Here comes the Sanchez

Arsenal 2-0 West Brom

Of all the things that need to happen this summer – clear-out, existential reappraisal, signings that exude ambition – nonsense about the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are not one of them.

Better late than never, but Sanchez is back to his dangerous best. A trademark bullet from outside the box and a finger-licking free-kick saw off the toothless Baggies in a game in which we should have been more ruthless but, somewhat typically, weren’t.

What would I do if I was Arsenal? I’d start the wooing now.

For our fidgety Chilean, I’d be fedexing round several cases of Winalot for his pooches.

If ‘Winalot’ doesn’t signal ambition, I don’t what will.

I should be in PR.

Arsenal no scrooges as Christmas comes early for Carroll

West Ham 3-3 Arsenal

That slither of hope I spoke about? Yeah, that. Only the wildest of optimists would now give Arsenal the time of day when it comes to the title. I suppose the Totterers might lose and the mighty Leicester might freeze but who am I kidding? It’s gone.

Arsenal are simply incapable of stringing enough wins together, for starters. Any team with pretensions for the title would have shut up shop at 2-0 but this Arsenal don’t know how to do that. They still don’t know how to do that. I take nothing away from West Ham who have improved immeasurably under Bilic, but for Arsenal to take just one point from yesterday’s game was Arsenal’s doing entirely. Switched off, switched off, switched off. Two-nil up to three-two down in a jiffy. What the Dickens was that? Jonathan Northcroft in today’s Sunday Times puts it rather succinctly: it’s Arsenal’s glass jaw.

The Collaps-o-Arsenal™ did however – on the plus side – spawn one of my favourite Wenger quotes of all time:

“On the first, second and third goal, we were a bit naive defensively.”

So that’s all of them, then. Defensive naivety – again and again and again. How many times do we hear Wenger say that? One Carroll thudder led to another and another. Nothing to learn there. As you were. Talking of which, would not yesterday’s nemesis have been better contained by a taller and less skittish centre-half than the underwhelming Gabriel? Or a keeper who commands his area better than Ospina? Just a thought.

In amongst the carnage of Carroll picking a pocket or two, Arsenal played some good attacking football, with Iwobi yet again impressing. We’re certainly better to watch than we were a month ago – a lot more fluid and fluent. But at the back the same calamities are always just around the corner. The ghost of defences past – an Adams-shaped spectre – haunts my dreams when I see defending like yesterday’s.

Top four is within our grasp, as it always is, but when aiming for more – and despite what anyone says, I’m sure the board and manager do want to achieve more – we hit that glass ceiling.

Glass jaw, glass ceiling. Glass half empty. Here we are again, praying for the unlikely to happen.

Does hope really spring eternal?

A month has leaked away since my last post, and despite a recent uptick in form and results, I’m struggling to get goodly excited by what’s left of this campaign. I have been semi-detached for some time; let’s call it the open close season. I’ve missed a few games for one reason or another and – honestly – I haven’t missed it.

Swansea at home slugged my faint league hopes across the chops, we toppled out of the European Cup in the usual place and at the usual time, and we then got our left and boots muddled up in our one realistic remaining trophy hunt. Watford – since handsomely and easily despatched – look ahead to Wembley while we look ahead to… to what exactly?

Well, Wenger continues to argue that there’s still plenty to play for, and I suppose he has to. In my fleeting moments of wild optimism I look at the fixtures and think: ooh, Leicester and Tottingham have got some tough games, and if we go on a juicy run then this might happen and that might happen and ooof, suddenly it could be a massive case of Crikey George, crumbs-this-is-hotting-up.

But in my heart of hearts I accept it’s as good as over. I don’t think Wenger will be turning water into wine. It feels far likelier that Ranieri will be turning Drinkwater into Drinkwine (tortured analogy – please rewrite – Ed).

Yes, there’s room for optimism after two very good wins. Wenger has hit upon a midfield formula with the quietly excellent Elneny at its heart. Iwobi – promoted because nothing else was working or nobody else was fit – is that fair or am I being a bit harsh? – has jumped at the chance and scattered the Walcotts of this world to the four winds, and Welbeck’s dynamism has added pace to our game when it was desperately needed.

