The good, the bad and the 90th minute equaliser

Liverpool 3-3 Arsenal

There are no two ways about it: letting a win slip in the 90th minute is always the kind of result that gnaws away at you. Two points, up in a puff of smoke.

Sadly, it had been coming for a good 15 minutes. We slowly relinquished possession as the clock wound down and in the end we paid for it. Our defence, which looked like it was weathering the storm, could in the end only bale so much water out. “We have to look at ourselves”, said Wenger of the 90th minute goal, “that should not happen”.

It was a crazy game though; open beyond belief and it could quite easily have ended 5-5. Is this the way to mount a title challenge? Rapier, darting forward movement but a bit leaky at the back? Who knows – but we are still joint top.

Such a shame for Giroud, who put in the most majestic stint holding the line, scoring two and coming oh-so-bafflingly close to a hat-trick. And gutting for Joel Campbell, who worked himself into the ground and came up with the assist of the game for Ramsey’s equaliser.

I maintain it’s a good point, though plenty disagree now. Liverpool has never been an easy place to go for Arsenal and we have had far worse results there. Whether we end up regretting it is one for the future. If that’s the case we will regret losing badly at Southampton and West Brom too, and probably more.

Absent friends, as it turns out, are a point of regret too. Would this have been different if we’d had Coquelin? We might have had more bite in midfield and shielded the defence better. Alexis, too, with his dynamism and capacity for the extraordinary, will be welcomed back with open arms.

Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere, Coquelin, Alexis, Welbeck? Look, I’m not sure whether we can last the distance, but given the injuries we’ve had and still have, we’re having a decent crack at it.

Joyeux Joel and a Happy New Giroud!

Olympiacos 0-3 Arsenal

I have vacillated about Arsenal’s chances in this must-win ding-dong for several weeks now. Curiously positivity after the Zagreb game was followed by gloomy no-hope once Alexis and Cazorla keeled over injured.

What we got – out of the blue, you’d have to say – was the kind of performance where we’re left scratching our head, muttering “why don’t we do this more often?”

Disciplined, focused, ruthless, solid: it was a performance in which everyone played a part, and no more so than two of our oft-maligned players.

Giroud was simply glorious – ballsy and powerful and determined – and his performance helped write the story of Arsenal’s ‘great escape’. Yes, he’s a curious beast but maybe we just have to learn to accept that footballers are all different. When he’s not in a game, he’s not in it at all. When he’s tired, he’s a shadow of his normal self. But when he’s like this, he’s a superb footballer and Olympiacos – on the threshold of qualification, let’s not forget – simply had no answer.

And for a blows-hot-and-cold player, Giroud’s goalscoring record continues to stand up to scrutiny. Last season, despite the world’s most curious leg break ruling him out for months, he notched a very decent 19 goals. This year, despite mixed form, he’s already scored 13 goals. There’s nothing to say he can’t score over 20 goals this season, which is a decent return by any accounts.

Then there’s Joel Campbell, once about seventh in the pecking order and so close to the exit door he could feel the cold whooshes of air each time it opened.

Not now, you have to say, after his best performance for the club by a distance. He worked hard, was a dangerous outlet at all times and the way he set up Giroud’s second goal was just brilliant. I’m liking what I see, and while he might never be a world-beater, (or even at Arsenal beyond this season), who doesn’t enjoy it when a player takes his chance and makes the most of it? That he has leapt ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain in the pecking order seems clear. It’s something to ponder for the Ox, whose form has, somewhat worryingly, evaporated.

A really heartening performance then, and one that we really should give us a good platform as the Christmas rush hits. It *ought* to be a huge boost, though by adding a couple of stars in there I am of course caveating the hell out of it safe in the knowledge that this is, after all, Arsenal we are talking about.

Into the last 16 of the Champions League again, and let’s save the cynicism of what could befall us in the next round for another time.

This is one to savour.

Arsenal suffer a collective bad hair day

W.B.A. 2-1 Arsenal

I’m not sure whether ‘a bad day at the office’ does this one justice, though Arsenal clearly did lose the document they were working on, said something inopportune to Dave in accounts by the water cooler, before forgetting to submit their timesheet [this metaphor needs more work – Ed].

