Dead or alive, Alexis spins me right round

Arsenal 3-1 Bournemouth

As we tip-toe over the last few yards of November I keep expecting some chaos to unfold, as is longstanding tradition in our neck of the woods.

But with just one game to go, whilst not entirely unscathed, we have not been weighed down by scathing. It’s been two wins, three draws and one uncategorised Rumbelows.

I won’t pretend this month has been that pretty, because it hasn’t. But we’ve still managed to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League and are just three points off the teams everyone is drooling about.

What we were all looking for today of course was a chink of light at the end of the tunnel of plod. And I think at times we got that, with the industry of Alexis, the energy of Theo, the perseverance of the Ox and the tidiness of Xhaka.

‘Even when he looks dead, he’s still alive’ said Wenger of Alexis after the game, and you have to admire the Chilean’s extraordinary work ethic that has rewarded him with ten goals now. Watch and admire.

The Ox, perhaps, was Arsenal in microcosm today. There were a lot of positives, not least in his attitude, but with the feeling that there’s still more to come. It’s there somewhere, we’re pretty sure of that – but just not quite entirely there right now.

After an opening goal on a silver salver for Alexis, poor old Debuchy hobbled off with what could be a ‘severe’ injury after just fifteen minutes. Can you imagine the mental gymnastics Wenger must have to go through when forced to make a substitution before the 67th minute? It must be torture for him.

For Debuchy, what ought to have been a dream move to the biggest club of his career has been one injury after another, sandwiched between the emergence of one of Europe’s great young right-back prospects. I fear, Matthieu, that it was simply never meant to be.

With a soft equalising penalty followed by a header flashed over the bar by Bournemouth, things felt momentarily as if they could head south. The Cherries – dangerous all afternoon – ran the channels well and were intelligent in possession.

But the second half opened up for Arsenal, and we are so much more comfortable when we have space and pace to run, rather than congealing round the edge of the box as we can do.

It brought the rarest of Arsenal moments – a headed goal from Walcott. Stick that in your literal pipe and smoke it, because yes it did actually happen. Cue a rocking baby for the new dad – congratulations all round.

Alexis duly finished it off and while we deserved to win, 3-1 felt a bit flattering. November’s been a bit flattering all over, now that I think about it.

A final thought about our central midfield. By my reckoning we’ve had six combinations there now, so I think it’s safe to say that Wenger has yet to suss out which one he prefers best – though obviously, part of that is down to Cazorla’s absence. Xhaka and Elneny were decent today, but will it be those two next weekend? Don’t bet your house on it, that’s all I’m saying.

As we move out of November and into the jingle-jangles of the festive season, it has only just dawned on me that, for one reason or another, and a potential home FA Cup tie notwithstanding, I might not be able to make a game until the 22nd January. Not so much of a winter break as a full-blown sabbatical. Even Diaby had shorter lay-offs than that.

What is it with these prawn-sandwich, half-and-half scarf fans like me?

*shakes fist at self*

Fact: Watching a game ‘as live’ never bloody works

Sunderland 1-4 Arsenal

Ferrying children to various sporting endeavours is pretty much my weekend. I am a dad taxi. That is my life.

It’s unpaid, to flag up an obvious downside, but on the upside there is marginally less vomiting and haggling to deal with, and they never ask me to go south of the river, which is a blessed relief.

Anyway, there I was at midday shuttling Child One hither, while lugging Child Two thither, knowing full well that a 12.45pm kick-off was problematic in the watching department. So between the three of us we decided to lock down the gadgets, switch off the radio and watch as-live later in the day.

It was working well. There I was in the supermarket, snatching an hour mid child-gathering to do some shopping, with my phone buzzing like a furious wasp in my pocket. I left it untouched.

(I do realise that for you young folk of the world, this snapshot of the mundanity of middle age is terrifying to envisage, and I can only apologise, but steel yourselves for the future).

And the plan was still working well at 1-1, some hours later, watching as-live, as I wondered whether Arsenal had blown the three points and whether Sunderland’s equaliser would mark their ascendancy.

Until Child One, who had momentarily disappeared for biscuits, re-emerged wide-eyed and said, “I’ve seen the final score Dad, and I’m not going to tell you what it was but IT’S ACTUALLY AMAZING.”

Noted, thanks pal. So we don’t lose then 😉

And then, as if on cue, Giroud swept his first and Arsenal’s second in, and the world was calmer. Then again, then again, and before you could say ‘Next time don’t give the score away’ it was 4-1. Game, set and match and onwards we march.

Sanchez, talking of furious wasps, was outstandingly good, but Giroud’s cameo was hardly any worse – a gentle reminder, as if it were needed, that when there’s sweeping in crosses to be done, or looping headers to dispatch, Olivier’s your man. Perfect timing with the bad news about Lucas Perez, too.

