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.

Arsenal suffer a collective bad hair day

W.B.A. 2-1 Arsenal

I’m not sure whether ‘a bad day at the office’ does this one justice, though Arsenal clearly did lose the document they were working on, said something inopportune to Dave in accounts by the water cooler, before forgetting to submit their timesheet [this metaphor needs more work – Ed].

It was a classic case of Arsenal coming to the party with a chilled six-pack of their greatest weaknesses [now you’re mixing them – Ed]. Dreadful, switched-off defending, a key injury, his replacement having a mare then getting injured, a glaring miss, possession for possession’s sake and finally a lifeline spurned with a ballooned slip-up of a penalty.

It goes without saying that we should never have lost it – Cazorla’s penalty alone should have guaranteed that – but we shot ourselves in the foot with what Wenger called a “nightmare” performance where we “lost a bit of focus” and compounded it with “very, very poor” defending.

Honestly, we have seen it all before. Thankfully a little less frequently in recent times, so maybe it was at least an uncharacteristically characteristic Arsenal performance.

You could argue, in fact, that it’s been a horrible November (and don’t we know about those) because we’ve not played well since winning in Swansea on 31st October. Better to get a blip in form out the way now rather than in February? Yes.

I say that because the other night Sky Sports reminded me, thanks to a bout of insomnia, how competitive we had been in 2013-14 until the rot set in with that 5-1 trousering at Anfield. Our form has plenty of time to pick up. But with so many players injured – yes I am using it as an excuse, because it really is a massive factor – perhaps a loss of form was unavoidable.

To top it off, we lost Coquelin yesterday for time unknown. Please don’t say it’s a classic three-weeker, because ever since our inactive summer his has been the position most people have fretted most about in terms of depth. As Arteta showed yesterday, he’s simply not a DM, and that he’s at the tail end of his career is plain to see. Flamini is a decent squad player, but no match for Coquelin.

Ozil had a fine game but too many of the others didn’t. Bellerin looked rusty, Gibbs did OK (but is no winger), Alexis looked like a man who’s been overplayed and travelled across hemispheres, Campbell missed his one chance and neither of our central defenders were quite there.

To sum up: poor and a bit dispiriting. Much improvement needed and to say we are desperate for some players to come back is an understatement. It will make a massive difference.

Zagreb on Tuesday. At least we’re back in the saddle quickly, but Tony Colbert’s going to need to soak his magic sponge with some of Getafix’s potion.

Oli and Wally earn their lolly despite dilly dally

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City

A beautiful early autumn afternoon that saw me shedding layers as the match went on – sort of like a striptease, but without a single modicum of titillation – ended with what we’d all come for: a goal or two at home, and three satisfying points.

I would offer a more thorough match report, but as usual I failed to heed Matt Bianco’s advice and didn’t get out of my lazy bed. Then the day happened and here we are again in the evening. Increasingly, the days have a habit of doing this.

We missed a lot of chances. A lot. Better, I suppose, than not being able to miss chances because they weren’t there, but Stoke – now bottom – were not very impressive and we’ll have tougher assignments than that before too long. Let’s pluck a day out of thin air and call it ‘Saturday’. (Because you can lol all you like about Chelsea’s start to the season but it won’t go on forever, and you know what I’m thinking anyway so I won’t say anymore).

The goal Walcott did score wouldn’t have been scored by Giroud and the goal Giroud scored wouldn’t have been scored by Walcott, so I suppose that indicates perfectly well the benefit of not just having more than one striker, but of having different kinds of strikers. I liked Gabriel and I liked Bellerin and I thought Coquelin was absolutely superb.

Ozil won man of the match – which came as a surprise to me if I’m honest. Of course, his pass to Walcott was inch-perfect, and maybe that’s enough to warrant it. I have since read glowing reports of his contribution and his seven chances created, but from my vantage point at the time, looking at all eleven players a little bit rather than one player a lot, it didn’t really feel that way. He seemed to get a bit bogged down out wide. I guess that’s why Ozil divides opinion, even now: he’s hard to pinpoint at times. He pulls the strings under the radar but a whiff of the hang-dog doesn’t do him any favours.

