Coq off, Coq down and Coq out

Tottenham 2-2 Arsenal

‘Arsenal fans are too demanding’, people say. ‘They have unrealistic expectations’. ‘They turn on their team too easily’.

What a load of piffle. The reason Arsenal fans have been frustrated to within an inch of their threshold is because of the way the team has been playing, on and off for the whole of this calendar year. All the other gripes – ownership, ambition, prices, manager – then bubble up from under the surface and add to the toxic foment.

But overall it’s the way we’ve been playing. Running scared, too supine, too easy to play against, too slow, too predictable.

But yesterday, a little tardily but better late than never, we turned up. We can have frustrations, but overall we played aggressively and directly in difficult circumstances. And guess what? We were good to watch for the first time in ages.

Good to watch! For simple people like me, that really is enough. I’m happy. I want to see football that gets me going and makes me proud and makes me look forward to the next game, and yesterday ticked many of the boxes.

Wenger twisted with the line-up, bringing in Gibbs (slightly enforced) for Monreal, Welbeck for Giroud and Elneny for Ramsey, with the Welshman moving into the right-hand side vacuum. It worked.

It was immediately obvious that we had more defensive solidity in central midfield, and Elneny in particular looked impressive, mopping up and distributing in a no-nonsense way. His partner? Coquelin could not have been more naive if he tried, lunging in for an obvious yellow-card offence when he was already on a yellow. Unbelievably daft.

He apologised afterwards and that’s the least he could do, because who knows what might have happened had we held on at 1-0, not just in this game but – however far-fetched – in the title race itself? At least he only misses one match, and that’s the FA Cup replay.

Ramsey’s improvised back-heel that gave us that lead was glorious, and at that point we were in the ascendancy. Ospina had made one excellent save (though I do wish he’d catch the ball, not parry it; maybe that was the rain) and he had a decent afternoon overall.

Once Coquelin departed, it all changed. We left too much space on the far post twice, and were punished on the second occasion. Then Mertesacker lost Kane and the resulting goal was, to be fair, very well taken.

Honestly, I thought that was that. When we went a goal down at United it was classic Collaps-o-Arsenal. When we went 2-1 down on Wednesday it was clear that would be how it remained.

But yesterday we stepped it up. Apart from one heart-stopping Gabriel slice and one over-elaborate save by Ospina, we looked pretty comfortable. At the other end, Sanchez did what we’ve been crying out for Arsenal players to do for what seems like months: he shot without taking an extra touch. Boom! If ever there was a player who needed a goal, it’s Alexis and he saved our bacon with that one beautifully-timed moment. Right at the death, Ramsey could have even stolen a winner had he followed Alexis’ example and shot first time.

A word about Mertesacker. He took some brickbats for the Kane goal but I was really impressed with him overall. His timing was excellent and he intercepted Tottenham balls through the middle time and again. More of a worry is probably Gabriel, who was skittish again. But he got away with it yesterday.

Gibbs too did very well, and I’m quite sad about his possible impending departure. He’s more direct and quicker than the (more) dependable Monreal, but with a run of games he’s still an excellent full-back and I can’t help but feel that, should he bid us farewell in the summer, someone will get a very good player coming into the best years of his career. I hope he doesn’t go.

So where does this leave us? I think if we’re honest, the title remains the longest of long shots, even if we summon this kind of performance in every remaining game. We are a long way off, even if it’s not an impossible distance.

But to have even the vaguest chance we can’t let this upswing in performance be a one-off. We have to step up to the plate and prove that the last three months have been an aberration and not the norm.

You will excuse me for being cynical, because we’ve been too average for too long. If we switch off again we’re not only down and out in an already improbable title race, but we’ll be looking over our shoulders at the other teams mustering some fine end-of-season form.

There can be no more excuses.

Left-back wings it to save the day

Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham

You wouldn’t have put much money on the cavalry arriving wearing a number three shirt and some underused boots, but Gibbs’ contribution was one of the nicer stories to emerge from a match that was at times pretty tough viewing for Arsenal fans. A gentle reminder from our left-back that it wasn’t that long ago we were all impressed at how he’d kept Monreal frustrated on the bench.

