Arsenal show bouncebackability in Belgrade

Partizan Belgrade 1-3 Arsenal

I’ve got very little time this morning to chuck something out through the internets, but if I were to lob a couple of observations out there, it would be these:

IF Lukasz Fabanski had been able to choose in advance what kind of night he would have, I have no doubt he’d have picked one of those games that enabled him to pull off a trophy save, but otherwise be little called upon. That’s exactly what he got. He really didn’t have much to do; there was a chance early in the game that he thwarted with his legs, then the first penalty. Not a whole lot else until their second penalty, when he pushed the ball athletically to his right and away to safety. It was a good penalty kick and a very good save. The ‘paper wrists’ Ian Wright spoke of after the Spuds game had been reinforced with glue paste. To cap it all off, he made another good reflex save at the end, diverting a decent shot away past his left-hand post.

That’s not to say he’s a shoo-in for Sunday. Wenger was coy on who he would play against Chelsea, for good reason. I somehow doubt Chelsea will give a fig which of our keepers Wenger plays – history tells us there’s an error hiding somewhere in both of them – but shoots of recovery have to start somewhere, and last night Fabianski did all that was asked of him.

POCKET RUSSIAN Andrey Arshavin was excellent last night – as good as he has been in a while. I mentioned in my previous post that despite looking flat at times this season, he has still been scoring goals. Twitter statman @orbinho (follow him if you don’t already) threw another snippet out there yesterday – “Andrey Arshavin has created more goalscoring chances (20) than any other player in the Premier League so far this season.” He scored another good goal last night and could have had three. That’s five goals in nine appearances. How can you drop him, even when not sparkling? I’m not sure you can.

YOUNG Jack Wilshere continues to astound. Playing in a more advanced role, he was again staggeringly good yesterday. He got more roughhouse treatment but simply got up, again and again, to direct the traffic. The backheel he conjured up for Arshavin’s opening goal was simply sublime. My main worry with Jack Wilshere is not that we’re playing him too much – he’s becoming undroppable – but that the pounding he is getting from the opposition is guaranteed to lead to an injury or two. He gets targeted because of his skill and he also likes to get stuck in. Doubles the chance…

DEFENSIVELY we had our wobbles, but consider this: last night’s central defensive pairing of Squillaci and Djourou was our fifth combination in nine games. It’s a good job we have four central defenders, but we could probably do with a more settled back line too. We’ve also chopped and change at full-back, with Gibbs replacing Clichy last night. He was absolutely excellent and must stand a good chance of retaining his place on Sunday.

OVEWALL, as Wenger would say, it was a good night’s work. The collective footballing amnesia of Saturday had disappeared. We got stuck in, weathered the storm, created some great chances and thoroughly deserved our win.

IT was the perfect result ahead of a titanic showdown.

Belgrade Expectations

Here we go again! It’s time to get back on track, iron out our failings and learn from our mistakes. Simples.

Of course, losing is part of the rich tapestry of football. But losing while seemingly having forgotten the basics is harder to shrug off.

If you fall off a horse, they say, the best thing to do is get straight back in the saddle. Now personally, I wouldn’t know whether this is true or false as I’ve never sat on one. I’m quite probably the most allergic-to-horses man that has even set foot on earth. Many years ago I was invited and went to a horse race thing (rookie error for a townie like me), and despite only setting foot in the beer tent all day, my eyes bulged out like a bug and I developed a good line in loud, uncontrollable dad sneezes. Someone might as well have dipped my head in a beehive.

But the point is this: there’s nothing like a big game to remedy a recent bad one.

So what are we looking for tomorrow? Despite professing to being baffled by his team on Saturday, I suspect the Wenger knows exactly what is required. With Almunia out injured, we know already that Fabianski will get the latest in a long line of chances between the sticks against Belgrade. To say he’s under a lot of pressure to perform would be an understatement. The scrutiny will be immense. But he simply has to have an error-free game.

