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The best always win? Ah, cheating. Winning is all that matters. The ideal of sport that is whoever is better at the skill would win does not apply to football. And yet it is hard to say which sports that applies to, nowadays. Golf, darts and snooker spring to mind. What else? Let’s take athletics. At least you have to be over the line by yourself to win. It is clear who has won. But drugs are a serious problem in so many sports where at least the winner is clear. Cristiano Ronaldo - always cheating Soccer is no longer a sport where the winner is clear nor probably has it ever been. There have been many apologies since VAR has appeared where teams have lost or drawn matches they should have won. And prior to VAR a referee could cost you the game. But you never get it back. Last season Arsenal had a few VAR decisions go against them, Man Utd, Brighton and Brentford spring to mind. We were a short few points off Man City and getting the correct decisions could have won us the league. What is cheating? That is the starting point of this discussion. Football is not about sportspeople playing better than the other team but rather those who use every trick in the book and are writing new ones up to gain an advantage that wins the match. What are those advantages? I probably can’t list them all, but let’s give it a go, in the order they come into my head: Calling for everything Surrounding the ref Verbals – abusing players to try and put them off their game Diving and tricking refs by screaming Going down with little contact A new one, since the introduction of almost universal handball, is hammering the ball into a crowded box in the hope that it hits an arm when there is no sight of goal. Is the use of excess money cheating? Most of these things did not happen in English football when I started watching. Dirty Leeds in the Sixties, with a truly top squad of players, started a lot of gamesmanship and fouls. The most notorious being Jack Charlton standing on top of the keeper at corners. But all the other things mentioned above were starting to appear. Of course, football was never clean Now, it has to be said that football was never really clean. There have been many instances of the dark arts since soccer appeared in its present form around 150 years ago. The problem is, if it is not clean, is it truly a sport? I say no. The definition of a sport has to be that the best at the discipline wins. And only golf, darts and snooker comes to mind where that applies. This is the sign that football is clean In this modern era, you would have to be a genius to figure out the blurry lines between what is acceptable and what is not. Money? The big teams spend egregious amounts to gain advantage so that they have at least two top players for every position. They have also campaigned strongly to allow more and more subs giving them another big advantage over poorer clubs. In the old days you had one sub which was normally only used late in the game, if at all. And yet I rarely remember teams being down to ten because of injury. But subs were originally supposed to be only for injury, not for tactics. I say 5 subs are cheating as the advantage is to the big clubs. Will anything be done? Yes, when you see a member of the porcine species use its wings to fly past your window. Just give me one million of that and I will delete this piece, Sheik Money allows you to buy players that other teams want just to stop them having them. Chelsea and Man City are possibly the worst at this but all big teams are guilty. Is it cheating? I can’t see any reason to say it is not. Analysing ways to cheat What about analysts? Is that cheating? There are teams of guys with laptops spread around the grounds relaying information to the bench and the manager is stood on the pitch bellowing instructions. Why are they allowed do that? We would laugh if at an athletics event if there was 20 managers screaming at the runners. In the past, the manager sat on the bench and I see no reason for anyone on the bench to be allowed give instructions. It should be the best sportsmen win. They should be talented enough to use their own ability, brain and reason to be able to play. A guy is free on the edge of the box at the corner? Get out and cover him, how do you need to be told to do that? Educating young people to cheat is good, is it? Will we see the days of hidden earpieces on the captains or all players? Is it already happening? I suspect the technology is already there so it could well be. Is it cheating? I say yes. I covered drugs already here and you will see that my belief is that drugs are endemic in football. We do, most of us, see drugs as clearly cheating but the world of pharmacy is very clever. They are like Hydra, you cut off one head and 2 more grow in its place. A putrid sport ready to collapse? The problem is, that if one big team cheats, then they all will, to try to stop them having an advantage. We have gone so far down this rabbithole that we can’t see any possibility of anything getting better, we keep accepting the new ways to cheat and the new charlatans, the Chelseas, the Man Citys, the PSG’s, etc., will continue to use their money to whitewash the cheating and the old big clubs will scramble to catch up on their cheating and surpass them if they can. And so here we are. A rotten sport without much semblance of fairness. Where anything at all, no matter how outrageous, is acceptable. Cristiano Ronaldo is perhaps the biggest single example, always diving, harassing the ref, waving for cards and so