That warmed the Coquelins

Stoke City 1-4 Arsenal

Fourth is on – until it’s off again.

From the rubble of a north London derby no-show, we’ve dusted ourselves down to win three on the bounce and revive our annual race for fourth. What’s more, we’re cranking up the style with yesterday’s thumping of Stoke (it’s been so long since we’ve won there that I think ‘thumping’ passes muster) being our best performance in some time.

Solid as a rock

Ah, fourth, my old friend. As Jonathan Northcroft says in today’s Sunday Times, “If only this team pursued league titles with such a sense of destiny and irrepressible vigour” as it does the final Champions League place.

But you take what comes your way, don’t you, and yesterday was a lovely pre-season-ticket-renewal reminder of what Arsenal can really be all about: solid defending when needed, poise in midfield, some beautiful, carving attacking play and graceful finishing. No, I don’t know what happened to it between December and May either.

Holding out for a hero

So, to yesterday, when the back three worked again, with Holding (better than Cannavaro, don’t you know), Koscielny and Mustafi all good. Is this the back three for next season? Could well be. With respect to Mustafi and Koscielny, Holding’s the exciting one here. He started the season well then disappeared, before Wenger’s desperate change to a back three opened a door for him. How’s he’s grasped it, and it’s always nice to see a young English player plucked from nowhere make a good start to his Arsenal career. Long may it last.

So Nacho

Nacho could have had a goal or two himself, and a bit of game time acted as a dose of WD-40 for Bellerin’s early rustiness too – he got two assists.

Love Xhak

Yesterday, I made an extra effort to study Xhaka, who’s had a lot of recent accolades but who for a long time looked too slow and clumsy to me. It’s funny, because you know how you notice some players more than you notice others when you’re watching a game live? Well he’s not really one of them – but watching him yesterday, you can see him growing into his role. He’s a midfielder in the Steve Williams or Paul Davis mould; quietly effective but not obviously stand-out.

Olivier’s army

Giroud, who I cursed under my breath until he scored, before lauding him to the heavens (sort of sums him up), notched a brace to make it 16 this term. Not bad, let’s be honest, and at 104 minutes per goal, also the most lethal of all our strikers. Statistics, eh.

You can call me Al

Finally to Alexis and Ozil, our stardust players. I’ve been so frustrated with Ozil at times this season, to the point where doubling his wages seems insane (it still does), but when he plays like he played yesterday you’re reminded why he’s so good. In that sense he personifies Arsenal: stylish and lethal when good, a passenger when bad. His goal was calmly taken, and his passing in general was pinpoint.

As for Alexis, what can you say? That pass to Ozil was 100% through-ball-porn, and he finished the game by scoring with his only operational leg, before tapping the crest on his shirt and giving me hope (damn you, hope) that all might not be lost between him and Arsenal.

So overall, a performance that warmed the Coquelins. The cynics among you – says he, deflecting his own cynicism adroitly – will tell you that disappointment is only round the corner in one form or other. It probably is, but playing well is nice and that is all that matters right now.

Superstition

A final thought about how nuts humans are. Take a look at the Arsenal team emerging from the tunnel and you’ll see all manner of nervous, superstitious tics. Coquelin hops on his right leg, Bellerin picks up some grass then crosses himself, Xhaka hops then bounces, before Ozil does his own hop.

Hopping mad, the lot of them.

So are we for investing some much emotion in this nonsense. Damn you, football, you cruel mistress!

Bridge over: Troubled Wenger

Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal

Apologies in advance, because this is a pun-free, humourless post. “I wonder if you could stick a gag in?” asked Mrs Lower as she read it. I’ll see what I can do.

Are sure as eggs are eggs, Arsenal sank to their annual defeat at Stamford Bridge with barely a whimper. In terms of the title – that’s all folks; though in terms of performances the writing has been on the wall for some time.

