Here we go again, and I can’t wait

Arsenal v Barcelona 2011
Remember the last time? Remember the pocket Russian’s thunderbolt?

It’s amazing how quickly you forget a frustrating, rain-spattered nil-nil draw when you have the small matter of a European Cup tie against Barcelona looming, isn’t it?

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.”

No, I haven’t got muddled up or misplaced my marbles. That’s a snippet from my preview of the 2010 tie against Barcelona and the sentiment remains pretty much exactly the same. It’s still glamorous. There are still butterflies. And Barcelona are still the best team in Europe.

Give me Europe’s finest and let’s settle down for the fun. It’s not like we lapped up an ‘easier’ tie when presented with one last year, after all. I’ve complained about numerous humdrum group stages (which I suppose sounds arrogant, though over the years there have been a few), but when the knockout stages are in town, it’s game on. As winter edges to an end, the Champions League morphs into the European Cup of old. Two legs: kill or be killed. I absolutely love it.

Not the being killed bit, obviously – though with five consecutive last-16 knockouts lord knows we’ve got used to that. But the excitement takes on a palpable new level, and when you’re drawn against European aristocracy then it cranks up another notch entirely.

Of course, I wish we weren’t always the underdog when playing against teams like this. I’d prefer it if they feared us like we fear them, but that’s not the reality of it, sadly. They are the best.

Our record against them is pretty average, as we know. One win in seven. A draw in 1999 before being dispatched 4-2 at Wembley, a loss in our only ever European Cup final (what if, what if…) and two aggregate defeats in the knockouts. Though on both the latter occasions, we performed well at home.

So what to expect? I’ll be happy with a handbrake-off performance containing some flair, pace and (controlled) aggression. That’s the Arsenal I’ve wanted to see more of for the whole season, and which has only really appeared in brief electrical storms of scintillating form.

But I’ll also be happy with a big defensive performance, one in which we heed Wenger’s warnings about not “being stupid”. Let’s be honest, the odds are stacked against us. We know that. But it will be a cracking tie and who knows what could happen.

I’d guess that most of the team picks itself, with right midfield the only slot that’s up for grabs. I can’t see Ramsey anywhere but central and I’d be surprised if Giroud didn’t start, so Walcott, Welbeck, Ox or Campbell will fight for the last slot. You could argue the case for each of the four, albeit requiring some switching of positions. Walcott’s pace, Welbeck and Campbell’s workrate and power, Ox’s directness and crosses. Take your pick but whatever happens we’ll have options off the bench.

I’ll be in early for the REDAction extravaganza and to soak in the atmosphere. I don’t know what to expect other than an evening of high-octane, raucous, non-surcharged European football.

Come on you reds!

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.

If it’s broken, fix it

There we all were, shaking our heads at the sheer misfortune of losing two players before the game had even got going at Hillsborough in the League Cup, and agreeing that in terms of injuries, things had hit Peak Arsenal.

How naive! We still had the fun of the Hawthorns, where Coquelin fizzled out, and his replacement, not to be outdone, also conked out in short order.

But two crocks a game – well that can be improved upon, surely? Of course it can, with Koscielny, Alexis and Cazorla joining the ranks of the bandaged masses at Carrow Road. Peak Arsenal yet? I don’t want to tempt fate. I’d say there’s more fun and games to come on that front.

It’s not really a laughing matter, I know, but there’s no point in letting it tie you up in ligaments. It is what it is, but it’s desperate stuff alright and injuries are clearly affecting our game. We miss those who are out, and we rely too much on those who – somewhat miraculously – are not yet on The (Tony) Colbert Show.

Until the Norwich injuries, I had been imbued with optimism about Olympiakos. Mentally, Arsenal know exactly what they need to do. But Olympiakos? Do they stick or twist? I fancied our chances, but much of my positivity has, perhaps not surprisingly, dissipated. Without the energy and uncertainty of Alexis, and without the metronomic Cazorla, I wonder if we will have enough to get the job done. It was hard before and the mountain is even higher now.

Before then we have Sunderland of course, and I think we’ll have too much for them. We’ve had a week off to recuperate and we’ve probably been licking our metaphorical wounds (if only that helped literally, there’d be an army of Arsenal fans lining up at Colney with tongues dangling).

