An explosive Chilean red

Sunderland 0-2 Arsenal

It’s been three weeks since I asked the question ‘Which Arsenal will we see on Sunday?’ before the Chelsea game, a blog title that can be recycled prior to every match at the moment. That’s efficient writing, right there.

It’s a pertinent point of course, because we’re in one of those runs of form where it’s not easy to pinpoint what isn’t working. I’d wager Wenger’s not clear either, because there are multiple factors at play here. We have bursts of inventive play that set the pulse racing (City, second half, that brief Villa assault, Galatasaray), but long swathes of laboured football where ball retention, pace and lock-picking passes go out the window. We’re switching off at the back too much, but ludicrous injuries (and a lack of back-ups) have had a big effect there. Look at how we’ve lined up in defence during the nine league games, and you can see part of the problem.

Sz Deb Kos Chamb Gibbs
Sz Deb Per Chamb Mon
Sz Deb Per Kos Mon
Sz Deb Per Kos Mon
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Bellerin Per Mon Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Mon Gibbs

We’ve had the same back five only three times, and six different combinations in total. We don’t know how we’ll line up from game to game, and yesterday Gibbs conked out (a hip problem says Wenger, and we all know the hips don’t lie). Fingers crossed it’s not a bad one because he’s been excellent this season.

Defence aside, we have a better squad than last year, but too many of its constituent parts have failed to hit the high notes of last year. We’re not bad – one league defeat would back that up – but we’re not good either, as five draws from nine suggests.

Confidence has a big effect on this Arsenal team, as it does with most, and we’re lacking it, and with it some cohesion. Sometimes you just need to knuckle down and wade through stodgy form, so yesterday’s win at Sunderland, while it won’t win many aesthetic prizes and owed a lot to two moments of defensive calamity, ought to be a massive tonic.

What’s patently clear is how much Alexis brings to this team. His workrate (and that of Welbeck, who’s a similarly selfless, tireless player), his versatility and his eye for goal have held us together at times. If you want a role model for the other players when the mojo is little-bit lacking, he’s your man. Where would we be without him? He and Welbeck have scored the bulk of our goals, and for all the brow-furrowing about what’s not quite right, those two summer signings have been superb for us.

Alexis has been our player of the season, so I’m just off out to buy a lucky rabbit’s foot. If there’s one player we can’t afford to keel over, it’s him.

No swashbuckling, but no buckling either

Swansea 0-2 Arsenal

Optimism is not an emotion I have much associated with this stuttering season, during which all our weaknesses have been laid bare on far too many occasions, but I have been in a curiously upbeat mood since our ultimately futile win in Bavaria.

I thought we’d win in Swansea – based on nothing but the clutching of straws, probably – but my bullishness had started to fizzle out by the middle of the second half. Neither side created much and it wouldn’t have surprised me had it finished 0-0. A few high-scoring games aside (Reading, Southampton, Newcastle), we’re not scoring for fun these days. So when the goal came, it was after some huffing and puffing, and it was a bobbler of the first order.

I have to say, I love a bobbler. A scuffed slicer, one off the knee, or something bouncing off a player’s rear echelons. There are pirhouettes, volleys, 30-yard raspers and there are daisy-cutting scuffed-bobblers. I’m standing up for the latter.

It was a first goal for Nacho Winterburn (Nacho Winterburn, Na-cho Winterburn – thanks Nige) and boy did we need it. Then as if to turn the world as we know it on its head, a second came at the end from Gervinho, who hasn’t scored since the trees were in leaf, a goal set up by the oft-maligned (but in my view increasingly impressive) Aaron Ramsey. Substitution-tastic.

I’m not sure Fabianski could have had a gentler re-introduction to Premier League football – but things could have been different had Michu rolled a good effort a bit to the left. Overall though we defended pretty well again and whatever our weaknesses elsewhere on the pitch we do now boast real quality at full-back. Gibbs and Monreal, Sagna and Jenkinson. A lot of teams would kill for that depth.

We’re still a way off where we want to be, let’s be honest, and it’d be a fool who got too confident, but it’s been a good week – however bitter-sweet Wednesday was.

Heading into the ‘lull pointless and back to square one would have been no fun at all.

So those three points were sweet.

One nil to the Arsenal²

Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal

Backs-to-the-wall, fighting spirit, riding our luck, throwing our bodies at everything, defiance &c. (And I’ll skate over ‘missing a hatful in the first half’).

