Happy Christmas, ’tis the season for ho-ho-hoping

If I was to mark our Christmas scorecard, I’d probably give it about a 5 (as indeed did Gooner’s Diary in this piece in the Guardian).

It’s been far from disastrous, with a smooth passage through to the Champions League group stages being the highlight. If you look at the bigger picture rather than individual results, under Wenger we rarely do disastrous – one of the reasons for his impressive longevity.

And in Alexis Sanchez, we’ve bought a genuine superstar whose 14 goals so far have, at times, held the whole rickety structure together. We’re four points off fourth, so although the leaders are over the title horizon already, there’s stuff to be salvaged and cups to play for.

But of course, it hasn’t panned out how we wanted. We’ve yet to find any fluency and it’s already Christmas. Injuries have massively curtailed us, and we can’t even fall back on the one thing we used to hold dear during a barren decade – our glorious attacking football. We’ve played in fits and starts all season and have seen only small, fleeting glimpses of the kind of football we have grown accustomed to.

So Wenger’s back under pressure, and you have to say that much of it is self-inflicted. The gamble on sticking with a small cadre of defenders could not have backfired more spectacularly and it’s cost us points, consistency and confidence.

Injuries show no sign of abating, to be honest. With every one player who comes back, we lose another; it’s been a disaster on that front. A revolving door of hamstrung hamstrings, collapsed calves, grimacing groins, knee knacks and broken bones.

Mentally, we’ve veered from strong to weak, from concentration to absent-mindedness. You never know which Arsenal you will see.

Looking back at my limited volume of blog posts, the titles tell you all you need to know about the season. On the positive side we’ve had ‘Alexis marks the spot’, and ‘An explosive Chilean red’ (it’s that man propping us up again), but on the other end of the spectrum there’s been ‘Poor in the Ruhr’, ‘Arsenal Arsenal it up again’ and ‘Dismal Arsenal stagger on’.

A microcosm of our season, right there.

What will the new year hold?

This is how I called it a few weeks ago, and unless we can conjure up a new narrative and direction (and plug some gaps in the squad and in the minds), it still seems apt:

If you were a betting man or woman, you’d say the most likely outcome for the second half of the season is more of the same. We probably won’t beat one of the teams we measure ourselves against. We’ll win some and we’ll lose some in no particular order and we might be there or thereabouts for the fourth place trophy in May.

So things could be better, but things could be a lot worse. And in the context of everything else that goes on in life, and in the world, is it worth all the fury? It is not.

Ups, downs, good and bad. Going to the football is fun, it’s an escape. Meeting friends and talking crap and sitting drinking beer, great goals that become seared into the memory, shouting, wailing, smiling – that’s what it’s all about for me. And on that basis, I expect next year to be exactly the same as this one.

Rewarding.

Happy Christmas to you all.

Merry Christmas, rip-roarers

Xmas

The Villa win – having not played that well, and right at the death, and thanks to a header (rare), and from a corner (plentiful but rarely fruitful) – was a deeply satisfying result. It’s a game we may well previously have lost, but coming after the loss at Man City, it showed tremendous bouncebackability.

It also cemented, for me, the usefulness of Yossi Benayoun. His signing has been a bit of a slow-burner for me. But the fact that the littlest man in the box could come off the bench, steal in and nab the winner was a big moment. On top of that you could see what it meant to him. He celebrated with real gusto. Hands aloft, followed by him lickety-splitting it out of the box with his mane flowing behind him. Brilliant stuff.

Of our Supermarket Sweep August quintet, the plaudits have obviously gone primarily to those who have played the most – Arteta (quietly brilliant), Mertesacker (who I like a lot) and Santos (slimmed down, spiced up, stretchered off). But I’m confident that we’re going to see a lot more of Benayoun over the rest of the season. With that one strike, he has proved that at the very least he’s got the capacity to be a gamechanger off the bench.

