Just the seven goals then

Arsenal 4-3 Leicester

Do I have the strength to dust myself down and go at it for another year, with diminishing returns, or shall I just pack it all in? I ask myself this question every summer.

But enough about this blog, because the season’s started, and it started with a bang, a crash, several more bangs and a cavalcade of comedy defending. Wotcha Arsenal!

If you were the kind of person who’s prone to pass judgement on our chances after a game, you’d suspect that having drunk another potion of neat Arsenal from the cup of pure Arsenal, we’ll spend the season hallucinating undistilled Arsenalness all the way through till April. Then we’ll come round, wondering why we’re 6th, and stagger off on a run of solid form before resting once again for the summer.

But honestly, it’s a wee bit too early for that. We had just one real central defender available (there are a further four, if you include the unloved Calum Chambers, waiting in the wings) and we duly defended as if we’d erased defending from our minds over the summer months. I forget my work password after a week off – so I can understand how easy it might be for the concept of marking set pieces to disappear in a puff of smoke after eight weeks on sunloungers. Maybe they should just write it down?

It was a day to remember for Lacazette, who showed a real instinct for goal and looks like he’ll fit in well. Eat that Dennis Bergkamp, with your seven fallow games with no goals! (No, I’m not sure where I’m going with this either).

Aside from that, it was a reminder from two oft-derided players of their value. Ramsey got us level with a lovely finish, and Giroud powered a honker of a header over the line for the winner. Yes, he’s a bit slow, and no, he doesn’t always fit in when you want to play at pace and on the break, but how the hell do you replace a contribution like that? Who else scores those kinds of goals for us? It would be nuts to jettison Giroud, frankly, and I hope when Wenger says Giroud’s happy and wants to stay that that’s the end of it. Because in Giroud, Walcott, Welbeck, Lacazette and Alexis* there are a lot of goals and there’s a lot of variety. There’s room for a break and there’s room to chop and change.

*INSERTS GIANT IF-ALEXIS-IS-STAYING CAVEAT

So although we promised to screw things up on day one, we kept ourselves intact for some stern incoming tests. Job done.

August is a strange month, because when the season begins there’s still three weeks of transfers to go. I know we all like to have everything nailed down and ready to go, but that’s never going to happen.

The way things are, with the amount of money still left unspent and some big transfers brewing in Europe that could foment things further, I’d be amazed if our squad doesn’t change some more by 1st September.

In the meantime, we just need to battle through the jittery early stages. And learn to defend a bit – that would be nice.

It’s good to be back. Good summer, everyone?

I just don’t think you understand

Wembley Stadium

Wembley Stadium

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

What a day, what a performance, and if anyone over the last few years has ever said to you: ‘Think how good Arsenal could be if they played to their full potential’, simply point them to Wembley Stadium, 27th May 2017.

No shrinking in the face of the big challenge here. In the white heat of a cup final against the champions, a match few expected us to win (not least me), we pulled our best performance of the entire season out of Arsene Wenger’s moth-eaten magic hat. He clearly said, “I’m having that”, and have that he did.

Our motley back line held firm for all but one moment. Our midfield was in control and high-energy, and going forward our pace caused considerable problems.

I’m not going to run through the whole team, because to a man they were magnificent, from the evergreen Mertesacker (an inspiration on and off the pitch) through to the fizzing dynamism of Ramsey and beyond to the irrepressible Alexis.

What got me out of my seat was the way we broke with such menace. For too long (and too often) we’ve watched as Arsenal ping it upfield then get bogged down. But on Saturday, with extraordinary regularity, we went for the jugular with our directness and pace. It was genuinely exciting football, and a reminder of the sheer excitement it can bring when all the elements come together. It hasn’t been like that enough this season. But – ah yes – that’s how it can be.

It was a final that just had it all, to be honest. A hot May day, two big teams contesting it, a bit of controversy right at the beginning, a hatful of chances and a winning goal only several minutes after the equaliser. An embattled manager proving a point against a manager whose stock couldn’t be higher.

And then there was the build-up, with that special tingly pre-cup-final atmosphere that is palpable but hard to explain. Nerves, excitement, anxiety. Fans and friends from far and wide.

