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Arsenal 4-1 Newcastle Utd

Arsenal’s best league performance of this season? I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And so very Arsenal that it should come straight after our worst. Welcome to Arsenal!

Which is why to me there is no real hypocrisy in booing the manager one week and singing his name the next. It might be baffling to the outsider that a fanbase can be so schizophrenic, but if you watch this team week in, week out you will see a team that plays bafflingly differently from one moment to the next. Five wins in six, and you wonder what all the fury was about, except that you simultaneously don’t.

Still, we got the right end of the spectrum yesterday. A fluid and efficient attacking performance allied to an admirable work effort, and it all just clicked in a way that, for the most part, it simply hasn’t this season.

There were some fine performances across the pitch, from Olivier Giroud (who we really have missed, I think it’s safe to say) to Santi Cazorla and the irrepressible Alexis. I thought Bellerin had a very promising game at right-back too, but really, this was simply a really good performance all over the place.

Welbeck was his usual industrious self and his cracking finish should have stood – the only thing he was guilty of, as far as I could see, was standing next to a player who fell over.

And an ideal result ahead of a trip to Anfield. Last season, we were beaten black and blue up there, and while this season Liverpool have had their own well-documented trials, this is still something of an acid test for us.

Until then, what’s that warm glow? I’m not sure, but I might just bask in it for a day or two.

Played the Arsenal.

Stoke City 3-2 Arsenal

It’s impossible to make any sense of this season, because you have absolutely no idea what Arsenal will do when they step on the pitch. Good luck anyone trying to second guess how we might play. We might make light work of a seemingly hard game (Dortmund), we might throw away winning positions (Swansea) and we might go tight and eke out one-nil wins (WBA and Southampton). Then of course, we might collapse like a pack of cards, as we did yesterday at Stoke.

The 90 minutes was a microcosm of the inconsistency of this, Wenger’s latest and almost certainly last, Arsenal side. So bad it was pathetic in the first half, then a brief, stirring comeback that fell short. But ultimately, we remembered none of the defensive lessons we seemed to have learned over the last three games. It was a dog’s breakfast of a performance.

We started the season by drawing a lot – we didn’t lose for the first six games of the season – but in the subsequent nine games we have lost four times, won four times and drawn once. That is the epitome of inconsistency, right there.

Now obviously, it was always going to be harder because we had three rookies in the back five. But the mistakes the defence made were just basic. When you are lacking in experience, at the very least you should be drilled to within an inch of your life to keep things tight, shut down the opposition, prevent crosses. Too much to ask, clearly, and when you are 1-0 down after 25 seconds, you’re already in trouble.

We “weren’t decisive enough”, “not dominant enough”, “too fragile” – and you can now add “multiple set-piece disease” to the lexicon of failure. However the boss says it, we’ve heard it all too many times before.

With Newcastle coming next in the league, it’s anyone’s guess. Every game is anyone’s guess. We are almost half way through the season and we’ve not yet started.

Wenger can’t seem to change the narrative for long enough for it to make a difference. If you were a betting man or woman, you’d say the most likely outcome for the second half of the season is more of the same. We probably won’t beat one of the teams we measure ourselves against. We’ll win some and we’ll lose some in no particular order and we might be there or thereabouts for the fourth place trophy in May.

We’re stuck in a loop.

Garter_2008_Yeomen
Nacho Monreal and his family

Not a great recent record at Stoke, with two draws and a defeat in our last three seasons, so given that and the narrowness of our last two league wins, I’m not expecting a festival of goals and free-flowing football.

Arsenal are learning to tighten up out of necessity. The result seems to be less gung-ho, light-brigade galloping forth. (I say ‘seems to’ as you never quite know with Arsenal).

It takes a bit of adjusting to. Certainly, whilst in hindsight I can see that the Southampton game was an excellent result against a well-organised team, it wasn’t a whole lot of fun to watch at the time (as I mentioned on the Arsenal America podcast).

Match of the Day made it look like a better game than I remembered it to be. I thought we were sluggish and one-paced for a lot of the game, but maybe that’s the price we’ll have to pay while we try to recalibrate our defensive game. It certainly happened that way the last time, at the end of the 2011-12 season, when we went back to basics and George Grahamed our way to fourth.

