Interlull: Good for looking back and looking forward

One of the few benefits of downing tools for weeks on end, as I am increasingly doing, is the ability to view things in splendid hindsight. After the Utd game I was a bit tetchy at the no-show in our midfield, somewhat deflated at not getting at least a point at a place we have in recent times consistenty struggled at.

But looking back at it, no real complaints. It was an excellent performance against Liverpool, followed by a sapping rearguard smash-and-grab against Dortmund. There was just not enough in the tank to make real inroads against Utd.

Our away record finally fizzled out but it’s worth noting for posterity – 16 games unbeaten was the catalyst for 6 months of upturned fortunes. Szczesny, Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna – all have upped their games and are our best defensive unit in ages.

It’s also nice to observe that overall, people have been pretty sanguine about this loss. Compare and contrast with the previous league loss against Villa. So yeah, there’s plenty to be happy about.

Of course, with the transfer window peeking over the brow of the hill, thoughts turn to January. We ought to have both Podolski and Walcott back soon, both of whom could (but don’t tend to, as the team needs a Giroud-type player) play up front, but we still need more attacking options. I’m not saying we need to amass four £30m strikers, because that is patently unrealistic. But there was a time when we could muster one or all of Henry, Wiltord, Kanu and Bergkamp. Sometimes, all at once. We just don’t have that variety to call on.

I don’t know how these things work, but you’d like to think that, if we wanted someone earlier rather than later in January, we’d be doing some legwork now. For me, whether a target is cup-tied in the Champions League makes no odds – the league is probably more important and besides, you have to consider the longer-term picture anyway.

There have been some big names bandied around already (nothing concrete, but still) like Dzeko, Hernandez and Benzema. There’ll be a lot of this stuff over the next month or two but we’ve been here too many times to be anything other than cautious in the extreme. Two points about that: 1) No rival, if we are still there or thereabouts in January, would sell us one of their ‘spare’ strikers in a month of Sundays. Look what happened to the Ba deal when it became clear that the Ozil signing would make us more competitive. Canned straight away. And 2) I think it’s fantastic that we showed the ambition to spend £42.5m on a player, but it’s not the kind of deal we can afford to do often. Not many clubs can. So on that basis, if I had to bet I’d say that any player we bring in in January – if we bring anyone in – will be more in the £10m-£15m bracket, which would rule a Benzema-type player out. Partly because of availability, partly because of cost.

For now, we’re back to fiddling uncomfortably with the Giroud worry beads. In an ideal world we’d be able to rotate him in and out according to his condition. Not an option right now though.

Sir Chez knighted at the Palace

Crystal Palace 0-2 Arsenal

Two points clear at the top of the league going into November – nice, isn’t it? This time last year, and the year before that, we were seventh after ten games so to be top after nine this time round really has blown the cobwebs off. We’re also seven points better off at this stage than we were last year – another thing to write home about. (“Dear Mum, I feel compelled to write to you about Arsenal’s seven point upswing. Hope you’re well, much love, Jim.”)

I say this of course because we’ve all known for some time that November brings sterner autumnal tests gusting in from the north and west. The last thing we needed ahead of that kind of storm front was to get our chimney knocked off by gentler breezes in the south.

As it happens, managerless Palace were far from a breeze and it took a performance of some determination from us to take the points. It wasn’t pretty and we weren’t at our best, which is why the man of the match award went not to one of our midfield creators but to Wojciech ‘The Woj’ Szczesny for a superb double save just at the point where, at 1-0 up, we were wobbling.

He was excellent – as were, in the second half in particular, Sagna and Ramsey. Perhaps I ought to add Giroud to that list, who ran himself into the ground. He looked utterly destroyed at the end of the game, which is both heartening and faintly terrifying in equal measures.

As for Arteta, it was perhaps foolish to get that close to Chamakh but a red for that? He was on the right-hand side of the pitch and 45 yards from goal. Defenders were not a million miles away. Very harsh.

