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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.

Stoke City 3-2 Arsenal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re stuck in a loop.

Garter_2008_Yeomen
Nacho Monreal and his family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do it, rip roarers!

mirage

West Brom 0-1 Arsenal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like winning.

More of that please.

Arsenal 1-2 Manchester Utd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as for this:

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

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

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

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

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

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