Monsieur, with these goals you’re really spoiling us

Arsenal 7-1 Blackburn Rovers

It may sound a tad melodramatic, but I’ve not enjoyed watching Arsenal as much this season as I should have done. All the peripheral stuff has been as fun as ever – the Saturday morning anticipation, hopping on the tube, having a pint before the game and chinwagging with the usual motley crew. It’s the bit on the pitch that has at times edged more towards being a chore than a pleasure. Yes, I know, you take the rough with the smooth in this line of work. But that doesn’t mean I have to whistle contentedly through the rough.

We have had some excellent results, but by and large – and particularly at home – we have struggled to recreate the Flowing Football Of Old™ in sufficient doses.

And then Saturday came. I’m pretty sure I said “I’ll settle for a scrappy 1-0” before the kick-off, and I’ll wager I wasn’t the only one. So to tonk seven past someone – the most we have scored in the league in 5½ years at the Emirates – was pure joy.

This Arsenal side has been accused on many an occasion of not being able or willing to turn the screw and administer a proper humbling. What was so heartening about yesterday was that, at 1-1 and in potential heads-down territory, we simply kept going. Then once we nosed in front, we got the bit between our teeth and kept going some more. Ambassador van Persie stayed on the pitch for the whole 90 minutes, Walcott too, and though there were barren patches (how dare they not score for 30 minutes?) we always threatened more.

It didn’t look like that would be the case though, at least not at first. Early goal followed by no second one followed by the away team equalising bears all the hallmarks of Arsenal. This time though, at 1-1 we rattled two more past in quick succession, and coupled with the red card, we were able to enjoy the second half.

The majestic van Persie was of course peerless again, but what a way it was for Oxlade-Chamberlain to mark only his third league start. I thought he was outrageously good for someone so raw and already there’s no doubt that he has the capacity to terrorise defences.

Then there was the icing on the cake of Henry scoring at the end – in what could well be his final ever appearance in front of the home crowd. There is talk of Arsenal trying to extend his loan so he can play a part in the north London derby, but if that’s not to be then this is not a bad way to have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.

I don’t want to rattle on about it forever, but suffice to say I lapped the whole thing up. It’s amazing how restorative a big win can be – for the fans as much as the players – and blimey did we need it.

I wouldn’t say I’ve gone as far as to pack up my troubles, but I have at least got my old kit bag down from the loft in case.

And I’m definitely smile, smile, smiling (for now).

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?

Why I’m always Up for the Cup

It’s that time of year again when I allow myself to go all misty-eyed about the FA Cup while the less sentimental (and perhaps younger) among us tut-tut and denounce the old jug as a busted flush.

The Champions League is bigger, bolder, more watched, more important and above all more lucrative than the FA Cup, this we all know. Well, actually one of those is open to debate: last year’s Champions League final between Man Utd and Barcelona was watched by 9 million in the UK, but the FA Cup final, between two teams with much smaller national followings than Utd, got 8.5 million. There’s life in the old dog yet.

I’ve always loved it, and I may as well wheel out the reasons why again. Firstly, I grew up with it, and that counts for a lot. I can’t remember the ’79 final for some reason but I remember cup final day in ’80 (though not the match – you’ll forgive me for that). I remember Grimsby 3-4 Arsenal in 1986, I’ll never forget beating Man Utd 2-1 at Highbury in 1988, when McClair missed a last-minute penalty and Winterburn goaded him royally for it. The multi-man points-deducting brawl at Old Trafford in 1990 was merely a continutation of the bad blood between the two sides.

I was giving away free newspapers at Wembley in 1991 as a holiday job (fortunately outside the Arsenal end) and heard both the Spurs goals go in: I was on my way home in the back of a minibus when Alan Smith halved the deficit but it was too little too late. We got our revenge two years later though. Then there was 1993, the FA and League Cup double against Sheffield Wednesday.

Latterly, perhaps success bred a bit of complacency – or at least expectancy. Between 1998 and 2005 – eight seasons – we reached the FA Cup final an astonishing five times, winning it on four occasions. As Vieira rocketed in the winning penalty in 2005 in Cardiff, I’d never have thought, had you told me then, that I’d be sitting here seven years hence with no more FA Cup finals in the memory banks. They seemed like a bit of a birth right at the time but the intervening years have once again proved how cyclical these things are. If we were cup fatigued back then, we’re certainly not now.

