Arsenal: Draw specialists

Arsenal 1-1 Tottenham

It’s hard to know what to make of this Arsenal side at the moment. In terms of personnel, we’re stronger than last season. But as a team? It’s just not working properly, as two wins in nine testifies.

All the possession in the world, but what’s the point of that if we lack the means to go for the jugular?

Don’t get me wrong, a point is no disaster, but we’ve been a curious side to watch for much of the season. Generally not bad – apart from in Dortmund, where we were awful – but certainly not quite good enough.

Getting the right system right and bedding new players in is clearly vexing Wenger, as it is with several managers, so I suppose the fact that we are unbeaten in the league is something to draw comfort from. We’re not easy to beat.

But we’re six points off the pace, and should we see the kind of top four away-day Collaps-o-Arsenal of recent years next weekend (I don’t think we will ship six, but it’s a fair question to ask), then we’d be nine points off the top at the beginning of October. Time to get worried, or a bit of perspective required?

The latter, to be honest. I think we’ve got a very strong team, but it’s one that has yet found the groove. New players, World Cup returnees, etc etc – it’s not an excuse but it’s a factor.

As for yesterday, there were good shifts put in by most players. Oxlade-Chamberlain looked strong, Ozil and Welbeck worked hard, Wilshere was always looking to drive forward (and was felled on most occasions). Like I say, curious. We didn’t look bad. We just didn’t look quite capable of knocking the door down.

And to cap it all off, Arteta and Ramsey are now out. Of those, the former is the biggest worry as Flamini didn’t cover himself in glory yesterday. Why we have no other options in that position is of course a question that’s been asked a thousand times before, given our millions in the bank. But there you go – there are only so many times you can say it before it becomes boring.

Ramsey has perhaps epitomised Arsenal this season. Not bad, but just not hitting the heights of last season. Fortunately, it’s one position in the team we have options. If he’s been carrying a knock for a while (and it’s the second time he’s been out this season, so that could well explain something) then it’s probably best that he lets his body mend properly.

Onto the Champions League we go, where we’ve little room for error already. I guess we just have to KBO* until we get the balance right.

*KBO

Poor in the Ruhr

Borussian Dortmund 2-0 Arsenal

A few observations now that the dust of the Dortmund storm is settling (ha!)

World Cup focus?

I offer this as an olive branch to Messrs Mertesacker and (in particular) Ozil, neither of whom has started the season on fire. Could it be hard to re-adjust and re-focus after winning football’s foremost trophy? Pah, I hear you say, these are privileged and wealthy sportsmen who should be able to switch back on. But humans are humans and maybe it’s not that easy. (Andy Murray, after Wimbledon, has struggled a bit to adjust too).

Maybe I’m being cruel on the BFG here, but there’s no denying Ozil has been distinctly off colour. Perhaps it’s a physical thing too – a combination of the mind and the body.

Fitting the signings in

Le Boss has often said it’s a dangerous game to make multiple signings and upset a team’s rhythm. The Totts signed about ten players last year and struggled to fit them all together. Utd and Liverpool have done the same this year, and are yet to hit full speed. We’re playing with three new players every week – and maybe we need to make allowances for that.

Or maybe I’m being too forgiving.

The Champions League

Is an annual obsession to get into, but for all our seventeen years of experience, on nights like last night you can’t help but wonder what we’ve learned. We couldn’t cope with the pace and power and tenacity of a team like Dortmund, and it’s not the first time. I suspect it won’t be the last. It’s a competition we fight tooth and nail to get into, but on last night’s showing, seem remarkably incapable of properly competing in once there.

Le Boss

Dissatisfaction with Wenger is never far from the surface, is it? The FA Cup seems a distant memory at times. I can’t see this latent anxiety about him ever going away until we cut these kinds of performances out. His almost-but-not-quite transfer strategy has also had its usual effect.

Dortmund

Were absolutely fantastic. This is a team that competes at the top of European competition – it was in the final in 2013 – and is consistently up there. They’re canny and powerful and as a unit, incredibly effective. We didn’t help ourselves but we had no answer to a performance like that.

Alexis marks the spot

Arsenal 2-2 Manchester City

It was one of those games where disappointment at the final whistle pretty quickly morphed into satisfaction. It was our best performance of the season so far – though it wasn’t quite enough to see off the champions.

It was all about Welbeck before the match (no, I’m not shortening his name and adding a zed, before you ask, and nor shall I be referring to him as ‘that chap’). His name got the loudest roar as the line-ups were read out. I think he had a decent debut, though he faded a bit in the second half. He wasn’t the only one to be fair.

