KOs, woes and hammer blows

Hammer blow, Devastating injury blow, Major blow.


Just three ways to cook the same story, namely Vermaelen’s latest crock. It’s an injury that has rocked us, added to our woes and amounts to nothing less than a KO. Well, so we’re told. Maybe it’s not that bad though? He’s off school for another month, and should be back in six weeks. Yes, we’re a bit on the ropes already, but does it amount to a KO? I suspect not.


Before bombarding me with memories of last season’s injury – (I’m just going out, I might be some time) – which morphed from nothing major to a whole eight months of gloom, I merely write this with my positive hat on.

It has been an up-and-down season, though. The lows of the start of the league campaign (punctured by the respite offered by Champions League qualification) gave way to the highs of the five signings, which have since again been tempered by two of our spinal players being skittled for several months.

My guess though is that, despite the injuries, the signings will have really lifted the place. Their benefit will be seen straight away. Barring an unforeseen injury to Mertesacker – now that would be a hammer/major/devastating blow – he will slot straight in. Assuming fitness, we should also see certainly one and possibly both of Arteta and Benayoun. Possibly Santos too.

Will the addition of new players (and the sale of old ones), and the 8-2 defeat, in any way herald a change of approach? Time will tell but it’s a fascinating question. One of the pieces I read (damned if I can find it now) following the Old Trafford debacle and the transfer splurge was about us having lost, over the course of a few seasons, the ability to consistently do some of the fundamentals. So in addition to the obvious – set pieces and other defensive howlers – we had for some time lost the art of tracking back and harrying opposition when not in possession.

It is of course something many people have commented on in the past, but it’s a good point. As well as tightening up defensively, we need to start playing more collectively and upping the tempo of our play. When we do it – Chelsea and Barcelona at home last season were prime examples – it works. We just don’t do it enough.

So yes, I’m hoping that as well as strengthening the team in key areas, the new boys (and the pain of the 8-2) will herald some introspection, some honesty, and some tweaks to our approach. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction. We’ve not defended well for years. Our league form has been poor for months and months.

Add all these things into the mix and Saturday becomes fascinating.

I know I say this before every game, but I can’t wait.

Arsène says Relax: Do it

OK, at last, here we are once more. Arsenal.

I had a scratch of the old noggin and realised – to my dismay but not surprise – that today’s match is my first game since Barcelona, and my first league game since Everton on 1st February. That’s two months off league football, I’ve had: I’m almost hoping to be picked to watch the England U21s over the summer to make up.

I’m champing at the bit, and I want the team to be too.

But we need to start fast. Don’t ask me about the psychological reasons for why we do it, because I’ll look back at you blankly. I simply want us to tear out the blocks today, and put in the same yards from the start that we did in the last 20 minutes against Sunderland and West Brom. Why have we taken so long to get going in some games? It’s not relevant if we don’t do it again. I want early, heavy, sustained pressure against Blackburn and I want it to go on until things are comfortable [that’s 5-0 then – Ed]. [Stop being such a cynic Ed – Big Ed].

The fabled handbrake goes on when the team is nervous or lacking in confidence. So do these players honestly believe – beyond the usual David platitudes – that they can win the title? Then today is the day to show it. We’ve moped our rears off, metaphorically listening to Enya on loop, and it’s time it stopped. Wenger alluded to the pressure when he said: “Let’s enjoy it and go for it”.

I’m also looking for more pace, and with Walcott back we should get that. We have other fast players – Nasri for one. But without Theo Walcott, who is as fast as a butcher’s dog, we are a slower team. For my sins I happened upon the Invincibles DVD in the ‘Lull and the amount of goals we scored by thundering upfield was eye-opening. Patient build-ups work sometimes, being more direct does at other times. We need to mix it up.

I mentioned it on the ‘Cast last week, but for me the benchmark performance this season was Chelsea at home. OK, so they were in a funk but Arsenal that day were everything Arsenal should be – and more pertinently, can be. When we had the ball we went for the jugular and when we didn’t, we hunted to get the ball back. From that point on I hoped we’d cracked the formula but it never quite happened.

Another key to that game was the personnel – we had for the most part our best XI available, Szczesny aside, for that Chelsea game. Today we ought to be strenthened immeasurably with the additions of Fabregas, Walcott and Song.

