Are Arsenal Up For The Cup? You’d hope so.

The magic of the cup, up for the cup, Wemberlee, wearing yellow ribbons – here we are again on third round weekend, and I still love this competition to bits. Wenger Mark I loved it to bits too and was rather good at it – four-times winner of it, and it should have been five given how we were mugged in 2001. But Wenger Mark II, as Goodplaya and Arseblog have pointed out, has a pretty poor record with one semi-final in seven years.

Playing weakened sides in this competition because it pays less than a higher league place, or the Champions League, sums up what I hate most about modern football. It’s the same argument that leads to Wenger saying that fourth is like a trophy, and if I ran a poll now on the blog asking whether the fans would prefer an FA Cup win or coming fourth, I suspect coming fourth would win – meaning plenty of people agree with him. Where has winning for the glory of it gone?

Given how we blew a presentable chance to get to the semi-final of the Milk Cup, and how we continue to veer from decent to dismal, this year’s FA Cup has taken on an importance all of its own.

Trouble is, even with a strong side we have no real idea how Arsenal will approach the game, physically or mentally. If even Wenger is now questioning their desire – I am still slack-jawed at that comment, if I’m honest – then you know that the inconsistency is so ingrained it’s practically tattooed. That it is crucial to the season, and possibly even to Wenger, seems rather clear to me.

In other news, the transfer window has sprung open, and in a classic Wenger bluff, our first moves are not incoming but outgoing. Chamakh has joined West Cham on loan, Djourou looks set for a loan to Hannover, Squillaci has been told he can go (it’ll be a loan, let’s not kid ourselves), and Arshavin is being touted around for a similar arrangement. It weakens the squad in terms of numbers, but not hugely in real terms – those four players have started seven games between them (five in a competition that we are no longer in), and have combined league starts of zero. That’s probably not far short of £200k, even £250k a week going nowhere.

Given how seriously we need to take the FA Cup, they wouldn’t have started in that either, barring a plague of injuries, so freeing up some space in the squad and some money would make sense there, but only assuming that we sign some replacements. Other teams have hit the ground running on the transfer front, long ago identifying needy areas and striking early – but we, characteristically, have hit the ground creeping. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, I dunno. It’s only 5th Jan.

I’m particularly interested to see how Chamakh gets on. Wenger has a long and marvellous history of only selling players when he has got all he can out of them – Vieira, Henry, Overmars, Toure etc – with some obvious exceptions in the shapes of van Persie, Fabregas, Cole. Should Chamakh be equally as poor at West Ham as he has been at Arsenal, nobody would be surprised. But if Allardyce can get something out of him – even 75% of what we saw in late 2010 – then it’s a punt worth taking. My own view is that it depends how much he plays. If you played him ten times in a row, he’d surely get better – something he has not done for years with us (why that is, who knows).

I suspect he is a back-up though, and not much more. Andy Carroll is injured, and Modibo Maiga is off to the ACN, leaving them with Carlton Cole alone (I was reminded – or informed of that by the Times here £). Good luck to him though. A decent spell there and we are more likely to be able to move him on in the summer.

Who knows what will happen. Come on you reds (or blues/purples).

Wenger’s New Year turns sour

Fulham 2-1 Arsenal

So, a pretty dismal start to the New Year, but perhaps a focus sharpener as this month’s transfer window opens.

It was the ultimate clichéd game of two halves. Arsenal were pretty damn good in the first, creating loads of chances, passing neatly, very enjoyable to watch and well worth their advantage. That the lead was only slim at the break ultimately came back to haunt us and there are not an awful lot of people that Wenger can blame for that other than his own team. We were very wasteful.

That said, there was a penalty shout on Gervinho, and with the benefit of video replay it was a clear spot kick. I can’t help but think that had our Ivorian not gone down quite so elegantly it would have been given, but it did at least add fuel to Wenger’s post-match rage: “We had a penalty in the last game, a clear handball. We had a penalty at Man City, we had a penalty at Villa Park”.

The other thing Wenger was incandescent about was Djourou’s sending off, accusing Fulham of getting the Swiss red-carded. I’ve not studied either yellow since I saw them live (Basically, I am using the ‘I didn’t see it excuse’ – learned from the master) but I will say this: Neither yellow was so outrageous that it was mystifying. Reds have been given for less. However, it did make our job all the harder and so it proved.

