Looking back, looking forward

I would have been delighted in hindsight for this international break to have been as unremarkable as all those that have come before, but for all the wrong reasons it ended up being the most extraordinary one I can recall.

I don’t know if it’s an overreaction to say that football is going to change in the light of what happened in Paris, but I think – in the short term at least – that’s exactly what will happen. We’ve already been told that security will be stepped up in Premier League games, and to be honest, that’s the right response. The events in Paris (and elsewhere) show that anyone is a target. However hard it is to get your head round or accept, that’s the truth of it.

Whether it will have long-term effects on football is hard to say. The optimist within me hopes not.

But right now the memory is utterly raw and there are some direct knock-on effects for Wenger. Are his French players ready to play? Particularly the ones who were at the game, who would have heard the explosion, felt the fear and watched the events across the city unravel? They weren’t at the races on Tuesday, but nobody really expected them to be.

If I had to guess, I’d say that our entire French contingent, if fit, will want to be out there (and ideally, together). It’s a bit of a cliché but “one for all and all for one”.

As was discussed on the Arsecast, perhaps in the case of Giroud there is no other option anyway. Alexis needs a break and I’d hope he won’t start at WBA tomorrow. But short of Gibbs stepping up to the plate, we might not have any other option. Most of the other mooted returnees are of course not ready to return – a situation with Made in Arsenal stamped all over it – so we are once again light on squad rotation options.

It’s hard enough to hit the ground running after normal international breaks, and this one could be even trickier.

But off we go again, and that’s the way it should be.

Vive les rip-roaring reds!

Left-back wings it to save the day

Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham

You wouldn’t have put much money on the cavalry arriving wearing a number three shirt and some underused boots, but Gibbs’ contribution was one of the nicer stories to emerge from a match that was at times pretty tough viewing for Arsenal fans. A gentle reminder from our left-back that it wasn’t that long ago we were all impressed at how he’d kept Monreal frustrated on the bench.

He was also the only British player on the pitch for Arsenal, with our cavalcade of homemade players all out injured or glued to the bench. It’s quite staggering that five of our injured core are British. Coincidence? Probably, but still.

It wasn’t that Joel Campbell played that badly; he fought manfully for the most part, and the fact he could not make a lot happen was not his problem alone. Is he good enough? His position as about seventh choice suggests not, but you can’t fault his workrate and he has proved his value as a squad member over the last four games.

The whole team struggled badly in the first half against an impressively committed and tenacious Spurs side, and that Cech was so impressive (and busy) says it all.

So a point is an excellent result given the circumstances, and focus now must go on getting some of that long line of injured players back within two weeks. There’s no doubt that the Cazorlas and Alexis’ of this world are running on empty – it’s a massive worry. In a perfect world (*sigh*) there’d be scope to rotate a bit when legs get this weary. But we have nothing else in the wardrobe other than Wilshere-shaped mothballs.

The thing is, as has been proven time and again, when we’re talking about Arsenal and injuries there’s no such thing as a perfect world – or if there is, it’s something like ‘only five men are out’.

That’s why we need to strengthen the overall squad in January. We have to accept that we are horribly injury-prone and adjust our thinking accordingly. What happens if, as if by some act of god, we were to buy two players and then everyone miraculously got fit? Surely it’s better to manage players’ frustrations at not playing than to grind the same core of fit ones into the ground.

Over to you Tony Colbert. May the Shad Forsythe be with you.

Going for it | AGM | Superhuman Alexis

The break nearly broke me

I try – lord knows I try – to get enthused by watching England, but unless it’s a whopper of a match I just can’t. This fortnight has been triply hard. Firstly because England have already qualified and could dance a naked jig on the centre circle while waving wet haddocks for all it mattered. Secondly because – big fan of the Baltic republics as I am – it was not a pulse-racing double-header. No pulses were harmed in this instance. And thirdly because we’d just turfed Man Utd right out of the Emirates without so much as a by-your-leave.