As ever, the first ten minutes of the game will be interesting.

Come on you rip-roarers.

Time for a mood change

Scrolling down, you have to peer back to February 17th for my last truly upbeat blog post. That’s a month of largely unadulterated misery, and I can only apologise in hindsight if my small oasis of online gloom has added to your desert of Arsenal despondency.

What can you do? This football lark has its ups and downs, and for the last while things have been downtabulous. Since the shot in the arm of Barcelona at home, it’s been seven games – come on, I know you want me to remind you – which have garnered two wins (Orient and Stoke at home), two draws and three pretty gruesome defeats.

Sunday’s tame exit from the FA Cup tipped me into pre-interlull shutdown. I downed tools in order to mope around for a week feeling sorry for myself, and you know something, it’s worked. I have removed the dust covers and things look the same as they ever did, if a little less lustrous.

So how do things look? Well, good and ungood, pretty much.

Good: We’re in a fantastic position in the league, have jettisoned unnecessary fripperies like the Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup (that’s my new positive spin on things), and should be steeled for a juicy run-in. It’s all to play for. It’s also a cliché – but it’s true.

Ungood: We’re a bit broken in the head and have malfunctioned in body. Since Barcelona at home – I’m sorry to keep referring back to it – the squad has taken it upon themselves to lose pretty much a man a game to injury. It’s been like musical chairs. Fabregas and Walcott went first, against Stoke. van Persie and Song were next, against Birmingham. Szczesny departed in the Nou Camp and Djourou in Manchester. van Persie has defied medical science by returning since then but we’re still five men short of our first XI. That’s tough.

Since then, Wenger has been on the defensive a bit, sticking up for the team, its leadership and experience, and trotting out the oft-used line about mental strength. Wenger claimed today that with the exception of the last-minute cup final loss, “in the last three months, what this team has done is absolutely sensational”, but that “it’s important we keep going”. It’s certainly worth remembering that, odd hiccup aside, our league form over that period is pretty good.

Well, as Arseblogger pointed out in his wireless broadcast, for the sake of safeguarding perky Arsenal blog posts across the globe, we simply have to win. Two additional weeks of hand-wringing would await us should we fail to do that. That’s a fairly unpalatable prospect. And if Utd win, an even bigger mountain and tougher climb looms.

But seeing that my negative cap is at the dry cleaners, I’m putting on my positive one. A week off has rendered me more upbeat. Tomorrow is the start of the bit after the last bit. I’ve got the blinkers on and I’m looking forward.

Oh, and Jens is back.

Wednesday: forgotten

Random, late Friday night checkin from me. It’s been one of those weeks.

Was I surprised about Wednesday’s result? Not really. But I do think too much can be read into results like that. Part of the problem, I think, lies as ever with the format of the competition we were playing in. We waltzed through the first three games, scoring fourteen goals, needing just one point from the next nine to qualify. You can see how easy it might have been to consider it job done.

One of the following three games was always going to be a dead rubber. Had we won in Donetsk, the game in Portugal could have easily gone the same way. I’m not saying there’s an excuse for complacency but it’s the kind of situation – that’s to say, a situation in which there is still room for error – that is a breeding ground for it.

The good news for the weekend is that no such mental slack-off period exists. We might be second but we are five points adrift and Chelsea are showing little stomach for a cave-in. We need to stay with them.

And the other good news is the return of several players – Fabregas, Denilson, Song and Arshavin. On top of that, van Persie has resumed training, primed for a Dutch recall during which he will no doubt be trodden on innocuously and ruled out for another three months. Joking aside (or am I?) he should never have been called up but I can’t help but wonder whether he himself could not have been a little more understanding. How difficult would it have been to rule himself out? Not very. It’s a friendly, he’s been out for yonks, and he’s not exactly a fringe player in the Dutch squad fighting for his place, Kevin Davis stylee. He knows full well he’ll come back into the side whether he misses this one or not. I know he’s as orange as Phil Brown but the whole thing achieves nothing other than getting Wenger’s heckles up.

Anyway, if you want to hear Wenger in his own words on the injury situation (sad but true fact: talking about injuries is the most crucial and anticipated conversation of the week if you are an Arsenal fan), there’s a free clip below. Enjoy the weekend and here’s to three of your finest points sterling.

