Arsenal doldrums: Still not enough wind in the sails

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal

Another league game, another defeat. It’s hard to be positive when Arsenal’s season lurches from one reverse to another with such predictable regularity. We sit 15th, which is pretty much where we deserve to be, so post-match yesterday Wenger ruled out challenging for the title. It’s October 3rd.

To be fair, he’d sound like Comical Ali if he said anything otherwise, given that far from sniffing a tilt at the top, we are two points off the relegation zone. The only thing we are currently sniffing is the whiff of stagnation.

The overbearing feeling for me is that, while we played tidily enough in patches – bossed the midfield at times – and had plenty of possession, too much of it was without consequence and despite one or two decent chances, we never did enough to stretch Spurs’ defence for long periods. Our lack of incision, coupled (in the latter stages) with poor passing and chaotic defending, made things relatively easy in the end for Spurs, who could have scored more had it not been for the heroics of Wojciech Szczesny. Or put succinctly: We were not bad, but we were not good. We were decidedly average. At the moment we are decidedly average.

That our hosts have the upper hand on us, after a decade in the shadows, is hard enough to take (three wins in four derby games for them, now), but it would be easier to digest if against everyone else we were chugging along nicely. Instead we are stuck in win-a-few, lose-a-few limbo, against anyone and everyone, and have been since February.

A text from a Spurs-supporting friend of mine, who is not noted for his optimism, simply said “What on earth has happened to you?”

I wish I knew the answer.

I have never thought it’s down to the paucity of personnel. Taken individually, we still have fine footballers and a raft of excellent young ones coming in. Coquelin did well, Szczesny did well. Of course, we have some key injuries in the spine of the side (to which we can add Bacary Sagna, a bitter blow indeed).

This Arsenal side is a work in progress but right now we are not playing enough as a team, not playing for long enough with the right concentration, or always with enough drive, not doing some of the basics right.

Fix that and Wenger is a genius. But does he have any magic left in his magic hat?

Cham’s shimmy seals big three points

Arsenal 2-1 Birmingham City

It is undeniable that after two league defeats, and with a trip to Middle Eastlands looming, a win against Birmingham was not only much needed but also a blessed relief. We did, however, make heavy weather of a game we should have won more easily. We should never have been scrabbling to hold onto the three points in the last few minutes, but scrabbling we were.

Wilshere was the creative fulcrum throughout the game, ruining an otherwise excellent performance with a rash challenge and a red card. He was very contrite but he now needs to learn from it. It wasn’t ‘unfortunate’ or ‘one of those things’ – it was a bad challenge.

To lose such a player for three games is a big blow – which just goes to show how crucial he is becoming. That he is arguably our player of the season so far tells you a lot about his remarkable talent, and also a fair bit about the bitty stop-start way many Arsenal players have begun this campaign.

But what of the performance? MOTD highlights made it look a lot more incisive than it felt from where I was sitting. Faced by a resolute defence, we once again struggled a bit.

You may have noticed they’ve changed the pre-match build-up routine at the Arsenal, restoring Fatboy Slim’s Right Here Right Now to prominence as the song the teams walk out to, and demoting Elvis’ The Wonder of You down the billing. Part of this lengthened countdown to kick-off now includes a montage of famous Arsenal goals – including some of the incisive, direct rapier strikes that were the hallmark of the Henry and Pires era.

Then the match starts and you are quickly reminded how much the style of this side differs to the one of its Invincible predecessors.

The Arsenal of those years was noted for its lightning breaks and defence-splitting passes, more often than not tucked away by the admittedly untouchable Thierry Henry. We were direct, we were fast, we went for the jugular.

We can of course still score goals like that, but I do feel the Arsenal of 2010 seems, at times, to have lost that art. Yesterday was a fine example. Some fabulous build-up play, more often than not orchestrated by the sublime skills of Jack Wilshere, foundered time and again on the rocks of indecision on the edge of the D.