Which reminds me…

Was that performance really two weeks ago? I like to record such victories on this blog, but I got a bit waylaid on Sunday evening by, erm – there’s no other way to put this – beer. We had a loosener before the game, then we powered down a beer-flavoured plastic Emirates pint at half time to dry the agitated throats. It all went a bit wrong after that, I confess. We retired to a hostelry after the match to chew the cud of a fantastic performance and to let the crowds dissipate, but we slightly misjudged the whole crowd-dissipation thing and drank too many beers.

It’s not my fault. If we performed like this on a more regular schedule, we wouldn’t need to treat it like New Year’s Eve. But we don’t and we did and well, you know. I went to work on the Monday in the fug of victory and it was worth it. I bet I wasn’t the only one.

But what does it all mean?

Alan Davies on The Tuesday Club said it elegantly, and Wenger has since reiterated it: we have to go for the title. On the one hand it seems absurd to state it, because Arsenal should be ‘going for it’ every year – but football is a fickle mistress. On the other hand, despite the summer transfer stasis and the opening day hoop-la, here we are in mid-October in the thick of it.

Who’s going to take the league by the scruff of the neck? You might scoff at it being us, and to be frank I do too because I’m an epic cynic, but all the contenders have lost twice and the team that is the least ‘work in progress’ is probably us. Consistency of performance is the key here, and that’s where we’ve fallen down in the past. But that Utd game… can they keep it up… it’s the hope that kills you.

The AGM left me with mixed feelings

Two good write-ups from Tim Stillman and Angry of N5. I think the whole £3m fee was obfuscatory in the extreme and the silence from Kroenke was a bit embarrassing. Why bother coming if you don’t engage? You get the feeling he’d scrap it in a flash if he could.

But because he can’t take the club private he can’t do that (I hope I have understood this right). And that’s mostly because of… Alisher Usmanov who owns 30% of the club. Were it not for him Kroenke could and possibly would hoover up everything in his path and do whatever he likes.

Why am I torn? Without Usmanov, maybe even this level of transparency would not happen. But it’s Usmanov. So yeah.

There’s a game on

Of course there is. We’re at Vicarage Road tomorrow and I can’t wait. Superhuman Alexis seems to be fit, which is both baffling and brilliant. He’s scored three in two for Chile, six in three for Arsenal – so nine in five – and all with a dicky groin and a foggy jetlagged head.

Is it any wonder there’s talk of a new contract? I think footballers earn too much (what is it, 71p in every pound of revenue to the player?) but Alexis is so totemic, such a one-man whirligig, that all scruples go out the window. His skill and energy and dedication and sheer bloody-mindedness do not grow on trees. He’s the best player in the Premier League at the moment, and one of the best in the world. Even when neutrals buff off my Arsenal bias I’m not far off the truth in saying that am I? He’s incredible. Where would we be without him?

Who are the legends of today to match the Adams’, the Wrights, the Bergkamps, the Vieiras and the Henrys of this world?

We will look back at Alexis in that bracket. You know it.

Let’s corral the jet-setting rabble and get ourselves three points tomorrow.

Because we’ve got to go for it, and that starts tomorrow.

Come on you rip-roarers!

Double OG kick-starts Arsenal’s season

Crystal Palace 1-2 Arsenal

Well hello, season. Pleased to meet you. I’ve been away and yes thankyou, I’ve had a lovely time. Like Arsenal, I’m late to the party, but here I am at last.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t buy into some of gnashing and wailing that followed the West Ham defeat. It was a complacent start to the season (nervous? Spare me!) and we’ve seen that a few times before from Arsenal. In fact, it was straight from the Arsenal Handbook of Unexpected Losses. Chapter One. Case Study Two. Page 14 after a prologue from Gervinho and a dedication to Emmanuel Eboue.

But it was only one defeat, and damaging though they are, you can just as easily be undone by a string of draws.

