Titime to move on / midfield goals

Wallowing in the glory of Henry’s movie-moment comeback was not meant to last all week, but for me it has. The YouTube video I breathlessly uploaded at about midnight on Monday has now had about 37,000 hits (and Analytics tell me 90.3% of those who watched it were male, with 9.7% female – how do they know this I wonder – though my brother did confidently predict that he had watched it “about 28,000 times” so maybe there’s some truth in that). It certainly captured the moment.

But now we’re back to the mundane grind of trying to reach fourth, win the European Cup and bag the FA Cup. On the whole coming fourth thing, I had this blinding-light Eureka moment a few days ago. I swear, it’s genius*. Here it is:

Fourth, we know, is an achievement. It’s got kudos attached, it earns oodles of dough, the players want it to stay and players want it to come. But it’s not a trophy. It doesn’t get listed in the programme masthead and it won’t go into the Rothmans Yearbook. So why not assign it a trophy? Let’s call it the UEFA Champions League Fourth Place Qualifying Cup (CLFQC if that’s too much of a mouthful, though I’m not sure I’m helping my argument here) and the winners can all go on an open bus tour, put it in the cabinet and whack it on the masthead. Job’s a goodun, eh? We’d have had loads of trophies in recent years had this idea been taken up and we could bury the whole ‘six years without…’ thing once and for all.

*It’s not genius, I know.

Of course, we face the fight of our lives to get there first. The main thing troubling me on that note is not the lack of full-backs, which fingers crossed will be imminently easing, but the drying-up of goals. Since beating Wigan 4-0 on 3rd December (the last time incidentally that we did have a recognised full-back – so maybe I should be more worried about it), we have scored just one goal in four of our six league games, none in one and two in the other (Yossi’s late winner at Villa).

Now, it’s very possible that the lack of goals is directly linked to the lack of full-backs, but in these instances we need other areas of the team to step up to the plate. This is where the midfield comes into the equation, and to my mind there haven’t been enough goals from that area. Sure, in those six games Gervinho and Benayoun did both score, but I think the point, if you take the season as a whole, still stands.

Our midfield has scored 21 goals all season – the same as Robin van Persie. That’s eleven players (Gervinho, Walcott, Arteta, Rosicky, Song, Arshavin, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Frimpong, Benayoun and Coquelin) who have started games in the midfield. It’s too much to ask some of those players to rattle goals in, but Arshavin, Gervinho and Walcott in particular have chipped in just seven league goals (ten in total).

Of course, how Wenger cajoles more goals out of his midfielders and wingers is the million dollar question, but if he’s happy to stick with van Persie (and Henry for six weeks) rather than twisting and buying a new striker, then he’s going to have to do just that.

Now, when’s Jack back?

Wanted: A big league win. Last seen: Ages ago.

Thinking about things a bit – I try not to do this, but it happened somehow – I have changed my mind. I did subscribe to the theory that any league win will do, just to get us back on track. But we got that ‘any win’ against Swansea and it didn’t put us back on track at all, did it. It was edgy and unconvincing. We lost the proceeding league game in a flurry of own goals and non-league defending. 

Seems to me, without wishing to overanalyse things too much, or to state the bleeding obvious, that what we really need is a therapeutic, make-no-mistakes, common-or-garden, text-book thumping.

I should qualify that: We need to be the ones dishing out the thumping. We’ve experienced being the thumpees this season, and character building though is, there’s only so much a stiff upper lip can withstand. Draw? Tick – we can do that. In fact, we’re particularly adept at drawing after being in front – market leaders, you might say. Where drawing is concerned, we know all the tricks. Narrow win? We specialise in those too. Spanking? We have not administered one of those for too long. Far too long.

We’ve not won a league game by two goals since 10th April (Blackpool away), and we’ve not won a league game by three goals since 22nd January (Wigan at home). You could argue that you have to go back an entire year, to August and September of 2010, to find the free-scoring Arsenal of old (two resounding home league wins, 6-0 and 4-1).

We can all disagree on many things, but on this we can be in accord: this is a sorry state of affairs for a side that prides – or used to pride – itself on excelling in the front third of the pitch. It’s all very well wobbling at the back if you’re knocking goals in as if they’re going out of fashion, but while we’ve not lost the knack of defending poorly, we’ve clearly lost the art of taking a game by the scruff of the neck and shaking it until it’s limp.

This needs remedying.

