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.

Coq off, Coq down and Coq out

Tottenham 2-2 Arsenal

‘Arsenal fans are too demanding’, people say. ‘They have unrealistic expectations’. ‘They turn on their team too easily’.

What a load of piffle. The reason Arsenal fans have been frustrated to within an inch of their threshold is because of the way the team has been playing, on and off for the whole of this calendar year. All the other gripes – ownership, ambition, prices, manager – then bubble up from under the surface and add to the toxic foment.

But overall it’s the way we’ve been playing. Running scared, too supine, too easy to play against, too slow, too predictable.

But yesterday, a little tardily but better late than never, we turned up. We can have frustrations, but overall we played aggressively and directly in difficult circumstances. And guess what? We were good to watch for the first time in ages.

Good to watch! For simple people like me, that really is enough. I’m happy. I want to see football that gets me going and makes me proud and makes me look forward to the next game, and yesterday ticked many of the boxes.

Wenger twisted with the line-up, bringing in Gibbs (slightly enforced) for Monreal, Welbeck for Giroud and Elneny for Ramsey, with the Welshman moving into the right-hand side vacuum. It worked.

It was immediately obvious that we had more defensive solidity in central midfield, and Elneny in particular looked impressive, mopping up and distributing in a no-nonsense way. His partner? Coquelin could not have been more naive if he tried, lunging in for an obvious yellow-card offence when he was already on a yellow. Unbelievably daft.

He apologised afterwards and that’s the least he could do, because who knows what might have happened had we held on at 1-0, not just in this game but – however far-fetched – in the title race itself? At least he only misses one match, and that’s the FA Cup replay.

Ramsey’s improvised back-heel that gave us that lead was glorious, and at that point we were in the ascendancy. Ospina had made one excellent save (though I do wish he’d catch the ball, not parry it; maybe that was the rain) and he had a decent afternoon overall.

Once Coquelin departed, it all changed. We left too much space on the far post twice, and were punished on the second occasion. Then Mertesacker lost Kane and the resulting goal was, to be fair, very well taken.

Honestly, I thought that was that. When we went a goal down at United it was classic Collaps-o-Arsenal. When we went 2-1 down on Wednesday it was clear that would be how it remained.

But yesterday we stepped it up. Apart from one heart-stopping Gabriel slice and one over-elaborate save by Ospina, we looked pretty comfortable. At the other end, Sanchez did what we’ve been crying out for Arsenal players to do for what seems like months: he shot without taking an extra touch. Boom! If ever there was a player who needed a goal, it’s Alexis and he saved our bacon with that one beautifully-timed moment. Right at the death, Ramsey could have even stolen a winner had he followed Alexis’ example and shot first time.

A word about Mertesacker. He took some brickbats for the Kane goal but I was really impressed with him overall. His timing was excellent and he intercepted Tottenham balls through the middle time and again. More of a worry is probably Gabriel, who was skittish again. But he got away with it yesterday.

Gibbs too did very well, and I’m quite sad about his possible impending departure. He’s more direct and quicker than the (more) dependable Monreal, but with a run of games he’s still an excellent full-back and I can’t help but feel that, should he bid us farewell in the summer, someone will get a very good player coming into the best years of his career. I hope he doesn’t go.

So where does this leave us? I think if we’re honest, the title remains the longest of long shots, even if we summon this kind of performance in every remaining game. We are a long way off, even if it’s not an impossible distance.

But to have even the vaguest chance we can’t let this upswing in performance be a one-off. We have to step up to the plate and prove that the last three months have been an aberration and not the norm.

You will excuse me for being cynical, because we’ve been too average for too long. If we switch off again we’re not only down and out in an already improbable title race, but we’ll be looking over our shoulders at the other teams mustering some fine end-of-season form.

There can be no more excuses.

Meek Arsenal are all at sea

Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal

The baffling thing yesterday was not so much that we lost – because lord knows, name a circumstance and Arsenal can magic up a defeat for it – but that we were, and still are, nominally in the hunt for the title. We look as if someone has poured us into the league table but forgot to say ‘when’.*

Up against an injury-ravaged team suffering from its own existential crisis, we excelled ourselves by bringing all of our own majestic psychological demons to the party.

