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).

History repeats itself as Arsenal bow out meekly

Sunderland 2-0 Arsenal

In a straw text poll before the match last night, I asked 7 people whether it was going to be W, D or L at the Stadium of Light. Four went for a win, two for a draw (one of which was me) and two for a defeat. It just goes to show that optimism often triumphs over despair, despite most of the evidence stacking up against it.

Who were they kidding though? This Arsenal side proved once again yesterday that it is almost incapable of immediately bouncing back from disappointment. The history of the last two seasons tells us that once we are in a rut, we make our bed, put the pictures up on the wall and prepare for a long stay.

The more Wenger calls for a show of mental strength and resilience, the more I worry that there isn’t any. This is the sad state to which I have been reduced.

The truth is, we are currently – as I said on Twitter last night – a ragged mess. We are certainly struggling more than any Wenger side has. It is perhaps the most we have struggled since 1995, Graham’s last season, when only a run to the Cup Winners’ Cup Final glossed over some very average league form (we finished 12th, and lost 17 league games).

The team has let in 53 goals this season (stat via Gingers4Limpar). On too many occasions it’s not defended properly, it’s not worked hard enough off the ball, it’s not pulled together as a team. It has lacked power and aggression and speed of thought.

The brickbats are flying and Wenger will now try to forge a siege mentality. Let’s hope, for the sake of next Sunday, for the rest of the season and for Wenger himself, that he can lift and motivate and tweak and patch up this side for the challenges ahead.

But you’ve heard it all before, and I’ve written it all before.

Here’s a picture of a meadow.

field

Why I’m always Up for the Cup

It’s that time of year again when I allow myself to go all misty-eyed about the FA Cup while the less sentimental (and perhaps younger) among us tut-tut and denounce the old jug as a busted flush.

The Champions League is bigger, bolder, more watched, more important and above all more lucrative than the FA Cup, this we all know. Well, actually one of those is open to debate: last year’s Champions League final between Man Utd and Barcelona was watched by 9 million in the UK, but the FA Cup final, between two teams with much smaller national followings than Utd, got 8.5 million. There’s life in the old dog yet.

I’ve always loved it, and I may as well wheel out the reasons why again. Firstly, I grew up with it, and that counts for a lot. I can’t remember the ’79 final for some reason but I remember cup final day in ’80 (though not the match – you’ll forgive me for that). I remember Grimsby 3-4 Arsenal in 1986, I’ll never forget beating Man Utd 2-1 at Highbury in 1988, when McClair missed a last-minute penalty and Winterburn goaded him royally for it. The multi-man points-deducting brawl at Old Trafford in 1990 was merely a continutation of the bad blood between the two sides.

I was giving away free newspapers at Wembley in 1991 as a holiday job (fortunately outside the Arsenal end) and heard both the Spurs goals go in: I was on my way home in the back of a minibus when Alan Smith halved the deficit but it was too little too late. We got our revenge two years later though. Then there was 1993, the FA and League Cup double against Sheffield Wednesday.

Latterly, perhaps success bred a bit of complacency – or at least expectancy. Between 1998 and 2005 – eight seasons – we reached the FA Cup final an astonishing five times, winning it on four occasions. As Vieira rocketed in the winning penalty in 2005 in Cardiff, I’d never have thought, had you told me then, that I’d be sitting here seven years hence with no more FA Cup finals in the memory banks. They seemed like a bit of a birth right at the time but the intervening years have once again proved how cyclical these things are. If we were cup fatigued back then, we’re certainly not now.

Secondly, I love the fact that it’s a knockout (and not the kind where you clonk one another with giant ear buds beneath the Atomium in Brussels or dress up as giant penguins). It’s fair where the Champions League is not (at least in the group stages, which can be very sterile). You can be drawn against anyone, home or away, at any point. If you don’t perform on the day, you’re gone. I love that.

Thirdly, there is nothing quite like the cup, and particularly cup final day, as a fan. In many ways I preferred it during the Cardiff years [not least because we were in it – Ed]. Back then the semi-finals were in Birmingham or Manchester, and the finals in Cardiff, so we got the whole scarf-out-the-window road trip thrown in. Such occasions always heralded a new Arsenal mixtape from @feverpitch – the poor swine’s tape-to-tape machine has been dusty for too long now. Proper banter and nervous excitement. As someone who no longer travels away, I do miss that.