I’m happy with that, it’s needed, though we’ll need to start scoring more at some point.

Back to our defence, and as it our style, Koscielny is a doubt, while The Quiet Yeoman is out. I’m not sure quite what we’ll do if there’s no Koscielny or Quiet Yeoman at centre half. Wenger will have to magic something up, I suppose.

Up front, Alexis is running on empty, though his empty is another man’s half a tank, so I expect him to play ahead of being rested against Galatasaray. And if Giroud doesn’t get the nod, I’m a Dutchman.

I’ll take a scrappy one-nil, to be honest. We’re not a team that hammers other teams at the moment (if anything, last season it was the other way round). Whilst I’d love us to find our goalscoring mojo today, Stoke away might not be the occasion where it happens.

Do it, rip roarers!

mirage

West Brom 0-1 Arsenal

I could trawl back over my blogging years and find dozens of examples of my morale hitting rock bottom, only for Wenger to shed some ballast on HMS Crisis, refire the boilers and steam out of trouble.

He is an absolute expert at that – he’s outlasted every manager in the league by a country mile, and he’s outlasted George Allison as Arsenal’s longest-serving manager by five years. He knows how important it is to steady the ship as soon as possible when it starts taking on water. “To stop a crisis quickly is one of the most important qualities”, he told Amy Lawrence when she interviewed him for her excellent book Invincible, “The longer it lasts, the more you swim against the stream”.

So the wins against Dortmund and West Brom – while you’d be wise to caution against undue optimism given everything that has gone on ad infinitum – was a much needed dose of smelling salts.

Dortmund was, in hindsight, pretty straightforward, with Yaya’s duck-breaker setting the right tone and Alexis wrapping things up in style. I confess I was quite worried before the game, but my anxiety was without foundation as it turned out. Klopp thought it might be a holiday from their bizarre domestic form, but separating one competition from another is easier said than done and it showed.

At the Hawthorns, promising signs afoot. Defensive solidity, a cagier approach (Amen, Hallelujah and Huzzah) and a fine winning goal created by Cazorla and buried from above by Welbeck. Giroud and Koscielny through the revolving door in the right direction, Monreal and Gibbs heading the opposite way to nobody’s real surprise. But it was an encouraging performance in many ways.

They posited on the Football Weekly podcast that with Arsenal, Spurs, Man Utd, Man City and Liverpool all winning, perhaps some of the peculiar post World Cup lethargy and bittiness of most of the top four wannabes is wearing off at last. I like the idea of that when it comes to Arsenal. Not so much in relation to the others.

You can only go with what you see – hence a lot of miserable fans for much of this season – but in the last two matches, and out of nowhere, I see green shoots just at a point when I wondered out loud what Wenger was smoking over at the Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a case of me staggering parched through the desert, desperate for succour, only to be presented with a mirage. Just as it’s too early to write this season off, it’s also too early to head down the bookies with a glint in the eye.

Keeping it up and building on it is something that has largely eluded us so far. The frustration with Arsenal, and with Wenger, is not made up. It’s not magicked from nowhere. It’s an accumulation of things going back a long way. We could argue all day if it’s terminal, or turn-roundable, but the bottom line is that nobody can say with any certainty.

What we can say with some conviction is that you can’t argue with the tonic of winning. It puts a different hue on things, and how we needed that.

I like winning.

More of that please.

Arsenal 1-2 Manchester Utd

Taken in isolation, that was a crazy defeat against a team that we mostly dominated. But in the end, it was the same old Arsenal, fashioning plenty of chances but taking none of them, then Arsenalling the whole thing up with archetypical naïvety.

The trouble is, you can’t really take this result in isolation when you look at the last 15 matches against United, from which we have emerged with just one win. The story is the same against Chelsea. Ultimately, we aren’t good enough against the teams we measure ourselves against, time and infuriating time again. It’s the same old story. It really never changes.

Just four league wins this season, all against teams currently in the bottom seven, says it all.