Anything else? Well, the slither of an away end – I’d say they took about a third of their allocation – seems to be happening more and more these days. I don’t know how much we asked Stoke fans to pay for the away end – certainly not 62 fat ones – but perhaps cost is having more of an effect than we think. Maybe I’m wrong – do Arsenal release stats on away end attendance?

Final thought: we’ve started alright but City are flying. They have so much strength in depth that when Sterling and Silva are both out, they can still keep £28.5m Otamendi and £55m de Bruyne on the bench. We’ve rotated a bit ourselves – only five players have started all five games – but once we have Wilshere back, we’ll have even more flexibility and options in the midfield, and over the course of a gruelling season, we’ll need it.

Talking of gruelling… this headline. But I won’t apologise.

Arsenal feel like they’re two players short, again

Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool

A weird game in which we should have been one nil up, then two nil down, and could finally have won. It was a defensive horror show in the first half but it became less terrifying as the game went on, but we didn’t have the firepower or the form to blow the doors off.

On the plus side, Cech and Coquelin excelled. Our new keeper found his feet and showed his value – though the amount he had to work probably gave him a sleepless night. He’d have been hoping for something more solid in front of him. Welcome to Arsenal, Petr!

Even with our first choice central defence, this is a creaky unit. With Chambers and Gabriel – little experience, no games so far, last-minute starters – it almost burst at the seams, though there were green shoots as the game wore on.

Loathe as I always am to pass judgement after just three matches, this has been, in Wenger’s own words, an average start with only two goals scored in three games (one by us and one own goal – though maybe Alexis’ header at Palace would have gone in anyway).

Last night, we felt a bit predictable and a bit narrow, and very sloppy, and for me it wasn’t until the Ox glued himself to the line that we stretched Liverpool as much as we needed to.

We need to find our form and we need to find it fast.

The strange thing about this summer of outfield inactivity is that, by not signing anyone, Wenger is relying on our current squad to organically improve by at least 12 points – or perhaps more. That feels to me like a very tall order indeed, and even more so given our start.

Without an addition or two, the forward momentum needed is hard to get or to keep. I like this squad a lot but it seems a risky strategy to me, and very presumptuous.

It feels to me that we are yet again two players short. It’s a sort of permanent Arsenal state of being. Theo is not a reliable striker and nor, at this stage, is Welbeck so we need a striker to ease the burden on Giroud – or to replace him as first choice, depending on who we can get. I know there aren’t many around, but that’s what we need.

We also need a Coquelin Mark 2. He was fabulous last night, if overrun, but he can’t do it all and we have nobody else with his energy. Not Arteta, not Flamini – two players who are in the twilight of their careers.

Are we too late? It’s only too late on September 2nd.

Coquing marvellous

Burnley 0-1 Arsenal

Yesterday’s win was a gentle reminder that it’s not every week you fire off a three-goal, eight-minute salvo where all the goals were straight out ‘Dennis Bergkamp’s Little Book of Crackers’.

It was a more prosaic win, a festival of free kicks and half-chances broken up by Ramsey being in the right place at the right time to wrap the points up. Good job he scored, really, because it wasn’t the kind of game where clear-cut chances came easy at either end. In fact, it was when Welbeck came on and the shrugging Giroud came off where the game opened up a bit more to my liking. (Our glorious Gaul has had better games, but with seven goals in six games, that’s alright with me).

If the finish itself owed itself to a string bit of lucky bounces, the build-up was marvellous, with Coquelin like a tambourine clap through pigeons and Sanchez doing his usual impression of being everywhere at once. That one moment was enough, ultimately, against a team (lest we forget) that is battling for its Premier League existence.

With a squad bursting with unseasonal fitness, I was interested to see how we might line up on the bench. None of the most recent returnees were on it, which proves how hard – when you have a settled, winning team – it’s going to be to upset the applecart. I can’t see Arteta or Wilshere, for example, making the starting eleven until we have a game where there’s nothing to play for. The way the season’s panning out, when’s that going to be?

I wouldn’t want to make that decision and massage those precious egos. Which is probably one of the many reasons why Wenger is paid £8m a year and I am on a little bit less than that.