So yes, I love the old trophy and I’m as desperate as I have ever been to go somewhere in it this year. Not least because it really does represent our best chance of silverware. Coming 4th is an achievement of sorts (that fact alone I resent), but the FA Cup is what winning is all about.

So to Leeds on Monday night. A Cultured Left Foot has some memories of Leeds ties of old to chew on, but if the cup is not enough for you, then the return of a certain Mr T Henry, once formerly of this parish, now back for a sojourn, should get your juices flowing. What’s he got left in the tank? We shall see.

Yes, I’m excited already.

Match preview / Poll results

Morning, trolololo! The sun is once again out, spring has erupted and my miserable mood has evaporated.

Arsenal are at the seaside today and I can’ wait. Wenger’s injury latest – always much anticipated – tells us that Fabregas is definitely back, Ramsey too, but that Walcott, Sagna & Song may not make the grade. (Don’t even get me started on who might be training next week, or not long after – I fear the mere mention of Players A, B and C might jinx things).

As I said before, at this stage it’s almost not about the personnel on the pitch. It’s about the response, the approach and the attitude. That’s what makes this game so fascinating: there’s been a whole week of behind-closed-doors contemplation, and seeing what comes of it is intriguing.

It’s really do or die now. Utd are ten points clear – a huge psychological barrier – and nothing less than a win will do. Apart from anything else, we need to stop the rot of a five-game streak without a win.

Blackpool, luckily for us, are in a rut of their own, having lost 10 or their 14 games since the turn of the year. So it’s two teams desperate to win, though cleartly for different reasons.

Come on Arsenal. No excuses.

BBC preview
Guardian Squad Sheet

FA Cup or Champions League?

In his impassioned press conference on Friday, Wenger asked:

“Would you swap winning the FA Cup for playing in the Champions League? Is it a trophy or not to be in the Champions League? Is it more important to win the FA Cup?”

Arse 2 Mouse put it on record that he’s prefer an actual trophy, an on balance, I too am of the view that winning a prestigious pot – something that gets a permanent spot on the programme masthead and in the record books – gets the nod. Isn’t that what this is all about?

Trouble is, the Champions League distorts everything. Most obviously, money plays a part – a successful run to the end can make the club £40m – but also prestige comes into play, both for club and player. If you’re not in it, it’s hard to keep big players (though Liverpool’s approach has been interesting: they have offloaded a ‘star’ player and bought heavily with the longer-term in mind). And as Wenger says, it’s also a measure of consistency – 13 years or so unbroken in the Champions League is without doubt a feat of its own.

It’s not an honour but it leads to big European nights, which can in some ways be as defining for a club, in terms of progress, as an FA Cup win.

Maybe I would revise my own opinion if an FA Cup win was followed by fallow years of no European Cup football. I’m sure in fact that I would.

So look, maybe the question is simply too black and white. It’s layered with complications. As some people said when I put it to them as a poll on Twitter, why can’t we have both? Fair enough. I was merely interested to know, if you had to, what you would pick.

Anyway, the results were conclusive [see below]. Very much a case of Platini 1-0 Bernstein. There were about 300 votes but I can’t imagine the 75%-25% split would change much if there had been 3,000.


Match preview: Down for the count or up for the cup?

I’ll admit, I’ve been rather down on the team since our defeat on Tuesday. What I fear more than anything else is the team letting the mini-slump slump along further, to the point where it’s all a bit too late. Let’s, for the sake of clarity, refer to this as ‘sleep-slumping’ to disaster.

And if I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself, it’s reasonable to assume that the team is too. These are the ‘psychological blows’ Wenger refers to. Left hook, Birmingham. Midriff, Sunderland. Right hook, Barcelona. We’re tottering on the ropes a bit.

This article in the Guardian sums up neatly why today is more than just an opportunity to freshen things up and give our war-weary troops a breather. Back in 2008, Wenger effectively conceded the FA Cup at Old Trafford to concentrate on the league, only to then win just one win from the next eight. That, as they say, was that.