on, yet he was still one of the most popular players of his time and not castigated and banned for being a lowly cheat. In golf, also a huge money sport, he would have been cast into the darkness long ago. Tiger Woods would have been with a tiny amount of cheating. For all golfers, being a true sport is what matters, especially Tiger Woods You must call foul on yourself and a sport has to be about the better person or team winning. Soccer has left that ideal far behind. Is it the right road that it has taken or will there be a sudden, dramatic, realization that cheating and sport are incompatible? The most dramatic event of my lifetime, the collapse of the Soviet Union, was inconceivable to me until it happened. But people then realized how rotten it was and didn’t want to go back. Could it happen in football? I will say a definite maybe.
A Wilde Year And so we have had a Wilde year, we reached the peak as being acclaimed the most brilliant team in both London and the UK. We were fashionable, adorable, flamboyant and prolific. But like our dear Oscar, it all went wrong. But let’s look first at how it all went right. Oscar -Flamboyant, briliant but doomed Palace, Leicester and Bournemouth were dispatched as if they were nothing but vessels to throw goals into. Then Villa and Fulham but not so easy. And then we had our first big shock, Man Utd had a strategy that unnerved us, a long ball over the top enabled them to get 3 goals to our one. Like Wilde, being exceptional didn’t matter, we had a weakness that could be exploited. But we went all Wildean after that. We must have read from the master the following line. “What seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise” Because we won our next eight, including several in the Europa league. We hammered Brentford, the team that caused problems for everyone, 3-0, a revenge for last year, we beat Tottenham, we beat Liverpool, and home or away didn’t matter, we were flying at the top, acclaimed as the most brilliant of our time. We were beautiful and everyone wanted to be us. This has to be our goal But Southampton brought us back to earth , the team we are coming to hate drew 1-1, despite being laughed at by most other teams. But it hinted that there was a frailty to our genius. That we couldn’t perform against teams that do well against us. There was a struggle with belief. But then we took our cue from Oscar: “Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.” We went on a great run of victories, although we stumbled against Brighton in the League cup as they beat us for the first time at home. It didn’t faze us, though, as we won 7 matches around it including 5-0 against Forest, a revenge away against Brighton, 3-1 against West Ham and beating Chelsea at the Bridge, something we haven’t done too often. London teams were being sent home crying as the Kings of the capital surfaced again. We are the real Kings of London A dogged Newcastle side came to the Emirates and carved out a 0-0, spoiling the party and again hinting that there was a weakness to be exploited. Once again, though, we threw away any assumptions that we weren’t the real deal. We bounced back with wins at Oxford, at the shiny new Spud home 2-0 and got a nervy revenge against Man Utd 3-2. But the real challenge was then faced. “A good friend will always stab you in the front.” Pep Guardiola showed he is a friend who will give you no quarter as Man City beat us 1-0 in the F.A. Cup. It was starting to go wrong. The Blue Mooners were showing that they will do anything to stop us. This defeat seemed to unnerve us as Everton then beat us, yes, Everton who couldn’t win a match to save their lives and were ready to fall out of the division. Brentford drew with us at home and we then had Man City at home. Next year we want to be the friend that stabs you in the front, Pep Guardiola lived up to Oscar Wilde’s quote as he stabbed us in the front 3 times. Yes, maybe we were brilliant but our weakness was now showing. Our enemies smelled blood and were ready to spill it. We seemed unsure who was friend or foe, we were arguing amongst ourselves and our next match was against Unai Emery and Villa. He had transformed them from being relegation candidates under Steven Gerrard to becoming the form team in the league. And they were at home. What could this broken Arsenal team do against a Unai Emery desperate to prove he was a great manager? And we had lost our friends in the media who were only recently praising our shining talent. We were hurting and had to try and pick ourselves up. Our trial was starting. “The only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me.” But we came out fighting. We beat them 4-2. We beat Leicester. We trounced Everton 4-0 to pay them back for their audacity against us. We beat a resurgent Bournemouth. We drew away against Sporting Lisbon to leave ourselves an easy task at the Emirates. We trounced Fulham at the Cottage, showing once again who the Kings of London were. Not from Oscar but the bible And then came what I regard as the unveiling of our Wildean spirit, an overconfidence that we had beaten our enemies, that our genius is declared and is enough. Sporting Lisbon beat us on penalties at our home. Our penalties were weak, our character being once again under scrutiny. Our enemies were watching and taking note. “If you cannot prove a man wrong, don't panic. You can always call him names.” The name calling had began in Earnest. Even from some of our own fans. We were bottlers, hadn’t got the temperament for the big occasion. A trophy that seemed much easier to win than the