Confidence undoubtedly plays a part (Wenger’s ‘handbrake off’), but so does the way some teams line up to play us, defending stoutly in front of the box while we piffle around in a holding pattern weaving fruitless passing looms. We need to go in for the kill.

All rather obvious and easier said than done, I hear you say: Of course it is. I’m sure the boss is scratching his head as we speak for a solution to our acute home goalshyness on deck, coupled with general leakiness in the hold.

I’d take a 1-0 on Saturday, or a 2-1, of course I would. But there’d be nothing like a convincing win to properly turn the corner, would there?

Answers or suggestions as to how we might actually achieve this should be addressed to a Mr A.Wenger, Emirates Stadium, London.

A week of reflection

Deep breath… Go! I’m back and I’m sporting – against my better judgement – a positive hat at a jaunty angle. I think it looks rather dapper.

I might be the only one though. The groans – resignation, anger – around the ground and the introspection amongst Arsenal fans since Saturday tell you all you need to know about the state of play. I’ve digested much of the opinion and I’ve blasted my way through several braces of podcasts. I can’t remember things ever being this gloomy in the Wenger era. I certainly didn’t fancy writing about it on Sunday. After all, I’ve written about it before, many times. All the words are below here somewhere, perhaps in a slightly different order, but here nevertheless.

A neutral putting their head round the door might wonder what all the fuss is about. We have an abundance of talented footballers, and we are second in the league. As a snapshot, you can see their point. But the bubbling frustration is very real. It’s borne of seeing the same mistakes, or omissions, or deficiencies, again and again and again.

But things are what they and I for one need to change the record. I’ve had enough being miserable. I just can’t do it anymore.

At the moment, I don’t want to guess who we might sign in the summer, think about what close season changes Wenger needs to make or debate his own future.

I just want a performance on Sunday. Not a scraped win after 15 minutes of late pressure, but a 90-minute passion play. Tactically sharp, high in tempo, fast, unpredictable. Is that possible, after a month-long slump? Well why not? Somewhere, deep in the recesses of history, we’ve seen them do it.

The pressure’s really on Wenger – he’s clearly feeling bruised by his players and he can’t be immune to the wider dissatisfaction – and how he tackles this latest malaise will be very, very interesting.

Some early thoughts

We’re not scoring enough goals, and goals are the raw currency of form. But at least Wenger has started to throw strikers on, and earlier than he ordinarily would. By the time Arshavin scored against WBA in the 70th minute, we had had three strikers on the pitch for nearly a quarter of an hour. And against Blackburn we had the same three strikers – van Persie, Chamakh and Bendtner – for the last 15 minutes. They spurned their half chances but at least van Persie didn’t look so isolated.

So I know it’s not fashionable these days, but how two strikers from the start? We need goals and we have strikers. Our five-man midfield relies on Song and Fabregas being in top form, and neither are.

At the moment, it’s not about a lack of first-choice personnel. Against Blackburn, we had as good a team out as we could have. They just didn’t play, looked down, lethargic, flat. This is Wenger’s biggest puzzler. Does he read the riot act? Does he need to be more subtle? If the chance of staying with the league leaders wasn’t motivation enough, what will be?

Overall Honestly: I’ve not enjoyed watching us since Barcelona at home. But I don’t subscribe to the theory that this team is a busted flush or a failed experiment. It’s never that black and white. We’ve hit a dismal rut of form and need to drag ourselves from it. Yes, something’s gone awry, the team needs changes – some new players in and some underperforming ones out – and Wenger needs to look at himself too, but we have the nucleus of an excellent side and we are second in the league. We shouldn’t forget that.

Was that positive enough? I am giving this glass-half-full stuff a good go.

Arsenal’s rotten week ends on a high

Aston Villa 2-4 Arsenal

The sight of Arsenal sitting atop the league table – albeit briefly, until Turkey Rovers twizzled over at Old Trafford – was as much as anything conformation that this is no ordinary season. On Thursday’s Football Weekly podcast we were told that 28 points after 14 matches (which is what Chelsea had yesterday morning) was the lowest points total of the top-placed side since time began. The fact that Arsenal are up there, scrapping away, says a bit about Arsenal but also a bit about the inconsistency – or is that equality – among the top teams this season.

Yesterday’s trip to the Villa was – as most league games seem to be at the moment – crucial for Arsenal. After two truly rotten defeats, a win was much needed to steady the ship. That we got it and went top is, as I mentioned, a bit nuts.

