No doubting Tomáš

W.B.A. 1-2 Arsenal

A few days from it all does wonders for your soul – and it transpires that Arsenal haven’t done so badly in my absence either, with an I’m-away record of P2 W2 F6 A2. Perhaps I should leave the metropolis more often.

In fact, we’ve now won five out of six league games, a very decent and needed run of form ruined only by a time-honoured Defence-o-Wobble up at our friendly neighbours.

If Gervinho was the homme du moment – as they say in France, mark my words – last weekend, yesterday’s laurels go to our under-the-radar Pilsen-powered Tomas Rosicky. Did I foresee our Ivorian slotting one and creating two last weekend? Not in a month of Sundays. Could I envisage Rosicky dictating things both behind the goal and in front of it yesterday? Again, that’s a no.

But it’s fantastic to see unexpected players – the great unscorables – getting on the scoresheet at a time when it is needed most. It’s the Ljungberg factor – who can step up to the plate when the heat is on, a little bit unexpectedly, and go on a little run of goals.

Lovely goals too, yesterday – a bullet header and a rasper that needed a second, controlled rasper to be sure of things. Rosicky, amazingly, has made only two league starts this season (and scored twice). It’s a big old waste for a talent like his, though you can of course extend that sense of regret to pretty much his whole Arsenal career, not just this season. He pioneered the now well-known Arsenal trait of being out for a few weeks, only for it to be eighteen months.

But you need a few things to drop into place, and in the absence of Wilshere and Diaby, he has proved he is up for it, and up to it.

Naturally, this wouldn’t be Arsenal if we didn’t make things hard for ourselves – and we did again yesterday. It could have been a draw in the end – though we missed a few other chances ourselves too (no second touch needed, Aaron, and judging by your bouncing frustration when that ball drifted wide, you know it too). Mertesacker can have no real complaints about his red, but where there is pain for one player there is gain for another, and Vermaelen will need to see Per’s absence as his chance to get some form back. That’s how it should be really, and I hope there’s some work done on the training ground this week to sharpen up the now-smaller, but also more mobile, central defence.

But three points it was, and how we need them all at the moment. For the first time since what feels like an age, we’re sitting in the top four – albeit briefly.

It’s one-game-at-a-time territory, and it’s going to be nerve-wracking. Twitter might melt. I might go even greyer. But where there was despair a month or so ago, there’s definitely something to chew on now.

Onto Norwich on Saturday. More of the same, chaps, more of the same. Though less of the red card stuff, eh, Per?

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.

Monday thoughts: Form, newcomers, radar

Norwich 1-2 Arsenal

Another game, another win. I’ve not dusted that little phrase down for a while now but it looks nice in print (and in pixels). Since losing at our lovely neighbours on October 2nd, we have registered seven wins and one draw in eight games – fine form indeed.

In fact, if you look at our form since our last rock-bottom performance – at Blackburn – it reads P12, W10, D1, L1. By any measure and with the clarity of thought offered by hindsight, that is pretty impressive. On an individual basis, some of those 12 have been close, frustrating, stuttery or just plain dull, but we were emerging from our worst start to the season in something like 40 years, so hardly a surprise.

From being so far off the pace for the Champions League places (I grind my teeth at the thought that 4th is a measure of success – but it is), we are now well and truly in the mix. Sure, we’re a long distance off the top, but we did not spend £194m more than we earned last year, so it’s not exactly been a level playing field.

Those additions to our reeling late-August squad, all purchased in a very un-Arsenal like manner, are now showing their worth. Three of them are regulars, two on the periphery, but without them we can surmise that things wouldn’t be as improved as they are. I am well aware that Mertesacker has been caught out a few times, but there’s something about him I find reassuring. He’s like a pair of cords. It’s only fair to give him time to properly find his feet.

The luxury of choice – and strength in depth – at the back is most welcome indeed. Even with both our right-backs injured, we have Koscielny to cover. We have five centre-halfs (whither the Squill?) And we have two decent options at left-back. Sir Chesney is the real deal. I know we have let in a lot of goals (22 in the league) but this defence has had absentees and new joiners and is still bedding down. (And since Vermaelen returned – one goal conceded in three matches).

As an interesting aside, I do wonder just how long a professional footballer should need to find his feet in a new country. 10, 15 games – absolutely. But a whole season? Sometimes I think it’s used as a bit of an excuse, but then you look at someone like Koscielny, who has leapt and bounded to prominence this season in particular, and it makes you wonder whether it really can take that long. Wenger claims it’s extra hard to buy defenders from abroad. Doesn’t stop him doing just that, though, not that I’m being critical. Vermaelen, Koscielny and Mertesacker are three great options.

Arteta has done well and Santos has added and detracted in equal measures. His attacking oomph has added a interesting new dimension to us that simply wasn’t there with Clichy, but he does leave gaping holes at the back as a result. Overall though, it’s hard not to like him.

The other two – well jury out. Benayoun seems set to remain a creative sub, which is no bad thing, and Park, if we’re being kind, remains a work in progress.

What I do like is that we remain, to a degree, under the radar and I think it serves us best to be there. Our early season calamities meant many people – myself included, at times – wrote us off. Our improvement has been slow and quiet, our highlights have been nestling at the back end of Match of the Day, while everyone swoons over the Manchester duo slogging it out at the top. I can’t say I mind.

