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.

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.

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.