Are Arsenal Up For The Cup? You’d hope so.

The magic of the cup, up for the cup, Wemberlee, wearing yellow ribbons – here we are again on third round weekend, and I still love this competition to bits. Wenger Mark I loved it to bits too and was rather good at it – four-times winner of it, and it should have been five given how we were mugged in 2001. But Wenger Mark II, as Goodplaya and Arseblog have pointed out, has a pretty poor record with one semi-final in seven years.

Playing weakened sides in this competition because it pays less than a higher league place, or the Champions League, sums up what I hate most about modern football. It’s the same argument that leads to Wenger saying that fourth is like a trophy, and if I ran a poll now on the blog asking whether the fans would prefer an FA Cup win or coming fourth, I suspect coming fourth would win – meaning plenty of people agree with him. Where has winning for the glory of it gone?

Given how we blew a presentable chance to get to the semi-final of the Milk Cup, and how we continue to veer from decent to dismal, this year’s FA Cup has taken on an importance all of its own.

Trouble is, even with a strong side we have no real idea how Arsenal will approach the game, physically or mentally. If even Wenger is now questioning their desire – I am still slack-jawed at that comment, if I’m honest – then you know that the inconsistency is so ingrained it’s practically tattooed. That it is crucial to the season, and possibly even to Wenger, seems rather clear to me.

In other news, the transfer window has sprung open, and in a classic Wenger bluff, our first moves are not incoming but outgoing. Chamakh has joined West Cham on loan, Djourou looks set for a loan to Hannover, Squillaci has been told he can go (it’ll be a loan, let’s not kid ourselves), and Arshavin is being touted around for a similar arrangement. It weakens the squad in terms of numbers, but not hugely in real terms – those four players have started seven games between them (five in a competition that we are no longer in), and have combined league starts of zero. That’s probably not far short of £200k, even £250k a week going nowhere.

Given how seriously we need to take the FA Cup, they wouldn’t have started in that either, barring a plague of injuries, so freeing up some space in the squad and some money would make sense there, but only assuming that we sign some replacements. Other teams have hit the ground running on the transfer front, long ago identifying needy areas and striking early – but we, characteristically, have hit the ground creeping. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, I dunno. It’s only 5th Jan.

I’m particularly interested to see how Chamakh gets on. Wenger has a long and marvellous history of only selling players when he has got all he can out of them – Vieira, Henry, Overmars, Toure etc – with some obvious exceptions in the shapes of van Persie, Fabregas, Cole. Should Chamakh be equally as poor at West Ham as he has been at Arsenal, nobody would be surprised. But if Allardyce can get something out of him – even 75% of what we saw in late 2010 – then it’s a punt worth taking. My own view is that it depends how much he plays. If you played him ten times in a row, he’d surely get better – something he has not done for years with us (why that is, who knows).

I suspect he is a back-up though, and not much more. Andy Carroll is injured, and Modibo Maiga is off to the ACN, leaving them with Carlton Cole alone (I was reminded – or informed of that by the Times here £). Good luck to him though. A decent spell there and we are more likely to be able to move him on in the summer.

Who knows what will happen. Come on you reds (or blues/purples).

Arshavin: From Nadir to Zenit

Why it’s not so bad

• His form bolted so long ago that the stable door was sold on eBay.
• He was clearly struggling at Arsenal
• Which you could tell by his workrate – he didn’t want to be here
• Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain are ahead of him on the left, which is the only place Wenger was going to play him.
• He wants to play in the Euros and needs games (bully for him)
• It might lead to a permanent transfer at a time when he’s only got just over a year left on his contract
• And he’s 30 – he won’t be getting better with age

Why it’s a bit odd

• The squad’s a bit, erm, shallow as it is
• The timing – right before the derby – is hardly going to make us jump through hoops and whistle Dixie with glee.
• Even if all he offers these days is an assist off the bench, that’s still an assist when an assist might otherwise not be forthcoming.

Overall though, if my my feelings on the timing of his departure are mixed, as a player they are not – his time was up. I wonder why it had to happen now but clearly, as much as he was desperate to go, the club must have also wanted him gone. Is this a sign of a new, hardened ruthlessness on Wenger’s behalf? I doubt it – not at such an odd time of the season. But it looks like it suits both parties just fine.