He was also the only British player on the pitch for Arsenal, with our cavalcade of homemade players all out injured or glued to the bench. It’s quite staggering that five of our injured core are British. Coincidence? Probably, but still.

It wasn’t that Joel Campbell played that badly; he fought manfully for the most part, and the fact he could not make a lot happen was not his problem alone. Is he good enough? His position as about seventh choice suggests not, but you can’t fault his workrate and he has proved his value as a squad member over the last four games.

The whole team struggled badly in the first half against an impressively committed and tenacious Spurs side, and that Cech was so impressive (and busy) says it all.

So a point is an excellent result given the circumstances, and focus now must go on getting some of that long line of injured players back within two weeks. There’s no doubt that the Cazorlas and Alexis’ of this world are running on empty – it’s a massive worry. In a perfect world (*sigh*) there’d be scope to rotate a bit when legs get this weary. But we have nothing else in the wardrobe other than Wilshere-shaped mothballs.

The thing is, as has been proven time and again, when we’re talking about Arsenal and injuries there’s no such thing as a perfect world – or if there is, it’s something like ‘only five men are out’.

That’s why we need to strengthen the overall squad in January. We have to accept that we are horribly injury-prone and adjust our thinking accordingly. What happens if, as if by some act of god, we were to buy two players and then everyone miraculously got fit? Surely it’s better to manage players’ frustrations at not playing than to grind the same core of fit ones into the ground.

Over to you Tony Colbert. May the Shad Forsythe be with you.

An explosive Chilean red

 
Sunderland 0-2 Arsenal

It’s been three weeks since I asked the question ‘Which Arsenal will we see on Sunday?’ before the Chelsea game, a blog title that can be recycled prior to every match at the moment. That’s efficient writing, right there.

It’s a pertinent point of course, because we’re in one of those runs of form where it’s not easy to pinpoint what isn’t working. I’d wager Wenger’s not clear either, because there are multiple factors at play here. We have bursts of inventive play that set the pulse racing (City, second half, that brief Villa assault, Galatasaray), but long swathes of laboured football where ball retention, pace and lock-picking passes go out the window. We’re switching off at the back too much, but ludicrous injuries (and a lack of back-ups) have had a big effect there. Look at how we’ve lined up in defence during the nine league games, and you can see part of the problem.

Sz Deb Kos Chamb Gibbs
Sz Deb Per Chamb Mon
Sz Deb Per Kos Mon
Sz Deb Per Kos Mon
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Kos Gibbs
Sz Bellerin Per Mon Gibbs
Sz Chamb Per Mon Gibbs

We’ve had the same back five only three times, and six different combinations in total. We don’t know how we’ll line up from game to game, and yesterday Gibbs conked out (a hip problem says Wenger, and we all know the hips don’t lie). Fingers crossed it’s not a bad one because he’s been excellent this season.

Defence aside, we have a better squad than last year, but too many of its constituent parts have failed to hit the high notes of last year. We’re not bad – one league defeat would back that up – but we’re not good either, as five draws from nine suggests.

Confidence has a big effect on this Arsenal team, as it does with most, and we’re lacking it, and with it some cohesion. Sometimes you just need to knuckle down and wade through stodgy form, so yesterday’s win at Sunderland, while it won’t win many aesthetic prizes and owed a lot to two moments of defensive calamity, ought to be a massive tonic.

What’s patently clear is how much Alexis brings to this team. His workrate (and that of Welbeck, who’s a similarly selfless, tireless player), his versatility and his eye for goal have held us together at times. If you want a role model for the other players when the mojo is little-bit lacking, he’s your man. Where would we be without him? He and Welbeck have scored the bulk of our goals, and for all the brow-furrowing about what’s not quite right, those two summer signings have been superb for us.

Alexis has been our player of the season, so I’m just off out to buy a lucky rabbit’s foot. If there’s one player we can’t afford to keel over, it’s him.

Team in red mistaken for Arsenal

Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal

“History will be kind to me”, said Winston Churchill, “for I intend to write it”.

Wenger, sadly, has no such luxury, and when the history books recount the amazing achievement of his 1,000th game, they will also tell of a man whose team put in possibly the most abject display of his entire 18-year tenure.