Boss on crocks / Spot-on Tom

So the midweek 5-1 came and went, and what better way could there have been to warm up for the weekend’s visit to Man City? I was planning to write something up after the Shakhtar game but went to the pub instead. I do hope you can forgive me but a man’s not a camel – he needs a drink.

It was AGM time today and while we could be here all night if we went through it all, I was interested to hear what Wenger said about our injury record – something that for a few years now has caused untold slapping of the forehead and wild rolling eyes across the Arsenal diaspora. According to Wenger, his team of crack medical experts are, as you would expect, analysing the reasons why (possibly on a whirring machine with reels, tape and red buttons, deep in the bowels of the stadium – though that’s just a guess) but the bottom line is it’s a combination of bad luck and bad tackling. These were his words:

“Overall, if you look at all the numbers, ours are not much more. What we have more is long-term injuries than others clubs but they are down to bad luck and bad tackling. Or they were picked up with the national team. Also once you have had an injury there are more chances to be injured again. If you pull a hamstring, the more chance you have of injuring your hamstring again.”

It’s hard to know what to do, short of bandaging them in kevlar and giving them lucky rabbits’ feet, but I totally accept that one twang leads to another. Diaby is the perfect example of this (poor chap seems to be cited as a perfect example of all sorts of things). He’s less reliable than the northern line but you can trace all that back to his bad injury at Sunderland. Since then, his injuries have been as regular as clockwork. Is it any surprise he’s something of an enigma?

Finally, I doubt I was the only person who found the words of Tomas Rosicky refreshingly honest. He urged the team to be clinical and has clearly had enough of being labelled ‘unlucky’. Hear hear.

He’s right, too, of course. This team can no longer hide behind the cloak of inexperience. It’s time to perform against the teams we struggled against last year. We were soundly beaten on both of our away trips there and if we have genuine aspirations to compete for the title this year, we need to show it by laying down a marker on Sunday. I’m not saying we have to win it, a draw could be a good result, but we do need to be ruthless with the chances we get. Another defeat like the Chelsea one – neat in possession but ultimately a bit toothless and well beaten – will simply add fuel to the fire of those who think we are locked in a permanent battle for third or fourth.

The options on the pitch are improving too. It looks – the gods of training injuries willing – that Cesc is back, Sagna is back, Theo is back, Bendtner is back. And in Nasri we have a player in seriously good form.

No more excuses.

Injury forecast: Chance of sun on Saturday, chance of rain too

What else is there to do during the international break but worry?

Worry, primarily, for the health of the Arsenal XI currently scattered across the globe being hacked to pieces in the name of glory for their motherland. I am so bored that I have even worked out which of those eleven has had the longest journey. It’s been a close-run and exciting thing, as I’m sure you can imagine, but the winner is Chamakh, who is representing Morocco in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Eboue runs him a close second and is a short hop away in Bujumbura, the magnificently named capital city of Burundi.

Back at the ranch, Wenger is reaping the benefit of his policy of buying brittle players, no doubt allowing himself a small chuckle at how he has cleverly denied a selection of countries their players thanks to them being injured.

One has to jest in these matters, I find, or one will cry.

The good news is that some of the long-termers are approaching fitness again. Fabregas should be back for Birmingham on Saturday, and blow me down if Nicklas Bendtner isn’t also threatening to return to fitness for that game too. Better still, Walcott could be ready and van Persie is not far behind him.

Good timing, that. It’s been immensely frustrating that so early in the season, we have been denied so many players.

It’s been especially true up front, where our over-reliance on the ever-willing Marouane Chamakh has been another of my worries. I think he’s started his Arsenal career really well, but until Bendtner and van Persie come back into the fray he cannot really be afforded a rest, and the longer that situation remains, the more I can panic a bit inside.

On top of that, having more strikers also has the added effect of giving us more options. Talk about stating the bleeding obvious, but you know what I mean. Bendtner, van Persie and Walcott have made a grand total of six appearances all season, with Chamakh being called upon ten times.

All we need is a minor miracle – all players returning, present and correct – and we could go into Saturday’s squad looking forwards rather than backwards in the direction of London Colney.

Now that would be a bit nice. But what are the chances?

Last day thoughts and my last word on losses

Some thoughts on winning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts about losing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s striking nonetheless.

Bandage them up and wheel them out

This is a short, excitable update ahead of our European Cup quarter-final decider in the Nou Camp.

