Ox pinched, Alexis punched, and no returns

After all that hot air, there goes the summer transfer window. In a market where some teams have spent upwards of £200m, we’ve snuck in with a tidy profit of £30m. Now, I know it’s not all about how much you spend, but for a club that has pots of cash already, and is on a downward trajectory, it hardly reeks of ambition, does it?

Yesterday we let Oxlade-Chamberlain go for £40m, which is decent business under the circumstances. He said he wanted to go to Liverpool as it was “right for the next stage in my ongoing development”. He needs a bit of moulding, but Liverpool have got him at the right time, and if I were him I’d have done something similar.

Another player who wanted to leave was Alexis. He didn’t get his wish as Arsenal couldn’t find a replacement. Apparently, we bid an almost ludicrous €92m for Lemar, but Lemar either turned us down, our pursuit was too lukewarm or it was all a bit too late. So Alexis stays.

I’m a little torn about this, though overall I’m happy he stays. I’m mostly torn because we’ve now got a player on our hands who doesn’t want to be here, whose teammates know he doesn’t want to be here and who knows the club was only too happy to offload him at the right price. But overall, I don’t see him downing tools, and we get a 30-goal player – someone all oppositions are genuinely fearful of – for either 4/5 more months or for the whole season.

We let a whole cavalcade of other players go, but in terms who might have actually played, it was only really Gabriel, Gibbs and possibly Lucas. Is our squad severely weakened by this bizarre summer? Not really – Chambers replaces Gabriel as 4th choice centre-back, Kolasinac has replaced Gibbs and we’ve massively upgraded our goalscoring options. Oxlade-Chamberlain was not irreplaceable as he didn’t want to play RWB (or LWB) and was often shoe-horned in anyway.

That being said, it’s never that simple. For me, the perception we have given in the latter stages of this window is of a club that doesn’t know what it wants, and that can be scavenged for talent. Instead of strengthening significantly in the anticipation of a concerted assault for honours – these were the noises being made after Wenger signed his new deal – we’re an unbalanced team with unhappy players and are already on the verge of abandoning the back three that brought us some respite (and a glorious afternoon at Wembley) a few short months ago.

On top of that, we’re still a team capable of the kind of switch-off disaster that we saw at Anfield, and let’s be honest, that’s not going to change either. Not now, not with Wenger.

So where does that leave us? Wenger is already embattled after a dreadful start to the season, the fans are disillusioned once again, and quite what we’re realistically hoping to achieve this season is a mystery. Poor squad management has bitten us hard, there are questions over the board’s input in all this, questions about finances and whiffs of power struggles too.

All this needs to be dispelled and turned round. Coherent tactics and team selection would be a start. Seeing an increased threat from Lacazette and Alexis – backed up by Welbeck, Giroud and Walcott – would soothe the frustration. The midfield marshalling the defence would be a novel and welcome development.

And so to Bournemouth.

For some late night ramblings to try to make (more) sense of it all, check out today’s Arsecast.

Arsenal routed and here we all are again

Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal

How many times has Arsene Wenger stood in front of the cameras after a defeat and pointed out that we were not “at the level requested”? I’ve lost count. Arsenal not being properly prepared or set up for big games is a festering sore that he now cannot fix. You’ve all seen the stats about how often we’ve won away against the top six in recent years, so I’ll spare you it.

Yesterday: well where to start? Bellerin was in the wrong place and Kolasinac was sacrificed, all to squeeze in the Ox, who wants to leave and how it showed. Monreal was in the wrong place because Wenger either doesn’t trust his other central defenders or they don’t want to be here. Holding looked every inch a 21-year old defender plucked for £2m from the Championship, because we didn’t have a midfield to speak of to help him. Ramsey was playing some kind of modernist free-form role – what was that all about? Xhaka was a mess. Our £55m striker was also sacrificed to fit in both Welbeck and Alexis. The former shanked our only presentable chance and the latter’s body language told you everything you needed to know. Ozil was invisible.

“There are some reasons”, said Wenger when pressed on quite how we were so ill-prepared despite not having played all week, “but I don’t think I have too much to come out on that now”. Wise, Arsene – because it doesn’t reflect well on you.

“I’m happy with my squad”, said Wenger a while ago, or words to that effect, and you have to wonder what they’re smoking over at the Emirates. It’s got holes all over it, players want to leave and on yesterday’s evidence it looks to be a pretty unhappy place.