That said, to stop the massed ranks of the broken crests from storming the ramparts, yesterday’s game at Palace took on the air of a ridiculously early six-pointer. Lose and we’d have been in pole position for Fourth Placed Trophy©, Collaps-o-Arsenal™ or even relegated. Or perhaps somewhere more nuanced.

Well, we staved that calamity off for another week with a hard-fought win. It was comfortable at first and wobbly at the end – which is what one goal leads tend to do to you. There was some sublime passing and crossing from Ozil, while Ramsey and Cazorla did well. Alexis gave us the zing we needed without, yet, the laser vision to get himself a goal. So overall it looked much more like the Arsenal we expected to see last weekend.

Coquelin was a touch possessed and had to be exorcised by being removed for Arteta. A bit of a concern given his importance to the team. I remain to be convinced that Arteta and Flamini are the best alternatives there and would be open to an addition, even if it meant Arsene being uncharacteristically ruthless and discarding one of the latter.

This was my first glimpse of Cech, and it’s fair to say he’s had a baptism of fire. A debut to forget, and could he have done more for Palace’s goal or was it just an unstoppable rasper? If it hadn’t dawned on him before, it probably has by now: Arsenal’s defence will never be as mean-spirited as Chelsea’s (usually is…)

As for the goal we did score, it was a belter. Giroud showed the kind of technical skill that he’s not given enough credit by scooping that out the air. Lovely strike.

Everything at this stage of the season seems absurdly extreme. We’ve gone from bottom of the table to eleventh, a mere three points off the top! We’re terrible! We’re brilliant!

Nobody ever used to give a fig about the league table until at least four or five games in, and that’s the way it should be, but no longer is. I’m not sure they’d even publish it in the paper until about mid-September.

We shouldn’t even look at it yet. All the teams are finding their feet. It’s the middle of August.

Of more concern to me is whether we’ve done enough business to keep things fresh, keep the momentum up, give ourselves the best options in all areas out and send out a statement of intent. I like this squad, but there can be no complacency.

It feels to me that there’ll be a lot of money spent elsewhere between now and September. Some silly money. Will we be partaking?

Coquing marvellous

Burnley 0-1 Arsenal

Yesterday’s win was a gentle reminder that it’s not every week you fire off a three-goal, eight-minute salvo where all the goals were straight out ‘Dennis Bergkamp’s Little Book of Crackers’.

It was a more prosaic win, a festival of free kicks and half-chances broken up by Ramsey being in the right place at the right time to wrap the points up. Good job he scored, really, because it wasn’t the kind of game where clear-cut chances came easy at either end. In fact, it was when Welbeck came on and the shrugging Giroud came off where the game opened up a bit more to my liking. (Our glorious Gaul has had better games, but with seven goals in six games, that’s alright with me).

If the finish itself owed itself to a string bit of lucky bounces, the build-up was marvellous, with Coquelin like a tambourine clap through pigeons and Sanchez doing his usual impression of being everywhere at once. That one moment was enough, ultimately, against a team (lest we forget) that is battling for its Premier League existence.

With a squad bursting with unseasonal fitness, I was interested to see how we might line up on the bench. None of the most recent returnees were on it, which proves how hard – when you have a settled, winning team – it’s going to be to upset the applecart. I can’t see Arteta or Wilshere, for example, making the starting eleven until we have a game where there’s nothing to play for. The way the season’s panning out, when’s that going to be?

I wouldn’t want to make that decision and massage those precious egos. Which is probably one of the many reasons why Wenger is paid £8m a year and I am on a little bit less than that.

Great win, with the stand-out players being those in the engine room: Coquelin, Ramsey, Cazorla. And of course Sanchez, whose diet of raw fish, Red Bull and Castrol GTX continues to give him jaw-dropping energy levels. Eight wins on the trot, the perfect hors d’oeuvre for an FA Cup semi-final and the visit of Chelsea.

The Poldi effect

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I had a bit of insomnia the other night. When this happens – fortunately not too frequently – I don’t count sheep, of course I don’t. I think of football stats and lineups. For example, counting backwards through FA Cup winners (I always grind to a halt during the years when Chelsea won it a lot) or thinking of various Arsenal starting elevens going back through time.