Secondly, I love the fact that it’s a knockout (and not the kind where you clonk one another with giant ear buds beneath the Atomium in Brussels or dress up as giant penguins). It’s fair where the Champions League is not (at least in the group stages, which can be very sterile). You can be drawn against anyone, home or away, at any point. If you don’t perform on the day, you’re gone. I love that.

Thirdly, there is nothing quite like the cup, and particularly cup final day, as a fan. In many ways I preferred it during the Cardiff years [not least because we were in it – Ed]. Back then the semi-finals were in Birmingham or Manchester, and the finals in Cardiff, so we got the whole scarf-out-the-window road trip thrown in. Such occasions always heralded a new Arsenal mixtape from @feverpitch – the poor swine’s tape-to-tape machine has been dusty for too long now. Proper banter and nervous excitement. As someone who no longer travels away, I do miss that.

So yes, I love the old trophy and I’m as desperate as I have ever been to go somewhere in it this year. Not least because it really does represent our best chance of silverware. Coming 4th is an achievement of sorts (that fact alone I resent), but the FA Cup is what winning is all about.

So to Leeds on Monday night. A Cultured Left Foot has some memories of Leeds ties of old to chew on, but if the cup is not enough for you, then the return of a certain Mr T Henry, once formerly of this parish, now back for a sojourn, should get your juices flowing. What’s he got left in the tank? We shall see.

Yes, I’m excited already.

One old acquaintance not forgot…

Truth be told I’d prefer the 2002 vintage, but I’d be lying if I said I was completely cold about the possible return of Sir Thierry of Henry. It’s difficult not to be taken in by the romance of our all-time top scorer coming back for a few months, even if he is now one score and fourteen years old.

Such is the power of the mystical statues that next up, Tony Adams will be wheeled in as cover in central defence and Wenger will start dressing as Herbert Chapman in the dugout.

It’s all rather simple though, says le Boss: “I do it for footballing reasons because I need a striker for two months.”

I would wager, as many others have, that we need a striker for more than two months, given the recent contributions of all our strikers whose surnames don’t contain a van or a Persie.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Chamakh, with some matches under his belt, will come back sharper and more confident and sporting a dainty sharpshooter’s hat. It happened to Alex Song in 2008 – he was named in the team of the tournament. This at a time when his name was generally only muttered under one’s breath.

So honestly, I think the Africa Cup of Nations has come at a good time for our Chamakh, who could do with the matches and a bit of a change of scene.

Nevertheless, and I refer back to my point about needing a striker for more than two months, can this kind of thing be left to chance by Wenger? What if Chamakh comes back in the same kind of goalscoring funk that has seen him score two goals since November 2010? If van Persie gets an injury and when Henry goes back to the Big Apple, what have we got in the goalscoring tank for a run on fourth? Walcott in the middle? Park wheeled out of semi-retirement?

Anyway, we can worry about these things for a whole month. And let me tell you – I have every intention of doing just that. In fact, I may set up a Worry Group; let me know if you are interested in attending. It will involve sitting cross-legged in a circle, I suspect, though don’t worry, I won’t make you take your shoes off.

Between now and then though we’ve got QPR, a game for which you can pick your own cliché. We simply must win and dare I say it, cannot afford to lose.

A similar all-out assault as we saw in the second half of the Wolves game will be required – surely we’d not come up against another Hennessy? With a bit more pace on the flanks courtesy of the returning Walcott then we ought to prevail. But then I’m sure I said that before the Fulham and Wolves games.

As both @LittleDutchVA and @HayleyWright have pointed out on the Twitters, the last time we played Rangers on a New Year’s Ever, this happened. We all went a tiddly bit mental, even if we did lose 3-1. Odd that Jensen that day was wearing the number 17 shirt, and it’s seventeen years ago to this day. ISN’T THAT ODD??? No, not really.

All that remains – apart from a ‘Come on You Rip Roarers’ – is to wish you all a Happy New Year. My blogging has been a bit stop-start this year but thanks for reading anyway, thanks for the comments, thanks for chatting on the Twitters. It’s been a pleasure to put some faces to virtual names this year – let’s have more of that in 2012.

