Pinch yourself – yes it is Monreal

Arsenal 2-1 Manchester City

Imagine my surprise when Arsenal’s mojo – which I had prayed for in hope rather than in expectation before the match – emerged in the second half beneath Wembley’s arch.

There it was in full view in the shape of Chambo (the wing-back, do keep up) getting past his man time and again before crossing on a platter for Monreal (the other wing-back, scuttling forward) to lash home a volley with his right foot.

Or in the shape of Gabriel, all teeth and spring-loaded quiff, who had what must be his best game for Arsenal yet. Whodathunkit! Formerly possessing two left feet, he had a magnificent game.

And Rob Holding, just 20 and a Wembley first-timer, who’s waited patiently for most of the season for misfortune (Mustafi injury) and circumstance (back three experimentation) to combine in his favour. He took his chance again.

I pick these four out because they weren’t perhaps the players you’d expect to emerge from the shadows, and it’s not to gloss over some other fine performances. Because overall it was a game of real commitment and energy from Arsenal; manna from heaven in a season of strangely subdued predictability. Boy did we need it.

There was an element of luck involved, I won’t deny it. Both sides could have had a penalty, City hit the post twice and had a goal ruled out unfairly (easy to say in slow motion). The defending for their goal was iffy on several levels, but Arsenal kept battling and the more they did so the more fun it got. With a bit more ruthlessness, we could have had more. So yes, it was cathartic. Best of all, something clicked.

And counter to my expectations, here we are again in the FA Cup final – our 20th, and Wenger’s 8th. If someone ever tells you it’s not relevant or big enough, they’re lying. It never gets boring.

Yes, it’s only one game and we’re all too skittish and wizened to see it as anything else, but what a time to show the fight and nous needed. All the other stuff, we can put back in the box – for now – and just enjoy it. Because that is, after all, what it’s meant to be all about.

We’re in the cup final. Get in!

Meek Arsenal are all at sea

Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal

The baffling thing yesterday was not so much that we lost – because lord knows, name a circumstance and Arsenal can magic up a defeat for it – but that we were, and still are, nominally in the hunt for the title. We look as if someone has poured us into the league table but forgot to say ‘when’.*

Up against an injury-ravaged team suffering from its own existential crisis, we excelled ourselves by bringing all of our own majestic psychological demons to the party.

And what a party it was. As if it wasn’t bad enough to be dishevelled in defence, inadequate in midfield and largely invisible up front, yesterday we simply did not look like a team that believes it can go all the way or has the stomach for the challenge ahead. We were well beaten and we were beaten too easily.

Congratulations to Marcus Rashford, by the way, who looked hungry and direct and fresh – all the things Arsenal weren’t. In two matches over four days he has scored ⅔ of the amount of goals Theo Walcott has scored all season. More on Theo later.

The comparison with the 3-0 at home, when we unleashed the dogs of war and blew United away in the blink of an eye, does not bear making. We’ve been harping on about that, and about City at home and one or two others, but sandwiched between all that has been a lot of stodgy football.

I don’t know what’s happened to this side, but something is missing. Welbeck’s late, great winner at Leicester was a moment to savour, but it didn’t spark us back into life as we’d hoped it would.

Our form has simply evaporated since Christmas. The best thing you can say is that we’ve hung in there, but the chance to win the most winnable of leagues is withering before our eyes unless we can engineer the kind of turnaround in form that seems entirely beyond us. Unless we can remove the lead boots.

I know it’s far from impossible, but where’s the belief? Where’s the bloody-mindedness? Who’s driving us forward? We weave pretty enough patterns, but the ruthless end product is absent.

You can’t get away with it when so many players are playing within themselves. Gabriel did not look ready to come back into a game like this, Coquelin struggled, Ramsey was ineffective and up front we basically carried two players. Wenger went top-heavy to generate some attacking momentum, but playing Alexis and Theo through these stormclouds of form is not working at all.

At least with Alexis you can say he never gave up: even if nothing else is working for him he tries to make things happen. But Walcott? I’ve stuck up for Theo many time before, but he was absolutely invisible yesterday. He’s too often invisible.

Three wins in ten does not tell a lie. With an injury list that has eased over the last month, now was meant to be the time to move up through the gears.

United away is always tough because it’s United away. But we wilted too easily against a far from vintage side. I don’t buy the notion that it’s a physical hangover after being ridden roughshod by Barcelona’s possession football, because there were five days between the two games and Utd played on Thursday too.

It’s as much psychological as it is physical – Arsenal’s great Achilles heel, some would say – and Wenger’s got about six days to fix it, via a midweek home game, before our Saturday lunchtime derby delight.

On yesterday’s evidence, I won’t hold my breath. But Arsenal are odd, football is odd and you just never know.

*With the greatest of apologies to P.G.Wodehouse.

In for El-Nenny, in for a pound?

Well, Wikipedia says El-Nenny’s an Arsenal player, and as we all know, that’s as good as an announcement as it being on dotcom. *Ahem*.