Of course, what injuries taketh, Forsythe giveth too. Ramsey and Ox are back ( a lot is expected of both), Koscielny might be OK (I’d play Gabriel anyway tomorrow) and Walcott is close. Keeping them fit – well that’s another matter altogether.

What can be done? As mentioned on the Arsecast today, hindsight is a wonderful thing but perhaps we should have thanked Rosicky and Arteta, and bade them farewell in the summer. As it is, they’re still here but I think a little retrograde ruthlessness is required in January. A couple of reinforcements need to be sourced – one at DM, ideally with something to prove and an exemplary injury record – and if that affects one of our injury-prone player’s chances of playing then so be it. There is no room for sentimentality.

We simply cannot afford not to strengthen, and I think we need more than a Kallstrom-esque punt. We need a numbers boost, a physical boost and a psychological boost. If there’s a £10m or £15m premium on a good prospect in January, so what? We have the money and we can’t keep waiting for people to come good. It’s all about this season.

Jam tomorrow can get stuffed.

I like jam now.

Assisters are doin’ it for themselves

Watford 0-3 Arsenal

At nil nil, as the minutes rolled on with the Hornets going shoulder to shoulder with Arsenal, I began to stew more and more on the FA Cup quarter final defeat in March 1987 when we lost 3-1 at Highbury. We should never have lost that. Bloody Watford! They were our bogey team then and yes – when it comes to Arsenal at least – I am not quick to forgive.

I needn’t have worried. Just when it was required, our resilience turned to ruthlessness and a ten-minute salvo buried the ghost of Barnes. Alexis – who else – hoovered up the ball from Ozil, saving the referee the bother of having to award a penalty. Just the seven in four for his club, or ten in six if you prefer. The man lifts us up by his bootstraps.

Giroud, who whether he likes it or not is becoming an effective supersub, then scored from another Ozil assist before Ramsey got his first of the season from a Bellerin assist.

Hey assister

Ozil created six chances yesterday, and this is Ozil at his finest: the essence of Mesut. Ghosting here and there, stretching defences and performing as a quiet assassin. He’s just so key to Arsenal now. Yes, he still has the odd peripheral game but he’s only human. Mostly, he’s just metronomically good.

Go assister

Ozil this, Ozil that – but what about Bellerin? If Coquelin was the story of last season then Bellerin is perhaps this season’s classic Wenger development. Last year Bellerin broke through, but Debuchy was nominally the number one. Now, there’s really no argument about who’s our best right back. Yesterday, again, Bellerin’s pace and directness caused havoc and led to a goal.

I heard it mentioned a few times last week, but he’s top of the ‘Clear Cut Chances Created’ list in the entire league this season. Let’s ignore for a second that this chart has clearly been made up. It’s still bloody impressive and in Ozil and Bellerin we have two outlets across the width of the pitch. Happy days.

Soul assister

What’s heartening is that we can now marry resilience with patience and then pounce. Though there were a few hairy moments (BFG and Cech almost conspired to do an Almunia), and had Watford chosen the right club they might have got closer to the green rather than hooking and slicing all over the place, the fact is we didn’t panic and when our chance came we took it.

Go assister

The spectre of Bayern clearly wasn’t looming that large, and the international week did not damage us too much, because it was an impressive second half performance all told. We go to Tuesday in good form, but in terms of qualification, probably with little expectation.

I think that might help us, and in our current form it could be fascinating. It’s an odd one for me, because on the one hand it would be incredible to clonk the unassailable Bavarians on the noggin, but I’ve got used to the concept of being out of it again this year, so I don’t envisage voluminous wailing on my behalf if we lose.

We certainly couldn’t have asked for much more by way of preparation.

Top work!

A shrug of the shoulder and a pffft

Arsenal 2-3 Olympiacos

I know it’s the most spoilt thing to say, given how other teams look on at our repeated qualification with envy, but I’ve felt fairly ambivalent about the Champions League for a while now.

Part of it is the familiarity of some of our opponents – Olympiacos being a prime example. Part of it is the seeding (now changed – to our detriment, in all likelihood), which for ages made our group stages a little pedestrian. And there’s an element of knowing the eventual outcome too: one of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich has been in the final every year since 2009.

But mostly, it’s Arsenal’s, and Arsene’s, complete inability to master the nuances of European football that has long ago worn thin. I wrote this tweet after the Zagreb game, but with a few exceptions and a few tweaks, it could have been used many times over the last decade and a half.