Somewhat fittingly, today is the 6th anniversary of the 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford. “These are all problems of Wenger’s making,” I concluded then, and the same can of course be concluded now. Both teams were set up wrong, played out of position, tactically absent, low on energy, error-riddled, lacking concentration, and were weakened either by recent exits or by players who patently wanted out.

On that note, to have so many players in their last year is not just a huge error of strategic planning, it feels like a bellwether for what the players think about this team’s prospects under Wenger. Ozil, Alexis, Mustafi and Ox don’t want to be here anymore, and other players aren’t so stupid as to not be affected by it. Some of them will be thinking it themselves. I wasn’t keen to get rid of any of them, but seeing those who played go through the motions yesterday makes me care just a little less. I think Ox will go, I think Mustafi will go and I still think Alexis might, too.

So finally, belatedly, onto the man himself – Wenger. The performance yesterday was a slaughter; an embarrassment. It could not be more removed from the exhilaration of taking Chelsea apart in the cup final a few short months ago, when we dominated from beginning to end. But that run at the end of the season, culminating in Wembley, now feels like a blip. Yesterday, while not the norm, is the kind of result that Arsenal are always capable of under Wenger, and have been for seven or eight years, because he simply isn’t the manager he once was. He doesn’t motivate his players like he once did. This side is not set up to challenge for the big prizes in this market of ruthlessness and naked ambition. It’s not set up to win the difficult, big matches away from home. Wenger is still erudite and charming, and his achievements are legion, but in managerial terms he’s yesterday’s man.

Ah, but it’s just one game, don’t go overboard, some of you might say. True enough. It’s one bad game – one very bad game. But it’s symptomatic of so many other things that are wrong and that won’t change until Wenger’s gone. Most fans have seen this for a while; most journalists know it only too well.

Where that leaves us is anyone’s guess.

Just the seven goals then

Arsenal 4-3 Leicester

Do I have the strength to dust myself down and go at it for another year, with diminishing returns, or shall I just pack it all in? I ask myself this question every summer.

But enough about this blog, because the season’s started, and it started with a bang, a crash, several more bangs and a cavalcade of comedy defending. Wotcha Arsenal!

If you were the kind of person who’s prone to pass judgement on our chances after a game, you’d suspect that having drunk another potion of neat Arsenal from the cup of pure Arsenal, we’ll spend the season hallucinating undistilled Arsenalness all the way through till April. Then we’ll come round, wondering why we’re 6th, and stagger off on a run of solid form before resting once again for the summer.

But honestly, it’s a wee bit too early for that. We had just one real central defender available (there are a further four, if you include the unloved Calum Chambers, waiting in the wings) and we duly defended as if we’d erased defending from our minds over the summer months. I forget my work password after a week off – so I can understand how easy it might be for the concept of marking set pieces to disappear in a puff of smoke after eight weeks on sunloungers. Maybe they should just write it down?

It was a day to remember for Lacazette, who showed a real instinct for goal and looks like he’ll fit in well. Eat that Dennis Bergkamp, with your seven fallow games with no goals! (No, I’m not sure where I’m going with this either).

Aside from that, it was a reminder from two oft-derided players of their value. Ramsey got us level with a lovely finish, and Giroud powered a honker of a header over the line for the winner. Yes, he’s a bit slow, and no, he doesn’t always fit in when you want to play at pace and on the break, but how the hell do you replace a contribution like that? Who else scores those kinds of goals for us? It would be nuts to jettison Giroud, frankly, and I hope when Wenger says Giroud’s happy and wants to stay that that’s the end of it. Because in Giroud, Walcott, Welbeck, Lacazette and Alexis* there are a lot of goals and there’s a lot of variety. There’s room for a break and there’s room to chop and change.

*INSERTS GIANT IF-ALEXIS-IS-STAYING CAVEAT

So although we promised to screw things up on day one, we kept ourselves intact for some stern incoming tests. Job done.

August is a strange month, because when the season begins there’s still three weeks of transfers to go. I know we all like to have everything nailed down and ready to go, but that’s never going to happen.

The way things are, with the amount of money still left unspent and some big transfers brewing in Europe that could foment things further, I’d be amazed if our squad doesn’t change some more by 1st September.

