Ex-Cesc baggage


Sometimes, an internet leave of absence is just what the doctor ordered. I rolled up my trouser legs, knotted my hanky and set off south for ten days, and being too stingy to pay for 3G abroad, I made do without the interwebs entirely.

Well, not entirely. When I encountered unlocked wifi (as I did, rather excitedly, in a Co-op car park) I inhaled it and I inhaled it deep. But by and large, I made do with old-fashioned methods of communication (pigeons, text messages).

In that time we signed Oxlade-Chamberlain (one for the future), Campbell (one for the future).

But last night, we bowed to the inevitable – perhaps a year after we should have done – and agreed to sell Cesc Fabregas (one for the now) back to Barcelona. People decry it as a poor deal when he could have been sold for £50m on the open market, but this was never an open market deal and besides, it still amounts to a £35m ish profit on our initial outlay. Now all he needs to do it pass his medical. Will his hamstrings heal in time? I reckon a couple of strepsils should sort it.

Cesc has been a magnificent player for Arsenal, and he gave us eight excellent years of service. While many questioned the ability and attitude of some around him, on the pitch he himself was peerless. Without doubt one of the best midfielders I have seen in my years at Arsenal. Calm on the ball, tenacious, great touch, an eye for a pass, the ability to create and score goals. Yes, he was that good. My favourite moment? This of course.

What if?

What if we had packed the midfield and defence with experienced winners to complement him? We would probably have won something, but even then would he have stayed? I doubt it. He was always going to go back and I for one can certainly not begrudge him that.

That said, his desperation to go home this summer, coupled with Nasri’s rather clear intentions to make use of the exit door, has made for a rotten summer. Arsenal have handled both issues badly. Barcelona must shoulder blame too for the way they have driven the price down.

What does it all mean? For me, both players have been sold at least a month too late (assuming Nasri goes). Now, I know Arsenal were unable to drive the timings here, but to sell two of your most creative and experienced players after the season begins and right before a crucial – and tricky – Champions League qualifier is dismal and leaves us scrabbling for reinforcements.

Sort both deals out and we will have more cash than most clubs can dream of to strengthen.

It’s a boring old drum to bang, but bang it I must: We need to spend money.

In the meantime, good luck to you Cesc, and thanks.

Latest Arsenal news: Two dull sagas continue to be dull

Another week rolls by, free of blog entries. I’ll happily admit I really have struggled to inspire myself to write much this summer. In June & July of 2009 – the last football-free summer – I blogged 14 times. This year there have been just six posts in the same period. And all this despite having more time this summer to ferret away in Google Docs than I’ve had in a pretty long while.

Is it a lingering apathy stretching back months – a groundhog summer weariness? Perhaps it’s the lack of transfers to date, having been promised fireworks (or at least, that’s how my desperate mind interpreted it)? Or is it the sheer numbing dullness of the Cesc and Nasri flirtations? You know what: I am so bored of those two sagas I’d happily see them both offloaded. I’m a sympathetic sort of bloke as a rule, but I am bored witless of it all.

Yes, I know it would blow a craterous hole in our creativity and experience – Fabregas is a bloody genius – and that selling one or both creates as many problems as it solves, but how can there be any kind of squad cohesion with two wantaway players flicking bits of rubber with rulers at the professor from the back of the class?

I know it’s more complicated than that and that everything, across Europe, is dependent on dozens of variables. If A moves here, I can bid for B, but X won’t come unless Y has gone to Z, and so on and so forth. It’s like a giant house of cards. The question is, would Cesc and/or Nasri’s departure set the whole thing off? It surely would.

But I’m wary of declaring that – finally – something appears to be giving. There’s a feeling, based entirely on my observing the skittishness of both Twitter and NewsNow, that the Fabregas deal might be edging closer – though I’ve seen faster glaciers – and who knows whether the Mata rumours will come to owt or not, but the possibility is being strongly peddled all over the place at the moment.

Bendtner appears closer to a move. Almunia’s still in the window of the local Barnardos charity shop. I walk past him every day. £2 (on the plus side, if you are a UK taxpayer you can do Gift Aid).

Anyway, back to Cesc & Nasri. It would be nice if the smoke cleared, decisively and finally, but I’d go purple if I held my breath. So until then, I’ll just have to carry on inhaling and exhaling as normal.

But I do wish, somehow or other, that someone, somewhere would put a stop to it.