We absolutely deserved it though. In the first half, we were utterly dominant and should really have scored long before Arshavin’s very Arshavinesque right-foot daisycutter. Nasri’s second, from the excellent Russian’s corner, prompted an outpouring of gallows humour on Twitter. Surely we couldn’t keel over like we had done last weekend?

Cue a Villa goal on 51 minutes and some painful memories of the weekend before. It was a lovely finish but the Arsenal defence backed off for so long that Clark had time to stop, do his hair and floss his teeth before letting rip. [A bit harsh perhaps – the goal should never have stood as Carew was offside and interfering with play by blocking Fabianski’s line of sight.]

Fortunately, Chamakh eased the nerves with a deft toe-poke but this being Arsenal, we were pegged back again when Clark rose unmarked in the box and nodded it over the line. After that it was a little bit frantic but Jack Wilshere rounded things off with a headed goal, his first in the Premier League.

Going forward, we were a joy. Arshavin had a superb game, ably helped by Wilshere and Nasri, both of whom were again excellent. But at the back we were less convincing when put under pressure, and the fear when we concede is palpable. I’m not sure I need go into it any more detail. We have not defended very well all season, and if there are any dances or sacrificial beasts that can be offered up to the gods of Achilles heels, I will happily perform them to ensure Vermaelen comes back firing on all cyclinders. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. But it also makes the defence defend worse.

A quick word about Nasri and Chamakh. 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. It’s no surprise that in a formation where only one striker starts, van Persie is struggling to get off the bench.

Nasri scored just five goals last season, and even if you’re being conservative you’d now expect him to hit 15 this time round. Some improvement from a player who is comfortably our stand-out performer of the season.

So a very good win sets us up well for three important but very winnable games – Wigan in the Carling, Fulham in the league and Partizan in Europe – and from there it’s a trip to Old Trafford on Monday 13th.

Dear Father Christmas. Please can I have a month of consistent winning. Thanks, bye.

Braga against the goal machine


Arsenal 6-0 SC Braga

I am operating in the finite timeslot somewhere between getting home at midnight and going to work this morning: I have no time to lose.

Easy though it would have been to delay a reaction to last night’s pounding, I just couldn’t let it pass that long. It was a marvellous performance.

And it was a proper 90-minute pounding too. With the game to all intents and purposes over at half time, it could have turned into an exercise in saving energy and avoiding injury, but Arsenal were having none of that; they kept harrying and hounding to the final whistle.

All the goals were memorable in some way or other, but the way Chamakh took Wilshere’s cheeky back-heel was probably the pick of the bunch.

It’s worth expanding on those two players a little (see also this good piece on them in today’s Telegraph).

One is new and the other – in team terms – as good as new, but they offer increasing weight to the argument that Arsenal’s squad is better balanced and stronger this season than it was last.

Chamakh 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.

As for Wilshere – well before the season started, there was some talk of another loan spell. Thank god that never came to pass, eh? Seeing him dovetail with Fabregas was watching two men on the same wavelength. For an 18-year-old with limited exposure to first team football, I thought he was incredibly assured.

And Fabregas – what can you say about him? I’ll leave it to Wenger:

“He has taken on another dimension. People forget that he is 23 years old, [an age] where other people start. He is a fantastic influence and it is important that he leads this team to winning and I believe it is a fantastic opportunity for the young players who play alongside him to improve as well. If you are 18 years old like Wilshere and you see Fabregas who is 23, it is a big opportunity to learn a lot.”

He could have had a hat-trick and certainly had a hat-trick of assists (if you can count his pass to Chamakh for the penalty – an assist to his own goal).

Kudos too to Jollygood, who by mid-September has already scored one more goal than he did throughout the whole of the 2009-10 season. What an option off the bench he could be if he keeps this up.

Overall, there are no holes to pick. We defended well and we were lethal going forward. Sure, sterner tests await – but right now we are looking balanced, hungry and it’s an absolute joy to watch.

It’s Fab to be back

Arsenal 4-1 Bolton

Good weather, good mates, good football. A fine cocktail that makes for a very pleasant Saturday afternoon indeed.

Bolton going down to ten men might have made things ultimately a bit easier, but I don’t think 4-1 flattered us at all. Poor old Arshavin for one must be wondering how he ended up without a goal to his name, but he wasn’t the only one who was one-on-one and missed – Chamakh got in on the act too. Yes, there was only one goal in it until the sending off but offensively, Arsenal bristled with creativity all afternoon.

