Pinch yourself – yes it is Monreal

Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City

Imagine my surprise when Arsenal’s mojo – which I had prayed for in hope rather than in expectation before the match – emerged in the second half beneath Wembley’s arch.

There it was in full view in the shape of Chambo (the wing-back, do keep up) getting past his man time and again before crossing on a platter for Monreal (the other wing-back, scuttling forward) to lash home a volley with his right foot.

Or in the shape of Gabriel, all teeth and spring-loaded quiff, who had what must be his best game for Arsenal yet. Whodathunkit! Formerly possessing two left feet, he had a magnificent game.

And Rob Holding, just 20 and a Wembley first-timer, who’s waited patiently for most of the season for misfortune (Mustafi injury) and circumstance (back three experimentation) to combine in his favour. He took his chance again.

I pick these four out because they weren’t perhaps the players you’d expect to emerge from the shadows, and it’s not to gloss over some other fine performances. Because overall it was a game of real commitment and energy from Arsenal; manna from heaven in a season of strangely subdued predictability. Boy did we need it.

There was an element of luck involved, I won’t deny it. Both sides could have had a penalty, City hit the post twice and had a goal ruled out unfairly (easy to say in slow motion). The defending for their goal was iffy on several levels, but Arsenal kept battling and the more they did so the more fun it got. With a bit more ruthlessness, we could have had more. So yes, it was cathartic. Best of all, something clicked.

And counter to my expectations, here we are again in the FA Cup final – our 20th, and Wenger’s 8th. If someone ever tells you it’s not relevant or big enough, they’re lying. It never gets boring.

Yes, it’s only one game and we’re all too skittish and wizened to see it as anything else, but what a time to show the fight and nous needed. All the other stuff, we can put back in the box – for now – and just enjoy it. Because that is, after all, what it’s meant to be all about.

We’re in the cup final. Get in!

What do we want? Mojo. When do we want it? Now.

wingatefinchley
 

Yesterday I took my kids to non-league football for the first time, for a play-off hopefuls clash between my local team Wingate and Finchley, and the hipsters’ choice Dulwich Hamlet.

To say that it’s everything that Premier League football isn’t is to state the bleeding obvious. I’m not naive enough to think that there’s always a pot of gold at the end of the non-league rainbow, because standing with a few dozen others on a wet winter’s night would test the patience of many. But on a sunny spring day with a large travelling following (several hundred – the visitors swelled what is normally a home crowd of about 100 to a whopping 440), I can see the attraction. There’s a community spirit and a sense of relaxed enjoyment that is often entirely absent from football at the top level. For me and my two boys it was the sum total of £12 to get in.

The gulf between the players and the fans is about – well, about 6 yards. And despite a convincing 3-0 win for the Hamlet, both sides made the play-offs – Wingate and Finchley’s best season in their history. Hats off to both sides.

Now, this non-league eulogy wasn’t intended as a pointed barb at the Arsenal, though it did give me a pleasant contrast. But the sense of fun and excitement has withered somewhat in recent years for many – in particular this season for me – and how nice would it be to reconnect a bit?

Starting today, naturally. What better chance do we have than an FA Cup semi-final to make something of a hugely disappointing season? We might not be favourites, and rightly so, but it’s hardly a giant cognitive leap to see us getting something here, is it? Or is it?

Taking the game to City is not like climbing the Matterhorn: we drew 2-2 at home (perhaps fortunately) and lost narrowly away despite a poor performance.

To go from current form (average at best) to our true potential (home against Chelsea) won’t happen in one leap, and it might not happen at all, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask for a game of increased tempo at the very least – like yesterday’s semi-final. If we freeze in the headlights again and go through the motions in terms of application, we can forget it. I know it’s boring to have to even ask for basics like that, but that’s where we’re at.

Now, it’s all very well of me to take to the blog with a note of mild optimism, or to issue a flimsy call to arms, when I couldn’t even be bothered to go to the game myself. But that sort of encapsulates my current mindset: I want to believe, and I want to reconnect, but if the sparks aren’t there it’s hard.

Show me the sparks, Arsenal – and we can take it from there.

Come on you rip roarers!

The impossible announcement

Watching that clip of Arsenal players being abused by our own fans at Selhurst Park is really tough viewing – another low in a season that’s magicking lows out of nowhere.