But even if he had been hypnotised by Gordon Banks and marinaded in the spirit of Lev Yashin he wouldn’t be able to do it on his own. To stand a chance of success, he needs not just his defence, but also the defensive screen in front of them, to remember what their jobs entail.

Whether that means changes in personnel, I’m not so sure. Sagna, despite a rotten game on Saturday, has not become a bad player overnight. He’s easily the best option at right-back. In the absence of Vermaelen and given the rustiness of Djourou, Squillaci and Koscielny are the best bets at centre-half (and besides, both have been largely impressive anyway). If you were going to make any change, you might consider Gibbs at left-back in the place of Clichy, who has not started this season well. If he is 100% fit then I’m all for it. He’s pushing Clichy very hard. But given his injury record, I’d worry about playing him if there was even the smallest chance it might backfire.

There is much more scope for change in the middle. Diaby has not even travelled and I can’t see any sense in using Eboue at all, other than as back-up to Sagna (which let’s face it, is the role that suits him most). Let’s remind Song of his defensive discipline – or else play Denilson. Play Wilshere and Rosicky from the start.

As for Arshavin; it’s clear he has his detractors but for his ability to change a game – conjured, often, from the depths of an average performance – I’d play him. He’s scored four goals in eight appearances (7 starts, 1 sub), let’s not forget. With scoring form like this, even allowing for a goalscoring lull, he is on track to beat his season best of 12 goals.

With Jollygood anonymous since his Braga brace, Chamakh will surely be holding the line again, but that’s fine – he’s made a good start to his Arsenal career with three goals in eight. He’ll need a break at some point but if we can keep him in one piece until Bendtner or van Persie return, then he’s very much the main man.

Overall though we need to concentrate and to iron out the silly stuff, but surely that’s a given. There’s always a positive reaction after this side has let itself down.

The trouble, though, with this team is that there’s often another massive disappointment after the positive reaction.

Now if Wenger can iron that little tic out, we’re onto something…

It’s Fab to be back

Arsenal 4-1 Bolton

Good weather, good mates, good football. A fine cocktail that makes for a very pleasant Saturday afternoon indeed.

Bolton going down to ten men might have made things ultimately a bit easier, but I don’t think 4-1 flattered us at all. Poor old Arshavin for one must be wondering how he ended up without a goal to his name, but he wasn’t the only one who was one-on-one and missed – Chamakh got in on the act too. Yes, there was only one goal in it until the sending off but offensively, Arsenal bristled with creativity all afternoon.

All this too without three important attacking players. As I briefly mentioned yesterday, it bodes well that all it takes to compensate for the lack of van Persie, Walcott and Bendtner is a little shuffling of the pack. Rosicky, Wilshere, Fabregas, Song and Arshavin supporting Chamakh is a tidy unit indeed – and still left us Denilson, Diaby, Nasri and Jollygood on the bench.

Picking a stand-out player from that front six is not easy but it would have to be between the inimitable Fabregas and, for his second half performance, Alex Song. For his sheer vision and range of passing, Fabregas would get it though – wherever his head or body was away to Blackburn, they were back here and he was in flying form yesterday. He split the Bolton defence two or three times with ease; it was sublime.

That said, the best pass of the day came from Rosicky, who carved an Arshavin-sized hole in the Bolton back line early in the game. Shame Arshavin couldn’t convert it.

The goal that was and inevitably will be talked about was Jollygood’s – he ran onto another Fabregas splitter and side-footed home a lovely fourth. It was preceded by 26 ole-assisted passes. Gorgeous.

But perhaps Song’s goal was better. Not only was it the 1,000th league goal under Wenger, but the dinked finish was a mixture of persistence and delicacy. He was fabulous in the second half.

There was a niggly edge to the game at times, often encapsulated by the brute force of Davies, but I wouldn’t say it was a dirty game overall. Nevertheless, ref Atwell dished out a red and four yellows (slightly down on his season’s average) and we await the news on Diaby – “It is ankle or shin – he cannot move his leg at the moment so we will see” said Wenger. Amazingly, the tackle on him was not even a yellow. We can but hope that Diaby is not out for a Diaby.