I can’t pretend to speak for the majority and wouldn’t even dream of trying, but if the people I sit with week in, week out, and some of the people I converse with over the electronic airwaves are any guide, the apathy about the competition is all too evident.

We lose in Europe, we shrug our shoulders. I was sitting in a different seat last night, but people weren’t tearing their hair out and they weren’t wailing or gnashing their teeth. We’ve seen it all before. We know we can’t win the competition: we aren’t canny enough, we don’t adapt and it’s beyond predictable watching us huff and puff – or simply amble – through it.

I’d love to have a crack at it, a proper go. With the right approach, tactics and a large amount of luck (always needed), there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be competing better than we are and going toe-to-toe with the best in the knockouts. But we’ve stopped doing that, and everyone seems to have got used to it.

Wenger’s defiance is fair enough: we can still make it through. But we’re going to need to change and change fast if that’s going to happen. Based on recent experience, I won’t hold my breath.

Keeping the concentration

The battle to finish second – or at least in the automatic Champions League slots – has twisted and turned but with some strange fizzling-outs elsewhere in recent weeks, it’s opened up for Arsenal.

United, who were winning without convincing, have slumped at a peculiar time. Liverpool, ditto, though they won’t have given up hope yet. Man City have won three in a row but have had a strange season.

So we stand on the threshold of Champions League football again. Win tonight against Hull and we’re there, barring a four-game collapse of monumental proportions and a swing in goal difference of more than 20 goals.

It’s a good position to be in, but I can’t help but feel it could be a more unpredictable end to the season than we think, too. It’s the time of year when concentration can drop and bodies are weary (as we are seeing elsewhere). If the ‘goal’ has long been Champions League football (stop squirming at the back) and we make it with four games to go, that little edge might be taken off proceedings. That’s something Wenger will be keen to warn against.

Fortunately, we have three home games to come. Does it matter if we come second, third or fourth? Obviously, not having to qualify for the Champions League would be huge. But beyond that – not much. Runners-up means you haven’t been good enough to come first. Though if you look at it chronologically, it’s progress – we’ve not been second since 2005.

In fact, the two most unpredictable opponents could be Hull tonight and Sunderland at home. The prospect of relegation can do strange things to people; just ask Leicester.

If I was in charge, I’d inject a bit more width tonight. Ramsey is a bit wasted out on the right and I’d be inclined to go bold. For me that means starting with Welbeck on the wing, not Ramsey. He can either play through the middle, giving Santi a rest, or can come on later in the game if we need more midfield discipline.

Of course, fitting everyone in is hard when they’re all so atypically fit. Wilshere is champing at the bit and he won’t be the only one. It does make for an intriguing summer, because while I agree with Wenger that the close season won’t see huge ins and outs, there will be some frustration and agitation to contend with. Walcott, Wilshere, Gibbs, Debuchy, Szczesny, Arteta: all will wonder about their places. That’s not even taking the imminent departures of Rosicky and Flamini into account.

In other news…

Much as I say it through gritted teeth, because there’s a list of things I dislike about them as long as my arm, Chelsea have deserved to win the league and I don’t want to be incredibly graceless about it by pretending it hasn’t happened. All fans are partisan and blinkered, and I am no different, but they’ve won the league by a canter, so fair play to them.

The whole ‘boring’ thing was just an epic wind-up and should be seen as such. For me, the thing to concentrate on is not whether you like their style of play or not (I think they’ve played decent football overall – our own performances hardly tore trees up in the first half of the season) and more about what we need to do to catch them next year.

Points-wise, everyone else is miles off.

So if closing the gap means being more cynical and streetwise at times, and throwing aesthetics out the window if necessary, I’m not sure I’d care too much if it edged us closer to the top of the pile.

As for tonight: Come on you rip-roaring reds. Keep going.

Poor in the Ruhr

Borussian Dortmund 2-0 Arsenal

A few observations now that the dust of the Dortmund storm is settling (ha!)

World Cup focus?

I offer this as an olive branch to Messrs Mertesacker and (in particular) Ozil, neither of whom has started the season on fire. Could it be hard to re-adjust and re-focus after winning football’s foremost trophy? Pah, I hear you say, these are privileged and wealthy sportsmen who should be able to switch back on. But humans are humans and maybe it’s not that easy. (Andy Murray, after Wimbledon, has struggled a bit to adjust too).

