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Arsenal 2-0 Tottenham

There was me worrying – silly old worrying me! In the end it was far from the toughest of derby days for Arsenal, but in terms of enjoyment it was right up there with the best of them. Hoarse? I’ve practically got hooves this morning.

We bossed it, fair and square, and even with ten men, when we understandably found ourselves on the back foot, we looked comfortable defending what we had. If I’d been able to script the derby, I’d have done it something like this (well OK, I wouldn’t – I’d have made it 7-0 with a sprinkling of reds, but this will do thanks).

At various points in the game I kept on piping up that “Wilshere’s having a great game” or “Rosicky’s got the bit between his teeth” or “Hands up, I was wrong about Gnabry” to which my brother responded my reminding me that the whole team was having a good day at the office, and he was right. We defended well, Fabianski was untroubled, we bossed the midfield and Theo caused all manner of danger as the lone front man. It was our best and most fluid performance in some time, and what a time to pull it out the hat. Impeccable.

The 5.15pm kick-off wasn’t as foolish as I’d feared and made for a great atmosphere – it was as loud as it has been in ages. In general terms the atmosphere has been better all season than it’s been over the last few years – we’re playing well, simple as that – but when you add the local derby ingredients (and a few extra hours in the pub) then the timid old place goes a bit haywire. It was great fun being in and among it all. And bundling, hugging, shouting, clapping. There’s life in the old dog yet *rubs aching back*.

Yes, I’ve watched all the Vines and seen the Instagrams and Flipboarded and Snapchatted* and Whatsapped my way through the entire aftermath, and I’ve read all the reports and I’m going to head off to hoover up the blogs next. It was that kind of game.

*I haven’t snapchatted. I’m too old to snapchat, I think. Or scared.

What else did I learn? Well, Wilshere is back on form and plays far better in the centre of the midfield than he does on the wing. Accommodating him in that role with Ramsey, Ozil, Cazorla, Rosicky, Arteta and Flamini was always going to be a balancing act, but in truth it’s not that hard – Wenger now has the luxury of being able to rotate in that key area with seemingly few side effects.

Gnabry – well it’s hard not to agree with Arseblog on this issue. I thought he’d struggle in a game of this importance and intensity but he did the opposite of struggle (elggurts?). I know it’s only one game but on that kind of form we have yet another option on the wing – a proper option – and that’s without the return of Oxlade-Chamberlain. The ebbs and flows of football are amazing in that regard – a few months out has given one player a few chances and left another a little further down the pecking order. Football really is all about form and fitness and confidence.

And Walcott – what a menace. It seems a long time ago now that he was umming and aaahing about a new deal and plenty of people were writing him off as not good enough. He’s integral now – a pocket dynamo – and his return to the team just at the time Ramsey and Giroud hit dips was a piece of luck. Fingers crossed his knee is not overly mauled. He was in the wars a bit yesterday (hard to know how seriously) so we shall see.

So, onto the 4th round of the FA Cup. I love this cup and hate how every year its importance seems to diminish, purely because of money. The day we start saying the cup is not worth the bother is the day we should take a long hard look at ourselves and ask: what’s the point of football, if not to win stuff?

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal

You know something’s afoot when you get Alan Shearer being effusive about an Arsenal performance in his own back yard on Match of the Day. He was right though (as was a chirpy-looking Kevin Kilbane) as it was a performance of determination and resilience that saw us through, rather than a joyous skipping-through-the-meadows skillfest.

That gritting of the teeth was a trait we lacked for some time – we had an infinite capacity to throw away a lead for some years – but defensively we are a different beast these days and I love it.

It’s been a good Christmas with seven jingly points from the festive nine – or looking at it from a different angle, it’s a 100% post-yuletide record after a sticky three-game pre-yuletide patch. Whichever way you cook the turkey, we’ll be top of the Premier League at New Year.

Now might be the time to wheel out the stat about how many teams who are top at New Year go on to win the title. But no, I’m not prepared to go down that route thank you very much. I will however toast the fact that Arsenal have the most points in 2013 (82, I think). That’s pretty good, albeit also a largely pointless thing to say given that a season goes from August to May. But it is a good indicator of this team’s progress.

Yesterday was Giroud’s day, glancing in an Alan Smith-esque header (though the Newcastle players weren’t surrounding the referee in their tight shorts on this occasion, Brian), a goal he really needed after a mini-drought and some high-profile chances missed.

Our midfield strength in depth came to the fore too. With no Ramsey or Ozil, we still had enough in the tank to leave Arteta and Podolski on the bench. It’s not a luxury we have up front, though Denmark’s finest* might disagree.