But it’s only been two games, and it’s probably too late, so it does feel a bit as if the next month is little more than a procession to the usual destination. Of course it’s not over till it’s over, but Leicester are showing little generosity of spirit to poor old stumbling Arsenal, the selfish swine. Can’t they see we’ve had a rotten time of it?

This season for Arsenal has largely played out barring the kind of finale we all dream about (but mostly wake up from just when it gets good and realise we have to go to work and it’s raining and cold). There will be a massive post-mortem to accompany the lengthy pre-mortem that’s been going on since Collaps-o-Arsenal™ reared its ugly head on Boxing Day. I can’t say I look forward to that.

But until then, there’s always the slither of hope. Because if relegation-haunted Sunderland roll the right Allardyce and pull off a much-needed home win, and if we continue our decent burst of form with a win at Upton Park, and if things click for United over at our friendly neighbours, well then, we’d find ourselves if not in the thick of it then very much approaching the thickness of it, and well, should that come to pass then – eek! – this is totally game on and what was I thinking detaching myself from one of the most exciting title races of all time?

Hope, eh?

It’s a right sod.

Coq off, Coq down and Coq out

Tottenham 2-2 Arsenal

‘Arsenal fans are too demanding’, people say. ‘They have unrealistic expectations’. ‘They turn on their team too easily’.

What a load of piffle. The reason Arsenal fans have been frustrated to within an inch of their threshold is because of the way the team has been playing, on and off for the whole of this calendar year. All the other gripes – ownership, ambition, prices, manager – then bubble up from under the surface and add to the toxic foment.

But overall it’s the way we’ve been playing. Running scared, too supine, too easy to play against, too slow, too predictable.

But yesterday, a little tardily but better late than never, we turned up. We can have frustrations, but overall we played aggressively and directly in difficult circumstances. And guess what? We were good to watch for the first time in ages.

Good to watch! For simple people like me, that really is enough. I’m happy. I want to see football that gets me going and makes me proud and makes me look forward to the next game, and yesterday ticked many of the boxes.

Wenger twisted with the line-up, bringing in Gibbs (slightly enforced) for Monreal, Welbeck for Giroud and Elneny for Ramsey, with the Welshman moving into the right-hand side vacuum. It worked.

It was immediately obvious that we had more defensive solidity in central midfield, and Elneny in particular looked impressive, mopping up and distributing in a no-nonsense way. His partner? Coquelin could not have been more naive if he tried, lunging in for an obvious yellow-card offence when he was already on a yellow. Unbelievably daft.

He apologised afterwards and that’s the least he could do, because who knows what might have happened had we held on at 1-0, not just in this game but – however far-fetched – in the title race itself? At least he only misses one match, and that’s the FA Cup replay.

Ramsey’s improvised back-heel that gave us that lead was glorious, and at that point we were in the ascendancy. Ospina had made one excellent save (though I do wish he’d catch the ball, not parry it; maybe that was the rain) and he had a decent afternoon overall.

Once Coquelin departed, it all changed. We left too much space on the far post twice, and were punished on the second occasion. Then Mertesacker lost Kane and the resulting goal was, to be fair, very well taken.

Honestly, I thought that was that. When we went a goal down at United it was classic Collaps-o-Arsenal. When we went 2-1 down on Wednesday it was clear that would be how it remained.

But yesterday we stepped it up. Apart from one heart-stopping Gabriel slice and one over-elaborate save by Ospina, we looked pretty comfortable. At the other end, Sanchez did what we’ve been crying out for Arsenal players to do for what seems like months: he shot without taking an extra touch. Boom! If ever there was a player who needed a goal, it’s Alexis and he saved our bacon with that one beautifully-timed moment. Right at the death, Ramsey could have even stolen a winner had he followed Alexis’ example and shot first time.

