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 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!

Wenger’s numbers don’t come up in Pottery lottery

Stoke City 3-1 Arsenal

I said yesterday that Wenger had little choice but to gamble in today’s FA Cup game. Gamble he did – and he lost.

As expected, he chose a mixture of youth and experience. In the young corner were Emmanuel-Thomas (first team debut), Coquelin (a lick of Milk Cup only) and Eastmond (one Premier League start).

At the other end of the spectrum were Silvestre and Campbell, with the rest – young but in some cases very experienced – making up the XI.

Was it a line-up that was ever going to trouble a physical and experienced team like Stoke? It’s easy to be dismissive in retrospect, but when I saw the line-up I thought we stood a chance if we played to our potential.

Therein lies the rub, though. We never did play to our potential. I accept that the game was fairly even until Stoke’s second, but apart from Denilson’s deflected equaliser, I cannot think of a single time when we made Sorensen earn his money.

Yes, Stoke played very well. Collectively, we could not cope. But too many of our players were off colour too. At the back, Fabianski was dreadful. On today’s performance, it’s easy to see how Almunia – hardly a Spanish Gordon Banks himself – remains unchallenged between the sticks. He punched rather than caught, stuttered on his line; he looked as if he’d won a competition to keep goal. The rest of the defence struggled, with the exception of Sol Campbell who performed admirably given how little football he has played recently. Traore was all over the place, Coquelin got better after a nervy start and Silvestre – well I suppose he tried hard.

In the midfield, I thought Eastmond did OK. In fact, all three rookies – Emmanuel-Thomas, Coquelin, Eastmond – did OK given the circumstances.

We were especially toothless up front though. I am – and remain – a big fan of Theo Walcott but on today’s performance he shouldn’t be worrying about his England place, he should be worrying about getting into the Arsenal side. He was embarrassingly ineffectual. I know it’s not his ideal kind of game and I know he’s been injured to the point of distraction, but he looked lost today. Carlos Vela had a rotten day too. Emmanuel-Thomas intrigues me though. His first touch wasn’t great and as debuts go, it was a tough one, but there’s definitely something there – power, desire, a different tack to the usual Arsenal striker (and he’s not even a striker). I’d like to see more of him.

The triple substitution made little difference.

So overall, it was never going to be a team that could walk the tie without each player playing to his maximum. The performance never arrived. We deserved to lose.

What to make of it? It’s a huge lost opportunity if you ask me. It’s all very well saying we can concentrate on the league and the European Cup, but they’re the hardest ones of all to win.

After the game, Wenger touched again on his reasons for playing the team he played. “Sagna, Vermaelen and Clichy will all be back for Aston Villa and they could have missed it if they had played today” he said.

Perhaps so. Maybe the circumstances – huge injury list and four high-octane games looming – demanded it.

Still out the cup though. Big gamble. Big loss.

Out with the new, in with the Sol at Arsenal

Football, I can report, still has the power to amaze.

After a sabbatical of 3½ years, Sol Campbell’s all set to sign for Arsenal until the end of the season. Amazing because he’s 35, amazing because he’s hardly the age profile of the classic Wenger signing, and amazing because despite having trained for months with the club, nobody really saw it coming.

There’s no doubt we need cover at centre back, with Gallas and Vermaelen having played 56 games between them already this season, but I must say I never expected Wenger to plump for Sol.

But in the cold light of day, the deal makes sense. The January transfer window is not always the best for value, and nor is it the best time to prize away decent defenders. On top of that, we’ve got to bear in mind that Gallas and Vermaelen remain our first choice pairing. So anybody who comes in would probably have to accept it will be as backup. He’s massively experienced. He’s free. It’s a smooth fit on that basis. Welcome back, Sol-man.

On Sky Sports News yesterday – which when still in the first rush of giddy excitement at the news, as it was salivating at the chops, raised the prospect of Sol forcing his way into Capello’s World Cup squad – Alan Smith pointed out that it’s not as if Wenger has gone in blind. Months of training will have told Wenger all he needs to know. Campbell looks fit. And he’s certainly in a good frame of mind if his interview is anything to go by:

“I cannot tell you how much I have missed playing…” he told ESPN, “it’s fantastic, great, marvellous… I’ve missed it and I’ve a gut feeling this is the right move. It’s no longer a hunger to get back – it’s turned into a craving. I am champing at the bit. I’m fresh, I’m raring to go. It’s unbelievable to be back at Arsenal.”

I have to say, after my initial amazement I’ve got a good buzz about this. I always rated Campbell and him having a second chance at the club is a great if improbable story. Any signing gets the place going, and this one definitely has – even if he’s not the long-term solution. That can wait until the summer.

He can sit in the café at Colney and reminisce with Gael Clichy about the Invincibles. More importantly, he can be a steady and experienced hand on the deck both on and off the pitch. Of course, he’s still got to cut it when he plays, and that will be an interesting one to see, but as a free short-term backup deal, I think it’s worth a punt.

It does also mean we will now surely see Senderos leave this window, possibly very soon. I have to say, I feel desperately sorry for Swiss Phil. He’s clearly no part of Wenger’s plans but he can probably thank Djourou’s injury for his extra six months rotting in Arsenal’s reserves. My own view is he is, was, a decent centre back with room to improve and his best years ahead of him, but there’s only so long you can hope a player will grow into his potential and Wenger has seen all he wants to now. He’s simply not been good enough to displace our first-choice pairing, but he wants and needs to play more games. It’s a catch-22. Best now to let him go – and he certainly wants that himself. Despite what must be a deeply frustrating time of things, he’s never moaned in the press or kicked up a storm. I hope he gets his move.

What else? There’s the surreal sight of Adebayor thinking he’s still an Arsenal player, talk of a new 17-year-old signing called Galinda and a pressing need for me to get up and go to work.

Better do that then.