Where’s my commemorative pen, Arsène?

Chapeau to you Arsène, for 20 years of dedication, for transforming Arsenal and for giving us some truly magical moments.

For 98, 02, 03, 04, 05, 14 and 15 and plenty of what-might-have-beens between.

For pushing Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, Keown and Adams that bit further. For Vieira, for Overmars, for Henry, for Pires, for Campbell, Fabregas, Ozil and Sanchez.

For never finishing below Spurs.

Yes, it’s been up and down. We’ve moved from dour to delicious, and back a bit. We’ve been beautiful but brittle – sometimes at the same time.

We’ve been fabulous and frustrating. We’ve had it all these last twenty years to be honest, and while – like many people – I question Wenger’s teams, tactics and future more than I ever did, I rate him so highly as a man.

He’s an amazing ambassador and figurehead for Arsenal. He’s intelligent, educated and sharp. We know that he can be stubborn and difficult, but in public he’s loyal to his players and loyal to the club, and he never makes it about himself. I suppose you could say he’s a company man, even if it sometimes feels like he’s the company.

So congratulations, Arsène. It takes rare passion and skill to last this long, to be this consistent and to retain a good sense of humour when jobsworths like me criticise you. If it had been me, I’d have caved in at the first whiff of criticism.

It seems like a pleasant coincidence that as we look back at his reign, his latest team has hit a vein of form. I wonder if people would have worded things differently had we been wading through stodge on the pitch.

Probably. But I try to look at the bigger picture, and Wenger’s time at Arsenal will be remembered as hugely successful on the pitch, and transformative off it. We have a lot to thank him for.

Oh, and Arsène – I’ve been blogging about you and your sides since 2003, mostly without resorting to abuse – and for that I demand my own commemorative pen like the ones you so generously gave the members of Her Majesty’s press.

DM me and I’ll fire over my deets, fam.

He’s lost that loving feeling

It seems faintly ludicrous to describe the second game of the season as a ‘must-win’, but that’s where we appear to be.

The biggest alarm bell last week for me was not the lack of signings. We can berate the lack of movement but in reality we cannot judge the state of the squad until the deadline day circus has finally left town. Football has the extraordinary knack of feeling entirely different one week to the next. That’s why I’m not hanging the season out to dry after week one.

That said, I do think Wenger has been dithering at a time when we need ambition and direction and decisiveness. Whether fairly or not, it gives the impression that we have not planned our summer well enough and are not being ruthless enough reacting to things (injuries) that are out of our control.

However, I do also agree that the market is insane. Wenger is not the only one to decry this; Chelsea’s new boss has been saying something similar. It’s as mad as a sack of badgers.

So no, that’s not what worried me most. What worried me more was the utter collapse of the early second half – the kind of cave-in that we have seen time and again with the late Wenger-era Arsenal and is so commonplace that it’s no biggie. Forget the veneer of respectability added by Ox and Chambers; we were 4-1 down at home and utterly ragged after 18 minutes of the second half, having entirely dominated the first half. The worry is that no amount of new players will fix that because we switched off and it’s a mental, structural thing.

I suppose you could say this for any one of the last three of four years, but this feels like Wenger’s last season to me. I’m not saying that because I think we’ll do badly this year – there are 37 games left, after all, and we have a decent if incomplete squad. I think it is his last year whether we win the league or come seventh.

21 years is a long time and it just feels as though that time is near. Not just practically, with his contract being up. But psychologically, the well of patience is empty now and the pressure at the slightest hiccup is very real. We all sense it and he does too. Wenger’s shine is wearing off.

This is all hypothesis though. Today – August 20th! – we need to win to get back on track. We need to control the game and we need to be ruthless. We need to bring back our best players, because we need them badly. We need a reaction. Same words, different season, but that’s what we need.

A win at the champions will go some way to zipping the naysayers.

For now.

I’m just not feeling the panic

Lacazette

Two months and no posts. That is without doubt the longest I have ever left it fallow since raising the mainsail on this blog, all those mixed metaphors ago.

And I tell you what – I let my mind chunter off elsewhere most summers and it’s a joy. I recommend it. Yes, I’ve thrown some shoddy wordplay into Twitter from time to time before scurrying away, but not paying too much attention to the (let’s be frank, limited) transfers has done me no end of good.

The result? I’ve not whipped myself up into a megafrenzy about not landing that £50m striker. I’m just looking forward to the season starting and getting back into the routine. Simple man, simple pleasures.