That half-season (and maybe more) after he signed, he was a revelation, with those four goals at Anfield the absolute high. The strike against Barcelona almost exactly a year ago wasn’t bad either, in terms of its significance, but the rot had already set in.

When he signed, he was the saviour at a time when we were desperate to make fourth and it looked like we might not [I’ve heard that one before – Ed. Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V].

A bit like Reyes? Obviously, not physically. But both were wide men, signed for similar fees. Both looked unstoppable for a while, and both faded badly at Arsenal.

That’s the real shame. His was a real talent that faded – an Arsenal career ultimately unfulfilled.

Titime to move on / midfield goals

Wallowing in the glory of Henry’s movie-moment comeback was not meant to last all week, but for me it has. The YouTube video I breathlessly uploaded at about midnight on Monday has now had about 37,000 hits (and Analytics tell me 90.3% of those who watched it were male, with 9.7% female – how do they know this I wonder – though my brother did confidently predict that he had watched it “about 28,000 times” so maybe there’s some truth in that). It certainly captured the moment.

But now we’re back to the mundane grind of trying to reach fourth, win the European Cup and bag the FA Cup. On the whole coming fourth thing, I had this blinding-light Eureka moment a few days ago. I swear, it’s genius*. Here it is:

Fourth, we know, is an achievement. It’s got kudos attached, it earns oodles of dough, the players want it to stay and players want it to come. But it’s not a trophy. It doesn’t get listed in the programme masthead and it won’t go into the Rothmans Yearbook. So why not assign it a trophy? Let’s call it the UEFA Champions League Fourth Place Qualifying Cup (CLFQC if that’s too much of a mouthful, though I’m not sure I’m helping my argument here) and the winners can all go on an open bus tour, put it in the cabinet and whack it on the masthead. Job’s a goodun, eh? We’d have had loads of trophies in recent years had this idea been taken up and we could bury the whole ‘six years without…’ thing once and for all.

*It’s not genius, I know.

Of course, we face the fight of our lives to get there first. The main thing troubling me on that note is not the lack of full-backs, which fingers crossed will be imminently easing, but the drying-up of goals. Since beating Wigan 4-0 on 3rd December (the last time incidentally that we did have a recognised full-back – so maybe I should be more worried about it), we have scored just one goal in four of our six league games, none in one and two in the other (Yossi’s late winner at Villa).

Now, it’s very possible that the lack of goals is directly linked to the lack of full-backs, but in these instances we need other areas of the team to step up to the plate. This is where the midfield comes into the equation, and to my mind there haven’t been enough goals from that area. Sure, in those six games Gervinho and Benayoun did both score, but I think the point, if you take the season as a whole, still stands.

Our midfield has scored 21 goals all season – the same as Robin van Persie. That’s eleven players (Gervinho, Walcott, Arteta, Rosicky, Song, Arshavin, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Frimpong, Benayoun and Coquelin) who have started games in the midfield. It’s too much to ask some of those players to rattle goals in, but Arshavin, Gervinho and Walcott in particular have chipped in just seven league goals (ten in total).

Of course, how Wenger cajoles more goals out of his midfielders and wingers is the million dollar question, but if he’s happy to stick with van Persie (and Henry for six weeks) rather than twisting and buying a new striker, then he’s going to have to do just that.

Now, when’s Jack back?

Arsenal match report: Three refreshing points

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea

Back in the good old days, going one up at Highbury meant you could exhale and start enjoying the afternoon. You might not get much more entertainment but you could be pretty confident that you’d get the win.

No use comparing eras though: times have changed. Arsenal have changed, the game has changed, and 1-0 to Arsenal is never a safe scoreline. It’s a particularly unsafe scoreline when you’re caught in the kind of league rut we find ourselves in.

Nevertheless, despite wobbling in the second half we surfed the late Swansea pressure and eked out the win that we desperately needed. And we really did need this, only our third league win in 15 attempts since beating Stoke on 23rd February.

So given it was the first game after the international week, given we had two new signings in the starting XI and given the inevitable mental baggage following the 8-2 pounding, this was a very good result indeed.