Premier league was thrown away. Enjoy your name calling - we will be back stronger But we laughed at such childish name calling. We trounced Palace and Leeds 4-1. We were showing we were Arsenal and we were back. Then we marched up to Anfield and quickly ran up two goals and Anfield was silent and Liverpool were hopeless. We all thought that Arsenal finally had left our frailties behind. Until Granit Xhaka got involved in a needless fight. The Anfield crowd woke up, Liverpool came back and it was 2-2. Still it was Liverpool away. It was no disaster. We went away to West Ham and also ran up a 2-0 lead quickly. West Ham were mostly rubbish all season so we were back on track, except we weren’t, they came back at us as well. But at least we had Southampton next at the Emirates. A win there would get the confidence flowing again. Useless Southampton drew 3-3 and the name calling restarted big time. But this time our weakness was about to be exposed. Not the same weakness of Oscar Wilde but our enemies circled as Man City tore us apart 4-1 and our dream was all but over. The glory and the fame of being champions had slipped away from us. “Many of the great achievements of the world were accomplished by tired and discouraged men who kept on working”. Now we only had hope left. But we did respond. We beat Chelsea and Newcastle in a strange season in that the one that was normally hard to beat became easy. A slip up by City and we could do it. But Brighton and Forest beat us in our next two games. We learned, like Wilde, that you cannot take on the establishment and win. And so we were sent to prison. The prison of being second, that hardest position in football, the one that drains you the most as Liverpool learned last season. We must always work no matter how we feel We ended with a glimmer of hope that we can be released. 5-0 against Wolves gave us a sign that when we get out of jail next season we can make a comeback. We must work hard, we must not give in to tired legs, and we can once again show the genius that once made us champions and made us Arsenal. Let’s go, the Gunners! Oh, and thanks to Oscar Wilde for all the quotes.
The Table of Doom is Over Arsenal Current 81 Max 90 Brighton(h) Man City Max 94 Brighton (a) Gone: Man Utd Max 75 Newcastle Max 77 Brighton Max 70 Man City (h) Arsenal(a) – kept because they play key matches. Liverpool Max 71 Tottenham Max 66 And so my Table of Doom is over. The countdown of those teams that could catch us for a Champions League slot are all gone, having bit the dust early. Will we get 90 points? Maybe. I am hopeful. We are certainly better than our 3 final opponents but that may not translate into wins. Brighton have become an up and down team of late being beaten comfortably by Forest and Everton, both of which may be having their last days at the top table. We have to hope they are up against City and down against us. They are a good side on their day. Will Jurgen Klopp stay as Liverpool manager? Anyway I will discontinue this slot until next season as you all know who we will play, who City will play, and all the permutations. The only surprise will be if we win the championship without winning all our last 3 matches, I think we can all agree on that. City will now have another mind-bending game against Real and that might take its toll. We can only hope. Look what losing to them did to Liverpool in the final last year. They were rubbish for most of the season. We have hope. So bye bye Table of Doom. Who will be the top four next season? Today, I am going to take a strange tack and look at next season and who will be up against us. I am going to say from the bat that I expect us and City to be top four leaving only 2 places to play for. We assume Liverpool, Man Utd, Chelsea and the Spuds are contenders even though 3 of those may not play Champions league next season. That could be an advantage for them as they may not be in Europe at all like Chelsea or in one of the minor European trophies. They can play fringe players in these. They all have big income streams from many years at the top, bigger than the rest of the league and so have a natural advantage. Can we now expect Newcastle as well? I am not so sure. Champions league will play its toll assuming they get there. They, despite having some super players and a great manager combined with big pockets, might do a bit of a Leicester and go down a bit next time. They didn’t have Europe this year. They need to buy top players because some of these guys, like Dan Burns and our own Joe Willock, are not quite of the calibre they need as first choice if they are to battle on 2 big fronts. Sponsorship and merchandising income is still a lot smaller than the established sides although they do have an attendance capacity of almost 53,000. Their money plus their overall structure means they have a good chance of getting into the big boys club. Into the Big Boys Club So who else can we look at based on this season? Brighton for sure. They still have an outside chance of Champions league but that will surely stretch them. They may go back a bit and they may lose top players but they seem adept at producing young players and buying in superb ones. However a top attendance of less than 32,000 and without the ability to attract the sponsorship deals and marketing of merchandise of the more attractive clubs, combined with a rich, but not as rich as the top clubs, owner, means it will be really hard for them to truly compete at the highest level. Unai Emery could chase a Champions league slot next season Aston Villa, under Unai Emery, have been the real surprise packet of the season. Sprinting up the table with league winning form when under Steven Gerrard they were in relegation trouble, it has been astonishing how Emery has transformed them. They have a ground capacity of almost 43,000 and incredibly rich owners. They would have pretty good merchandise sales and sponsorship, although not like the big boys. They could jump up and take a slot very easily. Even this season, with a maximum of 63 points, they could be in Europe. Unai Emery seems to be at his best with an emerging side and I believe they will be a threat. Who else is there? Brentford's new stadium still only holds 17,250 Brentford? I think Champions league is beyond them. They have a good team with a potentially great manager but low revenue from merchandise, sponsorship and attendances. 