Den and dusted

Adeus Denilson. Ta-da for now (though I am prepared to wager that the ‘for now’ part will become ‘for good’).

Denilson’s departure reminded me that this summer was as much about clearing out some deadwood as it was about bringing in some alivewood [find a new word – Ed]. He’s the first of the exclusive gang to go – though who is in that gang is subjective and ebbs and flows accordingly.

Poor old Denilson was – along perhaps with Bendtner & Almunia, though it wasn’t an exclusive triumvirate – the butt of things last season. Personally, as I have said before, I think Bendtner got it a bit hard. He was shoved on the wing for the most part – nuts really – and his goalscoring ratio was not that bad.

But Denilson, well Denilson was in part a victim of the emergence of the staggeringly good Wilshere and the returning Ramsey. But it was only in part: Denilson was shorn of confidence, while Wilshere brims with it. He was too timid, where Wilshere exudes forward threat. He half-tackled, half-tracked. He just never seemed to do enough. So this loan has hardly slapped us in the face. He played 153 times for Arsenal but his 51 appearances in 2008-9 seem a long time ago now.

So who’s next? We were told pre-Asia that Almunia and Bendtner were negotiating moving-on deals (they’ve clearly been imbued with the same glacial negotiating tactics favoured by the club).

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Eboue go, too (if someone will have him – a foster club?) In a moment of sleeplessness the other night, I tried to name a few starting XIs across the years, and attempted to recall the line-up of the 2006 Champions League final. Eboue was right-back then (no, it didn’t help me get back to sleep). But what is he now? A jobbing fill-in. Sad but true. You can’t push an opponent over in your own box in the 102nd minute of a 90-minute game and carry on as normal. Or can you?

As for the rest, well I can’t see much doing unless we sign a new centre-half. If we do get in Garris Samhill, I can see us ditching a centre-back (even for balsawood Arsenal, five seems a bit greedy). The Squill would be the obvious victim there, though I’m afraid we’ve now entered the realm of pure conjecture.

So anyway, good luck Denilson. I hope you come good. You need to play.

Ref whistles while Robin works

Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal

Another year, another aggregate defeat to Barcelona, but this one was tinged with a dose of ‘what if’.

What if, at 1-1, we had remained with eleven men? Would the game, as Wenger argues, have opened up and presented us with a really good opportunity to go through? And what if, at 3-1 and late in the day, Big Game Bendtner had not done a passable impression of Bad Touch Bendtner and steered Wilshere’s pass through to goal?

The trouble with this argument of course is that it’s based entirely on a hypothetical scenario. Personally, I think the result would have been the same. As Guardiola said post-match, we had barely strung three passes together all night. We didn’t have a single shot on goal. It was as one-sided a match as you will ever see.

But we will never really know. What is true is that with ten men, the task was virtually impossible and so it proved. The decision to send van Persie off was absurd. A second between the whistle and the shot, with 95,000 voices in your ears? The referee had no way of proving van Persie simply did not hear the whistle, so why did he give him a yellow card? It’s another answer we will never get because referees are a protected species. Don’t expect him to come over all contrite. However, van Persie has to accept his own share of the blame for a thoroughly pointless and predictable yellow card in the first half that made the second yellow so crucial. There was a rumpus after a tackle on Wilshere, van Persie got involved and he was sizzling with Dutch fury. You just knew the moment was not over and so it proved – he soon earned himself a card.

In keeping with the nature of the game, all the heroics yesterday came from our defence and defensive midfield. Djourou and Wilshere were immense. Almunia, when he came on, made save after save after save and although he let two goals in, he was faultless.

Wilshere, in particular, at 19, continues to show the way in terms of guts and drive. Everywhere else we struggled. Fabregas was ineffectual – as it turned out, he was injured again anyway – Rosicky, Diaby were swamped. Nasri, while willing, was unable to keep the ball either. It was a really tricky night against a side that will take some stopping.

The Crock List has not been compiled from last night but it looks once more as if we are shipping players at an alarming rate. Cesc needs more recovery time but Szczesny is the biggest worry, suffering a dislocated finger that could yet end his season. As brilliant as Almunia was at shot stopping last night, he does not command his goal in the way Szczesny does and I keep my undislocated fingers crossed for him.

