You won’t fool me this year, window

I’ve been off the radar recently, in the land of dirt-cheap petrol. I haven’t needed to think about Arsenal, because we signed Gary Pallister, he got a work permit and Wenger muttered “Job’s a good’un” to himself in French (“Le boulot est bon”?).

Had you told me on the evening of New Year’s Day that I’d be in the mental equivalent of a La-Z-Boy on the night that the transfer window slammed shut, I’d have rung up and had you sectioned on the spot. Even back then, if you ignored the Southampton game and Stoke game that preceded it, our form was very good (I appreciate the nonsensical nature of that comment, but maybe you know what I mean). Those results just groundhogged the whole thing a bit.

It felt like we’d never learn, and yet here we are with four consecutive clean sheets, scoring goals from all angles and through to the next round of the cup. Walcott and Ozil are finding their form, Bellerin’s blossoming, Cazorla is imperious and letting Alexis rest has left no-one in a flap. How nice is that?

I didn’t think Ospina would retain his place, but he’s done just that, and on merit. Is he our number one stopper? (I ask that hypothetically. I just like the word ‘stopper’).

Meanwhile, Wenger’s at home with a glass of Beaujolais, you mark my words. And possibly a cheeky hobnob.

A bad time to stumble, stutter, splutter

Stoke City 1-0 Arsenal

You can’t really get away with blips or slumps or off days when you hit the final furlong of a season in which you are challenging for something. Look at how we won the league in 2002 – we got 13 straight wins from 10th February. In 1998, 13 wins and a draw between January and clinching the title.

Even last season, it took eight wins and two draws from 16th March to claw our way to the elixir of fourth. Form and momentum.

That’s what makes yesterday so ominous, really. Penalty or no penalty, we were very, very average until right at the end of the game. Two shots on target says it all. We let Stoke out-muscle us, and we let them get to us. We looked very one-paced until right at the end.

That’s now two wins, two draws and two defeats in our last six league games, with our next four being Spurs, Chelsea, Man City and Everton. From where I am standing it looks beyond our capabilities. Our form is too fitful.

True, Stoke have an excellent record against the top sides at home. And true, things might change. There will always be ups and downs. But to claw back those four points will require a phenomenal run-in and the kind of consistency we’ve not shown for a while.

We’ll be fourth if City take two points from their two games in hand. I suppose arriving at fourth having been top is an improvement on arriving at fourth having been sixth…

In all seriousness though, it’ll be interesting to see how Wenger approaches the rest of the season. Last season he tweaked things to improve our defence, and it worked, albeit to the detriment of our attacking play. Now, our defence remains mostly solid. It’s further up the pitch where confidence seems to be sagging. How can he boost us for the next stage of the campaign?

He could start by injecting a bit of pace. Theo, oh woe is me. We do miss his goals and his ability to stretch defences. The nearest we have to him is the Ox, who didn’t start yesterday. His confidence is up, unlike some of our players, and for me he comes straight back into the starting XI for the FA Cup.

Wilshere’s form is worrying too. He had a poor game yesterday following an excellent one against Sunderland – but we can’t afford that. Is he injured? Podolski didn’t offer enough either. But maybe it’s harsh to pick those two out. It was sub-standard stuff, really.

I wouldn’t say the Sunderland performance was a glitch – but they were very accommodating visitors and our next four league games will be anything but accommodating.

What better, then, than an FA Cup quarter final to get things right. What an important game that is turning out to be.

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick

Oops. Two weeks have zipped past with nary a word. There are mitigating factors, though. Straight after the Blackburn game I took a wrong turn in Chipping Barnet and ended up 6,000 miles away, and as luck wouldn’t have it, it was the middle of the day when we played Bayern and I was in a meeting. I now have an increased admiration for any global lunatics who follow the Arsenal before breakfast, after the pubs have closed or in the middle of the night. They are, to a man or woman, quite crackers.

The Bayern game went as I feared it might, leaving us with no eggs and no baskets, unless you call fourth place a basket, or indeed an egg. Either way it leaves our genuine trophy chances pretty much fried. They were never going to be an over-easy opponent, I suppose, and my guess is that Podolski’s poached – or was it scrambled – effort will not be enough.