It’s not pretty. But in the absence of any other way to air their grievances, with the board largely silent and Wenger not prepared to talk about his future, I understood why the fans did it. Had I been there, I may well have been caught up in the emotion of the moment too.

That being said, I’m not a banner holder or a marcher or a Wenger Out chanter by nature. My own protest – such as it is – has taken the form of burgeoning apathy.

How? Well, despite being a season ticket holder, I’ve been only twice since 12th December. A load of us got our £55 back on the exchange and went out for a curry instead of bothering with the Champions League return leg. I’ve stopped blogging (not, to be fair, entirely attributable to the current swirling eddies of misery, but partly – after all, what else is there to say?) Out of the eight of us who registered for the cup semi-final, only two ended up applying.

Like the players, I’ve given up a bit – and even allowing for Twitter and the web being an echo chamber, I know I’m not alone.

Maybe that makes me a plastic fan. If you level that at me, fine. But if my mood is reflected widely, then the club has a big problem on its hands.

Because if they’ve lost the fans, nothing they do round the edges of the problem will make the slightest bit of difference. It’s not tenable.

They’re aware of this, of course, which is why Wenger’s future is a such a taboo subject in the corridors of power.

In my mind I’ve been through Wenger’s strange deflection of the subject, and the general silence from the board, dozens of times. To me, if he was planning to leave all along, the silence doesn’t make any sense at all. He’d have announced it by now and basked in the long valediction.

So the new deal was always going to happen, irrespective of how the season panned out – it was to all intents and purposes a fait accompli. But the reason they won’t talk about it now is because they can’t. Imagine the response.

We have a manager who wants to stay and a board who want him to stay too, and they’re desperate for a break in the clouds so they can hang out the washing.

But as I said in my last post, ‘sometimes these decisions take on a life of their own’, and I think that’s what’s been happening. There is no break in the clouds – it’s lashing it down. The team’s descent to mediocrity and the fans’ mood have made this the impossible announcement.

It’s astonishing and bonkers, but it could still go either way.

However, for their preferred outcome (Wenger staying), they’ll need a volte face in supporter confidence that they can’t easily engineer, and currently looks like utter pie in the sky. There’s too much water under the bridge and I don’t see most people being assuaged by a few recuperative wins. Put simply, it’s broken.

So we’re in limbo.

What a mess.

It’s not a matter of if, but Wenger

It’s been a tumultuous week alright. There have been moments – days, weeks perhaps – over the past 21 years when I’ve thought it could be the end for Wenger. The 8-2 at Old Trafford and the 6-0 on his 1,000th match in charge felt seminal, for example. But he hasn’t lasted this long by chance; he has an incredible eye for reinvention and survival that makes him, by some distance, Arsenal’s longest-serving manager.

The pattern often goes like this: there’ll be some damaging reverses, resulting in exiting two competitions in short order; but just when you think the mood couldn’t darken more, Wenger rounds up some form and takes us on a 10-match unbeaten streak. The needle moves back out of the red zone. We qualify for the Champions League. Off we go again.

We are in poor form (let’s be honest, we looked an absolute mess of a side after half-time in Munich) but I wouldn’t bet against something similar happening now, because this is a strong Arsenal squad and Wenger has been here before many times. The difference now is that I don’t think it will make much difference to what happens next. It feels like these next few months are Wenger’s last; that change is upon us.

“No matter what happens, I will manage next season, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”

Said Wenger in yesterday’s press conference. On the one hand it tallies entirely with what Amy Lawrence wrote about Arsene knowing nothing but football and being lost without it. On the other, it feels like a message to his detractors, to the board, and probably to the fans.

I don’t think he’ll be here because the siren call for change is only getting louder. The players – not exempt from criticism, as I said on yesterday’s Arsecast – look like they need it, many fans crave it, and Wenger would probably benefit from it. I don’t think two more years would do anyone any good.

Would I begrudge him a move to a big European club? The man is an Arsenal legend and there’s nothing I would begrudge him, short of rocking up at Spurs with a Chas and Dave single under his arm.

Whenever it happens, it will be moment of huge sadness and reflection for me. His legacy is huge, his achievements myriad, and he has been a master of intelligence, courtesy and good humour. On top of that, and this is a selfish point I suppose, Wenger has been a constant for me for nearly half my life. Job changes, house moves, marriage, two children – Wenger has been there all along (metaphorically of course – I can confirm he wasn’t at Barnet General Hospital shouting ‘little bit push’).