A word about Mertesacker. He took some brickbats for the Kane goal but I was really impressed with him overall. His timing was excellent and he intercepted Tottenham balls through the middle time and again. More of a worry is probably Gabriel, who was skittish again. But he got away with it yesterday.

Gibbs too did very well, and I’m quite sad about his possible impending departure. He’s more direct and quicker than the (more) dependable Monreal, but with a run of games he’s still an excellent full-back and I can’t help but feel that, should he bid us farewell in the summer, someone will get a very good player coming into the best years of his career. I hope he doesn’t go.

So where does this leave us? I think if we’re honest, the title remains the longest of long shots, even if we summon this kind of performance in every remaining game. We are a long way off, even if it’s not an impossible distance.

But to have even the vaguest chance we can’t let this upswing in performance be a one-off. We have to step up to the plate and prove that the last three months have been an aberration and not the norm.

You will excuse me for being cynical, because we’ve been too average for too long. If we switch off again we’re not only down and out in an already improbable title race, but we’ll be looking over our shoulders at the other teams mustering some fine end-of-season form.

There can be no more excuses.

Meek Arsenal are all at sea

Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal

The baffling thing yesterday was not so much that we lost – because lord knows, name a circumstance and Arsenal can magic up a defeat for it – but that we were, and still are, nominally in the hunt for the title. We look as if someone has poured us into the league table but forgot to say ‘when’.*

Up against an injury-ravaged team suffering from its own existential crisis, we excelled ourselves by bringing all of our own majestic psychological demons to the party.

And what a party it was. As if it wasn’t bad enough to be dishevelled in defence, inadequate in midfield and largely invisible up front, yesterday we simply did not look like a team that believes it can go all the way or has the stomach for the challenge ahead. We were well beaten and we were beaten too easily.

Congratulations to Marcus Rashford, by the way, who looked hungry and direct and fresh – all the things Arsenal weren’t. In two matches over four days he has scored ⅔ of the amount of goals Theo Walcott has scored all season. More on Theo later.

The comparison with the 3-0 at home, when we unleashed the dogs of war and blew United away in the blink of an eye, does not bear making. We’ve been harping on about that, and about City at home and one or two others, but sandwiched between all that has been a lot of stodgy football.

I don’t know what’s happened to this side, but something is missing. Welbeck’s late, great winner at Leicester was a moment to savour, but it didn’t spark us back into life as we’d hoped it would.

Our form has simply evaporated since Christmas. The best thing you can say is that we’ve hung in there, but the chance to win the most winnable of leagues is withering before our eyes unless we can engineer the kind of turnaround in form that seems entirely beyond us. Unless we can remove the lead boots.

I know it’s far from impossible, but where’s the belief? Where’s the bloody-mindedness? Who’s driving us forward? We weave pretty enough patterns, but the ruthless end product is absent.

You can’t get away with it when so many players are playing within themselves. Gabriel did not look ready to come back into a game like this, Coquelin struggled, Ramsey was ineffective and up front we basically carried two players. Wenger went top-heavy to generate some attacking momentum, but playing Alexis and Theo through these stormclouds of form is not working at all.

At least with Alexis you can say he never gave up: even if nothing else is working for him he tries to make things happen. But Walcott? I’ve stuck up for Theo many time before, but he was absolutely invisible yesterday. He’s too often invisible.

Three wins in ten does not tell a lie. With an injury list that has eased over the last month, now was meant to be the time to move up through the gears.

United away is always tough because it’s United away. But we wilted too easily against a far from vintage side. I don’t buy the notion that it’s a physical hangover after being ridden roughshod by Barcelona’s possession football, because there were five days between the two games and Utd played on Thursday too.

It’s as much psychological as it is physical – Arsenal’s great Achilles heel, some would say – and Wenger’s got about six days to fix it, via a midweek home game, before our Saturday lunchtime derby delight.

On yesterday’s evidence, I won’t hold my breath. But Arsenal are odd, football is odd and you just never know.

*With the greatest of apologies to P.G.Wodehouse.

