Tony Colbert’s sponge

Almuniverse

WBA 2-2 Arsenal

Goodbye March 2011, it’s been a pleasure. The Arsenal title bandwagon mustered two points from six this month, sprinkled between two cup exits. It’s a bandwagon in dire need of a band-aid. But given that everything in the northern hemisphere comes out of hibernation in April, I’m rather hoping that includes Arsenal’s players and form.

“It will be down to consistency and, as I said, character”, said Wenger post-match on Saturday, two attributes we keep losing down the back of the sofa.

Not strictly fair, I know: The last 15 minutes were more like it, with Wenger throwing caution to the wind by playing three centre forwards. Arsenal discovered some urgency and accuracy, and it nearly worked. But tossing away two goals is no way to tee yourself up for three points, and in the end, that did for us.

Will we honestly see Lehmann between the sticks this season? It would be quite a story, but Jens has been retired for a year, he’s 41 and I just can’t see it. If he did displace Almunia, he’d be our fourth first-choice keeper of the season. I’m not sure it could have happened like this anywhere but at Arsenal.

Incidentally, Szczesny was injured on 8th March and was ruled out for six weeks, so with a prevailing wind he may even be back himself in mid April. He may, of course, also not be.

What else? Well it seems to me that the next two weeks will all be about injuries. Firstly, our international players need not to get them. And secondly, our injured players need to get rid of them.

I can’t help but think that Tony Colbert’s sponge holds the aces. What happens in the footballing menders over the next two weeks could hold the key to the rest of our season. We urgently need Fabregas, Walcott and Song back – all, surely, realistic returnees. They add different attributes, all of which we could do with: defensive nous, guile, drive, creativity and pace.

I’m relaxed about things because my glass is half empty. Given the evidence presented to me in recent weeks, I no longer expect much.

But get those players back for Blackburn at home, grab all three points, and… well it’s tantalising, isn’t it?

Football is so murderously simple in my head.

The week that flu by

It’s been a week alright chez Lower. Pretty much as soon as I had put the League Cup final post to bed I began to feel a tad squiffy, something I initially feared might be related to my demolition of the restorative post-defeat sirloin late on Sunday night.

I feared the very worst: a meat intolerance. For a brief second I envisaged with horror a future of quorn and egg breakfasts and tofu and chip suppers, so imagine my relief when I discovered it was nothing of the sort, and in fact all I had was the common-or-garden flu [Latin: influenzus wembleyus].

And with flu is where I have remained ever since. Mrs Lower’s got it, I’ve got it, the little Lowers have had it. I even painted a cross on my door to warn the man who delivered my food shop.

Wednesday came and my ticket to the game was foresaken (as, I noticed, many thousands of others appeared to have been – was there a mass outbreak of influenzus wembleyus?)

And even had I been fighting and steak-eating fit, I wouldn’t have been able to make the Sunderland game thanks to a long-standing childcare bottleneck. Now look, kids are nice and all that so don’t let me put you off dabbling in parenthood yourselves, but looking after them at the expense of a home game? There should be a law against it.

So inadvertently, I have become the van Persie of season ticket holders. I’ve had a stop-start season, with a recent good run of games, but will not now be seen within the confines of the Grove until Blackburn on 2nd April.

Wednesday’s 5-0 against Orient was probably as restorative a result as you could ask for after Sunday’s debacle, with the added bonus of four of the goals coming from van Persie’s stand-ins. It’s much easier to move on by getting a win under the belt so soon afterwards, so in that respect this replay was a blessing in disguise.

My overall thoughts, surveying the past week, are unchanged. For all our ability we remain a peculiarly frustrating team. Capable of bouts of excellence, we are also incapable of eradicating the occasional collapses/freezes from our repertoire. As many people have said, It feels like only Arsenal could have lost that game in the way it was lost last Sunday. Just as it felt like only Arsenal could have drawn 4-4 having been 4-0 up and only Arsenal could lose 3-2 at home to their bitterest rivals having played them off the park and been two goals to the good after 45 minutes.

And yet here we are, in early March, fighting for the league title. Given the way our season has panned out, we can expect a few hiccups between now and the end – but the same will be true for all the others sides in the top four.

It is true that should we win all eleven games ahead, we will be champions. But to do that would require us to go on the kind of run that has so far eluded us (our longest winning streak in the league so far this season is three games). But that is the challenge.

What’s certain is that Sunderland must not be one of the hiccups. Barcelona must be out of mind, memories of Birmingham banished.

A win would take us to within a point of the top.

Wish I could be there…

Guardian squad sheet
BBC preview

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.

Arsenal take a point but don’t make one

Burnley 1-1 Arsenal

Was this really a bad result?

Given Burnley’s home record it’s not. Burnley, for all their sieve-like qualities on the road, are a strong side at at Turf Moor. We all knew that and so it proved.

But compared to the results across the rest of the league last night, then it is a blow. We’ve edged further away from the top two, and nearer the teams below.

And for those who desperately hoped that the 2-1 win at Anfield would be a springboard to more consistency, and a genuine sense of chasing the leading pack, then it’s a massive disappointment. 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.

It’s very frustrating. Wenger, in the post-match interview, went through the repertoire to explain it – lacking physical sharpness, taking the foot off the gas at 1-0 – stuff we hear all too often because it happens all too often.

Nevertheless, Burnley do of course deserve credit for taking the game to Arsenal and bumping us out of our stride. It often works – and not just against us. We had some chances to win it, but we didn’t really deserve to and 1-1 seems about right.

There are clearly some players struggling for form. Walcott is one, but then he’s only played about 200 minutes all season. He needs more games but last night he was again ineffective. You could say the same for Nasri and Diaby – neither of whom have had many consecutive match minutes. How can we expect any of these players to reach their peaks when they play so intermittently?

Almunia is another – he’s really having a rotten year. His early-season wobble has not given way to mid-season sturdiness as you might have hoped. He’s flapping all over the place and it’s horrible to see.

Our best player, Fabregas, succumbed to injury in the 43rd minute and that made things harder yet. He’s about the nine millionth Arsenal player to hobble off this season. We can only hope it’s not a long layoff though he’s out for Saturday.

Despite all that, we have taken 4 points from 6 at two tough away venues, without having set the world alight in either game.

So not a bad result, but neither was it any kind of affirmation that this side is going to charge headlong for the title.