It was a classic case of Arsenal coming to the party with a chilled six-pack of their greatest weaknesses [now you’re mixing them – Ed]. Dreadful, switched-off defending, a key injury, his replacement having a mare then getting injured, a glaring miss, possession for possession’s sake and finally a lifeline spurned with a ballooned slip-up of a penalty.

It goes without saying that we should never have lost it – Cazorla’s penalty alone should have guaranteed that – but we shot ourselves in the foot with what Wenger called a “nightmare” performance where we “lost a bit of focus” and compounded it with “very, very poor” defending.

Honestly, we have seen it all before. Thankfully a little less frequently in recent times, so maybe it was at least an uncharacteristically characteristic Arsenal performance.

You could argue, in fact, that it’s been a horrible November (and don’t we know about those) because we’ve not played well since winning in Swansea on 31st October. Better to get a blip in form out the way now rather than in February? Yes.

I say that because the other night Sky Sports reminded me, thanks to a bout of insomnia, how competitive we had been in 2013-14 until the rot set in with that 5-1 trousering at Anfield. Our form has plenty of time to pick up. But with so many players injured – yes I am using it as an excuse, because it really is a massive factor – perhaps a loss of form was unavoidable.

To top it off, we lost Coquelin yesterday for time unknown. Please don’t say it’s a classic three-weeker, because ever since our inactive summer his has been the position most people have fretted most about in terms of depth. As Arteta showed yesterday, he’s simply not a DM, and that he’s at the tail end of his career is plain to see. Flamini is a decent squad player, but no match for Coquelin.

Ozil had a fine game but too many of the others didn’t. Bellerin looked rusty, Gibbs did OK (but is no winger), Alexis looked like a man who’s been overplayed and travelled across hemispheres, Campbell missed his one chance and neither of our central defenders were quite there.

To sum up: poor and a bit dispiriting. Much improvement needed and to say we are desperate for some players to come back is an understatement. It will make a massive difference.

Zagreb on Tuesday. At least we’re back in the saddle quickly, but Tony Colbert’s going to need to soak his magic sponge with some of Getafix’s potion.

Arsenal’s new defence begins to take shape

And finally, Laurent Koscielny has signed for the Arsenal. His free Arsenal.com video is a brilliant mix of new signing intro and new shirt promotion.

“We bought this! Now buy these!”

Luckily, both new shirts are ace.

We have laughed many a time in the past about how Wenger pulls signings from nowhere and presents them to us – but with both Chamakh and now Koscielny, there’s been very little surprise, other than how long the dotted line has taken to sign. It’s been all over the web for a while. I blame modern electronicalish communications.

It means that Wenger’s first two forays into the transfer market this summer are both from the country he knows best – France. They are the latest in a long line of predominantly excellent imports – a line that started with the best of them all, Remi Garde. (There was a bloke from Senegal too I think who was quite good).

More importantly, Koscielny forms the first piece in the new defensive jigsaw. It’s a jigsaw that will hopefully include at least a new keeper – with some people’s money currently being on Fulham’s Schwarzer.

Wenger pinpointed our porous back line as a priority for investment back in May – let’s be honest, he wasn’t alone in that conclusion – so it’s hardly a surprise to see a defensive addition coming in. Not least because sailing off over the horizon in the other direction are William Gallas, Micky Silver, and possibly also Sol Campbell.

I do expect him to be first choice though – at the price we have paid, it can be no other way, regardless of the fact he was playing in the French second division the season before last.

If Sol stays, that’s your lot in that department – but if he goes (and he must be pondering exactly how many games he will get), then there’s a vacancy for a fourth centre-half. Could it be Nordveit? Or Bartley? How much experience does a fourth-choice centre-half need? And who of experience would sign knowing they were that far down the pecking order?

Sol staying would be the best solution for me, but he is free to do what he will and is taking his time.

We all know this is a big, big season for Wenger, and for my money – the Cesc stuff aside – the close season is going well. We’ve got two hungry, young but not inexperienced players signed, both of whom have a big part to play next season.

Forget the fact that Man City have spent £75m and could spend another £75m – there’s nothing we or any other club can do about that.

The main thing is the gaps are being plugged.

I’m looking forward to seeing him play now. Bienvenue to you, Laurent, and all that and stuff.

Feed me some transfers, Arsene, I’m hungry.

So England have slunk home sheepishly, and the inquest has begun in earnest as to quite how it went so calamitously wrong.

