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.

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.

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.

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


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.