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Newcastle 1-2 Arsenal

Arsenal’s record after European games has not been too bad this season – DDWLWDWWW – but you never know how a team will cope both physically and psychologically after being dumped out of the competition, especially when coming so close to confounding the statistics.

The Champions League holds a big sway on the psyche of the players, bigger than anything else, so I always suspected yesterday would be harder than we thought. Turns out the players were weary of both body and mind, because those two halves were chalk and cheese.

Thank heavens for Olivier Giroud, who motored to seventeen goals with his two yesterday, drawing only two behind Alexis. He’s going to overtake him, isn’t he? Giroud’s carburettor’s, erm, clean (?) while Alexis’s tappets are – ahem – tapping.

There was me thinking the motoring metaphor was worth persevering with. Transpires it wasn’t.

But those two goals were so valuable, with Welbeck forgetting his shooting boots (he had several good chances and for all his good work must learn to take them better) and Alexis in his current goal funk. We weren’t to know it at the time, but Giroud’s knee and head were the cushions for us to cling onto the three points as we ran totally out of juice in the second half.

I’m sure the lack of Ozil played a part, but overall I think we were just dead beat. So on that basis, those were three of the finest points you will lay your eyes on.

We’re lucky that our squad options are decent at the moment, and Wenger made the right call by resting some players (in this case, Mertesacker and Bellerin). Had Ozil been fit, Cazorla might have had a rest too. Rosicky, maybe, should have started that would have meant both Ozil and Cazorla out the side.

Walcott’s omission could have been circumstantial. He’s morphed into more of a home player as Wenger leans toward harder-working players on the road. In fact, the only two games Walcott’s started this season have been at home (Villa and Leicester). Yesterday, Alexis and Cazorla were out on their feet and we were on the back foot. Walcott didn’t seem the right option to bring on when we needed players who could defend.

I’m not saying there are not other machinations behind the scenes. It’s pretty obvious, with his contract, that there are. But the problem in its essence is that when he does come on he’s just not doing enough. Personally, I maintain that his injury – one of the worst you can get in football – is still a factor. Not physically, but mentally. (Falcao had a similar injury – and look at him).

I think he’s still finding his way back in his own mind, but on top of that, the team has moved on without him. He’s a great option for us, but it does feel like he might be off in the summer, and I think that’s a shame. He might not be as integral as he used to be but every squad has to have different kinds of players, and our squad is better for having him in it. Not every player can be the same, or work in the same way. The trouble for Theo is less that he’s not tracking back or slogging his guts out trying to win the ball back – he’s never done that – and more that the things he excels at such as pace, running at defences, clinical finishing are not working either. When his strengths are not in evidence, his weaknesses are exaggerated.

For Theo, it’s one of those occasions when an international break has come at a good time. He really needs to play and I hope he’s selected for England.

Nine games to go, and I’m still cautious. While we are only a point of second, we are not that far off fifth either and it’s very much still a case of ‘hold onto your hat’.

All the more reason to raise a glass to yesterday’s three succulent, moorish, tasty points.

Arsenal 3-0 West Ham

Ping, ping, dummy, flick, goal – it was one of those days when Arsenal’s build-up passing slotted together like one of those massive 500-piece jigsaws. When it works it’s bewitching, and when it doesn’t it’s infuriating, but yesterday – when it counted – we ghosted through West Ham and it was a delight.

They were all at it in the one-touch club, but the main protagonists were Giroud, Ozil and Ramsey, with a hat-tip to the latecomer Cazorla (player of the season, anybody?)

Not that it was a 3-0 kind of game, really. The first half was all probing, stretching defences and was fairly even. The Hammers seemed to be targeting Chambers at right-back and got round the back two or three times, while we had a few good chances ourselves. Walcott was getting into good positions but looked a bit ring-rusty, perhaps understandably.

Confession: I missed the first goal because I’d gone to get an early sip of the half-time beer. There we were in the concourse (with hundreds of others, not that I’m making excuses for myself), singing throatily but with a hollow, sheepish edge as we realised Giroud had put us one up. That’s right, I’ve become the person I hate, complaining about ticket prices and tutting about the exorbitant cost of food and drink at the ground, only to slip out early to ensure Arsenal make even more profit. I am a hypocrite so feel free to reprimand, or just shake your head in sorrow.

So the first goal, ahem. Seemed good from where I was.

In the second period – I was in my seat by now, you’ll be glad to hear, watching the game with my actual eyes – it was tight for a while. Ozil, who was otherwise excellent again, over-elaborated to the tune of a trillion by lofting an impossible pass across the box when he should have just wellied it, and at that moment 57,000 people probably simultaneously muttered something like “this has got one-all written all over it” under their breath.

