Ox pinched, Alexis punched, and no returns

After all that hot air, there goes the summer transfer window. In a market where some teams have spent upwards of £200m, we’ve snuck in with a tidy profit of £30m. Now, I know it’s not all about how much you spend, but for a club that has pots of cash already, and is on a downward trajectory, it hardly reeks of ambition, does it?

Yesterday we let Oxlade-Chamberlain go for £40m, which is decent business under the circumstances. He said he wanted to go to Liverpool as it was “right for the next stage in my ongoing development”. He needs a bit of moulding, but Liverpool have got him at the right time, and if I were him I’d have done something similar.

Another player who wanted to leave was Alexis. He didn’t get his wish as Arsenal couldn’t find a replacement. Apparently, we bid an almost ludicrous €92m for Lemar, but Lemar either turned us down, our pursuit was too lukewarm or it was all a bit too late. So Alexis stays.

I’m a little torn about this, though overall I’m happy he stays. I’m mostly torn because we’ve now got a player on our hands who doesn’t want to be here, whose teammates know he doesn’t want to be here and who knows the club was only too happy to offload him at the right price. But overall, I don’t see him downing tools, and we get a 30-goal player – someone all oppositions are genuinely fearful of – for either 4/5 more months or for the whole season.

We let a whole cavalcade of other players go, but in terms who might have actually played, it was only really Gabriel, Gibbs and possibly Lucas. Is our squad severely weakened by this bizarre summer? Not really – Chambers replaces Gabriel as 4th choice centre-back, Kolasinac has replaced Gibbs and we’ve massively upgraded our goalscoring options. Oxlade-Chamberlain was not irreplaceable as he didn’t want to play RWB (or LWB) and was often shoe-horned in anyway.

That being said, it’s never that simple. For me, the perception we have given in the latter stages of this window is of a club that doesn’t know what it wants, and that can be scavenged for talent. Instead of strengthening significantly in the anticipation of a concerted assault for honours – these were the noises being made after Wenger signed his new deal – we’re an unbalanced team with unhappy players and are already on the verge of abandoning the back three that brought us some respite (and a glorious afternoon at Wembley) a few short months ago.

On top of that, we’re still a team capable of the kind of switch-off disaster that we saw at Anfield, and let’s be honest, that’s not going to change either. Not now, not with Wenger.

So where does that leave us? Wenger is already embattled after a dreadful start to the season, the fans are disillusioned once again, and quite what we’re realistically hoping to achieve this season is a mystery. Poor squad management has bitten us hard, there are questions over the board’s input in all this, questions about finances and whiffs of power struggles too.

All this needs to be dispelled and turned round. Coherent tactics and team selection would be a start. Seeing an increased threat from Lacazette and Alexis – backed up by Welbeck, Giroud and Walcott – would soothe the frustration. The midfield marshalling the defence would be a novel and welcome development.

And so to Bournemouth.

For some late night ramblings to try to make (more) sense of it all, check out today’s Arsecast.

Some thoughts on Wenger

So it’s Wenger until 2019 – the least surprising surprise since Surprisey McSurpriseFace jumped out of the wardrobe and shouted, “surprise!”

Those making the decision couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate moment to announce it if they’d tried – the warm afterglow of a fantastic performance and result in the FA Cup.

If you took this decision based on the last 9 or 10 games alone, the logic would be undeniable to be honest. It would be mean-spirited not to give credit to Wenger for the way he hauled us out of a very bad place indeed and made a success of a very average season.

If only things were that simple though, because if you look at the last decade you see a team that hasn’t got close enough to the business end of a title challenge, and you see a side that has been routinely embarrassed in the Champions League; most recently shipping ten to Bayern. That wider view, rather than the shorter-term burst of form and the heady bliss of Wembley, is why this decision will not, to put it diplomatically, be universally popular.

The weight of history would suggest that we’re in for more of the same – fourth or thereabouts – with Wenger at the helm.

So changing that is the challenge, and it’s huge. Because while the board and Wenger are saying all the right things, as you’d expect them to, the big question remains: What will he or can he do differently to bridge the 10 – 20 point gap that has come between us and the champions for the last nine years?

What needs to slot into place to give him a fighting chance? To break the mould? And the answer is probably – ‘a lot’.

An admission that things went wrong

That things will be freshened up to shake the club out of complacency. To come out and admit that things went stale and that we have fallen behind, and that we’re going to do something about it, structurally or with a change of staff. Because for all the glory of three FA Cups in four years, in the league we have fallen behind.

Some serious ambition

Back up the words with actions. Stan the investor needs to at least give the impression that he intends to be Stan the winner (I hear the hollow laughter at the back – detention for you!) Remember how it felt to sign Ozil? We need a statement of intent and of power play like that, because big names coming in aren’t just a case of buying for the sake of buying – they give you a better chance of winning. And Wenger tells us he wants to win the league. So Arsenal need to be prepared to spend big and to hit the ground running. To make swift decisions, to move fast. Not to just talk about it, but to do it.