It was so lamentable as to almost defy words – sloppy, off the pace, too open, horribly naive, toothless and rudderless. And maybe the very worst thing is how easy it was for Chelsea. It was over – much as it had been at Anfield – after seven minutes. It was a cakewalk.

The timing of this performance could not have been any worse. With a pretty decent season behind us, Wenger will have been desperate to lay some kind of marker down. To say: Stick with me, this team is going places, we can compete at the top table. Instead, all the old questions about him and his team came flooding back. They gave up the title fight without so much as a by-your-leave.

For what it’s worth, I do think we have the core of an excellent side. But for us to have been beaten 6-3, 5-1 and 6-0 at our rivals tells you as much as you need to know about the fault lines that still remain unfixed. Until we can overcome that mental hoodoo, and set ourselves up better in these kinds of games, we are never going to make the leap. Those are the kinds of defeats you see once every ten years at a club like Arsenal. It’s happened three times in a season.

I feel sad for Wenger. Mourinho knew exactly what to do to break this team down but Wenger and his team had no answer. Arteta was overrun – why didn’t he play Flamini? Why play such open football, so high? What is going on with Giroud? I know it sounds absurd, but where is Bendtner? How naive do you have to be to try to deflect a ball in the box with your hand? Why has Szczesny started fumbling the ball?

I know we have Walcott, Wilshere, Ozil and Ramsey missing, and god knows they’d have made a difference, but no Arsenal team should be shipping that number of goals, irrespective of the circumstances. That was still a strong XI.

“A nightmare” is what Wenger said, after the game. It’s bad enough having Mourinho preening and peacocking at the best of times, so to feed him this kind of ammunition will have felt desperate for Arsene.

A truly baffling performance.

Now, to send the wrong man off is quite amazing. I’d be more angry had it had a material outcome on the game, but we were already 2-0 down and in full retreat. It is astonishing, none the less, especially so in the face of such vehement admissions and denials from Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Did the referee think they were lying, in front of millions? Where is the common sense here? That said, what was Oxlade-Chamberlain thinking?

Either way, it’s irrelevant. Yesterday was meant to be all about Wenger, and indeed it was. But for all the wrong reasons.

One final thing – I know I’m rambling. Narrow defeats are far easier to bounce back from than poundings like this. Remember how we played against Utd after our thumping at Anfield? We played cautiously, within ourselves and shorn of huge confidence. I imagine the same ‘healing process’ will apply this time round, which makes Tuesday’s game against Swansea harder than it needed to be.

Unhappy 1,000th, Arsene.

Three of your finest points

Marseilles 1-2 Arsenal

Well that went well. we rode the storm a bit but hit the sweet spot with Walcott’s strike and never looked back from there. This is a devil of a group – the best one we’ve had in a while (I mean that – it’s much more interesting this way) so to hit the ground running with an away win is just what the doctor ordered. Keep the prescriptions coming, Dr Win.

It has to be said, the hand-wringing and wailing over our summer of glacial transfer action and the opening day defeat to Villa have obscured – at least they have to me, for I do like to wail and wring my hands – what a good run of form we have hit since winning in Munich back in March. Ten away wins in a row is phenomenal, to be honest, as is one defeat in 18.

Sorry to put a dampener on things, but there will be setbacks. However, the trick when that happens is to get back in the saddle like we did after losing at home on the opening day (I never was good at metaphors). It sounds easy but as we know, it is never quite that simple. There have definitely been times over the last few years that playing at home has hindered us, little bit handbraked us, left us wallowing too much in the wanting zone, but I do think that sloshing £42.5m on a proven, top class player has Ozilified the home crowd somewhat. Let’s hope so because the players can feed off us, we can feed off the players: job’s a goodun.

One more thing: In an era of angst about the dearth of talent of the home nations, it was heartening once again to see Gibbs and Ramsey having such good games, for Walcott to score the crucial opening goal and to see Wilshere edge back to fitness. If England do drag themselves over the line to Brazil, it’d be a shame if all three of those Englishmen didn’t make it on the plane, but for Gibbs to get there it might take an injury to Cole or Baines. It is his misfortune to play in one of the positions where England are genuinely strong. Still, he’s improving fast and it’s lovely to see.