It baffles me that some seem so willing to denigrate the FA Cup – the most important domestic cup competition – while simultaneously complaining about clubs celebrating getting into the top four as if it was a trophy.

Let me clear this up. The FA Cup is a trophy; getting into the Champions League is not. I would rather have an FA Cup win over getting a place in the Champions League any day of the week, frankly, and not just because we’re very good at one and very bad at the other.

Anyone who was at Wembley, and all those watching in pubs or at home with friends – feeling the highs and the lows, the swings and the roundabouts, the tantalising prospect of elation and of real success – will surely agree.

And finally to Wenger, the seven-times-FA-Cup-winning elephant in the room. All but the most curmudgeonly will grant Wenger the respect and gratitude he deserves for an unparalleled achievement. The team rose to the occasion and showed us what it can do. He got it right.

I’m well aware this muddies the water for some, myself included. But I suspect it has calcified the thinking of the man who pulls the strings, Stan Kroenke, and for all the recent obfuscation and whiff of power struggle, for all the deflection and uncertainty, I’d still be surprised if Wenger wasn’t here next season.

Well played Arsenal. You have made me happy.

*goes off to watch highlights again*

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.

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.

The sweet foot of Aaron Ramsey sends Arsenal into dreamland

Arsenal v Hull

Arsenal v Hull


Arsenal 3-2 Hull City

It started, as all good things do, with some peri-peri chicken.

Our little gang of five merry cup warriors met at lunch, seven tortuously long hours after I woke up. Fed, we then sidled off to a house of refreshment to soak up the atmosphere, and proceeded to hoover up a few looseners. There was a fantastic atmosphere where we were – West Hampstead – with flags draped over pubs, fans of both sides mingling, an open-top busload of vocal gooners rattling past.

It’s hard to explain cup final day to someone who hasn’t been to one, but it feels so different to your average game. A mixture of nerves, excitement, anticipation. Good spirits, and in this case, very warm spring air. The kind of atmosphere that makes memories.

Up Wembley Way and into the ground we went, lapping it up. Then we mostly went our separate ways – victims of the vagaries of cup final ticket lotteries.

Wembley Way

Band of the Welsh Guards – tick. Abide with Me – tick (though unlike previous years the lyrics weren’t on the big screens, which was a shame and meant that the massed ranks of fans mumbled along like John Redwood, only breaking into song when the hymn reached its eponymous end). National anthem – tick. Nerves utterly shredded – tick-a-rama with a hey nonny nonny.

Viewers of a nervous disposition might now wish to avert their eyes for the next paragraph.

Kick-off and, hello! We appear to be a goal down, a bit unlucky perhaps, so that’s alright, keep calm now (even though we’ve not really started yet), we’ll get a grip on thin…Whoa! That’ll be two goals, some wobbly defending, and oh no, that was Curtis Davies. That’s not remotely good. There’s a frothing conurbation of gold and black bobbing up and down, rubbing their eyes and not quite believing what they’re seeing. The same shock was being felt at our end of the ground too, only with a touch less bobbing and a distinct absence of froth.

It’s nearly three! Hold me tight, but there’s Kieran Gibbs to nod it off the line. It transpires we’re not good at starting early on Saturday, and nor do we steam off like a train late on Saturdays either. Finely tuned to Three O’Clock, that’s what it is.

Fair play to Hull, they were hurting us from set pieces and in the air, and we’d not really been in the game. We were massively on the back foot and we needed a moment of magic.

It came, by Jupiter, it came. Cazorla’s free kick wafted handsomely into the top-right of the goal. It was a hell of a goal – a goal fit for the occasion and what a time it was for Cazorla to pull a rabbit out of his hat. We needed that, desperately.

The rest of the half at last seemed more evenly matched, it felt like we’d steadied the ship at last, and there was still a long time to go. The goals were all so early, there was no room for too much sniping, though I did complain a bit about Giroud’s ever-flailing arms of despair.

The pendulum was swinging, and the introduction of Sanogo, all legs and no goals, made a real difference. He’s still like a giant puppy but he’s definitely got something about him, and we needed that energy badly. There were several good penalty shouts – Cazorla’s was clear from where I was – but I can’t remember the rest, to be honest. Nervous memory blurs abound.