In midweek we have a date with Chelsea in the Rumbelows, and it’s very hard to know what approach to take in that, especially with Liverpool looming on the weekend. In the absence of our legion of crocks (Walcott’s three weeks out has turned into another infamously un-three-week absence), some of our players need a breather. Ozil looks like he does, Giroud too, Wilshere is not 100%, Flamini and Arteta are both out. Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain are still nowhere to be seen.

This might be the least coveted pot of the four, but the importance of maintaining form and confidence – the easiest things to lose and the hardest to regain – should not be underestimated. Wenger has some tough decisions to make on that front. Can we throw Frimpong into the mix? Is he even fit? How about Monreal at left-back and Gibbs on the left of midfield? Why am I not a football manager?*

*Rhetorical question

On midweek, Wenger said:

I will rotate against Chelsea, yes, but play with a team as well who has a good chance to qualify, that will be the target.

So basically, your guess is as good as mine.

Where there’s a Wilshere, there’s a way

Arsenal 4-1 Norwich

I don’t wish to get all meta about things, but do you ever wonder why you like football? The comfort of routine, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the escapism, the commitment and the competition? Well, yes, it’s all of those things.

But sometimes the pleasure you take in football can be summed up in one pint-sized package of play, lasting perhaps no more than ten seconds. It doesn’t have to be a moment of real consequence, such as the one that ended with Thomas squirming in the turf in 1989 or Adams barrelling through to score from a Bould assist in 1998. It can just as easily be a split second of pure skill and nerve, like Bergkamp spinning on a sixpence to score at Newcastle in 2002.

We all remember those moments, the ones that take your breath away and make strange parts of you tingle whenever you think of them. Because they are so out of the ordinary, so rare in the grand scheme of things, they give you a warm fug that’s sometimes hard to explain and – I suspect you know where I’m going with this – I got it when I saw Wilshere’s goal yesterday. And when I thought of it just now. And when I think about it tomorrow, it’ll happen then too.

It was just so preposterously good. To pull a move like that off, one between that many players, requires confidence, skill, but above all luck – those touches are so deft, the smallest error or the most infinite of hesitations would have brought the move to a crashing halt. Everything worked, from everyone. Gibbs, Cazorla, a flurry of outrageous touches between Giroud and Wilshere then a one-touch finish. That’s football, for me. That’s why I love it. It was worth the £35 on its own.

Other moments of great skill yesterday will justly feel left out of my paean. Ramsey’s this-way-and-that jink and finish, his cutback for the fourth, Giroud’s laser-guided cross onto the Ozil bonce for the second – all magnificent. Just not quite as magnificent as that first.

Soak it all up, because this is good stuff. The irony has not been lost on me that in a season where Arsenal have made the best start in ages, and are playing their best football in ages, my own attendance is showing relegation form. I’ve been away, or otherwise engaged, for four of the six home games this season – very much a case of #eastlowerout.

I intend to start putting this lamentable form right, beginning on Tuesday against Dortmund.

In the meantime, I might just watch those goals again.

And again.

And again.

The year of the Ram

Sunderland 1-3 Arsenal

Every now and then I do that thing where I wonder what some of our home-grown players would fetch on the open market. Jack Wilshere, of course, form and injury notwithstanding, would command a pretty fee – a most handsome fee. But what about Aaron Ramsey? In just this last year his form has gone bananas, taking him from a squad player to a first choice teamsheeter. From being a victim of grumbles, he has emerged into the sunny uplands of the best form of his career. “What he has achieved is fantastic”, said Wenger. Damn right it is. We all saw that injury. My own leg goes wobbly even now, just thinking about it, so imagine how hard it has been for him to recover from that, both physically and mentally. To force yourself into a team, and then to make it stick.

This is what Wenger means, I suspect, about building your team rather than buying it ready-made. When you get someone who so utterly turns his fortunes around, it’s hard not to have a massive grin on your face. It says it all that on Ozil’s debut, it was all about Ramsey. His first goal was volleyed so hard the keeper couldn’t even drop a foot to block it. And his second was coolly slotted home after some ping-ping passing of the highest order.

