Looking back, looking forward

I would have been delighted in hindsight for this international break to have been as unremarkable as all those that have come before, but for all the wrong reasons it ended up being the most extraordinary one I can recall.

I don’t know if it’s an overreaction to say that football is going to change in the light of what happened in Paris, but I think – in the short term at least – that’s exactly what will happen. We’ve already been told that security will be stepped up in Premier League games, and to be honest, that’s the right response. The events in Paris (and elsewhere) show that anyone is a target. However hard it is to get your head round or accept, that’s the truth of it.

Whether it will have long-term effects on football is hard to say. The optimist within me hopes not.

But right now the memory is utterly raw and there are some direct knock-on effects for Wenger. Are his French players ready to play? Particularly the ones who were at the game, who would have heard the explosion, felt the fear and watched the events across the city unravel? They weren’t at the races on Tuesday, but nobody really expected them to be.

If I had to guess, I’d say that our entire French contingent, if fit, will want to be out there (and ideally, together). It’s a bit of a cliché but “one for all and all for one”.

As was discussed on the Arsecast, perhaps in the case of Giroud there is no other option anyway. Alexis needs a break and I’d hope he won’t start at WBA tomorrow. But short of Gibbs stepping up to the plate, we might not have any other option. Most of the other mooted returnees are of course not ready to return – a situation with Made in Arsenal stamped all over it – so we are once again light on squad rotation options.

It’s hard enough to hit the ground running after normal international breaks, and this one could be even trickier.

But off we go again, and that’s the way it should be.

Vive les rip-roaring reds!

A welcome winning blip


West Brom 0-1 Arsenal

I could trawl back over my blogging years and find dozens of examples of my morale hitting rock bottom, only for Wenger to shed some ballast on HMS Crisis, refire the boilers and steam out of trouble.

He is an absolute expert at that – he’s outlasted every manager in the league by a country mile, and he’s outlasted George Allison as Arsenal’s longest-serving manager by five years. He knows how important it is to steady the ship as soon as possible when it starts taking on water. “To stop a crisis quickly is one of the most important qualities”, he told Amy Lawrence when she interviewed him for her excellent book Invincible, “The longer it lasts, the more you swim against the stream”.

So the wins against Dortmund and West Brom – while you’d be wise to caution against undue optimism given everything that has gone on ad infinitum – was a much needed dose of smelling salts.

Dortmund was, in hindsight, pretty straightforward, with Yaya’s duck-breaker setting the right tone and Alexis wrapping things up in style. I confess I was quite worried before the game, but my anxiety was without foundation as it turned out. Klopp thought it might be a holiday from their bizarre domestic form, but separating one competition from another is easier said than done and it showed.

At the Hawthorns, promising signs afoot. Defensive solidity, a cagier approach (Amen, Hallelujah and Huzzah) and a fine winning goal created by Cazorla and buried from above by Welbeck. Giroud and Koscielny through the revolving door in the right direction, Monreal and Gibbs heading the opposite way to nobody’s real surprise. But it was an encouraging performance in many ways.

They posited on the Football Weekly podcast that with Arsenal, Spurs, Man Utd, Man City and Liverpool all winning, perhaps some of the peculiar post World Cup lethargy and bittiness of most of the top four wannabes is wearing off at last. I like the idea of that when it comes to Arsenal. Not so much in relation to the others.

You can only go with what you see – hence a lot of miserable fans for much of this season – but in the last two matches, and out of nowhere, I see green shoots just at a point when I wondered out loud what Wenger was smoking over at the Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a case of me staggering parched through the desert, desperate for succour, only to be presented with a mirage. Just as it’s too early to write this season off, it’s also too early to head down the bookies with a glint in the eye.

Keeping it up and building on it is something that has largely eluded us so far. The frustration with Arsenal, and with Wenger, is not made up. It’s not magicked from nowhere. It’s an accumulation of things going back a long way. We could argue all day if it’s terminal, or turn-roundable, but the bottom line is that nobody can say with any certainty.

What we can say with some conviction is that you can’t argue with the tonic of winning. It puts a different hue on things, and how we needed that.

I like winning.

More of that please.

The sweet foot of Aaron Ramsey sends Arsenal into dreamland

Arsenal v Hull

Arsenal v Hull

Arsenal 3-2 Hull City

It started, as all good things do, with some peri-peri chicken.

