A welcome winning blip


West Brom 0-1 Arsenal

I could trawl back over my blogging years and find dozens of examples of my morale hitting rock bottom, only for Wenger to shed some ballast on HMS Crisis, refire the boilers and steam out of trouble.

He is an absolute expert at that – he’s outlasted every manager in the league by a country mile, and he’s outlasted George Allison as Arsenal’s longest-serving manager by five years. He knows how important it is to steady the ship as soon as possible when it starts taking on water. “To stop a crisis quickly is one of the most important qualities”, he told Amy Lawrence when she interviewed him for her excellent book Invincible, “The longer it lasts, the more you swim against the stream”.

So the wins against Dortmund and West Brom – while you’d be wise to caution against undue optimism given everything that has gone on ad infinitum – was a much needed dose of smelling salts.

Dortmund was, in hindsight, pretty straightforward, with Yaya’s duck-breaker setting the right tone and Alexis wrapping things up in style. I confess I was quite worried before the game, but my anxiety was without foundation as it turned out. Klopp thought it might be a holiday from their bizarre domestic form, but separating one competition from another is easier said than done and it showed.

At the Hawthorns, promising signs afoot. Defensive solidity, a cagier approach (Amen, Hallelujah and Huzzah) and a fine winning goal created by Cazorla and buried from above by Welbeck. Giroud and Koscielny through the revolving door in the right direction, Monreal and Gibbs heading the opposite way to nobody’s real surprise. But it was an encouraging performance in many ways.

They posited on the Football Weekly podcast that with Arsenal, Spurs, Man Utd, Man City and Liverpool all winning, perhaps some of the peculiar post World Cup lethargy and bittiness of most of the top four wannabes is wearing off at last. I like the idea of that when it comes to Arsenal. Not so much in relation to the others.

You can only go with what you see – hence a lot of miserable fans for much of this season – but in the last two matches, and out of nowhere, I see green shoots just at a point when I wondered out loud what Wenger was smoking over at the Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a case of me staggering parched through the desert, desperate for succour, only to be presented with a mirage. Just as it’s too early to write this season off, it’s also too early to head down the bookies with a glint in the eye.

Keeping it up and building on it is something that has largely eluded us so far. The frustration with Arsenal, and with Wenger, is not made up. It’s not magicked from nowhere. It’s an accumulation of things going back a long way. We could argue all day if it’s terminal, or turn-roundable, but the bottom line is that nobody can say with any certainty.

What we can say with some conviction is that you can’t argue with the tonic of winning. It puts a different hue on things, and how we needed that.

I like winning.

More of that please.

In which I get all pensive, again

Swansea 2-1 Arsenal

You know, at times like this it’s quite hard to come up with even the lamest pun to make me feel better. Something about whales, I thought, given the location. Blowholes. Blue. A bunch of planktons. Surrendering minkely.

But I don’t need to tell you how terrible these are, and then I ran out of steam and willpower. So instead I ploughed into a bit of gallows humour.

There, that’s better.

Anyway, what kind of comfort can I give you after yet another Collaps-o-Arsenal defensive shambles, another naive turnaround? No volume of puns will suffice, that’s what I think.

If anything, we seem to be going backwards this season. I look at the squad and I like what I see, for the most part (there are things I can’t see, because they don’t exist, and that’s part of the problem but I can’t pass judgement on things I can’t see). But the team, the unit – it’s not as good as it was last season. I keep expecting us to turn the corner but whatever we do, we do it in stutters, before reverting back to these weird half-performances, shooting ourselves in the foot.

And this with a superior attacking force at our disposal than last year, which now includes a player who is performing head and shoulders above his teammates, a player of genuine world class. Twelve-goal Alexis must be wondering what more he can do to shore up this side. Welbeck’s goals might have dried up but he’s working his socks off and getting assists. Everywhere else though, and as a collective – it’s not working or it’s not working for long enough.

The reasons? Injuries, confidence, an unbalanced squad, the World Cup, Uncle Tom Cobley. There are loads of tangible reasons, but there are others that are extremely hard to gauge. Psychological things like confidence, belief and trust also play a part. More prosaic things like organisation and tactics and decisions, too.

If there’s any consolation, the bigger picture tells us that of all the traditional top four-ish sides, only Maureen is getting his right at the moment. And how.

And that we can only get better and more consistent – surely.

