always stood up for Arsene Wenger, but even I have to start realistically thinking about the consequences of him staying at the helm, especially when he comes out with nonsense like that.

There are a few scenarios over the next few weeks that will surely confirm how the board views the club and the 'importance' of silverware. If we win the FA Cup and fail to qualify for the Champions League, realistically the board will relieve Wenger of his duties because it is those eighteen consecutive years in Europe's top competition that have lined the shareholders' pockets with millions. On the other hand, if we fail to win the FA Cup but secure fourth place, Wenger will likely stay, because the club is raking in the wonga, which we all know is the most important thing to the club, unfortunately. Finally, if we fail on both accounts [the FA Cup and UCL spot], there surely can only be one outcome. And I think we all know what that will be.

I really want Wenger to continue his reign at Arsenal but I simply wouldn't be a true Gooner if I wanted it at the expense of silverware. The perfect scenario for me would be for him to win the FA Cup and bow out with dignity. He deserves a lot of respect for what he's managed to do with the club over the past eighteen years (including successive UCL qualifications with restricted resources) and I think more fans need to show that respect, but at the same time I will view this like any other CEO of a business would – if you fail to deliver results as a manager of a team (any team, be it sales, marketing, finance, project management) then you will be clearing your desk to make way for somebody who wants to succeed.

Another thing we need to consider is that this is only the first season where we have splashed some big cash on players, and the arrival of Özil, at least for the first few months of the season, had really injected some vigour into our football. It has been made crystal clear that there is a large transfer kitty available, so perhaps we need to make judgement after the next summer transfer window has come and gone – if we haven't made any efforts to strengthen our squad and spread our risk [squad depth] then we are in a sad, sad situation indeed.

Anyway, rant over. I've been in Vietnam for almost two weeks now, and I have to say it's probably the most exhilarating country I've visited on the trip. I've learned to appreciate the beauty of the place but also the history – this country has been through a hell of a lot and yet it still finds a way to smile as a nation. The scenery is stunningly beautiful, the people are very friendly and the food is fantastic and even reasonably healthy (I haven't seen a single fat Vietnamese person).

The Vietnamese Arsenal fans have been very welcoming and I've had the pleasure of staying with some great Gooners here, none more so than Vu Xuan Tien or, for those that know him by his alter ego, the Running Man! Tien, as he likes to be called, prepared a typical Vietnamese meal for me to enjoy with him, his girlfriend and his uncle before I headed off to Ha Long Bay to take in the sights of Vietnam's most breathtaking views. I've also had some other very memorable times in Vietnam, but to find out more about my experiences you'll have to buy and read my book, which I'll be making an official announcement about soon!

I head back to Hong Kong on the 14th, where I will be spending some time winding down before flying back home to the UK on 1st May, just in time to catch West Brom, the last home game of the season.

Before that, there is an important cup match to watch of course. So until then...


Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal [Sri Yakim Cafe, Kota Kinabalu, Borneo]

OK. Chelsea at the weekend was an embarrassment, and perhaps proof that we simply aren't good (or rich) enough to compete for the title. That being said, our season still isn't over and we have a lot to fight for, not just the FA Cup but making sure we stay as high up in the top-four as possible, with the aim of avoiding another Champions League qualifier in August. We have Swansea at home this evening. If we don't pick up three points, it'll be a key message that drastic action needs to be taken in time for the start of next season.

If it were me, I'd drop Arteta. I always try to play the optimist but I know that he's just not up to the job of playing a holding role. It's not even his natural position. Arsenal desperately need a proper holding midfielder, especially with the way our fullbacks play (high up the pitch). And, I think I've finally conceded that we need a true talisman striker. Giroud has practically proven that he's not up to the job and I wouldn't be surprised if he left at the end of the season. It has been made quite clear that there is a good transfer kitty available for the next window. The top two priorities, in my eyes, are a genuine, enforcing defensive midfielder and a clinical striker. I won't bother with any names as that's completely pointless.

There are of course other areas which need addressed. The Sagna situation is still unclear, but it looks like he may depart for France at the end of the year to take advantage of the bosman stuff. I suppose you can't really argue too much with him if that's the case. It means we will need to look for another right-back, and whilst I love Carl Jenkinson and his heart for the club, he simply isn't ready for the task in hand. Another important subject is the backup for Mertescielny - is Vermaelen up to the job?