I’m not going to get into that inquest here though, what with me being thoroughly bored of our biennial national slip-up, and this blog being of a club hue. A club, incidentally, that might not have won much in recent years, but can at least pass the ball.

If you do want to wallow a bit more in the sheer horror of it all though, then there was a very good piece in The Times by Matt Dickinson (‘Mutiny and misery: the inside story of a failed campaign’ – available free online, if you register), and amid the many excellent pieces of podcastery are this one from 5live – ‘Out of Africa: where next for English football’ – and a lighter look at things from Baddiel and Skinner. I suspect the latter two are UK only.

Right, well the good news is that inevitably, club news will begin to take over soon. I recall reading some time ago that both Gallas and Silvestre had deals taking them up to 30th June, and I read today that Laurent Koscielny could sign on July 1st. On these anecdotal snippets alone I am predicting a whirlwind of transfer activity at the tail end of this week. At least, that’s what I’d like.

Should he arrive, it’s fair to say Koscielny is the absolute nailed-on classic Wenger signing, and not just because he’s French. Wenger loves to sign a player whose skills have not been touted far and wide in England, someone with youth on their side and with the potential to get better and better.

I know nothing about him – another classic sign. Over on Twitter, @arsene_knows tells me he’s got bags of promise, and made the highest number of clearances in Ligue 1 last season. That might explain why his price is apparently £8.5m.

When we paid similar sums for Vermaelen last season, it was fully expected that before long he’d be first choice. As it turned out, he went straight into the team and was one of our players of the season. So I wonder whether Wenger will be expecting Koscielny to head straight in and partner Vermaelen, or whether he’s one for the future? It’d be a lot of money to spend on a reserve. With Djourou fit again (and presumably keen to play), and perhaps even another centre-back coming in, there should be some serious competition for places.

Looks at the same time as if Campbell – a fabulous stop-gap last year – will look for pastures new. I can see how that makes sense for him.

The Telegraph has us then turning our sights on Fulham’s Schwarzer, who is undeniably experienced, but also undeniably not a glamour signing. Does it matter? Not if he’s going to be better than Almunia it doesn’t.

So all in all, things could start nicely ticking. We’re only 18 days away from the traditional curtain raiser at Barnet.

That, as they say, is ace.

Match review: The nil-nillest of nil-nils

Arsenal 0-0 Manchester City

Season ticket renewal time is almost upon us – and what better way to offset the pain of some of the priciest tickets in the country than with a reminder of what Arsenal do best: Goals, technique, speed and a never-say-die attitude?

All those things will doubtless be unveiled against Fulham on 9th May, because yesterday’s goalless draw was as turgid an end-of-season game as you will ever see. It was instantly forgettable.

Which is all the more peculiar for the fact that City’s owners are palpably desperate for the kudos the Champions League would offer. If they miss out by a point or two come the end of the season, someone might want to ask Mancini why he ordered his team to come for nothing more than a draw against an Arsenal side with three straight defeats playing on the mind, an impressive cast list of crocks and one eye on the summer sunloungers.

Not that we were able to break down such a stifling lack of ambition. We had no real answer to it – a couple of shots on target only, the best of which was a van Persie free-kick that floated just high and wide.

We all wanted a reaction from the Wigan game, and in terms of commitment and focus, it was an improvement. It’s a shame that improvement didn’t translate into attacking threat.

It was a day for fans of defending, and while City did not venture forward much, of our players it was the “outstanding” Campbell – “Maybe you should take him to South Africa” Wenger said post-match – and the returning Song who caught the eye. Even the much-derided Micky Silver looked good.

If, hypothetically, we had a keeper showing signs of advanced shell-shock and wearing gloves lubed with WD-40, and we were looking for an easy game to parachute him into that would ease his frayed nerves, yesterday’s was that game. Fabianski had almost nothing to do all match, and certainly nothing remotely taxing, even by his standards.

We do have one thing to thank Adebayor for: His pig-tailed arrival in the 52nd minute at least sparked the game into a modicum of life. But once the vituperative songs had died down, there was no more papering over the cracks of a dull game and it and it wasn’t long before it was ambling along again, going nowhere fast.

Even eight minutes of added time, against a Faroese rookie keeper, produced no telling pressure from us and that was that.

“Losing to Wigan was in our heads, it was absolutely forbidden to lose, they didn’t throw everything forward blindly.” Can’t argue with that from Wenger.