I say that, but now that I tally the fixtures with my actual life, I’m not in fact going to the first two games, so won’t be at the Emirates until 24th September for our annual home handbrake to Chelsea. That might explain my sanguine disposition.

Xhaka happened so long ago that people forget he was a £35m signing, but I do concede that there are yawning gaps in our squad that need filling. The mixed messages from Chief Ivan have not helped matters but it’s pretty clear we’re looking, as two rejections of different kinds prove (Vardy and now Lacazette).

Of course, there are those who will decry a £35m bid for Lacazette as low-balling and arrogant, but isn’t that how prices get sorted, whether they are houses, car boot sales or players? Coming in lowish rather than slinging £60m at the problem as a first bid seems sensible to me. No?

So as it stands we have one ready-made in Xhaka and two ‘prospects’ in Rob Holding and a Takuma Asano.

My guess? There will be a fair bit of activity yet. No, we might not get it all done by 14th August, but that’s the nature of the market.

And if we fire blanks until September? Well then we can all drop the panic anchor and stagger off the plank wailing.

Still looking forward to the season, though 😉

Uh-oh, it’s the ‘O’ word 

I knew it wouldn’t take long.

It started with the last day’s rib-tickling second place, then after a few weeks of thinking about other things, it picked up when we announced Granit Xhaka.

That’s right, I’m optimistic again, a one-man testament to the ability of the human spirit to look on the bright side. 

The new shirt hoved into view with some new shirt numbers and of course, a new midfielder, and – blow me down with a feather – I’m now peering ahead to August with a sense of real anticipation.

I’ve conveniently locked away the ponderous football that was too prevalent, the mental cave-ins when the going got tough and Wenger’s struggles. 

Now I’m hoovering up stories about possible signings and actually expecting things to happen. I’m thinking how a tough midfielder might glue our creaky defence to our creative midfielders. And what a new striker might do to our ‘expected goals’ spreadsheet. 

This, I suppose, is why we have a close season. To recharge the batteries, reset the mind, dust ourselves down and jog right on. 

Chambers spot 

Forgotten man, isn’t he? Is he a right-back, is he a centre-back, is he a holding midfielder? Calum Chambers came with a big price tag and here we are two years later, none the wiser.  

But I like the guy and I can’t help but feel that some people are doing the classic ‘write him off at 22’ thing. Most defenders don’t peak until they’re older and he’s still got time. 

Why am I talking about him? Because lo and behold he’s captaining the England u21s at the Toulon tournament, and England have got to the final for the first time in 22 years.

I’m not sure how influential he’s been, but Henry Winter, writing in today’s Times, speculates that with Gary Cahill struggling, Hodgson could “conceivably summon Chambers” for the Euros.

I can’t see that, personally, but it’s a reminder that we shouldn’t write him off just yet. In fact I’m looking forward to seeing more of him next season.

Blog updates 

I always start the summer with good intentions to write more, and it often comes to naught. But I’m going to try.

Beyond that, we’ll all be pretty busy dodging incoming transfers to think about much else, won’t we.

Won’t we?

Does hope really spring eternal?

A month has leaked away since my last post, and despite a recent uptick in form and results, I’m struggling to get goodly excited by what’s left of this campaign. I have been semi-detached for some time; let’s call it the open close season. I’ve missed a few games for one reason or another and – honestly – I haven’t missed it.

Swansea at home slugged my faint league hopes across the chops, we toppled out of the European Cup in the usual place and at the usual time, and we then got our left and boots muddled up in our one realistic remaining trophy hunt. Watford – since handsomely and easily despatched – look ahead to Wembley while we look ahead to… to what exactly?

Well, Wenger continues to argue that there’s still plenty to play for, and I suppose he has to. In my fleeting moments of wild optimism I look at the fixtures and think: ooh, Leicester and Tottingham have got some tough games, and if we go on a juicy run then this might happen and that might happen and ooof, suddenly it could be a massive case of Crikey George, crumbs-this-is-hotting-up.

But in my heart of hearts I accept it’s as good as over. I don’t think Wenger will be turning water into wine. It feels far likelier that Ranieri will be turning Drinkwater into Drinkwine (tortured analogy – please rewrite – Ed).

Yes, there’s room for optimism after two very good wins. Wenger has hit upon a midfield formula with the quietly excellent Elneny at its heart. Iwobi – promoted because nothing else was working or nobody else was fit – is that fair or am I being a bit harsh? – has jumped at the chance and scattered the Walcotts of this world to the four winds, and Welbeck’s dynamism has added pace to our game when it was desperately needed.

