Holding in and holding out

Leicester 0-0 Arsenal

There was some good and bad to chew on in that performance, an entertaining but low-quality trip to the champions. But it’s not about the points at this stage, more about the performance.

Was there a measurable improvement on that front from last weekend? Well, we didn’t collapse. That’s a bonus. In fact, I thought we defended pretty well, with Holding and the immense Koscielny marshalling the back line very well, ably assisted by a bank of defensive midfielders and by Cech. In tough games, we now have three defensive midfielders to choose from to shore up the rear, and that can only bode well. Xhaka was tough, diligent, neat and tidy, and I really do like the cut of his jib. We need that kind of player.

We were a bit lucky too, with Coquelin about as disciplined as wasp who’d just had a parking ticket, and a late penalty shout that was about as contentious as night following day. Yes, referees are human, but we’d have laminated the hell out of some A4s if that had happened against us.

Further up the pitch: not so very good. I thought it was a bitty performance and without Ozil there was a severe lack of creativity. The Ox started brightly but faded, and while Theo worked hard, had a few shots and put in some muscular recovery tackles, it was a difficult afternoon and he had the kind of invisible touch that takes control and slowly tears you apart.

So too Alexis. His passing was off so often that I wonder if he’s even properly fit. Alexis is many things, but he’s no striker, not on this showing.

So perhaps it was no surprise that we struggled for momentum and for cohesion up front, and that didn’t really improve when Giroud came on as it was pretty late in the day.

The catalyst for our best period was Ozil – devilish little wizard – and how nice it was to see him back. But in the end, we cannot complain too much with the result.

It’s a draw that teaches us nothing we didn’t already know, except perhaps that Wenger has unearthed a good prospect in Holding. I did like Wenger’s tetchy but very apt post-match comment:

“Nobody is speaking about the performance of Rob Holding today. You should be happy; he is English, he is 20 years old, but I’m sorry he didn’t cost £55m, so it cannot be good.”

Proof that for all the maddening things he does and says, he can still throw some pearls out there.

Sadly, he’s up against it pretty much permanently at the moment. There’s disquiet in the stands with chants, banners have started already, and as I mentioned yesterday it’s very difficult to turn this level of feeling round now for him, which is why I feel this season is it for him. The desire for change is embedded and hard to shift, but I’ll tell you what could buy him some leeway…

With rumours about Mustafi persisting, there’s clearly the desire to bolster the squad there. But with desire you need action. Most pressing for me is a striker (if I had to choose), because we looked threadbare up there yesterday. It really is now or never on that front.

Get those two positions sorted and we have a much more complete squad. But getting nobody in is not an option. Not for the squad, not for Wenger and not for the fans.

He’s lost that loving feeling

It seems faintly ludicrous to describe the second game of the season as a ‘must-win’, but that’s where we appear to be.

The biggest alarm bell last week for me was not the lack of signings. We can berate the lack of movement but in reality we cannot judge the state of the squad until the deadline day circus has finally left town. Football has the extraordinary knack of feeling entirely different one week to the next. That’s why I’m not hanging the season out to dry after week one.

That said, I do think Wenger has been dithering at a time when we need ambition and direction and decisiveness. Whether fairly or not, it gives the impression that we have not planned our summer well enough and are not being ruthless enough reacting to things (injuries) that are out of our control.

However, I do also agree that the market is insane. Wenger is not the only one to decry this; Chelsea’s new boss has been saying something similar. It’s as mad as a sack of badgers.

So no, that’s not what worried me most. What worried me more was the utter collapse of the early second half – the kind of cave-in that we have seen time and again with the late Wenger-era Arsenal and is so commonplace that it’s no biggie. Forget the veneer of respectability added by Ox and Chambers; we were 4-1 down at home and utterly ragged after 18 minutes of the second half, having entirely dominated the first half. The worry is that no amount of new players will fix that because we switched off and it’s a mental, structural thing.

I suppose you could say this for any one of the last three of four years, but this feels like Wenger’s last season to me. I’m not saying that because I think we’ll do badly this year – there are 37 games left, after all, and we have a decent if incomplete squad. I think it is his last year whether we win the league or come seventh.

21 years is a long time and it just feels as though that time is near. Not just practically, with his contract being up. But psychologically, the well of patience is empty now and the pressure at the slightest hiccup is very real. We all sense it and he does too. Wenger’s shine is wearing off.

This is all hypothesis though. Today – August 20th! – we need to win to get back on track. We need to control the game and we need to be ruthless. We need to bring back our best players, because we need them badly. We need a reaction. Same words, different season, but that’s what we need.

A win at the champions will go some way to zipping the naysayers.

For now.

I’m just not feeling the panic

Lacazette

Two months and no posts. That is without doubt the longest I have ever left it fallow since raising the mainsail on this blog, all those mixed metaphors ago.

And I tell you what – I let my mind chunter off elsewhere most summers and it’s a joy. I recommend it. Yes, I’ve thrown some shoddy wordplay into Twitter from time to time before scurrying away, but not paying too much attention to the (let’s be frank, limited) transfers has done me no end of good.

The result? I’ve not whipped myself up into a megafrenzy about not landing that £50m striker. I’m just looking forward to the season starting and getting back into the routine. Simple man, simple pleasures.

I say that, but now that I tally the fixtures with my actual life, I’m not in fact going to the first two games, so won’t be at the Emirates until 24th September for our annual home handbrake to Chelsea. That might explain my sanguine disposition.

