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2014

Right hook:

“We are not on the market specifically at all.”

Left hook:

“I believe this year again you will have to wait until July 15 to start going.”

2010

Right hook:

“The World Cup will not affect our recruitment”

Left hook:

“It is dangerous to buy on the back of a World Cup. The prices are artificial and you have to bear in mind that anyone can have three weeks of glory.”

Compare and contrast, before breathing deeply and reminding yourself that the summer is long and packed with fun stuff. Wenger’s pronouncements on signings have the remarkable ability to get under everyone’s skin, so the best advice I can give – and I’m going to try to follow it myself – is just to not be driven to distraction by it. Not at all.

Transfer season is silly, misleading, stressful, packed with lies and counter-lies, and life is just too bloody short.

So I’m not falling for anything, not hanging on anyone’s words. I’m going to spend some more time with my family, watch the World Cup, enjoy Wimbledon, go to some cricket, have the odd glass of something cold and refreshing. I’m going to enjoy the summer.

[How long do you give me?]

FA Cup semi-final

FA Cup semi-final

There really is no need to tire yourself out over three or four hours by running a 26-mile marathon. You can do it far more effectively by watching Arsenal these days, and in half the time. I am exhausted.

We’re through to the cup final, and that’s the beautiful bottom line. But looking round at the faces in the crowd, as I periodically did, just confirmed to me that while football can be joy, ecstasy and bliss rolled into one, it can just as equally be about as fun as a trip to the dentist. There were blank faces, ashen faces, looks of fatalism, crossed arms of doom and wails of anguish.

It was painful to watch, for the most part. Seeing the team you love struggle so badly for form, for ideas, for pace. They looked leaden-footed; a very average side.

120 minutes of largely forgettable football, followed by the lottery of penalties. Fabianski has a good record with spot kicks – does he keep his place for the final now? I’d be a bit baffled if he did, given he’s off. It’s clear this team needs to win something to believe, and it’d be very harsh on Szczesny to miss out on his first chance to etch a trophy onto his goalpost. Those are the moments that make careers, the making of teams and players. Would it be harsh on Fabianski? Not really, he’s leaving.

We always hear how winning breeds winning, and I hope yesterday (though it was kind of a draw) goes some way to infusing the players with some confidence and belief. But with Arsenal, you just don’t know. We have the look of a team that wants the season to end now.

Overall though, the rapid ageing and hypertension aside, it was a good day. I woke up with cup fever and loved the atmosphere of the day, meeting friends, the cameraderie and the walk up Wembley Way. It’s remarkably evocative for a lifeless, tatty suburb, isn’t it?

We’re in the cup final. That feels good. There was an explosion of relief, of joy, but mostly relief when Cazorla scored the winning penalty. Then we all drifted out, spent. Dragging our tired minds and bodies with us.

“Why do we do this to ourselves?” I asked as I shuffled on the spot in a state of agitation, before the penalties.

“You said those very same words at Villa Park in 1999, shuffling on the spot” I was reminded.

Humans are silly creatures sometimes. We have an amazing knack of forgetting. And of coming back for more against our better judgement. That’s football but ye gods, it puts you through the mill.

I woke up at 6am, bright as a button, and football rarely does that to me these days.

It must be FA Cup semi-final day.

The days have long gone where this involves getting the car ready, hanging the scarves and flags from the windows and slipping @feverpitch’s mixtape into the trusty tape deck before heading off to Birmingham or Manchester.

Tube it is then.

By all accounts there will be 50,000 other Arsenal fans heading to Wembley, perhaps more, a phenomenally lop-sided game in terms of support. We might be permanently tormented by numerous anxieties but – let’s be frank here – that’s been our default position for years now. It’s never stopped us turning up in our thousands before and it clearly won’t today.

I’m excited, genuinely excited, by our tilt at the old jug. This is what it’s all about: we’re having a crack at something that really matters. It’s been far too long.

Ordinarily, a team lying fourth in the league and in the semi-final of the cup would be seen to be doing pretty well, but this is Arsenal and things are never that simple. The match takes place to a backdrop of dismal form, swathes of injured players and very real and reasonable doubts about the direction of the team and the manager’s future.