The fact is, we continue to play with a centre-half at right-back and, yesterday, a right-footed central midfielder at left-back and until we can sort that mess out we will not look as secure or as dynamic as we need to look. That Coquelin had a really fine game slightly holes my argument below the waterline but the point stands.

In the second half we were a pale shadow of the side that dominated the first. Fulham improved and we tired. I know we’ve all played similar numbers of games over the Christmas period, but Arsenal in particular looked to have long run out of gas and you can’t say that Fulham’s equaliser hadn’t been coming.

Which brings me to another point: we’re relying too much on a small core of players. Walcott (through illness) and Ramsey got a break against Wolves, and Gervinho got one against QPR, but other than that Wenger has stuck with the same players for four games in 13 days. A lot of this, of course, is out of his hands: our back line picks itself and without Wilshere & Diaby our midfield options are fewer. Up front, van Persie has played all 360 minutes of the festive period. Chamakh has played five minutes and Park none. That van Persie needs a rest is surely no longer in doubt – it’s a good job we have seven days before our next game and he may be spared that one anyway. Well deserved. As @steve4good pointed out on Twitter, that Wenger could not trust anyone but van Persie to start against Wolves, QPR or Fulham speaks volumes. He’s the best striker in the land right now but he’s not superman.

So this break comes at a good time, and I fully expect us to be bombarded with transfer silliness henceforth. That we need to strengthen though is beyond argument for me.

Back to work then. Hurrah! Happy New Year all.

Handbrake off, defensive sureness on: Job’s a goodun

It’s been another fortnight of stewing over Arsenal’s weaknesses. The previous international break came right after the pounding at Old Trafford; this one came after the derby defeat. On each occasion the fortnight off has been seen as something of a blessed relief – a time to lick our wounds and work on the basics. I can’t say I’ve missed football an awful lot over the last two weeks, which is a fairly depressing admission.

And on both occasions, the next match has been an eminently winnable home game. We scraped past Swansea last time. A scraping past of Sunderland would be acceptable, of course, though ideally you’d want to see the handbrake, lubed to the max, well and truly off.

There really are reasons to be a bit more positive though. To mitigate against Sagna’s injury, we have a cavalry charge of returning defenders in the shape of Koscielny, Djourou and Squillaci. This lets us slot Song back into midfield, where he is much more effective, and it gives us more aerial dominance at the back. Scoff ye not: Koscielny is our most effective defender at aerial challenges, and Mertesacker, while still finding his feet, is as tall as a house and that alone counts for a bit.

On an ordinary day, I’d like to see Mertesacker paired with Koscielny and take it from there, but there are no such things as ordinary days at Arsenal, and our lack of experience at right-back complicates things. Jenkinson has looked raw – if willing – and while it might be worth blooding him against teams at our level (like Sunderland, haha, ouch, that’s quite enough of that), can you see Wenger playing him at Stamford Bridge at the end of the month? I can’t. And working backwards from that logical conclusion, it might make sense to play Koscielny there now (he’s a trained right-back, it transpires) to get him back up to speed. This would make even more sense given Vermaelen’s imminent return (has that jinxed him?). All of which means it’ll probably be Jenkinson on Sunday.

I confess that I have no idea what Wenger means when he says we were beaten “because the details you need in big games were not on our side”. The fact is, we have struggled on many levels this season. I can’t be bothered to go back over them, it’s not like we don’t all know our failings. Repeating them now would be like teaching you all how to count to ten.

Interesting then to note that in a sea of gloom after the derby defeat, it was none other than David Pleat who spotted signs of progress, both in midfield and with some “flashes of newfound defensive sureness.”

Whether I believe it or not, that’s precisely the kind of positivity I’m in the market for.

PS – Glad to see that Wenger read my ‘5 things to do in the international break‘ piece. He’s found Abou!

Match preview: Third home game lucky?

Warning: This blog contains the cliche ‘one game at a time’

It’s a glorious, bright spring morning in London: perfect for a trip to the Grove. It makes sense to me that if the man in the street gets an uplift from the joys of a beautiful spring day, then the man on the pitch must do too. We’re all susceptible to the same moods, after all.

Could it be possible that some players perform better with pleasant spring breezes ruffling their hair and the aroma of blossom wafting through their nostrils? I think I might ask @orbinho that, though I do suspect that even his legendary powers of stat-trawling might struggle to find a correlation between nice weather and good performances.