*Not Whigfield or bacon.

This team continues to confound many people, including myself at times – and how heartening is that? We might have stuttered a bit but we’ve learned the art of dusting ourselves down and re-focusing, and we’re increasingly resilient. One-nil to the Arsenal? Don’t mind if I do.

Are you happy, Arsene?

I am very happy

Will you rest Giroud?

I don’t know

Happy New Year.

By Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wenger

It struck me the other day, as yet another manager was sent packing after a season and a half (on paid leave! Wrong job Jim, wrong job!), and with more managers threatened with the sack by the day, how odd it must seem to a newcomer to the Premier League to see a man who’s been in the same job for over 17 years.

In that regard, Wenger really is the last of a dying breed. With Ferguson gone, and Moyes moving, he’s far and away the longest serving manager in the Premier League, and I suppose it says all you need to know about how things have changed that the second longest-serving manager is Alan Pardew, at just over three years.

Times, as someone once said, they are a-changing. Up until 1989, West Ham had only had five managers ever – and while that was the exception rather than the norm, things really have shifted the other way to an extraordinary degree.

When Wenger hangs up his sleeping-bag jacket, or screws the final lid onto his pesky water bottle, will we ever see another Arsenal manager surviving 17 years? I can’t see it. Can you? Football has changed so much since 1996 that three or four years has become the norm – much as it has always been on parts of the continent.

Maybe English football has finally ‘caught up’ with the rest of Europe. Maybe its global appeal, and the money sloshing about, have made long-termism impossible. And maybe the legion of overseas owners, businessmen predominantly, see football like any other business.

We always read in the press that managers are not given enough time, and are knee-jerked out of their jobs at the drop of a hat, and I think on balance that I agree with that. But is longevity a guarantee of success? You could argue that you only last that long if you’re exceptional in some way. Wenger’s got us into the top 4 since time immemorial, and his first 8 years were phenomenal, but we’re potless in a while. Would he have lasted this long elsewhere? Perhaps not. Over at Chelsea, they operate at the opposite end of the spectrum, hiring and firing without so much as a by your leave. Some of their fans may resent that, but I bet there are plenty who look at the cabinet and conclude that it’s not a bad thing if there’s silverware at the end of it (and money helps on that front, of course).

I think Wenger’s done a terrific job so far this season. I’m just saying that when he’s gone, we won’t see longevity like that again. Not at Arsenal, not anywhere. I hope I am proved wrong, but it’ll be a good 15 years until I can be, so I feel able to say that with some confidence…

Only fifteen years to go, Alan.

Wilshere

Two game ban for flicking the bird? Fine if everyone from now on gets the same punishment. But will they? I suspect there’ll be a few Arsenal fans monitoring that.

Happy Christmas, FA.

Arsecast

Unless I get cut out and cast to the wind (and it’s always a possibility – watch me backtrack if that’s the case), I’ll be on the Arseblog Arsecast on Friday. I fear that I am remarkably positive on it. Which is a little odd and may come back to haunt me.

Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal

I keep hearing how this was a cracking game for the neutral. That would be all well and good if I was a neutral. From my perspective we leaked six goals and there’s only so much heart you can take from your team being involved in a game that everyone but its own fans went away from with a warm glow. Everton last week was another cracking game for the neutral. Glad to be of service but we’ve taken one point from six…

It was a game of many facets though, hard in a way to pigeonhole. City scored six but could have had eight, we had the ball in the net five times and could have had a penalty. Our parsimonious defence chose a rotten day to switch off, but then again who can deny the impressive firepower of City? They’re tonking pretty much everyone for fours and sixes at home these days. I also read somewhere that we should take some comfort from scoring three times (five, if you’re cross with the linos) at a venue at which barely anyone else has ruffled the net yet. Small comfort but I suppose if there are two positives that do come out of yesterday it’s our ability to score goals and our determination to keep going when all seems lost.

On that note, a good game for Theo Walcott – absent all season – who scored two nice goals. It’s easy to forget that we have reached Christmas without two of our biggest scorers of last season, Walcott and Podolski, who between them got 37 goals. If you want to take another positive from a six goal clumping, it’s that we now have those two men back, and just at a time when both of this season’s main scorers, Giroud and Ramsey, have hit a dry patch.

At the back, we couldn’t really cope. Mertesacker was his usual composed self but Monreal – so good against Hull City – had a tough game and we were breached far too easily for my liking. Our midfield didn’t help, with Wilshere especially sloppy, and I think fatigue, though Wenger tried not to blame it, had an increasing effect as the game wore on with misplaced passes aplenty and losses of concentration. This was personified by Giroud, who missed several presentable chances and wore the hang-dog expression of a weary man.