First though, Chelsea. They were fantastic yesterday and have been fantastic since September, leaving everyone – not just us – well and truly in their wake. They defend as a unit, pick off their opponents and are relentlessly good at it. For an Arsenal fan, comparing the two sides yesterday was painful, especially as – unlike Chelsea sides of yore – there are fewer players to dislike.

There surely have to be doubts about the validity of the first goal, but few pundits or commentators seemed that fussed by it. Odd, no? Bellerin was flattened by Alonso’s elbow before he headed it in and I suspect that would have been blown as a foul anywhere else on the pitch.

To add insult to potential head injury, Bellerin was forced to retire with Gabriel replacing him. It was a double blow, because while Gabriel is an OK backup central defender, he really is no right back.

Would it have been different had we taken one of the few chances we had? There was one for Iwobi early on, a very presentable header for Gabriel and a great chance for Ozil.

I suspect not. It was a day when we really needed to step up but too many of our players were depressingly absent. Ozil and Sanchez, our two superstars, were two of the worst culprits. The former was peripheral while the latter cut a lonely and frustrated (and frustrating) figure.

Walcott was ineffective and didn’t defend, Iwobi faded, Coquelin was utterly overwhelmed and to cap it all off Petr Cech picked a bad day for a howler. We were at best ineffective yesterday, and at worst disorganised, error prone and playing off the cuff.

A horse walks into a bar. The barman looks at him and asks, ‘Why the long face?’

Our 3-0 win earlier in the season – our best performance of the season – was the outlier. Because overall, when the chips are down against sides that we like to compare ourselves against, we have been poor.

And our record at Stamford Bridge since our 5-3 win in 2011 also speaks for itself. We’ve lost every time with an aggregate score of 15-2.

The title is as good as over. Even if Chelsea collapsed, we’d have to go on a barnstorming run. Neither looks remotely likely. Maybe the boss can pull something out of the hat in the Champions League? Past performance would suggest otherwise.

The fact is that year after year, irrespective of the players, we are too often making the same mistakes. We let in silly goals. We disappear too often. We aren’t prepared well enough. We are inconsistent. We are predictable. We switch off.

And that, of course, rests at the doorstep of Arsene Wenger. Martin Keown said after the game that he believed Wenger would sign a new two-year deal. The boss stands alone at being able to get us into the top four, but taking us to the next level? That now seems beyond him.

Will he really take that deal? I’m not so sure he will. To me it feels like the team needs a massive dose of the smelling salts. It needs a new broom to sweep through it and it needs new ideas. I don’t know many Arsenal fans who think Wenger will be the man to do that. But in the end, because of the incredible power he wields within the club, perhaps the more pertinent question is: Does Wenger still think he’s the man to do that?

“We want you to stay,” sang the Chelsea fans with mirth. I wonder if he heard.

Now you see us, now you don’t. Following Arsenal is magic.

Preston 1-2 Arsenal

Ah, hello again mystifying Arsenal. The third round of the FA Cup heralded another performance – the second in a week, now *that’s* consistency – that left me overwhelmed and underwhelmed pretty much simultaneously. Carved open at will in the first half, we improved in the second and nabbed some pride at the end with a goal from the man of the moment, Giroud. And then the same thing happened again yesterday.

Into the valleys of the Ribble rode the 6,000 Arsenal fans, but theirs was not to reason why two distinct Arsenals would turn up once again. All we can say is that it’s a good job Preston didn’t take several of their other presentable chances. But really, why did we play like that? “They surprised us with their commitment,” said Giroud afterwards, a comment that is probably best not dwelled on too long.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter I suppose, because we edged through to the fourth round, despite missing a phalanx of players for one reason or another. But I don’t think anyone’s under any illusions that we can get keep on getting away with being this skittish. This season is already turning out to be fiercely competitive, and any more fits of daydreaming like this will doubtless see us drift further off the pace. Six teams will be squeezing into four (if getting into the Champions League is your thing – it’s been a while since it’s got me fizzing), and who’s your money on right now? Could go anywhere.

