Roundup: Adieu Dudu/Keeper/Austria

With Eduardo now officially the fifth Arsenal departure of the summer, the squad evolution continues apace. We’ve now lost two attackers (gaining one), three defenders (gaining one) and have gained one midfielder (Wilshere).

So in terms of snipping the squad’s deadheads, the work carries on.

And unfortunately, a deadhead is what Eduardo had become. You’ll appreciate that I don’t mean that vindictively but it was clear last season that poor old Eduardo’s injury has robbed him of the pace, confidence and sharpness that marked him out as a lethal Arsenal number nine. He was a pale shadow of his former self.

I feel desperately sorry for him, but I do think a fee of £6m, if true, is a good deal for Arsenal and that a fresh start in a new league is the right move for Eduardo. There’s simply no room for sentimentality.

But there can be no doubt that the position many Arsenal fans are worried most about is the one that has not yet been addressed – goalkeeper.

We all know that Wenger has a masterful way with words. But as well as the memorable one-liner he has a politician’s ability, when quizzed, to neither confirm nor deny, and to reveal something at the same time as giving nothing away. That’s why, despite being quizzed on his plans for the goalkeeping position earlier this week, he was as evasive as ever.

Were we still interested in Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer, he was asked. “Not really”. That’s not a yes, of course, but nor was it definitely a no.

“At the moment, in pre-season, there is no No.1 – you have to give a chance to everyone to show how good he is. You cannot decide that today.”

Classic Wenger, defending his players, keen to keep his plans under wraps.

But seeing that Almunia has had ample chance to show us how good he is, Fabianski has on ample occasions showed us how good he is, and Szczesny has never played a Premier League game, you’d think a deal for a new number one will happen at some point between now and the end of August.

I would agree with those who say Schwarzer is still the likeliest deal.

Last night saw a 3-0 win against Sturm Graz and the word on the tweet is that Samir Nasri was the pick of the bunch. I’ve not been following the tour that closely yet – I opted to save up for a pint at the Emirates rather than shell out the £3 for the first 3 pre-season games – and besides, pre-season is still so young that it’s impossible to draw any real conclusions.

But phew, it’s nice to have some Arsenal to talk about after a summer largely bereft of it.

Busy summer looms as Arsenal’s season crumbles

Blackburn 2-1 Arsenal

Another day, another lifeless defeat.

Our ‘easy run-in’ has turned into a nightmare, with one point from the last 12 and a succession of infuriatingly weak, insipid performances. The alarm bells are ringing loud and clear.

A squad that was meant to end the season on a high – albeit just off the pace – has now completely given up the fight and there seems to be nothing whatsoever that Wenger can do about it.

A loss against Fulham, perish the thought, would leave us on 72 points, exactly the same amount as last season. Progress? It doesn’t feel like it.

I didn’t expect Wenger to lambast Flapianski in his post-match interview, but even he must cringe with embarrassment every time he has to defend such a liability. He was clearly at fault for the second goal. Blackburn saw him as the weak spot – they didn’t have to look too hard to find it – and successfully targeted him. Naturally, it worked.

Elsewhere on the pitch, after a fairly bright start we faded badly. Look at the starting XI and at the bench though and you can see part of the problem is simply a lack of quality available. It doesn’t excuse the lack of stomach for the fight but it does go some way to explaining the paucity of some of our play.

We have so many players out and the backups have simply not been good enough.

Let’s break yesterday’s squad of 18 into three groups.

There are at least five players there we simply wouldn’t miss, other than numerically. Not one of Fabianski, Silvestre, Traore, Vela, or Eduardo has improved this season. You can only assume that the new contracts offered to the latter two were given partly to ensure healthy sell-on fees.

Then there are others from yesterday’s 18 who are good squad players, but too inconsistent, immature, or ageing to be considered first-choice material next season. In that category I would put Eboue, Campbell, Walcott, Diaby, Mannone, Djourou, Gibbs, Eastmond and Henderson.