Great win, with the stand-out players being those in the engine room: Coquelin, Ramsey, Cazorla. And of course Sanchez, whose diet of raw fish, Red Bull and Castrol GTX continues to give him jaw-dropping energy levels. Eight wins on the trot, the perfect hors d’oeuvre for an FA Cup semi-final and the visit of Chelsea.

The Poldi effect

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I had a bit of insomnia the other night. When this happens – fortunately not too frequently – I don’t count sheep, of course I don’t. I think of football stats and lineups. For example, counting backwards through FA Cup winners (I always grind to a halt during the years when Chelsea won it a lot) or thinking of various Arsenal starting elevens going back through time.

So there I was at 3.30am thinking of the 1989 title-winning team, and got a bit tripped up by the fact we started three centre-backs. Onwards I moved to the 1998 Cup Final lineup, where I was promptly derailed by the inclusion of Christopher Wreh (I honestly have no recollection of that). My final one was last year’s FA Cup final team, and I blew that one too, mostly because I had completely forgotten that Podolski started it.

He feels like such a footnote now, doesn’t he? At the time he left I was a little anxious about losing his goalscoring prowess, but in hindsight it feels like something of a watershed. We cannot put our upswing in form and performances on his departure, of course we can’t, but it’s pretty obvious that Wenger counts much more now on players who work hard. Who are the stand-out players of the second half of the season? Coquelin, Giroud and Sanchez. All work their socks off. Who also plays where Podolski once played? Welbeck, whose lack of goals doesn’t matter thanks to what he gives to the team in pace, blood and sweat.

Who else seems to have married his innate technical beauty with a tougher attitude? Ozil.

That’s the benchmark now, which might explain why Theo is finding it so hard. With him, I maintain the injury has affected him mentally more than physically. But at the same time, he cannot fail to see the way the wind is blowing.

Podolski could barely get in the team before he left. He’d get nowhere near it now.

That’s me done.

Let the build-up to Wembley begin.

I love the FA Cup.

Bloody love it.

Getting used to sausages

Wigan 0-1 Arsenal

One-nil to the Arsenal, that old war-cry of a result, forged during an era when we were often dour but brutally effective in defence. It was a long time ago, that. In fact it’s only the second win by that scoreline this season, the other being QPR at home.

Since that era we’ve gone to the other extreme, scoring willy-nilly but defending like a sieve, and now we’ve changed again I suppose: trying to relearn the art of winning ugly. Well it wasn’t easy on the eye yesterday, definitely not a case of ‘everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home’, but it was a backs-to-the-wall effort on a stodgy pitch in the lashing rain against a side that looked a lot better than its league position suggests.

And you know what, there’s a lot to appreciate in the kind of result that you get away with a bit, throwing bodies everywhere, in which some of the players end up with their hair plastered askew on their bonces and with mud caked up their Nikes. Yes, we once ate caviar – but we are all getting used to the taste of sausages again. (As a mild aside, let it be said that sausages are fantastic – Lincolnshire ones are great and I recently had a Polish lunchbox – you at the back stop sniggering – the centrepiece of which was a quite momentous sausage. Well done Poland).

And the stats show that Arsenal were not at their fluid best, having fewer shots than Wigan, less possession, fewer crosses, key passes, and passes attempted – but we won. We won!

And by winning we went third (where we still remain, until this afternoon at least), won our third league game in a row for the first time this season, and winning, as you know, is the elixir of life. It’s the medicine of choice for managers, players and fans alike.

Talking points:

Walcott is still auditioning for his preferred role as a striker, but obviously had a pivotal role yesterday in the goal. But the contract thing hangs over him everywhere he goes and it’s immensely boring now. His stalling tactics are boring me too, even if he is being polite and professional enough about the whole thing. He originally stated not being selected as a reason not to sign up, (he now is being), he then blamed not playing up front (he now is doing). Both ‘excuses’ are now rather watery so imagine my surprise when yesterday I read in the Times (£ link) that the reason now is that he is a bit miffed with Wenger, for various reasons, and wants assurances about the direction Arsenal are going in. Which could of course be true – views mirrored by many, after all – but it’s the first we’ve heard of it. I think he’ll stay till the summer, and I think we need him to – but he’s a high-profile player and the questions will be asked every single time he does his interviews, and it’s all a bit dull, but there you go – hey ho.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is edging back into form and sliced down the right in the second half to great effect. Like a new player? (*takes poison*)

Coquelin did a great job breaking stuff up and getting stuck in when he came on

Wilshere is going to have to get used to being targeted wherever he goes. Booked for a superb tackle yesterday, he was upended and clattered with regularity. It’s the price he’s paying for being the talent he is, and for being the kind of player who relishes getting stuck in.