Now, if you don’t mind I’ve got to make some finishing touches to my Giroud Knee Shrine. There will be humming and probably beads.

We’ve got a lovely Per, Kos goes nuts.

Manchester City 1-1 Arsenal

Now, when Gibbs gave that corner away, the ball wafted over and Joleon Lescott squeezed his dome between two of our players and thudded it past Vito Marooned, the word ‘brilliant’ wouldn’t have been the first one to come to mind.

But compared to how last season started, this one has been brilliant. We’ve only let two goals in, we’re nestled at the right end of the table, we’re unbeaten, but above all, we’re giving off the perceptible whiff of a proper team here. Just look at the bundle pyramid that followed our equaliser and you will see that when Wenger speaks of spirit and belief and togetherness, in this instance it’s not as a means to pep up players who don’t have it. This lot are working for each other. It is a completely different side – a new side.

Sure, the goal could have been avoided but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A renewed effort to defend better as a unit and as a team is hardly going to take just a few games to materialise. Bouldy can’t just click his fingers (or more aptly, raise his arm) to make it happen. But at the moment, we are on the right track on that front. There will be a few moments of uncertainty yet but the general direction is good.

Defensively there were some outstanding performances. Mertesacker was immense, his long bionic legs mopping up through balls like Mr Tickle time and again. Koscielny, overlooked thus far this season, played his part and even found time for a backheel – or was it a Cruyff turn? – out of defence. Gibbs played as an auxiliary winger and Jenkinson – lungs like a whale – was just excellent. I absolutely love it when Wenger plucks a nobody out of thin air and proves everyone wrong, and in Carl Jenkinson he has done just that. As Gary Neville said after the game, he seems like the kind of bloke who would run through a brick wall for you. His progress has been a real delight to see.

The goals are being shared around too: today from defence, but our fluid forward line and midfield is chipping in too, all of which makes Giroud’s lack of goals almost an irrelevance. Of course, should we stop playing so well then things might change, but at the moment it’s not such a big deal.

And we’re stronger behind the first XI. OK, so Diaby and Gervinho did not reach the heights they have done in the early stages of this season, but their presence – and that of the impressive Ramsey – in the first XI gives us a bench that included players like Giroud, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott. We have Wilshere, Rosicky and Frimpong still out, but their return is imminent too.

It was our toughest test yet and we passed it with flying colours, if you ask me. They’ve got the buzz, and you know what, I’ve got the buzz too. As my cousin Capability Mike said in a text, twenty minutes into the game:

Even if we don’t get anything from this game I don’t think it matters. We’re a good team. Really happy with how we’re playing.

Mike said it.

Jack and Theo have earned their chance

So here we are in the midst of another interlull, just when we didn’t need it.

I say ‘just when we didn’t need it’, but I’m pretty sure I say that every time one rears its ugly head. And who knows – after shipping four goals on Saturday, maybe a week away blasting the cobwebs away with international football is precisely what is required.

Don’t confuse this for a dislike of my national team – far from it. When push comes to shove I am a fervent England fan. I just see how they play (for the most part), and I see how Arsenal play (for the most part), and I know what I prefer.

For some years, it’s also been a case of there being little Arsenal interest too. Under George Graham we had an overflow of England players. Under Wenger, once the old guard left, it was the opposite. But Arsenal – and Wenger of course – can rightly be proud that once again we are contributing to the national side.

This squad has Walcott and Wilshere in it, but Gibbs is another recently capped England international, and there are a few others – Lansbury being one – who may yet also make the grade.

Both Walcott and Wilshere have good reason to be desperate to play in this one. Walcott was ditched for the World Cup finals (a blessing for us, ditto Nasri though they no doubt were devastated), so he will be keen to show Capello the error of his ways. He doesn’t need to convince me. Despite having the typical winger trait of drifting in and out of games, he has improved immeasurably this season and has scored eleven goals despite having a stretch out crocked (’twas ever thus).

Wilshere is the real story though. An ever-present for Arsenal this season, he possesses skills that cannot be taught, a determination that cannot be bottled (though a swig of that, if it could be, would have gone down a treat on about 50 minutes at St James’ Park) and a vision sadly lacking in many English youngsters. He’s the real McWilshere.