That leaves, as nailed-on starters from that 18, just Sagna, Nasri, Arshavin and van Persie. The form of Nasri and Arshavin has been up and down but to my mind, the quality is there.

So we are missing a lot of players, and in their absence we have seen that the balance is wrong, the collective will to win has been diluted and the quality is lacking. It’s not a good cocktail at all.

On yesterday’s evidence, it will be a busy summer for Wenger, chopping out the deadwood and bringing in players who possess the kind of drive and quality that will rub off on those of the squad who have the most to learn.

Apologies if this is a bit of a ramble but I thought I’d pour it all out and see how it dried.

Bring on the end of the season.

Burden on Bendtner as injuries bite

Injuries, injuries, injuries. Arseblog this morning reiterated some of the snaps, twangs, fractures, strains and pings that have blighted us this season. It is indeed a minor miracle that, with the injuries we’ve had and got, we’ve arrived at the beginning of April still in contention both in the league and in the European Cup.

But can we cope? With every goalscoring midfielder we lose, things get incrementally harder unless someone else steps up to the plate.

It’s one thing going without Djourou, Ramsey, Gallas and Gibbs (8 goals in total this term) but to lose both Arshavin and Fabregas (30 goals) on top of van Persie (8) could well prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It means that almost half of all our goals scored this season have come from players who are now injured (46 from 101), and while we are very capable of scoring goals from all across the field, the losses of Fabregas and Arshavin are big, big blows.

Bendtner – a player who has himself missed a huge chunk of the season – is now our top fit scorer with nine goals, closely followed by the indomitable and hopefully titanium-coated Thomas Vermaelen on eight.

A huge goalscoring burden now falls on the big Dane, and we’re going to need more from Walcott, Eduardo, and our goalscoring midfielders (Diaby, Nasri and Denilson) as well.

To gauge just how big a loss Fabregas’s goals will be, consider this: Walcott, Diaby, Nasri and Denilson combined have scored one goal less than Cesc has this season. (Update: I got this a bit wrong. Combined they have 21 to Cesc’s 19 – but the point remains).

Then there’s Eduardo. He’s scored six goals this season, but only three (from 22 appearances) in the Premier League. Wenger has used him so sparingly that it’s hard not to conclude that something isn’t right. Whether he’s carrying knocks, or his head is not right, or he’s lost a yard of pace – who knows. But it seems a tall order to throw him in at the deep end and expect miracles.

All of which leaves us with the van Persie issue. He’s back training with Arsenal, and while Wenger wanted to give him a month to get back to top condition, could the current situation force a rethink?

The boss has got to be tempted.

Hello, permanent nerves. Let’s be friends.

Word cloud from East Lower – courtesy of Wordle

Guardian squad sheet
BBC match page

Now, it’s got to be said that looking at the stats and the squad sheets above doesn’t get you all that far. It will tell you that Birmingham have a very good home record, but it will also tell you that Arsenal’s recent record looks like WWWWWW. The general picture is no clearer because since we went top last Saturday, albeit briefly, both of our rivals have since overtaken us again. It’s impossibly close and with every passing game, the effect of any dropped points is magnified. Studying stats now just gives me the fear. Doing the Prem Predictor merely magnifies it tenfold.

Ordinarily, a point at St. Andrews would be considered a decent enough result. Tomorrow though, it would feel like a hammer blow. Just look – if you can bear it – at the example of Chelsea from the last week. Written off last Saturday following a draw, a subsequent 5-0 win and it’s all back on for them. This is how it’s going to be between now and the end of the season I’m afraid.

It’ll be a taut day for Eduardo, you’d imagine. Over two years since the leg break, and it’s still hard to see the player that was in the player that now is. Three league goals this term tells its own story. Given that whenever I see the incident again – or Ramsey’s for that matter – my own never-broken ankle comes out in tingly sympathy, you can see why it’s not the kind of thing that a player who suffered an injury like that is likely to be able to dismiss entirely. It must be almost impossible. At least the perpetrator of the tackle back then is no longer at the club – he’s now at Watford.