From our point of view, it edged us closer to third, and therefore away from having to play a Champions League qualifier, and it arrested a losing streak.

But the Independent’s 4/10 rating seems about right.

Derby defeat puts title out of reach

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal

It’s easier to damn than to praise after a defeat against your long-suffering nearest rivals, so let’s start off with the praise.

Firstly, for Arsenal to retain bragging rights in this fixture for 20 games, lasting over a decade, is a magnificent achievement for Arsene Wenger, it really is. History will forever remind us that between November 1999 and April 2010 we did not lose a single league game to them.

Secondly, Sol Campbell. For a creaking 35-year-old, he really did roll back the years last night. Despite the predictable abuse, his experience was there for all to see, and his urgency and drive was bettered by no-one. When we were chasing the game in the second half, he was often mixing things up at the half-way line. And when we had pushed up right at the end looking for the equaliser, and suddenly it was a one-on-one chase to get the ball with Bale, Campbell matched him yard for yard. I’m not sure what his plans are for next season, but given the possible departure of Gallas and the certain departures of Silvestre and Senderos, on this form another year would hardly be a gamble.

Thirdly, Robin van Persie’s return showed us what we have missed. Despite the lion’s share of possession we had done little to trouble the Spuds defence until he came on. He was incredible when he did, having one volley and a pinpoint free kick marvellously saved by the not so Hilarious Gomes. How we have missed him.

Overall though, it was a performance full of what-ifs.

What if we had had fewer injuries over the course of the season? Vermaelen was last night added to the roster of the crocked, joining the back of the snaking Colney queue for plaster and strepsils. For much of the game we were without three of our best midfielders, both of our best central defenders and our best striker. Spuds were without a few of their best players too so it’s not an excuse, but over the course of a season it’s been a major factor.

What if we had played with the incision and wit of the last 15 minutes a bit sooner? All the possession of the first half counted for naught. While some of our players stood up to the occasion, others did not. Wenger’s comments on Sol Campbell and the team in general were telling:

“Sol was one of our better players tonight. I think he was outstanding and he has shown what a winner he is and if he won championships, you see why. He deserves a lot of credit tonight because he turned up with a real performance.”

Others, he said, “were not mature enough”.

It wasn’t the night for a mixed bag of a performance, but that’s what we got. For all our possession, we weren’t creative enough in the midfield and we gave away both the goals weakly.

“Our passing was not quick enough, not sharp enough,” said Wenger. “We had a lot of ineffective possession.”

But the bottom line is we lost, and that means, unless you’re a big fan of improbability, we’re out of the title race for another year. To be honest, it’s been a long shot for a while. We’ve come back from the dead twice this campaign, which is impressive enough, but we were always chasing, chasing, chasing, and four points from the last nine has made that chase all but mathematically impossible.

Where do Arsenal go from here, you might ask?

Wigan is the answer.

Doubting Thomas’s red / Songtral defence

Lionel roars

It’s now just a week to go until Barcelona roll into the Grove, and quite honestly, I think I can allow myself another dose of early excitement. Yes, I know there’s a crucial Premier League game at St. Andrews first up – they’re all crucial now – but without a midweek match there’s plenty of time to think about both.

It’s all about Messi, with his spectacular hat-trick against Zaragoza (“that’s for Nayim”, I muttered) well worth a watch if you’ve not seen it. He’s in such ridiculous form at the moment that the world’s pundits are running out of players to compare him to. I can’t wait to see him play to be honest. I’m sure Wenger will devise a cunning plan involving the periscope sprinklers to negate him.

One person who does find the whole thing a bit weird is Thierry Henry, who has said “I don’t want to play against Arsenal”. I can understand the sentiment but it’s still odd to be seen to be talking yourself out of a place in the starting XI. Perhaps he knows already that he’s unlikely to start?

Verm but fair

I was surprised to learn that Arsenal tonight appealed against Vermaelen’s red card on the grounds of wrongful dismissal. I must admit, I did think the club would take the one-match ban on the chin, but clearly they a) feel they can get this one overturned or b) are sufficiently worried about Saturday to give it a go. Presumably the FA cannot extend it further if the appeal fails?