It’s a lethal combination when it comes to overall confidence, but it’s hardly baseless pessimism. We’re in a massive rut. Last season we tightened up and went on an impressive end-of-season run to secure the Fourth Cup. This year, we’ve ground to a halt and gone into reverse.

The cup though, lest we forget, has been an oasis of calm. We’ve beaten everything thrown at us with some applomb. So it will be interesting to see how the players start today. Will the shackles be off a bit, or will the nerves descend like a fog?

Forgive me for bringing it up, but I remember as I waited for the Carling Cup final to start in 2011 seeing the Birmingham players huddle in concentration, and compared it to our players who were all sauntering about laughing. That day, we were complacent and we paid for it.

I don’t think there’ll be any of that today. They’ll bust a gut. Today though it’s about dragging tired bodies and minds into some semblance of form. Not hurtling forward shapelessly. Defending stoutly. Back to basics, as Wenger has said. But above all, the players need to enjoy the day like the fans will.

Big day, massive day. Exciting day. Come on you rip-roarers!

Arsenal 1-1 Manchester City

It’s a mystery to me how the same team that keeled over and sank beneath the waves so spectacularly last weekend could, just a week later, give a passable impression of a side once again dining at the top table. I mix my metaphors like Arsenal mix their performances.

A far better display all round, with a rediscovery of better defensive resilience at its heart. If I try to work out what makes Arsenal tick I give myself a splitting headache, so I’ve given up trying. Much of our malaise has been in the mind, which is what makes it so hard to pinpoint. ‘Psychology – bloody hell’, to paraphrase a well-worn football saying.

In the circumstances, a draw was an excellent result. But frustrating too, if you look at the table, with us five points off the top, and wonder how things might have been different had we not gone full Light Brigade at Stamford Bridge.

We defended well, even with Sagna motoring forward to cross. It’s a shame the arm-waggling, shrugging Giroud could not be more effective, but he’s running on empty. There is no lead in the Giroud pencil (footballistically). Of course, Sagna chugging up the wing is a risky strategy, but there’s a very large Walcott-shaped hole on our right flank, so needs must.

In the midfield, Rosicky and Cazorla did well ahead of Arteta and Flamini. We worked harder off the ball, basically, and it showed.

The atmosphere was superb. It was really noisy and if you want to attribute that to the indomitable spirit of Arsenal fans, you’re very welcome to. Personally, I suspect an extra two and a half hours of beer had an effect…

We’re often accused of lacking tough, spiky players, which is odd given we have Flamini and Podolski. The former’s like a coiled spring, like a little yapping dog, and Podolski’s not scared to get in people’s faces either.

He’s an interesting conundrum is Podolski. His mistake led to City’s goal, and he often leaves enormous gaps on the left, making the full-back’s job harder, but there’s something about him I really like. He’s pretty quick, his crossing is excellent and he can score (should have scored yesterday, maybe, but Hart saved well). It’s been a very fitful season but he’s scored eight goals in twelve starts – good stats. So when the summer reckoning comes to pass, I hope he stays.

I leave you with this thought:

Diaby’s back in training this week.

Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal

“History will be kind to me”, said Winston Churchill, “for I intend to write it”.

Wenger, sadly, has no such luxury, and when the history books recount the amazing achievement of his 1,000th game, they will also tell of a man whose team put in possibly the most abject display of his entire 18-year tenure.

It was so lamentable as to almost defy words – sloppy, off the pace, too open, horribly naive, toothless and rudderless. And maybe the very worst thing is how easy it was for Chelsea. It was over – much as it had been at Anfield – after seven minutes. It was a cakewalk.

The timing of this performance could not have been any worse. With a pretty decent season behind us, Wenger will have been desperate to lay some kind of marker down. To say: Stick with me, this team is going places, we can compete at the top table. Instead, all the old questions about him and his team came flooding back. They gave up the title fight without so much as a by-your-leave.

For what it’s worth, I do think we have the core of an excellent side. But for us to have been beaten 6-3, 5-1 and 6-0 at our rivals tells you as much as you need to know about the fault lines that still remain unfixed. Until we can overcome that mental hoodoo, and set ourselves up better in these kinds of games, we are never going to make the leap. Those are the kinds of defeats you see once every ten years at a club like Arsenal. It’s happened three times in a season.