Gervinho: Uncorked at last

Arsenal signings 2 – 1 Arsenal sales

Arsenal: Specialists in snail-paced transfers. The good news is that Gervinho has definitely signed – or at least, he’ll “shortly join” us “subject to a regulatory process”. If Cesc and Nasri’s summer represents the longest goodbye – Wenger disagrees on this point, vehemently – then Gervinho’s has without doubt been the longest hello. His four-year contract has been dithered over so long it’s already only got three years left on it, which means that he’s only one year away from demanding a new one and a further one year away from agitating for a move away. Modern football – it’s great, isn’t it?

Sorry Gervinho, I am more than likely doing you a disservice. Either way, the Ivorian is a silky-footed striker, and if YouTube is any guide, he’s a very different beast to the departing Nicklas Bendtner. If £9m is the asking price for the Dane, then someone has a good deal on their hands, I think. He’s no winger, patently, and he misses more than he scores, clearly, but the main thing is, he does score and he can make an impact. He just never quite fitted into the system we play.

Cesc and Nasri: we have ominous signs on the one hand and an upbeat Wenger on the other. Wenger really has stuck his neck on the line with Nasri in particular. As usual though, we have very little from the players themselves. No ‘I’m staying’ or indeed ‘I’m off’ direct quotes, just tidbits and guesswork. Wouldn’t it be pleasant if they came out and actually told us what their plans were? Both players leaving would be a blow, of course it would, but the ceaseless rumour – the lack of conclusion – is the thing that hacks me off the most.

Here’s a thought: If you’re staying, be unequivocal and tell us. And if you’re not, well good luck and toodle-pip. We would need to replace you so give us time to do it. Sadly, the reality is that I inhabit a dream world. This kind of openness rarely happens when so much is at stake – money, mostly – and that’s why the chess game that is a high profile transfer gets played out, via agents and ‘representatives’, the way it does.

As for the issue of income from his transfer: if it’s clear he’s not going to sign a new deal then I’d be inclined to take the money and move on. But it’s a tricky one. OK, so you lose £20m but on the flip side you have a good player for one more year, you also have rivals who will not have benefited from him strengthening their team, and you have a message being sent out that we will not sell every Tom, Dick and Nasri who has had his head turned by more money.

Oh well – at least we have actual football to actually watch. With the obvious lack of star transfers to get excited about on the tour, we do at least have some interesting newish faces to pass judgement on. Miyaichi, Frimpong, Jenkinson – one a new signing, one returning from loan and one back from injury. They’ll all be Like A New Signing, so there.

The game against a Malaysia XI will be the first game streamed live on the new Arsenal Player, I think, so buffers ahoy!

Still waiting, still patient

The Cleash

It’s 18 days since I last peered over the blogging parapet. The last time I did there were very few bullets whizzing over my head. Now there’s a full-blown barrage, though I must confess, I’m not sure who is firing at who.

Until someone valued at £10m+ comes in – a big signing, if you will – then the mood will remain as glum as it has become. 18 days ago, my blog was about Nasri, Clichy and Fabregas. This one is too. Nothing’s really moved on.

You could look at the potential exit of Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy in two ways, I suppose. The first would be to regard it as an exodus; a red flag, a dark portent. There are plenty taking that route. The second would be to see it as the coming together of three unfortunate scenarios, all at the same time. Of course, it’s much more pleasant to think of it being the latter.

Looking at the second of those, we have Fabregas, who has long harboured a desire to return to Barcelona. We have Clichy, who has refused to sign a new contract, and we have Nasri, who is acting the giddy goat, partly over money, but perhaps not entirely. That’s football I suppose.

Fabregas would be the real loss. His tenacity, vision and technique are second to none. Unless he is carrying an injury, he is a remarkably consistent footballer. He’s been the lynchpin of this side for a long time. But he wants to ‘go home’.

Nasri is an excellent footballer, a tough fighter, but he is not the finished product. He’s not worth £150,000+ a week, if you ask me. I’d say that even if we could afford to pay those wages. Incidentally, we can’t, at least not without an immediate upsurge in wages across the board.

Clichy divides opinion. He gives his all, he’s quick, he’s a very decent left-back. But he’s not as good a defender as his three long-term predecessors at Arsenal (Sansom, Winterburn and Cole). He is prone to error and his crossing could be better. But at the same time, he is currently better than Kieran Gibbs, he’s better than Enrique (who we have been linked to, not that I should be making much of that), and for a club on a limited budget, which we are compared to some, do we really want to be spending £15m on a new left-back?