It would have been an even better debut had his chipped effort, which lofted over the Head and Shoulders of Hart, hadn’t bounced back off the post. Should he have hit the target there? Harsh – he had the goalie thundering out at him and in the circumstances he did the right thing.

Our weakness was down the left, with Monreal playing fast and loose with the notion of left back. We got away with it once when City counter-attacked down that side, but not a second time: Nigel Flamini was involved at the start and finish of the move.

Step in Jack Wilshere, who played as well as I’ve seen him play in a year or two. He and Sanchez were absolutely superb all game. Jack was always looking to go forward and seems to have found that extra yard of pace that was missing at times last season. He was such a menace City upended him on plenty of occasions (something they did systematically when Arsenal broke or approached the area). Pellegrini had steam coming out his ears at the end of the game, moaning about fouls in the run-up to both our goals. All the while handily ignoring his own side’s methods to break up play. City are very streetwise, and if that’s what we’re becoming, then amen to that. About time too.

Wilshere’s goal was a joy, a blur of pass and move and a bounce of pace to make Clichy look like a fool. Which is always nice.

Sanchez was immense too, his energy often putting his teammates to shame. Where does he get that drive from? Bottle it and sell it and you’d be a millionaire. We’ve got a lot of attacking talent at the club, and he’s fast becoming the one you simply can’t drop. Low centre of gravity, incredibly skill in tight spaces, an eye for goal and amazing tenacity. And what a strike.

Booked for taking your shirt off. I’ve always disliked that rule, when people tug and nick at people and feign injury and dive without so much as a by-your-leave from the ref. Pah.

Downsides? I thought Ozil was a passenger until quite late on when he found a burst of energy. His body language, always hard to decipher at the best, spoke of frustration. That translated to the stands. He didn’t look that fit. Ramsey too looked less dynamic than usual.

At the back, we let our fourth headed goal of the season in (topping the table in that regard), and Wenger was happy enough to concede that we need a bit of work in that area. We were defensively suspect for both goals.

Then there’s Debuchy, who went down in agony, thumping the turf. “You wouldn’t go down like that if it wasn’t bad” suggested Shedman. “Giroud does it all the time”, said my brother. Nothing’s broken, but it’s a bad sprain and we’re now down to the bare bones at the back.

In fact his injury came at a very bad time. I thought we lost concentration during the time he was treated and a bit of momentum, and City’s equaliser felt like it was coming before it did. Frustrating.

In the end, we could have lost it with City hitting both posts, so we can’t be too upset. One win and three draws, six points from twelve. I wouldn’t read too much into any of that. The main thing is that we’ve picked up some form and wobbly defence aside, we’ve got some incredible attacking depth. We’ll need to fit Walcott back in at some point.

Nice problem to have.

Giroud and Ozil show their class as Arsenal head to Wembley

Arsenal 4-1 Everton

And so to our first FA Cup semi-final in five years. Ah yes, Wembley. The stroll up Wembley Way, my Kenny Sansom flat cap, a mixtape by FeverPitch, Alan Sunderland’s megaperm (I swear I do not believe that), Charlie George lying prostrate, Charlie Nicholas’s mullet, Andy Linighan’s bloody-headed header, Overmars bursting through.

(I prefer those memories to Trevor Brooking, Gazza, Winterburn missing a penalty against Luton, overpriced inedible food and a spectacular defensive howler that led to anger and mental scarring in 2011, if that’s alright with you).

I know, I know, it’s not the final – I’d prefer the semi-final to be at a neutral club ground like it always was – but the powers that be need to pay back the mortgage so Wembley it is. Wemberleeeeee.

Let’s be dramatic about it: beating Everton was huge. After the Stoke no-show, it was massive. We’re off the pace in the league, we’ve got to climb Mount Bayern without crampons, so yesterday was so important in so many ways. We’re one game from our first cup final since 2005, for a start. That’s good enough for me, but an excellent win is the kind of confidence boost we needed too. Lose that and the rest of the season would have stared us in the face, gurning. So make no bones about it – that was a big result.

I can say this now we’ve won, but it was an excellent cup tie. My brother said as the game started that he hoped Sanogo would score, as he needed a goal to give him belief. But when the goal did come – nice and early, keep it up Arsenal – it went to another player who needed one arguably even more. Questioned by many, a little off-colour, booed on international week, Ozil popped up and with one deft left foot kicked off an excellent performance that culminated in a delicious assist for Giroud’s second. An excellent performance in the spring sunshine (it’s amazing what a few gamma rays can do).