To lose against Barcelona is not the end of the world; I just wish we could have done it on an even playing field for 90 minutes. As I said, it may well have made no difference but we can now only speculate.

Losing at the first knockout stage is not a disaster either, from a broader perspective, seeing we are still fighting hard domestically. The league, in particular, requires all the strength we can muster. The other two challengers for the title – if you include Chel$ea, which I do – are still in Europe and that will distract them.

So plenty to go for still. Manchester looms on Saturday.

Arsenal go AWOL

Arsenal 2-3 W.B.A.

I have for a long time inexplicably looked out for West Brom’s results, a footballing peculiarity I can trace back to collecting Panini stickers in 1980, when theirs was the first team I had all the stickers for. At that time, with players like Robson and Regis, they were one of the better sides in the old First Division.

Yesterday they may have won a few more admirers with a display of real craft, commitment and counter-attacking skill. It’s very unusual for Arsenal fans as one to applaud an away side off, but all four corners of the ground did just that yesterday. The Baggies had been brilliant.

But what of Arsenal?

With very few exceptions, we were lifeless, listless and sloppy.

The fact that Wenger was left scratching his head – “I didn’t recognise my team today… many players made massive mistakes… unexplainable” makes any objective judgement on what went wrong pretty tricky.

Something, as Wenger said, wasn’t right from the start. I said to my brother, 15 minutes into the game, that I thought we were going to struggle and he shot me down in flames for being a miserable old git. But I was right; there was a lack of focus and urgency throughout and we got what we deserved.

For a side with title ambitions to find itself 3-0 down to a promoted side, having already conceded a penalty, tells you that it wasn’t all about the excellence of West Brom’s performance.

That lack of focus and urgency, coupled with a pandemic of defensive errors, made it the mess it was.

Between the sticks, Almunia was an absolute disaster. It was he who gave the penalty away, but if you thought his smart save would be the springboard to a commanding second half performance, you couldn’t have been more wrong. He was blameless for the first WBA goal, but erred badly for the second, and ambled unconvincingly out his box, leaving the goal gaping, for the third.

With every error he and his understudy makes, Wenger loses credibility. There is only so long you can defend the indefensible. The simple fact is this: Lehmann was dropped for making two errors. Wenger cannot drop Almunia for his multiple errors because the only other established option is even worse. The situation is risible.

The ironic jeers that then greeted every simple piece of handling will not help his confidence but the fans are not aiming their frustration at him, they are aiming it at Wenger. Like the caller who rang into 606 and called Arsenal a team with a £56m profit but a 56p goalkeeper, they do not understand how this three-year-long experiment has not been shelved.

But let’s be honest, he wasn’t the only one and it would be most unfair to pick on him alone. Watching your defence unravel in front of you in the way it did would have tested the mettle of any goalkeeper.

Sagna at right-back was all over the place, Song and Eboue were sloppy and ineffective. Diaby, Chamakh, Arshavin – the list goes on. Our two new central defenders, having quietly impressed in the season’s opening salvos, looked vulnerable all game.

Of the starters only Nasri, who battled hard all game and deserved his two goals, comes out with credit from yesterday’s mess. Wilshere did OK but he’s no superman.

For me, the most frustrating thing about it was the sense that having taken several steps forward in the early stages of this season, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot with this performance. Two steps forward, one step back.

All the old Arsenal failings – poor goalkeeping, sloppy defensive errors, plenty of possession but no way through, lack of bite and fight – reared their ugly heads again, just when we needed it least.

I accept we played 120 minutes in midweek, and our injury list is very long. But these are not excuses – the players are all experienced, and mostly all internationals. They just never turned up. It worries me that without Fabregas’s effervescence and bloody-minded will to win, we can at times look like a sports car without a driver.

We can but hope it’s a one-off, but it’s a worry, because we’ve been here before in seasons past.

Blip or bubble burst? We’ll know soon enough, with two huge tests next week.

Thoughts on the opener/keeper/patience

The Arsenal goalkeeping mystery

It’s not often I quote old Shakey, mainly because I’m not the brightest bulb in the room, but here goes:

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”.

