Looking back, looking forward

I would have been delighted in hindsight for this international break to have been as unremarkable as all those that have come before, but for all the wrong reasons it ended up being the most extraordinary one I can recall.

I don’t know if it’s an overreaction to say that football is going to change in the light of what happened in Paris, but I think – in the short term at least – that’s exactly what will happen. We’ve already been told that security will be stepped up in Premier League games, and to be honest, that’s the right response. The events in Paris (and elsewhere) show that anyone is a target. However hard it is to get your head round or accept, that’s the truth of it.

Whether it will have long-term effects on football is hard to say. The optimist within me hopes not.

But right now the memory is utterly raw and there are some direct knock-on effects for Wenger. Are his French players ready to play? Particularly the ones who were at the game, who would have heard the explosion, felt the fear and watched the events across the city unravel? They weren’t at the races on Tuesday, but nobody really expected them to be.

If I had to guess, I’d say that our entire French contingent, if fit, will want to be out there (and ideally, together). It’s a bit of a cliché but “one for all and all for one”.

As was discussed on the Arsecast, perhaps in the case of Giroud there is no other option anyway. Alexis needs a break and I’d hope he won’t start at WBA tomorrow. But short of Gibbs stepping up to the plate, we might not have any other option. Most of the other mooted returnees are of course not ready to return – a situation with Made in Arsenal stamped all over it – so we are once again light on squad rotation options.

It’s hard enough to hit the ground running after normal international breaks, and this one could be even trickier.

But off we go again, and that’s the way it should be.

Vive les rip-roaring reds!

No place to Jekyll and Hyde

And so to the derby, which gets no less nerve-wracking with the passing of the years. I almost always profess my fear and pessimism prior to the game, which stands me in good stead whatever the result turns out to be.

But I do think it’s going to be a tough one. Under Pocket Tony, Spurs have become a lot better defensively and they’re clearly harder to beat (two things that seem plain wrong to type next to the word ‘Spurs’).

I read yesterday that they’ve ‘only’ let nine goals in, but we’ve only let eight goals in, so we’re no slouches in that regard. On that basis can we expect a low-scorer? Who knows, but I don’t think it will be 5-2.

Our defensive league form seems all the more peculiar given our expert resemblance of a sieve in all other competitions, where we’ve conceded 14 goals in six games. Consistency of back four will have helped in the league, but today we’re definitely without Bellerin and possibly without Koscielny.

I’m not really worried about their replacements. Gabriel didn’t play that well in Munich, but he wasn’t alone. And while the general consensus seems to be that Debuchy is gambolling around like a lamb, I think that’s a bit harsh. He’ll be better for the games and is improving.


It’s a strange thing that in a season where we’re competing very well in the league, we’ve already lost six games overall. The worrying thing for me is that we seem to switching off randomly. All three of our Champions League performances and our final Coca Cola Cup match had whiffs of complacency about them or at the least a lack of concentration (though Munich would have blown most sides away). And in the league, it was the same story on the opening day.

I don’t really understand why, but at least – bar that opening day – we’ve been very solid in the league.

We’ll need to be sharp with the ball today to counter their high pressing and can’t afford to feel sorry for ourselves after Wednesday. Giroud’s mini purple patch will help and he needs to impose himself today.

But now I’m blathering. A sure sign that derby day is upon us.

Come on your rip-roarers!

Assisters are doin’ it for themselves

Watford 0-3 Arsenal

At nil nil, as the minutes rolled on with the Hornets going shoulder to shoulder with Arsenal, I began to stew more and more on the FA Cup quarter final defeat in March 1987 when we lost 3-1 at Highbury. We should never have lost that. Bloody Watford! They were our bogey team then and yes – when it comes to Arsenal at least – I am not quick to forgive.

