All’s Welb that ends Welb

 
Manchester Utd 1-2 Arsenal

Worth waiting for.

A truly lamentable record at Old Trafford was put to bed, at last and deservedly, by an Arsenal side that worked its socks off until the last minute. Can we finally bid farewell to that big game hoodoo? Go on, be off with you.

At the time, it felt as nerve-wracking as these things always do. In the first half it was a case of both sides pushing forward, chances at both ends, and if I was a Martian I’d probably say it was entertaining viewing. Fortunately – or unfortunately depending on the day – I am a blinkered Arsenal fan so I spent the entire time rabidly pacing up and down in default frazzled football fan mode.

Monreal’s goal: a lovely finish following determined Oxwork (that’s really a thing). The Utd defence was getting some grief for it but all I saw was the Ox nipping and barrelling through after a lovely Ozil pass. Shame he had to go off later in the game as I thought he caused no end of problems. Strong, direct – and now hamstrung. That’s frustrating.

Of course the lead didn’t last long, and a draw at the end of the half was probably about right. We did well in midfield, mostly held it together at the back (the steep learning curve for Bellerin continues), while Alexis and Welbeck toiled without much return up top.

We took off in the second half though, I thought. I’m not sure how much of it was down to Ramsey coming on, but he was the right replacement for the Ox, allowing us to keep up the high energy. Though Utd had more possession overall during the 90 minutes, I thought we worked so hard to win it back. Three hard-workers up front, and it’s easy to see why Wenger likes that.

Then came Welbeck’s goal, gifted by Utd on a silver platter. He celebrated, fair play to him, and so would I have done if I’d gone without a goal since December. It was hardly like he was thundering up the pitch and goading the fans or cupping his ears. The goal has been a long time coming and it was a reward for a typical Welbeck shift.

Suddenly came the hope, and with it the fear, but in the end I needn’t have worried. In their desperation to get something from the game di Maria got himself the daftest of red cards for simulation (or diving, in Anglo-Saxon) then touching the ref, then Januzaj toppled over himself and got punished. Both calls right – well played ref – especially given these decisions haven’t always gone our way up there.

We could have made it more, Cazorla and Alexis both coming close, but it didn’t come back to haunt us and the joy at the final whistle was palpable, not least from my 9-year-old who was grinning from ear to ear (and periodically lambasting Fellaini, attaboy).

It was a massive result right at a pivotal time of the season. Wembley beckons, and maybe again if we can despatch Reading or Bradford, while the confidence boost can only be a good thing as we face the final ten games of the league season and the ascent up the north face of the Champions League (might need more than crampons for that).

So yeah, I enjoyed that. Rather a lot.

Well played Arsenal.

I practically bounced out of bed this morning. And at my age, that’s good going.

Preview: No Quiet Yeoman

Garter_2008_Yeomen
Nacho Monreal and his family

Not a great recent record at Stoke, with two draws and a defeat in our last three seasons, so given that and the narrowness of our last two league wins, I’m not expecting a festival of goals and free-flowing football.

Arsenal are learning to tighten up out of necessity. The result seems to be less gung-ho, light-brigade galloping forth. (I say ‘seems to’ as you never quite know with Arsenal).

It takes a bit of adjusting to. Certainly, whilst in hindsight I can see that the Southampton game was an excellent result against a well-organised team, it wasn’t a whole lot of fun to watch at the time (as I mentioned on the Arsenal America podcast).

Match of the Day made it look like a better game than I remembered it to be. I thought we were sluggish and one-paced for a lot of the game, but maybe that’s the price we’ll have to pay while we try to recalibrate our defensive game. It certainly happened that way the last time, at the end of the 2011-12 season, when we went back to basics and George Grahamed our way to fourth.

I’m happy with that, it’s needed, though we’ll need to start scoring more at some point.

Back to our defence, and as it our style, Koscielny is a doubt, while The Quiet Yeoman is out. I’m not sure quite what we’ll do if there’s no Koscielny or Quiet Yeoman at centre half. Wenger will have to magic something up, I suppose.

Up front, Alexis is running on empty, though his empty is another man’s half a tank, so I expect him to play ahead of being rested against Galatasaray. And if Giroud doesn’t get the nod, I’m a Dutchman.

I’ll take a scrappy one-nil, to be honest. We’re not a team that hammers other teams at the moment (if anything, last season it was the other way round). Whilst I’d love us to find our goalscoring mojo today, Stoke away might not be the occasion where it happens.