Sanogo had a shot, The Ox another, and we should really have capitalised on our lead, but the first half ended with Everton playing well and they got a tap in that set up a tense second half. As I say, a good game.

The game swerved our way with the penalty. The Ox again, this time running forcefully on the edge of the box right in front of where we sit (he must know this, he perhaps notices us, I like to think he does), was felled by the outstretched leg of Barry Gareth. Penno every day.

Here come the Arteta – he’s the lyrical gangster – and boom, cool as you like he scores. Except he doesn’t because of some perceived infringement by Giroud. What’s that all about? Annoying, because I’d already cheered heartily, pumped my fist at several innocent people and raised my son skywards. Up he comes again though, same coolness, different direction, goal.

Then the denoument, two goals from the excellent Giroud thanks to more good work from Ozil and the energy of Rosicky. It is perhaps an unfair comparison, but seeing Giroud next to Sanogo makes you appreciate the stuff he does that Sanogo cannot yet do. He finds space, holds and distributes the ball, and is deceptively quick-footed. For me, a fit and firing Giroud is key to any kind of momentum for us between now and May. When he’s good, he’s very good (18 goals this season is not too bad at all). Sanogo is willing but not ready. As for Bendtner – I have no idea where he’s got to.

So a great win and a needed shot in the arm. Now for Munich…

As an aside, I took my 5-year-old to his first game yesterday and not surprisingly, he loved it (despite a few wriggles of boredom in the first half). He may be too young to remember it in years to come but I now have the photograhic evidence to prove it… One thing that did make me laugh though is something he whispered in my ear during the ding-dong second half. “Daddy, is it true dodos are extinct?” Kids are so wonderfully random and hard to fathom.

A bit like Arsenal then. But it all came together yesterday and you could see what it meant to fans and players alike.

Triple whammy leaves Arsenal on the ropes

Arsenal v Bayern mosaic
Image courtesy of Arsenal Tickets

Arsenal 0-2 Bayern Munich

Another year, another mountain to climb. This time, it’s all about the frustrating ‘what ifs’. Things could and should have been so different but a missed penalty, an injury to Gibbs and a red card for Szczesny meant we were up against it with limited scope to do much about it.

Instead, in the end, being down to ten men made the whole second half something of a turkey shoot, with Bayern registering more possession than Borley Rectory. They are a phenomenal side to face with eleven men. With ten men – forget it. It’s sad as the red card ruined a fabulous end-to-end game. It stopped it dead as a proper contest. Red cards often do.

Was it a red? The trouble is, clear goal-scoring opportunity or not, it was an easy one for refs to give and this one didn’t think twice. I’m not armed with the stats but I suspect those ones are given more often than they are not. That said, it’s debatable whether Robben had any real chance of scoring.

Before that we had made a fantastic, bright start and seriously rattled the Bavarians. Ozil should have put us a goal up from the spot but fluffed his lines. How we needed that. In hindsight, how he needed that too as he faded badly as the game wore on. He’s not a man who gives much away so it’s hard to know what’s going through Ozil’s mind at the moment, but he doesn’t seem the happiest of sorts right now. Unfortunately, when you come with a £42.5m price tag you are observed and judged more frequently, and the pressure is always on. I think he needs, at the very least, a break – a few games away from the spotlight – but Wenger seems very reluctant to countenance that.

Other things conspired against us. Gibbs, playing so well, went off injured and was replaced by Monreal, who struggled. Fabianski came on for Szczesny. So we’d made two subs before half-time, leaving us with no room for manoeuvre at all.

Sanogo, the surprise starter ahead of Giroud (there’s a whole other sub-plot there I can’t be bothered to get into) did well enough for a while but struggled thereafter. Hardly surprising once we were down to ten men, but it was a big gamble on such a big night. I imagine he’d have come off had we not already made two subs (Podolski remained marooned on the bench – there’s another subplot, if you’re after more).

So here we are again, staring down the barrel of a last 16 exit for the fourth year running. I know we won at the Allianz last year but don’t bet on Bayern switching off like they did then.

It’s a funny competition, this. We bust a gut to get into it (valuing it over a real trophy), get through to the knockouts then come unstuck time and again when we meet the behemoths of Germany, Italy and Spain.

That’s why last night was so frustrating. That 0-2 should have been 1-0 and that, with eleven men, would have given the night a different complexion entirely.

One last, positive thing – the red and white display was amazing. Hats off to Red Action.