A few days later I made a half-hearted attempt to watch the Villa game at breakfast, found a stream, lost a stream, refreshed Twitter with abandon, got cross with buffering. Honestly, following football is a complicated business these days. In the mid eighties (warning: old man’s wistfuI reminiscences incoming) I remember very well coming down to breakfast and opening up the paper to find the score of a match from the night before. If you were really lucky and the game had finished before the copy deadline you might get a small match report. Occasionally there was nothing at all. How would I then find the score? I have asked myself this question many times. I imagine I wrote a letter to Don Howe. Or went to the library. Or phoned someone. The eighties were rubbish for football.

So despite being punched from rope to rope in the cups, we find ourselves on a five-match unbeaten run in the league. There are unbeaten runs and there are unbeaten runs, and I would place this more as an unbeaten saunter. Nevertheless, it’s the kernel of some league form.

Form and confidence – something that has ebbed and flowed throughout this peculiarly fitful season.

It’s hard to disagree with those who argue that tomorrow’s NLD (the Twitters is a wonderful tool but I do resent the way it has forced acronyms into our everyday speech. NB52, ITK, NLD, AVB, JW10 – it doesn’t make me lol at all. In fact the only acronym I like is WWWWW. And anyway that’s not even an acronym. It’s just five Ws in a row. OK, shut up now, man).

I wouldn’t say that losing it rules us out of the holy grail, but our friends from N17 already have form and momentum, and if they win tomorrow they might reasonably be envisaging the hula girls and pina coladas and find themselves humming the Uefa ‘Pyjamas’ theme tune. At this stage of the season, a run of form is priceless. If we lose, we are back to a form square one.

We need to start the game well, play with a real intensity throughout, and take it from there. Another of our lacklustre opening 45s will be hard to bear.

It feels like I finish most of my pre-game posts these days with the words ‘I have no idea what to expect’. Well I think it will be helter-skelter and blood-and-thunder. I’d say that’s a given. But beyond that – who knows.

Minimum blip, minimum fuss

If drawing 1-1 at home to Fulham and losing in the Milk Cup with an understrength team can be described as a blip, then our blip was batted away with that assured win at Wigan.

Nice too that the goals were scored not by one man, but by four. Particularly pleasing too that Gervinho netted one: I think he’s had a big effect on our attacking potency, even if he’s not sunk as many goals as we might have liked – though three league goals in ten starts is hardly a drought, either. He made a huge impact against Fulham (especially when you compare him to the Arsh, whose form remains consistently baffling) and wobbly one-on-one’s aside, I’m not sure we can fault the beginning of his Arsenal career too much.

So we’re creeping stubbornly up the table, with our form guide for the last six league games exactly the same as the leaders, Man City: WWWWDW. Our league form over that period is better than Utd’s, better than Chelsea’s, better than Liverpool’s. The only one grating thing – yes, I am about to moan, though not about Arsenal – is that while we have strung this excellent run together, City & Spurs have maintained theirs. You can’t have it all though.

And while all three of the other English Champions League protagonists sweat it out to stay in the competition this week, we have the luxury of naming a pared-down squad to travel to Greece minus nine fit first-teamers: Szczesny, Ramsey, van Persie, Arteta, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Walcott, Gervinho and Song. I am often sceptical about coming first or second in a Champions League group, but one thing you can never be too pleased about is a breather, especially with the usual sapping Christmas schedule, during which we play five games in 21 days, ho-ho-ho’ing over the horizon.

So all told, things are pretty rosy (for a Monday). Long may it last.

Monday thoughts: Form, newcomers, radar

Norwich 1-2 Arsenal

Another game, another win. I’ve not dusted that little phrase down for a while now but it looks nice in print (and in pixels). Since losing at our lovely neighbours on October 2nd, we have registered seven wins and one draw in eight games – fine form indeed.

In fact, if you look at our form since our last rock-bottom performance – at Blackburn – it reads P12, W10, D1, L1. By any measure and with the clarity of thought offered by hindsight, that is pretty impressive. On an individual basis, some of those 12 have been close, frustrating, stuttery or just plain dull, but we were emerging from our worst start to the season in something like 40 years, so hardly a surprise.

From being so far off the pace for the Champions League places (I grind my teeth at the thought that 4th is a measure of success – but it is), we are now well and truly in the mix. Sure, we’re a long distance off the top, but we did not spend £194m more than we earned last year, so it’s not exactly been a level playing field.