Coquelin was his aggressive self, Elneny was tidy AF, and Gibbs gave Wenger a pleasant headache with a performance of attacking verve.

We have a squad, ladies and gentlemen, that can be rotated. We have strength in depth. We have players out but it wasn’t a calamity – and By George, it’s handy.

Xhaka, tackle and roll

Arsenal 3-2 Swansea

“Why are raspberry bonbons blue?” asked Shedman quizzically, during the early lull – a time when the mind is prone to wander to the weightier matters of life.

And then Theo Walcott immediately scored, so the sweet crisis was averted.

I missed the goal.

Why? Because at the very moment he scored I was WhatsApping Feverpitch, asking him if he was bored yet, so naturally the game duly exploded.

Yes, I am the kind of idiot who is easily distracted by his mobile telephone. At least I was physically in situ and heard it happen – an improvement on the time I left Highbury a few minutes before full-time against Birmingham with the game tied at 1-1, only to get home and look on Ceefax to discover that we’d won something like 15-12 on penalties. I thought it would go to a replay, not extra time. Happy days.

I’m moving off piste here. Anyway, back to Theo. We had probed a bit, but it hadn’t really been a case of Swansea crumbling in the face of the storm. It just sort of happened, with Theo nipping in like a terrier. And then it just sort of happened again, with Theo swivelling full-circle to make the most of a defensive hash-up.

At this point I honestly thought the fat lady was unscrewing her mouthwash for a pre-warble gargle, but Xhaka (not his finest day, as it would turn out), gave the ball away and it was 2-1.

And as we all know, 2-1 is the most dangerous score in football, apart from 1-0, 2-0 and all the other dangerous scores – including, in the case of Arsenal, being 4-0 up.

Error aside, we played some lovely stuff in the latter stages of the first half, and missed a few chances after that too before Ozil latched onto Sanchez’s cross and applied the coup de grace.

Game over! Out comes the mouthwash.

But no, this being Arsenal we let another one in (as soft as a summer camembert) and then Xhaka got himself sent off. I think Wenger’s assessment of it being ‘dark yellow’ was right – though it was more ‘dark arts’. A bit ‘daft arts’ in truth as it was the middle of the pitch and entirely unnecessary to even give the referee the option.

Then things got really sticky. Theo hit the post twice – both times he should have scored. In fact, he should have scored five times yesterday, but Swansea had a couple of great chances to level it up.

So the relief at the end was palpable, and takes us to six wins on the bounce. I can’t remember the last time that happened. That’s fine form, even we’ve got over the line in the last two matches by the skin of our teeth.

Anyway, back to blue raspberry bonbons. The best explanation I could come up with was that they’re often placed next to strawberry bonbons in a point-of-sale scenario, and two similar colours would be confusing to the demanding consumer. Consider it, if you will, to be as if raspberry bonbons are always wearing their away kit.

Anything more credible than that, which ought not be hard, then do let me know.

Where’s my commemorative pen, Arsène?

Chapeau to you Arsène, for 20 years of dedication, for transforming Arsenal and for giving us some truly magical moments.

For 98, 02, 03, 04, 05, 14 and 15 and plenty of what-might-have-beens between.

For pushing Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, Keown and Adams that bit further. For Vieira, for Overmars, for Henry, for Pires, for Campbell, Fabregas, Ozil and Sanchez.

For never finishing below Spurs.

Yes, it’s been up and down. We’ve moved from dour to delicious, and back a bit. We’ve been beautiful but brittle – sometimes at the same time.

We’ve been fabulous and frustrating. We’ve had it all these last twenty years to be honest, and while – like many people – I question Wenger’s teams, tactics and future more than I ever did, I rate him so highly as a man.

He’s an amazing ambassador and figurehead for Arsenal. He’s intelligent, educated and sharp. We know that he can be stubborn and difficult, but in public he’s loyal to his players and loyal to the club, and he never makes it about himself. I suppose you could say he’s a company man, even if it sometimes feels like he’s the company.

So congratulations, Arsène. It takes rare passion and skill to last this long, to be this consistent and to retain a good sense of humour when jobsworths like me criticise you. If it had been me, I’d have caved in at the first whiff of criticism.

It seems like a pleasant coincidence that as we look back at his reign, his latest team has hit a vein of form. I wonder if people would have worded things differently had we been wading through stodge on the pitch.

Probably. But I try to look at the bigger picture, and Wenger’s time at Arsenal will be remembered as hugely successful on the pitch, and transformative off it. We have a lot to thank him for.

Oh, and Arsène – I’ve been blogging about you and your sides since 2003, mostly without resorting to abuse – and for that I demand my own commemorative pen like the ones you so generously gave the members of Her Majesty’s press.

DM me and I’ll fire over my deets, fam.

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.