And what a party it was. As if it wasn’t bad enough to be dishevelled in defence, inadequate in midfield and largely invisible up front, yesterday we simply did not look like a team that believes it can go all the way or has the stomach for the challenge ahead. We were well beaten and we were beaten too easily.

Congratulations to Marcus Rashford, by the way, who looked hungry and direct and fresh – all the things Arsenal weren’t. In two matches over four days he has scored ⅔ of the amount of goals Theo Walcott has scored all season. More on Theo later.

The comparison with the 3-0 at home, when we unleashed the dogs of war and blew United away in the blink of an eye, does not bear making. We’ve been harping on about that, and about City at home and one or two others, but sandwiched between all that has been a lot of stodgy football.

I don’t know what’s happened to this side, but something is missing. Welbeck’s late, great winner at Leicester was a moment to savour, but it didn’t spark us back into life as we’d hoped it would.

Our form has simply evaporated since Christmas. The best thing you can say is that we’ve hung in there, but the chance to win the most winnable of leagues is withering before our eyes unless we can engineer the kind of turnaround in form that seems entirely beyond us. Unless we can remove the lead boots.

I know it’s far from impossible, but where’s the belief? Where’s the bloody-mindedness? Who’s driving us forward? We weave pretty enough patterns, but the ruthless end product is absent.

You can’t get away with it when so many players are playing within themselves. Gabriel did not look ready to come back into a game like this, Coquelin struggled, Ramsey was ineffective and up front we basically carried two players. Wenger went top-heavy to generate some attacking momentum, but playing Alexis and Theo through these stormclouds of form is not working at all.

At least with Alexis you can say he never gave up: even if nothing else is working for him he tries to make things happen. But Walcott? I’ve stuck up for Theo many time before, but he was absolutely invisible yesterday. He’s too often invisible.

Three wins in ten does not tell a lie. With an injury list that has eased over the last month, now was meant to be the time to move up through the gears.

United away is always tough because it’s United away. But we wilted too easily against a far from vintage side. I don’t buy the notion that it’s a physical hangover after being ridden roughshod by Barcelona’s possession football, because there were five days between the two games and Utd played on Thursday too.

It’s as much psychological as it is physical – Arsenal’s great Achilles heel, some would say – and Wenger’s got about six days to fix it, via a midweek home game, before our Saturday lunchtime derby delight.

On yesterday’s evidence, I won’t hold my breath. But Arsenal are odd, football is odd and you just never know.

*With the greatest of apologies to P.G.Wodehouse.

Arsenal fluff their lines again

Arsenal 0-1 Chelsea

A weary sense of familiarity abounded after another crack at breaking Chelsea’s strange grip on Arsenal failed, practically before it had begun.

If Chelsea were meant to be the team lacking any confidence, then you wouldn’t have known it from the way the game started. Instead, it was Arsenal that began timidly, standing off their opponents and giving them plenty of time in midfield to start believing it could be their day.

Even before Mertesacker’s foolish tackle gave Costa all the encouragement he needed to swing the game in Chelsea’s favour, the warning signs were there. We weren’t at the races, and then we handed the match to them on a platter.

It was classic Costa: going down in a pirouette of agony despite barely – if at all – being touched, just to make sure the ref would get the message. He could probably have stayed on his feet and headed towards goal. That said, what was Mertesacker thinking? That kind of tackle had red card written all over it, touch or no touch. We all said it as soon as he’d done it, and off trotted Per without a backwards glance. It was a brainless tackle from someone normally so calm. So the gameplan, which was already bearing no fruit, went up in smoke.

Off went Giroud, a decision that in hindsight went wrong too. Wenger wanted to retain the capacity to hurt Chelsea on the break, but Cap’n Walcott barely scratched the surface of the match (though the linesman’s arm will have known it was in a game) and Campbell struggled to make any impact.

That Chelsea then scored seemed somewhat inevitable, and that it was Costa, strutting in front of the North Bank like a peacock, even more so.