Here we go again, and I can’t wait

Arsenal v Barcelona 2011
Remember the last time? Remember the pocket Russian’s thunderbolt?

It’s amazing how quickly you forget a frustrating, rain-spattered nil-nil draw when you have the small matter of a European Cup tie against Barcelona looming, isn’t it?

Yes of course, the draw for the European Cup could have pitted us against CSKA Moscow or Bordeaux, but where’s the fun in that? To me, the European Cup is about glamour and butterflies in the stomach and gladiatorial footballing contests. This is the kind of tie – a European Cup quarter-final against the best team in Europe – that most fans of most teams would dream of. It’s the best draw.”

No, I haven’t got muddled up or misplaced my marbles. That’s a snippet from my preview of the 2010 tie against Barcelona and the sentiment remains pretty much exactly the same. It’s still glamorous. There are still butterflies. And Barcelona are still the best team in Europe.

Give me Europe’s finest and let’s settle down for the fun. It’s not like we lapped up an ‘easier’ tie when presented with one last year, after all. I’ve complained about numerous humdrum group stages (which I suppose sounds arrogant, though over the years there have been a few), but when the knockout stages are in town, it’s game on. As winter edges to an end, the Champions League morphs into the European Cup of old. Two legs: kill or be killed. I absolutely love it.

Not the being killed bit, obviously – though with five consecutive last-16 knockouts lord knows we’ve got used to that. But the excitement takes on a palpable new level, and when you’re drawn against European aristocracy then it cranks up another notch entirely.

Of course, I wish we weren’t always the underdog when playing against teams like this. I’d prefer it if they feared us like we fear them, but that’s not the reality of it, sadly. They are the best.

Our record against them is pretty average, as we know. One win in seven. A draw in 1999 before being dispatched 4-2 at Wembley, a loss in our only ever European Cup final (what if, what if…) and two aggregate defeats in the knockouts. Though on both the latter occasions, we performed well at home.

So what to expect? I’ll be happy with a handbrake-off performance containing some flair, pace and (controlled) aggression. That’s the Arsenal I’ve wanted to see more of for the whole season, and which has only really appeared in brief electrical storms of scintillating form.

But I’ll also be happy with a big defensive performance, one in which we heed Wenger’s warnings about not “being stupid”. Let’s be honest, the odds are stacked against us. We know that. But it will be a cracking tie and who knows what could happen.

I’d guess that most of the team picks itself, with right midfield the only slot that’s up for grabs. I can’t see Ramsey anywhere but central and I’d be surprised if Giroud didn’t start, so Walcott, Welbeck, Ox or Campbell will fight for the last slot. You could argue the case for each of the four, albeit requiring some switching of positions. Walcott’s pace, Welbeck and Campbell’s workrate and power, Ox’s directness and crosses. Take your pick but whatever happens we’ll have options off the bench.

I’ll be in early for the REDAction extravaganza and to soak in the atmosphere. I don’t know what to expect other than an evening of high-octane, raucous, non-surcharged European football.

Come on you reds!

It’s time to get out of the coop and face the Foxes

Like many people who tuned into Man City v Leicester last week, I was amazed at how razor-sharp the Foxes were on the break. Neutral or not, it’s hard not to be thrilled by this most improbable of sides: put together for £25m, sitting pretty at the top of the league and ripping through all and sundry with energy, directness and speed.

Three attributes that seem to have evaporated from Arsenal’s play, if we’re honest. Any progress that we have made since dismantling Man City before Christmas has been fleeting at best. A few starchy wins, a couple of defeats, a brace of goalless draws and that bonkers 3-3 at Anfield.

So Leicester are a team in a rich vein of form – the form of their lives – while Arsenal remain subdued. The atmosphere at the Emirates has mirrored our stodgy form: it’s been flat.

Hardly surprising really – just as the players feed off the crowd, the crowd feeds off the players and Arsenal have simply not been playing the kind of football that sets the pulse racing. It’s been laboured, with too many players off-colour and a prevailing sense of confidence misplaced.