There’s no doubt that the general mood in the corner of the interwebs cordoned off for Arsenal fans is much less fraught than it has been. The win at Blackpool was the catalyst, the potential return of some key players – The Woj, Djourou, Song – another reason. The takeover and the death of Danny Fiszman put a few things into perspective, too, perhaps.

Or maybe we’ve just been forced to accept the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. We want commitment and drive between now and the end of the season, but to expect a seven-game, twenty-one point charge to the title is to expect something we have not seen all season. On top of that, look at our next four games: Liverpool, Spuds, Bolton, Utd. It really is one-game-at-a-time territory.

Should be good fun. I’m excited by the return of the players mentioned, but I’ll be keeping an eye on Song and/or Diaby too. Song has looked tepid in recent games, through injury as much as anything, but when bubbling along he ticks all the right boxes. Let’s hope he’s genuinely fit today. Diaby had a lovely game at Blackpool, but can he do it again against better opposition? Maybe if we all keep an eye on him, the sight of 57,000 eyes trained on him will spook him sufficiently into a commanding performance.

And can we defend better against Carroll than we did when he came with Newcastle? There’s never been a better time to have our defence bolstered.

A goal or two would be nice and stuff. We’ve sat through two consecutive goalless draws – one league goal at home in two months. It’s not too much to ask…

Guardian squad sheet
BBC preview

And finally, congratulations to Petter Randmæl and Johanna Jepekano Nekwaya, winners of the Paul Merson competition. Bad luck the rest of you…

Match report: One slump or two?

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal

And so, as feared, the sleep-slump to disaster continues. I can’t see this one ending well.

You don’t have to scour the Arsenal online diaspora for too long to sense as much despondency, verging on militancy, as you will have ever seen. Yesterday’s defeat was entirely predictable, and followed a well-trodden formula. Loads of possession, not enough chances taken, undone by moments of weakness at the back, the team populated by a handful of passengers. We didn’t play disastrously at all – their keeper was named man of the match – but we did play like a team feeling sorry for itself.

I do worry though. Wenger drums on and on about the mental strength of this team, but I’ve long sensed these are rallying calls for the benefit of the players as much as for anyone. What I see is a team that loses a game or a player – or usually in the case of Arsenal, both at the same time – and loses its way. The losing of the way can even happen mid-game – viz Newcastle, Spuds etc.

Man Utd lose two in a row, then grind out a result. We lose one game and our form flies out the window. What are they listening to in the dressing room – Leonard Cohen?

The unpalatable truth is that this side, for all its aesthetic beauty and occasional flashes of glorious form, is making the same mistakes as it ever did.

Moan moan moan. But we’re second, I hear you cry, and chasing the title. It’s true, we are in a strong position, it’s just that our team is not currently strong. And as for the title – well again, based on what I see at the moment, I’d say it’s a pipe dream. With half our first team out and a black dog day that’s gone on for weeks, from where are we going to summon up a turnaround in form sufficient to pull it off?

We are not helped by our one-in, two-out injury list. Szczesny, Vermaelen, Song, Fabregas, Walcott and Djourou represent 6/11 of our best side. In the cases of Vermaelen and Fabregas, they possess a drive and will to win that we have no replacement for.

In their place we rely on, amongst others, Denilson and Diaby, two midfielders who have completely lost their way. When both went off against Sunderland, we improved. When both went off yesterday against Utd, we improved again. We can barely afford to carry one of these, but carrying both is a recipe for disaster. Nursing them both through developmental crises is very altruistic but where is it getting us? Yesterday, Gibbs and Arshavin also had bad days at the office. Even with so many off colour, we did create chances – we just couldn’t take them.

So yes, I’m gloomy, and for once, I’m looking forward to a week off. There are only so many miserable blogs I can write and, I suspect, only so many you can read.

I’m sure I’ll cheer up. There is still plenty to play for. It’s at times like this I need to lean more on the online shoulder of Goodplaya. A more relentless optimist you will not see. I wish I shared it – but I don’t.

Ref whistles while Robin works

Barcelona 3-1 Arsenal

Another year, another aggregate defeat to Barcelona, but this one was tinged with a dose of ‘what if’.