Still, the consensus is that that deal is done.

Back to the original scenario though: Players who do not earn as much as some of their peers are easier to keep happy if the team they are playing in has been successful. As our groundhog seasons merge into one, you can see why things have come to a head. From a wages perspective, we are struggling to offer what other teams can offer. Maybe, like the fans, some players have tired of waiting for the promised land. This scenario is not much fun to contemplate.

Until the futures of these three players are sorted though, we’re in for a bit of turbulence.

Overall though, we’re hardly staring down the barrel at the Champions League qualifiers. There’s time – plenty of time.

Arsenal’s strangely enjoyable close season

“For the first time in a while, I will be very active”

With these dozen words, spoken at the tail end of May, Wenger has kicked off a fascinating close season. I didn’t think I’d be enjoying it one bit, but I appear to be doing just that.

How so? Given that as much of the current transfer eddy is whirling around players who might depart as it is around players who might join, you’d have thought the whole rumour mill would be too hair-tearing for words.

I think the difference this summer is that the perception of change is in the air. Wenger’s mentioned it, Gazidis followed that up in his AST Q&A (“It is very clear we had some shortcomings and in this close season we are going to see some turnover of players”). I’ll eat my Kenny Sansom flat hat if we tread as cautiously as we have done in the last few summers. It feels like there’s stuff happening. Real, actual stuff. (No disrespect meant, Carl. You’re welcome too).

From a PR perspective as well as a team perspective, it’s like a waft of fresh air. Even if most of it is hot air, it feels pleasant enough on the face.

Does it matter if the speed of incomings is faster elsewhere? Not really; these things can take time. So long as the business is done then it would be churlish to moan. Sure, it would be better to have the squad trimmed and tidied soon rather than frantically sending faxes (they still send faxes!) at 11.55pm on 31st August, particularly if we’re talking of a squad that could see four or five go and four or five come in.

What about those linked with going? Cesc would be a mammoth loss so that needs sorting sooner rather than later, if only to size up a replacement. I’m glad he’s happy at Arsenal but there’s a clear ‘but’ in there. If there was a magic potion to make this particular story not drag on all summer, I’d have a swig.

Nasri, well we shall see. As I said before, it’d not surprise me if he got what he wants from Arsenal – or most of it. Whether he deserves it or has earned it, well that’s open to debate. But I think keeping him, right now, is the easier option than selling and replacing him. So we shall see.

Clichy looks gone. He’s a good left-back but is he the best? I guess the proof would come six months after he’d gone once we’d had the chance to measure up his replacement. He’s certainly not as good a left-back as his predecessor.

As for signings, central defence – tick. Striker/winger – tick. Both areas have players linked.

Goalie? I doubt it. I think Szczesny is number one and Fabianski his back-up.

The other area that needs some old heads is central midfield. We’ve not been linked with that many players there. Larsson? Hmm. That doesn’t feel like an upgrade, it feels like a sidegrade.

Anyway, excuse me while I get back to NewsNow and Arseblog News.

Cesc la vie

So the answer to my question ‘Can we keep those three fit until the end of the season’ (see below) was a rather simple ‘no’.

Poor old Cesc and his recurring hamstrung hamstring. The timing couldn’t have been worse but what can you do? If he hadn’t played we mightn’t today be just a point off the top and had the ‘string not gone last night then it might have gone after 20 minutes on Sunday. As Wenger said, it’s nobody’s fault and the best thing for it is an insouciant gallic shrug, a shot of Pastis and some rest.

According to the Opta stats flashing across my Sky Sports News screen (in between rather graphic images of Gerry Francis’s timewarp mullet), we have earned 2.25 points per game with him and 1.57 without, a 70% win rate against a 43% win rate, but I could get tangled up stressing about stats till the cows come home.

Last season, yes: we missed his absences badly. But Nasri’s form and Wilshere’s explosion onto the scene give us extra options this year. Arshavin has screwed his head back on, Ramsey is coming back and we do – lest we forget – also have the mercurial Abou Diaby to call upon (at least for a game, until The Next Injury).

What Cesc does give us is a burning will to win, the kind of which not all footballers possess, and he plays with that drive all the time. We will miss that. Who wouldn’t?

