FA Cup final preview: Cech and balance

*eyes open at 6am*. It’s the cup final, baby! Best write a preview then.

Cup runneth over

Though the river marked ‘league titles’ ran dry many years ago, leaving an arid wadi of frustration, the one labelled ‘FA Cup’ continues to bubble along nicely.

In fact, while Wenger’s record in the League Cup final (P2, L2) and in European finals (P2, L2) leaves a lot to be desired, he’s made up for it in the FA Cup with an astonishing six wins.

The last time we lost in the FA Cup final – his only defeat to date – was in 2001, when quite frankly we woz robbed anyway.

That record comes under severe scrutiny today against Chelsea, who have Lazarused their way out of last season’s doldrums under the tutelage of the impressive Conte.

Wenger’s goodbye?

The two sides are coming at this from wildly different places, if we’re honest. For us, winning it would be a positive end to an arduous season where all the usual weaknesses took their turns to make an appearance. It could be Wenger’s justification for a new deal – or it could be a way to bow out on a high (and maybe the best chance he will now have to do that). We still do not know and it seems utterly bizarre that this could be Wenger’s last game, but we wouldn’t know and couldn’t say goodbye. (Spoiler: it probably isn’t).

For Chelsea, already riding the crest of a wave, it’s a chance to win their second double, so it’s safe to assume they’ll be sufficiently motivated.

Cech bounced

They will be favourites, a view reinforced by an untimely dose of defensive misfortune for us – added to yesterday with the news that Cech will be replaced by Ospina. A “slight knock” in training led to this decision, apparently, though it’s slight enough for Cech to be devastated. If this is Wenger being stubborn and keeping his promise to ‘cup keeper’ Ospina, it wouldn’t surprise me. But this kind of sentimentality is madness on a day where we’re already without Koscielny, Mustafi and Gabriel.

It could be a bluff. I’m a hardened cynic, but honouring a departing keeper’s promise does feel a bit textbook Wenger. Or it could just be that he’s genuinely encumbered by injury and is not fit to start, in which case maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I’ve got a lovely Per

In front of Ospina, who has not played for eight weeks, will be Per Mertesacker, who has not started a match in about 56 weeks. Rob Holding, who has made just 16 starts for Arsenal, will join him and Nacho Monreal, a left-back, will make up the three.
We’ll probably see Bellerin on the right and Ox or Gibbs on the left, and the rest of the team picks itself, bar striker. It should be Welbeck, but this is Arsene Wenger we’re talking about so don’t stick money on it.

But look, we’ve finally hit some form and it’s a one-off Wembley final, in glorious May sunshine, so while we won’t be everyone’s favourites, we’re hardly starry-eyed underdogs here.

Cup fever

I’ve always loved the cup, and the good fortune to have seen so many finals in my time does not lessen my love of it in any way. The atmosphere, the anticipation, the nerves, the mates coming together from far and wide; steeling yourself for joy or despair – it’s got the lot and I can’t wait.

For those of you who are either travelling or at a loss at how to fill the pre-match hours, warm yourself up by curling your lug-holes round Arseblog’s pre-match live podcast, (where we all scoff at the thought of Cech missing out).

The nerves are well and truly kicking in, so that’s your lot. Come on you rip-roaring reds!

Holding in and holding out

Leicester 0-0 Arsenal

There was some good and bad to chew on in that performance, an entertaining but low-quality trip to the champions. But it’s not about the points at this stage, more about the performance.

Was there a measurable improvement on that front from last weekend? Well, we didn’t collapse. That’s a bonus. In fact, I thought we defended pretty well, with Holding and the immense Koscielny marshalling the back line very well, ably assisted by a bank of defensive midfielders and by Cech. In tough games, we now have three defensive midfielders to choose from to shore up the rear, and that can only bode well. Xhaka was tough, diligent, neat and tidy, and I really do like the cut of his jib. We need that kind of player.

We were a bit lucky too, with Coquelin about as disciplined as wasp who’d just had a parking ticket, and a late penalty shout that was about as contentious as night following day. Yes, referees are human, but we’d have laminated the hell out of some A4s if that had happened against us.

Further up the pitch: not so very good. I thought it was a bitty performance and without Ozil there was a severe lack of creativity. The Ox started brightly but faded, and while Theo worked hard, had a few shots and put in some muscular recovery tackles, it was a difficult afternoon and he had the kind of invisible touch that takes control and slowly tears you apart.

So too Alexis. His passing was off so often that I wonder if he’s even properly fit. Alexis is many things, but he’s no striker, not on this showing.

So perhaps it was no surprise that we struggled for momentum and for cohesion up front, and that didn’t really improve when Giroud came on as it was pretty late in the day.

The catalyst for our best period was Ozil – devilish little wizard – and how nice it was to see him back. But in the end, we cannot complain too much with the result.

It’s a draw that teaches us nothing we didn’t already know, except perhaps that Wenger has unearthed a good prospect in Holding. I did like Wenger’s tetchy but very apt post-match comment:

“Nobody is speaking about the performance of Rob Holding today. You should be happy; he is English, he is 20 years old, but I’m sorry he didn’t cost £55m, so it cannot be good.”