D, incidentally, is for Diaby – a player particularly prone to another word beginning with D – dallying. So much of what he does, outmuscling and outrunning his man and one-twoing hither and thither, is genuinely excellent. And he was at times very good yesterday. When he does go for goal, he can score a belter – remember the ones he scored at Anfield, and Villa Park? So why doesn’t he do it more often?

Maybe I’m being too simplistic. Teams often come to the Emirates with caution, aiming to hit us on the break, knowing that more often than not we will concede. So splitting teams in half is perhaps harder said than done and lord knows, we do not have a player with the speed, strength and skill of Thierry Henry in his pomp.

Nevertheless, the amount of times we get to the edge of the box but look to make that extra pass, or look up and take an extra touch – well, suffice to say we do this too often. Camping outside the opponents’ box will only yield rewards so many times.

That it did yesterday was down to a soft penalty and a wonderful piece of ping-pong between Wilshere and Chamakh.

Maybe this is why, at least in part, we get so excited about Walcott. He’s the most direct player we have, a genuine wing flier, and by running at a defence he can cause terror against tiring opponents.

Nevertheless, stylistic frustrations aside, it was a good win, hopefully a springboard win, and if you look at the table this evening you will see that, despite having won only 50% of our matches this season, we are third in the table, only five points off the pace. Tablistically, a good day.

It’s Fab to be back

Arsenal 4-1 Bolton

Good weather, good mates, good football. A fine cocktail that makes for a very pleasant Saturday afternoon indeed.

Bolton going down to ten men might have made things ultimately a bit easier, but I don’t think 4-1 flattered us at all. Poor old Arshavin for one must be wondering how he ended up without a goal to his name, but he wasn’t the only one who was one-on-one and missed – Chamakh got in on the act too. Yes, there was only one goal in it until the sending off but offensively, Arsenal bristled with creativity all afternoon.

All this too without three important attacking players. As I briefly mentioned yesterday, it bodes well that all it takes to compensate for the lack of van Persie, Walcott and Bendtner is a little shuffling of the pack. Rosicky, Wilshere, Fabregas, Song and Arshavin supporting Chamakh is a tidy unit indeed – and still left us Denilson, Diaby, Nasri and Jollygood on the bench.

Picking a stand-out player from that front six is not easy but it would have to be between the inimitable Fabregas and, for his second half performance, Alex Song. For his sheer vision and range of passing, Fabregas would get it though – wherever his head or body was away to Blackburn, they were back here and he was in flying form yesterday. He split the Bolton defence two or three times with ease; it was sublime.

That said, the best pass of the day came from Rosicky, who carved an Arshavin-sized hole in the Bolton back line early in the game. Shame Arshavin couldn’t convert it.

The goal that was and inevitably will be talked about was Jollygood’s – he ran onto another Fabregas splitter and side-footed home a lovely fourth. It was preceded by 26 ole-assisted passes. Gorgeous.

But perhaps Song’s goal was better. Not only was it the 1,000th league goal under Wenger, but the dinked finish was a mixture of persistence and delicacy. He was fabulous in the second half.

There was a niggly edge to the game at times, often encapsulated by the brute force of Davies, but I wouldn’t say it was a dirty game overall. Nevertheless, ref Atwell dished out a red and four yellows (slightly down on his season’s average) and we await the news on Diaby – “It is ankle or shin – he cannot move his leg at the moment so we will see” said Wenger. Amazingly, the tackle on him was not even a yellow. We can but hope that Diaby is not out for a Diaby.

Defensively, I’ll buck the consensus of some by saying we did pretty well. OK, so Koscielny (otherwise commanding) made a bad mistake for the Bolton goal, but given that Wenger had made three changes at the back, and one of them was making his debut, I thought we were pretty solid. Squillaci made a promising debut.

It’s not a scientific observation, but from where I was sitting, I was generally, the error aside, impressed with Koscielny’s heading. He was popping up all over the place and nodding it away.

Overall, with 10 points from 12 it has been an excellent start to the season. Next stop, Champions League.

Right, I’m cutting this ramble short and heading off on a bacon hunt.

Enjoy your Sunday.