In the meantime, we just need to battle through the jittery early stages. And learn to defend a bit – that would be nice.

It’s good to be back. Good summer, everyone?

A handy guide to transfer terminology

A Kolasinac-shaped left-back aside, this June was hardly flaming in the transfer department. July is where the action usually is, I tell myself, and it’s an opinion I can justify with the exciting and growing chatter about Lacazette.

However, there’s a lot of hot air out there when it comes to transfers, so I’ve put together a useful guide to navigating some of the well-worn phrases used almost uniquely during the summer months to tell us what’s really happening in the world of transfers.

1. Arsenal swoop on Nigel Dixon

Ah, the infamous ‘swoop’. The swoop is an elaborate high-risk technique used by teams to lure players away from teams desperate not to sell. The swoop needs to be quick and lightning-like, because by the time of the swoop, all other avenues have been closed.

It’s usually performed in a paraglider, though since Russian oligarchs parked their tanks on our lawns, the microlite has been known to be used, and some clubs are even trialling drones to perform this job in the future.

You can’t spirit these players away when they’re in their gilded mansions or locked away in their blacked-out Range Rovers – their clubs are wise to this – which is why you often see several paragliders circling in the thermals above swanky beach resorts or shopping streets, ready to swoop down, grab the required player and soar away to make them sign a contract.

2. Nigel Dixon issues a come-and-get-me-plea

The come-and-get-me-plea is part of the mundane bureaucracy of football. Should the club who hold the restless player’s registration refuse to budge, the next step is for the player himself to formalise his desire to leave. It’s quite straightforward and simply requires a trip to the Post Office (avoiding other clubs’ paragliders as you go). The come-and-get-me-plea is then duly filled in (with a black ball-point pen only, or it will be void), then issued by telegram to the club in question once the player has paid an administration fee of £5. A messenger in a peaked cap will then deliver the message in person to the manager of the club he wishes to join.

3. Arsenal have joined the race for Nigel Dixon

A physical challenge, this one. When more than one club is interested in a player, and the selling team or player can’t make their mind up who to sell to, it goes down to a 100m sprint. At Arsenal, in times gone by, Ken ‘Quickfoot’ Friar was known to be fast out the blocks, but since 1996 the long legs of Arsene Wenger have taken this role. He doesn’t like to delegate this task and is particularly proud of how he pipped the field to the line by a nose in 2013 to buy Mesut Ozil, despite spending most of the summer trying to find his running shoes.

4. Arsenal and Manchester City set to fight it out for Nigel Dixon

When all diplomacy fails, and money is not a factor, out come the fists. It won’t surprise you to hear that, despite hating confrontation, this task is another that Wenger is loathe to delegate to Steve ‘Bruiser’ Bould.

Back in the 90s and early 00s, Wenger was nimbler on his feet and would often find himself in the ring on his own, because nobody else knew about the player he was hoping to buy. TKO. But as his tenure has progressed, there are fewer unknown gems left in football so the boss has had to go against his better judgement and start jabbing with wily streetfighters. He’ll jab away forever to wear his opponent down (again, his long arms are a bonus here) but when it comes to the big slugs, he tends to get Bouldy to throw the towel in in the second round.

5. Nigel Dixon delivers a transfer ultimatum

No need to get the Post Office involved in this one – only the Foreign Office. The transfer ultimatum happens when things get political, and it’s just one step away from a transfer war. In practical terms, the ultimatum used to be delivered by a player to his manager using a battered red-leather diplomatic briefase attached to his wrist by a handcuff. These days it’s done using the ‘I want to leave now’ Snapchat filter.

6. Nigel Dixon just wants to concentrate on his football

Summer is not only for buying and selling, but for extending contracts too. But when a player doesn’t want to extend his contract, or is hoping for other clubs to swoop, join the race or fight it out for his signature, he needs a good excuse to delay things. He’s used ‘the dog ate my homework’ already, so it’s time for ‘I just want to concentrate on my football’. Given most players spend their summers taking selfies, and it only takes 10 minutes to tell your club what you intend to do anyway, and they have advisers and agents coming out their ears, this excuse stands pretty low on the credibility scale. So just in case his manager makes an impromptu visit to his player’s house to check upon this claim, the player will set up a football room where he amasses books about football history, swots up on the rules and watches old VHS tapes about the glory days of yore. The manager will be duly chastened and will leave impressed at his wantaway player’s dedication.