Or put rather more simplistically, Arsenal have not been enough like Leicester, who have ripped up the rule book and are playing with the most extraordinary self-belief and sense of freedom.

Forget the permutations of what three points would do to each side’s chances. At the moment, while it’s obviously important, it feels to me that for Arsenal points are not the most important thing.

No, the most important thing is for Arsenal to rediscover some swagger and some can-do. If we carry on like we are now, grinding away, we will probably fall short. But if we can kick-start the way we are playing by throwing some caution to the wind and learning how to bully rather than doubt, then the fans will respond and the players might believe – really believe, not soundbite-believe – that they can do this.

So that’s my wish for tomorrow.

Unlock the handbrake.

Go for it.

Arsenal fluff their lines again

Arsenal 0-1 Chelsea

A weary sense of familiarity abounded after another crack at breaking Chelsea’s strange grip on Arsenal failed, practically before it had begun.

If Chelsea were meant to be the team lacking any confidence, then you wouldn’t have known it from the way the game started. Instead, it was Arsenal that began timidly, standing off their opponents and giving them plenty of time in midfield to start believing it could be their day.

Even before Mertesacker’s foolish tackle gave Costa all the encouragement he needed to swing the game in Chelsea’s favour, the warning signs were there. We weren’t at the races, and then we handed the match to them on a platter.

It was classic Costa: going down in a pirouette of agony despite barely – if at all – being touched, just to make sure the ref would get the message. He could probably have stayed on his feet and headed towards goal. That said, what was Mertesacker thinking? That kind of tackle had red card written all over it, touch or no touch. We all said it as soon as he’d done it, and off trotted Per without a backwards glance. It was a brainless tackle from someone normally so calm. So the gameplan, which was already bearing no fruit, went up in smoke.

Off went Giroud, a decision that in hindsight went wrong too. Wenger wanted to retain the capacity to hurt Chelsea on the break, but Cap’n Walcott barely scratched the surface of the match (though the linesman’s arm will have known it was in a game) and Campbell struggled to make any impact.

That Chelsea then scored seemed somewhat inevitable, and that it was Costa, strutting in front of the North Bank like a peacock, even more so.

So a terrible first half, really. We all wanted Arsenal to lay down a marker, but they once again played within themselves when it mattered, with a place at the top at stake, and against a team that brings out the worst in us.

Of course things got better – half-time rockets up half-time arses tend to have an effect – and in the second half we saw Monreal and Bellerin getting behind the defence a bit. Alexis came on and the place lifted, and there was the odd goalmouth scramble for our efforts. But in the end, Chelsea held on relatively easily against our ten men. One shot on target tells you as much. You can’t fault the spirit but the damage was done.

Wenger, as you’d expect, tried to accentuate the positive:

Despite the disappointing result, we should have even more belief in ourselves after the game, when I see how it went.

I hope he’s right but that could be wishful thinking, because at the end of the day we lost a game we really needed to win to give us the confidence to push on. We just weren’t good enough, dangerous enough or canny enough, and that’s a big worry.

Where does this leave us? Well, I was reticent to talk us up too much when our form was good, after we’d beaten Man City and played our way out of the Champions League group stages, because we’ve been here before and winning titles, as we all know, is bloody hard. Plus, while this is a good Arsenal side, it is not yet a great one.

Our form over the last few weeks has simply backed my caution up. Draws at Liverpool and Stoke are good results, most years. Losing at home to Chelsea is an awful one, but not fall-off-the-stool surprising. But taken as a whole that makes it two points from nine, and that’s hardly championship form.

We need to find form and we need to find it now. What else is there to say?

The good, the bad and the 90th minute equaliser

Liverpool 3-3 Arsenal

There are no two ways about it: letting a win slip in the 90th minute is always the kind of result that gnaws away at you. Two points, up in a puff of smoke.

Sadly, it had been coming for a good 15 minutes. We slowly relinquished possession as the clock wound down and in the end we paid for it. Our defence, which looked like it was weathering the storm, could in the end only bale so much water out. “We have to look at ourselves”, said Wenger of the 90th minute goal, “that should not happen”.

