What do we want? Mojo. When do we want it? Now.

wingatefinchley
 

Yesterday I took my kids to non-league football for the first time, for a play-off hopefuls clash between my local team Wingate and Finchley, and the hipsters’ choice Dulwich Hamlet.

To say that it’s everything that Premier League football isn’t is to state the bleeding obvious. I’m not naive enough to think that there’s always a pot of gold at the end of the non-league rainbow, because standing with a few dozen others on a wet winter’s night would test the patience of many. But on a sunny spring day with a large travelling following (several hundred – the visitors swelled what is normally a home crowd of about 100 to a whopping 440), I can see the attraction. There’s a community spirit and a sense of relaxed enjoyment that is often entirely absent from football at the top level. For me and my two boys it was the sum total of £12 to get in.

The gulf between the players and the fans is about – well, about 6 yards. And despite a convincing 3-0 win for the Hamlet, both sides made the play-offs – Wingate and Finchley’s best season in their history. Hats off to both sides.

Now, this non-league eulogy wasn’t intended as a pointed barb at the Arsenal, though it did give me a pleasant contrast. But the sense of fun and excitement has withered somewhat in recent years for many – in particular this season for me – and how nice would it be to reconnect a bit?

Starting today, naturally. What better chance do we have than an FA Cup semi-final to make something of a hugely disappointing season? We might not be favourites, and rightly so, but it’s hardly a giant cognitive leap to see us getting something here, is it? Or is it?

Taking the game to City is not like climbing the Matterhorn: we drew 2-2 at home (perhaps fortunately) and lost narrowly away despite a poor performance.

To go from current form (average at best) to our true potential (home against Chelsea) won’t happen in one leap, and it might not happen at all, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic to ask for a game of increased tempo at the very least – like yesterday’s semi-final. If we freeze in the headlights again and go through the motions in terms of application, we can forget it. I know it’s boring to have to even ask for basics like that, but that’s where we’re at.

Now, it’s all very well of me to take to the blog with a note of mild optimism, or to issue a flimsy call to arms, when I couldn’t even be bothered to go to the game myself. But that sort of encapsulates my current mindset: I want to believe, and I want to reconnect, but if the sparks aren’t there it’s hard.

Show me the sparks, Arsenal – and we can take it from there.

Come on you rip roarers!

The impossible announcement

Watching that clip of Arsenal players being abused by our own fans at Selhurst Park is really tough viewing – another low in a season that’s magicking lows out of nowhere.

It’s not pretty. But in the absence of any other way to air their grievances, with the board largely silent and Wenger not prepared to talk about his future, I understood why the fans did it. Had I been there, I may well have been caught up in the emotion of the moment too.

That being said, I’m not a banner holder or a marcher or a Wenger Out chanter by nature. My own protest – such as it is – has taken the form of burgeoning apathy.

How? Well, despite being a season ticket holder, I’ve been only twice since 12th December. A load of us got our £55 back on the exchange and went out for a curry instead of bothering with the Champions League return leg. I’ve stopped blogging (not, to be fair, entirely attributable to the current swirling eddies of misery, but partly – after all, what else is there to say?) Out of the eight of us who registered for the cup semi-final, only two ended up applying.

Like the players, I’ve given up a bit – and even allowing for Twitter and the web being an echo chamber, I know I’m not alone.

Maybe that makes me a plastic fan. If you level that at me, fine. But if my mood is reflected widely, then the club has a big problem on its hands.

Because if they’ve lost the fans, nothing they do round the edges of the problem will make the slightest bit of difference. It’s not tenable.

They’re aware of this, of course, which is why Wenger’s future is a such a taboo subject in the corridors of power.

In my mind I’ve been through Wenger’s strange deflection of the subject, and the general silence from the board, dozens of times. To me, if he was planning to leave all along, the silence doesn’t make any sense at all. He’d have announced it by now and basked in the long valediction.

So the new deal was always going to happen, irrespective of how the season panned out – it was to all intents and purposes a fait accompli. But the reason they won’t talk about it now is because they can’t. Imagine the response.

We have a manager who wants to stay and a board who want him to stay too, and they’re desperate for a break in the clouds so they can hang out the washing.

But as I said in my last post, ‘sometimes these decisions take on a life of their own’, and I think that’s what’s been happening. There is no break in the clouds – it’s lashing it down. The team’s descent to mediocrity and the fans’ mood have made this the impossible announcement.

It’s astonishing and bonkers, but it could still go either way.