But it does at least look as if, this time, Wenger’s pronouncements about looking for bodies ‘if we can find the right person etc etc’ are based on truth. if this story is correct then we’re in for a midfielder and we’re in for him early in the transfer window. Even if it’s not El-Nenny, I would be staggered if we came out of January with no reinforcements.

Of course most of us haven’t heard of El-Nenny – so what. We used to glow with pride when Wenger unearthed someone from nowhere for peanuts, then flog him two years later for the price of a multi-pitch training centre.

This profile on kingfut.com gives you a bit more of an inkling about him. Strong, with a good engine and a decent injury record. 100 league experiences in Switzerland and 40 caps for Egypt. At 23 he fits the bill, and I suspect that he’ll be squad cover at this stage.

This January comes at a timely juncture with various injury news leaking out and none of it positive. Wilshere’s return has been put back again, Welbeck is no nearer. Cazorla – I’d be surprised if we see him much again this season. Coquelin for me is the big miss, and he’s still a way off.

I know other teams are decimated by injury, and often as many as us, but do they all have players out long-term like we do? It feels, from within my Arsenal blinkers, that when our players get injured they don’t do it in half measures. Walcott was out a year, Wilshere too, Welbeck’s disappeared, Rosicky disappeared, Cazorla got hit with one of the worst injuries you can get. With every passing week these long-term absences hurt us more.

So any bodies we can get in will help us, quite frankly, because for several key squad players, this season is basically a write-off.

Onwards today to Bournemouth – back in the saddle despite the cheeks being sore – and I’d be surprised to see the same starting XI as we’ve seen four times in a row. Poor old Mertesacker had a horrible evening on Saturday and maybe we’ll see Gabriel in for him. Ox might get a run-out too, despite his own mysterious form. Chambers for Flamini? I can’t see it, and to be honest, our options are very limited if you take Saturday’s bench as guidance – Ospina, The Jeff, Chambers, Iwobi, Gibbs, Ox and Gabriel.

That 4-0 was a shambles and left me feeling much as I did after Wenger’s 1,000th match mauling. But onwards we go.

And luckily, I have the memory of a goldfish, not an elephant.

Sweet and unsavoury

I must confess, I didn’t see Gabriel escaping his ban. I’m happy that he has, of course, as it was a nothing flick of the foot and was clearly provoked by someone with the Corinthian spirit of a piranha.

But I’m not quite sure how Arsenal ‘proved’ that Gabriel didn’t touch Costa (as I have read elsewhere), and even if that were true, does that mean intent is no longer a factor? It appears that Arsenal have tested the latest rules whereby the FA permits clubs to appeal “the legitimacy of the dismissal itself and against the severity of the three-game punishment”. I think it’s a common-sense result, which is the last thing I expected from the FA, but I’m not sure how the process now works if I’m honest.

Nevertheless, combined with a deserved ban for Costa, it’s bound to raise Mourinho’s hackles. Whether the whole unseemly affair ends up motivating Chelsea, or giving us the shot in the arm we need, only time will tell but I have my own suspicions it might benefit them more than us, beyond the obvious three points. You can be sure Mourinho will try to engender a siege mentality. I wouldn’t really blame him – it can work. Just ask George Graham. And Jose Mourinho.

Tonight, we’re back in the saddle after two straight defeats, both of which will have been more mentally than physically sapping. The Zagreb one because we were complacent and predictable, the Chelsea one because yet again we lost to them in the league and our pitiful league record continues.

I’m torn about the line-up. On the one hand beating Spurs should always be a priority, and our form needs reversing pronto, so we should play our strongest side. But on the other hand, I think Debuchy and Gibbs – to take two examples – would benefit from another game now, and will almost certainly be better for a second game in a week.

No reason why that extra rotation couldn’t come round on Saturday rather than tonight, but it doesn’t seem very Wenger to do it that way.

Certainly, we can’t let two defeats become three, then become four. So if we’re still stewing in our frustration, Gabriel’s un-ban hasn’t made a difference to the mood, and the thought of a derby hasn’t got the juices flowing, then we need our heads looking at.

We’ll find out more tonight…

(And for the eagle-eyed, stalwart few, yes, this site looks different. It’s a long story and I need to fix it all again. Joy, oh joy.)

Oli and Wally earn their lolly despite dilly dally

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City

A beautiful early autumn afternoon that saw me shedding layers as the match went on – sort of like a striptease, but without a single modicum of titillation – ended with what we’d all come for: a goal or two at home, and three satisfying points.

I would offer a more thorough match report, but as usual I failed to heed Matt Bianco’s advice and didn’t get out of my lazy bed. Then the day happened and here we are again in the evening. Increasingly, the days have a habit of doing this.

We missed a lot of chances. A lot. Better, I suppose, than not being able to miss chances because they weren’t there, but Stoke – now bottom – were not very impressive and we’ll have tougher assignments than that before too long. Let’s pluck a day out of thin air and call it ‘Saturday’. (Because you can lol all you like about Chelsea’s start to the season but it won’t go on forever, and you know what I’m thinking anyway so I won’t say anymore).