That’s your lot. I hope this has cleared some of the more confusing aspects of summer transfers. Roll on the new season.

Some thoughts on Wenger

So it’s Wenger until 2019 – the least surprising surprise since Surprisey McSurpriseFace jumped out of the wardrobe and shouted, “surprise!”

Those making the decision couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate moment to announce it if they’d tried – the warm afterglow of a fantastic performance and result in the FA Cup.

If you took this decision based on the last 9 or 10 games alone, the logic would be undeniable to be honest. It would be mean-spirited not to give credit to Wenger for the way he hauled us out of a very bad place indeed and made a success of a very average season.

If only things were that simple though, because if you look at the last decade you see a team that hasn’t got close enough to the business end of a title challenge, and you see a side that has been routinely embarrassed in the Champions League; most recently shipping ten to Bayern. That wider view, rather than the shorter-term burst of form and the heady bliss of Wembley, is why this decision will not, to put it diplomatically, be universally popular.

The weight of history would suggest that we’re in for more of the same – fourth or thereabouts – with Wenger at the helm.

So changing that is the challenge, and it’s huge. Because while the board and Wenger are saying all the right things, as you’d expect them to, the big question remains: What will he or can he do differently to bridge the 10 – 20 point gap that has come between us and the champions for the last nine years?

What needs to slot into place to give him a fighting chance? To break the mould? And the answer is probably – ‘a lot’.

An admission that things went wrong

That things will be freshened up to shake the club out of complacency. To come out and admit that things went stale and that we have fallen behind, and that we’re going to do something about it, structurally or with a change of staff. Because for all the glory of three FA Cups in four years, in the league we have fallen behind.

Some serious ambition

Back up the words with actions. Stan the investor needs to at least give the impression that he intends to be Stan the winner (I hear the hollow laughter at the back – detention for you!) Remember how it felt to sign Ozil? We need a statement of intent and of power play like that, because big names coming in aren’t just a case of buying for the sake of buying – they give you a better chance of winning. And Wenger tells us he wants to win the league. So Arsenal need to be prepared to spend big and to hit the ground running. To make swift decisions, to move fast. Not to just talk about it, but to do it.

To keep our big players

There’s long been talk that Alexis wants out and Ozil won’t sign, and that Ox is mulling over his future. Getting rid of any of them would send out all the wrong messages and would leave Wenger under the cosh and on the back foot before the season’s even started. I can’t see this part of his summer challenge ending well, to be honest, and I worry that we’ll spend too much of the next three months reacting rather than proacting.

To change the mentality… for good

You could argue the move to the back three has helped with this, but Arsenal need to be that committed for an entire season before we can say it was a success, rather than simply a nine-game upturn. Wenger needs to shake things up more often if needed. Hell, he might even consider making a substitution before the 68th minute… Will he change? We’ll find out, won’t we. But… yeah.

All the best

So good luck Arsène – I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Given the last few seasons, with the splits, the apathy, the frustration and the anger, and given the increasing strength and financial firepower of our rivals, you will need it.

I watch football to have fun and to see some great performances and, occasionally, to have a crack at winning things, so I’d like nothing more than for the next two years to be some kind of sunlit uplands. To be a bit more ‘cup final’ and a bit less ‘Watford at home’.

I don’t want to spend the next two years with furrowed brows, because life’s too short. So I’m going to be positive about it and see the FA Cup as a springboard (another springboard…)

Every year I give into hope and offer myself a tantalising thought that it might just be different this time round.

And I’d rather look at it that way, to be honest. Off we go again.

I just don’t think you understand

Wembley Stadium

Wembley Stadium

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

What a day, what a performance, and if anyone over the last few years has ever said to you: ‘Think how good Arsenal could be if they played to their full potential’, simply point them to Wembley Stadium, 27th May 2017.

No shrinking in the face of the big challenge here. In the white heat of a cup final against the champions, a match few expected us to win (not least me), we pulled our best performance of the entire season out of Arsene Wenger’s moth-eaten magic hat. He clearly said, “I’m having that”, and have that he did.

Our motley back line held firm for all but one moment. Our midfield was in control and high-energy, and going forward our pace caused considerable problems.