So a terrible first half, really. We all wanted Arsenal to lay down a marker, but they once again played within themselves when it mattered, with a place at the top at stake, and against a team that brings out the worst in us.

Of course things got better – half-time rockets up half-time arses tend to have an effect – and in the second half we saw Monreal and Bellerin getting behind the defence a bit. Alexis came on and the place lifted, and there was the odd goalmouth scramble for our efforts. But in the end, Chelsea held on relatively easily against our ten men. One shot on target tells you as much. You can’t fault the spirit but the damage was done.

Wenger, as you’d expect, tried to accentuate the positive:

Despite the disappointing result, we should have even more belief in ourselves after the game, when I see how it went.

I hope he’s right but that could be wishful thinking, because at the end of the day we lost a game we really needed to win to give us the confidence to push on. We just weren’t good enough, dangerous enough or canny enough, and that’s a big worry.

Where does this leave us? Well, I was reticent to talk us up too much when our form was good, after we’d beaten Man City and played our way out of the Champions League group stages, because we’ve been here before and winning titles, as we all know, is bloody hard. Plus, while this is a good Arsenal side, it is not yet a great one.

Our form over the last few weeks has simply backed my caution up. Draws at Liverpool and Stoke are good results, most years. Losing at home to Chelsea is an awful one, but not fall-off-the-stool surprising. But taken as a whole that makes it two points from nine, and that’s hardly championship form.

We need to find form and we need to find it now. What else is there to say?

The good, the bad and the 90th minute equaliser

Liverpool 3-3 Arsenal

There are no two ways about it: letting a win slip in the 90th minute is always the kind of result that gnaws away at you. Two points, up in a puff of smoke.

Sadly, it had been coming for a good 15 minutes. We slowly relinquished possession as the clock wound down and in the end we paid for it. Our defence, which looked like it was weathering the storm, could in the end only bale so much water out. “We have to look at ourselves”, said Wenger of the 90th minute goal, “that should not happen”.

It was a crazy game though; open beyond belief and it could quite easily have ended 5-5. Is this the way to mount a title challenge? Rapier, darting forward movement but a bit leaky at the back? Who knows – but we are still joint top.

Such a shame for Giroud, who put in the most majestic stint holding the line, scoring two and coming oh-so-bafflingly close to a hat-trick. And gutting for Joel Campbell, who worked himself into the ground and came up with the assist of the game for Ramsey’s equaliser.

I maintain it’s a good point, though plenty disagree now. Liverpool has never been an easy place to go for Arsenal and we have had far worse results there. Whether we end up regretting it is one for the future. If that’s the case we will regret losing badly at Southampton and West Brom too, and probably more.

Absent friends, as it turns out, are a point of regret too. Would this have been different if we’d had Coquelin? We might have had more bite in midfield and shielded the defence better. Alexis, too, with his dynamism and capacity for the extraordinary, will be welcomed back with open arms.

Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere, Coquelin, Alexis, Welbeck? Look, I’m not sure whether we can last the distance, but given the injuries we’ve had and still have, we’re having a decent crack at it.

Ozil’s magic wand-feet

IMG_3269

Arsenal 2-0 Bournemouth

Had Mesut Ozil, in a puff of smoke, magicked up a rabbit on the edge of the box yesterday, I don’t think many present would have batted an eyelid. “It’s just Ozil, nicking a living in the magic circle”, they would have said as a rapid-fire of diagonal balls plopped invitingly onto various players’ (thought mostly Theo Walcott’s) feet.

He was sublime, immense, and simply unstoppable yesterday. His assist record is through the roof, but just occasionally he gets bored of altruism and assists himself to an assist, and then scores. Because he can, right.

We have run out of superlatives in this more superlative of seasons for Ozil, so I’m going to invent one. It’s !!!!!!!. I just don’t know how to pronounce it yet.

Incredible stats for an incredible player.

Back in the saddle we all got, and Ozil took it upon himself to make us all consider the Southampton game as an aberration. We weren’t at our fluid best but we did more than enough to win easily, and could have had a few more.

