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.

Left-back wings it to save the day

Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham

You wouldn’t have put much money on the cavalry arriving wearing a number three shirt and some underused boots, but Gibbs’ contribution was one of the nicer stories to emerge from a match that was at times pretty tough viewing for Arsenal fans. A gentle reminder from our left-back that it wasn’t that long ago we were all impressed at how he’d kept Monreal frustrated on the bench.

He was also the only British player on the pitch for Arsenal, with our cavalcade of homemade players all out injured or glued to the bench. It’s quite staggering that five of our injured core are British. Coincidence? Probably, but still.

It wasn’t that Joel Campbell played that badly; he fought manfully for the most part, and the fact he could not make a lot happen was not his problem alone. Is he good enough? His position as about seventh choice suggests not, but you can’t fault his workrate and he has proved his value as a squad member over the last four games.

The whole team struggled badly in the first half against an impressively committed and tenacious Spurs side, and that Cech was so impressive (and busy) says it all.

So a point is an excellent result given the circumstances, and focus now must go on getting some of that long line of injured players back within two weeks. There’s no doubt that the Cazorlas and Alexis’ of this world are running on empty – it’s a massive worry. In a perfect world (*sigh*) there’d be scope to rotate a bit when legs get this weary. But we have nothing else in the wardrobe other than Wilshere-shaped mothballs.

The thing is, as has been proven time and again, when we’re talking about Arsenal and injuries there’s no such thing as a perfect world – or if there is, it’s something like ‘only five men are out’.

That’s why we need to strengthen the overall squad in January. We have to accept that we are horribly injury-prone and adjust our thinking accordingly. What happens if, as if by some act of god, we were to buy two players and then everyone miraculously got fit? Surely it’s better to manage players’ frustrations at not playing than to grind the same core of fit ones into the ground.

Over to you Tony Colbert. May the Shad Forsythe be with you.

Assisters are doin’ it for themselves

Watford 0-3 Arsenal

At nil nil, as the minutes rolled on with the Hornets going shoulder to shoulder with Arsenal, I began to stew more and more on the FA Cup quarter final defeat in March 1987 when we lost 3-1 at Highbury. We should never have lost that. Bloody Watford! They were our bogey team then and yes – when it comes to Arsenal at least – I am not quick to forgive.

I needn’t have worried. Just when it was required, our resilience turned to ruthlessness and a ten-minute salvo buried the ghost of Barnes. Alexis – who else – hoovered up the ball from Ozil, saving the referee the bother of having to award a penalty. Just the seven in four for his club, or ten in six if you prefer. The man lifts us up by his bootstraps.

Giroud, who whether he likes it or not is becoming an effective supersub, then scored from another Ozil assist before Ramsey got his first of the season from a Bellerin assist.

Hey assister

Ozil created six chances yesterday, and this is Ozil at his finest: the essence of Mesut. Ghosting here and there, stretching defences and performing as a quiet assassin. He’s just so key to Arsenal now. Yes, he still has the odd peripheral game but he’s only human. Mostly, he’s just metronomically good.

Go assister

Ozil this, Ozil that – but what about Bellerin? If Coquelin was the story of last season then Bellerin is perhaps this season’s classic Wenger development. Last year Bellerin broke through, but Debuchy was nominally the number one. Now, there’s really no argument about who’s our best right back. Yesterday, again, Bellerin’s pace and directness caused havoc and led to a goal.

I heard it mentioned a few times last week, but he’s top of the ‘Clear Cut Chances Created’ list in the entire league this season. Let’s ignore for a second that this chart has clearly been made up. It’s still bloody impressive and in Ozil and Bellerin we have two outlets across the width of the pitch. Happy days.

Soul assister

What’s heartening is that we can now marry resilience with patience and then pounce. Though there were a few hairy moments (BFG and Cech almost conspired to do an Almunia), and had Watford chosen the right club they might have got closer to the green rather than hooking and slicing all over the place, the fact is we didn’t panic and when our chance came we took it.

Go assister

The spectre of Bayern clearly wasn’t looming that large, and the international week did not damage us too much, because it was an impressive second half performance all told. We go to Tuesday in good form, but in terms of qualification, probably with little expectation.

I think that might help us, and in our current form it could be fascinating. It’s an odd one for me, because on the one hand it would be incredible to clonk the unassailable Bavarians on the noggin, but I’ve got used to the concept of being out of it again this year, so I don’t envisage voluminous wailing on my behalf if we lose.

We certainly couldn’t have asked for much more by way of preparation.

Top work!

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.