Above all though, you have to feel sorry for him and for Theo. Missing a final is an occupational hazard for a footballer but it must be bitterly frustrating all the same.

Anyway, there’ll be more thoughts and tweets on the cup final in the days to come. I’ll be dusting down my Kenny Sansom 1987 flat cap (traditional cup final attire) and loading the phone with a mandatory @feverpitch cup final mixtape. Lazy swine hasn’t done a new one for this final, but if I mention it enough, you never know…

Roll on Sunday…

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.

From Russia with gloves


Arsenal 2-1 Barcelona

As Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons once said: Oh what a night.

I can’t remember anything like it at the Grove. The best match in the five years at the new ground? Definitely, indubitably, unarguably. It was unforgettable. I shouted myself hoarse and the Epic Bundle Counter went off the scale.

Pre-match, Arsenal had done their bit by placing a flag on each seat, and the sea of colour that met the players as they came out was a great sight. The more superstitious amongst us pointed out that flags were akin to ole-ing [ie, bound to lead to a calamitous Collaps-o-Arsenal], but by the end of the 90 minutes, that had been thoroughly disproved.

Boy, it was noisy too. The place can be as quiet as a churchmouse sometimes, as we all know, but last night there was at times a wall of sound. I’m not sure I sat down all game.

The game had it all, really. Barcelona were sublime at times in the first half, pinging passes with unnerving accuracy, creating space, lofting passes behind Clichy. Without the ball, as expected, they hunted in packs to get it back. With the ball, they hogged it. I wouldn’t say they gave us a lesson, that would be a bit harsh on us, but they showed why they are being spoken of as one of the finest club sides of all time. At times, it was a case of sitting back and admiring. We did have a few chances of our own in the first half – most notably one from van Persie – and the otherwise shackled Walcott set the cat amongst the pigeons once or twice with his pace, but it was Barca who broke the deadlock with a slick move and Dave Villa slotted it home. 0-1 at half-time and it could have been better, could have been worse.

In the second half, we came into our own. Wilshere and Fabregas got much more stuck in in the midfield, Barca started making a few errors, belief started growing. To be honest, the late stages of the game are so seared into my memory that the middle part of the second half is a bit of a blur. I’ll need to go back over it I think…

Anyway, the next thing I can remember The Clich lofted a ball over Barca’s defence, van Persie closed in on the keeper and readied a pass, I looked across in a panic as there was nobody there to tap it in… and van Persie shoots. Right through Valdes’s legs, and it’s 1-1. The place goes mad.

Our steam was up, the noise was pouring down from the terraces and we went for the jugular. Fabregas toed a delicious pass to Nasri, we all bellowed I don’t know what, Nasri cut it back to Arshavin and we all went bananas. Utterly, hilariously bananas.

The best five minutes you can imagine, and once we held on, a sensational result.

Last night was what it’s all about. Raw emotion, toughness, resilience, battling hard and winning against the odds.

Arsenal showed it all in buckets. Wilshere, Szczesny, Koscielny – all rookies at this level – came of age. But the whole team showed what they are about.

I can’t stop thinking about it. Absolutely superb.

I could babble on about it all day but life gets in the way. So on that basis, it’s over and out from me.

Some pics of the night on the Facebook page

Match preview: Arsenal v Barcelona, the sequel

No sooner had we sunk Wolves on Saturday, my mind turned to this game. I have been thinking of nothing else since, except of course on Valentine’s day, when my mind briefly wandered. (Fulham should have won).

I said before the draw that I wanted Barca. The colony of butterflies inhabiting my gut and the general whiff of giddiness emanating from my pores tells me I was right to want this draw. There is nothing quite like pitting yourself against the best, and Barca are the best.

I’m not sure I’ll ever forget the opening salvo of the home game against Barca last year. I’d never see anything quite like it; they went in for the kill from the off. It was less playing against us, more playing with us. It’s a shame it was my beloved on the receiving end, because that would have been quite a sight for a neutral.

Coming back to 2-2 that night was quite an achievement but it came at a cost. We lost Fabregas, Arshavin, Gallas and Song at various points in the two legs, and we weren’t able to cope.

The challenge is no less daunting this time, but as Wenger asserts, the circumstances are different.

