Google+

Arsenal 2-0 Everton

There should, ordinarily, be no reason at all why a 2-0 victory should not elicit a sense of complete wellbeing. So why did I leave the ground feeling a bit flat? I wasn’t the only one.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but the hangover element was certainly one aspect. We did get a reaction from Monaco as expected but it was, perhaps not surprisingly, far from the swashbuckling all-guns-blazing performance that the daydreamer in my head keeps yearning for.

It was, until the latter stages at least, pretty hard to get excited about. Part of that was Everton, who were subdued themselves. But we were one-paced for too much of the game. I do appreciate that this makes me sound like the neediest football fan of all time. I’m not, honestly I’m not, and I am obviously glad that we bounced back and that we’re sitting third, just four points off second. History will after all mark this down as three points.

But deep down, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we are capable of so much more, and that’s the frustrating thing for me at the moment. It feels like we are not realising our potential.

We started so slowly, and it immediately transmitted to the crowd, which – where I sit at least – was as flat as a pancake for the opening third of the game. It felt like a training match and the crowd couldn’t get going at all.

I don’t think the Emirates crowd’s default mode is silence – though there’s no disputing Arsenal is a quieter place than it used to be. In fact, there have been some raucous evenings in the Wengerbowl. I’ve had bruised ankles falling down between the seats, I’ve hugged and high-fived numerous strangers and I’ve shouted myself hoarse. One match I lost my brother completely after we’d scored a goal. He hurtled off down the aisle and I found him about five minutes later looking sheepish down by Gunnersaurus.

So it can be a cracking buzz.

But I do think that the crowd takes its lead from the team. How it races out the blocks, how it hustles and harries and how it springs forward at pace and with menace. We feed off the dynamism of the team, and for too many home matches this season, we’ve just not been that dynamic. We’ve had a cutting edge, but not as often as we’ve needed it.

Down our end, the biggest reaction was when Gabriel slid that perfectly-timed leg in to prevent Lukaku from firing a shot off. We were on our feet and giving it everything. But those moments were few and far between until the game stretched a bit towards the end.

It was the same against Leicester, and we were hopelessly timid away at our neighbours in N17. So while we’re doing pretty well on paper in the league, it feels like there are very much still some missing ingredients. Are we missing Ramsey, Wilshere and Arteta? Almost certainly.

Is there something more? It feels that way to me. We’ve been tinkering on how we play away from home, but I certainly don’t think we’ve nailed down the best way to play in our own backyard. We seem to play too narrowly, and are unsure whether to stick or twist going forward. We lack the ability to play with real tempo for long periods of time.

It’s been that kind of season to be honest. Some progress, but some regression. Still not quite right, but rarely calamitously bad.

As for the highlights, I thought Gabriel looked decent on his Premier League debut and it’s a huge relief to have that third centre-back we can bring in. We’re finally rotating in that position, and we’ve needed to.

James wonders on the Arsecast Extra whether Gibbs has not progressed enough, and perhaps he’s right. But it wasn’t that long ago that he was easily our first choice at left back. If it hadn’t been for injury then you never know – though I do agree that we need more end result from him. His injuries are a big factor though, in my view.

Ospina was excellent, Bellerin was good and the midfield worked hard without excelling. Rosicky’s cameo gave us the energy we needed to make it a less fretful finale.

But overall, we’re still searching for the elixir.

Straighten the tie, comb the hair, polish the brogues. There’s nothing to do but pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again.

Will there be a hangover? We shall see. After our two heaviest Premier League poundings last season, we staggered through nil nil draws, but it’s stretching it a bit to seek a parallel there. The defeats were bigger (by numbers), and the opposition more substantial than today (with all due respect to the Toffees).

We’ve had five wins, two draws and a loss in the matches immediately proceeding our defeats this season. Read into that whichever way you will, but ultimately it’s a pointless exercise. Maybe I’ll read the tea leaves.

The bottom line is that you’d be pretty upset if there was no reaction after a bad defeat, which is why you tend to get an upswing of some kind. The issue for Arsenal is not bouncing back (though in seasons past, we have dwelt on losses for longer), but how long they will bounce back for. The pattern is uncannily tight – after going six games (in all competitions) unbeaten at the beginning of the season, we have not gone further than five games unbeaten since.

So if I was a cynic, (which of course I’m not, how dare you), I’d say that’s the pattern that will see us through to the end of the season. Will it be enough to reach the promised land of fourth?

