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.

World Cup thoughts: Stunts and psychology

I love the World Cup, and contrary to the experiences of some, I’ve loved this one just as much as any other. Who can argue with three live games of football a day?

Sure, the ball is an aberration but what do you expect from a tournament that is at least in part about Fifa’s bottom line? There’s no need for a new World Cup ball but we have one so that someone, somewhere, can make themselves a bit of money.

I understand that the commercial deals struck before the tournament are key to financing it, (in fact, Fifa are expected to make themselves a tidy $1bn profit from it), but the zeal with which they enforce the rules has been way over the top, as usual.

Prosecuting two Dutch women for organising this harmless stunt is ludicrous, and has in fact done far more than the stunt itself to promote the Dutch beer company that organised it. Talk about a ham-fisted reaction.

Maybe if Arsenal scheduled something along these lines to happen 60 seconds before the end of a dull league game – for example “Spot Perry Groves in a wig and win £100”, we’d have fewer empty seats at the final whistle.

Anyway, small digression there. As I was saying, I’ve enjoyed watching wall-to-wall football, even if England appear to have imploded under the pressure. I have always found the psychology behind the game incredibly interesting, even if I don’t fully understand it.

It’s mystifying to the public how very competent footballers can wilt so badly, but we always underestimate how much matters of the mind can affect football.

A great example is, of course, the majestic 49-match unbeaten Invincibles. With every unbeaten game that passed, they would have considered themselves harder and harder to beat. It helped that they were all exceptional footballers of course, but confidence plays a huge part in performance. That’s why, when they were eventually beaten at Old Trafford, there was an inevitable decline. You could say things have never been the same since, though that is perhaps over-egging things slightly.

The truth though is that winning breeds winning, and confidence breeds confidence, and that a team in the middle of a good patch where both things are in evidence will play much better than it ordinarily would. England thrashed Croatia 5-1 in September last year, and looked the part. Since then they have declined and that’s where we are now. The pressure that accompanies playing for England has exacerbated that.

Of course, it doesn’t really explain how other teams have managed to throw off the shackles and get cracking in their second games – but to me there’s no other explanation. For good footballers to turn in a display that bad, there has to be a collective case of the heebie-geebies.

I hope they can find the solution by Wednesday but like the players themselves, my confidence has drained out of me and my glass is now half empty.

It might be time to change the tune of the England vuvuzelas to this:

[audio:http://eastlower.co.uk/wp-content/audio/ff_wronganswer.mp3]

(To be fair, the above clip won’t mean much unless you grew up on a diet of crap British telly in the 1980s)

The form factor

Arsenal 5-0 Porto

24 hours late, this. Just like the old days, when you went abroad, burned in the sun to cinder and had to wait a day for the papers to pitch up from blighty. Cast yourself back to 1985 and it won’t feel so late.

Anyway, we were the first English club through to the European Cup quarter-finals this season, it was the first comeback from a first-leg deficit since Hajduk Split in 1978 and… was it the first goal we’d scored in the first 15 minutes of the first half all season?

I have a thirst for more firsts if they’re anything like that.

5-0 is perhaps more of a thrashing than at times it felt, especially during the first quarter of an hour of the second half when Porto woke up and a single goal would have left things finely balanced, but as soon as Nasri’s unbelievably mazy dribble and tonking tight finish made it three, it was party time at the Grove.

But there were some eye-opening performances, and if there’s ever a good time in a season for three or four players to come into form, that time is now.

The issue of form is always an interesting one, because so much depends on state of mind, confidence and so on. So while only a month ago we were lamenting the form of Clichy, Almunia, Arshavin et al, now we can talk of a quartet of players who have suddenly found theirs.

Clichy and Arshavin, incidentally, are among those who suddenly look menacingly good. We all knew Arshavin was world-class, but playing as the lone frontman seriously curtailed his effectiveness. Freed to play where he is more comfortable, he suddenly looks terrifying. Henry Winter’s line summed it up very well: Arshavin was “a box of fireworks that kept exploding in Porto’s face.”

I’m pleased for Clichy too. Coming back from injury, he was a pale shadow of the Clichy of old. But hard graft and a run of games have turned that round, and last night his workrate was exemplary.

Diaby and Nasri are the other two whose form has been building impressively. The former, to be fair, has been steadily improving for a while, but has been struck down by his usual temporary ailments all too frequently. Nevertheless, he’s looking fantastic at the moment.

Then there’s Nasri, a player whose injury – though I barely need to preface any description of an Arsenal player by mentioning the ‘I’ word, it’s a given – set him back months. It’s all clicking now though, and last night he was superb, scoring a mesmeric goal and creating space all over the pitch.

And I’ve not even mentioned Bendtner.

So form breeds confidence, which creates momentum. As a result we’re fizzing along now.

Arsenal preview: It’s make or break

Eek, a whole week since the last post.

Which means I’m bouncing straight from a dismal post-mortem straight into this preview. I’d like to say my outlook has changed and I’m bursting with confidence. I’m certainly more sanguine than I was on Monday morning.

It’s been a funny week, coloured at the end by Wenger saying some odd stuff. There was mention of us nearly signing someone on deadline day. What was the point of that? He might as well have told me I’d nearly won the lottery.

Then he said it would be no disaster to finish third. Well, I suppose it wouldn’t to a point. Disaster is when you sell all your best players, have four owners in one year, no cash, a winding-up order. But is third the limit of our ambitions? Ultimately, it may be an achievement but history will not judge us on how many times we come third. It’ll judge us on trophies.

So anyway, onto today. The stats are here for you all to chew over, but the bottom line is it’s going to be hugely tricky for Arsenal. Chelsea will sense – as Wenger does – that we are lacking “that fraction of belief” after Sunday.

It certainly seems true that, for whatever reason, we are not the strongest side psychologically. Small setbacks can become big ones. Lots of our players are confidence players – fantastic on form, average when out of sorts. Why else would Wenger feel obliged to so frequently come out in public to reinforce the quality, belief and togetherness of his players if it wasn’t at least in part to convince them of it themselves?

The good news is we can do it. We were the last team to defeat them at Stamford Bridge in the league. We can do it again if the players come out all guns blazing, harrying, fighting, believing.

Which is why the first ten minutes will be instructive. If we come out and take them on from the first moment – rather than taking a half to warm to the game as we have done on other occasions this season – then we can do it.

It really is make or break if you ask me. Nine points behind would simply be too much at this stage of the season to overturn. It would be hard enough if it was just one team ahead of us, but there are two, both of whom have hit form.

More Sunday reading here if you can bear it: Manuel Almunia’s nerves add extra edge to Arsenal’s visit to Chelsea and Wenger worries that his side have lost belief.

Though you might want to avoid those if you’re of a nervous disposition.

Come on you reds!