Then up popped Koscielny, scorer of important goals, to swivel in the equaliser. Pandemonium. Muchos hugging and slapping other chaps on the back, while baring teeth, fists pumping like a failing two-cylinder engine, swearing like a fishwife. I was sitting next to my 15-year-old godson and I’m sure on several occasions he peered over at me and wondered if his mum and dad hadn’t made a desperately bad decision all those years ago.

Gibbs then Rosenthaled one over, it went to extra time, and we finally played our trump card by bringing both Wilshere and Rosicky on. We were in control now, both having a big effect on our movement and energy.

The next paragraph is about Welsh Jesus.

Giroud – and it’s getting late in the day now – saves his best till the end with a glorious backheel. It’s happening in a flash but Ramsey just thwonks it with the outside of his right boot and wheels off in glorious delight, tailed by someone who used to be Gibbs but who now appears to be a madman, no doubt thinking “you’ve saved my bacon”. Again, absolute pandemonium everywhere.

If Alan Sunderland and his megaperm is synonymous with 1979, then Aaron Ramsey is the man of 2014. Sorry, Santi, but he just is. He scored a goal of wonderful quality, at the most crucial time, and it won the cup for Arsenal.

Naturally, we’re talking about Arsenal here and we almost conspired to Arsenal it up, Mertesacker tripping, Fabianski coming out and not quite getting there and Hull flashing a shot wide. Gibbs was back in a flash, still no doubt thinking about his miss, but still.

And that was that – the cup was ours, and you can see what it meant to the players, to Wenger, to us. Of course I feel sorry for Hull – they played their part in a memorable final (I can say that now – wasn’t thinking it for large tracts of the match yesterday) and losing is never fun. They rattled us and they took us all the way. Their fans were great.

But we made it, we won. As I write this I’ve got the game replaying on the telly, my kids are waving two of the flags that were on the seats at the ground. This is what it’s all about.

We did it the hard way, but we’re back on the silver trail and how everyone needed that.

Remember this feeling. This is what football is all about.

We’ve won the FA Cup.

Sir Chez knighted at the Palace

Crystal Palace 0-2 Arsenal

Two points clear at the top of the league going into November – nice, isn’t it? This time last year, and the year before that, we were seventh after ten games so to be top after nine this time round really has blown the cobwebs off. We’re also seven points better off at this stage than we were last year – another thing to write home about. (“Dear Mum, I feel compelled to write to you about Arsenal’s seven point upswing. Hope you’re well, much love, Jim.”)

I say this of course because we’ve all known for some time that November brings sterner autumnal tests gusting in from the north and west. The last thing we needed ahead of that kind of storm front was to get our chimney knocked off by gentler breezes in the south.

As it happens, managerless Palace were far from a breeze and it took a performance of some determination from us to take the points. It wasn’t pretty and we weren’t at our best, which is why the man of the match award went not to one of our midfield creators but to Wojciech ‘The Woj’ Szczesny for a superb double save just at the point where, at 1-0 up, we were wobbling.

He was excellent – as were, in the second half in particular, Sagna and Ramsey. Perhaps I ought to add Giroud to that list, who ran himself into the ground. He looked utterly destroyed at the end of the game, which is both heartening and faintly terrifying in equal measures.

As for Arteta, it was perhaps foolish to get that close to Chamakh but a red for that? He was on the right-hand side of the pitch and 45 yards from goal. Defenders were not a million miles away. Very harsh.

In midweek we have a date with Chelsea in the Rumbelows, and it’s very hard to know what approach to take in that, especially with Liverpool looming on the weekend. In the absence of our legion of crocks (Walcott’s three weeks out has turned into another infamously un-three-week absence), some of our players need a breather. Ozil looks like he does, Giroud too, Wilshere is not 100%, Flamini and Arteta are both out. Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain are still nowhere to be seen.

