A shrug of the shoulder and a pffft

Arsenal 2-3 Olympiacos

I know it’s the most spoilt thing to say, given how other teams look on at our repeated qualification with envy, but I’ve felt fairly ambivalent about the Champions League for a while now.

Part of it is the familiarity of some of our opponents – Olympiacos being a prime example. Part of it is the seeding (now changed – to our detriment, in all likelihood), which for ages made our group stages a little pedestrian. And there’s an element of knowing the eventual outcome too: one of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich has been in the final every year since 2009.

But mostly, it’s Arsenal’s, and Arsene’s, complete inability to master the nuances of European football that has long ago worn thin. I wrote this tweet after the Zagreb game, but with a few exceptions and a few tweaks, it could have been used many times over the last decade and a half.

I can’t pretend to speak for the majority and wouldn’t even dream of trying, but if the people I sit with week in, week out, and some of the people I converse with over the electronic airwaves are any guide, the apathy about the competition is all too evident.

We lose in Europe, we shrug our shoulders. I was sitting in a different seat last night, but people weren’t tearing their hair out and they weren’t wailing or gnashing their teeth. We’ve seen it all before. We know we can’t win the competition: we aren’t canny enough, we don’t adapt and it’s beyond predictable watching us huff and puff – or simply amble – through it.

I’d love to have a crack at it, a proper go. With the right approach, tactics and a large amount of luck (always needed), there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be competing better than we are and going toe-to-toe with the best in the knockouts. But we’ve stopped doing that, and everyone seems to have got used to it.

Wenger’s defiance is fair enough: we can still make it through. But we’re going to need to change and change fast if that’s going to happen. Based on recent experience, I won’t hold my breath.

Public Flamini Number One

Tottenham 1-2 Arsenal

Sometimes, when a player shows some serious tekkers all you want to do is put the goal on loop, sit back and marvel. When that player is Mathieu ‘Nigel’ Flamini, the eyes bulge that extra bit out of their sockets.

Not once, but twice – our arm-waving, erstwhile ersatz left-back stole the show on a night when we needed someone to rise above the clamour. Normally, he’s the one ploughing into the clamour, arms and legs akimbo, so the whole world seems to have gone a bit nuts.

He deserves it though. I’ve always liked him. When he returned two years ago, he added some energy and bite to a midfield that was too timid at times. He doesn’t always get it right, and he’s no longer first choice, but you can’t argue he wasn’t man of the match last night.

It was a night for Flamini puns, which I particularly enjoyed (and got stuck into myself), though after he had scored his second, when he was on a ‘mat-trick’, it did amuse me when it was suggested that the perfect mat-trick was ‘left foot, right foot, red card.’

He certainly felt like he had a point to prove, and said as much in the post-match interview. I’d not cross him on a dark night after a glass of Pastis, if I’m honest.

The upshot of his renaissance – the phoenix from the Flams, if you will – is that we got one over the old enemy, and that’s pretty satisfying too.

I mentioned yesterday that it might be a night for Gibbs and Debuchy, and so it proved, though only the former really shone. Debuchy must have been watching sad films with Giroud.

Not the most fluid performance, but these events never are. We stopped the two-game rot with a goal worthy of winning any game, beat Spurs, and that’s good enough for me.

Props to you, Nigel.

After the game, Wenger couldn’t have been more effusive:

“We’re only making plans for Nigel,”

He said with a beaming smile.

“We only want what’s best for him.”

Wenger always was the altruist. Fair play.

“We’re only making plans for Nigel,”

He reiterated – not sure why, but he’s good like that.

“Nigel just needs that helping hand.”

That would have been enough, you’d have thought, but Wenger by now had the bit between his teeth:

“And if young Nigel says he’s happy, he must be happy, he must be happy, he must be happy in his work.”

Off Wenger went into the night, muttering something about a future in British Steel, and that was that.

Sweet and unsavoury

I must confess, I didn’t see Gabriel escaping his ban. I’m happy that he has, of course, as it was a nothing flick of the foot and was clearly provoked by someone with the Corinthian spirit of a piranha.

But I’m not quite sure how Arsenal ‘proved’ that Gabriel didn’t touch Costa (as I have read elsewhere), and even if that were true, does that mean intent is no longer a factor? It appears that Arsenal have tested the latest rules whereby the FA permits clubs to appeal “the legitimacy of the dismissal itself and against the severity of the three-game punishment”. I think it’s a common-sense result, which is the last thing I expected from the FA, but I’m not sure how the process now works if I’m honest.