The first half – we were good in most areas bar the most crucial one. Jack Wilshere in particular had the biggest sitter of the day, and fluffed it. It would probably have been a different result had we taken one of those chances. I’ve watched a lot of these matches over the years and this is one of the least scary United sides of them all – and yet, the longer it went on goalless, the more I thought it would end up the same way that it has done in recent years.

The first goal was so Arsenal. Keeper injured by his left back, who then turns a shot in for an own goal. After that, it felt ominous. As Rooney said after the match, their gameplan was to hit us on the break (as was Swansea’s, and countless teams before them) because they detected a weakness there. Well, guess what, it works.

The sight of Per Mertesacker one-twoing to make something happen in the Utd half tells its own story. He’s doing his damnedest to make something happen, but it’s just not working. I’m sure Wenger feels the same way, but he appears to be out of answers too.

I’ve lost track of the amount of times he concludes that we’re not cautious enough, or we’re too naive, or we need to be more efficient. Countering those things is the problem.

And as for this:

It was just after a corner and we were not cautious enough. I don’t know why we had nobody at the back at all

Well, either he tells the players till he’s red in the face to do stuff but they never do it, which means the players are to blame, or he’s not telling them how to set themselves up at all and is left baffled when things go to pot. Either explanation is pretty troubling.

There’s no doubt we’re in a rut that Wenger is currently at a loss to extricate ourselves from. We’re making the same mistakes again and again (we have done for years, even if the nature of the mistakes changes with the seasons). The boss knows why things are going wrong, because he keeps telling us. But he hasn’t been able to turn it around.

In the heat of the moment, it’s hard not to make a correlation with Wenger now and George Graham in 1995, when terrible football was sticky-plastered with a good cup run to the Cup Winners’ Cup final. It felt like the end of an era then, and it feels a bit like that now. As I said on Twitter last night, ‘Wenger’s long goodbye’.

The football now is nothing like as bad was it was then. But turning the ship round against a tide of bubbling frustration, zero confidence, baffling tactics and a string of poor results is proving to be a very big job. We seem to have lost our way. What is our style? What is our plan?

Wenger used to be a magician. He’s going to need a ruddy big saw and a massive top hat now.

Swansea 2-1 Arsenal

You know, at times like this it’s quite hard to come up with even the lamest pun to make me feel better. Something about whales, I thought, given the location. Blowholes. Blue. A bunch of planktons. Surrendering minkely.

But I don’t need to tell you how terrible these are, and then I ran out of steam and willpower. So instead I ploughed into a bit of gallows humour.

There, that’s better.

Anyway, what kind of comfort can I give you after yet another Collaps-o-Arsenal defensive shambles, another naive turnaround? No volume of puns will suffice, that’s what I think.

If anything, we seem to be going backwards this season. I look at the squad and I like what I see, for the most part (there are things I can’t see, because they don’t exist, and that’s part of the problem but I can’t pass judgement on things I can’t see). But the team, the unit – it’s not as good as it was last season. I keep expecting us to turn the corner but whatever we do, we do it in stutters, before reverting back to these weird half-performances, shooting ourselves in the foot.

And this with a superior attacking force at our disposal than last year, which now includes a player who is performing head and shoulders above his teammates, a player of genuine world class. Twelve-goal Alexis must be wondering what more he can do to shore up this side. Welbeck’s goals might have dried up but he’s working his socks off and getting assists. Everywhere else though, and as a collective – it’s not working or it’s not working for long enough.

The reasons? Injuries, confidence, an unbalanced squad, the World Cup, Uncle Tom Cobley. There are loads of tangible reasons, but there are others that are extremely hard to gauge. Psychological things like confidence, belief and trust also play a part. More prosaic things like organisation and tactics and decisions, too.

If there’s any consolation, the bigger picture tells us that of all the traditional top four-ish sides, only Maureen is getting his right at the moment. And how.

And that we can only get better and more consistent – surely.

But of course, it’s Wenger’s team, this, and it’s Wenger who can’t get the best out of it right now. It’s Wenger who didn’t quite finish the job in the summer, buying some great players, but leaving glaring gaps elsewhere. That our lack of defensive options has come back to haunt us has an element of extreme bad luck to it. But an element of mismanagement, too.