There was no need to panic. Welbeck came on and gave us a burst of energy, Cazorla entered the fray so we could have our dose of pocket dynamite, and we collectively stepped up a gear. Ramsey’s goal was a blur of passing interspersed with the kind of shimmy that probably once sent Mrs Giroud’s knees trembly in a French nightclub when Olivier hit the floor for some Bee Gees.

Then Cazorla one-twoed with Welbeck and Giroud, passed it across the goal and Nigel made it three.

Giroud, as an important aside, was excellent.

I wouldn’t call it a head of steam, more a faint whistle, but we’re building something up at the moment at a critical time. Five straight league wins puts us a mere point behind Man City, and with nine games to go I think it’s fair to say that three of the top four slots are – to coin a phrase from the late eighties – up for grabs now.

Good to see Walcott back too. I get the sense there’s a bit of revisionism going on at the moment about his value to the club. The landscape may have changed and the sands may have shifted, but I can’t think of any circumstances where not having him in the squad would be beneficial. Think back to how he was playing when he did his knee in – he was magnificent. Even operating at 70% of that, which is where he probably is now, he’s still getting into good positions. The more games he plays, the better he will get. He’ll always be slightly enigmatic, and he’s not the tackliest, runningbackest of players, but he does other things well.

It’s all set up for Mission: Improbable on Tuesday night. I’ve got a realistic angel over my left shoulder, wagging his finger and reminding me how we got lacerated on the counter in the first leg, and I’ve got an annoying, upbeat ‘What if’ angel over my right.

Right angel has come from nowhere – literally nowhere – and is desperately trying to sow the seed of excitement.

For my own sanity I wish he’d go away.

 
Manchester Utd 1-2 Arsenal

Worth waiting for.

A truly lamentable record at Old Trafford was put to bed, at last and deservedly, by an Arsenal side that worked its socks off until the last minute. Can we finally bid farewell to that big game hoodoo? Go on, be off with you.

At the time, it felt as nerve-wracking as these things always do. In the first half it was a case of both sides pushing forward, chances at both ends, and if I was a Martian I’d probably say it was entertaining viewing. Fortunately – or unfortunately depending on the day – I am a blinkered Arsenal fan so I spent the entire time rabidly pacing up and down in default frazzled football fan mode.

Monreal’s goal: a lovely finish following determined Oxwork (that’s really a thing). The Utd defence was getting some grief for it but all I saw was the Ox nipping and barrelling through after a lovely Ozil pass. Shame he had to go off later in the game as I thought he caused no end of problems. Strong, direct – and now hamstrung. That’s frustrating.

Of course the lead didn’t last long, and a draw at the end of the half was probably about right. We did well in midfield, mostly held it together at the back (the steep learning curve for Bellerin continues), while Alexis and Welbeck toiled without much return up top.

We took off in the second half though, I thought. I’m not sure how much of it was down to Ramsey coming on, but he was the right replacement for the Ox, allowing us to keep up the high energy. Though Utd had more possession overall during the 90 minutes, I thought we worked so hard to win it back. Three hard-workers up front, and it’s easy to see why Wenger likes that.

Then came Welbeck’s goal, gifted by Utd on a silver platter. He celebrated, fair play to him, and so would I have done if I’d gone without a goal since December. It was hardly like he was thundering up the pitch and goading the fans or cupping his ears. The goal has been a long time coming and it was a reward for a typical Welbeck shift.

Suddenly came the hope, and with it the fear, but in the end I needn’t have worried. In their desperation to get something from the game di Maria got himself the daftest of red cards for simulation (or diving, in Anglo-Saxon) then touching the ref, then Januzaj toppled over himself and got punished. Both calls right – well played ref – especially given these decisions haven’t always gone our way up there.

We could have made it more, Cazorla and Alexis both coming close, but it didn’t come back to haunt us and the joy at the final whistle was palpable, not least from my 9-year-old who was grinning from ear to ear (and periodically lambasting Fellaini, attaboy).

It was a massive result right at a pivotal time of the season. Wembley beckons, and maybe again if we can despatch Reading or Bradford, while the confidence boost can only be a good thing as we face the final ten games of the league season and the ascent up the north face of the Champions League (might need more than crampons for that).

So yeah, I enjoyed that. Rather a lot.

Well played Arsenal.

I practically bounced out of bed this morning. And at my age, that’s good going.

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.