Our little gang of five merry cup warriors met at lunch, seven tortuously long hours after I woke up. Fed, we then sidled off to a house of refreshment to soak up the atmosphere, and proceeded to hoover up a few looseners. There was a fantastic atmosphere where we were – West Hampstead – with flags draped over pubs, fans of both sides mingling, an open-top busload of vocal gooners rattling past.

It’s hard to explain cup final day to someone who hasn’t been to one, but it feels so different to your average game. A mixture of nerves, excitement, anticipation. Good spirits, and in this case, very warm spring air. The kind of atmosphere that makes memories.

Up Wembley Way and into the ground we went, lapping it up. Then we mostly went our separate ways – victims of the vagaries of cup final ticket lotteries.

Wembley Way

Band of the Welsh Guards – tick. Abide with Me – tick (though unlike previous years the lyrics weren’t on the big screens, which was a shame and meant that the massed ranks of fans mumbled along like John Redwood, only breaking into song when the hymn reached its eponymous end). National anthem – tick. Nerves utterly shredded – tick-a-rama with a hey nonny nonny.

Viewers of a nervous disposition might now wish to avert their eyes for the next paragraph.

Kick-off and, hello! We appear to be a goal down, a bit unlucky perhaps, so that’s alright, keep calm now (even though we’ve not really started yet), we’ll get a grip on thin…Whoa! That’ll be two goals, some wobbly defending, and oh no, that was Curtis Davies. That’s not remotely good. There’s a frothing conurbation of gold and black bobbing up and down, rubbing their eyes and not quite believing what they’re seeing. The same shock was being felt at our end of the ground too, only with a touch less bobbing and a distinct absence of froth.

It’s nearly three! Hold me tight, but there’s Kieran Gibbs to nod it off the line. It transpires we’re not good at starting early on Saturday, and nor do we steam off like a train late on Saturdays either. Finely tuned to Three O’Clock, that’s what it is.

Fair play to Hull, they were hurting us from set pieces and in the air, and we’d not really been in the game. We were massively on the back foot and we needed a moment of magic.

It came, by Jupiter, it came. Cazorla’s free kick wafted handsomely into the top-right of the goal. It was a hell of a goal – a goal fit for the occasion and what a time it was for Cazorla to pull a rabbit out of his hat. We needed that, desperately.

The rest of the half at last seemed more evenly matched, it felt like we’d steadied the ship at last, and there was still a long time to go. The goals were all so early, there was no room for too much sniping, though I did complain a bit about Giroud’s ever-flailing arms of despair.

The pendulum was swinging, and the introduction of Sanogo, all legs and no goals, made a real difference. He’s still like a giant puppy but he’s definitely got something about him, and we needed that energy badly. There were several good penalty shouts – Cazorla’s was clear from where I was – but I can’t remember the rest, to be honest. Nervous memory blurs abound.

Then up popped Koscielny, scorer of important goals, to swivel in the equaliser. Pandemonium. Muchos hugging and slapping other chaps on the back, while baring teeth, fists pumping like a failing two-cylinder engine, swearing like a fishwife. I was sitting next to my 15-year-old godson and I’m sure on several occasions he peered over at me and wondered if his mum and dad hadn’t made a desperately bad decision all those years ago.

Gibbs then Rosenthaled one over, it went to extra time, and we finally played our trump card by bringing both Wilshere and Rosicky on. We were in control now, both having a big effect on our movement and energy.

The next paragraph is about Welsh Jesus.

Giroud – and it’s getting late in the day now – saves his best till the end with a glorious backheel. It’s happening in a flash but Ramsey just thwonks it with the outside of his right boot and wheels off in glorious delight, tailed by someone who used to be Gibbs but who now appears to be a madman, no doubt thinking “you’ve saved my bacon”. Again, absolute pandemonium everywhere.

If Alan Sunderland and his megaperm is synonymous with 1979, then Aaron Ramsey is the man of 2014. Sorry, Santi, but he just is. He scored a goal of wonderful quality, at the most crucial time, and it won the cup for Arsenal.

Naturally, we’re talking about Arsenal here and we almost conspired to Arsenal it up, Mertesacker tripping, Fabianski coming out and not quite getting there and Hull flashing a shot wide. Gibbs was back in a flash, still no doubt thinking about his miss, but still.

And that was that – the cup was ours, and you can see what it meant to the players, to Wenger, to us. Of course I feel sorry for Hull – they played their part in a memorable final (I can say that now – wasn’t thinking it for large tracts of the match yesterday) and losing is never fun. They rattled us and they took us all the way. Their fans were great.

But we made it, we won. As I write this I’ve got the game replaying on the telly, my kids are waving two of the flags that were on the seats at the ground. This is what it’s all about.