So there I was at 3.30am thinking of the 1989 title-winning team, and got a bit tripped up by the fact we started three centre-backs. Onwards I moved to the 1998 Cup Final lineup, where I was promptly derailed by the inclusion of Christopher Wreh (I honestly have no recollection of that). My final one was last year’s FA Cup final team, and I blew that one too, mostly because I had completely forgotten that Podolski started it.

He feels like such a footnote now, doesn’t he? At the time he left I was a little anxious about losing his goalscoring prowess, but in hindsight it feels like something of a watershed. We cannot put our upswing in form and performances on his departure, of course we can’t, but it’s pretty obvious that Wenger counts much more now on players who work hard. Who are the stand-out players of the second half of the season? Coquelin, Giroud and Sanchez. All work their socks off. Who also plays where Podolski once played? Welbeck, whose lack of goals doesn’t matter thanks to what he gives to the team in pace, blood and sweat.

Who else seems to have married his innate technical beauty with a tougher attitude? Ozil.

That’s the benchmark now, which might explain why Theo is finding it so hard. With him, I maintain the injury has affected him mentally more than physically. But at the same time, he cannot fail to see the way the wind is blowing.

Podolski could barely get in the team before he left. He’d get nowhere near it now.

That’s me done.

Let the build-up to Wembley begin.

I love the FA Cup.

Bloody love it.

Bielik is the new Whyte

There ought to be a manual for advising people how best to avoid shoe-horning woeful puns into the titles of blog posts, you know. I merely say that.

Because we all know that Krystian Bielik is not the new Chris Whyte, even if both could play centre-half. But in the absence of a legendary Arsenal midfielder called, say, Patrick Purple or Liam Khaki, I went for Chris Whyte, and that’s all the explanation I am prepared to give.

We’ve not signed him anyway, but if we are to believe the Guardian, then we are ‘poised’ to do just that. Nor, let’s be frank, should we get too excited about it right now, given that he’s seventeen and has made just five appearances in the Polish league. If it happens, we can file it in the ‘one for the future’ folder, where it will be flush against that dusty facsimile entitled ‘winning the Champions League’.

Will he come? I don’t know. He may of course ring up the Woj and ask for advice on where the best place is to fire up a crafty tab without teacher knowing, or which seat on the bench is best for avoiding piles.

It would count as a signing, though, and at this stage of the window, when all that’s happened is a striker exodus, that’s something.

Both attacking departures, incidentally, are hard to argue against, in all honesty. Following Poldi out the door (#aha) is Sanogo (#yaya), who is off to Palace for experience. Good luck to him. You certainly can’t do anything other than doff your cap at his willingness to fit in…

As for defensive cover that will make an actual difference, we’re still none the wiser, and to compound the overstretching, it looks like Debuchy could be out for yet another Diaby. Why push him in mid-air? A stretch on the sidelines, and for what?

Just at a time, too, when we our midfield and forward options are increasing. Ramsey, Flamini, Ozil and Walcott are all back, while Rosicky is back from the cold (what was that all about?)

Look at our bench against Stoke:

Szczesny, Bellerin, Flamini, Ramsey, Ozil, Campbell, Walcott

And compare it to the one from just a month previously, against Newcastle:

Martinez, Coquelin, Podolski, Sanogo, Campbell, Maitland-Niles, Ajayi.

Stronger, and we’ve still got Arteta, Welbeck, Gibbs and Wilshere to come. I don’t pretend for a second that all our woes this season have been down to injuries, but it has massively hamstrung us.

As for Stoke – I was at a family gig and missed what sounds like our best performance of the season yet, so I have nothing to add other than prostrating myself before the feet of the mighty Alexis in awe. The man is a beast. A proper beast. Not a Baptista beast.

The words ‘world class’ get bandied about with abandon these days. But he genuinely is.