I do wonder when we have weeks like this – and those like the one before Christmas when we lost to Everton and City – whether this is an excellent Arsenal team prone to switching off, or an average Arsenal team prone to occasional excellence.

Anyway, that all sounds more miserable than it ought to, because there were some positives in the end, quite apart from staying in the FA Cup. Lucas had a decent game topped off with a match-winning assist, and it was good to see Ramsey back on the scoresheet too. Giroud, who for all his frustrations is £10m extremely well spent, continues to be crucial. And I love watching Iwobi ghosting about the place in his languid style.

With Giroud, we are perhaps reaping the rewards of not overcooking him by February, which is something we’ve done on several occasions. When he hits that physical brick wall, boy does he hit it. Having him fit and firing to the end, alongside Welbeck, Alexis and Lucas, is a mouthwatering prospect (if almost entirely implausible – that would require the medical gods to align in spectacular fashion, and this, lest we forget, is Arsenal).

As for what happens next, well we should have Alexis and Ozil back for Saturday’s trip to Swansea, and with any luck both will be a little refreshed. In terms of their futures, I’ve detached myself from it to be honest. It’s just not worth fretting about because there’s so much smoke and mirrors.

Today we read that Ozil is happy and would be happy to sign a new deal, but it depends on Wenger staying. In true Arsenal style, all this really does is muddy the water for our divided fanbase, because for many, ‘Wenger staying’ is part of the problem rather than the key to the solution.

Like I say, I won’t lose much sleep over it. I’d like Alexis and Ozil to stay, of course I would, because losing both would be a big blow, footballistically. It would be damaging in terms of the allure of the club if they left. But players come and go and sometimes it’s as simple as that.

With that flourish of sang-froid, I bid thee goodnight. Here’s to racing out of the blocks at the Liberty, ideally in the first half.

Xhaka, tackle and roll

Arsenal 3-2 Swansea

“Why are raspberry bonbons blue?” asked Shedman quizzically, during the early lull – a time when the mind is prone to wander to the weightier matters of life.

And then Theo Walcott immediately scored, so the sweet crisis was averted.

I missed the goal.

Why? Because at the very moment he scored I was WhatsApping Feverpitch, asking him if he was bored yet, so naturally the game duly exploded.

Yes, I am the kind of idiot who is easily distracted by his mobile telephone. At least I was physically in situ and heard it happen – an improvement on the time I left Highbury a few minutes before full-time against Birmingham with the game tied at 1-1, only to get home and look on Ceefax to discover that we’d won something like 15-12 on penalties. I thought it would go to a replay, not extra time. Happy days.

I’m moving off piste here. Anyway, back to Theo. We had probed a bit, but it hadn’t really been a case of Swansea crumbling in the face of the storm. It just sort of happened, with Theo nipping in like a terrier. And then it just sort of happened again, with Theo swivelling full-circle to make the most of a defensive hash-up.

At this point I honestly thought the fat lady was unscrewing her mouthwash for a pre-warble gargle, but Xhaka (not his finest day, as it would turn out), gave the ball away and it was 2-1.

And as we all know, 2-1 is the most dangerous score in football, apart from 1-0, 2-0 and all the other dangerous scores – including, in the case of Arsenal, being 4-0 up.

Error aside, we played some lovely stuff in the latter stages of the first half, and missed a few chances after that too before Ozil latched onto Sanchez’s cross and applied the coup de grace.

Game over! Out comes the mouthwash.

But no, this being Arsenal we let another one in (as soft as a summer camembert) and then Xhaka got himself sent off. I think Wenger’s assessment of it being ‘dark yellow’ was right – though it was more ‘dark arts’. A bit ‘daft arts’ in truth as it was the middle of the pitch and entirely unnecessary to even give the referee the option.

Then things got really sticky. Theo hit the post twice – both times he should have scored. In fact, he should have scored five times yesterday, but Swansea had a couple of great chances to level it up.