I feel sad for Wenger. Mourinho knew exactly what to do to break this team down but Wenger and his team had no answer. Arteta was overrun – why didn’t he play Flamini? Why play such open football, so high? What is going on with Giroud? I know it sounds absurd, but where is Bendtner? How naive do you have to be to try to deflect a ball in the box with your hand? Why has Szczesny started fumbling the ball?

I know we have Walcott, Wilshere, Ozil and Ramsey missing, and god knows they’d have made a difference, but no Arsenal team should be shipping that number of goals, irrespective of the circumstances. That was still a strong XI.

“A nightmare” is what Wenger said, after the game. It’s bad enough having Mourinho preening and peacocking at the best of times, so to feed him this kind of ammunition will have felt desperate for Arsene.

A truly baffling performance.

Now, to send the wrong man off is quite amazing. I’d be more angry had it had a material outcome on the game, but we were already 2-0 down and in full retreat. It is astonishing, none the less, especially so in the face of such vehement admissions and denials from Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Did the referee think they were lying, in front of millions? Where is the common sense here? That said, what was Oxlade-Chamberlain thinking?

Either way, it’s irrelevant. Yesterday was meant to be all about Wenger, and indeed it was. But for all the wrong reasons.

One final thing – I know I’m rambling. Narrow defeats are far easier to bounce back from than poundings like this. Remember how we played against Utd after our thumping at Anfield? We played cautiously, within ourselves and shorn of huge confidence. I imagine the same ‘healing process’ will apply this time round, which makes Tuesday’s game against Swansea harder than it needed to be.

Unhappy 1,000th, Arsene.

We’ve all been soaking in a Wenger wonderland over the last few days with the looming one-thousandth game of Le Boss’ Arsenal career.

I couldn’t let the moment pass without a few thoughts.

A thousand games in charge is a quite remarkable feat. Truly amazing – unrivalled at Arsenal, and probably never to be seen again anywhere in the Premier League. Football is so much shorter-term these days, but I think we need to get one thing straight. Wenger has not survived purely because he’s a yes man, or because he’s from a different era. He doesn’t hoodwink the board or pull the wool over the executives’ eyes. He’s survived because he’s a phenomenal manager.

While on the one hand I do agree with the general feeling that managers are not given enough time these days, it’s easy to forget that the best way of buying yourself time is by being good at what you do. And Wenger is that alright. He’s a dynastic manager, a man whose first years were so successful and radical that he bought himself all the goodwill he needed. Survival in football management is a bit about luck, but it’s also about ability, adaptability and resilience. It’s about intelligence, fitting in, and a stubborn will to succeed.

But make no bones about it, Wenger has lasted 1,000 games at Arsenal because he’s good. Not just good – he’s brilliant. Not many managers can do this. Nobody can blag it. Perhaps we won’t all see it till he’s gone. But I think in time, we will.

Of course, the second half of his reign has not been without its faults. It’s been consistent – impressively so – but trophy-less. Some things seem infuriatingly unfixed. Yet he’s still here, not purely on the gaseous vapours of past success, but because he does so much for Arsenal. And I think that is key to a wider understanding of Wenger.

I look at football, at its egoists, arrivistes, idiots and flash-in-the-pans, and then I see Wenger. He’s a figurehead at a club that has always prided itself in doing things the right way. He’s calm, educated, intelligent. I like what he stands for, just as I like what Arsenal stands for.

So well done Arsene – it’s an amazing landmark. I don’t always agree with you, and I often question you, but you are an easy man to respect and admire. (And I want to little-bit meet you.)

Incidentally, stable door, horse, bolt, my best Wenger XI is: Seaman, Dixon, Adams, Campbell, Cole, Pires, Vieira, Fabregas, Overmars, Henry, Bergkamp.

I include Dicko in this not because he epitomises Wenger, because really he’s a George Graham best XI kind of a bloke. Sagna or Lauren would have been better fits here. But I loved Lee Dixon’s determination, commitment, defensive nous (and that own goal against Coventry, come on, that was phenomenal).