We were never in control, really, always trying to chip away at a City lead rather than being able to hold what we had. The nearest we got to looking like we might get something was at 3-2, when Theo’s goal gave us a shot of energy, but almost immediately conceding a fourth did for us. The game was lost then.

We shall see what effect conceding six goals has on us psychologically. It’s hard to say but what is certain is that City look formidable. We’ll find out soon enough of course with Chelsea coming to town a week on Monday. One thing we’ll know for sure is that nine days off gives us a good opportunity to recharge our batteries and nurse our lacerated knees.

We are still top.

Which is worth remembering.

Arsenal 1-1 Everton

It’s always a bit frustrating to score late but concede even later (we used to be quite adept at that – it was an unwelcome feather in our former defensive hat), especially when it feels like something we’ve not done an awful lot of lately. But as fair points go, I’d say this was one, with Everton far the better team in the first half.

I’m not sure we ever quite got going, at least not until about the 39th minute, though again that might be because Everton came right at us from the off. There might not have been a lot of goalmouth danger but there were wayward passes and we were being hustled off the ball a lot. Howard made a decent save from Giroud, there was some leniency from the ref (I won’t name names, but one culprit is not a million miles from being called Barry Gareth), while at our end there were a few moments, though Szczesny didn’t get his gloves overly dirty. Everton though were very fast and direct, shut us down very fast and didn’t let us get into our groove at all.

We woke up in the second half and you have to say it was a right ding-dong, to use the technical term. Flamini flashed one wide, Ramsey’s half-volley was pushed away, Szczesny leapt to his left like a salmon. Howard started dawdling in slow-motion, which earned him a yellow card and was an indication that Everton’s high tempo had slowed while ours had edged a notch up. In the end, Wenger’s triple substitution (you old devil Arsene!) had an effect with Rosicky passing to aerial lynchpin Theo Walcott who zapped it across the goal to Ozil via Giroud.

Ok, so the lead didn’t last, but Gerard “Gerry” Deulofeu’s shot was such a pacemaker it almost ferried across the Mersey.*

And then there was the tireless Giroud who took the ball down about 35 yards out and clonked it like a mallet. The goalposts would’ve broken had they not been supported by the stanchion but it wasn’t to be. And 1-1 it remained.

We’ve played better, and Wenger was right to bring Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla off when he did. But we played well enough in the second half against an opposition with a great defensive record and its tail up. No qualms from me, really. (Possession was 44% – 56% – people with better brains and access to large volumes of data will be able to read more into that but it feels a bit lopsided for a home game).

Tired legs and minds now need fixing for parts two and three of our testing week. There really is no rest but you know what, we’re five points clear at the top. It’s a hell of a place to be.

*I’m so sorry. It’s a Sunday night, I’m tired.

Here I am again, fleetingly, and now boasting a 50% attendance record at the Arsenal this season (it’s a pass – but must do better).

I’m looking forward to Hull City’s arrival, if only for the novelty of attending an actual football game in the flesh. Reading a bit today about Vermaelen and Monreal and Jenkinson – good players all, but bowing to the solidity of Gimertescielgna – it struck me that there are downsides to every slice of good news.

The good news of course being that we have settled upon a solid defensive partnership for the first time in years. We can swivel the midfield as we please – and have done – but the elixir of success at the back is not something to act the goat with, in Wenger’s view, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

It leaves three good defenders warming the bench, hardly ideal for them in a World Cup year. Or for any ambitious player in any year, if we’re honest. Of those, Jenkinson is probably the least restless, learning as he is, and having an Arsenal lampshade as he does. He should take heart from the fact that a year ago, when Sagna’s form was stodgy, he had a good run in the side and did well. This season he’s had only four starts and it must be hard for a young player to be such a bit part. Tomorrow, with Sagna injured, he is “likely” to get his chance – and if he does you can be sure City will ping some balls his way so he’ll need to be sharp from the off.

As for Vermaelen and Monreal, there’s no doubt they’d prefer to play more. Neither has nearly swerved off the road in disgust, mind you. They might be getting frustrated and if they were who could blame them, but you can be sure Wenger won’t be losing much sleep over it.

Having a settled defence with talent itching to get at a chance in reserve is pretty much the dream of any manager. Gone are the days of Silvestre, The Squill and Eboue. Senderos and Djourou are long banished. Only the ghost of Igors Stepanovs remains. It is said that late at night you can hear his spectral studs rattling on the concourse concrete.