I needn’t have worried. Just when it was required, our resilience turned to ruthlessness and a ten-minute salvo buried the ghost of Barnes. Alexis – who else – hoovered up the ball from Ozil, saving the referee the bother of having to award a penalty. Just the seven in four for his club, or ten in six if you prefer. The man lifts us up by his bootstraps.

Giroud, who whether he likes it or not is becoming an effective supersub, then scored from another Ozil assist before Ramsey got his first of the season from a Bellerin assist.

Hey assister

Ozil created six chances yesterday, and this is Ozil at his finest: the essence of Mesut. Ghosting here and there, stretching defences and performing as a quiet assassin. He’s just so key to Arsenal now. Yes, he still has the odd peripheral game but he’s only human. Mostly, he’s just metronomically good.

Go assister

Ozil this, Ozil that – but what about Bellerin? If Coquelin was the story of last season then Bellerin is perhaps this season’s classic Wenger development. Last year Bellerin broke through, but Debuchy was nominally the number one. Now, there’s really no argument about who’s our best right back. Yesterday, again, Bellerin’s pace and directness caused havoc and led to a goal.

I heard it mentioned a few times last week, but he’s top of the ‘Clear Cut Chances Created’ list in the entire league this season. Let’s ignore for a second that this chart has clearly been made up. It’s still bloody impressive and in Ozil and Bellerin we have two outlets across the width of the pitch. Happy days.

Soul assister

What’s heartening is that we can now marry resilience with patience and then pounce. Though there were a few hairy moments (BFG and Cech almost conspired to do an Almunia), and had Watford chosen the right club they might have got closer to the green rather than hooking and slicing all over the place, the fact is we didn’t panic and when our chance came we took it.

Go assister

The spectre of Bayern clearly wasn’t looming that large, and the international week did not damage us too much, because it was an impressive second half performance all told. We go to Tuesday in good form, but in terms of qualification, probably with little expectation.

I think that might help us, and in our current form it could be fascinating. It’s an odd one for me, because on the one hand it would be incredible to clonk the unassailable Bavarians on the noggin, but I’ve got used to the concept of being out of it again this year, so I don’t envisage voluminous wailing on my behalf if we lose.

We certainly couldn’t have asked for much more by way of preparation.

Top work!

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.

Double OG kick-starts Arsenal’s season

Crystal Palace 1-2 Arsenal

Well hello, season. Pleased to meet you. I’ve been away and yes thankyou, I’ve had a lovely time. Like Arsenal, I’m late to the party, but here I am at last.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t buy into some of gnashing and wailing that followed the West Ham defeat. It was a complacent start to the season (nervous? Spare me!) and we’ve seen that a few times before from Arsenal. In fact, it was straight from the Arsenal Handbook of Unexpected Losses. Chapter One. Case Study Two. Page 14 after a prologue from Gervinho and a dedication to Emmanuel Eboue.

But it was only one defeat, and damaging though they are, you can just as easily be undone by a string of draws.

That said, to stop the massed ranks of the broken crests from storming the ramparts, yesterday’s game at Palace took on the air of a ridiculously early six-pointer. Lose and we’d have been in pole position for Fourth Placed Trophy©, Collaps-o-Arsenal™ or even relegated. Or perhaps somewhere more nuanced.

Well, we staved that calamity off for another week with a hard-fought win. It was comfortable at first and wobbly at the end – which is what one goal leads tend to do to you. There was some sublime passing and crossing from Ozil, while Ramsey and Cazorla did well. Alexis gave us the zing we needed without, yet, the laser vision to get himself a goal. So overall it looked much more like the Arsenal we expected to see last weekend.

Coquelin was a touch possessed and had to be exorcised by being removed for Arteta. A bit of a concern given his importance to the team. I remain to be convinced that Arteta and Flamini are the best alternatives there and would be open to an addition, even if it meant Arsene being uncharacteristically ruthless and discarding one of the latter.