But of course, it’s Wenger’s team, this, and it’s Wenger who can’t get the best out of it right now. It’s Wenger who didn’t quite finish the job in the summer, buying some great players, but leaving glaring gaps elsewhere. That our lack of defensive options has come back to haunt us has an element of extreme bad luck to it. But an element of mismanagement, too.

My thoughts on the boss waver, as do those of many people these days. He’s been the manager of the club I love for two-thirds of the time I’ve supported it. He’s incredibly consistent.

But I don’t think that questioning Wenger is knee-jerk these days. Arsenal’s weaknesses have been the same for ages. It’s boring listening to pundits on the TV and on the radio flag them up, then for them to say “told you so” when they manifest themselves again.

I don’t know whether this team would suddenly explode with a more stable defensive platform, cannier teamwork and more of a sleeves-rolled-up approach. It might. Like Arsenal did after losing to Blackburn 3-1 at Highbury in December 1997. (“Harsh words were exchanged within the dressing room…a watershed moment”). It would certainly improve us, you’d think.

What I do believe, though, is that this team needs new ideas, some new approaches, new motivation. It needs long-standing weaknesses properly addressed, once and for all.

Whether we’ll see that from Wenger – well I just don’t know. And that, I suppose, gets to the crux of it.

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.

None of the good and all of the bad

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal

First, a confession: I switched the game off after ten minutes. When you concede two goals in the first 10% of any game – and we could have let in more – you don’t need to lick your finger and raise it skywards to work out which way the wind is blowing.

It was a good call, as it happens, because I was driving and had I left the radio on I might have gone GTA renegade. So I swapped 5 Live for Radio 3 and some sedatives.

It transpires I wasn’t the only one. Once I’d got out the car, I went into full Twitter sarcasm mode, and it soon became apparent that plenty of others had called it a day and toddled off to change nappies, do some grouting or get the wallpapering finished. Sales at B&Qs across north London went through the roof at about 1pm.

We were 4-0 down at this point so to have turned the TV on now would have been akin to staying at the end of a Phil Collins gig for the encore. I Can’t Stop Loving You Arsenal, but I do draw the line somewhere.

If I was being kind, I’d say that a sloppy first-minute goal always blows carefully-laid plans out the water. But in truth, we were just dire – rank awful – while Liverpool were explosively good. There was No Going Back at 2-0 and in the end we got away lightly with 5-1.

Our normally solid back line was breached at will, with Monreal having a torrid time up against Suarez in particular. On current form, though I like Monreal, Gibbs cannot come back fast enough. Is young Mr Gibbs nursing a little bit niggle? If so, That’s Just The Way It Is.

Our midfield, so strong this season, was impotent. Ozil, by all accounts, had a shocker. He could do with a break – that sounds like an excuse but I think it holds true – though with Ramsey and Flamini out, and Wilshere not quite 100%, I can’t see him getting one on Wednesday.

(Ah – but you didn’t watch it, I hear you say. Well I was foolish enough to remedy that by watching MOTD, and I’ve read a few reports. Look Through My Eyes and tell me that’s not more than enough).

What of Liverpool? They’ve been cruising under the title radar until now, but if you consider us to be challengers then you have to consider them to be too. They have form on their side right now and have as much chance, I suspect, as we do. It was a day to forget for us, and Another Day In Paradise for them.

I am worried, I have to say. Who wouldn’t be after a performance in which everything was wrong? I don’t know many champions in waiting who lose 6-3 and 5-1 at rivals, though I accept that’s a simplistic way of looking at things. Certainly, we’ve been solid this season and we’re only one point off the pace. But our impressive form of late autumn has morphed into a more pragmatic (albeit until yesterday effective) style, and you have a feeling that when we do lose, we don’t do so in half measures. We do it festooned in lackadaisical bunting and with defensive klaxons sounding.

It was the worst possible time to revert to the Collaps-o-Arsenal of old. Our ineptitude will have emboldened Manchester United, it gives Liverpool the psychological edge next weekend and god only knows what it’s done to Bayern Munich, who let’s be honest need no encouragement at all to be any better than they already are.

If we can Hang In Long Enough through this fixture list – possible Against All Odds – it will give us the encouragement and belief.

But we’ve made it a hell of a lot harder for ourselves.