However, for their preferred outcome (Wenger staying), they’ll need a volte face in supporter confidence that they can’t easily engineer, and currently looks like utter pie in the sky. There’s too much water under the bridge and I don’t see most people being assuaged by a few recuperative wins. Put simply, it’s broken.

So we’re in limbo.

What a mess.

It’s not a matter of if, but Wenger

It’s been a tumultuous week alright. There have been moments – days, weeks perhaps – over the past 21 years when I’ve thought it could be the end for Wenger. The 8-2 at Old Trafford and the 6-0 on his 1,000th match in charge felt seminal, for example. But he hasn’t lasted this long by chance; he has an incredible eye for reinvention and survival that makes him, by some distance, Arsenal’s longest-serving manager.

The pattern often goes like this: there’ll be some damaging reverses, resulting in exiting two competitions in short order; but just when you think the mood couldn’t darken more, Wenger rounds up some form and takes us on a 10-match unbeaten streak. The needle moves back out of the red zone. We qualify for the Champions League. Off we go again.

We are in poor form (let’s be honest, we looked an absolute mess of a side after half-time in Munich) but I wouldn’t bet against something similar happening now, because this is a strong Arsenal squad and Wenger has been here before many times. The difference now is that I don’t think it will make much difference to what happens next. It feels like these next few months are Wenger’s last; that change is upon us.

“No matter what happens, I will manage next season, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”

Said Wenger in yesterday’s press conference. On the one hand it tallies entirely with what Amy Lawrence wrote about Arsene knowing nothing but football and being lost without it. On the other, it feels like a message to his detractors, to the board, and probably to the fans.

I don’t think he’ll be here because the siren call for change is only getting louder. The players – not exempt from criticism, as I said on yesterday’s Arsecast – look like they need it, many fans crave it, and Wenger would probably benefit from it. I don’t think two more years would do anyone any good.

Would I begrudge him a move to a big European club? The man is an Arsenal legend and there’s nothing I would begrudge him, short of rocking up at Spurs with a Chas and Dave single under his arm.

Whenever it happens, it will be moment of huge sadness and reflection for me. His legacy is huge, his achievements myriad, and he has been a master of intelligence, courtesy and good humour. On top of that, and this is a selfish point I suppose, Wenger has been a constant for me for nearly half my life. Job changes, house moves, marriage, two children – Wenger has been there all along (metaphorically of course – I can confirm he wasn’t at Barnet General Hospital shouting ‘little bit push’).

In a world where things are changing fast and in unpresidented ways, there’s Arsene, with a cheeky smile and a throwaway quip. His departure will be a challenge to my own world order.

What happens next is in a big way up to him, but not entirely – and he will know that. Sometimes these decisions take on a life of their own.

Looking back to 1996, all it took to assuage the swirling chorus of ‘Arsene Who’, was Patrick Vieira’s introduction against Sheffield Wednesday. The new man had pulled a rabbit out of the hat and things seemed immediately rosier. That was one bookend.

For the other bookend, he has to cajole everyone into believing, at least for the next three months, so that we can find another rabbit, and another magic hat.

Let’s hope it’s not just me who’s mentally ready

In the heady aftermath of our 3-0 win against Chelsea in September, it didn’t seem feasible that come the return leg we’d be teetering on the edge of the familiar title challenge abyss. That we are is partly to do with the phenomenal way Conte responded – after all, we are not the only team holding on by our fingertips. (In idle moments I wonder what he might have been able to do with our squad – and I doubt I am alone.)

Since then our win percentage is 58%. But three results in particular have cost us – Boro, Watford and Bournemouth. Had we won those we’d now be just two points behind.

The bottom line though is that Chelsea have been nigh-on flawless, while we have struggled for true consistency, an achilles heel that has dogged us throughout the latter Wenger years.

Having seen us so listlessly and carelessly throw away all the points on Tuesday, I don’t hold out much hope for today. But the thing about Arsenal is that it wouldn’t enormously surprise me if we did win, either. Though we’d probably go and draw our next game against Hull.

Our midfield has been decimated, which does call into question Wilshere’s season-long jaunt on the south coast. I maintain it was not such a bad idea to go, but quite why we weren’t a little clever by inserting a recall clause is odd.

Still, we are where we are and it looks like the job falls to Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain. A nice little assignment for them at lunchtime on a Saturday – which everyone knows is our favourite time to play Chelsea.

Elsewhere, in theory we have the firepower and options to match Chelsea. Converting theory into practise is another thing though. Wenger still doesn’t know why we sometimes turn up mentally unprepared. Ultimately though he must accept that it’s a faultline of his own making.

Can he sharpen them up today? Suffice to say, only a win will do.

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!