Nevertheless, combined with a deserved ban for Costa, it’s bound to raise Mourinho’s hackles. Whether the whole unseemly affair ends up motivating Chelsea, or giving us the shot in the arm we need, only time will tell but I have my own suspicions it might benefit them more than us, beyond the obvious three points. You can be sure Mourinho will try to engender a siege mentality. I wouldn’t really blame him – it can work. Just ask George Graham. And Jose Mourinho.

Tonight, we’re back in the saddle after two straight defeats, both of which will have been more mentally than physically sapping. The Zagreb one because we were complacent and predictable, the Chelsea one because yet again we lost to them in the league and our pitiful league record continues.

I’m torn about the line-up. On the one hand beating Spurs should always be a priority, and our form needs reversing pronto, so we should play our strongest side. But on the other hand, I think Debuchy and Gibbs – to take two examples – would benefit from another game now, and will almost certainly be better for a second game in a week.

No reason why that extra rotation couldn’t come round on Saturday rather than tonight, but it doesn’t seem very Wenger to do it that way.

Certainly, we can’t let two defeats become three, then become four. So if we’re still stewing in our frustration, Gabriel’s un-ban hasn’t made a difference to the mood, and the thought of a derby hasn’t got the juices flowing, then we need our heads looking at.

We’ll find out more tonight…

(And for the eagle-eyed, stalwart few, yes, this site looks different. It’s a long story and I need to fix it all again. Joy, oh joy.)

Oli and Wally earn their lolly despite dilly dally

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City

A beautiful early autumn afternoon that saw me shedding layers as the match went on – sort of like a striptease, but without a single modicum of titillation – ended with what we’d all come for: a goal or two at home, and three satisfying points.

I would offer a more thorough match report, but as usual I failed to heed Matt Bianco’s advice and didn’t get out of my lazy bed. Then the day happened and here we are again in the evening. Increasingly, the days have a habit of doing this.

We missed a lot of chances. A lot. Better, I suppose, than not being able to miss chances because they weren’t there, but Stoke – now bottom – were not very impressive and we’ll have tougher assignments than that before too long. Let’s pluck a day out of thin air and call it ‘Saturday’. (Because you can lol all you like about Chelsea’s start to the season but it won’t go on forever, and you know what I’m thinking anyway so I won’t say anymore).

The goal Walcott did score wouldn’t have been scored by Giroud and the goal Giroud scored wouldn’t have been scored by Walcott, so I suppose that indicates perfectly well the benefit of not just having more than one striker, but of having different kinds of strikers. I liked Gabriel and I liked Bellerin and I thought Coquelin was absolutely superb.

Ozil won man of the match – which came as a surprise to me if I’m honest. Of course, his pass to Walcott was inch-perfect, and maybe that’s enough to warrant it. I have since read glowing reports of his contribution and his seven chances created, but from my vantage point at the time, looking at all eleven players a little bit rather than one player a lot, it didn’t really feel that way. He seemed to get a bit bogged down out wide. I guess that’s why Ozil divides opinion, even now: he’s hard to pinpoint at times. He pulls the strings under the radar but a whiff of the hang-dog doesn’t do him any favours.

Anything else? Well, the slither of an away end – I’d say they took about a third of their allocation – seems to be happening more and more these days. I don’t know how much we asked Stoke fans to pay for the away end – certainly not 62 fat ones – but perhaps cost is having more of an effect than we think. Maybe I’m wrong – do Arsenal release stats on away end attendance?

Final thought: we’ve started alright but City are flying. They have so much strength in depth that when Sterling and Silva are both out, they can still keep £28.5m Otamendi and £55m de Bruyne on the bench. We’ve rotated a bit ourselves – only five players have started all five games – but once we have Wilshere back, we’ll have even more flexibility and options in the midfield, and over the course of a gruelling season, we’ll need it.

Talking of gruelling… this headline. But I won’t apologise.

Theo, nothing about signings, and the sound of ambition

I have very little to say about the England game – less than normal, in fact – other than to say that it will have done Theo a world of good to nab some goals. And he’s better on the right, but we know that anyway.

That position has to be back on the table from now, surely? I think we work better with pace on the flanks, and that’s the one thing he guarantees us. Against the massed ranks of defence that are now the norm at the Emirates, is he not a better option buzzing in from the right than trying to lead the line?

It leaves the usual midfield conundrum: who to drop to play him or Ox there? I think the only answer can be rotation, to be honest. Ozil one game, Ramsey another, Cazorla too – there is competition and competition is healthy. A little risky to change a proven system, but the upside is the revolutionary possibility of players staying fresher for longer.