Proof that for all the maddening things he does and says, he can still throw some pearls out there.

Sadly, he’s up against it pretty much permanently at the moment. There’s disquiet in the stands with chants, banners have started already, and as I mentioned yesterday it’s very difficult to turn this level of feeling round now for him, which is why I feel this season is it for him. The desire for change is embedded and hard to shift, but I’ll tell you what could buy him some leeway…

With rumours about Mustafi persisting, there’s clearly the desire to bolster the squad there. But with desire you need action. Most pressing for me is a striker (if I had to choose), because we looked threadbare up there yesterday. It really is now or never on that front.

Get those two positions sorted and we have a much more complete squad. But getting nobody in is not an option. Not for the squad, not for Wenger and not for the fans.

Arsenal feel like they’re two players short, again

Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool

A weird game in which we should have been one nil up, then two nil down, and could finally have won. It was a defensive horror show in the first half but it became less terrifying as the game went on, but we didn’t have the firepower or the form to blow the doors off.

On the plus side, Cech and Coquelin excelled. Our new keeper found his feet and showed his value – though the amount he had to work probably gave him a sleepless night. He’d have been hoping for something more solid in front of him. Welcome to Arsenal, Petr!

Even with our first choice central defence, this is a creaky unit. With Chambers and Gabriel – little experience, no games so far, last-minute starters – it almost burst at the seams, though there were green shoots as the game wore on.

Loathe as I always am to pass judgement after just three matches, this has been, in Wenger’s own words, an average start with only two goals scored in three games (one by us and one own goal – though maybe Alexis’ header at Palace would have gone in anyway).

Last night, we felt a bit predictable and a bit narrow, and very sloppy, and for me it wasn’t until the Ox glued himself to the line that we stretched Liverpool as much as we needed to.

We need to find our form and we need to find it fast.

The strange thing about this summer of outfield inactivity is that, by not signing anyone, Wenger is relying on our current squad to organically improve by at least 12 points – or perhaps more. That feels to me like a very tall order indeed, and even more so given our start.

Without an addition or two, the forward momentum needed is hard to get or to keep. I like this squad a lot but it seems a risky strategy to me, and very presumptuous.

It feels to me that we are yet again two players short. It’s a sort of permanent Arsenal state of being. Theo is not a reliable striker and nor, at this stage, is Welbeck so we need a striker to ease the burden on Giroud – or to replace him as first choice, depending on who we can get. I know there aren’t many around, but that’s what we need.

We also need a Coquelin Mark 2. He was fabulous last night, if overrun, but he can’t do it all and we have nobody else with his energy. Not Arteta, not Flamini – two players who are in the twilight of their careers.

Are we too late? It’s only too late on September 2nd.

The summer of glove

What a pleasant football-less summer I’ve had to date. That’s the main point to take from the almost one month of nothingness from me. I can’t say I’ve missed it too much, frankly – I’ve even stopped watching re-runs of the cup final. I’ve made snarky comments (it’s the equivalent of keeping your engine ticking over) from the sidelines but apart from that – not a whole lot.

I’m pretty relaxed because I don’t subscribe to the theory that we are watching other sides tear past us as we dither and loll about in the transfer doldrums. This happens every single year – every year! – and we’re only 13 days into the actual transfer window. If I let myself get fried about it this early I’d end up looking like Emmett Brown (as opposed to Gilles Grimandi, or on a bad day, Leo Sayer).

And in Petr Cech, I think we’ve done an astute bit of business. (OK, I confess, I just wanted to shoehorn that headline in – apologies if I’m a month late and someone else beat me to it.) Our squad’s pretty strong and for a while now, for me it’s been more about how we play and set ourselves up, and less about who we actually have in our squad. I think we’ve made mental strides and are less naive.

| Do we need more goals? |

Now look, if we could secure a 25-goal striker, I’d be all over it. Goals are great and goals win you games. Not one of our defeats last season was by more than two goals, and most were by one.

That said, these things are never as simple as all that.

For a start, we can expect more goals from Welbeck next season. Maybe not 20, but more than 8. We can expect more from Walcott, if he stays, and stays fit. Giroud can bag a few more and the list goes on. There are more goals in this side from our strikers and from the midfield.

But we hardly shot blanks last season – we only scored two fewer league goals than Chelsea. They just happen to be a bit more solid than us, and they have a bloody-minded mentality that we are still learning.

So do I think we will buy a new striker? If one is available, I can see Wenger being ruthless as he was with our goalkeepers. And if Walcott leaves – yes probably. But I can also see him not signing a striker, and to be honest, would that be an unmitigated disaster?

| Elsewhere |

I don’t think we’re done yet. I couldn’t tell you who we’ll get or where, but Cech aside, it’s all housekeeping at the moment. New deal and loan for Jenks. A case of Poldi Lang Syne. Diaby has left the building – good luck to him. Sanogo will follow and so will others. We’re trimming the fat.

And now pre-season is upon us. There’s a game on Sky on Wednesday in Singapore. It’s sort of kind of back!

Creaking back!