My thoughts on the boss waver, as do those of many people these days. He’s been the manager of the club I love for two-thirds of the time I’ve supported it. He’s incredibly consistent.

But I don’t think that questioning Wenger is knee-jerk these days. Arsenal’s weaknesses have been the same for ages. It’s boring listening to pundits on the TV and on the radio flag them up, then for them to say “told you so” when they manifest themselves again.

I don’t know whether this team would suddenly explode with a more stable defensive platform, cannier teamwork and more of a sleeves-rolled-up approach. It might. Like Arsenal did after losing to Blackburn 3-1 at Highbury in December 1997. (“Harsh words were exchanged within the dressing room…a watershed moment”). It would certainly improve us, you’d think.

What I do believe, though, is that this team needs new ideas, some new approaches, new motivation. It needs long-standing weaknesses properly addressed, once and for all.

Whether we’ll see that from Wenger – well I just don’t know. And that, I suppose, gets to the crux of it.

Something I tried out today – hope you enjoy. Took a lot of snapping and a bit of luck catching the right piece of video…

 
Sunderland 0-2 Arsenal

It’s been three weeks since I asked the question ‘Which Arsenal will we see on Sunday?’ before the Chelsea game, a blog title that can be recycled prior to every match at the moment. That’s efficient writing, right there.

It’s a pertinent point of course, because we’re in one of those runs of form where it’s not easy to pinpoint what isn’t working. I’d wager Wenger’s not clear either, because there are multiple factors at play here. We have bursts of inventive play that set the pulse racing (City, second half, that brief Villa assault, Galatasaray), but long swathes of laboured football where ball retention, pace and lock-picking passes go out the window. We’re switching off at the back too much, but ludicrous injuries (and a lack of back-ups) have had a big effect there. Look at how we’ve lined up in defence during the nine league games, and you can see part of the problem.

Sz Deb Kos Chamb Gibbs
Sz Deb Per Chamb Mon
Sz Deb Per Kos Mon
Sz Deb Per Kos Mon
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Bellerin Per Mon Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Mon Gibbs

We’ve had the same back five only three times, and six different combinations in total. We don’t know how we’ll line up from game to game, and yesterday Gibbs conked out (a hip problem says Wenger, and we all know the hips don’t lie). Fingers crossed it’s not a bad one because he’s been excellent this season.

Defence aside, we have a better squad than last year, but too many of its constituent parts have failed to hit the high notes of last year. We’re not bad – one league defeat would back that up – but we’re not good either, as five draws from nine suggests.

Confidence has a big effect on this Arsenal team, as it does with most, and we’re lacking it, and with it some cohesion. Sometimes you just need to knuckle down and wade through stodgy form, so yesterday’s win at Sunderland, while it won’t win many aesthetic prizes and owed a lot to two moments of defensive calamity, ought to be a massive tonic.

What’s patently clear is how much Alexis brings to this team. His workrate (and that of Welbeck, who’s a similarly selfless, tireless player), his versatility and his eye for goal have held us together at times. If you want a role model for the other players when the mojo is little-bit lacking, he’s your man. Where would we be without him? He and Welbeck have scored the bulk of our goals, and for all the brow-furrowing about what’s not quite right, those two summer signings have been superb for us.

Alexis has been our player of the season, so I’m just off out to buy a lucky rabbit’s foot. If there’s one player we can’t afford to keel over, it’s him.

A fine midweek dismantling, preceded by a possession-heavy, goal-light draw at home, which came after an underwhelming cup exit, itself just after a four-minute three-goal salvo that assuaged a dismal loss in Germany.

The pattern here is clear; we’ve spent much of the season veering from excellent to average and back, and to be honest, it’s hard to know which Arsenal we’ll see on Sunday. That feeling of uncertainty is magnified by our opponents, whose record against us has gone full circle (this Amy Lawrence piece reminds us that went seventeen league games unbeaten against them – though feel free to speed up the ball on your mouse when you get to the graphic about Mourinho v Wenger’s subsequent head-to-head).