17,250 is not going to get you Champions league. Their owner is only worth 20M pounds and that is a pittance by today’s standards. Lose Thomas Frank to a big team and they could suffer from 3rd season malaise and even get relegated. If they keep him and their best players they could still do well. But I am putting them out of contention for Champions league. Matthew Benham - probably the poorest Premier league owner Fulham? They could well surprise again. Marco Silva has done wonders with them and they have a multi-billionaire owner. Shahid Khan is surely a serious contender with big plans otherwise why Fulham? Lower income streams and attendance at 22,238 is far less than the big boys, though it will be brought up to 29,600 for next season. I feel they would need a long-term project and a much bigger ground to get up there but that should be his plan. No Champions league for them next season, I predict. But I feel they will make strides and 5th or 6th may not be beyond them. Fulham's new stadium will only get them to 29,600 The Dark horses and the Shambles For me the 2 dark horses may be Wolves, and Notts Forest (if they stay up). Both sides have had some terrific performances this year. Wolves 3-0 vs Liverpool being one standout. Forest drew with City and beat Liverpool and Brighton. Both sides big disadvantage is that their grounds are around 30,00 capacity. The astonishing Chelsea collapse The other factor is the shambles of Man Utd (at times), Liverpool, Spurs and incredibly, Chelsea. Can they turn themselves around? I think it is possible Jurgen Klopp may resign if he does badly in his last 3 games. Even if not, he may decide to go for a new challenge. I am not sure what will happen to them if he does go. They are a big side to manage and they will need a big manager and there are not many out there. The Spuds will be in the hunt for one as will Chelsea. All 4 may well not make Champions league next season but I do feel that Ten Hag is a good manager. As long as he gets Champions league this season he is safe unless the potential new owners think differently. They are my strongest tip of the four above. Chelsea and Spurs seem to have a lot to sort out to really challenge. So who am I going to predict? Arsenal number one, Man City number two, Man Utd number three and yes, Aston Villa in fourth. Unai Emery has a great record in pushing Real Madrid and Barcelona from the much lower base of Sevilla, Valencia and Villareal. He likes being with the underdogs. And hey, you read it here first. You can also bash me over the head for getting it badly wrong. Don’t bash me too hard, though.
Ours is gold Rocket powered Gunners Games: Newcastle (h) Spurs (a) Man Utd (h) Everton (a) Brentford (h) Man City (h) Aston Villa (a) Leicester (a) Bournemouth (h) Fulham (a) Palace (h) So, here we are, flying turbo charged into the stratosphere, looking at all the lesser teams floundering and gasping in our wake, and singing Arsenal are the greatest football team. Can we continue? Yes, we can. Will we continue? Ah, that is the question. But then, that is my job, and why ASCB pay me my huge salary every week, to answer the difficult questions. I am going to do 11 matches, give you the results and what that will mean for our chances. Our old matadors Of course, this has been a very difficult season to call, it’s virtually win win win, which given recent years, was hard to see. This spell is going to be a challenge, partly because this is a dangerous stretch of matches against the best out there and 4 derbies. Because the winter is generally when leagues are won, digging in when cold rain is pelting down on you and every item on your body is soaking ice into your veins and you can hardly see in front of you. January, February and March are tough times and only the strong survive it. Are Arsenal such a team? Yes, there is a steel there, plenty of players like Saka and Martinelli who take all the kicks and still play exhilarating football. Getting out alive of the bullring Anyway, on to predictions. If anyone read last weeks missive, then you would know I predicted an Arsenal win against West Ham. It brought us up to an astonishing 40 points. Then I predicted a draw away to Brighton here as they seem to always cause us problems. But we got a crazy win, 4-2, strolling through the match like matadors against calves, until suddenly, Brighton became tigers and we were a bit lucky at the end. I didn’t know calves could turn into tigers and neither did Arsenal – a lesson to be learned. Our new matadors I also normally analyse what we need to finish in certain positions, like Europa League, Champions league and not realistically the title, but this time, well, it is massively different. 