It wasn’t pretty, for the most part. We didn’t put enough pressure on Swansea, or stretch their play enough (not enough crosses like the one Gibbs put in for Chamakh in the 84th minute). We didn’t use our pace enough.

In the second half in particular, the fabled handbrake was back in effect, but there were loads of positives in the game too. Arteta and Mertesacker were calm, steady influences and can be very pleased with their debuts. Benayoun was lively as a sub. You could tell straight away what their experience brings to the side. Elsewhere, Szczesny again made a wonderful save and commanded his box well. Ramsey was neat. Arshavin had an excellent first half and took the goal very coolly (he has Gervinho breathing down his neck. Nothing like a bit of competition, eh).

As Wenger said at the end, “We know that confidence goes quickly and comes back slowly.”

Well this was a first step in the right direction. To that end, an excellent afternoon’s work.

It was my first game of the season too, and it’s always nice to be back. How pleasant it is too to find that some things never change. Coming into the concourse at half time, I was greeted by queues about 20 people deep for beer. Is it any wonder people vacate their seats so early? This stadium has been open for five years now and they still haven’t worked out how to serve people beer, fast. I know it’s a tired old moan but how hard is it? And what difference would it make to the half time exodus? I’ve said it before, but the system they have at the Millennium Stadium shows the way forward. Huge beer-pouring machines dispense a dozen pints at a time, in no time at all. There are queues but I don’t remember them being substantial. Instead, the club have installed new mini shops in the concourse over the summer to sell shirts and other merchandising. I don’t see many people leaving early to get to the front of those queues.

Anyway, moan over. It was a very welcome three points.

My mouth is parched in this transfer desert

What a goldfish I am. Despite an end of season that spent most of its time reeling from one calamity to another, I appear to be hankering for the new one already. When will I ever learn?

To be fair though, some bits and bobs need to happen before I can get genuinely giddy. Namely a scythe cutting through the chaff of the squad, coupled with the club storing the wheat in a silo where nobody can steal it. Continuing this dismal analogy, Wenger is the combine harvester, in case you were wondering, and Eboue – bear with me here – is a bale of some description. I think I’ll shut up now.

So with transfers in mind I was reminded when looking at Wikipedia, which means it must be true, that the window doesn’t open until July 1st. Does that mean we can’t announce signings till then or we can’t negotiate them? Looks like we might have an entire month of conjecture to chew on before things get going. That’ll be fun.

Arshavin and Vela have been in the news. The former has apparently ‘vowed to beat Wenger’s axe’, and I’m all for that. On what basis? Well I do think he’s declined since those heady days in 2009, but he’s still mercurial and at the very worst would be a potent impact sub. On top of that, the squad needs to be augmented, not overturned. There are plenty ahead of him I think need to move on, but we shall see.

Which bring me neatly onto Carlos Vela. The Baggies have said, if they signed him, they could not guarantee him a first team place, which tells me rather a lot – or at least, reinforces what I already suspected. For me, he’s one of the merry band who definitely need to search for those famous footballing ‘pastures new’. For his benefit, for ours. Sorry Carlos, but there you are.

OK, checking out. It’s a bank holiday and it’s pelting it down with rain. Drought? Haha!

PS – this Fifa stuff is fun. Remind me, how did this lot take charge of football?

From Russia with gloves


Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona

As Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons once said: Oh what a night.

I can’t remember anything like it at the Grove. The best match in the five years at the new ground? Definitely, indubitably, unarguably. It was unforgettable. I shouted myself hoarse and the Epic Bundle Counter went off the scale.

Pre-match, Arsenal had done their bit by placing a flag on each seat, and the sea of colour that met the players as they came out was a great sight. The more superstitious amongst us pointed out that flags were akin to ole-ing [ie, bound to lead to a calamitous Collaps-o-Arsenal], but by the end of the 90 minutes, that had been thoroughly disproved.

Boy, it was noisy too. The place can be as quiet as a churchmouse sometimes, as we all know, but last night there was at times a wall of sound. I’m not sure I sat down all game.