Those additions to our reeling late-August squad, all purchased in a very un-Arsenal like manner, are now showing their worth. Three of them are regulars, two on the periphery, but without them we can surmise that things wouldn’t be as improved as they are. I am well aware that Mertesacker has been caught out a few times, but there’s something about him I find reassuring. He’s like a pair of cords. It’s only fair to give him time to properly find his feet.

The luxury of choice – and strength in depth – at the back is most welcome indeed. Even with both our right-backs injured, we have Koscielny to cover. We have five centre-halfs (whither the Squill?) And we have two decent options at left-back. Sir Chesney is the real deal. I know we have let in a lot of goals (22 in the league) but this defence has had absentees and new joiners and is still bedding down. (And since Vermaelen returned – one goal conceded in three matches).

As an interesting aside, I do wonder just how long a professional footballer should need to find his feet in a new country. 10, 15 games – absolutely. But a whole season? Sometimes I think it’s used as a bit of an excuse, but then you look at someone like Koscielny, who has leapt and bounded to prominence this season in particular, and it makes you wonder whether it really can take that long. Wenger claims it’s extra hard to buy defenders from abroad. Doesn’t stop him doing just that, though, not that I’m being critical. Vermaelen, Koscielny and Mertesacker are three great options.

Arteta has done well and Santos has added and detracted in equal measures. His attacking oomph has added a interesting new dimension to us that simply wasn’t there with Clichy, but he does leave gaping holes at the back as a result. Overall though, it’s hard not to like him.

The other two – well jury out. Benayoun seems set to remain a creative sub, which is no bad thing, and Park, if we’re being kind, remains a work in progress.

What I do like is that we remain, to a degree, under the radar and I think it serves us best to be there. Our early season calamities meant many people – myself included, at times – wrote us off. Our improvement has been slow and quiet, our highlights have been nestling at the back end of Match of the Day, while everyone swoons over the Manchester duo slogging it out at the top. I can’t say I mind.

Thoughts over to Europe now, with qualification for the knockouts in our grasp. I know Marseille were much improved when they came to town, but that 0-0 remains a missed opportunity. There’s no further elbow room for qualificational dithering anymore, I suspect.

Crikey, I seem to have gone on a bit.

Handbrake off required

So that week rolled past fast, complete with two excellent days off school. Thankyou banks, thankyou wedding – I could get used to these three-day weeks. I can’t believe they moaned about them in the 70s. OK, so there was crippling industrial strife, high inflation and not enough electricity to chuck about, but I could handle a bit of candelight here and there so long as someone remembered to keep the internet meter stocked with 20p pieces.

The last royal wedding on such a scale was of course in 1981, when Arsenal were at the start of a barren trophyless run of eight years. It included losses in the 1980 FA and Cup Winners’ Cup finals but zip else. History tells us nothing much happened until 1987 – a few changes of managers aside. How, in 30 years, will history measure the years between 2005 and [insert year when we next win a trophy]? Obviously, the stadium move, first ever European Cup final and change of ownership will feature in the memory banks. But will we wistfully recall the consistency of sitting at the top table, domestically and in Europe, year after year? Or will it just feel like XX barren years? Who knows, eh.

Anyway, a bit of a heavy one for a Sunday morning.

Wenger was his usual forthright self in his press conference. To be honest, you could pick apart a lot of what he said if you were in a cynical mood – which I usually am these days. I find it a bit frustrating listening to him at the moment but what else is he going to do ahead of a big game than stick up for his charges? It’s the right thing to do.

Three wins against Man Utd in the last 17 appearances does not make pretty reading. Today, Utd are in the midst of an impressive end-of-season run that neatly juxtaposes with our unimpressive fizzle-out.

Can we raise ourselves for this one? Form is against us and with them. Looking over our shoulder at the prospect of fourth place or worse should be motivation enough, you’d hope.

You never know with this team. Now that the title pressure has evaporated, we may pull off one of those handbrake off performances.

We’re certainly overdue one.

Either way, it’s always one of the best home games of the season to be at. The sun is out. The old routines kick in. Come on!

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.

Match preview: A pressing matter at the Grove

‘Dzeko and the moneymen’

Interesting how times have changed: Man City at home would for years have failed to set the pulse racing but with all the money spent there (and you might not approve but there’s not a lot we can do about it, witness the incoming £27m Edin Dzeko), allied to their current league position, there can be no denying it’s a huge test for both clubs.

