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?

Last day thoughts and my last word on losses

Some thoughts on winning

Yes, winning – you remember it. It’s what I’m confident will happen on Sunday. A combination of hot Spuds breath down our necks, Fulham’s pressing engagement in Hamburg and it being a home fixture ought to be enough to lift the players from their black dog days and ensure the season ends on an even keel.

Our injury list, far from shortening, remains stubbornly lengthy though. Denilson, Bendtner, Rosicky and Song join Almunia, Fabregas, Gallas, Ramsey and Vermaelen on the sidelines. Clichy is a doubt.

We do suddenly have a bit more depth in defence though, with Gibbs and Djourou fit and presumably eager to contribute in some way before the summer kicks in.

Gibbs is still young, but nevertheless I wonder, when the World Cup squad is announced and he is not in it, whether he will consider it a chance missed. I do honestly think that he could have made the left-back backup place his own had he not had his foot broken against Standard Liege. It’s rank bad luck.

Djourou too will no doubt be keen to play at least a few minutes of Premier League football this season. He’s not kicked a ball in anger. In fact, he’s such a forgotten man he’s not even on the squad stat page.

Personally, I’d be happy to play both of them – though given the sudden importance of the match, I’d be surprised if more than one of them started, and not very surprised if neither did.

Some thoughts about losing

I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but as downers in your heads go, this one has been a belter.

Wenger: “Since we have gone out of the Champions League there was a little downer in our heads, but we have enough pride and quality to finish the season well and to secure the third place.”

I do understand how a shattering 6-3 aggregate defeat can badly affect morale, but you’d think four games is a long time to wallow. One thing that the current team has been accused of is failing to bounce back fast enough after a disappointing result – the above Champions League and its subsequent games being the prime example. After all, one of the signs of a strong side is the ability to rustle up a win after a defeat.

There’s one thing thinking we take too long to recover, but what’s the reality?

Well, we’ve lost nine league games this season, and it’s very interesting to note that not one of them has been an isolated defeat.

Our first league defeat, away at Man Utd on 29th August, was followed by a loss at Man City.

Our third league loss, away at Sunderland on 21st November was followed by reversals against Chelsea and Manchester City (OK, League Cup), albeit with a home win against Standard Liege sandwiched in between.

We then went on a decent unbeaten league run, losing none for almost two months.

However, when we lost again at home to Man Utd on 31st January, we followed it with a defeat at Chelsea.

Then there’s the final, freshest of these funks, two consecutive losses against the Spuds and Wigan, followed with a nil-nil bore draw and another loss at Blackburn.

Now of course, these losing streaks were often against very strong sides, with many of these tricky matches strung one after the other in a peculiarity of the fixture list.

But it’s striking nonetheless.

Wenger douses the van Persie and Gibbs flames

It must be a bit frustrating for le Boss to have to spend so much time talking down two of his players.

But I guess that’s the peril of a World Cup year.

With van Persie, talk of an early return emanated initially from the Dutch national camp. It was of course on national duty where van Persie suffered his injury in the first place. But they have since suggested he might be back in early April – counter to what Wenger has always said, which is that he might be back in May for the last few games of the season.

Now of course, who can blame the Dutch for wanting to talk up van Persie’s return? Lord knows we could do with him ourselves. It’s been widely reported that before his injury Arsenal scored 55 goals in 19 games, whereas since he was crocked it’s been in 33 in 22 games.

Clearly, it’s in their interest for him to come back as soon as possible so he will have had more than just a few games to regain form and fitness before the Dutch kick things off in South Africa.

For Arsenal – who lest we forget pay his not insubstantial wages and pick up the pieces when injuries occur out of their jurisdiction – the pressure for him to return is tempered by the desire for him to be in top shape next season. I don’t suppose the Dutch are thinking much beyond this summer. So Wenger finds himself trying to douse the flames.

Then there’s Gibbs – an extraordinary story in many ways. We’re talking here about a converted winger who has made just 25 starts for Arsenal being touted as a potential option for England at the World Cup finals. But with Cole injured and Bridge ‘retired’, suddenly there’s a mild panic at left-back for England and it’s perhaps not surprising – were it not for the cast on his foot and his lack of experience – that Wenger is once again fielding questions about Kieran Gibbs.