Yes, there’s something deeply satisfying about a one-nil away win in these kinds of circumstances, where at the end of the game the shirt colour can be described as ‘off-brown’ and Szczesny’s back has huge bruises on from being patted so hard and so often by his teammates.

The big Pole – who has been a bit skittish of late – pulled off a couple of blinding point-blankers. Such are the fine lines between success and failure that had he not done so we’d this morning have been wailing and caterwauling (Cattermoling?) about more dropped points.

A couple of observations:

The Corporal deserved to be sent off, with two badly-timed lunges, and while it could have been costly I find it hard to be too critical. I’m not sure he’s started in the league since that confidence-sapper at home to Swansea (when to be fair he did make a majestic howler). And yesterday he was drafted in at the last minute, which means he probably wasn’t mentally ready. It just goes to show what a run of games, or a single mistake, can do to your season. Earlier in the autumn he filled in admirably for Sagna, with no complaints. Now he looks rusty. He needs to cut out the wild stuff but he’ll be fine.

The former contract rebel needs to sharpen his arrows a bit, sure, as does Giroud, but overall Theo really is growing into his shoes (abysmal – Ed) and is having a tremendous season. Top scorer with 18 goals, his confidence is right up and he’s a really important cog in the machine just now. Again, autumn seems a long way off – when Wenger wasn’t playing him and a lot of the fans were in two minds about his worth. I don’t doubt there are still plenty who think he engineered a salary above his value, but at 23 he is now maturing lickety-split and can you imagine how sour we’d have felt had he walked away in the summer for free, on this kind of form, to either Chelsea or City or United? Sour as the blazes, that’s what I’d have felt.

Ram Zamzi* is having a good run of form but for the love of god will someone let him have a goal (and I make this entreaty to the opposition as well as to our players). He had a great opportunity yesterday but was just a bit too close to the keeper. I don’t subscribe to ramseyisnotgoodenough.rss which is why I somewhat desperately want him to get his first league goal of the season.

*Aaron Ramsey to a three-year-old

Super Jack is always going to get rough-housed, I’m afraid. He’s a little terrier and puts himself forward for all encounters. The opposition will go for your best player – it’s a fact. I’d like the refs to bear this in mind, but that won’t stop him getting involved. He’s an incredible little player – already our player of the season. It’s a shoe-in.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I don’t think it will be a case of Bacary Sayonara. I know we are hearing worrying murmurs about his future but it feels to me like the opening salvo in contract negotiations. You know, leak a bit about how you might leave, and let Arsenal take up the slack. Certainly, we’d be insane to let the Bac go. Jenkinson has the ability to take over eventually, but he’s just turned 21 and only has 16 Arsenal starts under his belt. He’s a rookie, albeit one with Arsenal wallpaper, an Arsenal duvet and a Gunners lampshade. Another year or so learning the ropes will do him no harm.

A week off now – I reckon some of those legs need it.

Match review: From Blustered to Unflustered

Red Sky

Arsenal 3-0 West Brom

No perching on the edge of the seat, nails bitten to the quick or hearts a-racing. No early goal for the visitors. No visions of wildebeests surrounded by lions at set pieces. No clinging on to a slim lead for dear life as the clock approaches 90 minutes. Is this the Arsenal we know and love? Well if it is, let me confess that I like it rather a lot.

I’m sure we will soon welcome stronger teams and teams in richer veins of form than the Baggies, but we controlled yesterday’s match from beginning to end and – if you are being uncharitable to West Brom – I always thought there was another gear should another gear be needed.

The timing of the goals was impeccable. A goal on 22 minutes set us up nicely, another on 39 – that morale-sapping period before the first half ends – made the challenge even harder for the visitors, and the final one, on 74, and the game was up. For you, West Brom, ze match is over.