The game had it all, really. Barcelona were sublime at times in the first half, pinging passes with unnerving accuracy, creating space, lofting passes behind Clichy. Without the ball, as expected, they hunted in packs to get it back. With the ball, they hogged it. I wouldn’t say they gave us a lesson, that would be a bit harsh on us, but they showed why they are being spoken of as one of the finest club sides of all time. At times, it was a case of sitting back and admiring. We did have a few chances of our own in the first half – most notably one from van Persie – and the otherwise shackled Walcott set the cat amongst the pigeons once or twice with his pace, but it was Barca who broke the deadlock with a slick move and Dave Villa slotted it home. 0-1 at half-time and it could have been better, could have been worse.

In the second half, we came into our own. Wilshere and Fabregas got much more stuck in in the midfield, Barca started making a few errors, belief started growing. To be honest, the late stages of the game are so seared into my memory that the middle part of the second half is a bit of a blur. I’ll need to go back over it I think…

Anyway, the next thing I can remember The Clich lofted a ball over Barca’s defence, van Persie closed in on the keeper and readied a pass, I looked across in a panic as there was nobody there to tap it in… and van Persie shoots. Right through Valdes’s legs, and it’s 1-1. The place goes mad.

Our steam was up, the noise was pouring down from the terraces and we went for the jugular. Fabregas toed a delicious pass to Nasri, we all bellowed I don’t know what, Nasri cut it back to Arshavin and we all went bananas. Utterly, hilariously bananas.

The best five minutes you can imagine, and once we held on, a sensational result.

Last night was what it’s all about. Raw emotion, toughness, resilience, battling hard and winning against the odds.

Arsenal showed it all in buckets. Wilshere, Szczesny, Koscielny – all rookies at this level – came of age. But the whole team showed what they are about.

I can’t stop thinking about it. Absolutely superb.

I could babble on about it all day but life gets in the way. So on that basis, it’s over and out from me.

Some pics of the night on the Facebook page

Squill’s red and Nasri’s blues

Arsenal 2-1 Huddersfield Town

Quick blog ahead of a hectic transfer deadline day, which I’m sure you’ll all want to get back to as soon as you can. A £38m bid here, a £95m transfer package there, and the sound of tumbleweed coming from London Colney. We have spent money in January before (Arshavin, Reyes, Diaby etc) but as ever with Arsenal, you’re better off expecting nothing than sitting glued to Sky Sports News waiting for a 25-year-old wizened European Cup-winning centre-half to pop up up in exchange for £20m.

However, just in case my monstrous cynicism is disproved, I have reserved some space on this blog for any potential signing and will update it during the day.

[ ____ ]

As for yesterday, well I agree with Goodplaya, Arseblog et al in their assessments of our second string: As an ensemble, not good enough. Catapulted in groups or one or two into the starting XI it works, but a revolving door of a line-up like yesterday does not. I find it hard to criticise though. We all clamour to take the cups seriously – rightly so – but the reality of competing on four fronts is that you are going to get good and bad and mix and match. It’s just a shame that so many players, faced with diminishing opportunities, do not grasp them as you might hope they would.

The biggest downside of yesterday was Nasri’s hamstring, leaving him unavailable for an undetermined number of weeks. We will miss him.

We will miss Squillaci for a game too, at least numerically, after a daft block led to his dismissal. I thought he started brightly enough this season but his form has tailed off and looking at him, it’s clear he is what he was bought as: a fourth-choice centre-half.

Clearly, Fabregas is the model to aspire to and he made a big difference yesterday. I thought Diaby did fine seeing he’s been out for such a long time and I’d also agree that Arshavin, though his shooting was wayward, got stuck in. Bendtner scored one, earned one, and performed a hilarious air-shot: which just about sums him up I suppose. He gave it his all and contributed well.

Anyway, we’re through to face The Orient at Brisbane Road, another cracking FA Cup tie. It might not have gone 100% to plan this season, but you can’t argue that it hasn’t been good viewing. Huddersfield yesterday were excellent and merited a draw. Leeds were impressive too.

Red card, hamstring, dodgy defending and a late penalty.

And yes, there were balloons.

Right, back to the transfer tumbleweed.

