Prawn sandwich fan / Hip Hip Hooray

Admission: Tuesday came and went and passed me by entirely. For me, it’s a rarety for me not to follow a game in some way. I go to most home games, and watch or listen to most of the others. Those matches I can’t go to, see or hear I will follow via Twitter etc, as many of us do. But on Tuesday, as the match kicked off, I was out meeting football-agnostic friends (they do exist, it seems) in a pub with pleasant steak and kidney pies but no telly, and although I briefly toyed with the time-honoured gadget switch-off so I could play the match as live when I got in, I knew my resolve wouldn’t last and sure enough, it didn’t. Having found out we’d lost 1-0, I opted against pursuing the venture any further when I got home. Fickle? Guilty as charged.

I did sniff round the reaction though, and the goodwill to a) a weakened team and b) a loss was widespread. Partly because we seem to have acquitted ourselves very well, and partly, perhaps, with one eye on last February’s Wembley final, which was the catalyst for a sensational collapse.

Wenger said in his L’Equipe interview that last season, “to try to catch one [trophy], we ran after all the hares”, and that contributed to the dismal season end, but that this year, rather than change approach, “I’ll do the same thing”.

I think he approached it right given the obvious fatigue on Saturday, and while the hunt for a trophy is as important as ever, I get the feeling that things don’t seem to hinge so much on the winning of a cup this year. Maybe expectations are a little bit lower and maybe, after the start we had, this season became as much about turning an underperforming team around – which is happening – as it was about having a genuine tilt at a trophy.

Either way, I don’t see too many – any – dissenters saying we should have played the Persies and the Ramseys and the Walcotts of this world on Tuesday. Chasing four trophies puts an impossible burden on any squad, especially one still scraping off the mud of an early season quagmire. We performed well and as has been pointed out elsewhere in numerous places, it was an opportunity seized for some of our players – Coquelin, Frimpong, Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular.

125

I wasn’t aware of the exact date, but today is apparently the 125th anniversary of the club. How time flies – I vaguely remember the celebrations around the 100th anniversary and here we are again for another milestone. It feels like a long time but when I worked out I had followed Arsenal for almost 25% of its existence, and that time has disappeared into the ether like a flash, it feels a bit less so.

In those 125 years, Arsenal have won the First Division / Premier League title 13 times. Unlucky for some, but equally, 11 times more than others. That averages out as one title every 9.6 years, which puts our barren trophy run into some perspective and, as I mentioned on Twitter, raises the interesting prospect of our next title coming in 2014 (if stats can be relied on – no comment).

I can’t imagine too many of us would find that too long a wait. I’ll just drop a call to the club and check they’ve booked Islington Town Hall.

Best to be well prepared for these things.

The Milk Cup of human unkindness

Don’t mention the score

It’s back into the Milk Cup saddle this evening as Bolton roll into town. Despite having despatched Shrewsbury Town already, the merest mention of a Carling Cup tie takes me back to memories of filing out of Wembley in February. It’s hard to forget, even now. They weren’t the kinds of conversations for gentle souls.

Defeat that day, as we know, precipitated our worst run of form for a long, long time – we’re only emerging from it now – but Wenger’s approach last year, to my mind, was the right one. He wanted the team to taste victory, to kick on. It couldn’t have backfired more spectacularly but there you go. Given our start to this season, our form and our brittleness, it still represents one of our best chances for a crack at a trophy so once again he will look to get the balance between youth and experience right. It’s an especially tough call tonight because Bolton, though down on their luck, is a tougher assignment than Shrewsbury and we will need to take that into account, all the while thinking about Saturday’s game.

Part of the reason we have looked stronger in this competition could be that the players we blooded in it are young but now experienced. Others, like Coquelin and Frimpong, are raw but are hardly sitting idle on the sidelines – eight starts between them this season already.

Cor blimey, striker light

One area there is room for rotation in is up front. van Persie’s two-goal cameo on Sunday, delicious though it was, simply reinforced the point that while we have one trigger-happy marksman at the top of his game to fall back on, we have another two marksmen tottering around in the wilderness.

Bit harsh, maybe. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Chamakh’s workrate at the moment but he’s peculiarly devoid of confidence (one goal in 31 appearances, I read somewhere, and no shots on goal on Sunday. Blunt). As for Park – defended yesterday, as you would expect, by Wenger – he’s been banging them in for South Korea but nowhere to be seen at Arsenal.

“Some people judged our players very quickly in a negative way and slowly they changed their mind through their performances. I prefer it that way round than the other” said Wenger. “Some players make you jump off your seat in the early stages and then disappoint you after”, he added, not I imagine consciously referring to Chamakh, “ These players will win over all the sceptical people and Park is one of them.”

Well, he’ll certainly get his chance tonight.