Eduardo signed a new deal not long ago, which is either a sign of Wenger’s faith or a piece of economic good sense for a player coming to the end of his contract. Would anyone be really surprised if he did move on in the summer? On current form it has to be a possibility.

Back in 2008, had we won at Birmingham we would have gone eight points clear.

Oh for the luxury of a lead like that now.

Arsenal take strength from Ramsey’s agony

Stoke City 1-3 Arsenal

Fortunately for anyone who watches football, the sight of a player screaming in agony with his leg snapped and at the wrong angle is a rarity. I can remember it happening four of five times in all my years watching football. When it happened to Eduardo in 2008, it was too horrible to look at. So yesterday, for it to happen again to Aaron Ramsey was sickening in the extreme, and it has overshadowed everything. I was thinking about it all last night and I’m still thinking about it this morning.

We don’t know how bad it was, or how complicated it will be to heal, but you don’t need to see something like that in any great detail to know he will surely be out of action for a year. It’s doubly depressing to see as he just coming of age for Arsenal. He’s a magnificent little player.

The sad truth is he might find it hard to come back at all. If you look at the list of those who have suffered similar injuries in English football, a fair few had to retire not long after. We can but hope that Ramsey’s leg will heal and he will pick his career up where he left off. I feel desperately sorry for him.

Look at Diaby and Eduardo though, both of whom suffered similar injuries, and you will see two players still ping-ponging between the pitch and the treatment table. It’s a long road back.

I don’t doubt that Ryan Shawcross is a decent lad and meant no malice. The look on his face as he left the pitch tells you as much. But he broke a player’s leg. The tackle was a shocking one, a wild lunge, and three matches out seems absurdly lenient when you consider what Ramsey now faces. To cap it all off, he was called up for England. That was a bad call from a PR perspective if you ask me.

As Wenger and Fabregas both said post-match, for it to happen three times in five years to Arsenal players feels more than mere coincidence. There might be no malice involved, but for years we have been told the way to play Arsenal is to rough them up a bit, to knock them out their stride, and you know what, it’s worked too at times. But perhaps this is the result of that; occasionally, inevitably, there’ll be a badly timed tackle that does something like this.

Fabregas called for more protection but it’s hard to know what can be done against individual acts of stupidity, other than in retrospect. Yesterday, for example, was a rough-and-tumble physical scrap – one in which Arsenal showed magnificent commitment – marred by one dreadful tackle. That’s the way some teams play football; they play to their strengths just as Arsenal play to theirs. It’s hard to legislate against an individual player’s wild, late tackle other than to punish the player himself more harshly once it has happened. The punishment needs to fit the crime. At the moment, it doesn’t at all. Not remotely.

Onto the game. I thought it was a magnificent Arsenal fightback. OK, so our collective defensive amnesia saw us let in yet another goal in from a throw-in, but we matched Stoke’s commitment and showed a fantastic spirit overall.

I was particularly impressed with the way we recovered after Ramsey’s injury. For ten minutes the team was shell-shocked but we drove forward and you could tell what those two late goals meant to the players. The fist-pumping release of emotion after the Verm’s third goal made me proud. I was doing the same thing myself.

Maybe, just maybe, this team came of age yesterday. Fabregas captained the team majectically, scoring one, setting up two, and to see Vermaelen and Campbell roaring at the crowd tells you all you need to know. Anyone doubting the merit of having big Sol yet? He was fantastic. Clichy looked like a man possessed, a completely different player to the error-riddled Clichy of recent times. Alex Song was exceptional.

Three points off the top, with a collective spirit and a will to win forged by Ramsey’s leg break and a decent run-in.

We’re back in this, make no mistake.