In a world where things are changing fast and in unpresidented ways, there’s Arsene, with a cheeky smile and a throwaway quip. His departure will be a challenge to my own world order.

What happens next is in a big way up to him, but not entirely – and he will know that. Sometimes these decisions take on a life of their own.

Looking back to 1996, all it took to assuage the swirling chorus of ‘Arsene Who’, was Patrick Vieira’s introduction against Sheffield Wednesday. The new man had pulled a rabbit out of the hat and things seemed immediately rosier. That was one bookend.

For the other bookend, he has to cajole everyone into believing, at least for the next three months, so that we can find another rabbit, and another magic hat.

Bridge over: Troubled Wenger

Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal

Apologies in advance, because this is a pun-free, humourless post. “I wonder if you could stick a gag in?” asked Mrs Lower as she read it. I’ll see what I can do.

Are sure as eggs are eggs, Arsenal sank to their annual defeat at Stamford Bridge with barely a whimper. In terms of the title – that’s all folks; though in terms of performances the writing has been on the wall for some time.

First though, Chelsea. They were fantastic yesterday and have been fantastic since September, leaving everyone – not just us – well and truly in their wake. They defend as a unit, pick off their opponents and are relentlessly good at it. For an Arsenal fan, comparing the two sides yesterday was painful, especially as – unlike Chelsea sides of yore – there are fewer players to dislike.

There surely have to be doubts about the validity of the first goal, but few pundits or commentators seemed that fussed by it. Odd, no? Bellerin was flattened by Alonso’s elbow before he headed it in and I suspect that would have been blown as a foul anywhere else on the pitch.

To add insult to potential head injury, Bellerin was forced to retire with Gabriel replacing him. It was a double blow, because while Gabriel is an OK backup central defender, he really is no right back.

Would it have been different had we taken one of the few chances we had? There was one for Iwobi early on, a very presentable header for Gabriel and a great chance for Ozil.

I suspect not. It was a day when we really needed to step up but too many of our players were depressingly absent. Ozil and Sanchez, our two superstars, were two of the worst culprits. The former was peripheral while the latter cut a lonely and frustrated (and frustrating) figure.

Walcott was ineffective and didn’t defend, Iwobi faded, Coquelin was utterly overwhelmed and to cap it all off Petr Cech picked a bad day for a howler. We were at best ineffective yesterday, and at worst disorganised, error prone and playing off the cuff.

A horse walks into a bar. The barman looks at him and asks, ‘Why the long face?’

Our 3-0 win earlier in the season – our best performance of the season – was the outlier. Because overall, when the chips are down against sides that we like to compare ourselves against, we have been poor.

And our record at Stamford Bridge since our 5-3 win in 2011 also speaks for itself. We’ve lost every time with an aggregate score of 15-2.

The title is as good as over. Even if Chelsea collapsed, we’d have to go on a barnstorming run. Neither looks remotely likely. Maybe the boss can pull something out of the hat in the Champions League? Past performance would suggest otherwise.

The fact is that year after year, irrespective of the players, we are too often making the same mistakes. We let in silly goals. We disappear too often. We aren’t prepared well enough. We are inconsistent. We are predictable. We switch off.

And that, of course, rests at the doorstep of Arsene Wenger. Martin Keown said after the game that he believed Wenger would sign a new two-year deal. The boss stands alone at being able to get us into the top four, but taking us to the next level? That now seems beyond him.

Will he really take that deal? I’m not so sure he will. To me it feels like the team needs a massive dose of the smelling salts. It needs a new broom to sweep through it and it needs new ideas. I don’t know many Arsenal fans who think Wenger will be the man to do that. But in the end, because of the incredible power he wields within the club, perhaps the more pertinent question is: Does Wenger still think he’s the man to do that?

“We want you to stay,” sang the Chelsea fans with mirth. I wonder if he heard.

Let’s hope it’s not just me who’s mentally ready

In the heady aftermath of our 3-0 win against Chelsea in September, it didn’t seem feasible that come the return leg we’d be teetering on the edge of the familiar title challenge abyss. That we are is partly to do with the phenomenal way Conte responded – after all, we are not the only team holding on by our fingertips. (In idle moments I wonder what he might have been able to do with our squad – and I doubt I am alone.)

