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.

Arsenal fluff their lines again

Arsenal 0-1 Chelsea

A weary sense of familiarity abounded after another crack at breaking Chelsea’s strange grip on Arsenal failed, practically before it had begun.

If Chelsea were meant to be the team lacking any confidence, then you wouldn’t have known it from the way the game started. Instead, it was Arsenal that began timidly, standing off their opponents and giving them plenty of time in midfield to start believing it could be their day.

Even before Mertesacker’s foolish tackle gave Costa all the encouragement he needed to swing the game in Chelsea’s favour, the warning signs were there. We weren’t at the races, and then we handed the match to them on a platter.

It was classic Costa: going down in a pirouette of agony despite barely – if at all – being touched, just to make sure the ref would get the message. He could probably have stayed on his feet and headed towards goal. That said, what was Mertesacker thinking? That kind of tackle had red card written all over it, touch or no touch. We all said it as soon as he’d done it, and off trotted Per without a backwards glance. It was a brainless tackle from someone normally so calm. So the gameplan, which was already bearing no fruit, went up in smoke.

Off went Giroud, a decision that in hindsight went wrong too. Wenger wanted to retain the capacity to hurt Chelsea on the break, but Cap’n Walcott barely scratched the surface of the match (though the linesman’s arm will have known it was in a game) and Campbell struggled to make any impact.

That Chelsea then scored seemed somewhat inevitable, and that it was Costa, strutting in front of the North Bank like a peacock, even more so.

So a terrible first half, really. We all wanted Arsenal to lay down a marker, but they once again played within themselves when it mattered, with a place at the top at stake, and against a team that brings out the worst in us.

Of course things got better – half-time rockets up half-time arses tend to have an effect – and in the second half we saw Monreal and Bellerin getting behind the defence a bit. Alexis came on and the place lifted, and there was the odd goalmouth scramble for our efforts. But in the end, Chelsea held on relatively easily against our ten men. One shot on target tells you as much. You can’t fault the spirit but the damage was done.

Wenger, as you’d expect, tried to accentuate the positive:

Despite the disappointing result, we should have even more belief in ourselves after the game, when I see how it went.

I hope he’s right but that could be wishful thinking, because at the end of the day we lost a game we really needed to win to give us the confidence to push on. We just weren’t good enough, dangerous enough or canny enough, and that’s a big worry.

Where does this leave us? Well, I was reticent to talk us up too much when our form was good, after we’d beaten Man City and played our way out of the Champions League group stages, because we’ve been here before and winning titles, as we all know, is bloody hard. Plus, while this is a good Arsenal side, it is not yet a great one.

Our form over the last few weeks has simply backed my caution up. Draws at Liverpool and Stoke are good results, most years. Losing at home to Chelsea is an awful one, but not fall-off-the-stool surprising. But taken as a whole that makes it two points from nine, and that’s hardly championship form.

We need to find form and we need to find it now. What else is there to say?

The good, the bad and the 90th minute equaliser

Liverpool 3-3 Arsenal

There are no two ways about it: letting a win slip in the 90th minute is always the kind of result that gnaws away at you. Two points, up in a puff of smoke.

Sadly, it had been coming for a good 15 minutes. We slowly relinquished possession as the clock wound down and in the end we paid for it. Our defence, which looked like it was weathering the storm, could in the end only bale so much water out. “We have to look at ourselves”, said Wenger of the 90th minute goal, “that should not happen”.

It was a crazy game though; open beyond belief and it could quite easily have ended 5-5. Is this the way to mount a title challenge? Rapier, darting forward movement but a bit leaky at the back? Who knows – but we are still joint top.

Such a shame for Giroud, who put in the most majestic stint holding the line, scoring two and coming oh-so-bafflingly close to a hat-trick. And gutting for Joel Campbell, who worked himself into the ground and came up with the assist of the game for Ramsey’s equaliser.

I maintain it’s a good point, though plenty disagree now. Liverpool has never been an easy place to go for Arsenal and we have had far worse results there. Whether we end up regretting it is one for the future. If that’s the case we will regret losing badly at Southampton and West Brom too, and probably more.

Absent friends, as it turns out, are a point of regret too. Would this have been different if we’d had Coquelin? We might have had more bite in midfield and shielded the defence better. Alexis, too, with his dynamism and capacity for the extraordinary, will be welcomed back with open arms.

Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere, Coquelin, Alexis, Welbeck? Look, I’m not sure whether we can last the distance, but given the injuries we’ve had and still have, we’re having a decent crack at it.

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…)

Ozil’s magic wand-feet

IMG_3269

Arsenal 2-0 Bournemouth

Had Mesut Ozil, in a puff of smoke, magicked up a rabbit on the edge of the box yesterday, I don’t think many present would have batted an eyelid. “It’s just Ozil, nicking a living in the magic circle”, they would have said as a rapid-fire of diagonal balls plopped invitingly onto various players’ (thought mostly Theo Walcott’s) feet.

He was sublime, immense, and simply unstoppable yesterday. His assist record is through the roof, but just occasionally he gets bored of altruism and assists himself to an assist, and then scores. Because he can, right.

We have run out of superlatives in this more superlative of seasons for Ozil, so I’m going to invent one. It’s !!!!!!!. I just don’t know how to pronounce it yet.

Incredible stats for an incredible player.

Back in the saddle we all got, and Ozil took it upon himself to make us all consider the Southampton game as an aberration. We weren’t at our fluid best but we did more than enough to win easily, and could have had a few more.

Actually, there was another interesting subplot: The Forgotten Four.

OK, they’re not remotely forgotten, but I’m too lazy to think of anything more suitable. The four who came in to replace weary limbs – Gabriel, Gibbs, Chambers and The Ox – all had something to prove, and offered timely reminders that they are indeed still here.

Gabriel was particularly impressive: all energy, bite and determination, with a thunder-header marking his arrival in the pantheon of Arsenal scorers.

But I rated the other three, too. Gibbs had a solid game, Chambers acquitted himself very well at defensive midfield (not bossing, but not hiding), while Oxlade-Chamberlain had his best game for a while. When he turns, faces and runs at people you realise what a formidable presence he can be. Defenders don’t like that one bit and that sense of fear is what the Ox needs to offer more.

What else? Walcott was served chance after chance on a platter, but had one of those days. When he did fizz one past the post, he should perhaps have crossed it to Ramsey at the far post instead. Easy to judge in hindsight I know – he played well, but stuff just wasn’t quite coming off, and that happens.

So top we go in this most baffling of seasons, and that’s pretty amazing given the stodge we served up on the south coast on Boxing Day.

But yesterday was all about Mesut Ozil, the most creative, magical player in the Premier League this season.

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.

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.

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.