Thinking about Dixon now brings up a good memory. When we were at Highbury, in the East Lower, we sat behind these two lads whose entire raison d’etre was to laugh, and to have a good laugh. They were such good value, but after the move to the Emirates they went one way and we another, and that was that.

But one of the fellas had a hilarious relationship with Lee Dixon. As far a I recall he liked him, but took it upon himself to wind him up whenever possible. Whenever Dixon came over to where we sat he’d always shout, “Oi, Dixon, you’re SHIT”. After a while, Dixon had clocked this and would look over with a grin. Then one game, the bloke behind told us he’d been at a charity golf game and, lo and behold, who had been there but Lee Dixon. So, rather than break a habit of a lifetime, from across the fairway came the famous battle-cry. “Oi, Dixon, you’re SHIT”. Superb.

Incidentally – and I wish I could remember his name now – one of the lads behind told me once at half-time that before coming to Arsenal, he’d been a Luton fan. Naturally, we were all taken aback by this so I asked him how he had come to support Arsenal.

He looked at me, sighed, and said, “I just got tired of being beaten up”.

Arsenal 4-1 Everton

And so to our first FA Cup semi-final in five years. Ah yes, Wembley. The stroll up Wembley Way, my Kenny Sansom flat cap, a mixtape by FeverPitch, Alan Sunderland’s megaperm (I swear I do not believe that), Charlie George lying prostrate, Charlie Nicholas’s mullet, Andy Linighan’s bloody-headed header, Overmars bursting through.

(I prefer those memories to Trevor Brooking, Gazza, Winterburn missing a penalty against Luton, overpriced inedible food and a spectacular defensive howler that led to anger and mental scarring in 2011, if that’s alright with you).

I know, I know, it’s not the final – I’d prefer the semi-final to be at a neutral club ground like it always was – but the powers that be need to pay back the mortgage so Wembley it is. Wemberleeeeee.

Let’s be dramatic about it: beating Everton was huge. After the Stoke no-show, it was massive. We’re off the pace in the league, we’ve got to climb Mount Bayern without crampons, so yesterday was so important in so many ways. We’re one game from our first cup final since 2005, for a start. That’s good enough for me, but an excellent win is the kind of confidence boost we needed too. Lose that and the rest of the season would have stared us in the face, gurning. So make no bones about it – that was a big result.

I can say this now we’ve won, but it was an excellent cup tie. My brother said as the game started that he hoped Sanogo would score, as he needed a goal to give him belief. But when the goal did come – nice and early, keep it up Arsenal – it went to another player who needed one arguably even more. Questioned by many, a little off-colour, booed on international week, Ozil popped up and with one deft left foot kicked off an excellent performance that culminated in a delicious assist for Giroud’s second. An excellent performance in the spring sunshine (it’s amazing what a few gamma rays can do).

Sanogo had a shot, The Ox another, and we should really have capitalised on our lead, but the first half ended with Everton playing well and they got a tap in that set up a tense second half. As I say, a good game.

The game swerved our way with the penalty. The Ox again, this time running forcefully on the edge of the box right in front of where we sit (he must know this, he perhaps notices us, I like to think he does), was felled by the outstretched leg of Barry Gareth. Penno every day.

Here come the Arteta – he’s the lyrical gangster – and boom, cool as you like he scores. Except he doesn’t because of some perceived infringement by Giroud. What’s that all about? Annoying, because I’d already cheered heartily, pumped my fist at several innocent people and raised my son skywards. Up he comes again though, same coolness, different direction, goal.

Then the denoument, two goals from the excellent Giroud thanks to more good work from Ozil and the energy of Rosicky. It is perhaps an unfair comparison, but seeing Giroud next to Sanogo makes you appreciate the stuff he does that Sanogo cannot yet do. He finds space, holds and distributes the ball, and is deceptively quick-footed. For me, a fit and firing Giroud is key to any kind of momentum for us between now and May. When he’s good, he’s very good (18 goals this season is not too bad at all). Sanogo is willing but not ready. As for Bendtner – I have no idea where he’s got to.