Thoughts over to Europe now, with qualification for the knockouts in our grasp. I know Marseille were much improved when they came to town, but that 0-0 remains a missed opportunity. There’s no further elbow room for qualificational dithering anymore, I suspect.

Crikey, I seem to have gone on a bit.

Arsenal match report: Three refreshing points

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea

Back in the good old days, going one up at Highbury meant you could exhale and start enjoying the afternoon. You might not get much more entertainment but you could be pretty confident that you’d get the win.

No use comparing eras though: times have changed. Arsenal have changed, the game has changed, and 1-0 to Arsenal is never a safe scoreline. It’s a particularly unsafe scoreline when you’re caught in the kind of league rut we find ourselves in.

Nevertheless, despite wobbling in the second half we surfed the late Swansea pressure and eked out the win that we desperately needed. And we really did need this, only our third league win in 15 attempts since beating Stoke on 23rd February.

So given it was the first game after the international week, given we had two new signings in the starting XI and given the inevitable mental baggage following the 8-2 pounding, this was a very good result indeed.

It wasn’t pretty, for the most part. We didn’t put enough pressure on Swansea, or stretch their play enough (not enough crosses like the one Gibbs put in for Chamakh in the 84th minute). We didn’t use our pace enough.

In the second half in particular, the fabled handbrake was back in effect, but there were loads of positives in the game too. Arteta and Mertesacker were calm, steady influences and can be very pleased with their debuts. Benayoun was lively as a sub. You could tell straight away what their experience brings to the side. Elsewhere, Szczesny again made a wonderful save and commanded his box well. Ramsey was neat. Arshavin had an excellent first half and took the goal very coolly (he has Gervinho breathing down his neck. Nothing like a bit of competition, eh).

As Wenger said at the end, “We know that confidence goes quickly and comes back slowly.”

Well this was a first step in the right direction. To that end, an excellent afternoon’s work.

It was my first game of the season too, and it’s always nice to be back. How pleasant it is too to find that some things never change. Coming into the concourse at half time, I was greeted by queues about 20 people deep for beer. Is it any wonder people vacate their seats so early? This stadium has been open for five years now and they still haven’t worked out how to serve people beer, fast. I know it’s a tired old moan but how hard is it? And what difference would it make to the half time exodus? I’ve said it before, but the system they have at the Millennium Stadium shows the way forward. Huge beer-pouring machines dispense a dozen pints at a time, in no time at all. There are queues but I don’t remember them being substantial. Instead, the club have installed new mini shops in the concourse over the summer to sell shirts and other merchandising. I don’t see many people leaving early to get to the front of those queues.

Anyway, moan over. It was a very welcome three points.

Concede 8, buy 5: Have you ever known a week like it?

They’re up for grabs now! Wenger, right at the end. An unbelievable climax to the transfer window

I can safely say I can’t recall the like. What began with the low of an abject eight-goal capitulation at Old Trafford has ended with the high of five new faces to bolster the ranks. We may never know whether the late spree was intended all along, or whether it was a direct consequence of the butchering in Manchester, but it’s happened and the result is that we are indubitably stronger this morning than we we were on Monday morning.

We could lament the absurd lateness of the spree (which has lent it an air of desperation), but maybe you have to factor in the departures of Cesc and Nasri into the equation. Both were very, very late exits in the scheme of things. And you also have to accept that a lot of business – rightly or wrongly – gets left this late for all manner of reasons. We could also lament the painful reality that we cannot currently compete for the ‘big names’ (who come with the big wages). In that respect, we are left in the wake of three other teams. It hurts, but it’s a fact.

But, from my perspective at least, the last two days have been refreshing both in their decisiveness and in their honesty. A club that was getting the reputation for dithering about over transfers acted incredibly quickly to bring new faces in. In Arteta’s case, the fax was involved in a photo finish.

Honest, too, because this is as near as we will get to a public admission that the squad was sub-par and that the youth project – such as it ever was – hasn’t worked. All five players are over 26. All experienced. All, given their status for their national teams, have borne responsibility on the field.

Santos, probably, will come straight in as first choice left-back. Mertesacker, too, ought to partner Vermaelen straight away. One of either Arteta or Benayoun can consider themselves worthy of a berth in the middle. Of the five, Park is probably the least likely to start but then again, he’s probably leapt ahead of Chamakh by default. These have been crucial signings.

Despite the clamour from some quarters, we were surely never going to go for a player like Parker. You lose two highly creative players, then you need to replace those players like for like. We have done that. In the hod-carrying midfield position, we now have competition for Song in Frimpong. So the additions of Benayoun and Arteta are sound. (I’ve never been a huge fan of Benayoun, but again, I reserve my judgement. And I’m told he’s been very good in pre-season).

I don’t think we could have done much more under the circumstances and in the time allotted. Criticism, yes, for dithering all summer. That has not shown either Wenger, or the board, or the teams involved in player acquisition, in a good light.

But the fans, and the players, needed this spree badly. van Persie and Walcott have both urged the club to strengthen this summer. Wilshere was positively glowing on Twitter last night. And look at the dropped heads on the pitch after the mauling on Sunday. They needed a lift as much as we did.

It’s certainly had the right effect on me. The squad looks much stronger and better balanced.

Naturally, I can’t wait for the Swansea game.