Match report: Arsenal’s perfect riposte

Leeds Utd 1-3 Arsenal

A thoroughly satisfying evening in Yorkshire. With memories of the preceding Leeds and Ipswich ties still fresh, I said to @feverpitch before the game started last night that we’d know which Arsenal was present within five minutes of the whistle. Rather neatly, exactly five minutes had elapsed when Arshavin and Chamakh ping-ponged the ball through to the waltzing Nasri, who scuttled past a couple of players and sunk one into the bottom right corner. Game on: Arsenal were up for this alright.

Both Bendtner and Arshavin – more of which later – then missed gilt-edged crosses to make it 2-0, but in the end it fell to Bacary Sagna to rifle the second goal in. Not to be outdone, Leeds – who I was again impressed with all night – made it 2-1 with one of those 30-yard screamers that don’t come around too often. It had me wistfully dreaming of that Vieira rocket against Newcastle when we won 3-1 in April 1998.

It strikes me that Wenger has got the balance right between playing ‘scratch’ sides and overusing his first XI. Last night, Walcott, Fabregas, Wilshere and van Persie were given a rest, but all four were on the bench if required. Gibbs came in for Clichy (also on the bench) but Sagna replaced Eboue, so the defence was as good as we can field (not that we have a lot of leeway at centre-half).

As it happened, with the game still at 2-1, Wenger called on van Persie and Fabregas and it wasn’t long before our third goal put the game to bed.

Bendt it like Beckham

*headline groan* – and one I was beaten to by @White_Ox, damn him.

The third was a delight. Fabregas passed to our man on the right, Nicklas Bendtner, whose cross was absolutely inch-perfect. van Persie, or more precisely van Persie’s head, simply could not miss. It was the best thing Bendtner did all night. Lord knows he tried though, I can’t blame him for a lack of effort – it’s just he’s in a monumental rut. It’s more of an escarpment. There was one time when he was back defending – an admirable place to be – at right-back, he won the ball through sheer tenacity but then somehow contrived to lose it again. It’s hard to be too critical. On the contrary, I have some sympathy. Can we have a whip-round and buy him a goal?

If you peer over the edge of the confidence escarpment, you will also see a Mr A Arshavin of St Petersburg, Russia, waving at you from the bottom. If there are two options available, Arshavin is in one of those places that means he will always take the wrong one. OK, he played a key part in Nasri’s opener but he missed a couple of other presentable chances, and skied one shot (in the box) so high the RAF had to be scrambled.

Still, talk of offloading one or the other of these players is a nonsense. Quite apart from anything, we can’t afford to weaken our front line. But beyond that, both players are capable of much more, and I’d rather we found a way to nurse them back to form.

Cracking FA Cup tie, and one that vindicates my love of the old pot. I can’t wait for Huddersfield Town to come in the fourth round.

Onwards and upwards. Here we are, mixing it on four fronts, looking hungry, relatively injury free. Let’s keep going in this vein. I’m buzzing all over again.

(And Arsene – sort that new defender out please. Koscielny and Djourou are not made of titanium. Thanks.)

Yours, Disappointed of London

Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal

Another big game, another defeat, and the unwelcome stat about our record against Chelsea and Man Utd can be dusted down, edited and bandied about. I’ll spare you the pain of repeating it but it doesn’t make pretty reading.

I was confident, if we played as we are capable of playing, that we would give Utd a very good game last night. We never crumbled defensively and we acquitted ourselves well physically (a little more robustly than was needed at times, even), but we were horribly toothless and in the end, nobody can complain that we came away with the mandatory nul points from Old Trafford.

It has become a familiar refrain for the fans and you have to wonder whether the same sense of fatalism when encountering these fixtures has also affected the players. We played well within ourselves from a creative point of view. No doubt Utd’s gameplan partly involved cutting off the supply lines and disrupting our rhythm at the earliest opportunity and those two things made our performance disjointed. Well it worked. We found no real way through and didn’t look like finding one.

No, they are not the best Utd team ever seen but they play for each other, they do not let up and they adapt very impressively from team to team and match to match. They are unbeaten in the league all season and while that might be a little fortuitous (we had a bit of that luck ourselves in 2004 to remain unbeaten) it also tells you that they retain the art of not losing even when not at their best.

Oh for a bit of that ourselves. We have now lost five league games and when playing below our best, it is clear to all comers that we are beatable.