Ozil, what about him? Top class despite having spent the day on the can (if it’s ok with you I’d rather not analyse this too much). Setting up Giroud’s goal and feeding Walcott the tastiest morsels. And that was just his debut. We’ve all read a lot about him, watched all the presentation videos, seen the fallout of his departure, so it was just a joy to get that first game done.

And so to Theo, a classic confidence player whose form is not quite that of his Welsh midfield mucker. Wide players – wingers, call them what you will – are the kinds of players who can drift in and out of games, due in part to their geographical location. Walcott was not peripheral yesterday, it’s just that he missed the chances he was presented with. I suspect he can’t wait for that first goal to come. Easy to forget though that he was our top scorer last season. It’ll come. As for his chances, the first one was the best. The header was a header, and he’s no Smudger Smith.

We got a bit of luck, for sure, and we seem to have developed an addiction to conceding penalties, which is not so amusing. But these are iron-outable things, I think. Maybe at the tail end of last season we veered too far into solid defensive territory at the expense of rip-snorting football, and this year we’ve veered too far the other way (these are eye-opening technical observations, I’m sure you’ll concur), and we need to get the balance right. Or maybe we just need Per back.

And Giroud? He says he’s ok. “He is the player at the moment that would be very difficult for us [to replace]” said Wenger. I am tempted to drop a sarcastic comment at this stage, maybe adding a throw-away soundbite about Bendtner, but given we find ourselves in a happy place, and in some good form, I might just button the old lip.

Onwards to France. Vive le genou de Giroud.

Giroud, Giroud, Giroud is on fire

Arsenal 1-0 Tottenham

Doffed chapeaus all round – to Giroud, for an imposing performance in which he scored a deft little number (“good touch for a big man”), to Mertesacker for his robotic leg, to all-action Flamini for coming on, rustier than a shipwreck, and getting stuck in from the off. To Ramsey for another gut-busting performance, to Wilshere for not being injured, just a bit squiffy, and to everyone else really, because we beat our old pals deservedly and it felt as good as it always does.

Incidentally, I did like fellow seat-dweller Shedman’s take on Flamini’s return. “He’s a proper grown-up”.

Quite a strange game in some respects, with Arsenal ceding a fair bit of possession to Spurs, especially in the second half, but still having by far the better chances. Walcott had a couple of good opportunities, Ramsey skied one, Cazorla could have got in on the act and Monreal almost got to a rebound. The atmosphere was crackling and the team spirit clear for all to see, with some of the players dispensing of their shirts into the crowd. There were fist pumps.

Yes, it was amusing in a perverse way that £100m of signings lost to £0, but theirs has been an approach to the transfer market that many of us wish we had at least in part emulated (though we don’t need seven – maybe two or three), and there’s not a man jack who isn’t hoping against all hope that we splash at least a few thousand of our multimillions today. Because let’s be honest, when a few injuries hit, as they have and do, a bench containing two full-backs plus Zelalem, Sanogo and Gnabry is not really a long-term solution (much as I want them all to get their chance). Our first XI cannot do it all. We ended the game with all four full-backs playing.

It’s a big boost to head into the interlull (Yes! There’s another!) with a win, and to dispense some of the storm clouds, but as we all know what happens today – somewhat ludicrously – could also have a big effect both on the pitch this season, but also off it too.

Will we sign anyone? Anyone big? Well guess what, I don’t want to jinx it so I’m not even going to mention one of the big names we’ve been linked with. Because that jinxes it, duh.

I will however update this page when the tide of world-class footballers starts to flood into Highbury House. If I start taking on water, I’ll send out a mayday.

Come on you reds. Come on you CEO. Come on you rip-roaring legal department.

Four, five? Senses working overtime

I think I would perhaps be enjoying this fourth-place run-in a bit more if Arsenal were a little less in the wanting zone. I’m finding it hard to prefer this new-found gritty football (‘unremarkable’ as the Independent have it, though they also admired our ruthlessness) over its free-flowing predecessor. But it’s no use forever harping back – this season and perhaps the last one too have been marked by a less flamboyant style of football. That’s diplomatic speak – you can interpret it how you like. Besides, I’m with L.P. Hartley on this one. The past is a foreign country and all that.