We did it the hard way, but we’re back on the silver trail and how everyone needed that.

Remember this feeling. This is what football is all about.

We’ve won the FA Cup.

Indefensible defence and a lesson in possession

Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea

Had Giroud not skewed a very decent chance to equalise wide in the dying breaths of the game yesterday, we might all be taking a different tack this morning. But it didn’t happen and taken as a whole there’s no getting away from the fact that it was a hefty bump back to earth.


From my vantage point we never had control of the game and that’s what it boils down to. Chelsea were more composed but above they kept the ball really well. The Opta stats suggest that we edged possession 51.4% – 48.6% but from where I was sitting it was us hurrying our passing, stretching to retain it or scrabbling to win it back. Chelsea also harried really well to retain it. That might explain why Cazorla had such a quiet day – not that he was the only one.

That old chestnut

Nevertheless, things might have been different had we defended better. I do think we have made big strides already this season but yesterday it was a return to the dark old days where set pieces induced what can only be described as a case of the heebie-geebies. Wenger didn’t much like what he saw either:

Defensively we were just not at the level you have to be in a game like that, which is where we were punished today… We did not attack the ball, on either goal. The difference between Chelsea on set-pieces and us was the way they were in the air – it was obvious today.

The bottom line is that Koscielny and Vermaelen had games to forget. I was one of the many – if Twitter is any guide – who thought dropping Mertesacker was a reasonable shout given the mobility of Chelsea’s attack but clearly that didn’t work out. We should have gone with Robolegs, who is having an outstanding season, but it’s easy to say in hindsight. Prior to the season starting I’d have had Koscielny and Vermaelen as my one and two, but it speaks volumes about Per’s form that I’d now be inclined to have him as the lynchpin at the moment. If yesterday was any guide we should have gone on form and form alone. I’ve just watched the goals again and both are disasters. I’ve gone squiffy thinking about it and I can only hope that Bouldy keeps them in for defensive detention this week.

I must say though that I was again impressed with Gibbs and Jenkinson who were tenacious to the end. Our midfield had to shift around once Diaby went off – you guessed it – injured but neither Oxlade-Chamberlain nor Ramsey nor Walcott nor Cazorla were able to wrest the momentum of the game away.

Up front, neither side had bags of shots on target which makes our defensive lapses – and I suppose our inability to take the chances that did come our way – the more frustrating. Fair play to Gervinho for a sensational finish and for already matching his goals tally for the whole of last season, but he doesn’t feel like the long-term solution up front to me. Nor did bringing on Giroud have the desired effect but he didn’t have much time to get into the game, either, and by all accounts most of his goals last season came as a starter and not as a sub.

We’re now some distance – seven points – off the top already but it’s not time to don the hairshirt yet. We were second best in possession yesterday, defended badly and missed a clear-cut chance to get at least a point. Room for improvement on all three counts.

Not a great day, basically.

We’ve got a lovely Per, Kos goes nuts.

Manchester City 1-1 Arsenal

Now, when Gibbs gave that corner away, the ball wafted over and Joleon Lescott squeezed his dome between two of our players and thudded it past Vito Marooned, the word ‘brilliant’ wouldn’t have been the first one to come to mind.

But compared to how last season started, this one has been brilliant. We’ve only let two goals in, we’re nestled at the right end of the table, we’re unbeaten, but above all, we’re giving off the perceptible whiff of a proper team here. Just look at the bundle pyramid that followed our equaliser and you will see that when Wenger speaks of spirit and belief and togetherness, in this instance it’s not as a means to pep up players who don’t have it. This lot are working for each other. It is a completely different side – a new side.

Sure, the goal could have been avoided but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A renewed effort to defend better as a unit and as a team is hardly going to take just a few games to materialise. Bouldy can’t just click his fingers (or more aptly, raise his arm) to make it happen. But at the moment, we are on the right track on that front. There will be a few moments of uncertainty yet but the general direction is good.

Defensively there were some outstanding performances. Mertesacker was immense, his long bionic legs mopping up through balls like Mr Tickle time and again. Koscielny, overlooked thus far this season, played his part and even found time for a backheel – or was it a Cruyff turn? – out of defence. Gibbs played as an auxiliary winger and Jenkinson – lungs like a whale – was just excellent. I absolutely love it when Wenger plucks a nobody out of thin air and proves everyone wrong, and in Carl Jenkinson he has done just that. As Gary Neville said after the game, he seems like the kind of bloke who would run through a brick wall for you. His progress has been a real delight to see.