For the goalkeeping situation to have gone on this long unresolved is really very odd if you ask me. It’s clearly now affecting Manuel Almunia, our current number one, who can no doubt see the writing on the wall.

Wenger has been understandably cagey when pressed, but one thing he hasn’t done is come out in full support of any of the current keepers at the club.

But he has, presumably, known all summer we need a new keeper – so what’s the hold-up? Why wait this long? With all due respect, how can it take so long to sign a 37-year-old keeper from Fulham? Is there something else cooking?

The uncertainty is doing nobody any good.

In the cold light of day…

As I sit here two days on, I must admit my views on the opening game at Anfield have changed slightly. At the time, I was frustrated at missing a big opportunity – being ten men up for a whole half as we were – and at not hurting them anything like as much as we should have given the possession we had.

But I’m often guilty of thinking only of where Arsenal went wrong and not making enough allowances for the opposition playing well. Neither side had many chances but Liverpool did play and defend well. And anyway, since when has Anfield ever been an easy place to go? I think it was a very decent result. We do need to add more variation to our game at times, when we are struggling to get through massed defensive ranks, but the lack of Fabregas, Song, van Persie (for most of the game) and Bendtner are worth a mention.

You’re alright, Jack

Given he is 18 and was making his first ever start for his club, away at Anfield, I think Wilshere did very well. What I love about him is his ability to scan the pitch, slow things down, and make a pass, all in a split second. He’s always looking for the forward pass.

It’s completely unrealistic to expect him to morph into the finished article this soon though. Anyone remember Parlour’s debut at Anfield, or how Adams was in his earlier days? They made mistakes but turned out alright, if I recall.

Blooding players like him is a long process, and one that will entail good games, bad games and a lot of patience. But it’s crucial to Arsenal’s future that young English players do get a chance – and to Wenger’s credit they are increasingly getting them – so we have to accept that it will take time for them to learn and adapt.

18 is an incredibly young age to break into a top football side.

Even at 21 a player is only still learning his trade. Is it fair to write someone like Walcott off, and to dismiss him as having no football brain, on the basis that he has been at Arsenal four years already? How much of that decision-making comes with age and experience? Injury has curtailed his career to just 75 starts in that time – only 15 of which were in the last year.

What age did Song suddenly go from being a hopeless lolloping bumbler to a fine holding midfielder? When we lost badly to Man City in November 2008 in my fury I marked him (and Denilson) down as our worst midfield of all time – yet he had only just turned 21.

A mere 18 months later he was named third in our player of the season poll after Cesc Fabregas and Thomas Vermaelen.

Maybe with some teams spunking cash hither and thither as if it was small change, the patient development of players is harder to do, but coupled with a sensible approach to bringing in experience, it’s got to be the right approach.

Defenders: Out with the old and in with the new

So Phil Senderos has officially left Arsenal – two seasons after he effectively did anyway.

There’s been a lot of goodwill on Twitter and across the blogs and that’s fair enough. Senderos was an uncomplicated player who gave his all, never moaned and represented the club very well indeed.

He was an up-and-down player though, with some commanding performances early in his career contrasting with plenty of wobblier ones at other points. Perhaps not surprising for a young player – one who is still only 25 years old now.

But I’m glad he’s gone.

Why? It’s got nothing to do with him at all. He’s a player who can and probably will still come good given the chance and a fair wind with injuries. Who knows, that may have happened at Arsenal in the past, but it’s not going to happen now. So he needed to go to reignite his own career, but nor is it a bad thing for Arsenal either. As a club, we need to properly address our defence, and we won’t do that by looking backwards.

Which is why there’s no reason to despair at the prospect of Gallas, Silvestre and even Campbell’s departures either. All are past their best, and while Campbell is a special case – his desire was palpable and put others to shame at times last season – even in a best-case scenario he’d have been third choice in 2010-11.

Look at our defensive record over the last few seasons. We’ve conceded 8, 9, 13 and 9 goals more than the league winners since we moved to the Grove, a consistent deficit. We have not eradicated bad defending as a unit, nor have we eradicated individual lapses of concentration – so much so that we are now seen as defensive soft touches. We get targeted between the sticks and we get targeted at set pieces. Such targeting often works.