A welcome winning blip

mirage

West Brom 0-1 Arsenal

I could trawl back over my blogging years and find dozens of examples of my morale hitting rock bottom, only for Wenger to shed some ballast on HMS Crisis, refire the boilers and steam out of trouble.

He is an absolute expert at that – he’s outlasted every manager in the league by a country mile, and he’s outlasted George Allison as Arsenal’s longest-serving manager by five years. He knows how important it is to steady the ship as soon as possible when it starts taking on water. “To stop a crisis quickly is one of the most important qualities”, he told Amy Lawrence when she interviewed him for her excellent book Invincible, “The longer it lasts, the more you swim against the stream”.

So the wins against Dortmund and West Brom – while you’d be wise to caution against undue optimism given everything that has gone on ad infinitum – was a much needed dose of smelling salts.

Dortmund was, in hindsight, pretty straightforward, with Yaya’s duck-breaker setting the right tone and Alexis wrapping things up in style. I confess I was quite worried before the game, but my anxiety was without foundation as it turned out. Klopp thought it might be a holiday from their bizarre domestic form, but separating one competition from another is easier said than done and it showed.

At the Hawthorns, promising signs afoot. Defensive solidity, a cagier approach (Amen, Hallelujah and Huzzah) and a fine winning goal created by Cazorla and buried from above by Welbeck. Giroud and Koscielny through the revolving door in the right direction, Monreal and Gibbs heading the opposite way to nobody’s real surprise. But it was an encouraging performance in many ways.

They posited on the Football Weekly podcast that with Arsenal, Spurs, Man Utd, Man City and Liverpool all winning, perhaps some of the peculiar post World Cup lethargy and bittiness of most of the top four wannabes is wearing off at last. I like the idea of that when it comes to Arsenal. Not so much in relation to the others.

You can only go with what you see – hence a lot of miserable fans for much of this season – but in the last two matches, and out of nowhere, I see green shoots just at a point when I wondered out loud what Wenger was smoking over at the Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a case of me staggering parched through the desert, desperate for succour, only to be presented with a mirage. Just as it’s too early to write this season off, it’s also too early to head down the bookies with a glint in the eye.

Keeping it up and building on it is something that has largely eluded us so far. The frustration with Arsenal, and with Wenger, is not made up. It’s not magicked from nowhere. It’s an accumulation of things going back a long way. We could argue all day if it’s terminal, or turn-roundable, but the bottom line is that nobody can say with any certainty.

What we can say with some conviction is that you can’t argue with the tonic of winning. It puts a different hue on things, and how we needed that.

I like winning.

More of that please.

In which I get all pensive, again

Swansea 2-1 Arsenal

You know, at times like this it’s quite hard to come up with even the lamest pun to make me feel better. Something about whales, I thought, given the location. Blowholes. Blue. A bunch of planktons. Surrendering minkely.

But I don’t need to tell you how terrible these are, and then I ran out of steam and willpower. So instead I ploughed into a bit of gallows humour.

There, that’s better.

Anyway, what kind of comfort can I give you after yet another Collaps-o-Arsenal defensive shambles, another naive turnaround? No volume of puns will suffice, that’s what I think.

If anything, we seem to be going backwards this season. I look at the squad and I like what I see, for the most part (there are things I can’t see, because they don’t exist, and that’s part of the problem but I can’t pass judgement on things I can’t see). But the team, the unit – it’s not as good as it was last season. I keep expecting us to turn the corner but whatever we do, we do it in stutters, before reverting back to these weird half-performances, shooting ourselves in the foot.

And this with a superior attacking force at our disposal than last year, which now includes a player who is performing head and shoulders above his teammates, a player of genuine world class. Twelve-goal Alexis must be wondering what more he can do to shore up this side. Welbeck’s goals might have dried up but he’s working his socks off and getting assists. Everywhere else though, and as a collective – it’s not working or it’s not working for long enough.