Under the radar

One of the side effects of stumbling from one mucky defensive error to another for months is that we are now commanding less media attention. You’ll have had to stay up into the wee small hours to see us recently on Match of the Day. The column inches are down. Monday’s Times has an excellent 20-page football pullout called The Game. Five of those 20 pages were given over to the Utd v City game, one half of one page to us. I’m not saying that’s the wrong balance but it does mean that despite having now won 6 out of 7, we are operating somewhat under the radar. I prefer it this way.

No doubt this will change as the game at Stamford Bridge edges closer…

Cesc la vie

So the answer to my question ‘Can we keep those three fit until the end of the season’ (see below) was a rather simple ‘no’.

Poor old Cesc and his recurring hamstrung hamstring. The timing couldn’t have been worse but what can you do? If he hadn’t played we mightn’t today be just a point off the top and had the ‘string not gone last night then it might have gone after 20 minutes on Sunday. As Wenger said, it’s nobody’s fault and the best thing for it is an insouciant gallic shrug, a shot of Pastis and some rest.

According to the Opta stats flashing across my Sky Sports News screen (in between rather graphic images of Gerry Francis’s timewarp mullet), we have earned 2.25 points per game with him and 1.57 without, a 70% win rate against a 43% win rate, but I could get tangled up stressing about stats till the cows come home.

Last season, yes: we missed his absences badly. But Nasri’s form and Wilshere’s explosion onto the scene give us extra options this year. Arshavin has screwed his head back on, Ramsey is coming back and we do – lest we forget – also have the mercurial Abou Diaby to call upon (at least for a game, until The Next Injury).

What Cesc does give us is a burning will to win, the kind of which not all footballers possess, and he plays with that drive all the time. We will miss that. Who wouldn’t?

Above all though, you have to feel sorry for him and for Theo. Missing a final is an occupational hazard for a footballer but it must be bitterly frustrating all the same.

Anyway, there’ll be more thoughts and tweets on the cup final in the days to come. I’ll be dusting down my Kenny Sansom 1987 flat cap (traditional cup final attire) and loading the phone with a mandatory @feverpitch cup final mixtape. Lazy swine hasn’t done a new one for this final, but if I mention it enough, you never know…

Roll on Sunday…

Adding height and bite / Milk Cup preview

So Wenger, normally pretty cagey when it comes to issues of the chequebook, came out yesterday and admitted that he was in the market for a striker in January.

This can only, of course, be good news. It’ll boost (and in some cases, spur on) his players, and it will come as welcome news to those Arsenal fans who consider us light in a few departments.

As I mentioned on Arseblogger’s round-table yesterday, given that Wenger’s not in a position to blunderbuss away £100m, and nor would he have the inclination to anyway, he’ll be looking for one or two players at most.

Clearly, a striker is the priority. Bendtner cannot come back soon enough at the moment, just to add a bit of bite, height and variation to the frontline. Some might think it unfair to put add too much responsibility onto the shoulders of a 21-year-old, but if anyone’s got the self-belief to take the challenge on, he has.

Nevertheless, with all the will in the world it will take Bendtner a few more years to gain the experience and guile that Chelsea so patently have in abundance up front. He’s ten years younger than Drogba, a player at the absolute top of his game. So with that in mind, I think Wenger will plump for a striker around the 25-years-old mark.

That might be where the shopping starts and ends. There are of course other areas where strengthening would make sense – keeper, centre-back and defensive midfield – but nothing quite so urgent as a striker.

It’ll be interesting to see what he does about the centre-back position though, as I’d be amazed if Senderos didn’t depart to newer climes in the transfer window. Couple that with the fact that a) the only backup to our main partnership would be Silvestre and b) Gallas appears to be holding out for a summer Bosman, then Wenger’s hand might be forced there too.

Beyond that, I can’t see any movement. I don’t think at this stage we’ll look to reinforce central midfield. Song’s away for a month but there’s still Ramsey, Denilson, Diaby there. Which leads me nicely, if a little loosely, onto Craig Eastmond and tonight’s game.

To those, like me, who don’t pay enough attention to youth and reserve level, Eastmond came from nowhere. He did really well against Liverpool in the last round and he’ll get his chance again tonight – alongside other young players like Wilshere. The full squad gets released on Arsenal.com this morning, so it’s hard to second-guess Wenger before that time. He has said it will be a “team that has a chance to win” – so he’ll want to get the mix between the Eastmonds and the Eduardos of this world right.

“I believe we have a good mixture of experienced players and young players but we will play young players that is for sure. It will be a typical Carling Cup side” he said.

Looking forward to it now – it’s going to be a tough game indeed. Hughes appears to be under a little pressure (ludicrous if true) and will play his big guns, including our old Togolese chum.

So it’s all hands to the pump.

Come on you reds!