I’m not going to run through the whole team, because to a man they were magnificent, from the evergreen Mertesacker (an inspiration on and off the pitch) through to the fizzing dynamism of Ramsey and beyond to the irrepressible Alexis.

What got me out of my seat was the way we broke with such menace. For too long (and too often) we’ve watched as Arsenal ping it upfield then get bogged down. But on Saturday, with extraordinary regularity, we went for the jugular with our directness and pace. It was genuinely exciting football, and a reminder of the sheer excitement it can bring when all the elements come together. It hasn’t been like that enough this season. But – ah yes – that’s how it can be.

It was a final that just had it all, to be honest. A hot May day, two big teams contesting it, a bit of controversy right at the beginning, a hatful of chances and a winning goal only several minutes after the equaliser. An embattled manager proving a point against a manager whose stock couldn’t be higher.

And then there was the build-up, with that special tingly pre-cup-final atmosphere that is palpable but hard to explain. Nerves, excitement, anxiety. Fans and friends from far and wide.

It baffles me that some seem so willing to denigrate the FA Cup – the most important domestic cup competition – while simultaneously complaining about clubs celebrating getting into the top four as if it was a trophy.

Let me clear this up. The FA Cup is a trophy; getting into the Champions League is not. I would rather have an FA Cup win over getting a place in the Champions League any day of the week, frankly, and not just because we’re very good at one and very bad at the other.

Anyone who was at Wembley, and all those watching in pubs or at home with friends – feeling the highs and the lows, the swings and the roundabouts, the tantalising prospect of elation and of real success – will surely agree.

And finally to Wenger, the seven-times-FA-Cup-winning elephant in the room. All but the most curmudgeonly will grant Wenger the respect and gratitude he deserves for an unparalleled achievement. The team rose to the occasion and showed us what it can do. He got it right.

I’m well aware this muddies the water for some, myself included. But I suspect it has calcified the thinking of the man who pulls the strings, Stan Kroenke, and for all the recent obfuscation and whiff of power struggle, for all the deflection and uncertainty, I’d still be surprised if Wenger wasn’t here next season.

Well played Arsenal. You have made me happy.

*goes off to watch highlights again*

FA Cup final preview: Cech and balance

*eyes open at 6am*. It’s the cup final, baby! Best write a preview then.

Cup runneth over

Though the river marked ‘league titles’ ran dry many years ago, leaving an arid wadi of frustration, the one labelled ‘FA Cup’ continues to bubble along nicely.

In fact, while Wenger’s record in the League Cup final (P2, L2) and in European finals (P2, L2) leaves a lot to be desired, he’s made up for it in the FA Cup with an astonishing six wins.

The last time we lost in the FA Cup final – his only defeat to date – was in 2001, when quite frankly we woz robbed anyway.

That record comes under severe scrutiny today against Chelsea, who have Lazarused their way out of last season’s doldrums under the tutelage of the impressive Conte.

Wenger’s goodbye?

The two sides are coming at this from wildly different places, if we’re honest. For us, winning it would be a positive end to an arduous season where all the usual weaknesses took their turns to make an appearance. It could be Wenger’s justification for a new deal – or it could be a way to bow out on a high (and maybe the best chance he will now have to do that). We still do not know and it seems utterly bizarre that this could be Wenger’s last game, but we wouldn’t know and couldn’t say goodbye. (Spoiler: it probably isn’t).

For Chelsea, already riding the crest of a wave, it’s a chance to win their second double, so it’s safe to assume they’ll be sufficiently motivated.

Cech bounced

They will be favourites, a view reinforced by an untimely dose of defensive misfortune for us – added to yesterday with the news that Cech will be replaced by Ospina. A “slight knock” in training led to this decision, apparently, though it’s slight enough for Cech to be devastated. If this is Wenger being stubborn and keeping his promise to ‘cup keeper’ Ospina, it wouldn’t surprise me. But this kind of sentimentality is madness on a day where we’re already without Koscielny, Mustafi and Gabriel.

It could be a bluff. I’m a hardened cynic, but honouring a departing keeper’s promise does feel a bit textbook Wenger. Or it could just be that he’s genuinely encumbered by injury and is not fit to start, in which case maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I’ve got a lovely Per

In front of Ospina, who has not played for eight weeks, will be Per Mertesacker, who has not started a match in about 56 weeks. Rob Holding, who has made just 16 starts for Arsenal, will join him and Nacho Monreal, a left-back, will make up the three.
We’ll probably see Bellerin on the right and Ox or Gibbs on the left, and the rest of the team picks itself, bar striker. It should be Welbeck, but this is Arsene Wenger we’re talking about so don’t stick money on it.