So long, Alex Song, and a Happy New Year

Portsmouth 1-4 Arsenal

A thoroughly comfortable win on the south coast saw off 2009 in style and makes the prospect of 2010 more than a little interesting for those of us of red and white persuasion.

I’m oop north at the moment, and without Sky on the TV I watched the game live on my iPhone. Infuriatingly, the stream buffered like the dickens, in particular coming to a shuddering halt right before Nasri’s goal made it 2-0. I like the idea of the Sky app that lets you watch live games without the need for a fat TV-sized monthly wedge, and I think £6 a month is a reasonable price to pay for the privilege, but until they sort out the quality (the stream, as well as buffering, veers between pixel-perfect and fuzzy), then I will pass.

It was an easy win. Certainly, once Nasri rifled in our second, it looked completely over as a contest. Pompey’s fans are getting increasingly militant at the way their club is being tossed around like a plaything by faceless owners – it’s desperate stuff and I feel sorry for them. There are plenty of salutary tales to be told about overspending, bad management, murky ownership and a lack of effective regulation from the game’s hierarchy, but as ever, I am thankful that our club is properly run. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Perhaps fittingly, it was Alex Song – our most improved player of 2009 by some distance – who scored Arsenal’s final league goal of the decade. A quick look online tells me our first goal of the decade, on 3rd January 2000, came in a 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday and was scored by Emmanuel Petit. I can’t remember it to be honest; it feels like a hundred years ago rather than ten.

Song’s current worth to the team can be directly measured by the increased quantity of furrowed brows among fans caused by his forthcoming absence. He’s really grown into that role, and doesn’t have a direct replacement who mops up quite so vigorously. Although our squad is less hit by the call-up of African players than some, there’s no doubt he will be missed (we’ve got him for one more game, the FA Cup tie at West Ham, but not in the league now for the next month).

The pick of the goals though came from another midfielder, Fabregas’s replacement Aaron Ramsey. It was a real gem, as was watching his patience with the ball, and his eye for a pass. One for the future? Not really – with seven starts and 16 sub appearances, he’s one for now but he’s being dropped into things gently, and besides, he has quite a good player ahead of him in the shape of Fabegas. For an 18-year-old, he’s bang on track and getting as much playing time as he could ever have hoped.

As for reinforcements, well when does a football fan ever say no to the possibility of an additional player? In our case, I’m with the 99.9% of Arsenal fans who clamouring for a new pair of legs up front. Wenger gives the game away, despite a bit of water muddying, when he says:

“It’s true that we have problems with our strikers. Even I say that. Everybody tells me to buy strikers, but when I look at the League, nobody has scored more goals than us.

“We have players who move the ball well and everybody gets in dangerous positions. And that’s why, with the confidence high, everyone can score goals. But we are still in the market.”

We are still in the market, that’s the bottom line. As I said in my previous post, it would be verging on the criminal not to make the most of the situation we find ourselves in. With just one experienced striker (and he’s operating on only three cylinders), we cannot hope to outscore our opponents purely from midfield. We’re bang in there at the top. If we brought in a new face or two in January and still faded away, then fine – that can happen. But the chances are, a new recruit could make a huge difference. So let’s go for it.

Finally, a happy New Year to you all. I hope the year brings you all everything you could hope for (a new striker being a good start on that front).

It’s been an all-round pleasure. Thanks for reading my increasingly infrequent posts, for chatting on here (occasionally) and on Twitter (more frequently). Here’s to more of the same in 2010.

The wonder of you, Cesc Fabregas

Arsenal 3-0 Aston Villa

Some thoughts:

• Was it worth risking Fabregas? Two goals and a game-changing performance answers that question. You can only beat the team you are currently pitted against so it has to have been worth the risk.

• Our best 45 minutes of the season? I think it probably was given the opposition. If not the best half, then it was certainly the most inspired substitution of the campaign.