What if, at 1-1, we had remained with eleven men? Would the game, as Wenger argues, have opened up and presented us with a really good opportunity to go through? And what if, at 3-1 and late in the day, Big Game Bendtner had not done a passable impression of Bad Touch Bendtner and steered Wilshere’s pass through to goal?

The trouble with this argument of course is that it’s based entirely on a hypothetical scenario. Personally, I think the result would have been the same. As Guardiola said post-match, we had barely strung three passes together all night. We didn’t have a single shot on goal. It was as one-sided a match as you will ever see.

But we will never really know. What is true is that with ten men, the task was virtually impossible and so it proved. The decision to send van Persie off was absurd. A second between the whistle and the shot, with 95,000 voices in your ears? The referee had no way of proving van Persie simply did not hear the whistle, so why did he give him a yellow card? It’s another answer we will never get because referees are a protected species. Don’t expect him to come over all contrite. However, van Persie has to accept his own share of the blame for a thoroughly pointless and predictable yellow card in the first half that made the second yellow so crucial. There was a rumpus after a tackle on Wilshere, van Persie got involved and he was sizzling with Dutch fury. You just knew the moment was not over and so it proved – he soon earned himself a card.

In keeping with the nature of the game, all the heroics yesterday came from our defence and defensive midfield. Djourou and Wilshere were immense. Almunia, when he came on, made save after save after save and although he let two goals in, he was faultless.

Wilshere, in particular, at 19, continues to show the way in terms of guts and drive. Everywhere else we struggled. Fabregas was ineffectual – as it turned out, he was injured again anyway – Rosicky, Diaby were swamped. Nasri, while willing, was unable to keep the ball either. It was a really tricky night against a side that will take some stopping.

The Crock List has not been compiled from last night but it looks once more as if we are shipping players at an alarming rate. Cesc needs more recovery time but Szczesny is the biggest worry, suffering a dislocated finger that could yet end his season. As brilliant as Almunia was at shot stopping last night, he does not command his goal in the way Szczesny does and I keep my undislocated fingers crossed for him.

To lose against Barcelona is not the end of the world; I just wish we could have done it on an even playing field for 90 minutes. As I said, it may well have made no difference but we can now only speculate.

Losing at the first knockout stage is not a disaster either, from a broader perspective, seeing we are still fighting hard domestically. The league, in particular, requires all the strength we can muster. The other two challengers for the title – if you include Chel$ea, which I do – are still in Europe and that will distract them.

So plenty to go for still. Manchester looms on Saturday.

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.

Monday night squad ramblings

And so it came to pass that Arsenal’s midweek Anglian aberration was put to the sword with a fine performance at Upton Park on Saturday. There’s nothing like winning your next game to forget about losing your last one, and I’m in a forgetful enough mood now to have perked up no end. The equilibrium is once again balanced… for now. (Aha! I had to add that in).

Plenty of positives too, with the hitherto largely blank-firing van Persie scoring twice, Theo bagging a fine goal and creating another, and a return to battle for our strongest midfield five – Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Nasri and Walcott.

About Theo: His goal on Saturday, his tenth of the season, means he has scored the same number of goals mid-way through this season as he did throughout the previous two seasons combined. I think that deserves, at the very least, a manly handshake.

To me, Saturday also highlighted that within the one squad there is a clear first XI bubbling to the top. I know I know – that’s always the case. But I find it endlessly fascinating to see a football team evolve, how fate deals some players bad hands and form dictates the fortunes of others. This season’s biggest losers so far are Almunia, Vermaelen, Diaby, Arshavin, Bendtner and Denilson, all of whom would have hoped to make more of an impact, one way or another, than they have done so far.

In their place we see Fabianski, Szczesny, Djourou, Koscielny, Walcott, Wilshere and Nasri. Only Nasri was a definite starter last year, Walcott too, albeit to a lesser degree.

For my money, our best available starting XI at the moment is Szczesny, Clichy, Koscielny, Djourou, Sagna, Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Walcott, Nasri and van Persie. A bit harsh on Chamakh perhaps, and I can see Gibbs, fitness permitting, giving Clichy a good run for his money. I’ve also stuck my neck out with Szczesny because to me he looks the real deal, but I concede that his lack of experience might make that pick a little premature.

There’s good competition in some areas but less in others, and there’s no doubt – I say this as I don my Hat of Perfection – we could do with the ‘second string’ pushing their first-choice teammates harder. That they are ‘second string’ should be motivation enough, but it’s easier said than done.