At some point or other the discussion will loom as to whether this team is merely experiencing growing pains, or whether more unpalatably, too many of them are simply not good enough or lack the required mental edge to move up a level. You will forgive me for not having that conversation now.

One or two players deserve a mention of sorts. Szszesny came in for his first ever league start in the game you would least want to make your debut in and did very well. He’s a tall lad – much taller than the Flaps – and he has a commanding air about him. He was a little nervous as you might expect but given the circumstances, I thought he was superb. He made several good saves and could not be cricitised for their goal. For all that, the merry-go-round that is our goalkeeping situation cannot be doing anyone any good. I know Fabianski was injured last night (albeit not enough to not be on the bench) and will no doubt come back on Saturday, but the fact that some of us were talking about retaining Szczesny as number one on the back of one performance tells you all you need to know. Arsene, who is our number one? Who will be our number one next season?

Clichy came in for a bit of flak too (from me as much as anyone) and is another of those players who divides opinion. He looked shaky at times last night but in his defence, he had zero help from the man in front of him, Arshavin, who had a stinker of a game. I’ve defended the Russian all season but last night it was something akin to a miracle that he lasted as long as he did.

Overall, a really disappointing, but let’s be honest, not unexpected result.

We simply move onto the next game against Stoke. I don’t know what to expect from that as much as I didn’t know what to expect from last night. We could be one thing or we could be another.

All I do know is that we are still up there – eye-rubbingly, perhaps remarkably – in contention and with Man Utd & Chelsea locking horns on Sunday, we can go top of the table.

Yes, I know. It’s all a bit nuts.

A grumpy man’s belated thoughts

Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

I must admit, I haven’t taken this one well. I was exceptionally downbeat after the game on Sunday. As soon as their first goal went in, my mood darkened.

For years, we held the upper hand over Chelsea, and once those things take hold, they can be hard to shift. In recent years it’s swung the other way more than we’d all like it to. But I doubt it’s down to being a jinx or a mental block. The harsh reality is, they remain a better unit than we are, just as we were better than them back then.

Maybe now at times only marginally – Wenger maintains, optimistically, that it’s close – but better than us all the same. More experienced, cannier, more disciplined, more solid and more ruthless.

But let’s scotch one preconception now – we didn’t lose on Sunday because we are by nature shot shy, or as David Pleat put it in the Guardian, “reluctant shooters”. According to @orbinho, we lead the table in terms of shots on goal at 143 (the Telegraph has the stats slightly lower but because they do not include blocked shots). Ordinarily, we have plenty of shots. The trouble yesterday was that we were not able to take any of the presentable or half chances that did come our way. We couldn’t get through and when we did, we fluffed our lines.

Against a team as parsimonious as Chelsea, you have to be ruthless and for a long time, ruthlessness is something we have not been noted for. How many times have we said this now? It’s easy to say of course – but it’s not a tap that can be switched on or off. It can’t be drilled. It comes with experience.

And talking of parsimony, we really need to work more on the defensive side of our game. Yes, I know, as chestnuts go that one is positively antediluvian. But it’s also been true for a long time – I suspect most teams will fancy their chances of nicking a goal against us, and that can’t be right, can it? It is possible to tighten up defensively as a team, but still attack with hammer, tongs and bells ringing.

I don’t think it’s all about the personnel. We used to let goals in with Campbell, Gallas and Toure. Koscielny and Squillaci have both looked good at times this season, but they’ve struggled a bit in recent games and the midfield ahead of them is not helping matters. It’s about defending as a team, and that is something that can very much be addressed on the green fields of Colney.

Positives – yes, the benefit of a day of reflection tells me there were. We put some decent yards in, we had plenty of possession, we matched them physically. An improvement on last year on that front, for sure. Fabianski was solid, Wilshere played well again, and Arshavin at least had his shooting boots on. Sagna showed that his WBA wobble was just that.

But we came up short, again.

As we now head into another international fortnight, we can at least be grateful that injured players do not get called up for duty. We have two weeks to cajole Fabregas, Walcott, Bendtner, Vermaelen and whoever else can be magically hauled off their sick beds back into the first team.

Clear the heads, move on.