Tony Colbert’s sponge

Almuniverse

WBA 2-2 Arsenal

Goodbye March 2011, it’s been a pleasure. The Arsenal title bandwagon mustered two points from six this month, sprinkled between two cup exits. It’s a bandwagon in dire need of a band-aid. But given that everything in the northern hemisphere comes out of hibernation in April, I’m rather hoping that includes Arsenal’s players and form.

“It will be down to consistency and, as I said, character”, said Wenger post-match on Saturday, two attributes we keep losing down the back of the sofa.

Not strictly fair, I know: The last 15 minutes were more like it, with Wenger throwing caution to the wind by playing three centre forwards. Arsenal discovered some urgency and accuracy, and it nearly worked. But tossing away two goals is no way to tee yourself up for three points, and in the end, that did for us.

Will we honestly see Lehmann between the sticks this season? It would be quite a story, but Jens has been retired for a year, he’s 41 and I just can’t see it. If he did displace Almunia, he’d be our fourth first-choice keeper of the season. I’m not sure it could have happened like this anywhere but at Arsenal.

Incidentally, Szczesny was injured on 8th March and was ruled out for six weeks, so with a prevailing wind he may even be back himself in mid April. He may, of course, also not be.

What else? Well it seems to me that the next two weeks will all be about injuries. Firstly, our international players need not to get them. And secondly, our injured players need to get rid of them.

I can’t help but think that Tony Colbert’s sponge holds the aces. What happens in the footballing menders over the next two weeks could hold the key to the rest of our season. We urgently need Fabregas, Walcott and Song back – all, surely, realistic returnees. They add different attributes, all of which we could do with: defensive nous, guile, drive, creativity and pace.

I’m relaxed about things because my glass is half empty. Given the evidence presented to me in recent weeks, I no longer expect much.

But get those players back for Blackburn at home, grab all three points, and… well it’s tantalising, isn’t it?

Football is so murderously simple in my head.

Keepers / crowds / blow-up haddock

Good morning from a – you guessed it – grey London. Where is the sun? Seriously, where is it?

As usual, Wenger had plenty to say yesterday ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup game against Huddersfield. The most interesting – usual deflected stuff about buying a defender aside – was what he said about our goalkeepers.

“At the moment Wojciech is No 1. He’s done nothing for me to take him out”.

Of course, in typical Wenger way he added some ambiguity by saying “at the moment”, which could mean, ‘while Fabianski is injured’, in which case it’s rather less revelatory. But my guess is he meant it at face value, and it’s well merited too. I was chatting to Goodplaya yesterday and he pointed out we’ve now had three first-choice keepers this season. Incredible, really, but in the end Wenger has settled on the right one of the three.

Despite the history attached to this tie, my guess is we won’t be seeing a completely full Grove tomorrow, even if the official attendance isn’t far off. It looks like there are still tickets available to buy, and I’ve certainly seen more than you’d normally see bandied about on Twitter. It’s not hard to guess why this might be: it’s winter, money is tight, we’ve played a lot at home recently, we’re playing again on Tuesday, the match is at midday and is against lower league opponents. My view on the old jug has never changed: it’s a fantastic competition, in which you can draw anyone anytime, you can be taken to a replay, and as a knockout it provides you with the typical lickety-split on-pitch tempo. Compare and contrast, from an excitement point of view, with the Champions League group stages.

Having said that, compared to some sides, attendances for the FA Cup have held up fantastically at Arsenal in recent years, and it won’t be too far short tomorrow. It’s easy to take for granted the fact we get nearly or over 60,000 for all our home games, but it wasn’t ever thus. From the mid 80s when I started going to Arsenal, I can remember only 3 or 4 matches where there were over 50,000 packed in, and crowds of 25,000 were not unusual. The lowest we’ve ever had at the Emirates, I think, is 53,136 (thanks, Twitter!) That is pretty amazing.

More interesting is the number of away fans that are coming to the Emirates generally. There can’t have been more than about 250 Wigan fans here, and plenty of other sides have not taken up the full 3,000 allocation. Far fewer away fans are coming this season than in previous years, I would guess, though I have no empirical proof.

All the same – I can’t wait. There’ll be a good away crowd this time, and probably some balloons. Balloons are important. (Digression: It’d be nice to see a return to blow up terrace extras. Back in the 80s they were all the rage – I remember Grimsby fans with their Harry Haddocks. There are few things as surreal as thousands of blow-up haddocks fizzing around in unison).

Well, that’s about the size of it.

Contracts and Keepers

Contracts

You can’t see the wood for the trees when it comes to Arsenal players being offered new contracts, can you? First, misser of two good chances on Tuesday, Charles Vela, earned himself a new deal. And now, talk is of man-of-balsa Thomas Rosickly getting new terms.

Might seem a bit weird to some people.

However, I can see the logic. Charles Vela, as Wenger is keen to point out, has been nurtured for some time, was sent out on loan to Scaramanga – I think it’s in Spain – and is still only 20. We’ve had our fingers burned before by players not being tied down to long deals, most recently with Nigel Flamini and Alex Hleb. Why risk it again?

I doubt Vela is on megabucks, and even if it all goes to pot, so long as he’s on a longish deal then we’re in a better position to get a fair price for him.

It’s a bit different with Rosickly, but the same rules apply. He’s a very talented and hugely experienced player in the last year of deal. OK, so he’s made of polystyrene, but if he gets fit and stays fit and scores goals and generally impresses, then how galling would it be should he waltz off in the summer for the princely sum of zero pounds sterling?

There are those who argue that these kinds of players don’t merit new deals, and while I get the reservations, I still think that it’s marginally wiser to guarantee yourselves a transfer fee than to risk losing them.

Besides, Wenger is hardly likely to offer Rosicky a four-year deal is he? It will be more cautious than that.

Keepers

I’ve been longing for a keeper battle for some time.

By that I mean a proper challenge for first spot. Lehmann was deposed by Almunia in the former’s final season, and since then Almunia has been largely untouched. Fabianski last season was rather unfairly at times known as Flapianski – so it wasn’t going to happen then.

I’ve always maintained that Almunia, while an excellent shot stopper, is not a world-class keeper in terms of commanding his defence or his area, but he can improve and the best way for any player to improve is to have someone breathing down their neck. It’s healthy stuff.

Several errors and one enforced absence later, and we’ve got an interesting scenario. Mmmm Mannone came in and did well for a young keeper, but really it’s Fabianski or nobody in terms of deposing Almunia.

Yesterday the Pole urged Wenger to pick him at Anfield. I’m not sure that time has come yet, but if Fabianski continues to play well when he gets the chance (and he stays fit – but he plays for Arsenal so there’s clearly no chance of that), then we might see that time sooner rather than later.