The answer is pretty unequivocal. Wenger said:

“There is a little chance [that Gibbs will be fit before the end of the season] if all goes well now. I don’t know yet [if he will play enough] because I cannot give you any date of his return to football. It’s very premature at the moment, he is still in a little cast and we are at the beginning of March.”

While Gibbs’ career is undoubtedly on the up, to expect him back, healthy and match fit by the World Cup – assuming he’d even get a look in – is stretching things a bit.

[Who’d have thought it – another post about injured Arsenal players?]

Arsenal’s Injury XI

So what’s going on? Well hey – guess what – this evening Kieran Gibbs has picked up the now mandatory injury playing in the England U21 qualifier away to Lithuania. We await further news, but who thought, when we lined up for the season with three left-footed left-backs, that where left-backs were concerned, we were a touch over-subscribed? I know I did. How foolish I was.

His is the latest in a line of injuries so long, that as far as I can see, should we need to field an Injured XI for one reason or another, we could put out a team that could well hold its own. The injury XI is a bit top-heavy, but it’s a pretty decent line-up. The below is based upon Arsenal.com’s own injury page, which I accept, might no longer be entirely accurate. For the sake of fitting all the players into a playable formation, I’ve gone 3-4-3. So anyway, how’s this:

Fabianski

Gibbs Djourou Clichy

Walcott Denilson Traore Wilshere

Bendtner van Persie Vela

Quite honestly, the injury situation at the club takes some beating. I know plenty of other sides have – or have had – key players out this season, but we do seem to have been particularly heavily afflicted. And there’s no let-up, either.

As it stands, van Persie’s injury opens the door for Eduardo, who is just about the last striker standing. Walcott, we are told, is not far away. And there’s Vela – perhaps, if we could track him down. It’s a good job we’ve got Nasri and Rosicky back is it could mean a more central and advanced role for Arshavin.

Well, if we’re looking for someone with the X Factor, there’s always Theduardo.

Theduardo

I do apologise for that. But it’s an international week.

Sorry.

Another scalp for the Milk Cup kids

Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool

Another great win in the Milk Cup for the Arsenal thanks to two crackers from Merida and Bendtner.

Though fatigue set in at the end, it was another feather in the cap for Wenger’s second string. It seems to happen every year, yet every year it still surprises me how much potential there is bubbling under the surface at the club.

My own man of the match would have gone to Ramsey for an eye-catching appearance in central midfield, though he wasn’t the only one to shine. Merida scored a great goal, Gibbs and Gilbert were tenacious, Senderos and Silvestre solid and it was good to see Nasri back too.

True to form, there was another chance for another player off the Arsenal production line – Craig Eastmond. He had a very encouraging debut before making way late in the game for Mark Randall.

It was a pretty even game, and certainly very entertaining, and I think Wenger got the balance between experience and inexperience spot on: Senderos, Silvestre, Nasri, Eduardo and Bendtner gave us a solid spine upon which Ramsey, Gibbs, Gilbert, Eastmond and Merida thrived.

Sanchez Watt came on too – to great applause from the same crowd who presumably also saw him slot one past WBA in the last round.

It was at times a hairy last ten minutes for a by-now wearying Arsenal, but it was interesting to note our players taking the ball into dead areas to kill time. It might not be the most elegant way to see a game out, but given the experience of the last two matches, I imagine they were under strict orders from above.

One lead thrown away is careless – two is criminal. What a third might have done ahead of a game that has ‘previous’ for calamitous losses of concentration doesn’t bear thinking about.

So have any of last night’s performances given Wenger food for thought for Saturday? Fabianski probably did enough to think he might get a chance – though with the goalkeeping situation being what it is, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see any one of Fabianski, Mannone and Almunia between the sticks. Take your pick.