The goal Walcott did score wouldn’t have been scored by Giroud and the goal Giroud scored wouldn’t have been scored by Walcott, so I suppose that indicates perfectly well the benefit of not just having more than one striker, but of having different kinds of strikers. I liked Gabriel and I liked Bellerin and I thought Coquelin was absolutely superb.

Ozil won man of the match – which came as a surprise to me if I’m honest. Of course, his pass to Walcott was inch-perfect, and maybe that’s enough to warrant it. I have since read glowing reports of his contribution and his seven chances created, but from my vantage point at the time, looking at all eleven players a little bit rather than one player a lot, it didn’t really feel that way. He seemed to get a bit bogged down out wide. I guess that’s why Ozil divides opinion, even now: he’s hard to pinpoint at times. He pulls the strings under the radar but a whiff of the hang-dog doesn’t do him any favours.

Anything else? Well, the slither of an away end – I’d say they took about a third of their allocation – seems to be happening more and more these days. I don’t know how much we asked Stoke fans to pay for the away end – certainly not 62 fat ones – but perhaps cost is having more of an effect than we think. Maybe I’m wrong – do Arsenal release stats on away end attendance?

Final thought: we’ve started alright but City are flying. They have so much strength in depth that when Sterling and Silva are both out, they can still keep £28.5m Otamendi and £55m de Bruyne on the bench. We’ve rotated a bit ourselves – only five players have started all five games – but once we have Wilshere back, we’ll have even more flexibility and options in the midfield, and over the course of a gruelling season, we’ll need it.

Talking of gruelling… this headline. But I won’t apologise.

There’s more in this side, somewhere

Arsenal 2-0 Everton

There should, ordinarily, be no reason at all why a 2-0 victory should not elicit a sense of complete wellbeing. So why did I leave the ground feeling a bit flat? I wasn’t the only one.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but the hangover element was certainly one aspect. We did get a reaction from Monaco as expected but it was, perhaps not surprisingly, far from the swashbuckling all-guns-blazing performance that the daydreamer in my head keeps yearning for.

It was, until the latter stages at least, pretty hard to get excited about. Part of that was Everton, who were subdued themselves. But we were one-paced for too much of the game. I do appreciate that this makes me sound like the neediest football fan of all time. I’m not, honestly I’m not, and I am obviously glad that we bounced back and that we’re sitting third, just four points off second. History will after all mark this down as three points.

But deep down, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we are capable of so much more, and that’s the frustrating thing for me at the moment. It feels like we are not realising our potential.

We started so slowly, and it immediately transmitted to the crowd, which – where I sit at least – was as flat as a pancake for the opening third of the game. It felt like a training match and the crowd couldn’t get going at all.

I don’t think the Emirates crowd’s default mode is silence – though there’s no disputing Arsenal is a quieter place than it used to be. In fact, there have been some raucous evenings in the Wengerbowl. I’ve had bruised ankles falling down between the seats, I’ve hugged and high-fived numerous strangers and I’ve shouted myself hoarse. One match I lost my brother completely after we’d scored a goal. He hurtled off down the aisle and I found him about five minutes later looking sheepish down by Gunnersaurus.

So it can be a cracking buzz.

But I do think that the crowd takes its lead from the team. How it races out the blocks, how it hustles and harries and how it springs forward at pace and with menace. We feed off the dynamism of the team, and for too many home matches this season, we’ve just not been that dynamic. We’ve had a cutting edge, but not as often as we’ve needed it.

Down our end, the biggest reaction was when Gabriel slid that perfectly-timed leg in to prevent Lukaku from firing a shot off. We were on our feet and giving it everything. But those moments were few and far between until the game stretched a bit towards the end.

It was the same against Leicester, and we were hopelessly timid away at our neighbours in N17. So while we’re doing pretty well on paper in the league, it feels like there are very much still some missing ingredients. Are we missing Ramsey, Wilshere and Arteta? Almost certainly.

Is there something more? It feels that way to me. We’ve been tinkering on how we play away from home, but I certainly don’t think we’ve nailed down the best way to play in our own backyard. We seem to play too narrowly, and are unsure whether to stick or twist going forward. We lack the ability to play with real tempo for long periods of time.

It’s been that kind of season to be honest. Some progress, but some regression. Still not quite right, but rarely calamitously bad.

As for the highlights, I thought Gabriel looked decent on his Premier League debut and it’s a huge relief to have that third centre-back we can bring in. We’re finally rotating in that position, and we’ve needed to.

James wonders on the Arsecast Extra whether Gibbs has not progressed enough, and perhaps he’s right. But it wasn’t that long ago that he was easily our first choice at left back. If it hadn’t been for injury then you never know – though I do agree that we need more end result from him. His injuries are a big factor though, in my view.

Ospina was excellent, Bellerin was good and the midfield worked hard without excelling. Rosicky’s cameo gave us the energy we needed to make it a less fretful finale.

But overall, we’re still searching for the elixir.