That’s got to change, and a clean sweep of the brush might not be such a bad thing.

There’s no point worrying that if all three depart, then we’ll only have Djourou and Vermaelen left. There’s no way Wenger would leave it that way.

Sure, there’s a risk that starting next season with a new keeper and two new centre backs might be unsettling for a while. But it’s a risk worth taking compared to another season of the same problems.

In the meantime, I hope Big Phil makes it big and proves Wenger wrong. Not many players have left and done that – but I can’t imagine many Arsenal fans would begrudge him a renaissance if he did.

Arsenal strike back in epic encounter

Arsenal 2-2 Barcelona

Arsenal v Barcelona flags
North Bank flags

What an unbelievable game of football. My mind is still boggling. I’ve seen some good teams at the Grove in my time and I’ve seem some defiant comebacks too, but both on the same night? As a spectacle, this one was epic.

Let it be said that Barcelona were staggeringly good for the first half an hour or so. This December, I will notch up a quarter of a century of watching Arsenal live and I am struggling to think of a better side than Barcelona in the opening phase of the match last night. Right from the whistle, they came at us. Their passing, movement and ball retention was so good that when I was later told the possession stats had been 71%-29% in their favour, I scratched my head and thought: From where did we get 29%?

@feverpitch told me they completed 274 passes in the first half. We managed 91. What a stat.

It could not have been more lop-sided. It’s hard to say how much Arsenal contributed to Barcelona’s magnificence, but the bottom line is we could not get the ball at all. The big boys would not give it to us.

Time and again, it was the shot-stopping skill of Almunia that saved us. I have no recollection how many times Barcelona hooped one over the bar or had a shot blocked or parried by the Spaniard, but it was a minor miracle that we made it to half time at 0-0.

Then came the second half, as it tends to. Half way to a douze points performance from the British jury, Almunia then immediately contrived to scuttle miles out of his area. Ibrahimovic merely chipped it over the by now retreating keeper. Nul points from the Spaniard and we were 0-1 down.

0-2 followed after, when the giant Swede ran through our static defence and thumped it in. No way back.

Except something changed. That something was the last throw of the dice in the shape of Theo Walcott. What an enigma he can be. Having played his best 45 minutes of the season against Burnley some weeks ago, he has since once again retreated into the shadows. Last night, out he popped again with a performance that immediately got Barca rattled. He was direct, lightning-quick, put in penetrating crosses or passes and changed the dynamic of the game completely with his goal.

We came to life in the last fifteen glorious minutes. All of a sudden, anything looked possible. Fabregas was bundled over – red card for the bloke from Scorpion. Up Fabregas stepped, blasted it in, 2-2.

In doing so, of course, he did something to his leg and although he hobbled on against all odds, it looks to be a bad injury – possibly a broken leg. How do you carry on playing with a broken leg? Let’s hope it’s not that serious.

Shall I talk about the referee? I can’t be bothered but I thought he was hopeless. Five yellow cards? How?

Overall, a gutsy, incredible comeback from an Arsenal side that had been utterly outclassed but never gave up. For all the flaws of this side, our indomitable attitude is fast becoming our hallmark.

We’re still in it, by the hair on our chinny chin chin. Haha!

Just testing something below… feel free to vote…

Missed chances, dropped points

Birmingham City 1-1 Arsenal

At the risk of repeating myself, a draw yesterday did indeed end up feeling like a ‘hammer blow’. Wenger merely called it a ‘big blow’, but if you squinted you could read the word ‘hammer’ in the furrows of his brow during the post-match interview.

The nature of the draw made it that bit worse too. Had we been the team that equalised in the last minute having been 1-0 down then it would have felt like something had been plucked from the embers. As it was, an avoidable last minute equaliser made it feel almost like a defeat. It was two points dropped with bells on. Twitter was a gloomy place to be at 5pm last night.

We’re now three points behind, but with the goal differences of our rivals disappearing over the horizon, it feels more like four.