It used to be said that even when we were no longer winning stuff, we were still playing the best football in the league. That accolade has been quietly filed away and I am having to fast re-learn the art of grinding one-nils. We’re certainly defending better than we have done in ages. Mertesacker and Koscielny are impressing, Sir Chesney has come back in re-focused and there are options on both defensive flanks.

(PS – I wonder what Sir Ches’s dad thinks now? Credit where it’s due because dropping him worked).

The late George Graham era is so long ago that the mind plays tricks, but I basically remember it as being trillions of one-nils, with all of the goals coming from Ian Wright. It felt a bit like that last season too with almost forty goals coming from one player, but we’ve had to share things around this season. In this period of impressive results but limited goalscoring, we’ve had six different scorers sharing our last eight goals.

Even though his form has not been great, we’ve missed the waving arms and focal-pointiness of Olivier Giroud. Podolski can’t do that, Walcott can’t do that, and of the other two Arsenal players who could fulfil that role, one has forgotten how to play football and is warming the bench in east London and the other prefers coming out of nightclubs with his trousers at half-mast and driving the wrong way down streets.

We’re heading towards the relay finishing line with one baton pass to go. That baton pass has to go in our favour and if it does we need to run our arses off to the finish line. It’s a scenario with too many ifs and buts at the moment and I’d be lying if I said I was enjoying it.

Per-shaped, points plundered

Fulham 0-1 Arsenal

What will posterity tell us about this game? Not, I suspect, that it was a curiously below-par performance despite an 80-minute numerical advantage. History will record it as a win. Three potentially crucial points for supremacy among the title unchallengers.

I do not deny that it would be preferable, having accelerated into some promising form, for us to be playing with a bit more swagger than we are. We looked sapped yesterday, as if the pressure was getting to us a bit. I wish there was a handy catch-all phrase that Wenger could come up with to describe playing in this way. Something that refers to us playing within ourselves. Perhaps something automotive. Anyway, here’s what he said:

We played a bit with the nerves, a little bit with the handbrake in the second half

The bottom line is that we won. What is a bit of a concern is that the goals have dried up a bit since thumping Reading. A 3-1 win against Norwich that could so easily have been a 1-1 draw. No goals against Everton and the solitary one yesterday. But 7 points from 9 – I call that efficient…

Red cards? Sidwell (Slidwell? Slidbadly) can have no complaints and I suspect Arteta will have a sore ankle this morning. And Giroud’s, while I think less dangerous, was still over the top of the ball. I can’t really envisage Arsenal challenging it but as someone asked on Twitter (and I forget who, sorry), is there anything to lose in giving it a go? Can the FA extend a ban if it considers the challenge to be spurious? I think it might be able to but I can’t remember.

Of course, Giroud’s card has a knock-on effect, banned for three games as he is. I guess in simple terms it opens the door for one of Walcott, Gervinho or Podolski to lead the line for a bit. Walcott’s form is such that I wouldn’t even go there. Gervinho simply doesn’t need the opprobrium that would inevitably be heaped upon him and Arsenal could do with someone more reliable in front of goal anyway. It’s Podolski all the way for me. Plus, he ought to be the freshest of the lot as he’s made his home in recent weeks on the bench. He’s probably the best striker of a ball at the club.

There are some huge games today but whichever way they go, next Sunday’s visit of the champions elect is shaping up to be a humdinger. They have a bit of a hoodoo on us right now. We’ll need to douse some WD-40 on the old handbrake if we’re to undo the hoodoo.

If I could sum up the reality of the last few games of the season, it would be ‘points first, performance second’. If we can end the season well – by which of course I mean *weeps silently at the thought of bygone eras* coming in one of the holy grail places – then we can worry about our deficiencies a little more calmly at a later date.

Glorious day here in London – go on, off you go the lot of you.

PS – This blog was brought to you in a 2002 gold Grimandi 18 shirt. Possibly my favourite shirt.