To keep our big players

There’s long been talk that Alexis wants out and Ozil won’t sign, and that Ox is mulling over his future. Getting rid of any of them would send out all the wrong messages and would leave Wenger under the cosh and on the back foot before the season’s even started. I can’t see this part of his summer challenge ending well, to be honest, and I worry that we’ll spend too much of the next three months reacting rather than proacting.

To change the mentality… for good

You could argue the move to the back three has helped with this, but Arsenal need to be that committed for an entire season before we can say it was a success, rather than simply a nine-game upturn. Wenger needs to shake things up more often if needed. Hell, he might even consider making a substitution before the 68th minute… Will he change? We’ll find out, won’t we. But… yeah.

All the best

So good luck Arsène – I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Given the last few seasons, with the splits, the apathy, the frustration and the anger, and given the increasing strength and financial firepower of our rivals, you will need it.

I watch football to have fun and to see some great performances and, occasionally, to have a crack at winning things, so I’d like nothing more than for the next two years to be some kind of sunlit uplands. To be a bit more ‘cup final’ and a bit less ‘Watford at home’.

I don’t want to spend the next two years with furrowed brows, because life’s too short. So I’m going to be positive about it and see the FA Cup as a springboard (another springboard…)

Every year I give into hope and offer myself a tantalising thought that it might just be different this time round.

And I’d rather look at it that way, to be honest. Off we go again.

FA Cup final preview: Cech and balance

*eyes open at 6am*. It’s the cup final, baby! Best write a preview then.

Cup runneth over

Though the river marked ‘league titles’ ran dry many years ago, leaving an arid wadi of frustration, the one labelled ‘FA Cup’ continues to bubble along nicely.

In fact, while Wenger’s record in the League Cup final (P2, L2) and in European finals (P2, L2) leaves a lot to be desired, he’s made up for it in the FA Cup with an astonishing six wins.

The last time we lost in the FA Cup final – his only defeat to date – was in 2001, when quite frankly we woz robbed anyway.

That record comes under severe scrutiny today against Chelsea, who have Lazarused their way out of last season’s doldrums under the tutelage of the impressive Conte.

Wenger’s goodbye?

The two sides are coming at this from wildly different places, if we’re honest. For us, winning it would be a positive end to an arduous season where all the usual weaknesses took their turns to make an appearance. It could be Wenger’s justification for a new deal – or it could be a way to bow out on a high (and maybe the best chance he will now have to do that). We still do not know and it seems utterly bizarre that this could be Wenger’s last game, but we wouldn’t know and couldn’t say goodbye. (Spoiler: it probably isn’t).

For Chelsea, already riding the crest of a wave, it’s a chance to win their second double, so it’s safe to assume they’ll be sufficiently motivated.

Cech bounced

They will be favourites, a view reinforced by an untimely dose of defensive misfortune for us – added to yesterday with the news that Cech will be replaced by Ospina. A “slight knock” in training led to this decision, apparently, though it’s slight enough for Cech to be devastated. If this is Wenger being stubborn and keeping his promise to ‘cup keeper’ Ospina, it wouldn’t surprise me. But this kind of sentimentality is madness on a day where we’re already without Koscielny, Mustafi and Gabriel.

It could be a bluff. I’m a hardened cynic, but honouring a departing keeper’s promise does feel a bit textbook Wenger. Or it could just be that he’s genuinely encumbered by injury and is not fit to start, in which case maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I’ve got a lovely Per

In front of Ospina, who has not played for eight weeks, will be Per Mertesacker, who has not started a match in about 56 weeks. Rob Holding, who has made just 16 starts for Arsenal, will join him and Nacho Monreal, a left-back, will make up the three.
We’ll probably see Bellerin on the right and Ox or Gibbs on the left, and the rest of the team picks itself, bar striker. It should be Welbeck, but this is Arsene Wenger we’re talking about so don’t stick money on it.

But look, we’ve finally hit some form and it’s a one-off Wembley final, in glorious May sunshine, so while we won’t be everyone’s favourites, we’re hardly starry-eyed underdogs here.

Cup fever

I’ve always loved the cup, and the good fortune to have seen so many finals in my time does not lessen my love of it in any way. The atmosphere, the anticipation, the nerves, the mates coming together from far and wide; steeling yourself for joy or despair – it’s got the lot and I can’t wait.

For those of you who are either travelling or at a loss at how to fill the pre-match hours, warm yourself up by curling your lug-holes round Arseblog’s pre-match live podcast, (where we all scoff at the thought of Cech missing out).

The nerves are well and truly kicking in, so that’s your lot. Come on you rip-roaring reds!

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 😉