All this too without three important attacking players. As I briefly mentioned yesterday, it bodes well that all it takes to compensate for the lack of van Persie, Walcott and Bendtner is a little shuffling of the pack. Rosicky, Wilshere, Fabregas, Song and Arshavin supporting Chamakh is a tidy unit indeed – and still left us Denilson, Diaby, Nasri and Jollygood on the bench.

Picking a stand-out player from that front six is not easy but it would have to be between the inimitable Fabregas and, for his second half performance, Alex Song. For his sheer vision and range of passing, Fabregas would get it though – wherever his head or body was away to Blackburn, they were back here and he was in flying form yesterday. He split the Bolton defence two or three times with ease; it was sublime.

That said, the best pass of the day came from Rosicky, who carved an Arshavin-sized hole in the Bolton back line early in the game. Shame Arshavin couldn’t convert it.

The goal that was and inevitably will be talked about was Jollygood’s – he ran onto another Fabregas splitter and side-footed home a lovely fourth. It was preceded by 26 ole-assisted passes. Gorgeous.

But perhaps Song’s goal was better. Not only was it the 1,000th league goal under Wenger, but the dinked finish was a mixture of persistence and delicacy. He was fabulous in the second half.

There was a niggly edge to the game at times, often encapsulated by the brute force of Davies, but I wouldn’t say it was a dirty game overall. Nevertheless, ref Atwell dished out a red and four yellows (slightly down on his season’s average) and we await the news on Diaby – “It is ankle or shin – he cannot move his leg at the moment so we will see” said Wenger. Amazingly, the tackle on him was not even a yellow. We can but hope that Diaby is not out for a Diaby.

Defensively, I’ll buck the consensus of some by saying we did pretty well. OK, so Koscielny (otherwise commanding) made a bad mistake for the Bolton goal, but given that Wenger had made three changes at the back, and one of them was making his debut, I thought we were pretty solid. Squillaci made a promising debut.

It’s not a scientific observation, but from where I was sitting, I was generally, the error aside, impressed with Koscielny’s heading. He was popping up all over the place and nodding it away.

Overall, with 10 points from 12 it has been an excellent start to the season. Next stop, Champions League.

Right, I’m cutting this ramble short and heading off on a bacon hunt.

Enjoy your Sunday.

More goals from Arsenal’s wings required

Scattering my eyes across the Sundays and the general theme hasn’t changed much: there’s the rustle of keeper talk and a persisting link to Everton’s Phil Jagielka. The latter story has been lingering long enough that the fee is now being quoted at a very un-Arsenal-like £15m. At that price, I can’t see us getting involved.

As for the keeper talk, well it appears to be a case of ABA – Anyone But Almunia. Akinfeev? Stekelenburg? James? You can never second-guess Wenger but I think we might still shop within the Premier League, on the basis that we cannot afford a costly bedding-in process. On that basis, do all roads still lead to Schwarzer?

As for our attacking options, it was noteworthy that Wenger said we wouldn’t be replacing the departed Eduardo. If this is true, then we will essentially have three central strikers (van Persie, Bendtner, Chamakh) and a substantial array of wide or deep attack-minded players to back them up (Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri, Walcott, Vela, Wilshere).

I can see why he thinks that might be enough, especially allied to the goalscoring prowess of Fabregas. But if that is to be our lot, it’s worth returning to a theme I picked up at the tail end of last season – the need for more goals from those wide men.

We all know that van Persie has a good 20 goals in him, and Bendtner at least 15, but Chamakh, at least until we can judge him, remains an unknown quantity. Given the injury records of the first two of those, we need more from elsewhere.

Arshavin is exempt from the criticism about to come. With 12 goals scored despite playing up front on his own at times last season, we know he can pack a goal or two.

But look at the record of the others: Rosicky, Nasri, Walcott and Vela scored just 14 goals between them, of which only nine came in the league.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect better contributions from all four of those. For the two younger players, Walcott and Vela, they at the right age and cannot now hide behind the excuse of youth. They will also have Wilshere breathing down their necks (and both Diaby and Eboue can play wide too).

Nasri – ditto Walcott – should be hungry following their World Cup snubs and Rosicky will be fighting for his future.

To them all I say: More goals, chaps.