Defensively, I’ll buck the consensus of some by saying we did pretty well. OK, so Koscielny (otherwise commanding) made a bad mistake for the Bolton goal, but given that Wenger had made three changes at the back, and one of them was making his debut, I thought we were pretty solid. Squillaci made a promising debut.

It’s not a scientific observation, but from where I was sitting, I was generally, the error aside, impressed with Koscielny’s heading. He was popping up all over the place and nodding it away.

Overall, with 10 points from 12 it has been an excellent start to the season. Next stop, Champions League.

Right, I’m cutting this ramble short and heading off on a bacon hunt.

Enjoy your Sunday.

More goals from Arsenal’s wings required

Scattering my eyes across the Sundays and the general theme hasn’t changed much: there’s the rustle of keeper talk and a persisting link to Everton’s Phil Jagielka. The latter story has been lingering long enough that the fee is now being quoted at a very un-Arsenal-like £15m. At that price, I can’t see us getting involved.

As for the keeper talk, well it appears to be a case of ABA – Anyone But Almunia. Akinfeev? Stekelenburg? James? You can never second-guess Wenger but I think we might still shop within the Premier League, on the basis that we cannot afford a costly bedding-in process. On that basis, do all roads still lead to Schwarzer?

As for our attacking options, it was noteworthy that Wenger said we wouldn’t be replacing the departed Eduardo. If this is true, then we will essentially have three central strikers (van Persie, Bendtner, Chamakh) and a substantial array of wide or deep attack-minded players to back them up (Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri, Walcott, Vela, Wilshere).

I can see why he thinks that might be enough, especially allied to the goalscoring prowess of Fabregas. But if that is to be our lot, it’s worth returning to a theme I picked up at the tail end of last season – the need for more goals from those wide men.

We all know that van Persie has a good 20 goals in him, and Bendtner at least 15, but Chamakh, at least until we can judge him, remains an unknown quantity. Given the injury records of the first two of those, we need more from elsewhere.

Arshavin is exempt from the criticism about to come. With 12 goals scored despite playing up front on his own at times last season, we know he can pack a goal or two.

But look at the record of the others: Rosicky, Nasri, Walcott and Vela scored just 14 goals between them, of which only nine came in the league.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect better contributions from all four of those. For the two younger players, Walcott and Vela, they at the right age and cannot now hide behind the excuse of youth. They will also have Wilshere breathing down their necks (and both Diaby and Eboue can play wide too).

Nasri – ditto Walcott – should be hungry following their World Cup snubs and Rosicky will be fighting for his future.

To them all I say: More goals, chaps.

Match preview: Eyes on the prize and Arshavin

Although we appear to be bedding down ahead of close season hibernation, we shouldn’t get too comfy just yet. With one point required to guarantee third and two games in which to get it, tying the hanky round the head, rolling up the trousers and heading off to the seaside in our socks and sandals (as all right-thinking Englishmen do) will have to wait a little longer.

Tonight we play Blackburn at Ewood Park, an exciting prospect if only because it couldn’t realistically be any worse than the turgid fayre served up last weekend against Man City. That would be beyond the realm of the possible. The only way is up.

There’s been a lot of hot transfer air but not much else this week, so we can be thankful to the eccentricities of our pocket Russian, Andrei Arshavin, for talking points.

Maybe I’ve come down with a dose of lethargy-inducing endofseasonitis, but I can’t work myself up into a lather about his purported eyelash fluttering in the direction of Catalonia. I’ve seen it all a million times with footballers – they’re a breed apart.

The bottom line with all footballers is that if they want to go somewhere else then they will. They hold all the power. Short of a club sticking a player in the reserves out of sheer stubbornness – which for financial and morale reasons will never happen, especially not at Arsenal where £20m would go a long way – the player knows he can get what he wants. Life would move on.