This was my first glimpse of Cech, and it’s fair to say he’s had a baptism of fire. A debut to forget, and could he have done more for Palace’s goal or was it just an unstoppable rasper? If it hadn’t dawned on him before, it probably has by now: Arsenal’s defence will never be as mean-spirited as Chelsea’s (usually is…)

As for the goal we did score, it was a belter. Giroud showed the kind of technical skill that he’s not given enough credit by scooping that out the air. Lovely strike.

Everything at this stage of the season seems absurdly extreme. We’ve gone from bottom of the table to eleventh, a mere three points off the top! We’re terrible! We’re brilliant!

Nobody ever used to give a fig about the league table until at least four or five games in, and that’s the way it should be, but no longer is. I’m not sure they’d even publish it in the paper until about mid-September.

We shouldn’t even look at it yet. All the teams are finding their feet. It’s the middle of August.

Of more concern to me is whether we’ve done enough business to keep things fresh, keep the momentum up, give ourselves the best options in all areas out and send out a statement of intent. I like this squad, but there can be no complacency.

It feels to me that there’ll be a lot of money spent elsewhere between now and September. Some silly money. Will we be partaking?

Coquing marvellous

Burnley 0-1 Arsenal

Yesterday’s win was a gentle reminder that it’s not every week you fire off a three-goal, eight-minute salvo where all the goals were straight out ‘Dennis Bergkamp’s Little Book of Crackers’.

It was a more prosaic win, a festival of free kicks and half-chances broken up by Ramsey being in the right place at the right time to wrap the points up. Good job he scored, really, because it wasn’t the kind of game where clear-cut chances came easy at either end. In fact, it was when Welbeck came on and the shrugging Giroud came off where the game opened up a bit more to my liking. (Our glorious Gaul has had better games, but with seven goals in six games, that’s alright with me).

If the finish itself owed itself to a string bit of lucky bounces, the build-up was marvellous, with Coquelin like a tambourine clap through pigeons and Sanchez doing his usual impression of being everywhere at once. That one moment was enough, ultimately, against a team (lest we forget) that is battling for its Premier League existence.

With a squad bursting with unseasonal fitness, I was interested to see how we might line up on the bench. None of the most recent returnees were on it, which proves how hard – when you have a settled, winning team – it’s going to be to upset the applecart. I can’t see Arteta or Wilshere, for example, making the starting eleven until we have a game where there’s nothing to play for. The way the season’s panning out, when’s that going to be?

I wouldn’t want to make that decision and massage those precious egos. Which is probably one of the many reasons why Wenger is paid £8m a year and I am on a little bit less than that.

Great win, with the stand-out players being those in the engine room: Coquelin, Ramsey, Cazorla. And of course Sanchez, whose diet of raw fish, Red Bull and Castrol GTX continues to give him jaw-dropping energy levels. Eight wins on the trot, the perfect hors d’oeuvre for an FA Cup semi-final and the visit of Chelsea.

The Poldi effect

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I had a bit of insomnia the other night. When this happens – fortunately not too frequently – I don’t count sheep, of course I don’t. I think of football stats and lineups. For example, counting backwards through FA Cup winners (I always grind to a halt during the years when Chelsea won it a lot) or thinking of various Arsenal starting elevens going back through time.

So there I was at 3.30am thinking of the 1989 title-winning team, and got a bit tripped up by the fact we started three centre-backs. Onwards I moved to the 1998 Cup Final lineup, where I was promptly derailed by the inclusion of Christopher Wreh (I honestly have no recollection of that). My final one was last year’s FA Cup final team, and I blew that one too, mostly because I had completely forgotten that Podolski started it.

He feels like such a footnote now, doesn’t he? At the time he left I was a little anxious about losing his goalscoring prowess, but in hindsight it feels like something of a watershed. We cannot put our upswing in form and performances on his departure, of course we can’t, but it’s pretty obvious that Wenger counts much more now on players who work hard. Who are the stand-out players of the second half of the season? Coquelin, Giroud and Sanchez. All work their socks off. Who also plays where Podolski once played? Welbeck, whose lack of goals doesn’t matter thanks to what he gives to the team in pace, blood and sweat.