Arsenal’s lead whittled as floodgates open

Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal

I keep hearing how this was a cracking game for the neutral. That would be all well and good if I was a neutral. From my perspective we leaked six goals and there’s only so much heart you can take from your team being involved in a game that everyone but its own fans went away from with a warm glow. Everton last week was another cracking game for the neutral. Glad to be of service but we’ve taken one point from six…

It was a game of many facets though, hard in a way to pigeonhole. City scored six but could have had eight, we had the ball in the net five times and could have had a penalty. Our parsimonious defence chose a rotten day to switch off, but then again who can deny the impressive firepower of City? They’re tonking pretty much everyone for fours and sixes at home these days. I also read somewhere that we should take some comfort from scoring three times (five, if you’re cross with the linos) at a venue at which barely anyone else has ruffled the net yet. Small comfort but I suppose if there are two positives that do come out of yesterday it’s our ability to score goals and our determination to keep going when all seems lost.

On that note, a good game for Theo Walcott – absent all season – who scored two nice goals. It’s easy to forget that we have reached Christmas without two of our biggest scorers of last season, Walcott and Podolski, who between them got 37 goals. If you want to take another positive from a six goal clumping, it’s that we now have those two men back, and just at a time when both of this season’s main scorers, Giroud and Ramsey, have hit a dry patch.

At the back, we couldn’t really cope. Mertesacker was his usual composed self but Monreal – so good against Hull City – had a tough game and we were breached far too easily for my liking. Our midfield didn’t help, with Wilshere especially sloppy, and I think fatigue, though Wenger tried not to blame it, had an increasing effect as the game wore on with misplaced passes aplenty and losses of concentration. This was personified by Giroud, who missed several presentable chances and wore the hang-dog expression of a weary man.

We were never in control, really, always trying to chip away at a City lead rather than being able to hold what we had. The nearest we got to looking like we might get something was at 3-2, when Theo’s goal gave us a shot of energy, but almost immediately conceding a fourth did for us. The game was lost then.

We shall see what effect conceding six goals has on us psychologically. It’s hard to say but what is certain is that City look formidable. We’ll find out soon enough of course with Chelsea coming to town a week on Monday. One thing we’ll know for sure is that nine days off gives us a good opportunity to recharge our batteries and nurse our lacerated knees.

We are still top.

Which is worth remembering.

You can’t make all seven happy, you know

Here I am again, fleetingly, and now boasting a 50% attendance record at the Arsenal this season (it’s a pass – but must do better).

I’m looking forward to Hull City’s arrival, if only for the novelty of attending an actual football game in the flesh. Reading a bit today about Vermaelen and Monreal and Jenkinson – good players all, but bowing to the solidity of Gimertescielgna – it struck me that there are downsides to every slice of good news.

The good news of course being that we have settled upon a solid defensive partnership for the first time in years. We can swivel the midfield as we please – and have done – but the elixir of success at the back is not something to act the goat with, in Wenger’s view, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

It leaves three good defenders warming the bench, hardly ideal for them in a World Cup year. Or for any ambitious player in any year, if we’re honest. Of those, Jenkinson is probably the least restless, learning as he is, and having an Arsenal lampshade as he does. He should take heart from the fact that a year ago, when Sagna’s form was stodgy, he had a good run in the side and did well. This season he’s had only four starts and it must be hard for a young player to be such a bit part. Tomorrow, with Sagna injured, he is “likely” to get his chance – and if he does you can be sure City will ping some balls his way so he’ll need to be sharp from the off.

As for Vermaelen and Monreal, there’s no doubt they’d prefer to play more. Neither has nearly swerved off the road in disgust, mind you. They might be getting frustrated and if they were who could blame them, but you can be sure Wenger won’t be losing much sleep over it.

Having a settled defence with talent itching to get at a chance in reserve is pretty much the dream of any manager. Gone are the days of Silvestre, The Squill and Eboue. Senderos and Djourou are long banished. Only the ghost of Igors Stepanovs remains. It is said that late at night you can hear his spectral studs rattling on the concourse concrete.

They’re gone I tell you – gone! Instead we have Vermaelen and Monreal and Jenkinson. Result.

Sorry chaps – stiff upper lip. Your time will come.

Interlull: Good for looking back and looking forward

One of the few benefits of downing tools for weeks on end, as I am increasingly doing, is the ability to view things in splendid hindsight. After the Utd game I was a bit tetchy at the no-show in our midfield, somewhat deflated at not getting at least a point at a place we have in recent times consistenty struggled at.

But looking back at it, no real complaints. It was an excellent performance against Liverpool, followed by a sapping rearguard smash-and-grab against Dortmund. There was just not enough in the tank to make real inroads against Utd.