The goals are being shared around too: today from defence, but our fluid forward line and midfield is chipping in too, all of which makes Giroud’s lack of goals almost an irrelevance. Of course, should we stop playing so well then things might change, but at the moment it’s not such a big deal.

And we’re stronger behind the first XI. OK, so Diaby and Gervinho did not reach the heights they have done in the early stages of this season, but their presence – and that of the impressive Ramsey – in the first XI gives us a bench that included players like Giroud, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott. We have Wilshere, Rosicky and Frimpong still out, but their return is imminent too.

It was our toughest test yet and we passed it with flying colours, if you ask me. They’ve got the buzz, and you know what, I’ve got the buzz too. As my cousin Capability Mike said in a text, twenty minutes into the game:

Even if we don’t get anything from this game I don’t think it matters. We’re a good team. Really happy with how we’re playing.

Mike said it.

Match review: From Blustered to Unflustered

Red Sky

Arsenal 3-0 West Brom

No perching on the edge of the seat, nails bitten to the quick or hearts a-racing. No early goal for the visitors. No visions of wildebeests surrounded by lions at set pieces. No clinging on to a slim lead for dear life as the clock approaches 90 minutes. Is this the Arsenal we know and love? Well if it is, let me confess that I like it rather a lot.

I’m sure we will soon welcome stronger teams and teams in richer veins of form than the Baggies, but we controlled yesterday’s match from beginning to end and – if you are being uncharitable to West Brom – I always thought there was another gear should another gear be needed.

The timing of the goals was impeccable. A goal on 22 minutes set us up nicely, another on 39 – that morale-sapping period before the first half ends – made the challenge even harder for the visitors, and the final one, on 74, and the game was up. For you, West Brom, ze match is over.

For the first, it was all about Aaron Ramsey’s sumptuous (and dare I say it, Fabregasesque) pass to Walcott. What a fine talent he is – just think of his chipped pass for Gervinho against Sunderland, and again at Chelsea for Gervinho to set van Persie up on a plate. Just as we know have three strong options in central defence, imagine the potential when Wilshere comes back with Ramsey and Arteta – and Ben-Eye Oon and Rosicky – in the creative positions.

van Persie turned provider – adding another feather to his already feather-riddled cap for numbers two and three, the pick of the bunch being the last one. van Persie, bish. Rosicky, bash. van Persie, bish bash and Arteta bosh*

*This technical analysis is hard to beat, anywhere on the web

Mertesacker was rested, and in his absence Vermaelen and Koscielny made a formidable pair. I have to laugh when I look at Koscielny, because after a season bedding in he’s turning into *yet another* Wenger bargain. What was he, £8 million? He’ll be worth more now. As, you can assume, will the £2.75m van Persie be. On Friday’s Arsecast, the Frenchman was much discussed and it was pointed out – I can’t quite recall whether it was by Philippe Auclair or Arsebl Augger – that for a man who has been lambasted for his defensive signings, this one looks to be turning out alright for Wenger.

Jenkinson will receive some plaudits too. He looked like an Arsenal fan who won a competition to play for his boyhood club in the early stages of the season, but if you didn’t know what Wenger saw in him then, you will do now. Put simply: He can cross.

And boy, can he cross. He must have sliced, curled or powered five or six excellent crosses in yesterday. It was just a shame there was nobody at the end of any of them to finnish them*.

[*Red card – Ed]

It’s a powerful tool to have on the right side of the pitch, for sure, and with a bit more experience under his belt, the defensive side of things should get better, too.

Overall, a straightforward win, but you won’t hear me complaining. We’ve had too many edgy wins, frustrating draws or disappointing defeats over the last year to last a lifetime. Wins like this I hoover up gladly.

Over to you, International Break, you miserable wretch.

Handbrake off, defensive sureness on: Job’s a goodun

It’s been another fortnight of stewing over Arsenal’s weaknesses. The previous international break came right after the pounding at Old Trafford; this one came after the derby defeat. On each occasion the fortnight off has been seen as something of a blessed relief – a time to lick our wounds and work on the basics. I can’t say I’ve missed football an awful lot over the last two weeks, which is a fairly depressing admission.

And on both occasions, the next match has been an eminently winnable home game. We scraped past Swansea last time. A scraping past of Sunderland would be acceptable, of course, though ideally you’d want to see the handbrake, lubed to the max, well and truly off.