• … and a more fruitful substitution of a substitute than the last time it happened at the Grove – when Eboue’s dismal season hit its low.

• Diaby looks excellent at the moment. He’s played three games in a row now and with each game he has looked better and better. I’m not bold enough to suggest this augurs well because we’ve been here before, but it does prove (as if it needs proving) that when you stay fit, feel good and keep playing, you tend to see the real player.

• Either that or it’s down to his magic moustache.

• The same point applies to Walcott and Eduardo (playing games, not growing moustaches). You simply can’t write a player off until he has settled into a good run of games. Walcott, incidentally, slid in a peach of a pass for the second goal yesterday and with a few more matches under his belt could have a big part to play over the rest of the season.

• When Wenger told us, after we had just been slaughtered by Chelsea, that they were far from infallible and that we had every chance to claw our way back into things, I considered him a lunatic of the first order.

• And yet here we are, right up there. We’ve done exceptionally well to be where we are, I have to say, with the last month in particular being fruitful. And yet I still don’t feel we have the wherewithal to win the league. We’re not being linked to moves for cover at the back, in the middle and up front for nothing.

• Given our position in the table, and the absurd injury list, it would be criminal not to strengthen in January. As Arshavin’s signing proved, a new face here and there can do wonders.

• Given that injury list – eight at the last count – then the news that Alex Song will be available for the next two games comes as a blessed relief.

Arsenal swatted away

Arsenal 0-3 Chelsea

You can try to take positives out of yesterday’s mauling at the hands of Chelsea, as Wenger did last night, but from where I was sitting it was painfully obvious that our side was brutally exposed. Title challengers? Things can change in football but after yesterday, we need to be honest and lower our sights accordingly.

As Wenger said himself, “Before we speak about ‘title’, we have to win games and you could see that the damage done at Sunderland was deeper, confidence-wise, than it should have been.” Why is that?

Wenger’s strident defence centres around the fact it was tight until Chelsea’s first goal went in, and that had the referee not disallowed Arshavin’s goal at the beginning of the second half, things might have been different. While both things are technically correct, the fact that we did let two goals in quick succession, right before the end of the first half, tells its own story. And in the second half generally, while we gamely rapped against Chelsea’s defensive door, it was too comfortable for Chelsea. They just swatted us away and rubbed their dominance in with a third goal.

Of course, it’s true to say those first two goals killed us off. It’s far easier to boss a second half from a position of strength like that – especially for a side that just doesn’t let goals in. They have conceded eight goals this season – ten fewer than us.

In the end though, the physical power and control that we so lack, and that Chelsea have in abundance, did make the difference many feared it might. Without Bendtner, van Persie and even Diaby’s height, we struggled to make an impression in the parts of the pitch where it really counts. Neither Eduardo, nor Vela when he came on, made the slightest impression. Arshavin had a couple of chances but dithered.

And at the back, when we switched off defensively, we were punished.

It’s easy to criticise Chelsea for the perception that they are ‘boring’, but yesterday they weren’t boring, they were simply disciplined, powerful and ruthless.

Three attributes we could do with ourselves.

No time for more introspection – we can (and probably will) pull this one apart all week.

Hibernation over

Well here we all are again, a little dustier and a trifle older, but here we all are nevertheless.

I did try to get excited about the internationals. But I couldn’t. I missed the Ukraine game entirely, and though I did watch the Belarus game, it was so inconsequential that I lost interest faster than I do when I periodically attempt doing some DIY. From an Arsenal perspective, England taught us naught: Walcott still has a fair chance of making it, but for Gibbs and Wilshere it’s a non-starter.

We did learn that Eduardo has the summer off – maybe he can go caravanning with Aaron Ramsey. And of course, Almunia might fancy tagging along, assuming his chest infection has mended by then.

Onto the Arsenal, at last. We’ve got Brum on Saturday, and although their new owner has promised £20-40m for the transfer window, Chinese riches will do them no good until January and we’ll rightly be viewing it as three points that should be ours.