So a great win and a needed shot in the arm. Now for Munich…

As an aside, I took my 5-year-old to his first game yesterday and not surprisingly, he loved it (despite a few wriggles of boredom in the first half). He may be too young to remember it in years to come but I now have the photograhic evidence to prove it… One thing that did make me laugh though is something he whispered in my ear during the ding-dong second half. “Daddy, is it true dodos are extinct?” Kids are so wonderfully random and hard to fathom.

A bit like Arsenal then. But it all came together yesterday and you could see what it meant to fans and players alike.

Stoke City 1-0 Arsenal

You can’t really get away with blips or slumps or off days when you hit the final furlong of a season in which you are challenging for something. Look at how we won the league in 2002 – we got 13 straight wins from 10th February. In 1998, 13 wins and a draw between January and clinching the title.

Even last season, it took eight wins and two draws from 16th March to claw our way to the elixir of fourth. Form and momentum.

That’s what makes yesterday so ominous, really. Penalty or no penalty, we were very, very average until right at the end of the game. Two shots on target says it all. We let Stoke out-muscle us, and we let them get to us. We looked very one-paced until right at the end.

That’s now two wins, two draws and two defeats in our last six league games, with our next four being Spurs, Chelsea, Man City and Everton. From where I am standing it looks beyond our capabilities. Our form is too fitful.

True, Stoke have an excellent record against the top sides at home. And true, things might change. There will always be ups and downs. But to claw back those four points will require a phenomenal run-in and the kind of consistency we’ve not shown for a while.

We’ll be fourth if City take two points from their two games in hand. I suppose arriving at fourth having been top is an improvement on arriving at fourth having been sixth…

In all seriousness though, it’ll be interesting to see how Wenger approaches the rest of the season. Last season he tweaked things to improve our defence, and it worked, albeit to the detriment of our attacking play. Now, our defence remains mostly solid. It’s further up the pitch where confidence seems to be sagging. How can he boost us for the next stage of the campaign?

He could start by injecting a bit of pace. Theo, oh woe is me. We do miss his goals and his ability to stretch defences. The nearest we have to him is the Ox, who didn’t start yesterday. His confidence is up, unlike some of our players, and for me he comes straight back into the starting XI for the FA Cup.

Wilshere’s form is worrying too. He had a poor game yesterday following an excellent one against Sunderland – but we can’t afford that. Is he injured? Podolski didn’t offer enough either. But maybe it’s harsh to pick those two out. It was sub-standard stuff, really.

I wouldn’t say the Sunderland performance was a glitch – but they were very accommodating visitors and our next four league games will be anything but accommodating.

What better, then, than an FA Cup quarter final to get things right. What an important game that is turning out to be.

Arsenal v Bayern mosaic
Image courtesy of Arsenal Tickets

Arsenal 0-2 Bayern Munich

Another year, another mountain to climb. This time, it’s all about the frustrating ‘what ifs’. Things could and should have been so different but a missed penalty, an injury to Gibbs and a red card for Szczesny meant we were up against it with limited scope to do much about it.

Instead, in the end, being down to ten men made the whole second half something of a turkey shoot, with Bayern registering more possession than Borley Rectory. They are a phenomenal side to face with eleven men. With ten men – forget it. It’s sad as the red card ruined a fabulous end-to-end game. It stopped it dead as a proper contest. Red cards often do.

Was it a red? The trouble is, clear goal-scoring opportunity or not, it was an easy one for refs to give and this one didn’t think twice. I’m not armed with the stats but I suspect those ones are given more often than they are not. That said, it’s debatable whether Robben had any real chance of scoring.

Before that we had made a fantastic, bright start and seriously rattled the Bavarians. Ozil should have put us a goal up from the spot but fluffed his lines. How we needed that. In hindsight, how he needed that too as he faded badly as the game wore on. He’s not a man who gives much away so it’s hard to know what’s going through Ozil’s mind at the moment, but he doesn’t seem the happiest of sorts right now. Unfortunately, when you come with a £42.5m price tag you are observed and judged more frequently, and the pressure is always on. I think he needs, at the very least, a break – a few games away from the spotlight – but Wenger seems very reluctant to countenance that.