There really are reasons to be a bit more positive though. To mitigate against Sagna’s injury, we have a cavalry charge of returning defenders in the shape of Koscielny, Djourou and Squillaci. This lets us slot Song back into midfield, where he is much more effective, and it gives us more aerial dominance at the back. Scoff ye not: Koscielny is our most effective defender at aerial challenges, and Mertesacker, while still finding his feet, is as tall as a house and that alone counts for a bit.

On an ordinary day, I’d like to see Mertesacker paired with Koscielny and take it from there, but there are no such things as ordinary days at Arsenal, and our lack of experience at right-back complicates things. Jenkinson has looked raw – if willing – and while it might be worth blooding him against teams at our level (like Sunderland, haha, ouch, that’s quite enough of that), can you see Wenger playing him at Stamford Bridge at the end of the month? I can’t. And working backwards from that logical conclusion, it might make sense to play Koscielny there now (he’s a trained right-back, it transpires) to get him back up to speed. This would make even more sense given Vermaelen’s imminent return (has that jinxed him?). All of which means it’ll probably be Jenkinson on Sunday.

I confess that I have no idea what Wenger means when he says we were beaten “because the details you need in big games were not on our side”. The fact is, we have struggled on many levels this season. I can’t be bothered to go back over them, it’s not like we don’t all know our failings. Repeating them now would be like teaching you all how to count to ten.

Interesting then to note that in a sea of gloom after the derby defeat, it was none other than David Pleat who spotted signs of progress, both in midfield and with some “flashes of newfound defensive sureness.”

Whether I believe it or not, that’s precisely the kind of positivity I’m in the market for.

PS – Glad to see that Wenger read my ‘5 things to do in the international break‘ piece. He’s found Abou!

Match report: The wait goes on


Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City

As a football fan you roll with the highs, but you also have to cope with the lows. Barcelona, a few weeks ago, was as good as it gets. Yesterday, losing in the last minute to an amateur defensive error, was of course the opposite.

You could line up the disappointing aspects of that game and ask them to form an orderly queue, but for me the most frustrating thing was the way we played. We had good, short bursts in each half, and plenty of possession, but overall the Arsenal that we wanted to see just wasn’t there for enough of the game. We did make Ben Foster work at times, and scored a superb equaliser, but we just didn’t do enough. I have no idea why.

Of course, credit to Birmingham. They hustled and harried, knew our weaknesses, played to them well, and it worked. We were undone by bad defending at a set piece and by a freak defensive howler. Had we played better it may not have mattered. But in a tight game like yesterday’s, those mistakes were pivotal. They deserved to win and you can’t begrudge them a first major trophy since 1963. That’s a lot more than a six year wait.

We missed Walcott and Fabregas, but that’s no excuse. Most of our best XI was out there but how many of them can you say played the game of their lives? Wilshere was tireless again but he couldn’t do it all on his own. There’s little point hauling players over the coals but I do look at Rosicky with increasing frustration these days. I don’t think he’s done enough in recent weeks to merit a starting place in a cup final, and he struggled again yesterday. But there you go – he wasn’t the only one.

As for the goals, well both were easily avoidable. It was not the finest hour for Koscielny or Szczesny. I imagine they’re feeling particularly blue this morning.

It was a big test, and we failed it. Wenger desperately wanted to win this to push on and hush the naysayers, but the wait goes on. He’ll be as frustrated as anyone that we did not rise to the occasion. Were we hampered by the ‘need’ to win something? We could debate that until the cows came home.

The fans filing out at the end were pretty mutinous (‘Wenger get your chequebook out’ being a familiar refrain). There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam at the end of a bitter defeat. It was pretty hard to be anything other than downbeat.

I dipped into the interwebs and sure enough, there are already acres of newsprint dedicated to the potential psychological effect of this defeat on our prospects for the rest of the season. Certainly, it will be hard to shake off. But luckily for us we have a very winnable FA Cup replay on Wednesday. Better that way than a ten-day wait to stew on things.

The reaction again the O’s will be interesting. The team Wenger picks will be interesting.

Ah well, onwards and upwards.

Need a pick-me-up? Own an iPhone? Here’s a wallpaper made from the ’92 away shirt to cheer you up.

Holed in the O’s own lair

Confession: I used the above headline as it’s simply too cheesy to let pass, and if I don’t use it now, it will be even later than the too late it already is. [I haven’t seen it elsewhere but if I’m late to the party I’ll be happy to admit it].