Do it, rip roarers!

Giroud gives Arsenal a dose of the smelling salts

Everton 2-2 Arsenal

Textbook Twitter overreaction from me yesterday – right out of the manual.

The sarcasm

We’re two goals down at half-time. Being bitter and twisted, I can’t quite bring myself to give an online pep talk. But nor can I hashtag Wengerout or hashtag hopelessshower.

Retweet 1

Evidently still bitter and now commencing a war of snarkiness. This is the stat to use.

Retweet 2

Because this made me laugh when everything else was making me cross.

The overreaction

We’re one and a half games into the season and I’ve written us off.

The hasty backpedal

Just to prove that at no point did I not think we could get something from this. *Coughs*

There you go – what do I know? What do any of us know for that matter. It wasn’t a good performance, with several returning players patently not match fit, others battling injury, and others just not clicking. But we kept plugging on and instead of the narrative being about how we’ve not learned a jot over the summer, it’s all about the comeback.

It did look lost to me. But Wenger changed stuff around, with Giroud making a big difference, and things started to change. The breakthrough came from a couple of moments of class, as is so often the case – lovely cross from Cazorla, lovely little run from Ramsey – and the game changes. Games have a habit of doing that, which somehow still seems to surprise me despite having watched Arsenal for about 35 years.

Another from the left – this time Nach (natch) retrieves a long pass from Debuchy, curves one back in and Giroud plants a header in.

We rescued that one, and it feels a bit a bit like a win as a result.

Not really clicked this season, but we’ve still taken four points from six. If you were being cruel you’d say we just look unready, and a little blunt. But there are mitigating factors. World Cup, long trip to Turkey, a fractured pre-season. Injuries. I also think – rightly or wrongly – that minds are on Wednesday. It’s such a big game for the club, money-wise and to attract new players between now and September.

Either way, the moral of this story is not to pay too much attention to what I say on Twitter during a match.

None of the good and all of the bad

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal

First, a confession: I switched the game off after ten minutes. When you concede two goals in the first 10% of any game – and we could have let in more – you don’t need to lick your finger and raise it skywards to work out which way the wind is blowing.

It was a good call, as it happens, because I was driving and had I left the radio on I might have gone GTA renegade. So I swapped 5 Live for Radio 3 and some sedatives.

It transpires I wasn’t the only one. Once I’d got out the car, I went into full Twitter sarcasm mode, and it soon became apparent that plenty of others had called it a day and toddled off to change nappies, do some grouting or get the wallpapering finished. Sales at B&Qs across north London went through the roof at about 1pm.

We were 4-0 down at this point so to have turned the TV on now would have been akin to staying at the end of a Phil Collins gig for the encore. I Can’t Stop Loving You Arsenal, but I do draw the line somewhere.

If I was being kind, I’d say that a sloppy first-minute goal always blows carefully-laid plans out the water. But in truth, we were just dire – rank awful – while Liverpool were explosively good. There was No Going Back at 2-0 and in the end we got away lightly with 5-1.

Our normally solid back line was breached at will, with Monreal having a torrid time up against Suarez in particular. On current form, though I like Monreal, Gibbs cannot come back fast enough. Is young Mr Gibbs nursing a little bit niggle? If so, That’s Just The Way It Is.

Our midfield, so strong this season, was impotent. Ozil, by all accounts, had a shocker. He could do with a break – that sounds like an excuse but I think it holds true – though with Ramsey and Flamini out, and Wilshere not quite 100%, I can’t see him getting one on Wednesday.

(Ah – but you didn’t watch it, I hear you say. Well I was foolish enough to remedy that by watching MOTD, and I’ve read a few reports. Look Through My Eyes and tell me that’s not more than enough).

What of Liverpool? They’ve been cruising under the title radar until now, but if you consider us to be challengers then you have to consider them to be too. They have form on their side right now and have as much chance, I suspect, as we do. It was a day to forget for us, and Another Day In Paradise for them.

I am worried, I have to say. Who wouldn’t be after a performance in which everything was wrong? I don’t know many champions in waiting who lose 6-3 and 5-1 at rivals, though I accept that’s a simplistic way of looking at things. Certainly, we’ve been solid this season and we’re only one point off the pace. But our impressive form of late autumn has morphed into a more pragmatic (albeit until yesterday effective) style, and you have a feeling that when we do lose, we don’t do so in half measures. We do it festooned in lackadaisical bunting and with defensive klaxons sounding.