They’re gone I tell you – gone! Instead we have Vermaelen and Monreal and Jenkinson. Result.

Sorry chaps – stiff upper lip. Your time will come.

One of the few benefits of downing tools for weeks on end, as I am increasingly doing, is the ability to view things in splendid hindsight. After the Utd game I was a bit tetchy at the no-show in our midfield, somewhat deflated at not getting at least a point at a place we have in recent times consistenty struggled at.

But looking back at it, no real complaints. It was an excellent performance against Liverpool, followed by a sapping rearguard smash-and-grab against Dortmund. There was just not enough in the tank to make real inroads against Utd.

Our away record finally fizzled out but it’s worth noting for posterity – 16 games unbeaten was the catalyst for 6 months of upturned fortunes. Szczesny, Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna – all have upped their games and are our best defensive unit in ages.

It’s also nice to observe that overall, people have been pretty sanguine about this loss. Compare and contrast with the previous league loss against Villa. So yeah, there’s plenty to be happy about.

Of course, with the transfer window peeking over the brow of the hill, thoughts turn to January. We ought to have both Podolski and Walcott back soon, both of whom could (but don’t tend to, as the team needs a Giroud-type player) play up front, but we still need more attacking options. I’m not saying we need to amass four £30m strikers, because that is patently unrealistic. But there was a time when we could muster one or all of Henry, Wiltord, Kanu and Bergkamp. Sometimes, all at once. We just don’t have that variety to call on.

I don’t know how these things work, but you’d like to think that, if we wanted someone earlier rather than later in January, we’d be doing some legwork now. For me, whether a target is cup-tied in the Champions League makes no odds – the league is probably more important and besides, you have to consider the longer-term picture anyway.

There have been some big names bandied around already (nothing concrete, but still) like Dzeko, Hernandez and Benzema. There’ll be a lot of this stuff over the next month or two but we’ve been here too many times to be anything other than cautious in the extreme. Two points about that: 1) No rival, if we are still there or thereabouts in January, would sell us one of their ‘spare’ strikers in a month of Sundays. Look what happened to the Ba deal when it became clear that the Ozil signing would make us more competitive. Canned straight away. And 2) I think it’s fantastic that we showed the ambition to spend £42.5m on a player, but it’s not the kind of deal we can afford to do often. Not many clubs can. So on that basis, if I had to bet I’d say that any player we bring in in January – if we bring anyone in – will be more in the £10m-£15m bracket, which would rule a Benzema-type player out. Partly because of availability, partly because of cost.

For now, we’re back to fiddling uncomfortably with the Giroud worry beads. In an ideal world we’d be able to rotate him in and out according to his condition. Not an option right now though.

Crystal Palace 0-2 Arsenal

Two points clear at the top of the league going into November – nice, isn’t it? This time last year, and the year before that, we were seventh after ten games so to be top after nine this time round really has blown the cobwebs off. We’re also seven points better off at this stage than we were last year – another thing to write home about. (“Dear Mum, I feel compelled to write to you about Arsenal’s seven point upswing. Hope you’re well, much love, Jim.”)

I say this of course because we’ve all known for some time that November brings sterner autumnal tests gusting in from the north and west. The last thing we needed ahead of that kind of storm front was to get our chimney knocked off by gentler breezes in the south.

As it happens, managerless Palace were far from a breeze and it took a performance of some determination from us to take the points. It wasn’t pretty and we weren’t at our best, which is why the man of the match award went not to one of our midfield creators but to Wojciech ‘The Woj’ Szczesny for a superb double save just at the point where, at 1-0 up, we were wobbling.

He was excellent – as were, in the second half in particular, Sagna and Ramsey. Perhaps I ought to add Giroud to that list, who ran himself into the ground. He looked utterly destroyed at the end of the game, which is both heartening and faintly terrifying in equal measures.

As for Arteta, it was perhaps foolish to get that close to Chamakh but a red for that? He was on the right-hand side of the pitch and 45 yards from goal. Defenders were not a million miles away. Very harsh.

In midweek we have a date with Chelsea in the Rumbelows, and it’s very hard to know what approach to take in that, especially with Liverpool looming on the weekend. In the absence of our legion of crocks (Walcott’s three weeks out has turned into another infamously un-three-week absence), some of our players need a breather. Ozil looks like he does, Giroud too, Wilshere is not 100%, Flamini and Arteta are both out. Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain are still nowhere to be seen.