But look, we’ve finally hit some form and it’s a one-off Wembley final, in glorious May sunshine, so while we won’t be everyone’s favourites, we’re hardly starry-eyed underdogs here.

Cup fever

I’ve always loved the cup, and the good fortune to have seen so many finals in my time does not lessen my love of it in any way. The atmosphere, the anticipation, the nerves, the mates coming together from far and wide; steeling yourself for joy or despair – it’s got the lot and I can’t wait.

For those of you who are either travelling or at a loss at how to fill the pre-match hours, warm yourself up by curling your lug-holes round Arseblog’s pre-match live podcast, (where we all scoff at the thought of Cech missing out).

The nerves are well and truly kicking in, so that’s your lot. Come on you rip-roaring reds!

That warmed the Coquelins

Stoke City 1-4 Arsenal

Fourth is on – until it’s off again.

From the rubble of a north London derby no-show, we’ve dusted ourselves down to win three on the bounce and revive our annual race for fourth. What’s more, we’re cranking up the style with yesterday’s thumping of Stoke (it’s been so long since we’ve won there that I think ‘thumping’ passes muster) being our best performance in some time.

Solid as a rock

Ah, fourth, my old friend. As Jonathan Northcroft says in today’s Sunday Times, “If only this team pursued league titles with such a sense of destiny and irrepressible vigour” as it does the final Champions League place.

But you take what comes your way, don’t you, and yesterday was a lovely pre-season-ticket-renewal reminder of what Arsenal can really be all about: solid defending when needed, poise in midfield, some beautiful, carving attacking play and graceful finishing. No, I don’t know what happened to it between December and May either.

Holding out for a hero

So, to yesterday, when the back three worked again, with Holding (better than Cannavaro, don’t you know), Koscielny and Mustafi all good. Is this the back three for next season? Could well be. With respect to Mustafi and Koscielny, Holding’s the exciting one here. He started the season well then disappeared, before Wenger’s desperate change to a back three opened a door for him. How’s he’s grasped it, and it’s always nice to see a young English player plucked from nowhere make a good start to his Arsenal career. Long may it last.

So Nacho

Nacho could have had a goal or two himself, and a bit of game time acted as a dose of WD-40 for Bellerin’s early rustiness too – he got two assists.

Love Xhak

Yesterday, I made an extra effort to study Xhaka, who’s had a lot of recent accolades but who for a long time looked too slow and clumsy to me. It’s funny, because you know how you notice some players more than you notice others when you’re watching a game live? Well he’s not really one of them – but watching him yesterday, you can see him growing into his role. He’s a midfielder in the Steve Williams or Paul Davis mould; quietly effective but not obviously stand-out.

Olivier’s army

Giroud, who I cursed under my breath until he scored, before lauding him to the heavens (sort of sums him up), notched a brace to make it 16 this term. Not bad, let’s be honest, and at 104 minutes per goal, also the most lethal of all our strikers. Statistics, eh.

You can call me Al

Finally to Alexis and Ozil, our stardust players. I’ve been so frustrated with Ozil at times this season, to the point where doubling his wages seems insane (it still does), but when he plays like he played yesterday you’re reminded why he’s so good. In that sense he personifies Arsenal: stylish and lethal when good, a passenger when bad. His goal was calmly taken, and his passing in general was pinpoint.

As for Alexis, what can you say? That pass to Ozil was 100% through-ball-porn, and he finished the game by scoring with his only operational leg, before tapping the crest on his shirt and giving me hope (damn you, hope) that all might not be lost between him and Arsenal.

So overall, a performance that warmed the Coquelins. The cynics among you – says he, deflecting his own cynicism adroitly – will tell you that disappointment is only round the corner in one form or other. It probably is, but playing well is nice and that is all that matters right now.

Superstition

A final thought about how nuts humans are. Take a look at the Arsenal team emerging from the tunnel and you’ll see all manner of nervous, superstitious tics. Coquelin hops on his right leg, Bellerin picks up some grass then crosses himself, Xhaka hops then bounces, before Ozil does his own hop.