We’re lucky we have options there to be honest. And when Jack returns, we’ll have even more. A glut of attacking midfielders to counter the reliance on Coquelin at the base – but I don’t want to go into that anymore. You could lose years off your life by fretting about our transfer strategy. Here we are and we have what we have. And time will tell us if what we have is enough.

Are we ambitious enough, as a club? And even if we are, are we ever going to be able to bridge that obvious gap between paying our way and accepting the largesse of a foreign owner keener on brand-building for a country than on making a profit? Actually, the Gooner covers that quite nicely here. Food for thought at any rate.

I will leave you with the below as more food for thought, because I’ve been pondering it since I read it a while back, and I’d be interested to know whether others agree or whether I’ve simply misjudged it. It’s something Brian Marwood said as Man City closed in on de Bruyne, and after the Champions League draw:

“We want to get as close to winning it as we possibly can. We’re in it to compete, not just to get through the group stage; it has to be more than that. We haven’t been shy of spending money over the years because we have an ambition to be successful. Last year was a disappointment – that is how we are measured now. We were hurt by not winning [the Premier League] last year and not doing better in the Champions League.”

Why did it stick with me? In one paragraph it sums up a sense of naked ambition and bullishness that, in Champions League terms at least, you don’t hear much from Arsenal (“When we talk about the destination, it’s not winning a Champions League, it’s making fans proud,” Gazidis said back in April). Maybe I missed the memo, and am judging harshly as a result. Five consecutive last-16 knockouts have turned me into the arch-cynic that I now am.

And maybe of course, he speaks like that because he can spend £49m and £58m on two players and not bat an eyelid. With FFP evaporating before our very eyes, it’s a case of ‘To the victors go the spoils’ – at least financially.

Signing Alexis and Ozil and Cech &c is a sign of ambition, right? It is, of course it is, and this squad is as good as we’ve had in perhaps seven years. But do we do enough? Or do we actually do all we can in a market where – rich though we are – we are simply not able to pull the shots when it comes to the top echelon of players?

Maybe it’s just a perception then, but to me it feels like we strive to qualify for the Champions League to keep our seat on the top table and to attract players, but without really thinking we have a chance of winning it.

The Champions League equivalent of the ‘fourth place trophy’…

Hindsight, transfers and hats.

It still takes me by surprise when the passage of time makes a result different. You’d have thought that 30 years of watching Arsenal in the flesh would have given me the wisdom of Herbert Chapman in these matters.

But there will be no statue outside the Emirates of me in a bowler hat, let me tell you now.

A 1-0 win is always a good win, sure, as all wins are, namely because they are wins and wins are good. But sometimes you get those weekends where the footballing deities conspire to cause havoc, and your win gets elevated beyond all reason. By this evening it was practically a 4-0 win. A winwin. In the absence of new signings, we can perhaps describe it as like a new win (#LANW).

OK, so we’re still missing a hatful of chances (I shall continue manfully with my headwear metaphor, don’t you worry about that), but we’ve at least headed into the international break* with three glorious points tucked into our trilbies. We’re now sixth and primed for a rappel up Mount Second. Now I’m mixing my metaphors, to cap it all off.

All eyes now on the next couple of days, because if Theo’s missed brace and Giroud’s half-arsed prod tell us anything, it’s that we aren’t lethal enough, at least not enough of the time. Owen Goal is our top scorer.

Wenger knows this; he’s said it himself. We’re searching day and night, on earth and across the entire galaxy, or so he tells us. He will not be getting much kippah, he assures us.

It would seem logical to me – he of no resemblance to Herbert Chapman – to have hoovered the business up a month ago, and let everyone else fret the bollocks off the next two days. But that’s not how it works.

On the one hand I understand how hard it is to buy ‘super super quality.’ Unless you’re Man City, where you remain free to inflate the market as you see fit, buying players while simultaneously making it harder for other teams to buy them, then I’m afraid you are behoven to other forces. Don’t like that? It’s a fact. We are rich but we are a rung down. Still don’t like that? Me neither. Thanks Platini.

But on the other hand, I think: surely there is someone we can take a punt on? Someone who may or may not work, but why not try it anyway? We have money. We have plenty of money.

So we shall see. I remain beret unexcited by the next two days – I just don’t see where that deal will come from. But I quite like the manufactured drama of deadline day, if only so I can go Defcon Cynical.

Even without the excitement of blow-up dolls, or fake shagging, transfer deadline is still jam-packed full of hot air, and much as I’d like to despise it, I find it strangely watchable.