In brief though: Having sung the praises of the FA Cup and insisted upon the retention of cup replays, I can have no complaints about the draw at the Orient that forces us to squeeze another match into the jammed schedule. If anything, I tend to agree with the much-aired view that the second string, far from requiring fewer games, could do with more. It certainly reinforced my view that two, three or even four changes from our first XI can be accommodated, but that most of a team revolving in cannot.

Is this a case of a collective lack of drive from the second string? No. It’s not that simplistic. It was a feisty cup tie and an almost completely changed line-up from Wednesday. But more than that, the absent midfield combination of Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas adds so, so much to the side on so many levels. They are simply far better than the alternatives. Not just from a creative perspective, but collectively their will to win is huge. Can we keep those three fit until the end of the season? It seems unlikely given the fixure list but much could hinge on their availability.

And at the back, we played a defence unused to playing with one another, which included several relative rookies in Gibbs and Miquel and two down-the-pecking-order players in Almunia and Squillaci. We should have created more chances, but overall it wasn’t the world’s biggest surprise. At least it wasn’t to me.

As for it generating another midweek home game… I can’t say I’m too unhappy.

Match preview

Tomorrow night we’re straight back in the saddle, with Stoke City coming to town. It’s a fixture with baggage these days. As much as anything though, it’s a massive clash of styles. We all know how Stoke play; it can be effective – at home in particular, as we have found.

Arsenal have at times this season not defended set pieces well so it’s not hard to work out where City might plough their furrow.

Wenger though has hit on the solution: keeping the ball. “As long as we have the ball, they cannot be dangerous” he said. That does of course form part of a utopian wish list in any game, and is certainly one I’d like to have employed in the first half against Barcelona, but possession is not necessarily nine tenths of the win. Barcelona discovered this on Wednesday and we did too, on Sunday. As much as anything we need to be ruthless and make our possession count.

We’ll have to do it without van Persie and Koscielny too, both out with small injuries (with any luck not Vermaelen ‘small’) and therefore not risked ahead of Wembley on Sunday. Diaby is out twice – suspended and, of course, injured.

It was looking like a no-go for me, but the gods of football have been generous and I’ll be there.

Here’s to three of your finest points.

Monday night squad ramblings

And so it came to pass that Arsenal’s midweek Anglian aberration was put to the sword with a fine performance at Upton Park on Saturday. There’s nothing like winning your next game to forget about losing your last one, and I’m in a forgetful enough mood now to have perked up no end. The equilibrium is once again balanced… for now. (Aha! I had to add that in).

Plenty of positives too, with the hitherto largely blank-firing van Persie scoring twice, Theo bagging a fine goal and creating another, and a return to battle for our strongest midfield five – Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Nasri and Walcott.

About Theo: His goal on Saturday, his tenth of the season, means he has scored the same number of goals mid-way through this season as he did throughout the previous two seasons combined. I think that deserves, at the very least, a manly handshake.

To me, Saturday also highlighted that within the one squad there is a clear first XI bubbling to the top. I know I know – that’s always the case. But I find it endlessly fascinating to see a football team evolve, how fate deals some players bad hands and form dictates the fortunes of others. This season’s biggest losers so far are Almunia, Vermaelen, Diaby, Arshavin, Bendtner and Denilson, all of whom would have hoped to make more of an impact, one way or another, than they have done so far.

In their place we see Fabianski, Szczesny, Djourou, Koscielny, Walcott, Wilshere and Nasri. Only Nasri was a definite starter last year, Walcott too, albeit to a lesser degree.

For my money, our best available starting XI at the moment is Szczesny, Clichy, Koscielny, Djourou, Sagna, Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Walcott, Nasri and van Persie. A bit harsh on Chamakh perhaps, and I can see Gibbs, fitness permitting, giving Clichy a good run for his money. I’ve also stuck my neck out with Szczesny because to me he looks the real deal, but I concede that his lack of experience might make that pick a little premature.

There’s good competition in some areas but less in others, and there’s no doubt – I say this as I don my Hat of Perfection – we could do with the ‘second string’ pushing their first-choice teammates harder. That they are ‘second string’ should be motivation enough, but it’s easier said than done.

That’s the way things go. Our first choice XI has evolved in just one year – four changes (in the absence of Vermaelen), perhaps five if you were to include Theo – and who’s to say that come January 2012, it won’t have changed again? It almost certainly will have.

There were eight changes from ‘my’ first XI against Leeds, five against Ipswich, one against West Ham.

We know already that Szczesny will start in goal at Elland Road, but I wonder how far from the above XI Wenger will deviate on Wednesday?

We’re fighting on four fronts. It’s a tough call.