That’s the way things go. Our first choice XI has evolved in just one year – four changes (in the absence of Vermaelen), perhaps five if you were to include Theo – and who’s to say that come January 2012, it won’t have changed again? It almost certainly will have.

There were eight changes from ‘my’ first XI against Leeds, five against Ipswich, one against West Ham.

We know already that Szczesny will start in goal at Elland Road, but I wonder how far from the above XI Wenger will deviate on Wednesday?

We’re fighting on four fronts. It’s a tough call.

Clean sheet, dented goalposts, but no goals

Arsenal 0-0 Manchester City

In the pub beforehand, there wasn’t a single member of our party who envisaged anything other than a home win, and some of us thought we might get three goals (I think I went for 2-1). All I can say in hindsight is it’s a good job none of us are bookmakers by trade. Pre-match exuberance, eh.

It was pretty clear from the off that it would be tight, with City defending diligently and chasing us down off the ball. Nevetheless, the opening 20 minutes were our best period of the game.

I got a few disagreeing tweets last night when I suggested post match that it had been a game of ‘few chances’. Perhaps an overreaction borne of frustration on my part, but it is true that it was a game predominantly of half chances, with a few three-quarter chances thrown in. Nevertheless, in a tight game with a defensively savvy and pretty unambitious opponent, you need to make more of the chances you do get and clearly we were not able to do that.

It might aesthetically be your cup of tea – it’s certainly not mine these days – but there is much to admire in defensive obduracy. I grew up on a diet of George Graham and we would revel in stifling our opponents and nicking goals. City were content to do the same with the odd attempt to forage goalwards.

It’s no wonder they have kept the highest amount of clean sheets; when they choose to, they sit and stifle and they do it very well. I suspect most teams would have struggled to break that down.

I was impressed again with Song and Wilshere, shielding from deep, and Djourou / Koscielny both receive nods of approval. Theirs is clearly the best central defensive partnership we have at the moment. Interesting tweets from the Guardian’s @seaningle this morning:

“Last night was the first time this season that Arsenal have dropped a point in the PL when Johan Djourou has played (P9 W8 D1) …”

“… and think I’m right in saying that Arsenal haven’t lost a PL game with Djourou since 22nd November 2008 v Man City (P21 W18 D3 L0)”

So two successive nil nils against City at home, but this one was not as eye-rollingly dull as the one at the tail end of last season. City were equally cautious then, but the added ingredient was that we were entirely ineffective in May whereas last night we had a lot more to us. It was an intriguing battle in the end – and as Wengerball says, it was a clash of ideologies that made for good viewing.

Sadly, we couldn’t snaffle the three points but c’est la vie.

And on the plus side – Arsenal’s kit lady will have had one less kit to wash. Fabianski’s jersey can go straight back on the peg.

Home comforts and other stuff

Arsenal have been around almost 125 years now. I’ve been a season ticket holder for the last sixteen of those. In terms of success, I could hardly have chosen a better sixteen years in the club’s history. What Wenger has done for Arsenal is comparable to what Chapman achieved in the 1930s – of that, there is no doubt.

It’s going to be tougher than ever for him to add to that medal haul though. Gone are the days of the late 1990s and early 2000s when Arsenal and Man Utd were the only shows in town. This coming season, there are at least six sides who will fancy their chances of squeezing into the top four.

Clearly, we have been active in the transfer market this summer with two very promising players coming in. But we’ve also let a lot of defensive experience go.

Wenger has no intention of splurging tens of millions on players, preferring to see the current crop improve sufficiently to make the next step – to win us the title.

As mentioned in my last post, Alex Song is the template here – a much derided rough diamond whose development in 2009 and 2010 has been explosive.

For this squad to be the title-winning squad Wenger wants it to be, we need to see similar comings-of-age for players like Diaby, Denilson, Walcott, Vela and Djourou.

Which of these five will we be hailing come May 2011?

Home routines

Lucky pants, new shirts, old watering holes, familiar journeys – the first home game of the new season brings back all the little tics of being a football fan. I absolutely love it.

Unfortunately, my home debut is going to have to wait though. I can’t make the game on Saturday and I’m not sure how near to my laptop I’ll get in the days proceeding it.

Here’s to a thumping home win though.

Before then – may I point towards the Arsecast. My voice is on it this week.

Back in a few days…