You can throw any kind of weather you like at Arteta’s hair, but it will not be bowed.

Overall then a great result to set up the Christmas period – in which we have a mini-break – and the gloom has lifted, for now. How we are third is hard to fathom, but I’ll take it with jingly bells on.

Which is a reasonable way to lead onto my final point: Happy Christmas to you all – or happy holiday if you prefer – or happy days at work if neither of the previous applies. Enjoy the time off, relax, have a rip-roarer.

Prawn sandwich fan / Hip Hip Hooray

Admission: Tuesday came and went and passed me by entirely. For me, it’s a rarety for me not to follow a game in some way. I go to most home games, and watch or listen to most of the others. Those matches I can’t go to, see or hear I will follow via Twitter etc, as many of us do. But on Tuesday, as the match kicked off, I was out meeting football-agnostic friends (they do exist, it seems) in a pub with pleasant steak and kidney pies but no telly, and although I briefly toyed with the time-honoured gadget switch-off so I could play the match as live when I got in, I knew my resolve wouldn’t last and sure enough, it didn’t. Having found out we’d lost 1-0, I opted against pursuing the venture any further when I got home. Fickle? Guilty as charged.

I did sniff round the reaction though, and the goodwill to a) a weakened team and b) a loss was widespread. Partly because we seem to have acquitted ourselves very well, and partly, perhaps, with one eye on last February’s Wembley final, which was the catalyst for a sensational collapse.

Wenger said in his L’Equipe interview that last season, “to try to catch one [trophy], we ran after all the hares”, and that contributed to the dismal season end, but that this year, rather than change approach, “I’ll do the same thing”.

I think he approached it right given the obvious fatigue on Saturday, and while the hunt for a trophy is as important as ever, I get the feeling that things don’t seem to hinge so much on the winning of a cup this year. Maybe expectations are a little bit lower and maybe, after the start we had, this season became as much about turning an underperforming team around – which is happening – as it was about having a genuine tilt at a trophy.

Either way, I don’t see too many – any – dissenters saying we should have played the Persies and the Ramseys and the Walcotts of this world on Tuesday. Chasing four trophies puts an impossible burden on any squad, especially one still scraping off the mud of an early season quagmire. We performed well and as has been pointed out elsewhere in numerous places, it was an opportunity seized for some of our players – Coquelin, Frimpong, Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular.

125

I wasn’t aware of the exact date, but today is apparently the 125th anniversary of the club. How time flies – I vaguely remember the celebrations around the 100th anniversary and here we are again for another milestone. It feels like a long time but when I worked out I had followed Arsenal for almost 25% of its existence, and that time has disappeared into the ether like a flash, it feels a bit less so.

In those 125 years, Arsenal have won the First Division / Premier League title 13 times. Unlucky for some, but equally, 11 times more than others. That averages out as one title every 9.6 years, which puts our barren trophy run into some perspective and, as I mentioned on Twitter, raises the interesting prospect of our next title coming in 2014 (if stats can be relied on – no comment).

I can’t imagine too many of us would find that too long a wait. I’ll just drop a call to the club and check they’ve booked Islington Town Hall.

Best to be well prepared for these things.

Arsenal doldrums: Still not enough wind in the sails

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal

Another league game, another defeat. It’s hard to be positive when Arsenal’s season lurches from one reverse to another with such predictable regularity. We sit 15th, which is pretty much where we deserve to be, so post-match yesterday Wenger ruled out challenging for the title. It’s October 3rd.

To be fair, he’d sound like Comical Ali if he said anything otherwise, given that far from sniffing a tilt at the top, we are two points off the relegation zone. The only thing we are currently sniffing is the whiff of stagnation.