But it’s only been two games, and it’s probably too late, so it does feel a bit as if the next month is little more than a procession to the usual destination. Of course it’s not over till it’s over, but Leicester are showing little generosity of spirit to poor old stumbling Arsenal, the selfish swine. Can’t they see we’ve had a rotten time of it?

This season for Arsenal has largely played out barring the kind of finale we all dream about (but mostly wake up from just when it gets good and realise we have to go to work and it’s raining and cold). There will be a massive post-mortem to accompany the lengthy pre-mortem that’s been going on since Collaps-o-Arsenal™ reared its ugly head on Boxing Day. I can’t say I look forward to that.

But until then, there’s always the slither of hope. Because if relegation-haunted Sunderland roll the right Allardyce and pull off a much-needed home win, and if we continue our decent burst of form with a win at Upton Park, and if things click for United over at our friendly neighbours, well then, we’d find ourselves if not in the thick of it then very much approaching the thickness of it, and well, should that come to pass then – eek! – this is totally game on and what was I thinking detaching myself from one of the most exciting title races of all time?

Hope, eh?

It’s a right sod.

Here we go again, and I can’t wait

Arsenal v Barcelona 2011
Remember the last time? Remember the pocket Russian’s thunderbolt?

It’s amazing how quickly you forget a frustrating, rain-spattered nil-nil draw when you have the small matter of a European Cup tie against Barcelona looming, isn’t it?

Yes of course, the draw for the European Cup could have pitted us against CSKA Moscow or Bordeaux, but where’s the fun in that? To me, the European Cup is about glamour and butterflies in the stomach and gladiatorial footballing contests. This is the kind of tie – a European Cup quarter-final against the best team in Europe – that most fans of most teams would dream of. It’s the best draw.”

No, I haven’t got muddled up or misplaced my marbles. That’s a snippet from my preview of the 2010 tie against Barcelona and the sentiment remains pretty much exactly the same. It’s still glamorous. There are still butterflies. And Barcelona are still the best team in Europe.

Give me Europe’s finest and let’s settle down for the fun. It’s not like we lapped up an ‘easier’ tie when presented with one last year, after all. I’ve complained about numerous humdrum group stages (which I suppose sounds arrogant, though over the years there have been a few), but when the knockout stages are in town, it’s game on. As winter edges to an end, the Champions League morphs into the European Cup of old. Two legs: kill or be killed. I absolutely love it.

Not the being killed bit, obviously – though with five consecutive last-16 knockouts lord knows we’ve got used to that. But the excitement takes on a palpable new level, and when you’re drawn against European aristocracy then it cranks up another notch entirely.

Of course, I wish we weren’t always the underdog when playing against teams like this. I’d prefer it if they feared us like we fear them, but that’s not the reality of it, sadly. They are the best.

Our record against them is pretty average, as we know. One win in seven. A draw in 1999 before being dispatched 4-2 at Wembley, a loss in our only ever European Cup final (what if, what if…) and two aggregate defeats in the knockouts. Though on both the latter occasions, we performed well at home.

So what to expect? I’ll be happy with a handbrake-off performance containing some flair, pace and (controlled) aggression. That’s the Arsenal I’ve wanted to see more of for the whole season, and which has only really appeared in brief electrical storms of scintillating form.

But I’ll also be happy with a big defensive performance, one in which we heed Wenger’s warnings about not “being stupid”. Let’s be honest, the odds are stacked against us. We know that. But it will be a cracking tie and who knows what could happen.

I’d guess that most of the team picks itself, with right midfield the only slot that’s up for grabs. I can’t see Ramsey anywhere but central and I’d be surprised if Giroud didn’t start, so Walcott, Welbeck, Ox or Campbell will fight for the last slot. You could argue the case for each of the four, albeit requiring some switching of positions. Walcott’s pace, Welbeck and Campbell’s workrate and power, Ox’s directness and crosses. Take your pick but whatever happens we’ll have options off the bench.

I’ll be in early for the REDAction extravaganza and to soak in the atmosphere. I don’t know what to expect other than an evening of high-octane, raucous, non-surcharged European football.

Come on you reds!

It’s time to get out of the coop and face the Foxes

Like many people who tuned into Man City v Leicester last week, I was amazed at how razor-sharp the Foxes were on the break. Neutral or not, it’s hard not to be thrilled by this most improbable of sides: put together for £25m, sitting pretty at the top of the league and ripping through all and sundry with energy, directness and speed.