So the relief at the end was palpable, and takes us to six wins on the bounce. I can’t remember the last time that happened. That’s fine form, even we’ve got over the line in the last two matches by the skin of our teeth.

Anyway, back to blue raspberry bonbons. The best explanation I could come up with was that they’re often placed next to strawberry bonbons in a point-of-sale scenario, and two similar colours would be confusing to the demanding consumer. Consider it, if you will, to be as if raspberry bonbons are always wearing their away kit.

Anything more credible than that, which ought not be hard, then do let me know.

Holding in and holding out

Leicester 0-0 Arsenal

There was some good and bad to chew on in that performance, an entertaining but low-quality trip to the champions. But it’s not about the points at this stage, more about the performance.

Was there a measurable improvement on that front from last weekend? Well, we didn’t collapse. That’s a bonus. In fact, I thought we defended pretty well, with Holding and the immense Koscielny marshalling the back line very well, ably assisted by a bank of defensive midfielders and by Cech. In tough games, we now have three defensive midfielders to choose from to shore up the rear, and that can only bode well. Xhaka was tough, diligent, neat and tidy, and I really do like the cut of his jib. We need that kind of player.

We were a bit lucky too, with Coquelin about as disciplined as wasp who’d just had a parking ticket, and a late penalty shout that was about as contentious as night following day. Yes, referees are human, but we’d have laminated the hell out of some A4s if that had happened against us.

Further up the pitch: not so very good. I thought it was a bitty performance and without Ozil there was a severe lack of creativity. The Ox started brightly but faded, and while Theo worked hard, had a few shots and put in some muscular recovery tackles, it was a difficult afternoon and he had the kind of invisible touch that takes control and slowly tears you apart.

So too Alexis. His passing was off so often that I wonder if he’s even properly fit. Alexis is many things, but he’s no striker, not on this showing.

So perhaps it was no surprise that we struggled for momentum and for cohesion up front, and that didn’t really improve when Giroud came on as it was pretty late in the day.

The catalyst for our best period was Ozil – devilish little wizard – and how nice it was to see him back. But in the end, we cannot complain too much with the result.

It’s a draw that teaches us nothing we didn’t already know, except perhaps that Wenger has unearthed a good prospect in Holding. I did like Wenger’s tetchy but very apt post-match comment:

“Nobody is speaking about the performance of Rob Holding today. You should be happy; he is English, he is 20 years old, but I’m sorry he didn’t cost £55m, so it cannot be good.”

Proof that for all the maddening things he does and says, he can still throw some pearls out there.

Sadly, he’s up against it pretty much permanently at the moment. There’s disquiet in the stands with chants, banners have started already, and as I mentioned yesterday it’s very difficult to turn this level of feeling round now for him, which is why I feel this season is it for him. The desire for change is embedded and hard to shift, but I’ll tell you what could buy him some leeway…

With rumours about Mustafi persisting, there’s clearly the desire to bolster the squad there. But with desire you need action. Most pressing for me is a striker (if I had to choose), because we looked threadbare up there yesterday. It really is now or never on that front.

Get those two positions sorted and we have a much more complete squad. But getting nobody in is not an option. Not for the squad, not for Wenger and not for the fans.

Ozil’s magic wand-feet

IMG_3269

Arsenal 2-0 Bournemouth

Had Mesut Ozil, in a puff of smoke, magicked up a rabbit on the edge of the box yesterday, I don’t think many present would have batted an eyelid. “It’s just Ozil, nicking a living in the magic circle”, they would have said as a rapid-fire of diagonal balls plopped invitingly onto various players’ (thought mostly Theo Walcott’s) feet.

He was sublime, immense, and simply unstoppable yesterday. His assist record is through the roof, but just occasionally he gets bored of altruism and assists himself to an assist, and then scores. Because he can, right.

We have run out of superlatives in this more superlative of seasons for Ozil, so I’m going to invent one. It’s !!!!!!!. I just don’t know how to pronounce it yet.