The overbearing feeling for me is that, while we played tidily enough in patches – bossed the midfield at times – and had plenty of possession, too much of it was without consequence and despite one or two decent chances, we never did enough to stretch Spurs’ defence for long periods. Our lack of incision, coupled (in the latter stages) with poor passing and chaotic defending, made things relatively easy in the end for Spurs, who could have scored more had it not been for the heroics of Wojciech Szczesny. Or put succinctly: We were not bad, but we were not good. We were decidedly average. At the moment we are decidedly average.

That our hosts have the upper hand on us, after a decade in the shadows, is hard enough to take (three wins in four derby games for them, now), but it would be easier to digest if against everyone else we were chugging along nicely. Instead we are stuck in win-a-few, lose-a-few limbo, against anyone and everyone, and have been since February.

A text from a Spurs-supporting friend of mine, who is not noted for his optimism, simply said “What on earth has happened to you?”

I wish I knew the answer.

I have never thought it’s down to the paucity of personnel. Taken individually, we still have fine footballers and a raft of excellent young ones coming in. Coquelin did well, Szczesny did well. Of course, we have some key injuries in the spine of the side (to which we can add Bacary Sagna, a bitter blow indeed).

This Arsenal side is a work in progress but right now we are not playing enough as a team, not playing for long enough with the right concentration, or always with enough drive, not doing some of the basics right.

Fix that and Wenger is a genius. But does he have any magic left in his magic hat?

Wenger’s numbers don’t come up in Pottery lottery

Stoke City 3-1 Arsenal

I said yesterday that Wenger had little choice but to gamble in today’s FA Cup game. Gamble he did – and he lost.

As expected, he chose a mixture of youth and experience. In the young corner were Emmanuel-Thomas (first team debut), Coquelin (a lick of Milk Cup only) and Eastmond (one Premier League start).

At the other end of the spectrum were Silvestre and Campbell, with the rest – young but in some cases very experienced – making up the XI.

Was it a line-up that was ever going to trouble a physical and experienced team like Stoke? It’s easy to be dismissive in retrospect, but when I saw the line-up I thought we stood a chance if we played to our potential.

Therein lies the rub, though. We never did play to our potential. I accept that the game was fairly even until Stoke’s second, but apart from Denilson’s deflected equaliser, I cannot think of a single time when we made Sorensen earn his money.

Yes, Stoke played very well. Collectively, we could not cope. But too many of our players were off colour too. At the back, Fabianski was dreadful. On today’s performance, it’s easy to see how Almunia – hardly a Spanish Gordon Banks himself – remains unchallenged between the sticks. He punched rather than caught, stuttered on his line; he looked as if he’d won a competition to keep goal. The rest of the defence struggled, with the exception of Sol Campbell who performed admirably given how little football he has played recently. Traore was all over the place, Coquelin got better after a nervy start and Silvestre – well I suppose he tried hard.

In the midfield, I thought Eastmond did OK. In fact, all three rookies – Emmanuel-Thomas, Coquelin, Eastmond – did OK given the circumstances.

We were especially toothless up front though. I am – and remain – a big fan of Theo Walcott but on today’s performance he shouldn’t be worrying about his England place, he should be worrying about getting into the Arsenal side. He was embarrassingly ineffectual. I know it’s not his ideal kind of game and I know he’s been injured to the point of distraction, but he looked lost today. Carlos Vela had a rotten day too. Emmanuel-Thomas intrigues me though. His first touch wasn’t great and as debuts go, it was a tough one, but there’s definitely something there – power, desire, a different tack to the usual Arsenal striker (and he’s not even a striker). I’d like to see more of him.

The triple substitution made little difference.

So overall, it was never going to be a team that could walk the tie without each player playing to his maximum. The performance never arrived. We deserved to lose.

What to make of it? It’s a huge lost opportunity if you ask me. It’s all very well saying we can concentrate on the league and the European Cup, but they’re the hardest ones of all to win.

After the game, Wenger touched again on his reasons for playing the team he played. “Sagna, Vermaelen and Clichy will all be back for Aston Villa and they could have missed it if they had played today” he said.

Perhaps so. Maybe the circumstances – huge injury list and four high-octane games looming – demanded it.

Still out the cup though. Big gamble. Big loss.