Our away record finally fizzled out but it’s worth noting for posterity – 16 games unbeaten was the catalyst for 6 months of upturned fortunes. Szczesny, Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna – all have upped their games and are our best defensive unit in ages.

It’s also nice to observe that overall, people have been pretty sanguine about this loss. Compare and contrast with the previous league loss against Villa. So yeah, there’s plenty to be happy about.

Of course, with the transfer window peeking over the brow of the hill, thoughts turn to January. We ought to have both Podolski and Walcott back soon, both of whom could (but don’t tend to, as the team needs a Giroud-type player) play up front, but we still need more attacking options. I’m not saying we need to amass four £30m strikers, because that is patently unrealistic. But there was a time when we could muster one or all of Henry, Wiltord, Kanu and Bergkamp. Sometimes, all at once. We just don’t have that variety to call on.

I don’t know how these things work, but you’d like to think that, if we wanted someone earlier rather than later in January, we’d be doing some legwork now. For me, whether a target is cup-tied in the Champions League makes no odds – the league is probably more important and besides, you have to consider the longer-term picture anyway.

There have been some big names bandied around already (nothing concrete, but still) like Dzeko, Hernandez and Benzema. There’ll be a lot of this stuff over the next month or two but we’ve been here too many times to be anything other than cautious in the extreme. Two points about that: 1) No rival, if we are still there or thereabouts in January, would sell us one of their ‘spare’ strikers in a month of Sundays. Look what happened to the Ba deal when it became clear that the Ozil signing would make us more competitive. Canned straight away. And 2) I think it’s fantastic that we showed the ambition to spend £42.5m on a player, but it’s not the kind of deal we can afford to do often. Not many clubs can. So on that basis, if I had to bet I’d say that any player we bring in in January – if we bring anyone in – will be more in the £10m-£15m bracket, which would rule a Benzema-type player out. Partly because of availability, partly because of cost.

For now, we’re back to fiddling uncomfortably with the Giroud worry beads. In an ideal world we’d be able to rotate him in and out according to his condition. Not an option right now though.

We’ve got a lovely Per, Kos goes nuts.

Manchester City 1-1 Arsenal

Now, when Gibbs gave that corner away, the ball wafted over and Joleon Lescott squeezed his dome between two of our players and thudded it past Vito Marooned, the word ‘brilliant’ wouldn’t have been the first one to come to mind.

But compared to how last season started, this one has been brilliant. We’ve only let two goals in, we’re nestled at the right end of the table, we’re unbeaten, but above all, we’re giving off the perceptible whiff of a proper team here. Just look at the bundle pyramid that followed our equaliser and you will see that when Wenger speaks of spirit and belief and togetherness, in this instance it’s not as a means to pep up players who don’t have it. This lot are working for each other. It is a completely different side – a new side.

Sure, the goal could have been avoided but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A renewed effort to defend better as a unit and as a team is hardly going to take just a few games to materialise. Bouldy can’t just click his fingers (or more aptly, raise his arm) to make it happen. But at the moment, we are on the right track on that front. There will be a few moments of uncertainty yet but the general direction is good.

Defensively there were some outstanding performances. Mertesacker was immense, his long bionic legs mopping up through balls like Mr Tickle time and again. Koscielny, overlooked thus far this season, played his part and even found time for a backheel – or was it a Cruyff turn? – out of defence. Gibbs played as an auxiliary winger and Jenkinson – lungs like a whale – was just excellent. I absolutely love it when Wenger plucks a nobody out of thin air and proves everyone wrong, and in Carl Jenkinson he has done just that. As Gary Neville said after the game, he seems like the kind of bloke who would run through a brick wall for you. His progress has been a real delight to see.

The goals are being shared around too: today from defence, but our fluid forward line and midfield is chipping in too, all of which makes Giroud’s lack of goals almost an irrelevance. Of course, should we stop playing so well then things might change, but at the moment it’s not such a big deal.

And we’re stronger behind the first XI. OK, so Diaby and Gervinho did not reach the heights they have done in the early stages of this season, but their presence – and that of the impressive Ramsey – in the first XI gives us a bench that included players like Giroud, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott. We have Wilshere, Rosicky and Frimpong still out, but their return is imminent too.

It was our toughest test yet and we passed it with flying colours, if you ask me. They’ve got the buzz, and you know what, I’ve got the buzz too. As my cousin Capability Mike said in a text, twenty minutes into the game:

Even if we don’t get anything from this game I don’t think it matters. We’re a good team. Really happy with how we’re playing.