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.

Stanchion and Ollie

Arsenal 1-1 Everton

It’s always a bit frustrating to score late but concede even later (we used to be quite adept at that – it was an unwelcome feather in our former defensive hat), especially when it feels like something we’ve not done an awful lot of lately. But as fair points go, I’d say this was one, with Everton far the better team in the first half.

I’m not sure we ever quite got going, at least not until about the 39th minute, though again that might be because Everton came right at us from the off. There might not have been a lot of goalmouth danger but there were wayward passes and we were being hustled off the ball a lot. Howard made a decent save from Giroud, there was some leniency from the ref (I won’t name names, but one culprit is not a million miles from being called Barry Gareth), while at our end there were a few moments, though Szczesny didn’t get his gloves overly dirty. Everton though were very fast and direct, shut us down very fast and didn’t let us get into our groove at all.

We woke up in the second half and you have to say it was a right ding-dong, to use the technical term. Flamini flashed one wide, Ramsey’s half-volley was pushed away, Szczesny leapt to his left like a salmon. Howard started dawdling in slow-motion, which earned him a yellow card and was an indication that Everton’s high tempo had slowed while ours had edged a notch up. In the end, Wenger’s triple substitution (you old devil Arsene!) had an effect with Rosicky passing to aerial lynchpin Theo Walcott who zapped it across the goal to Ozil via Giroud.

Ok, so the lead didn’t last, but Gerard “Gerry” Deulofeu’s shot was such a pacemaker it almost ferried across the Mersey.*

And then there was the tireless Giroud who took the ball down about 35 yards out and clonked it like a mallet. The goalposts would’ve broken had they not been supported by the stanchion but it wasn’t to be. And 1-1 it remained.

We’ve played better, and Wenger was right to bring Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla off when he did. But we played well enough in the second half against an opposition with a great defensive record and its tail up. No qualms from me, really. (Possession was 44% – 56% – people with better brains and access to large volumes of data will be able to read more into that but it feels a bit lopsided for a home game).

Tired legs and minds now need fixing for parts two and three of our testing week. There really is no rest but you know what, we’re five points clear at the top. It’s a hell of a place to be.

*I’m so sorry. It’s a Sunday night, I’m tired.

Where there’s a Wilshere, there’s a way

Arsenal 4-1 Norwich

I don’t wish to get all meta about things, but do you ever wonder why you like football? The comfort of routine, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging, the escapism, the commitment and the competition? Well, yes, it’s all of those things.

But sometimes the pleasure you take in football can be summed up in one pint-sized package of play, lasting perhaps no more than ten seconds. It doesn’t have to be a moment of real consequence, such as the one that ended with Thomas squirming in the turf in 1989 or Adams barrelling through to score from a Bould assist in 1998. It can just as easily be a split second of pure skill and nerve, like Bergkamp spinning on a sixpence to score at Newcastle in 2002.

We all remember those moments, the ones that take your breath away and make strange parts of you tingle whenever you think of them. Because they are so out of the ordinary, so rare in the grand scheme of things, they give you a warm fug that’s sometimes hard to explain and – I suspect you know where I’m going with this – I got it when I saw Wilshere’s goal yesterday. And when I thought of it just now. And when I think about it tomorrow, it’ll happen then too.

It was just so preposterously good. To pull a move like that off, one between that many players, requires confidence, skill, but above all luck – those touches are so deft, the smallest error or the most infinite of hesitations would have brought the move to a crashing halt. Everything worked, from everyone. Gibbs, Cazorla, a flurry of outrageous touches between Giroud and Wilshere then a one-touch finish. That’s football, for me. That’s why I love it. It was worth the £35 on its own.

Other moments of great skill yesterday will justly feel left out of my paean. Ramsey’s this-way-and-that jink and finish, his cutback for the fourth, Giroud’s laser-guided cross onto the Ozil bonce for the second – all magnificent. Just not quite as magnificent as that first.

Soak it all up, because this is good stuff. The irony has not been lost on me that in a season where Arsenal have made the best start in ages, and are playing their best football in ages, my own attendance is showing relegation form. I’ve been away, or otherwise engaged, for four of the six home games this season – very much a case of #eastlowerout.

I intend to start putting this lamentable form right, beginning on Tuesday against Dortmund.

In the meantime, I might just watch those goals again.

And again.

And again.