So hold onto your hats. Ahem.

*Oh good. Another one.

Arsenal feel like they’re two players short, again

Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool

A weird game in which we should have been one nil up, then two nil down, and could finally have won. It was a defensive horror show in the first half but it became less terrifying as the game went on, but we didn’t have the firepower or the form to blow the doors off.

On the plus side, Cech and Coquelin excelled. Our new keeper found his feet and showed his value – though the amount he had to work probably gave him a sleepless night. He’d have been hoping for something more solid in front of him. Welcome to Arsenal, Petr!

Even with our first choice central defence, this is a creaky unit. With Chambers and Gabriel – little experience, no games so far, last-minute starters – it almost burst at the seams, though there were green shoots as the game wore on.

Loathe as I always am to pass judgement after just three matches, this has been, in Wenger’s own words, an average start with only two goals scored in three games (one by us and one own goal – though maybe Alexis’ header at Palace would have gone in anyway).

Last night, we felt a bit predictable and a bit narrow, and very sloppy, and for me it wasn’t until the Ox glued himself to the line that we stretched Liverpool as much as we needed to.

We need to find our form and we need to find it fast.

The strange thing about this summer of outfield inactivity is that, by not signing anyone, Wenger is relying on our current squad to organically improve by at least 12 points – or perhaps more. That feels to me like a very tall order indeed, and even more so given our start.

Without an addition or two, the forward momentum needed is hard to get or to keep. I like this squad a lot but it seems a risky strategy to me, and very presumptuous.

It feels to me that we are yet again two players short. It’s a sort of permanent Arsenal state of being. Theo is not a reliable striker and nor, at this stage, is Welbeck so we need a striker to ease the burden on Giroud – or to replace him as first choice, depending on who we can get. I know there aren’t many around, but that’s what we need.

We also need a Coquelin Mark 2. He was fabulous last night, if overrun, but he can’t do it all and we have nobody else with his energy. Not Arteta, not Flamini – two players who are in the twilight of their careers.

Are we too late? It’s only too late on September 2nd.

Double OG kick-starts Arsenal’s season

Crystal Palace 1-2 Arsenal

Well hello, season. Pleased to meet you. I’ve been away and yes thankyou, I’ve had a lovely time. Like Arsenal, I’m late to the party, but here I am at last.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t buy into some of gnashing and wailing that followed the West Ham defeat. It was a complacent start to the season (nervous? Spare me!) and we’ve seen that a few times before from Arsenal. In fact, it was straight from the Arsenal Handbook of Unexpected Losses. Chapter One. Case Study Two. Page 14 after a prologue from Gervinho and a dedication to Emmanuel Eboue.

But it was only one defeat, and damaging though they are, you can just as easily be undone by a string of draws.

That said, to stop the massed ranks of the broken crests from storming the ramparts, yesterday’s game at Palace took on the air of a ridiculously early six-pointer. Lose and we’d have been in pole position for Fourth Placed Trophy©, Collaps-o-Arsenal™ or even relegated. Or perhaps somewhere more nuanced.

Well, we staved that calamity off for another week with a hard-fought win. It was comfortable at first and wobbly at the end – which is what one goal leads tend to do to you. There was some sublime passing and crossing from Ozil, while Ramsey and Cazorla did well. Alexis gave us the zing we needed without, yet, the laser vision to get himself a goal. So overall it looked much more like the Arsenal we expected to see last weekend.

Coquelin was a touch possessed and had to be exorcised by being removed for Arteta. A bit of a concern given his importance to the team. I remain to be convinced that Arteta and Flamini are the best alternatives there and would be open to an addition, even if it meant Arsene being uncharacteristically ruthless and discarding one of the latter.

This was my first glimpse of Cech, and it’s fair to say he’s had a baptism of fire. A debut to forget, and could he have done more for Palace’s goal or was it just an unstoppable rasper? If it hadn’t dawned on him before, it probably has by now: Arsenal’s defence will never be as mean-spirited as Chelsea’s (usually is…)

As for the goal we did score, it was a belter. Giroud showed the kind of technical skill that he’s not given enough credit by scooping that out the air. Lovely strike.

Everything at this stage of the season seems absurdly extreme. We’ve gone from bottom of the table to eleventh, a mere three points off the top! We’re terrible! We’re brilliant!

Nobody ever used to give a fig about the league table until at least four or five games in, and that’s the way it should be, but no longer is. I’m not sure they’d even publish it in the paper until about mid-September.

We shouldn’t even look at it yet. All the teams are finding their feet. It’s the middle of August.