This might be the least coveted pot of the four, but the importance of maintaining form and confidence – the easiest things to lose and the hardest to regain – should not be underestimated. Wenger has some tough decisions to make on that front. Can we throw Frimpong into the mix? Is he even fit? How about Monreal at left-back and Gibbs on the left of midfield? Why am I not a football manager?*

*Rhetorical question

On midweek, Wenger said:

I will rotate against Chelsea, yes, but play with a team as well who has a good chance to qualify, that will be the target.

So basically, your guess is as good as mine.

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.

Early doors

Swansea City 1-2 Arsenal

A while back – and for a long period, to be fair – this whole blogging lark was often less fun than it ought to have been because Arsenal kept repeating the same mistakes. There was practically a template you could dust down for a certain kind of Arsenal result. You know, letting the first goal in, fannying around too much, leaving things late, general sluggishness. It’d happen once, then there’d be a gap, then it’d happen again. Back and forth it went. Everyone got a bit cross. They’d get happy for a bit and then they’d get cross again.

Well, the groundhog blogging’s on the other foot now, as it were (cough). All these blasted away wins – so predictable. Same thing every week. Where’s the glorious inconsistency we grew to love and cherish?*

*There really is no need to answer this.

Seriously though, there’s nothing better than riding the wave, is there? That even without a cavalcade of unavailable players, we’ve still got enough in the tank to up our game when needed and grind out a win. When things are going badly, you can wheel out a rookie like Gnabry and he’ll look, you know, like a rookie. But when things are going well, there’s enough confidence about the place for it to work.

And what goals they were, on Saturday. If I had to describe Ramsey’s for a radio audience, I’d probably go for something like tackle-ping-ping-ping-ping-pause-BOOM. This might explain why I don’t work in radio.

And as for Mr Now – so utterly pivotal at the moment – I love his disguised pass that Gnabry scored from. You can only do that when you’re at the top of your game and I must have watched it 10 times already.

Onto Napoli, a game I can’t make. Nor indeed can my brother, and he put both our tickets on the exchange on Saturday. The place was like a bag of piranhas – they went in moments. Practically snapped out his hands. This is what a winning run does. And a big signing, of course.

Wenger’s fears about us having to use the same players twice a week thanks to our injury epidemic are fair enough. We may come unstuck because of it (all good things come to an end of course). But he couldn’t have asked for much more of them so far.

I find myself in a calm place. Enjoying the run we’re on, enjoying watching the team, but massively cautious about the season ahead. It really is, to coin one of football’s oddest sayings, still early doors.

Three of your finest points

Marseilles 1-2 Arsenal

Well that went well. we rode the storm a bit but hit the sweet spot with Walcott’s strike and never looked back from there. This is a devil of a group – the best one we’ve had in a while (I mean that – it’s much more interesting this way) so to hit the ground running with an away win is just what the doctor ordered. Keep the prescriptions coming, Dr Win.

It has to be said, the hand-wringing and wailing over our summer of glacial transfer action and the opening day defeat to Villa have obscured – at least they have to me, for I do like to wail and wring my hands – what a good run of form we have hit since winning in Munich back in March. Ten away wins in a row is phenomenal, to be honest, as is one defeat in 18.

Sorry to put a dampener on things, but there will be setbacks. However, the trick when that happens is to get back in the saddle like we did after losing at home on the opening day (I never was good at metaphors). It sounds easy but as we know, it is never quite that simple. There have definitely been times over the last few years that playing at home has hindered us, little bit handbraked us, left us wallowing too much in the wanting zone, but I do think that sloshing £42.5m on a proven, top class player has Ozilified the home crowd somewhat. Let’s hope so because the players can feed off us, we can feed off the players: job’s a goodun.

One more thing: In an era of angst about the dearth of talent of the home nations, it was heartening once again to see Gibbs and Ramsey having such good games, for Walcott to score the crucial opening goal and to see Wilshere edge back to fitness. If England do drag themselves over the line to Brazil, it’d be a shame if all three of those Englishmen didn’t make it on the plane, but for Gibbs to get there it might take an injury to Cole or Baines. It is his misfortune to play in one of the positions where England are genuinely strong. Still, he’s improving fast and it’s lovely to see.

Now, if you don’t mind I’ve got to make some finishing touches to my Giroud Knee Shrine. There will be humming and probably beads.