So quite apart from being an FA Cup quarter final, which is reason enough to take things seriously, the added factors of a) two teams eager to put recent disappointments behind them and b) two teams challenging each other at the top of the table, makes it a huge, huge game.

We’ve lost five of our last six trips to Old Trafford, drawing the other, and United’s home form is superb. Nobody is under any illusions about the size of the task. But we urgently need to come out with a response. It’s been argued long and hard over the last week, but for my money we’ve not played well – at least not as well as we can – since Barcelona in the first leg. We’ve lost a bit of sparkle. You could argue that the league is a bigger priority, but I’m not sure I agree. It’s a bigger target, and we’d all rather win it than the cup, sure, but the FA Cup has equal priority in my books. You cannot pluck form out of the ether, or pick and mix which competitions to win. It doesn’t work that way. You go for them all.

So we’ll play as strong a team as we can, I’m sure of that, and I guess it will be something like Almunia, Sagna, Koscielny, Djourou, Clichy, Wilshere, Diaby, Eboue/Bendtner, Nasri, Arshavin & van Persie. Denilson might play a part but I’d be worried by that. We don’t need to add more players lacking confidence to the starting XI, we need fewer. It’s one thing Bendtner doesn’t lack, and Eboue for all his lack of end product offers a bit of pace.

What we need is a reaction. A performance. A sign that they’re rolling up their sleeves and tucking into the business end of the season with the bit between their teeth.

BBC preview
Guardian squad sheet

Holed in the O’s own lair

Confession: I used the above headline as it’s simply too cheesy to let pass, and if I don’t use it now, it will be even later than the too late it already is. [I haven’t seen it elsewhere but if I’m late to the party I’ll be happy to admit it].

In brief though: Having sung the praises of the FA Cup and insisted upon the retention of cup replays, I can have no complaints about the draw at the Orient that forces us to squeeze another match into the jammed schedule. If anything, I tend to agree with the much-aired view that the second string, far from requiring fewer games, could do with more. It certainly reinforced my view that two, three or even four changes from our first XI can be accommodated, but that most of a team revolving in cannot.

Is this a case of a collective lack of drive from the second string? No. It’s not that simplistic. It was a feisty cup tie and an almost completely changed line-up from Wednesday. But more than that, the absent midfield combination of Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas adds so, so much to the side on so many levels. They are simply far better than the alternatives. Not just from a creative perspective, but collectively their will to win is huge. Can we keep those three fit until the end of the season? It seems unlikely given the fixure list but much could hinge on their availability.

And at the back, we played a defence unused to playing with one another, which included several relative rookies in Gibbs and Miquel and two down-the-pecking-order players in Almunia and Squillaci. We should have created more chances, but overall it wasn’t the world’s biggest surprise. At least it wasn’t to me.

As for it generating another midweek home game… I can’t say I’m too unhappy.

Match preview

Tomorrow night we’re straight back in the saddle, with Stoke City coming to town. It’s a fixture with baggage these days. As much as anything though, it’s a massive clash of styles. We all know how Stoke play; it can be effective – at home in particular, as we have found.

Arsenal have at times this season not defended set pieces well so it’s not hard to work out where City might plough their furrow.

Wenger though has hit on the solution: keeping the ball. “As long as we have the ball, they cannot be dangerous” he said. That does of course form part of a utopian wish list in any game, and is certainly one I’d like to have employed in the first half against Barcelona, but possession is not necessarily nine tenths of the win. Barcelona discovered this on Wednesday and we did too, on Sunday. As much as anything we need to be ruthless and make our possession count.

We’ll have to do it without van Persie and Koscielny too, both out with small injuries (with any luck not Vermaelen ‘small’) and therefore not risked ahead of Wembley on Sunday. Diaby is out twice – suspended and, of course, injured.

It was looking like a no-go for me, but the gods of football have been generous and I’ll be there.

Here’s to three of your finest points.

Arsenal look east / Leave the Cup alone

Will concentration be an issue after our big night on Wednesday? It has been for me. If I’ve watched van Persie’s and Arshavin’s goals once, I’ve watched them a hundred times. I’ve chewed the game over with anyone who cares to listen (and some who don’t), I’ve digested all the podcasts, I’ve modded my iPhone wallpaper (thanks Gunnerblog) and I’ve changed its ringtone to ‘Goal – van Persie Goal, van Persie Goal’ (thanks Arseblog). I have responded to all those well-wishers who texted, DM’d and rung me to congratulate me. Like I played a part! I merely shouted and jumped up and down and hugged other men and women. I have been on YouTube and the interwebs. Short of building a shrine in my front room, there’s not a lot more I can do. It needs to stop.