Changes

As I posited on the ArsenalAmerica pod, I think there will be changes today, but I can’t imagine Wenger sweeping through the ranks with his broom of doom. I can see Mertesacker taken out of the firing line. He had a bad game on Wednesday (not aided by his headless colleagues), but I’d not take him out because of that. I think he’s been decent enough in trying circumstances this year. But he must be weary, having ploughed through the World Cup and straight back into the Premier League. We’ve got the new centre-back we were crying out for, so let’s use him. He’s not even a cast-off like Silvestre or Squillaci. He’s an £11m player.

I expect Gibbs will return to the bench for Monreal, but I think we’ll see Giroud in the starting eleven. The decision there is whether dropping him would do him more damage than good, and with a striker who feeds off confidence, it might. Plus, Champions League debacle aside, he’s in good scoring form. God knows what happened on Wednesday.

I’d like to see the Ox in, but other than that I think the side will be similar.

Back in the saddle.

(Until the next time we’re thrown off the horse).

Spurs 2-1 Arsenal

After three straight league wins and two cup victories, maybe I got lulled into a false sense of security. This side is clearly still a work in progress.

I wouldn’t say the current goodwill (there’s a Gabriel honeymoon and it’s now AD 8 – eight games Anno Coqueli) has dissipated, but it was the kind of anodyne showing that it’s hard not to scratch your head about.

We seem to have developed an unwanted habit of losing just when picking up a head of steam. We were unbeaten for six league games of the season before losing for the first time. Since then, our unbeaten league form has amounted to two matches, then four, then three.

Maybe that’s just fooball. Either way, it was completely deserved yesterday, as it was at Stoke and Southampton before. We were second best. The thing that struck me was the wastefulness of our possession. It seemed like every time we won the ball, we’d give it straight back. Gifting them the ball just piled the pressure on.

Carrying one player is not easy but our entire midfield was off colour. God knows why. Much as I’d rather not admit it, Spurs had an energy, intensity and concentration that we struggled to find in anything other than short bursts.

It’s easy to blame the ref for going easy on certain challenges but it’s deflecting the blame from what was a sub-standard Arsenal performance, frankly.

Not much more to say about it. Other than ‘don’t do it again’. We are not perfect but we can play better than that.

I’ve been off the radar recently, in the land of dirt-cheap petrol. I haven’t needed to think about Arsenal, because we signed Gary Pallister, he got a work permit and Wenger muttered “Job’s a good’un” to himself in French (“Le boulot est bon”?).

Had you told me on the evening of New Year’s Day that I’d be in the mental equivalent of a La-Z-Boy on the night that the transfer window slammed shut, I’d have rung up and had you sectioned on the spot. Even back then, if you ignored the Southampton game and Stoke game that preceded it, our form was very good (I appreciate the nonsensical nature of that comment, but maybe you know what I mean). Those results just groundhogged the whole thing a bit.

It felt like we’d never learn, and yet here we are with four consecutive clean sheets, scoring goals from all angles and through to the next round of the cup. Walcott and Ozil are finding their form, Bellerin’s blossoming, Cazorla is imperious and letting Alexis rest has left no-one in a flap. How nice is that?

I didn’t think Ospina would retain his place, but he’s done just that, and on merit. Is he our number one stopper? (I ask that hypothetically. I just like the word ‘stopper’).

Meanwhile, Wenger’s at home with a glass of Beaujolais, you mark my words. And possibly a cheeky hobnob.

Manchester City 0-2 Arsenal

A magnificent, disciplined, resilient and pragmatic 90 minutes from Arsenal that ended in three well-deserved points. The best result this season? No doubt. But it could well be the most important result for more than three years as we finally threw the monkey off our back by beating the current champions in their back yard.

And how we merited it. Only 30% possession? So what. We sat back, let City come at us and snuffed them out with energy. On the break, we caused them no end of trouble, with most of our best work emanating from the staggeringly good Santi Cazorla. If he wasn’t cleaning up at the back he was racing forward, all deft movement and Weeble-like balance. A goal, an assist: he was man of the match with bells on and to whoever covets his berth in the middle of the park I simply say, “good luck with that”. The superlatives will flow from all angles, but the Guardian pretty much nails it with “masterclass”.

There were plenty of others who should be mentioned in dispatches. Coquelin has risen phoenix-like from the ashes of mediocrity and produced a performance of energy and steadfastness. Is he good enough in the long-term? Don’t know, but he was good enough today and in a season of ups and downs, his story is increasingly eye-opening.

Bellerin’s story is just as heartening, a young player at the starting gun of his career who has taken his chances and seized them with both legs. Learning as fast as he runs, he’s giving Wenger an option at right-back just at the right time, with Debuchy out for his second Diaby of the season.