Who else seems to have married his innate technical beauty with a tougher attitude? Ozil.

That’s the benchmark now, which might explain why Theo is finding it so hard. With him, I maintain the injury has affected him mentally more than physically. But at the same time, he cannot fail to see the way the wind is blowing.

Podolski could barely get in the team before he left. He’d get nowhere near it now.

That’s me done.

Let the build-up to Wembley begin.

I love the FA Cup.

Bloody love it.

Giroud fizzes, Arsenal fizzle out

Newcastle 1-2 Arsenal

Arsenal’s record after European games has not been too bad this season – DDWLWDWWW – but you never know how a team will cope both physically and psychologically after being dumped out of the competition, especially when coming so close to confounding the statistics.

The Champions League holds a big sway on the psyche of the players, bigger than anything else, so I always suspected yesterday would be harder than we thought. Turns out the players were weary of both body and mind, because those two halves were chalk and cheese.

Thank heavens for Olivier Giroud, who motored to seventeen goals with his two yesterday, drawing only two behind Alexis. He’s going to overtake him, isn’t he? Giroud’s carburettor’s, erm, clean (?) while Alexis’s tappets are – ahem – tapping.

There was me thinking the motoring metaphor was worth persevering with. Transpires it wasn’t.

But those two goals were so valuable, with Welbeck forgetting his shooting boots (he had several good chances and for all his good work must learn to take them better) and Alexis in his current goal funk. We weren’t to know it at the time, but Giroud’s knee and head were the cushions for us to cling onto the three points as we ran totally out of juice in the second half.

I’m sure the lack of Ozil played a part, but overall I think we were just dead beat. So on that basis, those were three of the finest points you will lay your eyes on.

We’re lucky that our squad options are decent at the moment, and Wenger made the right call by resting some players (in this case, Mertesacker and Bellerin). Had Ozil been fit, Cazorla might have had a rest too. Rosicky, maybe, should have started that would have meant both Ozil and Cazorla out the side.

Walcott’s omission could have been circumstantial. He’s morphed into more of a home player as Wenger leans toward harder-working players on the road. In fact, the only two games Walcott’s started this season have been at home (Villa and Leicester). Yesterday, Alexis and Cazorla were out on their feet and we were on the back foot. Walcott didn’t seem the right option to bring on when we needed players who could defend.

I’m not saying there are not other machinations behind the scenes. It’s pretty obvious, with his contract, that there are. But the problem in its essence is that when he does come on he’s just not doing enough. Personally, I maintain that his injury – one of the worst you can get in football – is still a factor. Not physically, but mentally. (Falcao had a similar injury – and look at him).

I think he’s still finding his way back in his own mind, but on top of that, the team has moved on without him. He’s a great option for us, but it does feel like he might be off in the summer, and I think that’s a shame. He might not be as integral as he used to be but every squad has to have different kinds of players, and our squad is better for having him in it. Not every player can be the same, or work in the same way. The trouble for Theo is less that he’s not tracking back or slogging his guts out trying to win the ball back – he’s never done that – and more that the things he excels at such as pace, running at defences, clinical finishing are not working either. When his strengths are not in evidence, his weaknesses are exaggerated.

For Theo, it’s one of those occasions when an international break has come at a good time. He really needs to play and I hope he’s selected for England.

Nine games to go, and I’m still cautious. While we are only a point of second, we are not that far off fifth either and it’s very much still a case of ‘hold onto your hat’.

All the more reason to raise a glass to yesterday’s three succulent, moorish, tasty points.

Giroud was all like ‘yeah’

Arsenal 3-0 West Ham

Ping, ping, dummy, flick, goal – it was one of those days when Arsenal’s build-up passing slotted together like one of those massive 500-piece jigsaws. When it works it’s bewitching, and when it doesn’t it’s infuriating, but yesterday – when it counted – we ghosted through West Ham and it was a delight.