Songtral defence

Having seen Song drop into central defence against West Ham, and do very well there, it does of course give us more options for Saturday, albeit at the expense of the holding midfield role in which the Cameroonian has so excelled this season. Given the proximity of the next two games, I’m inclined to think Campbell will play in only one of them, and seeing that Arsenal have appealed against Vermaelen’s red, it could well be that Sol is earmarked for Barcelona only. That would leave Song and Silvestre as the only option for this weekend, which might explain the appeal. I could of course be talking absolute guff, but Campbell and Vermaelen, with Song mopping up in front, would be my choice for Barcelona.

Right then, laters.

Arsenal v Barcelona: the best draw of the lot

Guardian squad sheet
BBC preview

Another weekend, another match we can’t afford not to win, but for the time being at least we dream of Catalonia.

Yes of course, the draw for the European Cup could have pitted us against CSKA Moscow or Bordeaux, but where’s the fun in that? To me, the European Cup is about glamour and butterflies in the stomach and gladiatorial footballing contests. This is the kind of tie – a European Cup quarter-final against the best team in Europe – that most fans of most teams would dream of. It’s the best draw.

Incidentally, the Champions League at this stage of the competition is a ridiculous misnomer, seeing it’s no longer a league half the remaining teams are not champions. Time to stick to calling it the European Cup.

Arsena v Barcelona has sub-plots all over the place. There’s the final in 2006, which we led in for so long but ultimately lost, there’s Thierry Henry, who scored a few goals for Arsenal once, and there’s Cesc Fabregas, who’s been on holiday to Barcelona once or something and is ogled covetously by them.

One sub-plot that some people are overlooking is of course Sol Campbell. Our scorer in 2006, he was playing for Notts County at Morecambe in August and now looks likely to be called upon to take on the European champions in a match that will be watched across the world by millions and millions. It’s a Lazarus-esque comeback for him.

Reading some of the bumph round this, the interesting stat for me is how much Arsenal’s team has changed in the intervening four years. It’s had an enormous overhaul.

Only three of the starting XI are still at the club – Eboue, Fabregas and Campbell – along with three of the benchwarmers (Almunia, Clichy, van Persie). Funnily enough, only three of the Barcelona starting XI are still at the club too, so the two teams are almost unrecognisable to those of four years ago.

It’ll be absolutely electric and I can’t wait already.

First thing’s first though, it’s West Ham at the Grove this evening. With Song, Fabregas and Rosicky back we have far more options, but as was shown at Hull last weekend, relegation-threatened opponents are often the most dangerous. They have a good record against us at home in recent years.

Nevertheless, we must win. Try the Prem Predictor if you must, and you will see how tight things are, as if you need reminding. Let’s push on.

I love the business end of the season when there’s still business to be done.

Match preview: Margin for error = practically zero

I was listening to the Guardian’s Football Weekly Extra podcast the other day, and Rob Smyth stuck his neck out by stating he’d be “astonished” if Arsenal didn’t win the league this season. A pretty bold prediction if you ask me. You won’t catch me sticking my neck out on such matters – in fact, if there’s a way of sticking your neck in I’ll be doing that instead.

We’re at that stage of the season where if you make the foolish error of looking at the top three’s run-ins – as I did yesterday – you can get a bit giddy.

But the bottom line is there’s still nearly 20% of the season to go and given this group of players’ relative lack of recent experience of title run-ins, we remain third favourites for a good reason.

Besides, if you ask me it’s a myth to think that our run-in is necessarily easier just because we don’t have to play Man Utd, Chelsea or Liverpool again. Looking at the nine teams we have to play, in their current league positions, five of them are looking over their shoulders at relegation and two are vying for fourth. Only Fulham and Birmingham are mid-table, but even the latter might fancy a sniff at the Zooropa League.

The first of the five is tonight at Hull, second bottom and still nursing sore behinds from a 5-1 mauling at Everton.

However, for all their dismality away from home – feel free to use that word again, if you ever need to – their home record is pretty decent. Their two most recent games were a win against Man City and a draw against Chelsea. There’s also an element of previous between the clubs, and who knows what might surface there.

We’re probably without Fabregas and Song is suspended, but the other doubts should make it, and if we can line up anything like this then it’s a side with huge attacking potency. Any sort of voodoo we can perform to ensure Big Sol is fit would also be welcome.

It’s going to be a tough one, I suspect, assuming Hull have focussed their minds since two of their players had a scrap by the Humber Bridge in front of a Women’s Institute rally. I thought I was hallucinating when I read that. Too weird on too many levels.

That’s it for now – come on you reds!