The year of the Ram

Sunderland 1-3 Arsenal

Every now and then I do that thing where I wonder what some of our home-grown players would fetch on the open market. Jack Wilshere, of course, form and injury notwithstanding, would command a pretty fee – a most handsome fee. But what about Aaron Ramsey? In just this last year his form has gone bananas, taking him from a squad player to a first choice teamsheeter. From being a victim of grumbles, he has emerged into the sunny uplands of the best form of his career. “What he has achieved is fantastic”, said Wenger. Damn right it is. We all saw that injury. My own leg goes wobbly even now, just thinking about it, so imagine how hard it has been for him to recover from that, both physically and mentally. To force yourself into a team, and then to make it stick.

This is what Wenger means, I suspect, about building your team rather than buying it ready-made. When you get someone who so utterly turns his fortunes around, it’s hard not to have a massive grin on your face. It says it all that on Ozil’s debut, it was all about Ramsey. His first goal was volleyed so hard the keeper couldn’t even drop a foot to block it. And his second was coolly slotted home after some ping-ping passing of the highest order.

Ozil, what about him? Top class despite having spent the day on the can (if it’s ok with you I’d rather not analyse this too much). Setting up Giroud’s goal and feeding Walcott the tastiest morsels. And that was just his debut. We’ve all read a lot about him, watched all the presentation videos, seen the fallout of his departure, so it was just a joy to get that first game done.

And so to Theo, a classic confidence player whose form is not quite that of his Welsh midfield mucker. Wide players – wingers, call them what you will – are the kinds of players who can drift in and out of games, due in part to their geographical location. Walcott was not peripheral yesterday, it’s just that he missed the chances he was presented with. I suspect he can’t wait for that first goal to come. Easy to forget though that he was our top scorer last season. It’ll come. As for his chances, the first one was the best. The header was a header, and he’s no Smudger Smith.

We got a bit of luck, for sure, and we seem to have developed an addiction to conceding penalties, which is not so amusing. But these are iron-outable things, I think. Maybe at the tail end of last season we veered too far into solid defensive territory at the expense of rip-snorting football, and this year we’ve veered too far the other way (these are eye-opening technical observations, I’m sure you’ll concur), and we need to get the balance right. Or maybe we just need Per back.

And Giroud? He says he’s ok. “He is the player at the moment that would be very difficult for us [to replace]” said Wenger. I am tempted to drop a sarcastic comment at this stage, maybe adding a throw-away soundbite about Bendtner, but given we find ourselves in a happy place, and in some good form, I might just button the old lip.

Onwards to France. Vive le genou de Giroud.

Arsenal smash record for midfield mesutro

Howzat!

In a summer that was meant to be a sea change, we almost didn’t even get the bloody doors open, let alone blow them off. In the end though, Arsenal’s whole transfer record went up in smoke with the signing of Mesut Özil for a staggering £42.5m.

That’s Mesut Ozil, formerly of Real Madrid, mainstay of Germany, a truly world-class talent, and let’s go a bit overboard about this because a) it’s the biggest statement since Bergkamp – with a nod to Sol Campbell – and b) it finally proves that we can now operate in football’s rarefied upper atmosphere.

It’s our biggest transfer by about £27.5m, Britain’s second biggest and – I read somewhere, correct me if I am wrong – the biggest fee a German footballer has ever gone for.

Hello transfer market – Arsenal are back.

Above all we have bought a true talent, a man who can unlock defences, provide killer passes, but also score goals, and his purchase gives our midfield some serious options. Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla, Ramsey, Flamini, Ozil, Walcott, Rosicky. Exciting.

But his signing represents other things too. Ambition – other teams and players may take note. Breathing time for Wenger, who’s going to ride this crest for a while. And a superstar on the books, which will have untold effects on our fabled ability to make money. Fans get giddy at this – I know I have, hell, I am even considering buying a shirt for the first time since 2006 – and the merchandise will fly off the shelves.

It means that our 60,012 attendances may actually get close to being 60,012. He’s a massive draw.

And it gives our players a boost – Wilshere is “absolutely buzzing“, Podolski is giving it the digital thumbs-up. It’s a shot in the arm for them, too.

This is what Real fans thought of his impending departure.

I can’t wait to see him play.

Also incoming is Almunia doppelganger Emiliano Viviano, whose misfortune it was to sign on the same day as Ozil, and who is very much a backup for Szczesny and Fabianski.

We needed a striker, but left it too late. That’s a big regret for me, and will probably need to be addressed in January. Fingers crossed for Giroud’s fitness (we’ve been here before, relying on one striker’s fitness…)

But overall, it’s all about the Ozil.

I’m excited. Can you tell?