“We are in an ideal condition to face them,” said le Boss. “We cannot complain. We have the belief, the confidence and the players available. We are 90 per cent in February and that was not the case last year. I feel we are in an ideal position to face them.”

Forget the Cesc mindgames, forget Messi telling us how dangerous Walcott is – this all counts for nothing. It’s pre-game bluster. The main thing now is: how do we beat them?

The thing that struck me last time round more than anything else was the way Barca looked for the ball when they didn’t have it. They were as ruthless without the ball as they were with it – hunting in packs, pressing hard, giving us no space. It’s an approach that served us well against Chelsea in December in particular, so we can do it and we need to do it tonight. As Wilshere said, we need to get in their faces a bit. Controlled aggression, pressing hard, no sloppy passing.

Sid Lowe’s three lessons to heed are interesting, as are Smudger’s ‘five courses of action’. We’re not capable of all-out defence (I can almost see Wenger spitting his Shreddies out at the mere thought), so we’re going to have to concentrate on the pressing, the quick breaks and exploiting any space behind the full-backs. Above all, we need to believe we can do it. I’m not sure we did last time round.

We’ll miss the suspended Bacary Sagna but Nasri returns so we have everyone – Vermaelen notwithstanding – available.

I totally like can’t wait.

Is it 7.45pm yet?

Match report: Theo Speedwagon

Arsenal 1-1 Leeds United

Cracking cup tie this. I couldn’t make the game yesterday so watched it on HyundaITV while following the mood on Twitter. There was a fair bit of chiding for various facets of Arsenal’s display but Leeds played very well indeed, let’s not forget. It’s the FA Cup – teams from lower leagues are always up for it and that’s what still makes it a great competition. Anyone can play anyone at any point, unlike the Champions League where Uefa do their very best to mollycoddle the big sides through to the knockout stages.

Distilled down, we had a lot of good chances that we didn’t take, gave away a silly penalty and lost all our momentum before bursting back to life right at the death.

Arshavin’s was the best, a one-on-one early in the game that he really should have scored. At the end of the game, Bendtner had several presentable chance that he skewed wide or high. I take no pleasure in seeing those two suffer for form as they did yesterday.

It’s not that they didn’t work hard enough. Arshavin got himself into plenty of decent positions but everything he did went wrong and you can see that his confidence is at rock bottom. The fact that he is now considered to be one of our ‘second XI’ pretty much says it all. He’s completely out of sorts; he knows it, the crowd knows it and it’s a real worry.

Bendtner too. In his case, it could be a combination of many things. He was playing on the wing for starters, hardly his ideal position. It was also only his sixth start of a very stop-start season, and that cannot help any player looking to build up some form and confidence. The catch 22 is that he needs the games, but how is he going to play ahead of Chamakh or van Persie? Funnily enough, yesterday’s draw will probably suit him; it means he will almost certainly start again at Leeds, and also in at least one of the games against Ipswich. He’s a man that needs to play and to win some doubters over.

It was Denilson who unwittingly brought the game to life in the second half with a ridiculously sloppy penalty giveaway. Cesc was surprisingly forthright when interviewed after the game and who can blame him? Denilson made amends of sorts by finding his shooting boots at the end as Arsenal scrabbled for the winner but these kinds of mistakes set his own cause back. Not good enough and Cesc knows it: “At this stage when you are a professional footballer you cannot risk these types of penalties. It’s so easy for them”, he said.

In the end, it was the introductions of Fabregas and Walcott that edged the momentum back in our favour, and the latter was involved in the two main talking points at the end. The first was a penalty shout that was given then not given, and which Walcott later admitted to having dived to try to win. The second, a legitimate and clear penalty despatched by Fabregas. Any defender idiotic enough to try to pull a striker back in the box, however subtly, can have no complaints.

As for the first one – it looked 50-50 but for Walcott to come out and apologise for trying to ‘win’ it is pretty extraordinary, especially as nobody was accusing him of doing that as far as I could see. The official site posted the full apology so it was clearly something Walcott felt very strongly about, and you know what, I rather admire him for it. It may mean he won’t get much sympathy from refs for a while but the fact we are surprised at a player’s jarring honesty says all you need to know about the modern game and its win-at-all-costs mentality. I found it pretty refreshing.

So overall, an thumping cup tie brought back from the dead by a team not playing at its best. Wenger might rue the replay but I don’t. I love the FA Cup. Can’t wait for it.