They were all at it in the one-touch club, but the main protagonists were Giroud, Ozil and Ramsey, with a hat-tip to the latecomer Cazorla (player of the season, anybody?)

Not that it was a 3-0 kind of game, really. The first half was all probing, stretching defences and was fairly even. The Hammers seemed to be targeting Chambers at right-back and got round the back two or three times, while we had a few good chances ourselves. Walcott was getting into good positions but looked a bit ring-rusty, perhaps understandably.

Confession: I missed the first goal because I’d gone to get an early sip of the half-time beer. There we were in the concourse (with hundreds of others, not that I’m making excuses for myself), singing throatily but with a hollow, sheepish edge as we realised Giroud had put us one up. That’s right, I’ve become the person I hate, complaining about ticket prices and tutting about the exorbitant cost of food and drink at the ground, only to slip out early to ensure Arsenal make even more profit. I am a hypocrite so feel free to reprimand, or just shake your head in sorrow.

So the first goal, ahem. Seemed good from where I was.

In the second period – I was in my seat by now, you’ll be glad to hear, watching the game with my actual eyes – it was tight for a while. Ozil, who was otherwise excellent again, over-elaborated to the tune of a trillion by lofting an impossible pass across the box when he should have just wellied it, and at that moment 57,000 people probably simultaneously muttered something like “this has got one-all written all over it” under their breath.

There was no need to panic. Welbeck came on and gave us a burst of energy, Cazorla entered the fray so we could have our dose of pocket dynamite, and we collectively stepped up a gear. Ramsey’s goal was a blur of passing interspersed with the kind of shimmy that probably once sent Mrs Giroud’s knees trembly in a French nightclub when Olivier hit the floor for some Bee Gees.

Then Cazorla one-twoed with Welbeck and Giroud, passed it across the goal and Nigel made it three.

Giroud, as an important aside, was excellent.

I wouldn’t call it a head of steam, more a faint whistle, but we’re building something up at the moment at a critical time. Five straight league wins puts us a mere point behind Man City, and with nine games to go I think it’s fair to say that three of the top four slots are – to coin a phrase from the late eighties – up for grabs now.

Good to see Walcott back too. I get the sense there’s a bit of revisionism going on at the moment about his value to the club. The landscape may have changed and the sands may have shifted, but I can’t think of any circumstances where not having him in the squad would be beneficial. Think back to how he was playing when he did his knee in – he was magnificent. Even operating at 70% of that, which is where he probably is now, he’s still getting into good positions. The more games he plays, the better he will get. He’ll always be slightly enigmatic, and he’s not the tackliest, runningbackest of players, but he does other things well.

It’s all set up for Mission: Improbable on Tuesday night. I’ve got a realistic angel over my left shoulder, wagging his finger and reminding me how we got lacerated on the counter in the first leg, and I’ve got an annoying, upbeat ‘What if’ angel over my right.

Right angel has come from nowhere – literally nowhere – and is desperately trying to sow the seed of excitement.

For my own sanity I wish he’d go away.

Cazorla ices the Arsenal cake and I want another slice

Manchester City 0-2 Arsenal

A magnificent, disciplined, resilient and pragmatic 90 minutes from Arsenal that ended in three well-deserved points. The best result this season? No doubt. But it could well be the most important result for more than three years as we finally threw the monkey off our back by beating the current champions in their back yard.

And how we merited it. Only 30% possession? So what. We sat back, let City come at us and snuffed them out with energy. On the break, we caused them no end of trouble, with most of our best work emanating from the staggeringly good Santi Cazorla. If he wasn’t cleaning up at the back he was racing forward, all deft movement and Weeble-like balance. A goal, an assist: he was man of the match with bells on and to whoever covets his berth in the middle of the park I simply say, “good luck with that”. The superlatives will flow from all angles, but the Guardian pretty much nails it with “masterclass”.