Arsenal v QPR – BBC preview, Guardian preview

Arsenal v Barcelona: the best draw of the lot

Guardian squad sheet
BBC preview

Another weekend, another match we can’t afford not to win, but for the time being at least we dream of Catalonia.

Yes of course, the draw for the European Cup could have pitted us against CSKA Moscow or Bordeaux, but where’s the fun in that? To me, the European Cup is about glamour and butterflies in the stomach and gladiatorial footballing contests. This is the kind of tie – a European Cup quarter-final against the best team in Europe – that most fans of most teams would dream of. It’s the best draw.

Incidentally, the Champions League at this stage of the competition is a ridiculous misnomer, seeing it’s no longer a league half the remaining teams are not champions. Time to stick to calling it the European Cup.

Arsena v Barcelona has sub-plots all over the place. There’s the final in 2006, which we led in for so long but ultimately lost, there’s Thierry Henry, who scored a few goals for Arsenal once, and there’s Cesc Fabregas, who’s been on holiday to Barcelona once or something and is ogled covetously by them.

One sub-plot that some people are overlooking is of course Sol Campbell. Our scorer in 2006, he was playing for Notts County at Morecambe in August and now looks likely to be called upon to take on the European champions in a match that will be watched across the world by millions and millions. It’s a Lazarus-esque comeback for him.

Reading some of the bumph round this, the interesting stat for me is how much Arsenal’s team has changed in the intervening four years. It’s had an enormous overhaul.

Only three of the starting XI are still at the club – Eboue, Fabregas and Campbell – along with three of the benchwarmers (Almunia, Clichy, van Persie). Funnily enough, only three of the Barcelona starting XI are still at the club too, so the two teams are almost unrecognisable to those of four years ago.

It’ll be absolutely electric and I can’t wait already.

First thing’s first though, it’s West Ham at the Grove this evening. With Song, Fabregas and Rosicky back we have far more options, but as was shown at Hull last weekend, relegation-threatened opponents are often the most dangerous. They have a good record against us at home in recent years.

Nevertheless, we must win. Try the Prem Predictor if you must, and you will see how tight things are, as if you need reminding. Let’s push on.

I love the business end of the season when there’s still business to be done.

Now you don’t see ’em, now you do

Fridays always have the potential to bring better news on the injury front, what with Wenger’s press conference, and there was certainly plenty of good news today.

From a list that that seemed earlier on this week to be mushrooming out of control, things now look a bit more normal, don’t they? Yesterday we learned that Fabianski, Denilson, Vela and Traore were back, while today we were told that Walcott and Wilshere are also fit. And as we know, the injuries to van Persie and Gibbs are not as bad as first thought – though the former still won’t be seen this side of Christmas.

So this is all good news. That’s not to say tomorrow’s squad won’t be markedly different to the last time we played a league game (which feels like about three months ago). Gallas, Sagna and Arshavin may all be rested after their midweek exploits.

It can be hard to keep up with all these injuries, and I do have some sympathy for those who think the modern footballer is far too brittle. On the one hand, I accept, football has become a lot faster, but is that enough to explain the raft of injuries we have endured this season? Other clubs are experiencing this too; it’s definitely not purely an Arsenal thing.

Perhaps I don my rose-tinted spectacles by saying it was never this bad before. I don’t remember ever having six or seven (or more) players out at one time, back in the Don Howe, George Graham era. It’s a good job the modern football squad tends to be so extensive. We need it.

Anyway, the return of league football is a blessed relief.

I have largely managed to avoid the brouhaha about Henry’s handball. I was out on Wednesday night, and I use the Wenger defence by telling you I never even saw it – until today.

For me, the one thing that has come out of this is – yet again – the belief that we now need video technology to take care of contentious issues. We cannot rely on players to be honest, just as we cannot rely on referees to get everything right. Regrettably, nor we can we rely on football’s governing bodies to agree to it at all. But it makes increasing sense to me, and you may even find that it cleans up the game in ways you might not anticipate. Would players hound referees as much if, for example, they knew that their team had three chances throughout a game to question a decision? Would players dive as much?

There’s so much at stage, and I’m increasingly convinced that video technology can be used in a way that doesn’t slow the game down too much and doesn’t totally undermine the referee at the same time.