Incredible stats for an incredible player.

Back in the saddle we all got, and Ozil took it upon himself to make us all consider the Southampton game as an aberration. We weren’t at our fluid best but we did more than enough to win easily, and could have had a few more.

Actually, there was another interesting subplot: The Forgotten Four.

OK, they’re not remotely forgotten, but I’m too lazy to think of anything more suitable. The four who came in to replace weary limbs – Gabriel, Gibbs, Chambers and The Ox – all had something to prove, and offered timely reminders that they are indeed still here.

Gabriel was particularly impressive: all energy, bite and determination, with a thunder-header marking his arrival in the pantheon of Arsenal scorers.

But I rated the other three, too. Gibbs had a solid game, Chambers acquitted himself very well at defensive midfield (not bossing, but not hiding), while Oxlade-Chamberlain had his best game for a while. When he turns, faces and runs at people you realise what a formidable presence he can be. Defenders don’t like that one bit and that sense of fear is what the Ox needs to offer more.

What else? Walcott was served chance after chance on a platter, but had one of those days. When he did fizz one past the post, he should perhaps have crossed it to Ramsey at the far post instead. Easy to judge in hindsight I know – he played well, but stuff just wasn’t quite coming off, and that happens.

So top we go in this most baffling of seasons, and that’s pretty amazing given the stodge we served up on the south coast on Boxing Day.

But yesterday was all about Mesut Ozil, the most creative, magical player in the Premier League this season.

Assisters are doin’ it for themselves

Watford 0-3 Arsenal

At nil nil, as the minutes rolled on with the Hornets going shoulder to shoulder with Arsenal, I began to stew more and more on the FA Cup quarter final defeat in March 1987 when we lost 3-1 at Highbury. We should never have lost that. Bloody Watford! They were our bogey team then and yes – when it comes to Arsenal at least – I am not quick to forgive.

I needn’t have worried. Just when it was required, our resilience turned to ruthlessness and a ten-minute salvo buried the ghost of Barnes. Alexis – who else – hoovered up the ball from Ozil, saving the referee the bother of having to award a penalty. Just the seven in four for his club, or ten in six if you prefer. The man lifts us up by his bootstraps.

Giroud, who whether he likes it or not is becoming an effective supersub, then scored from another Ozil assist before Ramsey got his first of the season from a Bellerin assist.

Hey assister

Ozil created six chances yesterday, and this is Ozil at his finest: the essence of Mesut. Ghosting here and there, stretching defences and performing as a quiet assassin. He’s just so key to Arsenal now. Yes, he still has the odd peripheral game but he’s only human. Mostly, he’s just metronomically good.

Go assister

Ozil this, Ozil that – but what about Bellerin? If Coquelin was the story of last season then Bellerin is perhaps this season’s classic Wenger development. Last year Bellerin broke through, but Debuchy was nominally the number one. Now, there’s really no argument about who’s our best right back. Yesterday, again, Bellerin’s pace and directness caused havoc and led to a goal.

I heard it mentioned a few times last week, but he’s top of the ‘Clear Cut Chances Created’ list in the entire league this season. Let’s ignore for a second that this chart has clearly been made up. It’s still bloody impressive and in Ozil and Bellerin we have two outlets across the width of the pitch. Happy days.

Soul assister

What’s heartening is that we can now marry resilience with patience and then pounce. Though there were a few hairy moments (BFG and Cech almost conspired to do an Almunia), and had Watford chosen the right club they might have got closer to the green rather than hooking and slicing all over the place, the fact is we didn’t panic and when our chance came we took it.

Go assister

The spectre of Bayern clearly wasn’t looming that large, and the international week did not damage us too much, because it was an impressive second half performance all told. We go to Tuesday in good form, but in terms of qualification, probably with little expectation.