Today’s we’re off to Brisbane Road for our fifth round tie and it’s a classic cup match-up. The O’s are doing well and will suspect – justifiably – that some of our better players will be given a breather today. As Arseblogger said yesterday, fighting on four fronts is an almost impossible task, so rotation has to happen. Wenger needs to get the balance right, but I would still expect the likes of Squillaci, Gibbs, Denilson, Bendtner, Chamakh and Rosicky to start today. Will they all start? Quite possibly, with a strong bench to call on should things need to change.

Leave the cup alone

Incidentally, debutant Mike Parry on 606 last night played devil’s advocate – I give him the benefit of the doubt because if he actually believed it, I despair – by claiming the FA Cup needs to be brought from its malaise by seeding. His argument was that by having non-Premier League teams in the final never makes for a good game, so on that basis some kind of seeding needs to occur to prevent it from happening. The public wants to see the FA Cup final between the country’s biggest teams, he said. I couldn’t disagree more vehemently. As if cup finals between the top teams are special? The biggest clubs getting to the final more frequently is what’s making it less interesting, not more interesting. Liverpool v Man Utd in 1996? When was the last classic cup final between the ‘top four’?

And as if seeding as a concept works – look at the Champions League group stages. It’s got to the point where it’s more ‘valuable’ (financially) to stay in the Premier League than have a run in the cup, and it’s more ‘valuable’ (financially) to come fourth to get into the Champions League. Where is the glory of actually winning something?

I don’t pretend to have the answers but for my money it might be improved by the following:

1. Leave the format alone. Scrap replays, weeknight finals, more random TV-driven kick-offs? Just stop it. Ideas like this will kill it. We need to keep replays, because they are the essence of the cup. It gives smaller clubs a potential pay day and it motivates them. Leeds away was one of the most enjoyable games of our season. Leave it alone.
2. Include the FA Cup as part of all clubs’ season tickets. It works at Arsenal. Nobody complains. It might raise crowds elsewhere. And on top of that, if it’s a game the fans have to purchase, managers/chairmen might be forced to take it more seriously.
3. Make it more worthwhile financially. The winner currently gets £1,800,000. It shouldn’t be about the money, but seeing that it is, raise the pot given to those who get to the latter stages – QFs onwards – and it might just readjust some priorities.

Anyway, that’s my tupp’orth. I love the FA Cup, always have, always will. Don’t tinker too much with it, I say.

Come on you rip-roarers.

Keepers / crowds / blow-up haddock

Good morning from a – you guessed it – grey London. Where is the sun? Seriously, where is it?

As usual, Wenger had plenty to say yesterday ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup game against Huddersfield. The most interesting – usual deflected stuff about buying a defender aside – was what he said about our goalkeepers.

“At the moment Wojciech is No 1. He’s done nothing for me to take him out”.

Of course, in typical Wenger way he added some ambiguity by saying “at the moment”, which could mean, ‘while Fabianski is injured’, in which case it’s rather less revelatory. But my guess is he meant it at face value, and it’s well merited too. I was chatting to Goodplaya yesterday and he pointed out we’ve now had three first-choice keepers this season. Incredible, really, but in the end Wenger has settled on the right one of the three.

Despite the history attached to this tie, my guess is we won’t be seeing a completely full Grove tomorrow, even if the official attendance isn’t far off. It looks like there are still tickets available to buy, and I’ve certainly seen more than you’d normally see bandied about on Twitter. It’s not hard to guess why this might be: it’s winter, money is tight, we’ve played a lot at home recently, we’re playing again on Tuesday, the match is at midday and is against lower league opponents. My view on the old jug has never changed: it’s a fantastic competition, in which you can draw anyone anytime, you can be taken to a replay, and as a knockout it provides you with the typical lickety-split on-pitch tempo. Compare and contrast, from an excitement point of view, with the Champions League group stages.