Next up is Wolves, on Boxing Day+1. I’m well aware that moving the match is a pain of the highest magnitude for those coming from far away. But from a selfish perspective, I’m ok with it. Not because I have an aversion to leaving the house on Boxing Day. Mostly, it’s because I have memories of Boxing Day producing some right turgid old numbers. The crowd can be flat, the play can be flat. Our last two Boxing Day encounters were a 2-2 at Villa in 2008 (far from turgid, but we did turn a 2-0 lead into a 2-2 draw), and a 0-0 at Portsmouth in 2007.

Contrast that with our last two games played on 27th December – a 3-1 win against Chelsea in 2010 and a 3-0 win against Villa in 2009.

So you see what I’ve done here: Using shaky statistics, a paucity of reason or logic and hauling long-forgotten games out of my memory, I have written off Boxing Day games as ones to avoid.

Anyway, enough of that. Wherever you are, I hope you’ve got a few days off. Enjoy them, relax, it’s been a pleasure.

Ah, finally – a letter to Santa. I cajoled my 6-yr-old into doing the donkey work. I hope I haven’t confused him.

Santa

All I want for Christmas is…

The cancellation of the Stoke game appears to have robbed me temporarily of the use of my blogging faculties. There’s just not been a whole lot to get my off my sofa and onto my laptop.

In fairness, Wenger’s since come out with some festive tit-bits, praising loanee Lansbury at Norwich and admitting frustration that the weather means Ramsey has spent more time driving to Nottingham than he has done actually playing for them.

It’s hard to say how much either player might be able to affect the remainder of the Arsenal season. I suspect it could be too early for both of them. The example of Eduardo makes me extremely cautious about Ramsey coming straight back at the level he was at when his leg was snapped, and Lansbury, who has already had his month’s loan extended by another month, might be best served getting more of these games under his belt.

With Christmas now looming, and the transfer window following it, I glanced back at my posts at this stage last season and it’s interesting to note that the three main issues vexing me most back then (and many others) were the injuries, the lack of strikers and the team’s inconsistency.

Well, to be fair two of those issues are not hugely pressing a year on. By some miracle (says he touching wood and wafting special incense), our injuries are clearing up faster than they are occurring, leaving us with a few short-term ones (Fabianski, Gibbs), a few more mystifying ones (Vermaelen, Diaby) and one rather convenient one (Almunia). We certainly can’t use a lack of players as an excuse.

And as for strikers, suffice to say we have not had to call on Arshavin to lead the line this year. Judging by his recent form, that is something of a blessing. Chamakh has been a hit, van Persie and Bendtner are finally fit and Nasri/Walcott are chipping in from the rear. We made next to no inroads against Man Utd but otherwise, we are the league’s second top scorers and if we didn’t dither around so damned much, we might well be the most explosive in terms of goals scored.

Onto infuriating inconsistency, and this is what I said after the 1-1 draw at Burnley on 16th December last year:

“We blow so hot and cold as a side that the fans are getting chill blains. The inability to push on is probably the most infuriating thing for me.”

Well that’s not really gone away, has it? Our league record this year is peppered with two or three wins in a row being followed by a loss or two. We’re lucky that the other sides at the top are showing their own weaknesses (a bad run of form for one, too many draws for another). I just can’t help but think that while it’s the kind of form that seems redeemable right now, the first side that clicks into gear will be in the box seat. It needs to be us.

And while we are well served up front, Vermaelen’s absence has been key and our defending can be added to the list of areas requiring some New Year WD-40. Does it need wholesale changes? Defenders of our defending would point to the fact that only four teams have conceded fewer goals than us but we have let too many soft goals in and four clean sheets in the league tells its own story.

So in short Santa, I’ve been a good boy this year so I want some better defending and more consistency and ruthlessness for Christmas. (PS – the last two things I recall asking for last year but they never came in my stocking. Just a polite reminder).

And if I don’t squeeze another post in – Happy Christmas and holidays one and all.