Actually, there was another interesting subplot: The Forgotten Four.

OK, they’re not remotely forgotten, but I’m too lazy to think of anything more suitable. The four who came in to replace weary limbs – Gabriel, Gibbs, Chambers and The Ox – all had something to prove, and offered timely reminders that they are indeed still here.

Gabriel was particularly impressive: all energy, bite and determination, with a thunder-header marking his arrival in the pantheon of Arsenal scorers.

But I rated the other three, too. Gibbs had a solid game, Chambers acquitted himself very well at defensive midfield (not bossing, but not hiding), while Oxlade-Chamberlain had his best game for a while. When he turns, faces and runs at people you realise what a formidable presence he can be. Defenders don’t like that one bit and that sense of fear is what the Ox needs to offer more.

What else? Walcott was served chance after chance on a platter, but had one of those days. When he did fizz one past the post, he should perhaps have crossed it to Ramsey at the far post instead. Easy to judge in hindsight I know – he played well, but stuff just wasn’t quite coming off, and that happens.

So top we go in this most baffling of seasons, and that’s pretty amazing given the stodge we served up on the south coast on Boxing Day.

But yesterday was all about Mesut Ozil, the most creative, magical player in the Premier League this season.

Arsenal opened wide on Unboxing Day

Southampton 4-0 Arsenal

That was, even with the benefit of a good night’s sleep to mull it over followed by a cup of tea that contained the ideal mixture of heat, strength and milk, a wretched performance.

It’s made me gloomier than I thought it would – than I have been for a while about Arsenal, certainly – because it arrived unheralded, and just at the time when I had allowed myself to be swept along – if only in my head – by ‘the hope’.

Ah, ‘the hope’. Damn it all with bells on.

But first, credit where it is due to Saints, who were precisely the opposite of Arsenal. Confident, energetic, lethal and full of goals, just at a time when you expected it least (my Saints-supporting friend from work, who has followed their strange season home and away, thought Arsenal might score three of four).

Arsenal, when presented with the opportunity to go top, slipped and fell. You can just about get away with one player underperforming, but what happened to our team yesterday? There were six or seven shockers from players who have otherwise been as reliable as clockwork. We were anonymous up front, a creaking mess at the back and never bossed it in midfield. It’s baffling, and yet not so baffling, because we can switch off. And yesterday we had no answer in the face of concerted pressure.

A few Twitter souls dragged me off the gloom precipice last night, reminding it me that it’s been a strange season all round (it has), that being tonked for four is bad but needs context (it does). Nevertheless, there are no positives to take from it, only gentle reminders that there’s a lot of work to do in order to keep our league position up and that Arsenal still – albeit less frequently – contain a self-destructive gene.

If you’re looking for answers, perhaps the fact we are relying on the same XI would be a place to start. They looked tired, even though they’ve had five days off, and they’ve got to do it all again tomorrow. There’s not much light at the end of the tunnel there though, apart perhaps in defence – we’re scraping the barrel and our one main attacking alternative, the Ox, is a strange husk of himself at the moment. We have some very damaging injuries, as we all know.

Wenger had a poke at the ref, but let’s not pretend we were robbed by the ref. That’s just disingenuous. As soon as the first Southampton goal went in, Arsenal crumbled and disappeared. We could have lost by more than four.

It was a Boxing Day massacre. We can’t afford too many more days at the office like that.

Joyeux Joel and a Happy New Giroud!

Olympiacos 0-3 Arsenal

I have vacillated about Arsenal’s chances in this must-win ding-dong for several weeks now. Curiously positivity after the Zagreb game was followed by gloomy no-hope once Alexis and Cazorla keeled over injured.

What we got – out of the blue, you’d have to say – was the kind of performance where we’re left scratching our head, muttering “why don’t we do this more often?”

Disciplined, focused, ruthless, solid: it was a performance in which everyone played a part, and no more so than two of our oft-maligned players.