Match preview: Eyes on the prize and Arshavin

Although we appear to be bedding down ahead of close season hibernation, we shouldn’t get too comfy just yet. With one point required to guarantee third and two games in which to get it, tying the hanky round the head, rolling up the trousers and heading off to the seaside in our socks and sandals (as all right-thinking Englishmen do) will have to wait a little longer.

Tonight we play Blackburn at Ewood Park, an exciting prospect if only because it couldn’t realistically be any worse than the turgid fayre served up last weekend against Man City. That would be beyond the realm of the possible. The only way is up.

There’s been a lot of hot transfer air but not much else this week, so we can be thankful to the eccentricities of our pocket Russian, Andrei Arshavin, for talking points.

Maybe I’ve come down with a dose of lethargy-inducing endofseasonitis, but I can’t work myself up into a lather about his purported eyelash fluttering in the direction of Catalonia. I’ve seen it all a million times with footballers – they’re a breed apart.

The bottom line with all footballers is that if they want to go somewhere else then they will. They hold all the power. Short of a club sticking a player in the reserves out of sheer stubbornness – which for financial and morale reasons will never happen, especially not at Arsenal where £20m would go a long way – the player knows he can get what he wants. Life would move on.

Now of course, this could well be much ado about nothing, or rather more benign than we think. Perhaps he’s desperate to stay but wants to put the willies up Arsenal so they give him the money he’s asking for. Perhaps this is mere mischief.

I think he’s a fabulous player, a maverick who can change a game. Sure, he’s had a worse second season than first, but there are mitigating circumstances. And yes, he rather likes the sound of his own voice.

But really, how bad has he been? He’s third in our scoring chart with 11 goals, behind Fabregas and Bendtner (19 and 12). If he was the only Arsenal player whose previous season was better than their current one then fine. But he’s not.

I hope he stays because he’s a magnificent footballer and if anyone’s wavering because he’s gobby and has had an average season then look here for four good reasons why he should be at Arsenal next season.

Anyway, onto tonight and there’ll be no surprises – Gibbs and Djourou are fit but not match fit – so expect the same squad as last time. It doesn’t look as if Arshavin will be back either, though it’d be nice to see him. If he’s a small risk then take it I say – it’s not like he’s got a World Cup to worry about.

What I want most is some fluid attacking play and some ruthlessness in front of goal. Our last win – 1-0 v Wolves – was a last-minute job and it would be nice not to have to rely on that kind of late assault for the points. I wouldn’t say we are struggling for goals but they’ve definitely dried up a bit.

Time for a rousing win.

16.27 egg on face update

Djourou and Gibbs on bench. Wenger you old dawg.

Burden on Bendtner as injuries bite

Injuries, injuries, injuries. Arseblog this morning reiterated some of the snaps, twangs, fractures, strains and pings that have blighted us this season. It is indeed a minor miracle that, with the injuries we’ve had and got, we’ve arrived at the beginning of April still in contention both in the league and in the European Cup.

But can we cope? With every goalscoring midfielder we lose, things get incrementally harder unless someone else steps up to the plate.

It’s one thing going without Djourou, Ramsey, Gallas and Gibbs (8 goals in total this term) but to lose both Arshavin and Fabregas (30 goals) on top of van Persie (8) could well prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

It means that almost half of all our goals scored this season have come from players who are now injured (46 from 101), and while we are very capable of scoring goals from all across the field, the losses of Fabregas and Arshavin are big, big blows.

Bendtner – a player who has himself missed a huge chunk of the season – is now our top fit scorer with nine goals, closely followed by the indomitable and hopefully titanium-coated Thomas Vermaelen on eight.

A huge goalscoring burden now falls on the big Dane, and we’re going to need more from Walcott, Eduardo, and our goalscoring midfielders (Diaby, Nasri and Denilson) as well.

To gauge just how big a loss Fabregas’s goals will be, consider this: Walcott, Diaby, Nasri and Denilson combined have scored one goal less than Cesc has this season. (Update: I got this a bit wrong. Combined they have 21 to Cesc’s 19 – but the point remains).

Then there’s Eduardo. He’s scored six goals this season, but only three (from 22 appearances) in the Premier League. Wenger has used him so sparingly that it’s hard not to conclude that something isn’t right. Whether he’s carrying knocks, or his head is not right, or he’s lost a yard of pace – who knows. But it seems a tall order to throw him in at the deep end and expect miracles.

All of which leaves us with the van Persie issue. He’s back training with Arsenal, and while Wenger wanted to give him a month to get back to top condition, could the current situation force a rethink?

The boss has got to be tempted.