Ten glorious minutes

In a season dotted with more than its fair share of lacklustre moments and peppered by curiously slow build-up play, the quick-fire four-goal salvo at the beginning of the second half on Wednesday was like music to my ears. So much so that I think I might just bundle the memory up and replay it in my head at whatever point now suits me. I could press play during a quiet patch in a future game to cheer me up, or at work to liven up a dull stretch of breadwinning.

But obviously, if I don’t write those moments down to preserve them, I’m going to forget them in all their detail. I can barely remember the scores of games within a few months and it would sadden me if, in future times, these explosive six-hundred seconds had disappeared off into the ether. So here goes. I should add that this is how I end up remembering all goals.

Giroud, 47

OK, there’s a corner at our end, over to my right. It looks like it might be Theo taking it. I’m craning my neck. “Too bloody low, Theo”, wails my brother in frustration, and then the ball flashes into the net and we’re all cheering. “Top work, Theo” he adds. Who scored it, I ask myself? Might have been Giroud. Nifty move at the near post? It was a bit of a blur.

Cazorla, 53

I’m still a bit agitated, so imagine my surprise when whoosh! Cazorla back-heels it in. My recollection of how he came to be in a position to back-heel the goal is blurred. Anyway, I cheer and as I write this I’m going to look at the goal (I’ve not seen them since).

[looks at goal]

How exactly do I not have that carved into my memory? I wasn’t looking at my phone, given than Vodafone is a matchday deathzone. So it was Podolski to Giroud, who arcs a belter back to Der Hammer, then Cazorla does some magic. Now that I’ve had my memory jogged, I do remember that glorious dinked pass from Giroud. Nice.

Walcott, 54

This I do remember. Podolski thunders down the left wing (I don’t have him down as a thunderer, but by god he was thundering), crosses it on a plate with tassels on for Theo, who obliges. I remember every bit of this. We are high-fouring now.

Giroud, 57

Replace Theo with Giroud and you’ve got the fourth goal, at least that’s how I remember it, or don’t remember it. I mean come on, give me a break, I was a bit befuddled by this point. Four goals in ten minutes – I’m not used to it.

I’ve just seen it again and it wasn’t like that, not exactly. The Podolski bit was, but it was near post not far. Ah well.

That’s that then – I’m glad I have it lasered into the bonce with such clarity. Ten lovely minutes. When you’re at the ground they go by in a blur and you remember them in a blur. At least, I do.

Thank heavens for Arsenal Player. And real match reports. And people who can actually remember live football.

Nil nil, hey hey, kiss it goodbye

Aston Villa 0-0 Arsenal
“The thriller at the Villa”

I spent a little while on Saturday morning musing about whether the new sponsorship deal could have an immediate uplifting effect on the club on the pitch as well as off it. You know, give the players something to think about. Spur them onto a barnstorming run with the promise of riches untold and trophies galore. Naïve, eh? Or just a little bit handbrake off on my behalf.

Instead two very good results – one of which secured qualification for the knockouts, and ergo another substantial boost to income – were followed by yesterday’s flat goalless draw. You could say that’s just football. It was a tight game in terrible conditions with tired players against a team fighting hard to get itself out of a rut. But it did feel like a step back after two steps forward, which is pretty much the hallmark of Arsenal in recent years. This would partially account for the subsequent reaction, which is another hallmark of Arsenal in recent seasons.

The boss got it in the neck for leaving Wilshere on the bench, and withdrawing Giroud for Coquelin (essentially protecting the point and not going for the win), and the fan disquiet has had a fair few column inches today. But on Wilshere, I understand the logic – look what happened last time he was overplayed. Regarding Giroud, it seems odd given how little time there was left, but what were the options? Where the hell is Chamakh? We have nobody else and Giroud was maybe tired, certainly ineffectual. The stop-start nature of our performances though is a long-running saga and is very much Wenger’s job to fix. On that basis nobody is above criticism.