Tea plantation, Mount Kinabalu.
The Chelsea match for me, and many others, was a depression-fest. Fortunately I was in Kola Kinabalu in Borneo to watch the match so my surroundings helped cheer me up. In just one day alone for example I managed to take a walk on the beach, drive up a mountain (somewhat), sample local tea and get literally eaten by fish in a freshwater river. It's a truly wonderful experience.

Due to lack of time and funds I didn't get to sample some of the other thrills of Borneo, like a river cruise or jungle walk, but despite this I still highly recommend visiting. I will definitely be coming back here when I can take advantage of the place more.

I'm back in Kuala Lumpur now (for the third time) to watch the Swansea match, then, on Friday, I'll be flying up to Vietnam, a country home to tens of thousands of Arsenal fans. It's going to get really interesting!


Thursday, 20 March 2014

Those Lot 0-1 Us Lot [Herris Damansara Perdana, Kuala Lumpur]

I'm sitting in a coffee shop in Borneo writing this, and I'm quite smug. Why's that you ask? Let me see:

I witnessed a good ol' one-nil to the Arsenal. Against Sp*rs. At White Hart Lane. To make it three consecutive beatings this season (I like the term 'beatings' over 'wins' when it comes to Sp*rs, it seems more fitting somehow). We are in strong contention to qualify for the Champions League for the umpteenth time whilst that lot over there are having to settle, once again, for the Europa 'Special'
Podolski. I think he likes it here
League that, let's face it, isn't any more salubrious than the 'UEFA Cup' which preceded it. We're also within a shout of winning the FA Cup and, whilst it's a long shot, the possibility to lift the Premier League trophy too. It. Just. Might. Happen.

Meanwhile Tim Sherwood is trying to eat his own face.

Sunday's game at the Lane of Farts was an odd one though. We went ahead after two minutes, courtesy of an absolute stunner by that man Tom Ross. It will go down as one of the great derby goals, although lets face it, there have been many, many, many good ones netted against them over the years. Once the ball had ripped its way through the back of the net and scorched on towards Essex, we had a few clear chances to really put the game to bed but, with the Ox failing to find his shooting boots (even his 'assist' for Rosicky was questionable) we were once again left squandering our opportunities. It was another one of those matches where we carved out a result despite accepting that at any point we could have drawn, or even lost the tie.

It's because we simply aren't ruthless enough. I'm perfectly happy with us winning every game by a single goal to clinch the title, but we all know that's about as probable as Nicky Bendtner passing a sobriety test on a Saturday morning. We have a solid defensive pairing in Mertescielny at the back but even they can't stop the inevitable few goals from creeping in, be it as a result of a calamity from Szczesny, a slip (or late tackle) from Kos or simply a stunning bit of individual play, like Deulofeu's equaliser against us earlier in the season. We can't assume we're going to get these one-nils all the time.

The fact is, Arsenal are a team that simply don't capitalise on opportunities and possession as well as others would do in our situation. Eventually this'll come back and bite us like the proverbial monkey with rabies, and we'll be left on the floor struggling to pick ourselves up. Now I'm not one to complain, I really am the optimist when it comes to Arsenal and the Wenger-era, but even I know that we have a lot more to give in terms of goals, and we can do it with the squad we've got at the moment.

Arsenal's chance-taking is getting better, and it's become evident over the past few weeks. Our game is now more direct, which I can only see as a good thing (everybody knows Arsenal are the world-leader in passing the ball from one player to the other horizontally whilst avoiding shooting at every opportunity). It's no coincidence that we are without the likes of Ramsey, Wilshere, Özil and Walcott and yet our attacking has become more fluent and aggressive. The absence of the aforementioned has presented the likes of Rosicky and Oxlade-Chamberlain – arguably our most direct players - with the opportunity to demonstrate their worth, and boy have they done just that.

It's not just about ability, Özil and the others have that in spades. It's about mentality, it's about having balls, 'enterprise' if you like, and taking the game by the scruff of the neck, inviting tackles in as we move forward the moment we have the ball and accepting that a move may or may not pay off (and that we might just lose possession). No hesitancy, just direct play, towards those white sticks some people call 'the goal'. Rosicky and the Ox are already doing it. Özil, Ramsey, Wilshere and even Walcott are not. I've seen it myself on more than one occasion where they will actually slow down their own counterattack to get the pass rate up, at which point opposing defenders have already regrouped and pushed us back into our own half. WHY!? It's bloody frustrating and I'm sure many others will agree.

