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


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


Arsenal 1-0 Norwich

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

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

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

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

The apathetic low hum

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

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

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

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

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

The quiet mutiny

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

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

The lung-bursting support

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

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

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

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

Here comes the Sanchez

Arsenal 2-0 West Brom

Of all the things that need to happen this summer – clear-out, existential reappraisal, signings that exude ambition – nonsense about the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are not one of them.

Better late than never, but Sanchez is back to his dangerous best. A trademark bullet from outside the box and a finger-licking free-kick saw off the toothless Baggies in a game in which we should have been more ruthless but, somewhat typically, weren’t.

What would I do if I was Arsenal? I’d start the wooing now.

For our fidgety Chilean, I’d be fedexing round several cases of Winalot for his pooches.

If ‘Winalot’ doesn’t signal ambition, I don’t what will.

I should be in PR.

Arsenal no scrooges as Christmas comes early for Carroll

West Ham 3-3 Arsenal

That slither of hope I spoke about? Yeah, that. Only the wildest of optimists would now give Arsenal the time of day when it comes to the title. I suppose the Totterers might lose and the mighty Leicester might freeze but who am I kidding? It’s gone.

Arsenal are simply incapable of stringing enough wins together, for starters. Any team with pretensions for the title would have shut up shop at 2-0 but this Arsenal don’t know how to do that. They still don’t know how to do that. I take nothing away from West Ham who have improved immeasurably under Bilic, but for Arsenal to take just one point from yesterday’s game was Arsenal’s doing entirely. Switched off, switched off, switched off. Two-nil up to three-two down in a jiffy. What the Dickens was that? Jonathan Northcroft in today’s Sunday Times puts it rather succinctly: it’s Arsenal’s glass jaw.

The Collaps-o-Arsenal™ did however – on the plus side – spawn one of my favourite Wenger quotes of all time:

“On the first, second and third goal, we were a bit naive defensively.”

So that’s all of them, then. Defensive naivety – again and again and again. How many times do we hear Wenger say that? One Carroll thudder led to another and another. Nothing to learn there. As you were. Talking of which, would not yesterday’s nemesis have been better contained by a taller and less skittish centre-half than the underwhelming Gabriel? Or a keeper who commands his area better than Ospina? Just a thought.

In amongst the carnage of Carroll picking a pocket or two, Arsenal played some good attacking football, with Iwobi yet again impressing. We’re certainly better to watch than we were a month ago – a lot more fluid and fluent. But at the back the same calamities are always just around the corner. The ghost of defences past – an Adams-shaped spectre – haunts my dreams when I see defending like yesterday’s.

Top four is within our grasp, as it always is, but when aiming for more – and despite what anyone says, I’m sure the board and manager do want to achieve more – we hit that glass ceiling.

Glass jaw, glass ceiling. Glass half empty. Here we are again, praying for the unlikely to happen.

Does hope really spring eternal?

A month has leaked away since my last post, and despite a recent uptick in form and results, I’m struggling to get goodly excited by what’s left of this campaign. I have been semi-detached for some time; let’s call it the open close season. I’ve missed a few games for one reason or another and – honestly – I haven’t missed it.

Swansea at home slugged my faint league hopes across the chops, we toppled out of the European Cup in the usual place and at the usual time, and we then got our left and boots muddled up in our one realistic remaining trophy hunt. Watford – since handsomely and easily despatched – look ahead to Wembley while we look ahead to… to what exactly?

Well, Wenger continues to argue that there’s still plenty to play for, and I suppose he has to. In my fleeting moments of wild optimism I look at the fixtures and think: ooh, Leicester and Tottingham have got some tough games, and if we go on a juicy run then this might happen and that might happen and ooof, suddenly it could be a massive case of Crikey George, crumbs-this-is-hotting-up.

But in my heart of hearts I accept it’s as good as over. I don’t think Wenger will be turning water into wine. It feels far likelier that Ranieri will be turning Drinkwater into Drinkwine (tortured analogy – please rewrite – Ed).

Yes, there’s room for optimism after two very good wins. Wenger has hit upon a midfield formula with the quietly excellent Elneny at its heart. Iwobi – promoted because nothing else was working or nobody else was fit – is that fair or am I being a bit harsh? – has jumped at the chance and scattered the Walcotts of this world to the four winds, and Welbeck’s dynamism has added pace to our game when it was desperately needed.

But it’s only been two games, and it’s probably too late, so it does feel a bit as if the next month is little more than a procession to the usual destination. Of course it’s not over till it’s over, but Leicester are showing little generosity of spirit to poor old stumbling Arsenal, the selfish swine. Can’t they see we’ve had a rotten time of it?

This season for Arsenal has largely played out barring the kind of finale we all dream about (but mostly wake up from just when it gets good and realise we have to go to work and it’s raining and cold). There will be a massive post-mortem to accompany the lengthy pre-mortem that’s been going on since Collaps-o-Arsenal™ reared its ugly head on Boxing Day. I can’t say I look forward to that.

But until then, there’s always the slither of hope. Because if relegation-haunted Sunderland roll the right Allardyce and pull off a much-needed home win, and if we continue our decent burst of form with a win at Upton Park, and if things click for United over at our friendly neighbours, well then, we’d find ourselves if not in the thick of it then very much approaching the thickness of it, and well, should that come to pass then – eek! – this is totally game on and what was I thinking detaching myself from one of the most exciting title races of all time?

Hope, eh?

It’s a right sod.