Three attributes that seem to have evaporated from Arsenal’s play, if we’re honest. Any progress that we have made since dismantling Man City before Christmas has been fleeting at best. A few starchy wins, a couple of defeats, a brace of goalless draws and that bonkers 3-3 at Anfield.

So Leicester are a team in a rich vein of form – the form of their lives – while Arsenal remain subdued. The atmosphere at the Emirates has mirrored our stodgy form: it’s been flat.

Hardly surprising really – just as the players feed off the crowd, the crowd feeds off the players and Arsenal have simply not been playing the kind of football that sets the pulse racing. It’s been laboured, with too many players off-colour and a prevailing sense of confidence misplaced.

Or put rather more simplistically, Arsenal have not been enough like Leicester, who have ripped up the rule book and are playing with the most extraordinary self-belief and sense of freedom.

Forget the permutations of what three points would do to each side’s chances. At the moment, while it’s obviously important, it feels to me that for Arsenal points are not the most important thing.

No, the most important thing is for Arsenal to rediscover some swagger and some can-do. If we carry on like we are now, grinding away, we will probably fall short. But if we can kick-start the way we are playing by throwing some caution to the wind and learning how to bully rather than doubt, then the fans will respond and the players might believe – really believe, not soundbite-believe – that they can do this.

So that’s my wish for tomorrow.

Unlock the handbrake.

Go for it.

No laughing Mathieu

Like most people, I’m intrigued to know what will happen in January, not least because it’s rare to hear Wenger this bullish about doing business.


I am already busy. We are a bit short at the moment, especially in the midfield. We will be busy, yes.

It looks like El-Nenny is in the bag, a decisive piece of business, albeit for a ‘cheap’ player (even if, as suggested, he costs £7m that’s peanuts in the current market). But will there be anyone else? I have the feeling there might be. Why leave anything to risk when you are top and need as many weapons in the armoury as possible in order to keep that up?

I know we’ve said this before, and many times too, but for all the tumbleweed Januarys, there are one or two exceptions too. In January 2006 – ten years ago now, blimey, where has the time gone – he brought in Diaby, Walcott, Adebayor and Poom (Poom shake shake the room). So there are precedents.

But the football door often revolves, and we may also see Debuchy go the other way too. In fact, Wenger, who rarely gives much away, seems to indicate it’s in Debuchy’s hands.

“It’s not impossible. I’m happy if he stays, we’ll see.

On the one hand, it’s a bit of a headache if he leaves, because Chambers is the only backup short of recalling Jenkinson. I know we recalled Coquelin last January, but presumably the terms of loans differ and it tends to be a rare thing to do midway through a season.

But on the other, Debuchy has not played particularly well in the few games he’s had an opportunity, and could do with a new challenge. With the best will in the world, he’s not going to ever replace Bellerin full-time now. I just can’t see that.

So much in football depends on fortune or a lack of it, on opportunities grasped and opportunities missed. Would Coquelin have returned had Arteta and Flamini not got injured? Would Campbell have ever had more than a cursory run-out for Arsenal had our midfield not been decimated by injury? Would Bellerin have broken through this soon had Debuchy not had two bad injuries in his first season?

So I do feel a bit sorry for him. His Arsenal career, which he may have hoped would last three or four good years, has been massively curtailed. But on the flipside of the coin, that’s what happens in football and on this occasion Wenger has been ruthless. We sometimes accuse him of sentimentality but there has been none of it here – Debuchy was usurped by Bellerin and that was pretty much that. Yes, happenstance played a role initially, but it would have happened sooner rather than later anyway.

What would I do? I’d make him stay, because he’s our second-best right-back and we need as much strength as we can get in a season where we are fighting on three fronts – unless Wenger has someone new he can replace him straight away.

Things may well be more advanced than that though – Wenger hints as much. And Andrew on the Arsecast Extra suggests he was meant to play against Bournemouth but didn’t at the last moment. Make of that what you will.

You get the feeling an interesting month awaits.

(By the way, I’m enjoying this holiday lark, gentle blogging in my own time. You’re probably entirely indifferent, but I’m happy. Expect a return to blogstinence in January though…)

In for El-Nenny, in for a pound?

Well, Wikipedia says El-Nenny’s an Arsenal player, and as we all know, that’s as good as an announcement as it being on dotcom. *Ahem*.

But it does at least look as if, this time, Wenger’s pronouncements about looking for bodies ‘if we can find the right person etc etc’ are based on truth. if this story is correct then we’re in for a midfielder and we’re in for him early in the transfer window. Even if it’s not El-Nenny, I would be staggered if we came out of January with no reinforcements.