Still, I’ve made the mistake of writing us off on more than one occasion this season and I won’t be so stupid as to do it again now. With Utd and the Russians playing next weekend, there is a guarantee of dropped points from at least one, and maybe both of them. The picture changes so fast, even if the room for wiggling is diminishing.

Almunia is the one getting the negative headlines this morning. Despite improved recent form, including that excellent penalty save against West Ham, he retains the ability to take backwards steps right after taking forwards ones. Goodplaya doesn’t blame him for the goal but I think he’s being a bit generous. The Spaniard should have done better.

Almunia’s a lucky boy though, unlike Lehmann before him, because there’s nobody else good enough to give him a run for his money. Someone with more experience and fewer nervous tics than Fabianski would might well have displaced him by now.

Not that his late intervention was the only crack in our armoury. To blame him entirely for the dropped points is too simplistic.

Walcott did very little. Far too little. City were tough opponents – their home record is there for all to see – and they disrupted our rhythm to good effect. But even taking that into account, we did not get going until the second half – not until Walcott and Rosicky were replaced with Nasri and Arshavin in fact – and had we taken one of our two very good late chances, then this morning we’d still be moaning about Almunia but in the context of a win.

It wasn’t to be of course.

Positives? Of course there were. The spirit is there for all to see. Nasri and Diaby are in the form of their Arsenal careers. We didn’t lose against a decent, committed side.

The great thing of course is there’s no time to dwell, as it’s Barcelona on Wednesday.

Is Iniesta really out? I’ll believe it when I see it.

Arsenal preview: It’s make or break

Eek, a whole week since the last post.

Which means I’m bouncing straight from a dismal post-mortem straight into this preview. I’d like to say my outlook has changed and I’m bursting with confidence. I’m certainly more sanguine than I was on Monday morning.

It’s been a funny week, coloured at the end by Wenger saying some odd stuff. There was mention of us nearly signing someone on deadline day. What was the point of that? He might as well have told me I’d nearly won the lottery.

Then he said it would be no disaster to finish third. Well, I suppose it wouldn’t to a point. Disaster is when you sell all your best players, have four owners in one year, no cash, a winding-up order. But is third the limit of our ambitions? Ultimately, it may be an achievement but history will not judge us on how many times we come third. It’ll judge us on trophies.

So anyway, onto today. The stats are here for you all to chew over, but the bottom line is it’s going to be hugely tricky for Arsenal. Chelsea will sense – as Wenger does – that we are lacking “that fraction of belief” after Sunday.

It certainly seems true that, for whatever reason, we are not the strongest side psychologically. Small setbacks can become big ones. Lots of our players are confidence players – fantastic on form, average when out of sorts. Why else would Wenger feel obliged to so frequently come out in public to reinforce the quality, belief and togetherness of his players if it wasn’t at least in part to convince them of it themselves?

The good news is we can do it. We were the last team to defeat them at Stamford Bridge in the league. We can do it again if the players come out all guns blazing, harrying, fighting, believing.

Which is why the first ten minutes will be instructive. If we come out and take them on from the first moment – rather than taking a half to warm to the game as we have done on other occasions this season – then we can do it.

It really is make or break if you ask me. Nine points behind would simply be too much at this stage of the season to overturn. It would be hard enough if it was just one team ahead of us, but there are two, both of whom have hit form.

More Sunday reading here if you can bear it: Manuel Almunia’s nerves add extra edge to Arsenal’s visit to Chelsea and Wenger worries that his side have lost belief.

Though you might want to avoid those if you’re of a nervous disposition.

Come on you reds!

No new faces (just long ones)

Arsenal 1-3 Manchester Utd

So that’s that then – another less than gentle reminder that despite all the pre-match bullishness of Wenger and some of the squad, when push comes to shove the current crop are little more than pretenders.

Yesterday’s defeat was as lop-sided as the Chelsea game was, and equally as painful.

P8 W0 D1 L7

That’s the stat I put out on Twitter – I got it slightly wrong as it happens but the point is made whichever way you cook it. It refers to the last eight games against the top two. Goal difference of F5 A18 is perhaps even more painful to consider.