22 matches to go and even relegation form at 22 points gives us 65, enough for Europa League, probably not enough for Champions League. Beat the weaker animals Looking at the 11 matches above I have insisted many times that we must put away the 7 lesser teams so that would give us 21 points. If we achieve that it is 64 and 11 matches to go. A great position. Against the four teams close to us in the table I would take 4 points and that is 68 with 11 games to go, an even better position. But let’s go through them one by one. And I do hear you saying that they are all lesser teams at the moment. Nuke Hassle at the Emirates. It could well be a real Nuke Hassle as they never concede goals. A statement win here and confidence and belief will soar. They are bulls, yes, but we are the matadors. I like this one, so one nil to the Arsenal would do me nicely. 46 points and fear coursing through the rest. Don’t let the Spuds upset us Conte's teams like upsetting other teams The Spuds away. They are very up and down this season. But this one, and Conte’s physical, negative, counterattacking style, could discommode us. They are not bulls, more like hyenas, snapping away at us all the time. We must not lose concentration or control of our emotions. We could be gored badly. If we remember we are the matadors it could be a win but I fear it could be an ugly match and an uglier draw. 1-1 and 47 points. We can never sleep Man Utd? I should be there and I am hoping for a nice birthday present and a win. We owe them for the last time. We fell asleep and gifted them 3 goals. They were not really bulls, more greyhounds finding us snoozing in the traps. They may well have a new striker by then but surely our defence can cope? I believe we will win in a high scoring game 3-2 and 50 points. Maybe Man Utd will bring this guy back? Everton away. We must win here by my above logic but they are starting to put their defence together. Not so much bulls as sheep crowded in front of their goal. They have conceded few despite their lowly position. We may need to draw our sword and cleave a way through. This may well be a draw unless we can break them down. If Calvert Lewin is back they may even be able to score. I am going to go for a 0-0. 51 points. Brentford home. I fancy this one. I think we can win. We know how dangerous they can be. Bees, yes, but ones we can control. If we marshal them well, allow them to fly around aimlessly, distracted by our red shirts, then we can fire in 3 goals. 3-0 to the Arsenal and 54 points. Bullfighters versus bullfighters We can beat them, you know Then the match of the season for us. If all goes as I have said so far we will still be comfortably in front. City must play Chelsea away, Man Utd away and the Spuds home and away. They could easily drop points. They have 36 points now at 16 matches, 2 less than last season. This tough schedule ahead of them could see them a few points less than the 53 that they had at 21 games last season, maybe 50 or less. This match could easily be crucial for them to get back in touch and they will be desperate to win. They are more matadors than bulls, they try to control games and put teams to the sword but this time our red shirts show that we are the best, we are the Arsenal and at home we deliver a strong blow to Guardiola’s self-belief. 2-1 to the Arsenal, 57 points and City don’t know what is happening to them. He could make it a bad ebening for us The euphoria of that win puts us super confident against the Villa away. Unai Emery seems to up his game against us, though. Somehow we forget our red shirt, complacency sets in, the Villa think they are wolves and we allow ourselves to be outfought and end up running towards the stand rather than applying a short, sharp blow with our sword. 1-0 to the Villains and we stay at 57 points. You must be able to fight for your wins It was the wake up blow that we needed. Fight brings you wins over the season, not fancy dan moves. So, next, Leicester again away and they try to prove they are Foxes but are easily cast aside by our determination to play 90 minutes. We fly out of the traps, score an early goal, and stay in control, keeping a tight rein on them, not allowing them space or any place to hide. They scurry back to their lair with 3 goals conceded. 3-0 and 60 points. Bournemouth at the Emirates. Again the sore memory of defeat by Villa mean we are ready to play, to fight and to work as a unit. No slippage as we run out 2-0 winners. 63 points and everyone knows that we are Arsenal and we are back. 2 derbies in a row Fulham are doing so well under Marco de Silva and at Craven Cottage they show why. We struggle to get a rhythm, our sword seems to be left at home and we give them chances. Our defence and Ramsdale have one of their best games and a draw is the best we can manage. 0-0 and 64 points. Patrick will make Palace fight Crystal Patrick next. He badly wants to beat us but we remember the indignity of last year. Arteta has them so well prepared it is unbelievable. We show them we are the matadors but they show us they are fighters and clever to boot. 2-1 sees us home in one of the hardest fought games we have had. We show steel, grit, adroitness, speed and pure ability, as we cement our place at the top after 27 matches. 67 points, one ahead of where City were last year but nicely in front of them now. Yes, I am being optimistic here, but I feel justifiably so. This team are good, getting better, growing together. We now have so many key players we can unlock any team. We have a team of matadors, ready to confront any animal put in front if us, even the hyenas of Spurs. C’mon the Arse!