Of course most of us haven’t heard of El-Nenny – so what. We used to glow with pride when Wenger unearthed someone from nowhere for peanuts, then flog him two years later for the price of a multi-pitch training centre.

This profile on kingfut.com gives you a bit more of an inkling about him. Strong, with a good engine and a decent injury record. 100 league experiences in Switzerland and 40 caps for Egypt. At 23 he fits the bill, and I suspect that he’ll be squad cover at this stage.

This January comes at a timely juncture with various injury news leaking out and none of it positive. Wilshere’s return has been put back again, Welbeck is no nearer. Cazorla – I’d be surprised if we see him much again this season. Coquelin for me is the big miss, and he’s still a way off.

I know other teams are decimated by injury, and often as many as us, but do they all have players out long-term like we do? It feels, from within my Arsenal blinkers, that when our players get injured they don’t do it in half measures. Walcott was out a year, Wilshere too, Welbeck’s disappeared, Rosicky disappeared, Cazorla got hit with one of the worst injuries you can get. With every passing week these long-term absences hurt us more.

So any bodies we can get in will help us, quite frankly, because for several key squad players, this season is basically a write-off.

Onwards today to Bournemouth – back in the saddle despite the cheeks being sore – and I’d be surprised to see the same starting XI as we’ve seen four times in a row. Poor old Mertesacker had a horrible evening on Saturday and maybe we’ll see Gabriel in for him. Ox might get a run-out too, despite his own mysterious form. Chambers for Flamini? I can’t see it, and to be honest, our options are very limited if you take Saturday’s bench as guidance – Ospina, The Jeff, Chambers, Iwobi, Gibbs, Ox and Gabriel.

That 4-0 was a shambles and left me feeling much as I did after Wenger’s 1,000th match mauling. But onwards we go.

And luckily, I have the memory of a goldfish, not an elephant.

If it’s broken, fix it

There we all were, shaking our heads at the sheer misfortune of losing two players before the game had even got going at Hillsborough in the League Cup, and agreeing that in terms of injuries, things had hit Peak Arsenal.

How naive! We still had the fun of the Hawthorns, where Coquelin fizzled out, and his replacement, not to be outdone, also conked out in short order.

But two crocks a game – well that can be improved upon, surely? Of course it can, with Koscielny, Alexis and Cazorla joining the ranks of the bandaged masses at Carrow Road. Peak Arsenal yet? I don’t want to tempt fate. I’d say there’s more fun and games to come on that front.

It’s not really a laughing matter, I know, but there’s no point in letting it tie you up in ligaments. It is what it is, but it’s desperate stuff alright and injuries are clearly affecting our game. We miss those who are out, and we rely too much on those who – somewhat miraculously – are not yet on The (Tony) Colbert Show.

Until the Norwich injuries, I had been imbued with optimism about Olympiakos. Mentally, Arsenal know exactly what they need to do. But Olympiakos? Do they stick or twist? I fancied our chances, but much of my positivity has, perhaps not surprisingly, dissipated. Without the energy and uncertainty of Alexis, and without the metronomic Cazorla, I wonder if we will have enough to get the job done. It was hard before and the mountain is even higher now.

Before then we have Sunderland of course, and I think we’ll have too much for them. We’ve had a week off to recuperate and we’ve probably been licking our metaphorical wounds (if only that helped literally, there’d be an army of Arsenal fans lining up at Colney with tongues dangling).

Of course, what injuries taketh, Forsythe giveth too. Ramsey and Ox are back ( a lot is expected of both), Koscielny might be OK (I’d play Gabriel anyway tomorrow) and Walcott is close. Keeping them fit – well that’s another matter altogether.

What can be done? As mentioned on the Arsecast today, hindsight is a wonderful thing but perhaps we should have thanked Rosicky and Arteta, and bade them farewell in the summer. As it is, they’re still here but I think a little retrograde ruthlessness is required in January. A couple of reinforcements need to be sourced – one at DM, ideally with something to prove and an exemplary injury record – and if that affects one of our injury-prone player’s chances of playing then so be it. There is no room for sentimentality.

We simply cannot afford not to strengthen, and I think we need more than a Kallstrom-esque punt. We need a numbers boost, a physical boost and a psychological boost. If there’s a £10m or £15m premium on a good prospect in January, so what? We have the money and we can’t keep waiting for people to come good. It’s all about this season.

Jam tomorrow can get stuffed.

I like jam now.