It was a crazy game though; open beyond belief and it could quite easily have ended 5-5. Is this the way to mount a title challenge? Rapier, darting forward movement but a bit leaky at the back? Who knows – but we are still joint top.

Such a shame for Giroud, who put in the most majestic stint holding the line, scoring two and coming oh-so-bafflingly close to a hat-trick. And gutting for Joel Campbell, who worked himself into the ground and came up with the assist of the game for Ramsey’s equaliser.

I maintain it’s a good point, though plenty disagree now. Liverpool has never been an easy place to go for Arsenal and we have had far worse results there. Whether we end up regretting it is one for the future. If that’s the case we will regret losing badly at Southampton and West Brom too, and probably more.

Absent friends, as it turns out, are a point of regret too. Would this have been different if we’d had Coquelin? We might have had more bite in midfield and shielded the defence better. Alexis, too, with his dynamism and capacity for the extraordinary, will be welcomed back with open arms.

Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere, Coquelin, Alexis, Welbeck? Look, I’m not sure whether we can last the distance, but given the injuries we’ve had and still have, we’re having a decent crack at it.

No laughing Mathieu

Like most people, I’m intrigued to know what will happen in January, not least because it’s rare to hear Wenger this bullish about doing business.


I am already busy. We are a bit short at the moment, especially in the midfield. We will be busy, yes.

It looks like El-Nenny is in the bag, a decisive piece of business, albeit for a ‘cheap’ player (even if, as suggested, he costs £7m that’s peanuts in the current market). But will there be anyone else? I have the feeling there might be. Why leave anything to risk when you are top and need as many weapons in the armoury as possible in order to keep that up?

I know we’ve said this before, and many times too, but for all the tumbleweed Januarys, there are one or two exceptions too. In January 2006 – ten years ago now, blimey, where has the time gone – he brought in Diaby, Walcott, Adebayor and Poom (Poom shake shake the room). So there are precedents.

But the football door often revolves, and we may also see Debuchy go the other way too. In fact, Wenger, who rarely gives much away, seems to indicate it’s in Debuchy’s hands.

“It’s not impossible. I’m happy if he stays, we’ll see.

On the one hand, it’s a bit of a headache if he leaves, because Chambers is the only backup short of recalling Jenkinson. I know we recalled Coquelin last January, but presumably the terms of loans differ and it tends to be a rare thing to do midway through a season.

But on the other, Debuchy has not played particularly well in the few games he’s had an opportunity, and could do with a new challenge. With the best will in the world, he’s not going to ever replace Bellerin full-time now. I just can’t see that.

So much in football depends on fortune or a lack of it, on opportunities grasped and opportunities missed. Would Coquelin have returned had Arteta and Flamini not got injured? Would Campbell have ever had more than a cursory run-out for Arsenal had our midfield not been decimated by injury? Would Bellerin have broken through this soon had Debuchy not had two bad injuries in his first season?

So I do feel a bit sorry for him. His Arsenal career, which he may have hoped would last three or four good years, has been massively curtailed. But on the flipside of the coin, that’s what happens in football and on this occasion Wenger has been ruthless. We sometimes accuse him of sentimentality but there has been none of it here – Debuchy was usurped by Bellerin and that was pretty much that. Yes, happenstance played a role initially, but it would have happened sooner rather than later anyway.

What would I do? I’d make him stay, because he’s our second-best right-back and we need as much strength as we can get in a season where we are fighting on three fronts – unless Wenger has someone new he can replace him straight away.

Things may well be more advanced than that though – Wenger hints as much. And Andrew on the Arsecast Extra suggests he was meant to play against Bournemouth but didn’t at the last moment. Make of that what you will.

You get the feeling an interesting month awaits.

(By the way, I’m enjoying this holiday lark, gentle blogging in my own time. You’re probably entirely indifferent, but I’m happy. Expect a return to blogstinence in January though…)