A big issue, as many have pointed out, is the paucity of options. Decent first XI when fit and firing, but one that we are over-reliant on. In risk of burn-out. Cazorla will need a rest at some point, as will Giroud, Podolski and Arteta.

Of course, if Wenger goes on a winter splurge then you just never know. When our situation got perilous a few years back he spent £17m on Andrey Arshavin, and it was a catalyst, for a while. The intention was there. This time round, he has the money – quite a lot of it, assuming everything we are told and read in the accounts is correct – but will he spend it? He must know we need to, with only one frontline striker, and a Diabyless midfield (the ghost of Diabys past howls through it). I agree that Henry is not the answer – at least not on his own.

There’s plenty going for this team, and there’s plenty to go for (four trophies – League Cup, FA Cup, European Cup and Fourth Cup). But for it to stand a chance, we patently need to show some ambition in the transfer market in January. Sixth place is a fair reflection of where we are now.

Nice to see Gibbs back, by the way.

XXXXXXX, a half-season wonder

So I took an interlull-esque dip into blogs past, because I was just thinking about Giroud (footballistically), and I emerged with this:

11.09.10

Lose him and we are looking to Carlos ‘Chip It’ Vela or heading back into Arshavin territory. So please, XXXXXXXX – no injury.

16.09.10

XXXXXXXX is a revelation. A willing front man who can toil away happily, holding the ball and distributing it, but who has a real eye for goal, I would wager that Bendtner is now sweating a bit. Why on earth did Wenger scrimp on the £7m by waiting this long to sign him? He could have made a real difference in the back end of last season.

27.09.10

XXXXXXX will surely be holding the line again, but that’s fine – he’s made a good start to his Arsenal career with three goals in eight. He’ll need a break at some point but if we can keep him in one piece until Bendtner or van Persie return, then he’s very much the main man.

09.10.10

Our over-reliance on the ever-willing XXXXXXX has been another of my worries.

17.11.10

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

28.11.10

Fortunately, XXXXXXX eased the nerves with a deft toe-poke.

A quick word about Nasri and XXXXXXX. It is very doubtful had you placed a bet on the opening day of the season that you would have tipped those two to top our scoring approaching Christmas, but with 10 and nine goals respectively, they have exceeded expectations.

04.12.10

Shoehorning van Persie and XXXXXXX into the same team is a glorious headache.

06.12.10

So thank heavens for XXXXXXX’s impressive debut season. Mon chapeau est doffed, as they say in France.

21.12.10

XXXXXXX has been a hit

This is precisely the kind of non-sequitur / fluff piece that interlulls were invented for, I’m sure you’ll agree. I’m certain that I also don’t need to tell any of you that XXXXXXX is of course that great Houdini of strikers, Marouane Chamakh. (For a while, he did well in a box). Formerly of Emirates Stadium and now of no fixed abode.

“Where are you going with this?” I hear you ask, and I answer that I’m not entirely sure, only that I recall a player who made his presence felt, could score with the head and the foot and for whom plenty of exuberant words were once written (not least, as you can see, by myself).

And I suppose that some people compare Olivier Giroud to him. Because he’s from the French league, maybe, a striker and tall – but if you think about it there are big differences, and not just in price. Chamakh started his Arsenal career so well, getting something like 11 goals by Christmas, and then faded away drastically. Giroud has started his career at the club more slowly and has set himself a target of a dozen goals for the season. Chamakh scored 16 goals two years running in France, but Giroud got 25 – a huge difference. But the biggest difference is that Chamakh didn’t really replace anyone, whereas Giroud part-replaced a man who scored 37 goals. That’s where the burden is.

Personally I think that Giroud is a decent player and will prove it, if he’s not doing so already, but then again, I did say that about Chamakh.

But the main conclusions of these rambles are these:

a) There’s really no use in making comparisons or judging a player after ten games. It takes a season before a decent assessment can be made. By Christmas 2010, Chamakh was a big player for Arsenal. By May 2011, he was not. Will Giroud have hit 12 goals by May? I think he’ll get more than that.

b) Chamakh’s decline is not only baffling, but sad.