Arsène says Relax: Do it

OK, at last, here we are once more. Arsenal.

I had a scratch of the old noggin and realised – to my dismay but not surprise – that today’s match is my first game since Barcelona, and my first league game since Everton on 1st February. That’s two months off league football, I’ve had: I’m almost hoping to be picked to watch the England U21s over the summer to make up.

I’m champing at the bit, and I want the team to be too.

But we need to start fast. Don’t ask me about the psychological reasons for why we do it, because I’ll look back at you blankly. I simply want us to tear out the blocks today, and put in the same yards from the start that we did in the last 20 minutes against Sunderland and West Brom. Why have we taken so long to get going in some games? It’s not relevant if we don’t do it again. I want early, heavy, sustained pressure against Blackburn and I want it to go on until things are comfortable [that’s 5-0 then – Ed]. [Stop being such a cynic Ed – Big Ed].

The fabled handbrake goes on when the team is nervous or lacking in confidence. So do these players honestly believe – beyond the usual David platitudes – that they can win the title? Then today is the day to show it. We’ve moped our rears off, metaphorically listening to Enya on loop, and it’s time it stopped. Wenger alluded to the pressure when he said: “Let’s enjoy it and go for it”.

I’m also looking for more pace, and with Walcott back we should get that. We have other fast players – Nasri for one. But without Theo Walcott, who is as fast as a butcher’s dog, we are a slower team. For my sins I happened upon the Invincibles DVD in the ‘Lull and the amount of goals we scored by thundering upfield was eye-opening. Patient build-ups work sometimes, being more direct does at other times. We need to mix it up.

I mentioned it on the ‘Cast last week, but for me the benchmark performance this season was Chelsea at home. OK, so they were in a funk but Arsenal that day were everything Arsenal should be – and more pertinently, can be. When we had the ball we went for the jugular and when we didn’t, we hunted to get the ball back. From that point on I hoped we’d cracked the formula but it never quite happened.

Another key to that game was the personnel – we had for the most part our best XI available, Szczesny aside, for that Chelsea game. Today we ought to be strenthened immeasurably with the additions of Fabregas, Walcott and Song.

As ever, the first ten minutes of the game will be interesting.

Come on you rip-roarers.

Match preview: Arsenal v Barcelona, the sequel

No sooner had we sunk Wolves on Saturday, my mind turned to this game. I have been thinking of nothing else since, except of course on Valentine’s day, when my mind briefly wandered. (Fulham should have won).

I said before the draw that I wanted Barca. The colony of butterflies inhabiting my gut and the general whiff of giddiness emanating from my pores tells me I was right to want this draw. There is nothing quite like pitting yourself against the best, and Barca are the best.

I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the opening salvo of the home game against Barca last year. I’d never see anything quite like it; they went in for the kill from the off. It was less playing against us, more playing with us. It’s a shame it was my beloved on the receiving end, because that would have been quite a sight for a neutral.

Coming back to 2-2 that night was quite an achievement but it came at a cost. We lost Fabregas, Arshavin, Gallas and Song at various points in the two legs, and we weren’t able to cope.

The challenge is no less daunting this time, but as Wenger asserts, the circumstances are different.

“We are in an ideal condition to face them,” said le Boss. “We cannot complain. We have the belief, the confidence and the players available. We are 90 per cent in February and that was not the case last year. I feel we are in an ideal position to face them.”

Forget the Cesc mindgames, forget Messi telling us how dangerous Walcott is – this all counts for nothing. It’s pre-game bluster. The main thing now is: how do we beat them?

The thing that struck me last time round more than anything else was the way Barca looked for the ball when they didn’t have it. They were as ruthless without the ball as they were with it – hunting in packs, pressing hard, giving us no space. It’s an approach that served us well against Chelsea in December in particular, so we can do it and we need to do it tonight. As Wilshere said, we need to get in their faces a bit. Controlled aggression, pressing hard, no sloppy passing.

Sid Lowe’s three lessons to heed are interesting, as are Smudger’s ‘five courses of action’. We’re not capable of all-out defence (I can almost see Wenger spitting his Shreddies out at the mere thought), so we’re going to have to concentrate on the pressing, the quick breaks and exploiting any space behind the full-backs. Above all, we need to believe we can do it. I’m not sure we did last time round.

We’ll miss the suspended Bacary Sagna but Nasri returns so we have everyone – Vermaelen notwithstanding – available.

I totally like can’t wait.

Is it 7.45pm yet?

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!