Having said that, compared to some sides, attendances for the FA Cup have held up fantastically at Arsenal in recent years, and it won’t be too far short tomorrow. It’s easy to take for granted the fact we get nearly or over 60,000 for all our home games, but it wasn’t ever thus. From the mid 80s when I started going to Arsenal, I can remember only 3 or 4 matches where there were over 50,000 packed in, and crowds of 25,000 were not unusual. The lowest we’ve ever had at the Emirates, I think, is 53,136 (thanks, Twitter!) That is pretty amazing.

More interesting is the number of away fans that are coming to the Emirates generally. There can’t have been more than about 250 Wigan fans here, and plenty of other sides have not taken up the full 3,000 allocation. Far fewer away fans are coming this season than in previous years, I would guess, though I have no empirical proof.

All the same – I can’t wait. There’ll be a good away crowd this time, and probably some balloons. Balloons are important. (Digression: It’d be nice to see a return to blow up terrace extras. Back in the 80s they were all the rage – I remember Grimsby fans with their Harry Haddocks. There are few things as surreal as thousands of blow-up haddocks fizzing around in unison).

Well, that’s about the size of it.

Match report: Arsenal’s perfect riposte

Leeds Utd 1-3 Arsenal

A thoroughly satisfying evening in Yorkshire. With memories of the preceding Leeds and Ipswich ties still fresh, I said to @feverpitch before the game started last night that we’d know which Arsenal was present within five minutes of the whistle. Rather neatly, exactly five minutes had elapsed when Arshavin and Chamakh ping-ponged the ball through to the waltzing Nasri, who scuttled past a couple of players and sunk one into the bottom right corner. Game on: Arsenal were up for this alright.

Both Bendtner and Arshavin – more of which later – then missed gilt-edged crosses to make it 2-0, but in the end it fell to Bacary Sagna to rifle the second goal in. Not to be outdone, Leeds – who I was again impressed with all night – made it 2-1 with one of those 30-yard screamers that don’t come around too often. It had me wistfully dreaming of that Vieira rocket against Newcastle when we won 3-1 in April 1998.

It strikes me that Wenger has got the balance right between playing ‘scratch’ sides and overusing his first XI. Last night, Walcott, Fabregas, Wilshere and van Persie were given a rest, but all four were on the bench if required. Gibbs came in for Clichy (also on the bench) but Sagna replaced Eboue, so the defence was as good as we can field (not that we have a lot of leeway at centre-half).

As it happened, with the game still at 2-1, Wenger called on van Persie and Fabregas and it wasn’t long before our third goal put the game to bed.

Bendt it like Beckham

*headline groan* – and one I was beaten to by @White_Ox, damn him.

The third was a delight. Fabregas passed to our man on the right, Nicklas Bendtner, whose cross was absolutely inch-perfect. van Persie, or more precisely van Persie’s head, simply could not miss. It was the best thing Bendtner did all night. Lord knows he tried though, I can’t blame him for a lack of effort – it’s just he’s in a monumental rut. It’s more of an escarpment. There was one time when he was back defending – an admirable place to be – at right-back, he won the ball through sheer tenacity but then somehow contrived to lose it again. It’s hard to be too critical. On the contrary, I have some sympathy. Can we have a whip-round and buy him a goal?

If you peer over the edge of the confidence escarpment, you will also see a Mr A Arshavin of St Petersburg, Russia, waving at you from the bottom. If there are two options available, Arshavin is in one of those places that means he will always take the wrong one. OK, he played a key part in Nasri’s opener but he missed a couple of other presentable chances, and skied one shot (in the box) so high the RAF had to be scrambled.

Still, talk of offloading one or the other of these players is a nonsense. Quite apart from anything, we can’t afford to weaken our front line. But beyond that, both players are capable of much more, and I’d rather we found a way to nurse them back to form.

Cracking FA Cup tie, and one that vindicates my love of the old pot. I can’t wait for Huddersfield Town to come in the fourth round.

Onwards and upwards. Here we are, mixing it on four fronts, looking hungry, relatively injury free. Let’s keep going in this vein. I’m buzzing all over again.

(And Arsene – sort that new defender out please. Koscielny and Djourou are not made of titanium. Thanks.)