Since then our win percentage is 58%. But three results in particular have cost us – Boro, Watford and Bournemouth. Had we won those we’d now be just two points behind.

The bottom line though is that Chelsea have been nigh-on flawless, while we have struggled for true consistency, an achilles heel that has dogged us throughout the latter Wenger years.

Having seen us so listlessly and carelessly throw away all the points on Tuesday, I don’t hold out much hope for today. But the thing about Arsenal is that it wouldn’t enormously surprise me if we did win, either. Though we’d probably go and draw our next game against Hull.

Our midfield has been decimated, which does call into question Wilshere’s season-long jaunt on the south coast. I maintain it was not such a bad idea to go, but quite why we weren’t a little clever by inserting a recall clause is odd.

Still, we are where we are and it looks like the job falls to Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain. A nice little assignment for them at lunchtime on a Saturday – which everyone knows is our favourite time to play Chelsea.

Elsewhere, in theory we have the firepower and options to match Chelsea. Converting theory into practise is another thing though. Wenger still doesn’t know why we sometimes turn up mentally unprepared. Ultimately though he must accept that it’s a faultline of his own making.

Can he sharpen them up today? Suffice to say, only a win will do.

Now you see us, now you don’t. Following Arsenal is magic.

Preston 1-2 Arsenal

Ah, hello again mystifying Arsenal. The third round of the FA Cup heralded another performance – the second in a week, now *that’s* consistency – that left me overwhelmed and underwhelmed pretty much simultaneously. Carved open at will in the first half, we improved in the second and nabbed some pride at the end with a goal from the man of the moment, Giroud. And then the same thing happened again yesterday.

Into the valleys of the Ribble rode the 6,000 Arsenal fans, but theirs was not to reason why two distinct Arsenals would turn up once again. All we can say is that it’s a good job Preston didn’t take several of their other presentable chances. But really, why did we play like that? “They surprised us with their commitment,” said Giroud afterwards, a comment that is probably best not dwelled on too long.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter I suppose, because we edged through to the fourth round, despite missing a phalanx of players for one reason or another. But I don’t think anyone’s under any illusions that we can get keep on getting away with being this skittish. This season is already turning out to be fiercely competitive, and any more fits of daydreaming like this will doubtless see us drift further off the pace. Six teams will be squeezing into four (if getting into the Champions League is your thing – it’s been a while since it’s got me fizzing), and who’s your money on right now? Could go anywhere.

I do wonder when we have weeks like this – and those like the one before Christmas when we lost to Everton and City – whether this is an excellent Arsenal team prone to switching off, or an average Arsenal team prone to occasional excellence.

Anyway, that all sounds more miserable than it ought to, because there were some positives in the end, quite apart from staying in the FA Cup. Lucas had a decent game topped off with a match-winning assist, and it was good to see Ramsey back on the scoresheet too. Giroud, who for all his frustrations is £10m extremely well spent, continues to be crucial. And I love watching Iwobi ghosting about the place in his languid style.

With Giroud, we are perhaps reaping the rewards of not overcooking him by February, which is something we’ve done on several occasions. When he hits that physical brick wall, boy does he hit it. Having him fit and firing to the end, alongside Welbeck, Alexis and Lucas, is a mouthwatering prospect (if almost entirely implausible – that would require the medical gods to align in spectacular fashion, and this, lest we forget, is Arsenal).

As for what happens next, well we should have Alexis and Ozil back for Saturday’s trip to Swansea, and with any luck both will be a little refreshed. In terms of their futures, I’ve detached myself from it to be honest. It’s just not worth fretting about because there’s so much smoke and mirrors.

Today we read that Ozil is happy and would be happy to sign a new deal, but it depends on Wenger staying. In true Arsenal style, all this really does is muddy the water for our divided fanbase, because for many, ‘Wenger staying’ is part of the problem rather than the key to the solution.

Like I say, I won’t lose much sleep over it. I’d like Alexis and Ozil to stay, of course I would, because losing both would be a big blow, footballistically. It would be damaging in terms of the allure of the club if they left. But players come and go and sometimes it’s as simple as that.

With that flourish of sang-froid, I bid thee goodnight. Here’s to racing out of the blocks at the Liberty, ideally in the first half.

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.