I could call out Ramsey too for an all-action comeback (though he was dead on his feet as the game dragged on), but maybe I should just stop right there, thankyou very much, and just doff my cap to the whole damned lot of them.

I heard it described as a benchmark, and that’s a fair call. If we can play like that, rather than trying to surge forward chaotically at all times, then we have a blueprint for tough away games right there. When we play like that we marry sturdy defence with pace and shimmering danger going forward. A springboard? Let’s hope so, though you never quite know with Arsenal (I can’t throw my innate cynicism away entirely, you know, not on the strength of one game…)

Ironically, two of our most impressive recent performers – Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain – were below their electric best but while their touch deserted them a bit neither of them lacked for energy. Fortunately, our strengthening bench can come to the rescue more now than it has been able to for a while. Gibbs, Flamini and Rosicky are experienced heads to call upon, and we had Ozil and Walcott in reserve. Options.

Was it a penalty? Yes, of course. Was City’s defending for Giroud’s goal good? No, thankfully. Do I care? Not a jot. Giroud’s header was firm and his celebration, sliding and pointing, was epically Giroud-like.

Where we still lack bodies is central defence, and if the sight of Koscielny trotting about gingerly at times didn’t sound Wenger’s cheque book klaxon, then nothing will.

“We are still looking”, was Wenger’s response when asked.

Well, don’t stop!

We all know that injuries have played a significant part in Arsenal’s stop-start season. That is indisputable. It has a significant effect every season, to be honest, given the propensity of our players to keel over at any juncture.

But injuries don’t really explain the enduringly frustrating, and damning, stat that we have not beaten Man City, Chelsea or Man Utd away since October 2011.

In fact, we have not beaten any of those teams home or away (in the Premier League) since April 2012 – almost three years.

It’s boring to hear it, but it does matter. It’s not a blip. We’ve been unlucky in some of those games, abject in others, but the bottom line is that we fall short every time against those sides.

And until that changes, it’s impossible to take us seriously. “They’ve Arsenaled it up again”. “The most Arsenal thing ever”. “Same old Arsenal”.

These things have a habit of self-perpetuating, both on the pitch and off it. Look at the body language of the players when we play one of those teams. They often look inhibited.

Ask most Arsenal fans what they think ahead of today’s game and they’ll probably veer towards pessimism. It’s just the way it has become.

Bucking that trend, jettisoning that miserable stat that places Arsenal in the shadow of those sides, is crucial. Which is why a win today would arguably be the most important in the league for three years.

Am I confident? Not really. For all the reasons stated above. But my inner self is going all Kevin Keegan circa ’96.

I’ll tell you, honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it. It really has got to me.

There ought to be a manual for advising people how best to avoid shoe-horning woeful puns into the titles of blog posts, you know. I merely say that.

Because we all know that Krystian Bielik is not the new Chris Whyte, even if both could play centre-half. But in the absence of a legendary Arsenal midfielder called, say, Patrick Purple or Liam Khaki, I went for Chris Whyte, and that’s all the explanation I am prepared to give.

We’ve not signed him anyway, but if we are to believe the Guardian, then we are ‘poised’ to do just that. Nor, let’s be frank, should we get too excited about it right now, given that he’s seventeen and has made just five appearances in the Polish league. If it happens, we can file it in the ‘one for the future’ folder, where it will be flush against that dusty facsimile entitled ‘winning the Champions League’.

Will he come? I don’t know. He may of course ring up the Woj and ask for advice on where the best place is to fire up a crafty tab without teacher knowing, or which seat on the bench is best for avoiding piles.

It would count as a signing, though, and at this stage of the window, when all that’s happened is a striker exodus, that’s something.

Both attacking departures, incidentally, are hard to argue against, in all honesty. Following Poldi out the door (#aha) is Sanogo (#yaya), who is off to Palace for experience. Good luck to him. You certainly can’t do anything other than doff your cap at his willingness to fit in…

As for defensive cover that will make an actual difference, we’re still none the wiser, and to compound the overstretching, it looks like Debuchy could be out for yet another Diaby. Why push him in mid-air? A stretch on the sidelines, and for what?

Just at a time, too, when we our midfield and forward options are increasing. Ramsey, Flamini, Ozil and Walcott are all back, while Rosicky is back from the cold (what was that all about?)

Look at our bench against Stoke:

Szczesny, Bellerin, Flamini, Ramsey, Ozil, Campbell, Walcott

And compare it to the one from just a month previously, against Newcastle:

Martinez, Coquelin, Podolski, Sanogo, Campbell, Maitland-Niles, Ajayi.