Ramsey will certainly have a seat on the bench, but given his exertions tonight I can’t see him starting on Saturday, and the same goes for Nasri. What Wenger said the other day about the young Welshman being ready seems spot on – he offers real competition for Diaby and Denilson and is progressing fast. That can only be a good thing.

One of Bendtner or Eduardo might also get the nod, but otherwise it’s back to the day jobs for most of last night’s XI.

The derby countdown can now begin. The jangling nerves are on hold, but I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep them back.

More on that nearer the time.

Building up a head of steam

Arsenal 3-1 Birmingham City

I suppose football is the popular game that it is partly because, while money, good management and history will always bubble to the top over the course of a season, so much still relies on the vagaries of the human mind.

So it was yesterday. We started the game as we meant to carry on, besieging the Birmingham goal, and once van Persie’s opener had been supplemented by Diaby’s smart finish, the game looked to all intents and purposes to be over.

But one error, and the complexion of a game can change entirely. Having been as comfortable as can possibly be, Arsenal were suddenly only a goal away from dropping two points, and despite creating chances, so long as that was the case, then it promised a nervous ending.

While Birmingham equalising would have been larceny on a grand scale (or should it be Larssony?), the fact is that football is not quite as scientific and predictable as all that.

Fortunately for us, Arshavin did finally put the game to bed with a smart, curved right-foot slot-in, but because we spent 30 minutes with just a slender advantage, yesterday’s game never felt quite as safe as it could have been.

The fact is though, we played well, Mannone’s handling error notwithstanding. It’s hard to pick a single performance out, because it wasn’t that kind of game, but of the less cemented starters, Eboue had a fine game, Diaby looked dangerous and Gibbs assured.

Birmingham were better than I thought they would be. Not up front, where they lacked punch, but generally speaking their work ethic was admirable, they defended and passed pretty well and their heads never dropped.

Of course, we’ve been greatly helped by three of our rivals dropping all or most of their points this weekend. It leaves us in a strong position, but intriguingly, the top of the league is looking really competitive. On current form, there are probably seven sides who think they’ve got a chance of being in the top four come May.

It’s certainly building up nicely for what could be a rumbustious north London derby on Hallowe’en.

Data forget

I know this has little to do with footall per se, but it’s a subject close to my heart. Strolling over the north bridge into the ground yesterday, my cousin took his iPhone from his pocket and stated: “First thing I do when coming here is switch 3G off”. I can’t speak for any other networks, but trying to get a data connection via O2 within gargling shot of the Grove is basically a non-starter. Even switching 3G off – the old fail-safe – makes almost no difference anymore.

But yesterday took things to a new level. Not only was web access almost impossible, but I couldn’t listen to voicemail either, and it was a full hour after the game when I got the rat-tat-tat of text messages that had been sent to me during the game, but which had simply never arrived.

I know I’m not the only one who grumbles about this.

Not very good, is it?

Time slows down to a crawl

I feel like I should really log in here for an update of some description – but there’s not a whole lot to bat on about, as you are about to find out. All talk is of England’s match tomorrow and as a result, the Arsenal blogs and Twitterers are all pretty quiet.

And as for England – well as it’s against Croatia, and it’s a qualifier, it should be worth watching, but with no Arsenal involvement I always find it a bit tougher to get myself into a lather about. Walcott, who came of age with that memorable hat-trick in the first fixture in Zagreb, will be hopeful of a berth in the final 23 next summer, but realistically – unless we swoop for a current England international in January – he will be the only one. Barring improbably miraculous break-through seasons, this World Cup will come too soon for our younger emerging English talent, ie Gibbs and Wilshere.

You’d think Walcott’s place is a done deal, and given his pace, his promise and his general improvement, he might too. But nothing is guaranteed there either. I don’t remember him setting the summer friendlies alight, nor was he a regular in Stuart Pearce’s U21 side, so he will be acutely aware he needs to perform this season to be sure of a place on the plane. It’s a big year for him for Arsenal too, and it’ll be good to have him back – ideally on Saturday.