Giroud was simply glorious – ballsy and powerful and determined – and his performance helped write the story of Arsenal’s ‘great escape’. Yes, he’s a curious beast but maybe we just have to learn to accept that footballers are all different. When he’s not in a game, he’s not in it at all. When he’s tired, he’s a shadow of his normal self. But when he’s like this, he’s a superb footballer and Olympiacos – on the threshold of qualification, let’s not forget – simply had no answer.

And for a blows-hot-and-cold player, Giroud’s goalscoring record continues to stand up to scrutiny. Last season, despite the world’s most curious leg break ruling him out for months, he notched a very decent 19 goals. This year, despite mixed form, he’s already scored 13 goals. There’s nothing to say he can’t score over 20 goals this season, which is a decent return by any accounts.

Then there’s Joel Campbell, once about seventh in the pecking order and so close to the exit door he could feel the cold whooshes of air each time it opened.

Not now, you have to say, after his best performance for the club by a distance. He worked hard, was a dangerous outlet at all times and the way he set up Giroud’s second goal was just brilliant. I’m liking what I see, and while he might never be a world-beater, (or even at Arsenal beyond this season), who doesn’t enjoy it when a player takes his chance and makes the most of it? That he has leapt ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain in the pecking order seems clear. It’s something to ponder for the Ox, whose form has, somewhat worryingly, evaporated.

A really heartening performance then, and one that we really should give us a good platform as the Christmas rush hits. It *ought* to be a huge boost, though by adding a couple of stars in there I am of course caveating the hell out of it safe in the knowledge that this is, after all, Arsenal we are talking about.

Into the last 16 of the Champions League again, and let’s save the cynicism of what could befall us in the next round for another time.

This is one to savour.

Arsenal suffer a collective bad hair day

W.B.A. 2-1 Arsenal

I’m not sure whether ‘a bad day at the office’ does this one justice, though Arsenal clearly did lose the document they were working on, said something inopportune to Dave in accounts by the water cooler, before forgetting to submit their timesheet [this metaphor needs more work – Ed].

It was a classic case of Arsenal coming to the party with a chilled six-pack of their greatest weaknesses [now you’re mixing them – Ed]. Dreadful, switched-off defending, a key injury, his replacement having a mare then getting injured, a glaring miss, possession for possession’s sake and finally a lifeline spurned with a ballooned slip-up of a penalty.

It goes without saying that we should never have lost it – Cazorla’s penalty alone should have guaranteed that – but we shot ourselves in the foot with what Wenger called a “nightmare” performance where we “lost a bit of focus” and compounded it with “very, very poor” defending.

Honestly, we have seen it all before. Thankfully a little less frequently in recent times, so maybe it was at least an uncharacteristically characteristic Arsenal performance.

You could argue, in fact, that it’s been a horrible November (and don’t we know about those) because we’ve not played well since winning in Swansea on 31st October. Better to get a blip in form out the way now rather than in February? Yes.

I say that because the other night Sky Sports reminded me, thanks to a bout of insomnia, how competitive we had been in 2013-14 until the rot set in with that 5-1 trousering at Anfield. Our form has plenty of time to pick up. But with so many players injured – yes I am using it as an excuse, because it really is a massive factor – perhaps a loss of form was unavoidable.

To top it off, we lost Coquelin yesterday for time unknown. Please don’t say it’s a classic three-weeker, because ever since our inactive summer his has been the position most people have fretted most about in terms of depth. As Arteta showed yesterday, he’s simply not a DM, and that he’s at the tail end of his career is plain to see. Flamini is a decent squad player, but no match for Coquelin.

Ozil had a fine game but too many of the others didn’t. Bellerin looked rusty, Gibbs did OK (but is no winger), Alexis looked like a man who’s been overplayed and travelled across hemispheres, Campbell missed his one chance and neither of our central defenders were quite there.

To sum up: poor and a bit dispiriting. Much improvement needed and to say we are desperate for some players to come back is an understatement. It will make a massive difference.

Zagreb on Tuesday. At least we’re back in the saddle quickly, but Tony Colbert’s going to need to soak his magic sponge with some of Getafix’s potion.