Hopping mad, the lot of them.

So are we for investing some much emotion in this nonsense. Damn you, football, you cruel mistress!

Arsenal revert to type in supine derby defeat

Tottenham 2-0 Arsenal

Remember that second half at Wembley, when we looked like we had a plan and worked our socks off to execute it? There was always the danger that it was the outlier in a season that began to implode in December and has barely come up for air since.

The Leicester game on Wednesday – the first of our seven ‘cup finals’, apparently – was slow and predictable, with Arsenal’s inability to outmanoeuvre defensive teams all too apparent.

Then yesterday. Another ‘cup final’; another day when our impressive array of weaknesses were there for all to see. Weak at the back? Tick. Blunt up front? You got it! Overrun in midfield? Natch. Incapable of keeping the ball? Not a problem. A team lacking motivation and direction? Yep. Compare that with our hosts, who could so easily have won by more if it wasn’t for Cech’s excellence. It’s a painful comparison but you cannot ignore it.

Arsenal’s decline – and it is a decline, albeit a relative one, but let’s not sugarcoat it – has been slow-cooking for some time and you cannot now avoid the smell coming from the oven (with humble apologies to all hard-working metaphors out there). Depending where you are on the Gloom-o-meter, you could trace it all the way back to 2006 and the breakup of the Invincibles. Or maybe 2008, when Eduardo’s leg break derailed our title challenge. You might, if your glass is fuller, merely say that after coming second last season the real decline only began at around Christmas when we lost in quick succession to Everton and Manchester City.

The truth, as ever, is somewhere in-between. But right now, Arsenal are in a big old rut, playing stale football, and the only realistic way I see of addressing it – for there will be no boardroom coup – is by calling an end to Wenger’s 21-year reign.

There are some players who need to move on, but by and large I think this squad is decent – it’s just spectacularly underachieving. It’s time for someone else take them on and shake them up.

By some strange coincidence, Wenger’s recent contract renewal dates have coincided with FA Cup finals. Last time, in 2014, felt like a good time for him to sign off on a winning note, but in the euphoria of our first trophy since 2005 he signed up for more. I don’t remember the dissent being especially strong back then.

This year, the same opportunity presents itself. This time, three years on, the dissent and apathy is more acute. But should Wenger win the cup for an astonishing seventh time – and it’s a tough assignment – then it feels very much like the right time, and perhaps the best opportunity he will now get, to go out on a high.

Pinch yourself – yes it is Monreal

Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City

Imagine my surprise when Arsenal’s mojo – which I had prayed for in hope rather than in expectation before the match – emerged in the second half beneath Wembley’s arch.

There it was in full view in the shape of Chambo (the wing-back, do keep up) getting past his man time and again before crossing on a platter for Monreal (the other wing-back, scuttling forward) to lash home a volley with his right foot.

Or in the shape of Gabriel, all teeth and spring-loaded quiff, who had what must be his best game for Arsenal yet. Whodathunkit! Formerly possessing two left feet, he had a magnificent game.

And Rob Holding, just 20 and a Wembley first-timer, who’s waited patiently for most of the season for misfortune (Mustafi injury) and circumstance (back three experimentation) to combine in his favour. He took his chance again.

I pick these four out because they weren’t perhaps the players you’d expect to emerge from the shadows, and it’s not to gloss over some other fine performances. Because overall it was a game of real commitment and energy from Arsenal; manna from heaven in a season of strangely subdued predictability. Boy did we need it.

There was an element of luck involved, I won’t deny it. Both sides could have had a penalty, City hit the post twice and had a goal ruled out unfairly (easy to say in slow motion). The defending for their goal was iffy on several levels, but Arsenal kept battling and the more they did so the more fun it got. With a bit more ruthlessness, we could have had more. So yes, it was cathartic. Best of all, something clicked.

And counter to my expectations, here we are again in the FA Cup final – our 20th, and Wenger’s 8th. If someone ever tells you it’s not relevant or big enough, they’re lying. It never gets boring.

Yes, it’s only one game and we’re all too skittish and wizened to see it as anything else, but what a time to show the fight and nous needed. All the other stuff, we can put back in the box – for now – and just enjoy it. Because that is, after all, what it’s meant to be all about.

We’re in the cup final. Get in!