You know, had we lost all those games by a single goal having played well enough, you’d have been within your rights to shrug your shoulders at the bad luck of it all. But of those seven defeats, only one – the hapless 2-1 loss at Old Trafford this season, when we played very well but for two crazy errors – has felt like bad luck. In all the others, we have been seen off with either relative or consummate ease.

So for Wenger to suggest the problem is mental is perhaps not so very far from the truth. Against Chelsea and Man Utd, we’ve got the fear. And particularly at home.

At least, it might explain on one level just how rotten we were yesterday. And boy, were we rotten.

I’m not going to bother going through all our weaknesses player by player, because this blog post is late in coming and it’s been well covered elsewhere. I do concur with the criticism that has come to three in particular though – not that many covered themselves in glory. Clichy’s form has melted away, Denilson has been flattering to deceive for far too long (culminating in a truly horrible performance yesterday) and Almunia looks utterly shot.

Maybe much can be put down to problems of the mind, but really, should it be Wenger’s job to have to cajole a performance out of some of these players? Individual errors continue to cost us, and yet I can’t see any evidence of them going away. Wenger, of course, must take some of the blame for that too. Some of his players are just not performing, or are doing so in frustrating fits and starts.

So looking forward, what can be done? In the short-term, a change of personnel would help. Almunia and Denilson should be dropped. Clichy would probably suffer the same fate but for a lack of credible alternatives. Besides, I do think he deserves more time to pick his game up.

And up front, we need to stick B-52 on and hope to god he’s fit enough. There’s a man who – if nothing else – does not want for self-confidence. He offers us something we are clearly lacking – a tall front man who can hold the ball up.

Wenger could and should have addressed some of our weaknesses in the transfer window but, not surprisingly, he has chosen not to. That’s another baffling one but at least he’s in good company – the market has been massively subdued.

In fact, rather than strengthening the squad in January, we actually find ourselves a squad member shorter thanks to the departures of Senderos and Wilshere. So we’re stuck with what we have.

The previous time we were thumped, we did pick ourselves up and go on a decent run that – briefly – took us top. It feels like a long time ago now.

At this stage it feels a tall order but with Arsenal, you never know. It would certainly be nice to put a positive dent into those bleak stats on Sunday.

Arsenal take a point but don’t make one

Burnley 1-1 Arsenal

Was this really a bad result?

Given Burnley’s home record it’s not. Burnley, for all their sieve-like qualities on the road, are a strong side at at Turf Moor. We all knew that and so it proved.

But compared to the results across the rest of the league last night, then it is a blow. We’ve edged further away from the top two, and nearer the teams below.

And for those who desperately hoped that the 2-1 win at Anfield would be a springboard to more consistency, and a genuine sense of chasing the leading pack, then it’s a massive disappointment. We blow so hot and cold as a side that the fans are getting chill blains. The inability to push on is probably the most infuriating thing for me.

It’s very frustrating. Wenger, in the post-match interview, went through the repertoire to explain it – lacking physical sharpness, taking the foot off the gas at 1-0 – stuff we hear all too often because it happens all too often.

Nevertheless, Burnley do of course deserve credit for taking the game to Arsenal and bumping us out of our stride. It often works – and not just against us. We had some chances to win it, but we didn’t really deserve to and 1-1 seems about right.

There are clearly some players struggling for form. Walcott is one, but then he’s only played about 200 minutes all season. He needs more games but last night he was again ineffective. You could say the same for Nasri and Diaby – neither of whom have had many consecutive match minutes. How can we expect any of these players to reach their peaks when they play so intermittently?

Almunia is another – he’s really having a rotten year. His early-season wobble has not given way to mid-season sturdiness as you might have hoped. He’s flapping all over the place and it’s horrible to see.

Our best player, Fabregas, succumbed to injury in the 43rd minute and that made things harder yet. He’s about the nine millionth Arsenal player to hobble off this season. We can only hope it’s not a long layoff though he’s out for Saturday.

Despite all that, we have taken 4 points from 6 at two tough away venues, without having set the world alight in either game.

So not a bad result, but neither was it any kind of affirmation that this side is going to charge headlong for the title.