There were plenty of others who should be mentioned in dispatches. Coquelin has risen phoenix-like from the ashes of mediocrity and produced a performance of energy and steadfastness. Is he good enough in the long-term? Don’t know, but he was good enough today and in a season of ups and downs, his story is increasingly eye-opening.

Bellerin’s story is just as heartening, a young player at the starting gun of his career who has taken his chances and seized them with both legs. Learning as fast as he runs, he’s giving Wenger an option at right-back just at the right time, with Debuchy out for his second Diaby of the season.

I could call out Ramsey too for an all-action comeback (though he was dead on his feet as the game dragged on), but maybe I should just stop right there, thankyou very much, and just doff my cap to the whole damned lot of them.

I heard it described as a benchmark, and that’s a fair call. If we can play like that, rather than trying to surge forward chaotically at all times, then we have a blueprint for tough away games right there. When we play like that we marry sturdy defence with pace and shimmering danger going forward. A springboard? Let’s hope so, though you never quite know with Arsenal (I can’t throw my innate cynicism away entirely, you know, not on the strength of one game…)

Ironically, two of our most impressive recent performers – Alexis and Oxlade-Chamberlain – were below their electric best but while their touch deserted them a bit neither of them lacked for energy. Fortunately, our strengthening bench can come to the rescue more now than it has been able to for a while. Gibbs, Flamini and Rosicky are experienced heads to call upon, and we had Ozil and Walcott in reserve. Options.

Was it a penalty? Yes, of course. Was City’s defending for Giroud’s goal good? No, thankfully. Do I care? Not a jot. Giroud’s header was firm and his celebration, sliding and pointing, was epically Giroud-like.

Where we still lack bodies is central defence, and if the sight of Koscielny trotting about gingerly at times didn’t sound Wenger’s cheque book klaxon, then nothing will.

“We are still looking”, was Wenger’s response when asked.

Well, don’t stop!

Giroud gives Arsenal a dose of the smelling salts

Everton 2-2 Arsenal

Textbook Twitter overreaction from me yesterday – right out of the manual.

The sarcasm

We’re two goals down at half-time. Being bitter and twisted, I can’t quite bring myself to give an online pep talk. But nor can I hashtag Wengerout or hashtag hopelessshower.

Retweet 1

Evidently still bitter and now commencing a war of snarkiness. This is the stat to use.

Retweet 2

Because this made me laugh when everything else was making me cross.

The overreaction

We’re one and a half games into the season and I’ve written us off.

The hasty backpedal

Just to prove that at no point did I not think we could get something from this. *Coughs*

There you go – what do I know? What do any of us know for that matter. It wasn’t a good performance, with several returning players patently not match fit, others battling injury, and others just not clicking. But we kept plugging on and instead of the narrative being about how we’ve not learned a jot over the summer, it’s all about the comeback.

It did look lost to me. But Wenger changed stuff around, with Giroud making a big difference, and things started to change. The breakthrough came from a couple of moments of class, as is so often the case – lovely cross from Cazorla, lovely little run from Ramsey – and the game changes. Games have a habit of doing that, which somehow still seems to surprise me despite having watched Arsenal for about 35 years.

Another from the left – this time Nach (natch) retrieves a long pass from Debuchy, curves one back in and Giroud plants a header in.

We rescued that one, and it feels a bit a bit like a win as a result.

Not really clicked this season, but we’ve still taken four points from six. If you were being cruel you’d say we just look unready, and a little blunt. But there are mitigating factors. World Cup, long trip to Turkey, a fractured pre-season. Injuries. I also think – rightly or wrongly – that minds are on Wednesday. It’s such a big game for the club, money-wise and to attract new players between now and September.

Either way, the moral of this story is not to pay too much attention to what I say on Twitter during a match.