Mike said it.

A 7-game struggle awaits Arsenal

QPR 2-1 Arsenal

Like most Arsenal fans, I expect, I wasn’t naïve enough to anticipate a serene run of victories that would enable us to sail through to the end of the season unhindered. I expected a blip, but I didn’t really expect that blip yesterday. Maybe the players didn’t, either, and therein lies the rub.

It’s not easy to sound authoritative about a game based solely on Match of the Day highlights, so I won’t even try. From what I can glean, defensively it looked like a bad day at the office, with the usually towering Vermaelen in particular having one to forget. Hats off to QPR of course for taking the game to Arsenal – I’m sure that this morning that nobody at Arsenal will need reminding (or re-reminding, ha) that relegation-threatened sides are often like wounded animals. Underestimate them at your peril.

Wenger was pretty honest about our defeat – he’s been doing this a lot this season after we lose, and losing is something we have now done nine times.

“What we produced on the day was not good enough… subconsciously something was missing today. If you miss something on the commitment front you are beaten. That is what happened today”.

So he admitted that we simply weren’t as committed as we should have been, a bit complacent, which kind of makes me want to bash my head against a wall. If there’s one thing he’s been preaching – as have the players – it’s the need to not let the foot off the gas, take each game at a time and blah blah blah.

Of course, winning seven consecutive games is special, and maybe that focus and tempo simply gets harder and harder to maintain. And like I said, it’s not realistic to expect us to turn up and snaffle each and every three points.

Ramsey as a winger was a mysterious move, given we have two much more suitable options there in the shape of Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain. As much as I cannot fathom that, I doubt that was what lost us the game. We just weren’t at the races enough.

It’s a jolt back to reality and a reminder that a top-four finish is going to be a proper slog. A reminder too that for all the invention and spirit shown since February, this Arsenal side is not good enough to turn up and bully teams when not playing at 100%. If Spurs win today – and they will not lack for motivation now – the difference between us returns to being razor-thin. Chelsea are only five points behind. Frankly, with seven games left, third place remains anyone’s to win and lose.

Next up, Manchester City.

A good night for the Arsenal

Everton 0-1 Arsenal

Immediately after snaffling all three points against Newcastle by the whiskers on our Jimmy Hill, I was full of the joys of spring and confident that we could push on.

Then came a nine-day siesta and things wore off a bit. I looked over at Stamford Bridge, sniffed the pungent whiff of a mini revival, then looked at our fixtures and started fretting. Sorry, but that’s just the way I work, and besides – elephants never forget. I mean, have you seen us this season? I suspect you have.

“What we need”, I said to myself, “is three points at Goodison, with the other teams around us tripping up on their shoelaces”, before gruffling into my breakfast.

And Lo! It came to pass!

There was though, and remains, good reason for tempering my excitement: there’s a hell of a long way to go before this season can be stamped and filed away as a success. But if we make the Champions League – in third or fourth – then it will rank bang up there with anything. From staggering around punch drunk, riddled with injury and seemingly devoid of organisation, to finding the form, order, precision, spirit and passion needed to go on a run to confound the ghost of Collaps-o-Arsenal™, well that would be incredible. Not a trophy, of course, but an amazing achievement nonetheless.

Last night was another step in the right direction with a performance that was pure current Arsenal – part swashbuckling and part backs-to-the-wall defiance.

We started like a train, scoring early and missing a few other decent chances to make it 2-0. When Everton started getting back into things, I could not see one goal being anything like enough, but with a bit of luck and some refereeing going our way, it ended up being just that. If there is often a lot to admire about our forward play, then there is increasingly a lot to admire about our defensive resilience. Yes, we still make mistakes – we’ve had to come from behind to win four times in a row, after all – but you can’t overstate the effect that having a settled back four, playing in their correct positions, has had on us.

A while back I wheeled out a stat that I read in the Independent about the amount of defensive partnerships and centre-back pairings we’ve had this season – it was 26 different starting back four combinations in 47 matches, involving 14 different players and nine different centre back pairings – so to have now played the same back four for five matches is a rare pleasure. They are perhaps not surprisingly getting better and better with each passing match.

So a good night all round, and we find ourselves sitting in third. Staying there will be hard and you won’t find any gloating or over-confidence from me, but there is much to admire about the way we are trying to do it.

It’s one game at a time territory – bring on the Villa on Saturday.