We have to look at the basics, the foundations of our tactics: keeping the ball, something that has always been the Arsenal way, because if you have the ball, the opposition can't score, simples. But if that's the case, why do a good handful of the teams we play against, who average 20-40% possession in each game, still beat us? It's because they take risks with their forward play. Put simply, it's a numbers game, like anything else, be it gambling, dating or selling timeshares. The more you have a stab at it, the more likely you are to succeed. And that's the kind of mentality we need to adopt. Passes don't make goals, shots do (hey I came up with a new song!).

A snake. Borneo
So essentially, if it were me wearing the body-length Nike embroidered ribbed condom with malfunctioning zip, and not Mr Wenger, I'd take a look at what TR7 and OX15 are bringing to the team and try replicating that mentality with the others, or at least make sure that we always have at least one of those players on the field at any one time. We have others that have been 'pre-programmed' to automatically run for goal the moment they have the ball who are chomping at the bit to get on the pitch, that includes Serge Gnabry. I'm sure that the involvement of these direct players, together with our technical playmakers, will give us a whole new dynamic without upsetting the possession play that is part and parcel of present-day Arsenal football.

So, with 'Clueless Pete's Guide To Winning' out of the way, I can give you a bit of an update on the charity situation. As of right now, I'm currently at the $11k mark in fundraising for the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation. If you're not aware of the motive behind this, please read more about it here. I still have another $4,000 to go, and the season ends as soon as we've lifted the FA Cup Trophy (!) in May. So I don't have long to go, but that's still a hefty amount to raise. I would really appreciate your help in achieving this goal, so please spare what you can, literally anything, and donate here.

Right now I'm in Kota Kinabalu in eastern Borneo, where I have already had some encounters with the local residents, including the Proboscis Monkey with it's massive schnozzer (related to our Olivier perhaps?). I will be watching the Chel$ea game here with the local Arsenal fans before heading back to Kuala Lumpur next week to watch my final match in Malaysia, Arsenal v Swansea.Then, at the end of the month I head to Vietnam and, last but not least, China!

For now though, selamat tinggal!


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Bayern 1-1 Arsenal [3-1 on Aggregate] - Some food centre in Penang.

Arsenal have been somewhat undeservedly knocked out of the Champions League, yet again, by Bayern Munich. It was a fixture that didn't have much in the way of hope for Arsenal fans, yet as soon as the boys kicked off you could see there was intent to repeat what we did last year, and that gave us all hope during the match but consequently disappointment after the final whistle. It was simply too little too late, the inevitable was confirmed and Arjen Robben (along with his vagina) has once again cheated his way through to the next round of the UCL.

Robben: no testicles.
Robben's antics may have cost us the first leg and he no has no doubt helped his employers, both past and present, (Chelsea, Real and Bayern) win games undeservedly. If it were down to me he'd get punished retrospectively by UEFA, preferably by firing squad, but we all know that these sporting bodies display more corruption than a Sopranos episode.

The defeat leaves us with two competitions to concentrate on, the Premier League and the FA Cup, the latter of which is easily our biggest silverware opportunity since the Carling Cup against Birmingham. Once again there's no clear outcome here, it'll mostly come down to how we cope with our brutal fixture run-in and typical Arsenal injury table implosion. It is evident that Arsenal are an improved side overall, compared with last season. The Gunners have grown up physically, technically, mentally and, most important of all, statistically, and this is a great thing to look forward to for seasons to come. It's food for thought, and the FA Cup will be the overdue cherry on top of it all.
A cannon in Penang. Fitting

I watched the Champions League match in Penang with Anand, the Arsenal fan who's putting me up whilst I'm in Malaysia. It was a different affair to the usual match-screening as there's no real Arsenal supporters club in Penang, but it didn't matter. The most important thing for me was to enjoy what the city had to offer, and that, once again, meant food. Penang is where foodies, chefs and critics from all over the world head to when they want to eat some of the tastiest, cheapest street food available. It's not all about the food though - a large portion of the city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its unique architecture and well-preserved colonial age buildings. 

So, I've done Kuala Lumpur and Penang. I will be back in Malaysia's capital for the North London Derby before flying to Borneo to spend some time in the jungle. Hopefully I won't get eaten.

Until Sp*rs then...


Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Arsenal 4-1 Everton [Herris Damansara Perdana, Kuala Lumpur]

We're going to Wemb-er-ley!