I think that might help us, and in our current form it could be fascinating. It’s an odd one for me, because on the one hand it would be incredible to clonk the unassailable Bavarians on the noggin, but I’ve got used to the concept of being out of it again this year, so I don’t envisage voluminous wailing on my behalf if we lose.

We certainly couldn’t have asked for much more by way of preparation.

Top work!

Oli and Wally earn their lolly despite dilly dally

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City

A beautiful early autumn afternoon that saw me shedding layers as the match went on – sort of like a striptease, but without a single modicum of titillation – ended with what we’d all come for: a goal or two at home, and three satisfying points.

I would offer a more thorough match report, but as usual I failed to heed Matt Bianco’s advice and didn’t get out of my lazy bed. Then the day happened and here we are again in the evening. Increasingly, the days have a habit of doing this.

We missed a lot of chances. A lot. Better, I suppose, than not being able to miss chances because they weren’t there, but Stoke – now bottom – were not very impressive and we’ll have tougher assignments than that before too long. Let’s pluck a day out of thin air and call it ‘Saturday’. (Because you can lol all you like about Chelsea’s start to the season but it won’t go on forever, and you know what I’m thinking anyway so I won’t say anymore).

The goal Walcott did score wouldn’t have been scored by Giroud and the goal Giroud scored wouldn’t have been scored by Walcott, so I suppose that indicates perfectly well the benefit of not just having more than one striker, but of having different kinds of strikers. I liked Gabriel and I liked Bellerin and I thought Coquelin was absolutely superb.

Ozil won man of the match – which came as a surprise to me if I’m honest. Of course, his pass to Walcott was inch-perfect, and maybe that’s enough to warrant it. I have since read glowing reports of his contribution and his seven chances created, but from my vantage point at the time, looking at all eleven players a little bit rather than one player a lot, it didn’t really feel that way. He seemed to get a bit bogged down out wide. I guess that’s why Ozil divides opinion, even now: he’s hard to pinpoint at times. He pulls the strings under the radar but a whiff of the hang-dog doesn’t do him any favours.

Anything else? Well, the slither of an away end – I’d say they took about a third of their allocation – seems to be happening more and more these days. I don’t know how much we asked Stoke fans to pay for the away end – certainly not 62 fat ones – but perhaps cost is having more of an effect than we think. Maybe I’m wrong – do Arsenal release stats on away end attendance?

Final thought: we’ve started alright but City are flying. They have so much strength in depth that when Sterling and Silva are both out, they can still keep £28.5m Otamendi and £55m de Bruyne on the bench. We’ve rotated a bit ourselves – only five players have started all five games – but once we have Wilshere back, we’ll have even more flexibility and options in the midfield, and over the course of a gruelling season, we’ll need it.

Talking of gruelling… this headline. But I won’t apologise.

Arsenal crank things up a gear

Hull City 1-3 Arsenal

There I was with my worry beads, thinking this could have been been a mouldy old banana skin, and here I am now looking a little bit stupid.

Turns out the concentration was fine after all, and if anything, somewhat heightened. So much so that it was one of the more complete performances of the season. I won’t try to compare it with any other matches, mostly because I can’t really remember very far back in any great detail, but have you seen a better display of passing than that? No Sir, I have jolly well not.

Orchestrating it all were three fleet-footed amigos in the shape of Ozil, Ramsey and Cazorla, the latter two in particular competing for the most outrageous defence splitter. Dead heat on that front if you ask me.

Both Ramsey and Cazorla were phenomenal, once again sinking my pre-match fears about a lack of width below the waterline. Pah, what do I know. It’s not like you come here for informed tactical and motivational insight. (It’s not like they come here at all – Ed).

Cazorla was magic again, and I’d hoik his future right up the agenda. There has been hearsay for a while about him leaving this summer (though I’m not sure where the rumours have come from) but right now he’s a stick of fizzing dynamite and we should pull out all the stops to keep him. Who else would have him in Europe? Who wouldn’t.