Xhaka happened so long ago that people forget he was a £35m signing, but I do concede that there are yawning gaps in our squad that need filling. The mixed messages from Chief Ivan have not helped matters but it’s pretty clear we’re looking, as two rejections of different kinds prove (Vardy and now Lacazette).

Of course, there are those who will decry a £35m bid for Lacazette as low-balling and arrogant, but isn’t that how prices get sorted, whether they are houses, car boot sales or players? Coming in lowish rather than slinging £60m at the problem as a first bid seems sensible to me. No?

So as it stands we have one ready-made in Xhaka and two ‘prospects’ in Rob Holding and a Takuma Asano.

My guess? There will be a fair bit of activity yet. No, we might not get it all done by 14th August, but that’s the nature of the market.

And if we fire blanks until September? Well then we can all drop the panic anchor and stagger off the plank wailing.

Still looking forward to the season, though 😉

Uh-oh, it’s the ‘O’ word 

I knew it wouldn’t take long.

It started with the last day’s rib-tickling second place, then after a few weeks of thinking about other things, it picked up when we announced Granit Xhaka.

That’s right, I’m optimistic again, a one-man testament to the ability of the human spirit to look on the bright side. 

The new shirt hoved into view with some new shirt numbers and of course, a new midfielder, and – blow me down with a feather – I’m now peering ahead to August with a sense of real anticipation.

I’ve conveniently locked away the ponderous football that was too prevalent, the mental cave-ins when the going got tough and Wenger’s struggles. 

Now I’m hoovering up stories about possible signings and actually expecting things to happen. I’m thinking how a tough midfielder might glue our creaky defence to our creative midfielders. And what a new striker might do to our ‘expected goals’ spreadsheet. 

This, I suppose, is why we have a close season. To recharge the batteries, reset the mind, dust ourselves down and jog right on. 

Chambers spot 

Forgotten man, isn’t he? Is he a right-back, is he a centre-back, is he a holding midfielder? Calum Chambers came with a big price tag and here we are two years later, none the wiser.  

But I like the guy and I can’t help but feel that some people are doing the classic ‘write him off at 22’ thing. Most defenders don’t peak until they’re older and he’s still got time. 

Why am I talking about him? Because lo and behold he’s captaining the England u21s at the Toulon tournament, and England have got to the final for the first time in 22 years.

I’m not sure how influential he’s been, but Henry Winter, writing in today’s Times, speculates that with Gary Cahill struggling, Hodgson could “conceivably summon Chambers” for the Euros.

I can’t see that, personally, but it’s a reminder that we shouldn’t write him off just yet. In fact I’m looking forward to seeing more of him next season.

Blog updates 

I always start the summer with good intentions to write more, and it often comes to naught. But I’m going to try.

Beyond that, we’ll all be pretty busy dodging incoming transfers to think about much else, won’t we.

Won’t we?

Bring on the cricket

banners

Arsenal 1-0 Norwich

One nil to the Arsenal, three points and we shuffle into third.

That’s a sentence you could seamlessly copy from one Arsenal season and paste into another, and nobody would haul you up before the magistrates for ruinous fibbing.

Only the circumstances were different of course, and yesterday’s narrow win was played out in a stadium where the fans were at odds with themselves and the atmosphere veered from an apathetic low hum to quiet mutiny and then onto lung-bursting support.

Were you in London on Friday when the sun came out as a warm-up act for heavy hail, before introducing the wind, which gave way to rain then passed the baton onto more sun? It was a bit like that yesterday in the ground.

The apathetic low hum

It’s has been brewing all season and is borne, as if I need to remind anyone, from a multitude of factors. You could layer them in order of importance if you want; take a pick from manager or injuries or tactics or ambition or mental strength or strikers or… well, you get the picture.

For me, home tactics – or specifically coming up with a way of countering the deep defence of the away team – would be as good a place to start as any and might dispel some of the apathy and resignation next season. Yes, we’ve had some good home games this season where we’ve blitzed our visitors. (Incidentally, the concourse at half-time against Man Utd was the loudest and most raucous I have ever heard it. Great atmospheres are made by great football, just sayin’…)

But mostly, though we’ve won a similar amount of home games to those around us – only City have won more, 12 to 11 – many of our games have felt like a struggle and yesterday against Norwich it was the perfect illustration of that.

Plenty of neat and tidy football, most of which faltered at the edge of the box and built up too slowly to overwhelm Norwich. No shots on target until midway through the second half. Too predictable.

What changed it? Welbeck’s directness and pace was a breath of fresh air compared to Giroud, whose form and confidence has melted away in the spring sunshine. Then he scored (though cap doffed for the assist). But swashbuckling, ruthless and lightning-fast football has been thin on the ground for too long this season and it’s had an effect. All I’m saying is that there has to be a more exciting way to grind teams down than this.

The quiet mutiny

The banners were raised calmly and made their point, but it’s no surprise that the reaction was mixed. Where I sit, some shouted their displeasure, others got at one another’s throats, others supported. It was a bit unpleasant and one bloke had to be removed by the stewards. My seven-year-old learned some new words.

The number of banners were small, but my own guess would be that the majority still want change, but just aren’t comfortable voicing it in this way or during the game. That’s certainly where I fit in.

The lung-bursting support

The singing followed instantly from the banners and was a reaction to them. A reminder that most people just want to support the team. There’s wasn’t any pro-Wenger singing where I was, though I heard a little bit. It was loud and a welcome reminder that when we want to, we can make a lot of noise.

An outsider would judge that it’s all a bit of a mess to be honest, and a bit sad, and they’d be right.

But that’s where we are. Three points edges us closer to Champions League football and the season’s end.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for that.

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.