Stronger, and we’ve still got Arteta, Welbeck, Gibbs and Wilshere to come. I don’t pretend for a second that all our woes this season have been down to injuries, but it has massively hamstrung us.

As for Stoke – I was at a family gig and missed what sounds like our best performance of the season yet, so I have nothing to add other than prostrating myself before the feet of the mighty Alexis in awe. The man is a beast. A proper beast. Not a Baptista beast.

The words ‘world class’ get bandied about with abandon these days. But he genuinely is.

Two wins and one defeat later, and it’s Happy New Year from me. Six points punctured by the now typical blip and Wenger readily admits we’re “haunted by the ghost of what we have seen since the start of the season”.

Finding a way to exorcise these ghoulish switch-offs is crucial, but it’s going to take more than garlic to add some tempo and nous to our daydreamers.

We could issue the players with crosses to wave when the ghosts turn up, but I don’t advise it. Us and crosses – weak spot.

Nor is it the only item on our to-do list.

So it felt odd that the first thing on the lengthening January list was off-loading Podolski. I understand why it happened, to be honest, but could it not have waited until the end of the month? What’s the logic in doing that now? Was he that much of an agitator? It’s not like we’re leathering goals in from all angles at the moment, is it.

Still, Poldi has gone and good luck to him. I will be interested to see where he is played and how he does. Will the same fissures be evident (workrate, etc) or will he prove Wenger wrong? Hard to teach an old dog new tricks but it will be interesting nonetheless.

So onto the third round of the cup today, and here’s to going two-nil down then fighting back heroically. Great memories from last season, but this (as they always are after a sapping defeat) is no break from the rigours of the Premier League. There’s no room for error.

But this game comes after a gruelling schedule and I can’t imagine it will be a sparkling attacking adventure. Hull have hit some form, we’re maddeningly hard to judge but at home. Everyone’s a bit weary. Call it if you dare but I have no idea.

Theo Walcott has said “I’m blowing the cobwebs away”.

If ‘The Cobwebs’ is the new nickname for Hull City, then we’re in for a treat.

I do love the FA Cup, though, so I’m bobbling-hatting it up and heading off with the boy.

Come on you leggy reds!

If I was to mark our Christmas scorecard, I’d probably give it about a 5 (as indeed did Gooner’s Diary in this piece in the Guardian).

It’s been far from disastrous, with a smooth passage through to the Champions League group stages being the highlight. If you look at the bigger picture rather than individual results, under Wenger we rarely do disastrous – one of the reasons for his impressive longevity.

And in Alexis Sanchez, we’ve bought a genuine superstar whose 14 goals so far have, at times, held the whole rickety structure together. We’re four points off fourth, so although the leaders are over the title horizon already, there’s stuff to be salvaged and cups to play for.

But of course, it hasn’t panned out how we wanted. We’ve yet to find any fluency and it’s already Christmas. Injuries have massively curtailed us, and we can’t even fall back on the one thing we used to hold dear during a barren decade – our glorious attacking football. We’ve played in fits and starts all season and have seen only small, fleeting glimpses of the kind of football we have grown accustomed to.

So Wenger’s back under pressure, and you have to say that much of it is self-inflicted. The gamble on sticking with a small cadre of defenders could not have backfired more spectacularly and it’s cost us points, consistency and confidence.

Injuries show no sign of abating, to be honest. With every one player who comes back, we lose another; it’s been a disaster on that front. A revolving door of hamstrung hamstrings, collapsed calves, grimacing groins, knee knacks and broken bones.

Mentally, we’ve veered from strong to weak, from concentration to absent-mindedness. You never know which Arsenal you will see.

Looking back at my limited volume of blog posts, the titles tell you all you need to know about the season. On the positive side we’ve had ‘Alexis marks the spot’, and ‘An explosive Chilean red’ (it’s that man propping us up again), but on the other end of the spectrum there’s been ‘Poor in the Ruhr’, ‘Arsenal Arsenal it up again’ and ‘Dismal Arsenal stagger on’.

A microcosm of our season, right there.

What will the new year hold?

This is how I called it a few weeks ago, and unless we can conjure up a new narrative and direction (and plug some gaps in the squad and in the minds), it still seems apt:

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.

So things could be better, but things could be a lot worse. And in the context of everything else that goes on in life, and in the world, is it worth all the fury? It is not.

Ups, downs, good and bad. Going to the football is fun, it’s an escape. Meeting friends and talking crap and sitting drinking beer, great goals that become seared into the memory, shouting, wailing, smiling – that’s what it’s all about for me. And on that basis, I expect next year to be exactly the same as this one.

Rewarding.

Happy Christmas to you all.

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.