Maybe I’m being cruel on the BFG here, but there’s no denying Ozil has been distinctly off colour. Perhaps it’s a physical thing too – a combination of the mind and the body.

Fitting the signings in

Le Boss has often said it’s a dangerous game to make multiple signings and upset a team’s rhythm. The Totts signed about ten players last year and struggled to fit them all together. Utd and Liverpool have done the same this year, and are yet to hit full speed. We’re playing with three new players every week – and maybe we need to make allowances for that.

Or maybe I’m being too forgiving.

The Champions League

Is an annual obsession to get into, but for all our seventeen years of experience, on nights like last night you can’t help but wonder what we’ve learned. We couldn’t cope with the pace and power and tenacity of a team like Dortmund, and it’s not the first time. I suspect it won’t be the last. It’s a competition we fight tooth and nail to get into, but on last night’s showing, seem remarkably incapable of properly competing in once there.

Le Boss

Dissatisfaction with Wenger is never far from the surface, is it? The FA Cup seems a distant memory at times. I can’t see this latent anxiety about him ever going away until we cut these kinds of performances out. His almost-but-not-quite transfer strategy has also had its usual effect.


Were absolutely fantastic. This is a team that competes at the top of European competition – it was in the final in 2013 – and is consistently up there. They’re canny and powerful and as a unit, incredibly effective. We didn’t help ourselves but we had no answer to a performance like that.

Triple whammy leaves Arsenal on the ropes

Arsenal v Bayern mosaic
Image courtesy of Arsenal Tickets

Arsenal 0-2 Bayern Munich

Another year, another mountain to climb. This time, it’s all about the frustrating ‘what ifs’. Things could and should have been so different but a missed penalty, an injury to Gibbs and a red card for Szczesny meant we were up against it with limited scope to do much about it.

Instead, in the end, being down to ten men made the whole second half something of a turkey shoot, with Bayern registering more possession than Borley Rectory. They are a phenomenal side to face with eleven men. With ten men – forget it. It’s sad as the red card ruined a fabulous end-to-end game. It stopped it dead as a proper contest. Red cards often do.

Was it a red? The trouble is, clear goal-scoring opportunity or not, it was an easy one for refs to give and this one didn’t think twice. I’m not armed with the stats but I suspect those ones are given more often than they are not. That said, it’s debatable whether Robben had any real chance of scoring.

Before that we had made a fantastic, bright start and seriously rattled the Bavarians. Ozil should have put us a goal up from the spot but fluffed his lines. How we needed that. In hindsight, how he needed that too as he faded badly as the game wore on. He’s not a man who gives much away so it’s hard to know what’s going through Ozil’s mind at the moment, but he doesn’t seem the happiest of sorts right now. Unfortunately, when you come with a £42.5m price tag you are observed and judged more frequently, and the pressure is always on. I think he needs, at the very least, a break – a few games away from the spotlight – but Wenger seems very reluctant to countenance that.

Other things conspired against us. Gibbs, playing so well, went off injured and was replaced by Monreal, who struggled. Fabianski came on for Szczesny. So we’d made two subs before half-time, leaving us with no room for manoeuvre at all.

Sanogo, the surprise starter ahead of Giroud (there’s a whole other sub-plot there I can’t be bothered to get into) did well enough for a while but struggled thereafter. Hardly surprising once we were down to ten men, but it was a big gamble on such a big night. I imagine he’d have come off had we not already made two subs (Podolski remained marooned on the bench – there’s another subplot, if you’re after more).

So here we are again, staring down the barrel of a last 16 exit for the fourth year running. I know we won at the Allianz last year but don’t bet on Bayern switching off like they did then.

It’s a funny competition, this. We bust a gut to get into it (valuing it over a real trophy), get through to the knockouts then come unstuck time and again when we meet the behemoths of Germany, Italy and Spain.

That’s why last night was so frustrating. That 0-2 should have been 1-0 and that, with eleven men, would have given the night a different complexion entirely.

One last, positive thing – the red and white display was amazing. Hats off to Red Action.