He is also the ultimate vindication of Wenger’s ITAGETWPROTP policy (‘If they are good enough, they will play regardless of their passport’). He’s an England fixture now and he deserves it. Let’s hope he can be the midfield fulcrum.

Naturally, we want them all back in one piece, but at the same time I can’t wait to see them pit their wits against Denmark, just as I look forward to Bendtner doing the same.

An Arsenal-heavy interlull delays my derby nerves

Before we can all properly address the tightening stomach muscles associated with Saturday’s derby showdown, we have for once got an interlull containing no little Arsenal interest to contend with this evening.

Not only has that serial ignorer and arch hater of English talent, Arsene Wenger, gone and quietly provided England with three players – Gibbs, Walcott and Wilshere, the latter since withdrawn through injury – but the opposition is France and one thing we haven’t got at the club is a deficiency of Frenchmen. The French national side even trained at London Colney, and as far as I can ascertain, they didn’t go on strike or have a strop.

I’m not quite sure how many of our French boys will start tonight but I’ll pop a guess that we’ll see all three of Clichy, Nasri and Sagna begin the game.

Looking forward to it as I am, it also has a rather combustible air to it and with five Arsenal players on the same pitch, the miserable sod in me has started panicking about injuries. We are told that Gibbs will start, which is fantastic news. To be honest, in his case it is a much needed game. He’s had a miserable run of injuries since having his foot broken almost exactly a year ago. By my money playing for England tonight will be his third comeback from injury this season, so of all our players on view tonight, he is the one for whom I will be clutching the lucky rabbit’s foot.

Across London, Chelsea appear to have been Arsenalled somewhat, with their first-choice centre-half pairing both now crocked long-term. Seemingly untouchable this season, Chelsea have in recent weeks wobbled somewhat and Arsenal’s two excellent consecutive away wins mean we have capitalised on it. However, we have had a dismal run of injuries at Arsenal for several seasons now, so you won’t catch me ner-nerring in the general direction of Fulham Broadway. Although many of our walking wounded are back in action, we’re still missing our best centre-half.

Koscielny has had a steep learning curve since he joined, and on current form you’d have to say our first-choice centre-back pairing is Djourou and Squillaci. The lofty Swiss had in recent games found his football boots after an absurdly long absence and is being talked of as another Arsenal renaissance man.

If talk in August had been of potential renaissances, who’d have put their money on Fabianski and Djourou?

For what it’s worth I reserve judgement – principally because he’s only been back a few games and he seems to be clad in various bandages every time he steps out onto the pitch.

As an appendix, my players of the season so far are Nasri (up a massive notch), Fabianski (purely for rising from the ashes), Chamakh (better than Bendtner) and Wilshere (staggering talent coming of age).

Right, I shall enjoy tonight. Tomorrow I might get in there early and endulge myself with a few pre-derby nerves.

Few links here I couldn’t be bothered to shoe-horn in:

Blanc’s new French revolution
Ashley Young to Arsenal [believe that when I see it]
Manu Petit on football life in London [in French]

Arsenal show bouncebackability in Belgrade

Partizan Belgrade 1-3 Arsenal

I’ve got very little time this morning to chuck something out through the internets, but if I were to lob a couple of observations out there, it would be these:

IF Lukasz Fabanski had been able to choose in advance what kind of night he would have, I have no doubt he’d have picked one of those games that enabled him to pull off a trophy save, but otherwise be little called upon. That’s exactly what he got. He really didn’t have much to do; there was a chance early in the game that he thwarted with his legs, then the first penalty. Not a whole lot else until their second penalty, when he pushed the ball athletically to his right and away to safety. It was a good penalty kick and a very good save. The ‘paper wrists’ Ian Wright spoke of after the Spuds game had been reinforced with glue paste. To cap it all off, he made another good reflex save at the end, diverting a decent shot away past his left-hand post.

That’s not to say he’s a shoo-in for Sunday. Wenger was coy on who he would play against Chelsea, for good reason. I somehow doubt Chelsea will give a fig which of our keepers Wenger plays – history tells us there’s an error hiding somewhere in both of them – but shoots of recovery have to start somewhere, and last night Fabianski did all that was asked of him.