With the tweets of the gooners already or soon to be in Barcelona beginning to land on my tweetstep, things will only get more giddy from hereon in. Am I jealous of them? What do you reckon. The only things I don’t envy are their mobile phone and bar bills.

It’s almost impossible not to mention the injuries. With Song out, we are now five players short of our best eleven. That’s just about as painful as things can realistically get, short of Vermaelen dropping a bottle of HP Sauce on his foot at breakfast tomorrow morning.

On top of that, Rosicky is 50:50, Campbell is a doubt and cobbling an XI together is becoming a feat of creative accountancy.

As you’d expect, Wenger is bullish and Walcott is too – “There is no point playing within ourselves, we have all got to be at it” he said – but the odds of an Arsenal win, from Arsenal’s very own official partner Paddy Power, are 11/2 and that tells you all you need to know about the size of the challenge ahead.

The point to which Walcott alluded is a good one. For all Barcelona’s mesmeric football in the first leg – and I still maintain it was as good as I have ever seen – if Arsenal start so tentatively tomorrow as they did last week, then the game will not be competitive for very long.

If our lads can learn anything from Barcelona’s approach, it’s that it is equally important to win the ball back when they don’t have it as it is to do fancy stuff with it when they do.

Easier said than done of course in front of 95,000 Catalans on a roomy pitch with half your mainstays in the land of crock.

Walcott’s blistering cameo last time round means he is a weapon Barcelona will fear. Whether he is unleashed from the start, or at a later point, remains to be seen. Personally, I wouldn’t risk keeping him as an impact sub as Arsenal do not have the luxury of time. He needs to start, and like every other man in our unfancied XI, he needs to be on the absolute crest of his game.

Over and out and all that. I am rip-roaringly excited but already entering a state of involuntary trembling.

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.

Prospects, Walcott and… Andy Linighan

Match updates via text – how 2006 is that? It fell on the willing shoulders of @feverpitch to keep me in the loop during Saturday’s game, as I had been called up for duty elsewhere. He did a sterling job, signing it all off by waxing lyrical about Andy Linighan. It takes a man of a certain age to a) remember Andy Linighan and b) wax lyrical about him.

Would Linighan get into today’s team? Ha – now there’s a conundrum. No, in short. Though I’d have him as a sub, if only so he could come on, zombie-like and barely able to see through a bloodied bandage, to nod a 93rd minute cup final winner.

As an Arsenal fan, it feels like a slightly odd time though. A cursory glance at the league table tells you that we are doing very well; within sneezing distance of second in fact, and not impossibly far away from the league leaders with just 11 games remaining.

But still, any talk of a genuine title challenge seems incredibly fanciful to me, and I’m hardly the only one to think that. It’s not borne of deep natural pessimism, though I do have some of that floating about, more a realistic assessment based on what we have seen so far. Are we disgruntled as fans? No, I’d say not. But we’re far from being gruntled. (With apologies to P.G. Wodehouse).

For much of this campaign, the next defensive blip or injury has seemed nearer than the next run of form, and yet here we are, far from out of things.

What we are crying out for more than anything is for the injury clouds to miraculously burn off and for some of our key players to hit a rich vein of form. I chuckle sourly as I write that of course, because it’s easier said than done. It does sound plainly obvious too, but how can any team be properly judged when half its big players are either out long-term, or are blighted by boomerang injuries? It’s held us back all season, along with kamikaze losses of concentration.

One of the players who has had a poor old season but who could yet make an enormous difference over the next three months is of course Theo Walcott. He’s had something wrong with just about every part of his body this season, so perhaps we have expected too much too soon. By the sound of it, his game did pick up on Saturday – can he rip into form just at the right time? What a weapon he might be if he could.

Wenger for one has bemoaned the “terrible pressure” on Walcott, presumably most of it because he is English and we’re in a World Cup year. It’s been said before, but he needs to forget England completely and get on with improving his game for his employers. Look after his club form and the international side of things will take care of itself. There’s no doubt that a confident, fit and hungry Walcott could be like… am I allowed to say… oh go on then… a new signing.

Anyway, there’s a whole week off now to train for long throws and set pieces. And for the Arsenal medical team to dish out strepsils, deep heat and magic sponges to whoever finds himself on the injury list this week.