Now of course, this could well be much ado about nothing, or rather more benign than we think. Perhaps he’s desperate to stay but wants to put the willies up Arsenal so they give him the money he’s asking for. Perhaps this is mere mischief.

I think he’s a fabulous player, a maverick who can change a game. Sure, he’s had a worse second season than first, but there are mitigating circumstances. And yes, he rather likes the sound of his own voice.

But really, how bad has he been? He’s third in our scoring chart with 11 goals, behind Fabregas and Bendtner (19 and 12). If he was the only Arsenal player whose previous season was better than their current one then fine. But he’s not.

I hope he stays because he’s a magnificent footballer and if anyone’s wavering because he’s gobby and has had an average season then look here for four good reasons why he should be at Arsenal next season.

Anyway, onto tonight and there’ll be no surprises – Gibbs and Djourou are fit but not match fit – so expect the same squad as last time. It doesn’t look as if Arshavin will be back either, though it’d be nice to see him. If he’s a small risk then take it I say – it’s not like he’s got a World Cup to worry about.

What I want most is some fluid attacking play and some ruthlessness in front of goal. Our last win – 1-0 v Wolves – was a last-minute job and it would be nice not to have to rely on that kind of late assault for the points. I wouldn’t say we are struggling for goals but they’ve definitely dried up a bit.

Time for a rousing win.

16.27 egg on face update

Djourou and Gibbs on bench. Wenger you old dawg.

Motivation should come easy on Saturday

After Sunday’s volcanic eruption at Wigan, the dust has finally started to settle. It’s time to concentrate on the next three games. An attitude the antithesis to the one we saw at Wigan is expected, and let’s be honest, there are bags of reasons why Arsenal will come flying out the blocks. Here are just a few of them.

Motivation number one:
Now, everyone knows that against the top two teams this season we have come away with diddly squat, but thus far the same can also be said of the team currently lying in fifth, Man City, against whom we have lost twice, conceding seven goals in the process. Nobody in N5 wants a clean sweep for the Middle Eastlands moneybags.

Motivation number two:
The presence of a lanky, Football-Focus-interview-giving lackadaisical Togolese will certainly be all the motivation the fans need on Saturday to exercise their right to free speech, and I’m sure Robin van Persie will want to prove a thing or two having had his head stamped upon. Kolo Toure, once also of this parish, has suggested Adebayor needs to show “more intelligence” but you can’t switch the lights on if there’s no electricity.

Of course, the motivation goes both ways as we saw in our 4-2 defeat there in September. Adebayor was fired up to the nines and both Campbell and Silvestre will need to react accordingly.

Motivation number three:
Arsene Wenger himself. The ‘Wigan episode’ (as I have now filed it in my head) has looked bad on some of our players but it has looked much worse on Wenger. This week, he’s taken flak for Project Youth, for not spending, for not having the right squad balance, for being stubborn – and a whole lot of things besides.

He was spitting blood post-match at Wigan, accusing his players of a lack of cohesion and discipline, and for Wenger that constitutes as much of a public denouncement as you will ever see. The players will have had it both barrels.

How many of the usual player soundbites have we heard this week? There’s been something from Arshavin on the official site – some sponsored thing in conjunction with Nike – but other than that it’s been as quiet as a churchyard.

Suffice to say Wenger will be desperate to put things right. Yes, I know that the bigger picture is not about putting it right just this once – it’s about making sure it won’t happen again – but for the moment, it really is just about the next game.

Motivation number four:
It’s a mystery why the players seemed to think there was nothing to play for last week, but if they thought that then they will not think it now. As well as the obvious challenge from Man City themselves, and the in-form Spuds, we could still hit 80 points and that would be a decent achievement in its own right.

And in a World Cup year, the very last thing we need is to have to play a qualifying round in the Champions League in early August. Third would represent a season-on-season improvement but if our ill-timed late-season lull was to extend further and we were to end up fourth, it would leave a sour taste in the mouth over the summer.

No doubt there’ll be some injury news tomorrow – with Arshavin a possible returnee – and something more to be said from Le Boss.