The lack of Arsenal involvement is a relatively new phenomenon. We had a hatful of England internationals in the late 80s and early 90s (Seaman, Adams, Bould, Dixon, Winterburn, Thomas, Rocastle, Smith, Wright, Merson off the top of my head all played for England – though amazingly, Paul Davis never did), and three Arsenal players in each of the last three World Cup finals going back to 1990, when there were none.

So what am I saying? Simply that there’s nothing to talk about until Saturday. Reading the above, that much is clear.

For further proof, look no further than the club’s official mouthpiece, where the top story is van Persie talking about his favourite childhood book. It’s all for charity – so good work and all that – but it’s not enough to write a blog about. I suppose I could mention Merida rejecting a loan deal, Watt wanting a Carling Cup place or Hoyte becoming a man at Watford. But really, I’m not going to. Give me the real stuff.

Trouble is, until Wenger speaks on Thursday, we won’t know the rate of attrition among our returning international players, or who will be returning from injury on Saturday. Logging in every day to the Arsenal.com Injuries page is not going to make the blindest bit of difference.

Well, that rambled on a bit. Miraculous, really.

Deal or no deal etc

We’re still ‘on the brink’ of signing Vermaelen, I see. It says so everywhere.

I suppose I can’t complain: compared to the Nasri transfer last summer, and numerous other last-minute in and out jobs like Gallas and Arshavin, this close season – all two and a half weeks of it – have been a breeze.

The Vermaelen story has the longest legs – it’s just a shame the player doesn’t.

In all seriousness, any central defender worth £10m must have something about him, even in this inflated market. Tony Adams might know a thing or two about defending but I doubt he’s been scouting him for months, as Wenger is bound to have been doing.

Wenger’s defensive judgment is not bad – he lengthened the careers of the famous back line, he bought Campbell, Toure, Lauren, Lehmann, Clichy and Sagna amongst others (let’s put Stepanovs down to a bad day at the office and this season’s sieve of a defence to there being something in the water).

Whether or not Toure, or indeed Gallas or Silvestre, will head the other way in any defensive revolving door remains to be seen. Personally, I’d be keen for both Gallas and Toure to stay. We all know the guff that went on in the run-up to Gallas losing his captaincy, but he was very good in the latter part of the season. And though Toure hasn’t been quite the buccaneering Ivorian of old, he’s an old head and a club stalwart.

It does feel as though one of them might go, though. We could do with four central defenders – we needed as many as we could muster this season – and we have four now. Who goes will depend on a myriad of factors. Whether we can get good money, whether it’s the right time, but above all, whether one of them wants to leave.

Talking of defenders, I see that Kieran Gibbs scored twice for the England U21s tonight.

With Gibbs and Clichy, we’re sorted in that department. I know it’s early days to say this, but for how long can we keep them both happy?

Theo’s busy summer

So, after all that Theo Walcott was called up for the England U21 side due to take part in the European Championships next month, alongside team-mate Kieran Gibbs.

It’s great news for Gibbs, but a mixed blessing for Walcott.

In a generally disappointing season, Gibbs’ emergence was a definite highlight for me. I can’t think of any other player of his age and his experience who ended up playing in an FA Cup semi-final and two Champions League semi-finals in their first 15 senior games for their club – and he acquitted himself excellently. Of course, he made a mistake that precipitated our second-leg Champions League meltdown, and he looked raw at other times, but he did incredibly well by and large, and shows great promise. Seeing that he won’t be considered first-choice left-back next season, a close season tournament such as this is crucial to his development.

With Walcott, it’s a little different, even if he is only a year older than Gibbs and would also benefit from the experience. Because unlike Gibbs, he’ll also be playing with the senior England side, so I can see where Wenger’s anger at him being used by both comes from. Apparently, he’ll only have had a week off by the time pre-season training starts.

The issue is complicated by the fact that, as far as we can tell, Walcott is keen to tuck into as much summer football as possible. So he’s got his club boss pulling him one way, his national bosses another and his heart in yet another.

Even if you take his mid-season three-month layoff into account, as a key first-team player Walcott will need a decent break this summer, and unless something gives (ie he’s used as a sub only for the seniors) then he won’t get that. And when the World Cup starts this time next year, what kind of a state will Walcott be in?