Jack Wilshere deserves a mention too for an excellent cameo. His direct running literally threw a real cat amongst the actual pigeons. Up for the challenge? We see you Jack, we see you.

Sanchez was brilliant, point-blank refusing to play at anything less than 100%, far better on the night than a strangely lacklustre Giroud. I thought at one point a month or so ago that Giroud would overtake Sanchez in the goalscoring charts, but I can’t see it now. In the league – perhaps. But not overall and 24 goals is an excellent return.

So, great defending and dynamic attacking – with the added bonus being the chiming of the bells of St Totteringham. What’s not to like.

Giroud was all like ‘yeah’

Arsenal 3-0 West Ham

Ping, ping, dummy, flick, goal – it was one of those days when Arsenal’s build-up passing slotted together like one of those massive 500-piece jigsaws. When it works it’s bewitching, and when it doesn’t it’s infuriating, but yesterday – when it counted – we ghosted through West Ham and it was a delight.

They were all at it in the one-touch club, but the main protagonists were Giroud, Ozil and Ramsey, with a hat-tip to the latecomer Cazorla (player of the season, anybody?)

Not that it was a 3-0 kind of game, really. The first half was all probing, stretching defences and was fairly even. The Hammers seemed to be targeting Chambers at right-back and got round the back two or three times, while we had a few good chances ourselves. Walcott was getting into good positions but looked a bit ring-rusty, perhaps understandably.

Confession: I missed the first goal because I’d gone to get an early sip of the half-time beer. There we were in the concourse (with hundreds of others, not that I’m making excuses for myself), singing throatily but with a hollow, sheepish edge as we realised Giroud had put us one up. That’s right, I’ve become the person I hate, complaining about ticket prices and tutting about the exorbitant cost of food and drink at the ground, only to slip out early to ensure Arsenal make even more profit. I am a hypocrite so feel free to reprimand, or just shake your head in sorrow.

So the first goal, ahem. Seemed good from where I was.

In the second period – I was in my seat by now, you’ll be glad to hear, watching the game with my actual eyes – it was tight for a while. Ozil, who was otherwise excellent again, over-elaborated to the tune of a trillion by lofting an impossible pass across the box when he should have just wellied it, and at that moment 57,000 people probably simultaneously muttered something like “this has got one-all written all over it” under their breath.

There was no need to panic. Welbeck came on and gave us a burst of energy, Cazorla entered the fray so we could have our dose of pocket dynamite, and we collectively stepped up a gear. Ramsey’s goal was a blur of passing interspersed with the kind of shimmy that probably once sent Mrs Giroud’s knees trembly in a French nightclub when Olivier hit the floor for some Bee Gees.

Then Cazorla one-twoed with Welbeck and Giroud, passed it across the goal and Nigel made it three.

Giroud, as an important aside, was excellent.

I wouldn’t call it a head of steam, more a faint whistle, but we’re building something up at the moment at a critical time. Five straight league wins puts us a mere point behind Man City, and with nine games to go I think it’s fair to say that three of the top four slots are – to coin a phrase from the late eighties – up for grabs now.

Good to see Walcott back too. I get the sense there’s a bit of revisionism going on at the moment about his value to the club. The landscape may have changed and the sands may have shifted, but I can’t think of any circumstances where not having him in the squad would be beneficial. Think back to how he was playing when he did his knee in – he was magnificent. Even operating at 70% of that, which is where he probably is now, he’s still getting into good positions. The more games he plays, the better he will get. He’ll always be slightly enigmatic, and he’s not the tackliest, runningbackest of players, but he does other things well.

It’s all set up for Mission: Improbable on Tuesday night. I’ve got a realistic angel over my left shoulder, wagging his finger and reminding me how we got lacerated on the counter in the first leg, and I’ve got an annoying, upbeat ‘What if’ angel over my right.

Right angel has come from nowhere – literally nowhere – and is desperately trying to sow the seed of excitement.

For my own sanity I wish he’d go away.