Me: Not efficient in the zones where it matters

And so it came to pass, as they said in the olden days (along with other common but now old-fashioned phrases like ‘Willlttttttooooooord!’ and ‘it’s up for grabs now’). We lost the derby and I went into hiding and swore a vow of blogging silence. That, at least, is this week’s feeble excuse. Honestly, how Arseblogger and other Arsenal bloggers do this every day at the moment – well ever, really, but especially at the moment – remains beyond my comprehension.

And then this random mid-season break of 11 days came along, which arrived courtesy of the FA Cup, a tournament you may or may not have heard that we are no longer participating in. (It still needles, yes). These 11 days form part of an entire month of no home games, all of which I feel I ought to blame on Sepp Blatter, so I will, irrespective of evidence.

I’m eager to get the home games flowing again. I still miss the starter and pudding of matchday, you see, if not always the main course.

Wenger admitted after the derby defeat that we were not efficient in the zones where it matters, which he then named as at the front and at the back. It made me laugh at the time. You know the kind of laugh.

So it’s a bit like me with this blog, then – I am efficient when it comes to intending to write something regularly, but rather lacking in the zones that matter, namely the writing of the blog and the publishing of it (and there’s an additional zone, which is writing something that makes any sense or has a structure, and is worth reading, and I’m not enormously efficient there either). Not efficient in the zones that matter. So good I ought to make it my new tagline.

Anyway, it got me thinking a bit. Which area are we most likely to have a bit of luck fixing? Defence or attack? My initial view was that our defensive errors are so stubborn that Wenger should concentrate on eking out some more goals from the people who have stopped scoring them – Giroud, Walcott in particular, but let’s be honest, we’re not scoring enough so from everyone. But then I read Tim Stillman’s excellent piece arguing that we should go all out to tighten up at the back, then build from there, and I can see the logic in that too. And then I thought, why can’t we do both? Got ahead of myself a bit, I know.

I bet all three options have been considered over the last ten days, albeit probably in a more lucid manner.

And what of Munich away? I read tonight that Wilshere is a doubt, and I just wouldn’t risk him if that’s the case. Winning 3-0 or 3-1 is pie in the sky. Play for a bit of pride, yes – but not if it sidelines Jack for more realistic matters.

But at least it’s looming, it’s nearer – and we can all get back to normal. Or whatever passes for normal just now.

Arrivederci abject Arsenal

AC Milan 4-0 Arsenal

I have not been blogging recently and I must say, I’ve not really missed it. It would not be fair to solely blame the gradual declining form of Arsenal for the gradual declining form of this blog but the seemingly perpetual cycle of poor defeat followed by gentle recovery followed by poor defeat does not help. Arseblog churning one out every day at the moment beggars belief – I’d need the help of medical science to do that. Either way, every time I have sat down to put finger to keyboard I’ve run out of steam before the boiler has even been stoked. Which I suppose segues me rather well onto Arsenal.

Make no bones, this was a bafflingly bad display in a season that has been marked by them. From pretty much the off Milan had the look of a streetfighter picking a fight with an urchin. We didn’t play as a team, our passing was poor, our defending was rank, our energy was low – nothing was right. It was so easy – far too easy – for an admittedly hungry and impressive Milan. We were awful.

Wenger did not mince his words post-match, calling it Arsenal’s “worst night in Europe” and a “shocking performance”. He’s been much freer in public with his criticism of the players this season, presumably to motivate them, but it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference. Besides, he knows that the buck stops with him and the sad fact is that on last night’s display, this looked to be exactly what it was – a distinctly average Arsenal side.

In the Standard yesterday there was a piece comparing the 2008 team, who won 2-0 in the San Siro, and this one. It rated all the players and came out with a tally in favour of the side of four years ago. Some of the ratings are arguable but the essence is not. This team is not as good as that one was. The decline might be gradual, but it’s there for all to see.

The amazing thing is that that 2008 team had Almunia, Eboue, Senderos and Hleb in it: four players who declined badly and who many people were happy to see go. But that night, they played as a team, with purpose and power, and they had Fabregas pulling the strings. Last night we didn’t play as a team and who was pulling the strings?

Overall then a sad end to Henry’s second spell at Arsenal, and barring some kind of miracle, a sad end to the Champions League.

It makes Saturday’s FA Cup match at Sunderland just about as massive as they get. Rotation? Forget it.

Anyway, that’s me done. Erm, enjoy your day?