The reasons? Injuries, confidence, an unbalanced squad, the World Cup, Uncle Tom Cobley. There are loads of tangible reasons, but there are others that are extremely hard to gauge. Psychological things like confidence, belief and trust also play a part. More prosaic things like organisation and tactics and decisions, too.

If there’s any consolation, the bigger picture tells us that of all the traditional top four-ish sides, only Maureen is getting his right at the moment. And how.

And that we can only get better and more consistent – surely.

But of course, it’s Wenger’s team, this, and it’s Wenger who can’t get the best out of it right now. It’s Wenger who didn’t quite finish the job in the summer, buying some great players, but leaving glaring gaps elsewhere. That our lack of defensive options has come back to haunt us has an element of extreme bad luck to it. But an element of mismanagement, too.

My thoughts on the boss waver, as do those of many people these days. He’s been the manager of the club I love for two-thirds of the time I’ve supported it. He’s incredibly consistent.

But I don’t think that questioning Wenger is knee-jerk these days. Arsenal’s weaknesses have been the same for ages. It’s boring listening to pundits on the TV and on the radio flag them up, then for them to say “told you so” when they manifest themselves again.

I don’t know whether this team would suddenly explode with a more stable defensive platform, cannier teamwork and more of a sleeves-rolled-up approach. It might. Like Arsenal did after losing to Blackburn 3-1 at Highbury in December 1997. (“Harsh words were exchanged within the dressing room…a watershed moment”). It would certainly improve us, you’d think.

What I do believe, though, is that this team needs new ideas, some new approaches, new motivation. It needs long-standing weaknesses properly addressed, once and for all.

Whether we’ll see that from Wenger – well I just don’t know. And that, I suppose, gets to the crux of it.

An explosive Chilean red

 
Sunderland 0-2 Arsenal

It’s been three weeks since I asked the question ‘Which Arsenal will we see on Sunday?’ before the Chelsea game, a blog title that can be recycled prior to every match at the moment. That’s efficient writing, right there.

It’s a pertinent point of course, because we’re in one of those runs of form where it’s not easy to pinpoint what isn’t working. I’d wager Wenger’s not clear either, because there are multiple factors at play here. We have bursts of inventive play that set the pulse racing (City, second half, that brief Villa assault, Galatasaray), but long swathes of laboured football where ball retention, pace and lock-picking passes go out the window. We’re switching off at the back too much, but ludicrous injuries (and a lack of back-ups) have had a big effect there. Look at how we’ve lined up in defence during the nine league games, and you can see part of the problem.

Sz Deb Kos Chamb Gibbs
Sz Deb Per Chamb Mon
Sz Deb Per Kos Mon
Sz Deb Per Kos Mon
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Bellerin Per Mon Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Mon Gibbs

We’ve had the same back five only three times, and six different combinations in total. We don’t know how we’ll line up from game to game, and yesterday Gibbs conked out (a hip problem says Wenger, and we all know the hips don’t lie). Fingers crossed it’s not a bad one because he’s been excellent this season.

Defence aside, we have a better squad than last year, but too many of its constituent parts have failed to hit the high notes of last year. We’re not bad – one league defeat would back that up – but we’re not good either, as five draws from nine suggests.

Confidence has a big effect on this Arsenal team, as it does with most, and we’re lacking it, and with it some cohesion. Sometimes you just need to knuckle down and wade through stodgy form, so yesterday’s win at Sunderland, while it won’t win many aesthetic prizes and owed a lot to two moments of defensive calamity, ought to be a massive tonic.

What’s patently clear is how much Alexis brings to this team. His workrate (and that of Welbeck, who’s a similarly selfless, tireless player), his versatility and his eye for goal have held us together at times. If you want a role model for the other players when the mojo is little-bit lacking, he’s your man. Where would we be without him? He and Welbeck have scored the bulk of our goals, and for all the brow-furrowing about what’s not quite right, those two summer signings have been superb for us.

Alexis has been our player of the season, so I’m just off out to buy a lucky rabbit’s foot. If there’s one player we can’t afford to keel over, it’s him.