It was a full circle that culminated in last season’s nadir, a thrashing on Wenger’s 1,000th match. And what a thrashing it was; naive, hapless and hopeless.

The Galatasaray match will have been a massive shot in the arm for the team, but we can’t expect such generosity in Chelsea’s rearguard on Sunday. Welbeck will find it hard to get ahead of their defence so readily. Our central midfield will not have the space it enjoyed.

So how to approach it? People often say that Wenger never sets his team up on an opponent by opponent basis, letting them instead express themselves in their own inimitable style. I think there’s an element of truth in this, but as with all statements, it’s not entirely right. When Arsenal went back to basics at the tail end of the 2012-13 season, we went far more defensive in order to stop ourselves from getting the lifeboats out at the first whiff of an iceberg.

I think, taking our record and our psychological state, that we have to adopt a far more pragmatic approach to this game than we did last year. I’m not suggesting we opt for the ‘watching paint dry’ tactical straightjacket favoured at times by our shy, demure opposition manager, but there’s obviously a lot to be said for playing a little more intelligently and taking our opposition more into account. 2-0 down after ten minutes is headless chicken territory.

George Graham’s tactic at Anfield in 1989, famously, was to not concede in the first 45 minutes, get the crowd a bit restless, try to nick something then see what happens after that. It worked. We need to withstand the early storm.

To stand half a chance, Wenger needs to play his best players in their best positions. For me, that means playing Ozil in the middle. It means starting Sanchez. I’m torn about Oxlade-Chamberlain though, because excellent though he has been, going out all guns blazing seems like a recipe for disaster. Cazorla’s ability to pass long, from deep, might be needed. Oxlade-Chamberlain from the bench.

So I’d line up with the usual back five, then Flamini, Ozil, Cazorla, Wilshere, Sanchez and Welbeck. There’s a lack of power in that midfield, but it’s hardly a game for Diaby or Coquelin.

You no doubt want me to finish this preview off with a backs-to-the-wall, tubthumping, defiant flourish. But I’m not sure I can pull that off, because I’m simply not that confident.

Nil-nil after 15 minutes would be nice. Then we can take it from there.

Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham

It’s hard to know what to make of this Arsenal side at the moment. In terms of personnel, we’re stronger than last season. But as a team? It’s just not working properly, as two wins in nine testifies.

All the possession in the world, but what’s the point of that if we lack the means to go for the jugular?

Don’t get me wrong, a point is no disaster, but we’ve been a curious side to watch for much of the season. Generally not bad – apart from in Dortmund, where we were awful – but certainly not quite good enough.

Getting the right system right and bedding new players in is clearly vexing Wenger, as it is with several managers, so I suppose the fact that we are unbeaten in the league is something to draw comfort from. We’re not easy to beat.

But we’re six points off the pace, and should we see the kind of top four away-day Collaps-o-Arsenal of recent years next weekend (I don’t think we will ship six, but it’s a fair question to ask), then we’d be nine points off the top at the beginning of October. Time to get worried, or a bit of perspective required?

The latter, to be honest. I think we’ve got a very strong team, but it’s one that has yet found the groove. New players, World Cup returnees, etc etc – it’s not an excuse but it’s a factor.

As for yesterday, there were good shifts put in by most players. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked strong, Ozil and Welbeck worked hard, Wilshere was always looking to drive forward (and was felled on most occasions). Like I say, curious. We didn’t look bad. We just didn’t look quite capable of knocking the door down.

And to cap it all off, Arteta and Ramsey are now out. Of those, the former is the biggest worry as Flamini didn’t cover himself in glory yesterday. Why we have no other options in that position is of course a question that’s been asked a thousand times before, given our millions in the bank. But there you go – there are only so many times you can say it before it becomes boring.

Ramsey has perhaps epitomised Arsenal this season. Not bad, but just not hitting the heights of last season. Fortunately, it’s one position in the team we have options. If he’s been carrying a knock for a while (and it’s the second time he’s been out this season, so that could well explain something) then it’s probably best that he lets his body mend properly.

Onto the Champions League we go, where we’ve little room for error already. I guess we just have to KBO* until we get the balance right.

*KBO