POCKET RUSSIAN Andrey Arshavin was excellent last night – as good as he has been in a while. I mentioned in my previous post that despite looking flat at times this season, he has still been scoring goals. Twitter statman @orbinho (follow him if you don’t already) threw another snippet out there yesterday – “Andrey Arshavin has created more goalscoring chances (20) than any other player in the Premier League so far this season.” He scored another good goal last night and could have had three. That’s five goals in nine appearances. How can you drop him, even when not sparkling? I’m not sure you can.

YOUNG Jack Wilshere continues to astound. Playing in a more advanced role, he was again staggeringly good yesterday. He got more roughhouse treatment but simply got up, again and again, to direct the traffic. The backheel he conjured up for Arshavin’s opening goal was simply sublime. My main worry with Jack Wilshere is not that we’re playing him too much – he’s becoming undroppable – but that the pounding he is getting from the opposition is guaranteed to lead to an injury or two. He gets targeted because of his skill and he also likes to get stuck in. Doubles the chance…

DEFENSIVELY we had our wobbles, but consider this: last night’s central defensive pairing of Squillaci and Djourou was our fifth combination in nine games. It’s a good job we have four central defenders, but we could probably do with a more settled back line too. We’ve also chopped and change at full-back, with Gibbs replacing Clichy last night. He was absolutely excellent and must stand a good chance of retaining his place on Sunday.

OVEWALL, as Wenger would say, it was a good night’s work. The collective footballing amnesia of Saturday had disappeared. We got stuck in, weathered the storm, created some great chances and thoroughly deserved our win.

IT was the perfect result ahead of a titanic showdown.

Wonderful Wilshere takes control

Tottenham 1-4 Arsenal

Lovely.

There’s nothing quite like thumping the old enemy in their own back yard, as Liam Brady will tell you.

The argument for playing rookies in this competition is a strong one, but the alternate view – that winning breeds winning – has been gathering strength and last night Wenger clearly took that line with the team he picked.

Last season, this team struggled to get back on track after defeats. This year’s start has been strong and Wenger clearly didn’t want to risk a damaging defeat by playing an XI largely plucked from the reserves.

It worked.

There’s no doubt it was the strongest Milk Cup lineup in ages, with Rosicky, Nasri and Eboue starting, and Arshavin and Chamakh coming on later in the game.

But perhaps the most pleasing thing, if you think about it, is the amount of other players who played last night that had made their names in this competition and have since cemented their places in the first team squad. Home-grown, but no longer rookies – Wilshere, Djourou, Gibbs, Denilson, Vela. Only Lansbury – and on the bench, Eastmond and Emmanuel-Thomas – have not yet made that progression to first team regulars.

We were utterly dominant in the first half, but with just Lansbury’s goal to show for it, there was always the danger of parity and so it came to pass. What a terrible goal to concede though – Keane was offside (a poor decision by the lino compounded by a similar decision in the first half when Gibbs was clean through, but was wrongly called offside). Nevertheless, his shot should have been saved by Fabianski but the hapless Pole wasn’t able to push it away. Enough said about him the better I think. Almunia will not be losing much sleep.

So extra time it was, and a lethal 15-minute spell sent the travelling hordes into raptures. Nasri took both penalties with aplomb, and the icing on the cake came from Arshavin, put through by the quick-thinking Wilshere.

A word about our 18-year-old Englishman. He has been simply sensational this season and last night he absolutely ran the show, despite some rough-house treatment. As Wenger admitted, he’s far ahead of where people expected him to be and there’s no doubt that already, he’s a huge asset.

Koscielny too deserves what I believe young people refer to as a ‘shout out’ for his all-action performance. I love his energy and commitment.

The only dampener of course is Gibbs’ injury – a potential metatarsal that would be a huge blow if confirmed. He must rue the gods of ill-timing, poor bloke. Last season he had just broken into the first team – and may well have made the first-team squad – when he had his metatarsal broken. This season, he must have scented a chance with Clichy wobbling slightly. Fingers crossed it’s not broken.

Overall, much fun and a lovely performance.

And the sun is out. It’s all good.

Shall we make a DVD?