Right, on we go.

There’s everything – well something – to play for!

Burden on Bendtner as injuries bite

Injuries, injuries, injuries. Arseblog this morning reiterated some of the snaps, twangs, fractures, strains and pings that have blighted us this season. It is indeed a minor miracle that, with the injuries we’ve had and got, we’ve arrived at the beginning of April still in contention both in the league and in the European Cup.

But can we cope? With every goalscoring midfielder we lose, things get incrementally harder unless someone else steps up to the plate.

It’s one thing going without Djourou, Ramsey, Gallas and Gibbs (8 goals in total this term) but to lose both Arshavin and Fabregas (30 goals) on top of van Persie (8) could well prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It means that almost half of all our goals scored this season have come from players who are now injured (46 from 101), and while we are very capable of scoring goals from all across the field, the losses of Fabregas and Arshavin are big, big blows.

Bendtner – a player who has himself missed a huge chunk of the season – is now our top fit scorer with nine goals, closely followed by the indomitable and hopefully titanium-coated Thomas Vermaelen on eight.

A huge goalscoring burden now falls on the big Dane, and we’re going to need more from Walcott, Eduardo, and our goalscoring midfielders (Diaby, Nasri and Denilson) as well.

To gauge just how big a loss Fabregas’s goals will be, consider this: Walcott, Diaby, Nasri and Denilson combined have scored one goal less than Cesc has this season. (Update: I got this a bit wrong. Combined they have 21 to Cesc’s 19 – but the point remains).

Then there’s Eduardo. He’s scored six goals this season, but only three (from 22 appearances) in the Premier League. Wenger has used him so sparingly that it’s hard not to conclude that something isn’t right. Whether he’s carrying knocks, or his head is not right, or he’s lost a yard of pace – who knows. But it seems a tall order to throw him in at the deep end and expect miracles.

All of which leaves us with the van Persie issue. He’s back training with Arsenal, and while Wenger wanted to give him a month to get back to top condition, could the current situation force a rethink?

The boss has got to be tempted.

The form factor

Arsenal 5-0 Porto

24 hours late, this. Just like the old days, when you went abroad, burned in the sun to cinder and had to wait a day for the papers to pitch up from blighty. Cast yourself back to 1985 and it won’t feel so late.

Anyway, we were the first English club through to the European Cup quarter-finals this season, it was the first comeback from a first-leg deficit since Hajduk Split in 1978 and… was it the first goal we’d scored in the first 15 minutes of the first half all season?

I have a thirst for more firsts if they’re anything like that.

5-0 is perhaps more of a thrashing than at times it felt, especially during the first quarter of an hour of the second half when Porto woke up and a single goal would have left things finely balanced, but as soon as Nasri’s unbelievably mazy dribble and tonking tight finish made it three, it was party time at the Grove.

But there were some eye-opening performances, and if there’s ever a good time in a season for three or four players to come into form, that time is now.

The issue of form is always an interesting one, because so much depends on state of mind, confidence and so on. So while only a month ago we were lamenting the form of Clichy, Almunia, Arshavin et al, now we can talk of a quartet of players who have suddenly found theirs.

Clichy and Arshavin, incidentally, are among those who suddenly look menacingly good. We all knew Arshavin was world-class, but playing as the lone frontman seriously curtailed his effectiveness. Freed to play where he is more comfortable, he suddenly looks terrifying. Henry Winter’s line summed it up very well: Arshavin was “a box of fireworks that kept exploding in Porto’s face.”

I’m pleased for Clichy too. Coming back from injury, he was a pale shadow of the Clichy of old. But hard graft and a run of games have turned that round, and last night his workrate was exemplary.

Diaby and Nasri are the other two whose form has been building impressively. The former, to be fair, has been steadily improving for a while, but has been struck down by his usual temporary ailments all too frequently. Nevertheless, he’s looking fantastic at the moment.