Talking of foreign ownership, I now make it just nine of the 20 English Premier League clubs under English ownership – a seismic change, the effects of which we probably cannot yet foresee. Better run in some cases, more commercial in most, but who’s to say it’s all for the best? I have my doubts that all of the owners are as benign as they’d have us think. And where are all the English investors?

Arsenal are in a strange place in that, while majority-owned by foreign investors, the old Arsenal boardroom still has a lot of power. But as we’ve seen over the last year, with Kroenke and Usmanov both increasing their shareholdings substantially (the former adding to his stock only today), it’s only a matter of time before something will give. It’s been, by comparison to some takeovers, something of a slow burner. But it’s happening.

Onto this weekend, and we’ve got the usual clutch of injuries – with perhaps the most significant absentee being Almunia, still just 50:50 for Saturday. That was some chest infection.

I know he’s made some errors this season and that, in general, he’s a bit of a wobbler, but I’d not put Mannone ahead of Almunia. Sure, Mannone’s done well, but Almunia’s experience will always win it for me. Now, whether he’s our long-term keeper is another argument entirely…

More from Wenger tomorrow – and I’m told by the folks at that “Friday night is back” too. This is all good, I suspect. Having said that, I never knew it had gone, seeing that I didn’t have a Setanta subscription, but there you go. Trailer below, if you’re interested.

Hasty Uefa in tactical retreat

Well, frankly, I wasn’t expecting that.

Platini must be hiding under his duvet in embarrassment this evening as the Uefa appeals body came to the conclusion that, when it comes to accusing someone of deception, you have to be able to prove it.

This was what they had to say about it:

Following examination of all the evidence, notably the declarations of both the referee and the referees’ assessor, as well as the various video footage, it was not established to the panel’s satisfaction that the referee had been deceived in taking his decision on the penalty.

So how would they have been able to prove deception? I imagine they would have needed to have been comfortable that there was no contact at all when Eduardo tumbled. In this case, that just can’t be proven.

Arsenal are happy too:

“We are grateful that the Appeals Body focused on the evidence and made the right decision in this case. We were able to show that there was contact between the goalkeeper and Eduardo and that the decision of the UEFA Disciplinary body should be annulled. We fully support the drive for fair play in football and believe it is important that UEFA provide clear and comprehensive standards that will be consistently enforced going forward. We are glad to put this incident behind us and concentrate on the games ahead.”

As is Eduardo:

“I’m very pleased that we have finally arrived at the truth. All we needed to do was to prove what happened and we have managed to do that. This decision makes me feel a lot better… All I remember of the incident is that as soon as I had possession of the ball I headed towards goal at full speed. I was very close to the Celtic keeper and felt contact on my foot and then lost my balance. I know perhaps more than anyone else that when you have contact at speed it can be dangerous. I just want to say that I’m a fair player. To score goals you must take your opportunities and I’m not the type of player who needs to be dishonest to score goals.”

Interesting stuff, because at the time, like many others, I thought Eduardo did dive. It looked that way to me. However, he is adamant he did not dive, rather that he lost his balance having felt contact. As Uefa have discovered, in this instance, given no clear evidence that he fell to the ground in order to deceive the referee and earn a penalty, he has to be taken at his word.

Perhaps the most telling thing is the admission that “I know perhaps more than anyone else that when you have contact at speed it can be dangerous.” So basically, he was trying to avoid injury. Psychologically, given the horrendous leg break in January 2008, that argument makes a lot of sense.

On top of that, as Arsenal implied, any retrospective punishment for this kind of thing needs “clear and comprehensive standards that will be consistently enforced going forward”. Most people would support that – and that was patently lacking in this instance.

Banning Eduardo would have opened a can of worms they’re not prepared to deal with, at least not at the moment.

So some football fans might moan, and many will disagree, but Uefa came to the only conclusion they could in the end.