Other things conspired against us. Gibbs, playing so well, went off injured and was replaced by Monreal, who struggled. Fabianski came on for Szczesny. So we’d made two subs before half-time, leaving us with no room for manoeuvre at all.

Sanogo, the surprise starter ahead of Giroud (there’s a whole other sub-plot there I can’t be bothered to get into) did well enough for a while but struggled thereafter. Hardly surprising once we were down to ten men, but it was a big gamble on such a big night. I imagine he’d have come off had we not already made two subs (Podolski remained marooned on the bench – there’s another subplot, if you’re after more).

So here we are again, staring down the barrel of a last 16 exit for the fourth year running. I know we won at the Allianz last year but don’t bet on Bayern switching off like they did then.

It’s a funny competition, this. We bust a gut to get into it (valuing it over a real trophy), get through to the knockouts then come unstuck time and again when we meet the behemoths of Germany, Italy and Spain.

That’s why last night was so frustrating. That 0-2 should have been 1-0 and that, with eleven men, would have given the night a different complexion entirely.

One last, positive thing – the red and white display was amazing. Hats off to Red Action.

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal

First, a confession: I switched the game off after ten minutes. When you concede two goals in the first 10% of any game – and we could have let in more – you don’t need to lick your finger and raise it skywards to work out which way the wind is blowing.

It was a good call, as it happens, because I was driving and had I left the radio on I might have gone GTA renegade. So I swapped 5 Live for Radio 3 and some sedatives.

It transpires I wasn’t the only one. Once I’d got out the car, I went into full Twitter sarcasm mode, and it soon became apparent that plenty of others had called it a day and toddled off to change nappies, do some grouting or get the wallpapering finished. Sales at B&Qs across north London went through the roof at about 1pm.

We were 4-0 down at this point so to have turned the TV on now would have been akin to staying at the end of a Phil Collins gig for the encore. I Can’t Stop Loving You Arsenal, but I do draw the line somewhere.

If I was being kind, I’d say that a sloppy first-minute goal always blows carefully-laid plans out the water. But in truth, we were just dire – rank awful – while Liverpool were explosively good. There was No Going Back at 2-0 and in the end we got away lightly with 5-1.

Our normally solid back line was breached at will, with Monreal having a torrid time up against Suarez in particular. On current form, though I like Monreal, Gibbs cannot come back fast enough. Is young Mr Gibbs nursing a little bit niggle? If so, That’s Just The Way It Is.

Our midfield, so strong this season, was impotent. Ozil, by all accounts, had a shocker. He could do with a break – that sounds like an excuse but I think it holds true – though with Ramsey and Flamini out, and Wilshere not quite 100%, I can’t see him getting one on Wednesday.

(Ah – but you didn’t watch it, I hear you say. Well I was foolish enough to remedy that by watching MOTD, and I’ve read a few reports. Look Through My Eyes and tell me that’s not more than enough).

What of Liverpool? They’ve been cruising under the title radar until now, but if you consider us to be challengers then you have to consider them to be too. They have form on their side right now and have as much chance, I suspect, as we do. It was a day to forget for us, and Another Day In Paradise for them.

I am worried, I have to say. Who wouldn’t be after a performance in which everything was wrong? I don’t know many champions in waiting who lose 6-3 and 5-1 at rivals, though I accept that’s a simplistic way of looking at things. Certainly, we’ve been solid this season and we’re only one point off the pace. But our impressive form of late autumn has morphed into a more pragmatic (albeit until yesterday effective) style, and you have a feeling that when we do lose, we don’t do so in half measures. We do it festooned in lackadaisical bunting and with defensive klaxons sounding.

It was the worst possible time to revert to the Collaps-o-Arsenal of old. Our ineptitude will have emboldened Manchester United, it gives Liverpool the psychological edge next weekend and god only knows what it’s done to Bayern Munich, who let’s be honest need no encouragement at all to be any better than they already are.

If we can Hang In Long Enough through this fixture list – possible Against All Odds – it will give us the encouragement and belief.

But we’ve made it a hell of a lot harder for ourselves.