Of more concern to me is whether we’ve done enough business to keep things fresh, keep the momentum up, give ourselves the best options in all areas out and send out a statement of intent. I like this squad, but there can be no complacency.

It feels to me that there’ll be a lot of money spent elsewhere between now and September. Some silly money. Will we be partaking?

The summer of glove

What a pleasant football-less summer I’ve had to date. That’s the main point to take from the almost one month of nothingness from me. I can’t say I’ve missed it too much, frankly – I’ve even stopped watching re-runs of the cup final. I’ve made snarky comments (it’s the equivalent of keeping your engine ticking over) from the sidelines but apart from that – not a whole lot.

I’m pretty relaxed because I don’t subscribe to the theory that we are watching other sides tear past us as we dither and loll about in the transfer doldrums. This happens every single year – every year! – and we’re only 13 days into the actual transfer window. If I let myself get fried about it this early I’d end up looking like Emmett Brown (as opposed to Gilles Grimandi, or on a bad day, Leo Sayer).

And in Petr Cech, I think we’ve done an astute bit of business. (OK, I confess, I just wanted to shoehorn that headline in – apologies if I’m a month late and someone else beat me to it.) Our squad’s pretty strong and for a while now, for me it’s been more about how we play and set ourselves up, and less about who we actually have in our squad. I think we’ve made mental strides and are less naive.

| Do we need more goals? |

Now look, if we could secure a 25-goal striker, I’d be all over it. Goals are great and goals win you games. Not one of our defeats last season was by more than two goals, and most were by one.

That said, these things are never as simple as all that.

For a start, we can expect more goals from Welbeck next season. Maybe not 20, but more than 8. We can expect more from Walcott, if he stays, and stays fit. Giroud can bag a few more and the list goes on. There are more goals in this side from our strikers and from the midfield.

But we hardly shot blanks last season – we only scored two fewer league goals than Chelsea. They just happen to be a bit more solid than us, and they have a bloody-minded mentality that we are still learning.

So do I think we will buy a new striker? If one is available, I can see Wenger being ruthless as he was with our goalkeepers. And if Walcott leaves – yes probably. But I can also see him not signing a striker, and to be honest, would that be an unmitigated disaster?

| Elsewhere |

I don’t think we’re done yet. I couldn’t tell you who we’ll get or where, but Cech aside, it’s all housekeeping at the moment. New deal and loan for Jenks. A case of Poldi Lang Syne. Diaby has left the building – good luck to him. Sanogo will follow and so will others. We’re trimming the fat.

And now pre-season is upon us. There’s a game on Sky on Wednesday in Singapore. It’s sort of kind of back!

Creaking back!

The arrival of an Arsenal legend

It won’t have passed you by that today is a significant anniversary.

That’s right, it’s eighteen years and three days since Gilles Grimandi joined Arsenal, a signing that heralded in mops of curly hair and, erm, mops of curly hair. As someone with a mop of curly hair, I mark this seminal moment every year by wearing my Grimandi 18 shirt – possibly the only one ever sold – bouffanting my hair up à la Gilles, then heading outside and needlessly getting in someone’s face with a ‘bof’ and a shrug of the shoulders.

It’s also 20 years since a bloke called Dennis joined. I’ve got used to the years zipping by, but twenty years! Oh Dennis, you beauty. You glorious, joy-bringing bugger. You silky-footed tease.

I wrote this about him for the Arsenal Magazine in 2014, just as his statue was unveiled:

“I was driving across London when I heard on the radio that Arsenal had signed Dennis Bergkamp. Dennis Bergkamp! At Arsenal! I pulled over at the nearest shop and bought every single newspaper I could get my hands on. I was at Highbury later that summer to see him score his first two goals against Southampton, and can remember the ecstasy like it was yesterday. Such calmness, power, precision and skill. Wow. That was the effect Bergkamp had on the club and the fans – he brought some much-needed stardust to a team that had grown tired. He was a world class player who was signed in his prime for a huge fee and his arrival took Arsenal off in a different direction. We didn’t know it at the time, but Bergkamp’s arrival was to herald a new era in which the football Arsenal had been synonymous with for years (sometimes a little unfairly) was swept away by a more technical, stylish approach. We’re still playing that way today, and while Bergkamp can’t take all the credit, he has written himself – effortlessly, of course – into Arsenal folklore.”

The word legend is bandied around fairly carelessly these days, but Bergkamp is a bona fide, card-carrying legend.

World class brilliance.

Twenty years!

Come back, Dennis!

(By train, obviously.)