I wouldn’t say a loss puts either team’s title hopes on life support – that would be over-Skying things – but for Arsenal, a defeat would be our sixth of the season with only half the campaign gone with Utd stretching away at the top.

Last season, the official match report on used the words ‘mundane’, ‘drab’ and called the City front line ‘utterly anonymous’, all of which rather accurately and neatly describes it. It was a dismal game, with Man City sitting back all match and Arsenal, recently bruised after the now infamous 3-2 loss at Wigan, unable to find a way through. If I remember it correctly, I spent much of the game wistfully daydreaming about going to the dentist and and filling in my tax return.

Of course, since then we have put in one of our best performances of the season at Middle Eastlands, comfortably winning 3-0 albeit against ten men for most of the game.

So it will be interesting how Mancini approaches the game tonight. I’m sure there will be a fair bit of caution, but he can’t possibly be as teeth-grindingly negative as he was last season. With Man Utd winning last night, a point doesn’t help either side much.

The two teams come from opposite ends of the clean sheet spectrum but both are on a decent run of form and this has all the makings of a great game. Whether a great game will be made with those makings – well, who knows.

Wenger will play a side as close as possible to that which handsomely defeated Chelsea and Birmingham, of that we can be sure. There’s no way he will make a huge amount of changes for such a big game, and there’s no need if you ask me – Fabregas, Djourou, van Persie, Walcott and Fabianski have all had plenty of time on the sidelines this season already. Even Samir Nasri, our stand-out performer of the season, has only started 75% of our league games.

Above all, we need to play the quick passing, pressing game of recent games (Wigan, you’ll be glad to hear, has been erased from my mind – I find that’s the best way), as when we put in that kind of shift we look a different team altogether.

We’ve shown we can do it. What we now need is for our momentum to build and for our form to continue to improve. There’s a lot at stake. I really can’t wait.

Come on you rip-roarers.

BBC match preview
Guardian Arsenal stats

The form factor

Arsenal 5-0 Porto

24 hours late, this. Just like the old days, when you went abroad, burned in the sun to cinder and had to wait a day for the papers to pitch up from blighty. Cast yourself back to 1985 and it won’t feel so late.

Anyway, we were the first English club through to the European Cup quarter-finals this season, it was the first comeback from a first-leg deficit since Hajduk Split in 1978 and… was it the first goal we’d scored in the first 15 minutes of the first half all season?

I have a thirst for more firsts if they’re anything like that.

5-0 is perhaps more of a thrashing than at times it felt, especially during the first quarter of an hour of the second half when Porto woke up and a single goal would have left things finely balanced, but as soon as Nasri’s unbelievably mazy dribble and tonking tight finish made it three, it was party time at the Grove.

But there were some eye-opening performances, and if there’s ever a good time in a season for three or four players to come into form, that time is now.

The issue of form is always an interesting one, because so much depends on state of mind, confidence and so on. So while only a month ago we were lamenting the form of Clichy, Almunia, Arshavin et al, now we can talk of a quartet of players who have suddenly found theirs.

Clichy and Arshavin, incidentally, are among those who suddenly look menacingly good. We all knew Arshavin was world-class, but playing as the lone frontman seriously curtailed his effectiveness. Freed to play where he is more comfortable, he suddenly looks terrifying. Henry Winter’s line summed it up very well: Arshavin was “a box of fireworks that kept exploding in Porto’s face.”

I’m pleased for Clichy too. Coming back from injury, he was a pale shadow of the Clichy of old. But hard graft and a run of games have turned that round, and last night his workrate was exemplary.

Diaby and Nasri are the other two whose form has been building impressively. The former, to be fair, has been steadily improving for a while, but has been struck down by his usual temporary ailments all too frequently. Nevertheless, he’s looking fantastic at the moment.

Then there’s Nasri, a player whose injury – though I barely need to preface any description of an Arsenal player by mentioning the ‘I’ word, it’s a given – set him back months. It’s all clicking now though, and last night he was superb, scoring a mesmeric goal and creating space all over the pitch.

And I’ve not even mentioned Bendtner.

So form breeds confidence, which creates momentum. As a result we’re fizzing along now.