Then there’s Nasri, a player whose injury – though I barely need to preface any description of an Arsenal player by mentioning the ‘I’ word, it’s a given – set him back months. It’s all clicking now though, and last night he was superb, scoring a mesmeric goal and creating space all over the pitch.

And I’ve not even mentioned Bendtner.

So form breeds confidence, which creates momentum. As a result we’re fizzing along now.

One cup gone, one cup coming

massiveattack
Massive Attack on Thursday, Tiny Attack on Wednesday…

A very good morning to you on this Arsenal-free Saturday, brought to you courtesy of Le Boss’s callow team selection at Stoke in the fourth round of the FA Cup.

I was quite surprised at the time how many fans simply shrugged their shoulders and wrote the FA Cup off as a nothing competition. ‘Bigger fish to fry’ etc.

I’ve almost certainly got a few more miles on the clock than some Arsenal fans, and peer too frequently and too nostalgically into the depths of my mind to the days when FA Cup final coverage started at about 9am, but there’s more to it than that.

It was a competition we had a very good chance of doing well in this year, it would have shut the ‘nothing for five years’ doubters up for another season, but above all it’s a competition I love. Don’t try and tell me the interminable group stages of the Champions League are anything to write home about. They can be turgid beyond belief.

Anyway, here we are and as luck would have it, the proper part of the European Cup is just round the corner. It’s now that the competition morphs from a money-guaranteeing mini league to a proper knockout cup, and boy does it make a difference.

For Arsenal, it’s Porto on Wednesday and lady luck appears not to be shining on one player in particular: Andrei Arshavin. Last season, little Andrei had to watch on from the bench as we got knocked out in the semi-final, cup-tied and no doubt deeply frustrated. I suspect he joined Arsenal at least in part to have a good pop at the Champions League.

Now, having battled manfully up front on his own throughout Arsenal’s strikerless months, ignoring the knocks and bruises, he has finally succumbed to a hamstring ping on the eve of the one competition he had no say in last season. Cruel indeed.

His official website (for we live in times when players have their own websites) says he’s out; Arsenal’s site has not quite gone that far but we have no reason to disbelieve the former so on that basis he’s out.

As for last Wednesday, well it seems so far away now that it’s hardly worth bringing up. But two things I will say: First, before the win the gloomier amongst us (guilty, m’lud) began looking down rather than up, but three points means we can now look up again, albeit squintingly. And second, Diaby’s goal reminded me not only how much I love headed goals from sweet crosses, but also how infrequently we seem to score like that anymore. Room for thought there, Arsene.

OK, that’s it then. Have a good weekend.

Better performance, but same weaknesses

Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

Improved performance? Yes, but with the same defensive clangers and the same lack of striking options as ever. All too familiar, all too avoidable.

The bottom line for me is this side is not currently good enough to challenge for the title. Against Chelsea and Man Utd, we are consistently coming up short.

Whilst against most sides we can still score enough goals to give us a good chance of winning despite our porous defence, against the best sides we let in more than we are able to score.

All the possession in the world means nothing if you do not do enough with it and defend poorly. After just eight minutes we went AWOL and let in a soft goal. It was truly shambolic stuff and yet, who’s really surprised? We’ve been defending like that all season. All of the top three have scored 60 goals, yet Arsenal have conceded a third more – 30 rather than 20. Therein lies one of the reasons why we are nine points behind.

Arshavin should then have equalised with one of the two decent chances we had, before we were undone again, this time on the counter. 2-0 down, and no Kanu to save us.

Up front, our one fit striker Bendtner was not fit enough to start, so Arshavin once again led the line. He had one decent chance as mentioned, but really, he shouldn’t be there. He’s only there for lack of options.

Which does beg the question – again – why did Wenger not buy a striker this January? Was there really not a single striker available who could have given us something for four months?

Still, there were positives. It was a much more spirited performance, much more committed. You can’t fault them for that. And on an individual level, It was good to see Diaby back. I think he’s growing as a player and adds a lot to the team when fit.

Right, I need to leave it at that. No more time to dwell.

Onto Wednesday…