For the first, it was all about Aaron Ramsey’s sumptuous (and dare I say it, Fabregasesque) pass to Walcott. What a fine talent he is – just think of his chipped pass for Gervinho against Sunderland, and again at Chelsea for Gervinho to set van Persie up on a plate. Just as we know have three strong options in central defence, imagine the potential when Wilshere comes back with Ramsey and Arteta – and Ben-Eye Oon and Rosicky – in the creative positions.

van Persie turned provider – adding another feather to his already feather-riddled cap for numbers two and three, the pick of the bunch being the last one. van Persie, bish. Rosicky, bash. van Persie, bish bash and Arteta bosh*

*This technical analysis is hard to beat, anywhere on the web

Mertesacker was rested, and in his absence Vermaelen and Koscielny made a formidable pair. I have to laugh when I look at Koscielny, because after a season bedding in he’s turning into *yet another* Wenger bargain. What was he, £8 million? He’ll be worth more now. As, you can assume, will the £2.75m van Persie be. On Friday’s Arsecast, the Frenchman was much discussed and it was pointed out – I can’t quite recall whether it was by Philippe Auclair or Arsebl Augger – that for a man who has been lambasted for his defensive signings, this one looks to be turning out alright for Wenger.

Jenkinson will receive some plaudits too. He looked like an Arsenal fan who won a competition to play for his boyhood club in the early stages of the season, but if you didn’t know what Wenger saw in him then, you will do now. Put simply: He can cross.

And boy, can he cross. He must have sliced, curled or powered five or six excellent crosses in yesterday. It was just a shame there was nobody at the end of any of them to finnish them*.

[*Red card – Ed]

It’s a powerful tool to have on the right side of the pitch, for sure, and with a bit more experience under his belt, the defensive side of things should get better, too.

Overall, a straightforward win, but you won’t hear me complaining. We’ve had too many edgy wins, frustrating draws or disappointing defeats over the last year to last a lifetime. Wins like this I hoover up gladly.

Over to you, International Break, you miserable wretch.

Match report: Exhibit A – The Dutch Master

Arsenal 3-0 Wigan

Habsi days are here again

Ordinarily, the post-match pint is accompanied by a dissection of the things that went to plan and the things that went to pot, but there was a general shoulder-shrugging when mention of pots was brought up yesterday. Can we honestly complain that we missed too many chances, or that Theo should never have passed when one-on-one, or that van Persie’s penalty was a howler of the first order? When your bread is buttered on both sides, you should just eat it. [That one needs work – Ed].

It was a very easy win, but a very impressive one. 10 shots on target to nil? Don’t mind if I do. Szczesny could have been wearing a pink tutu for all we would have noticed. I’m fairly sure he spent some of the game counting Wigan fans. Not sure what he did for the other 89 minutes.

It could have been so much more, had it not been for Al Habsi’s fine goalkeeping. He was like Mr Tickle for much of the first half, but it couldn’t last. Sure enough, the defence was sliced open and van Persie administered the medicine.

The only thing that went near to triggering the collective home angst was the sight of both Nasri and Walcott hobbling about looking worried and clutching various limbs within minutes of each other. It’s a bit early for the first hobbles of spring, but as we all know, at Arsenal nothing stands in the way of our players conking out without so much as a by-your-leave, so it was a relief so see them both recovered before too long.

Expectation of injury is built into our very souls. When van Persie scored his second goal – and what a goal it was – the very first thought that entered my head was not ‘oh, well done’, or ‘crikey, that was a bit special’ but ‘When he did that against Man Utd he broke his foot’. I was genuinely surprised to see him get up and trot off as normal.

Robin Red Best

He is a bit special though. When he returned from injury he a looked a tad slow and a soupcon clumsy, but it’s now clear he was merely waiting for all the lubricant to sink down into the sump [Please check sketchy knowledge of combustion engine – Ed].

Not so clumsy now. He’s absolutely exploded, and his hat-trick yesterday, remarkably his first in England, came right out of the Deadly Finisher’s Guidebook. Number one, a bullet. Number two, an exquisite volley and number three, sensational technique.

We simply have nobody else who is so natural a finisher. Without wishing to disparage any of our other players, I’m not sure there’s another man at the club who could have scored that hat-trick. It was very, very good and his overall game was faultless.

Djou diligence

In the league, there’s no doubt we have tightened up defensively. We’ve not let a league goal in this year. Djourou’s made a difference, in my mind Szczesny too, Clichy’s improved, but a strong defensive shield of Song and Wilshere has helped too. It’s a key improvement all round, but we’re still threadbare at centre-half and I do hope this week sees some movement on that front. As much as I would be excited to see another 17-year-old wonderkid arrive, another centre-back would make me much happier. The more centre-backs in the pantry the better, and can only help retain defensive momentum. How do you keep them all happy? Who cares – it’s a nice problem to have.

Anyway – a lovely day at the office. Now to the Carling in midweek. It’s all go.