Although, I must say, I believe that we're only really 'going to Wembley' if we reach the final. It serves as a bit of an anti-climax to know that the semi-final venue is the same as the venue for the final. You have the FA to thank for this; they made the decision because they want to recoup the costs of building the stadium, which, once again, is an example of how money is ruining the traditions of football. At the moment, we're going to Wembley, but we're not actually 'going to Wembley'. It's a bit like going out, but not going 'out out'. If I've confused you, just watch this

We now have the best opportunity to win our first bit of real silverware since 2005. And by 'real silverware' I don't mean the Emirates Cup. It's by no means an easy feat to beat a stern-looking Wigan side that dumped Man City out of the quarter finals at the weekend, but you can be sure that there will be no assumptions made this time. We have learned our (many) lessons over the past 9 years and you have to think this lesson-learning will only add to our firepower and our drive.

KL Gooners
The venue of choice for the FA Cup match was Herris Damansara Perdana, a food outlet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The locals here tend to head to a food outlet rather than a pub to watch the match, simply because the majority of people in Malaysia are Muslims. It makes for a nice change to the typical grog-fest of a pub viewing, although the locals still snuck a few Heinekens in for me (I have an unhealthy superstition that if there's no beer in my hand Arsenal will lose).

The Malaysia Arsenal fans are as passionate as any others that I've met on my travels so far. In fact, the one person I'm staying with at the moment is so besotted with the cannon that he's decided to paint the Arsenal crest on the bonnet of his Mazda 323. It's something you simply couldn't do in the UK, Europe or North America. And it seems you can't really do it in Malaysia either, because he's got a huge key scratch on his passenger door.

The game against Everton itself was an energetic affair reminiscent of the 1-1 league draw a few months back. Only this time we showed our superiority in the midfield department, which let's face it, is our strongest area by a country mile. I know Özil was the fan's man of the match, probably due to his contributions on the night and the way he demonstrated his mental strength [to get over the recent negativity], but for me it was Sir Chamberlain of Oxlade that gave us something hopeful almost every time he had the ball. He even lost the ball a few times but almost always won it back. I genuinely think he should be starting every game for us if he's fit enough. I've said this before and I'll say it again, as a team we are far too indirect given our potential ability to cut our oppositions defence in half. That's why players like the aforementioned Ox, Rosicky and Gnabry offer us so much, and at least one of them should be starting every game to give us that bit of dynamism that we lack when they're not on the field.

So, once again, it feels good to be an Arsenal fan. We've essentially got one hand firmly on the FA Cup despite having two rounds still to play in the competition, and as long as we keep our heads out of the clouds and show that we really want it, we'll get that monkey off our back. And then shoot him in the face.

Right then. One job complete. Tonight however, we must replicate the Great Escape in Germany. Nothing is impossible.


Friday, 7 March 2014

Orcs 1-0 Humans [Molly Roffey's, Singapore]

We resume our FA Cup campaign tomorrow against The Toffees after a disappointing loss away at Middle Earth last weekend. The defeat, a knife in the heart for many Gooners, might explain my reluctance to write anything creative up until now, six days after the result.

I watched that loss at Molly Roffey's, my third and final outing in Singapore. I actually had the chance to appear on Fox Sports Asia whilst I was at the pub, as they were keen on interviewing me for a show called 'Singha Football Crazy', which airs in a number of countries in this continent. It was another great opportunity for some exposure. Unfortunately they didn't catch me at my best because I was thoroughly pissed off with our performance and the orcs and the referee and the orcs. 

And the orcs.

It is what it is though, and we move on to what many say is our best chance at silverware, the FA Cup. We've obviously already learned that Wilshere will be out for six weeks or so thanks to a cleverly mis-timed tackle by Daniel Agger. I don't think we're going to be missing him all that much. Jack's an awesome player (my personal favourite if you must know) and has a huge amount of heart for the club, he just wants to win. But I think we all know he's not playing to his best potential at the moment, and with the Ox's form being obvious for all to see, I see it as an opportunity to finish the season strongly, and for Jack to come back at the end, just in time to play a part in a winning goal that helps us lift a trophy.

I will be watching the FA Cup match in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where once again there is a very active group of Arsenal fans who follow the badge with passion. I'm going to be in Malaysia for a few weeks, as I've decided to knock Thailand on the head. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, I've found it really difficult to find any Arsenal fans there that understand my challenge and what I require from them, and the political situation there makes it risky, not so much safety wise, but logistically speaking. If it all kicks off in Bangkok I could be stranded, which wouldn't be good news for my cause at all.

Until next time.