This might be the least coveted pot of the four, but the importance of maintaining form and confidence – the easiest things to lose and the hardest to regain – should not be underestimated. Wenger has some tough decisions to make on that front. Can we throw Frimpong into the mix? Is he even fit? How about Monreal at left-back and Gibbs on the left of midfield? Why am I not a football manager?*

*Rhetorical question

On midweek, Wenger said:

I will rotate against Chelsea, yes, but play with a team as well who has a good chance to qualify, that will be the target.

So basically, your guess is as good as mine.

Arsenal 4-1 Norwich

I don’t wish to get all meta about things, but do you ever wonder why you like football? The comfort of routine, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the escapism, the commitment and the competition? Well, yes, it’s all of those things.

But sometimes the pleasure you take in football can be summed up in one pint-sized package of play, lasting perhaps no more than ten seconds. It doesn’t have to be a moment of real consequence, such as the one that ended with Thomas squirming in the turf in 1989 or Adams barrelling through to score from a Bould assist in 1998. It can just as easily be a split second of pure skill and nerve, like Bergkamp spinning on a sixpence to score at Newcastle in 2002.

We all remember those moments, the ones that take your breath away and make strange parts of you tingle whenever you think of them. Because they are so out of the ordinary, so rare in the grand scheme of things, they give you a warm fug that’s sometimes hard to explain and – I suspect you know where I’m going with this – I got it when I saw Wilshere’s goal yesterday. And when I thought of it just now. And when I think about it tomorrow, it’ll happen then too.

It was just so preposterously good. To pull a move like that off, one between that many players, requires confidence, skill, but above all luck – those touches are so deft, the smallest error or the most infinite of hesitations would have brought the move to a crashing halt. Everything worked, from everyone. Gibbs, Cazorla, a flurry of outrageous touches between Giroud and Wilshere then a one-touch finish. That’s football, for me. That’s why I love it. It was worth the £35 on its own.

Other moments of great skill yesterday will justly feel left out of my paean. Ramsey’s this-way-and-that jink and finish, his cutback for the fourth, Giroud’s laser-guided cross onto the Ozil bonce for the second – all magnificent. Just not quite as magnificent as that first.

Soak it all up, because this is good stuff. The irony has not been lost on me that in a season where Arsenal have made the best start in ages, and are playing their best football in ages, my own attendance is showing relegation form. I’ve been away, or otherwise engaged, for four of the six home games this season – very much a case of #eastlowerout.

I intend to start putting this lamentable form right, beginning on Tuesday against Dortmund.

In the meantime, I might just watch those goals again.

And again.

And again.

Swansea City 1-2 Arsenal

A while back – and for a long period, to be fair – this whole blogging lark was often less fun than it ought to have been because Arsenal kept repeating the same mistakes. There was practically a template you could dust down for a certain kind of Arsenal result. You know, letting the first goal in, fannying around too much, leaving things late, general sluggishness. It’d happen once, then there’d be a gap, then it’d happen again. Back and forth it went. Everyone got a bit cross. They’d get happy for a bit and then they’d get cross again.

Well, the groundhog blogging’s on the other foot now, as it were (cough). All these blasted away wins – so predictable. Same thing every week. Where’s the glorious inconsistency we grew to love and cherish?*

*There really is no need to answer this.

Seriously though, there’s nothing better than riding the wave, is there? That even without a cavalcade of unavailable players, we’ve still got enough in the tank to up our game when needed and grind out a win. When things are going badly, you can wheel out a rookie like Gnabry and he’ll look, you know, like a rookie. But when things are going well, there’s enough confidence about the place for it to work.

And what goals they were, on Saturday. If I had to describe Ramsey’s for a radio audience, I’d probably go for something like tackle-ping-ping-ping-ping-pause-BOOM. This might explain why I don’t work in radio.

And as for Mr Now – so utterly pivotal at the moment – I love his disguised pass that Gnabry scored from. You can only do that when you’re at the top of your game and I must have watched it 10 times already.

Onto Napoli, a game I can’t make. Nor indeed can my brother, and he put both our tickets on the exchange on Saturday. The place was like a bag of piranhas – they went in moments. Practically snapped out his hands. This is what a winning run does. And a big signing, of course.

Wenger’s fears about us having to use the same players twice a week thanks to our injury epidemic are fair enough. We may come unstuck because of it (all good things come to an end of course). But he couldn’t have asked for much more of them so far.

I find myself in a calm place. Enjoying the run we’re on, enjoying watching the team, but massively cautious about the season ahead. It really is, to coin one of football’s oddest sayings, still early doors.