It was the worst possible time to revert to the Collaps-o-Arsenal of old. Our ineptitude will have emboldened Manchester United, it gives Liverpool the psychological edge next weekend and god only knows what it’s done to Bayern Munich, who let’s be honest need no encouragement at all to be any better than they already are.

If we can Hang In Long Enough through this fixture list – possible Against All Odds – it will give us the encouragement and belief.

But we’ve made it a hell of a lot harder for ourselves.

You can’t make all seven happy, you know

Here I am again, fleetingly, and now boasting a 50% attendance record at the Arsenal this season (it’s a pass – but must do better).

I’m looking forward to Hull City’s arrival, if only for the novelty of attending an actual football game in the flesh. Reading a bit today about Vermaelen and Monreal and Jenkinson – good players all, but bowing to the solidity of Gimertescielgna – it struck me that there are downsides to every slice of good news.

The good news of course being that we have settled upon a solid defensive partnership for the first time in years. We can swivel the midfield as we please – and have done – but the elixir of success at the back is not something to act the goat with, in Wenger’s view, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

It leaves three good defenders warming the bench, hardly ideal for them in a World Cup year. Or for any ambitious player in any year, if we’re honest. Of those, Jenkinson is probably the least restless, learning as he is, and having an Arsenal lampshade as he does. He should take heart from the fact that a year ago, when Sagna’s form was stodgy, he had a good run in the side and did well. This season he’s had only four starts and it must be hard for a young player to be such a bit part. Tomorrow, with Sagna injured, he is “likely” to get his chance – and if he does you can be sure City will ping some balls his way so he’ll need to be sharp from the off.

As for Vermaelen and Monreal, there’s no doubt they’d prefer to play more. Neither has nearly swerved off the road in disgust, mind you. They might be getting frustrated and if they were who could blame them, but you can be sure Wenger won’t be losing much sleep over it.

Having a settled defence with talent itching to get at a chance in reserve is pretty much the dream of any manager. Gone are the days of Silvestre, The Squill and Eboue. Senderos and Djourou are long banished. Only the ghost of Igors Stepanovs remains. It is said that late at night you can hear his spectral studs rattling on the concourse concrete.

They’re gone I tell you – gone! Instead we have Vermaelen and Monreal and Jenkinson. Result.

Sorry chaps – stiff upper lip. Your time will come.

No swashbuckling, but no buckling either

Swansea 0-2 Arsenal

Optimism is not an emotion I have much associated with this stuttering season, during which all our weaknesses have been laid bare on far too many occasions, but I have been in a curiously upbeat mood since our ultimately futile win in Bavaria.

I thought we’d win in Swansea – based on nothing but the clutching of straws, probably – but my bullishness had started to fizzle out by the middle of the second half. Neither side created much and it wouldn’t have surprised me had it finished 0-0. A few high-scoring games aside (Reading, Southampton, Newcastle), we’re not scoring for fun these days. So when the goal came, it was after some huffing and puffing, and it was a bobbler of the first order.

I have to say, I love a bobbler. A scuffed slicer, one off the knee, or something bouncing off a player’s rear echelons. There are pirhouettes, volleys, 30-yard raspers and there are daisy-cutting scuffed-bobblers. I’m standing up for the latter.

It was a first goal for Nacho Winterburn (Nacho Winterburn, Na-cho Winterburn – thanks Nige) and boy did we need it. Then as if to turn the world as we know it on its head, a second came at the end from Gervinho, who hasn’t scored since the trees were in leaf, a goal set up by the oft-maligned (but in my view increasingly impressive) Aaron Ramsey. Substitution-tastic.

I’m not sure Fabianski could have had a gentler re-introduction to Premier League football – but things could have been different had Michu rolled a good effort a bit to the left. Overall though we defended pretty well again and whatever our weaknesses elsewhere on the pitch we do now boast real quality at full-back. Gibbs and Monreal, Sagna and Jenkinson. A lot of teams would kill for that depth.

We’re still a way off where we want to be, let’s be honest, and it’d be a fool who got too confident, but it’s been a good week – however bitter-sweet Wednesday was.

Heading into the ‘lull pointless and back to square one would have been no fun at all.

So those three points were sweet.