Ramsey’s treat, Laurent’s borough

Marseille 0-1 Arsenal

There are times when the best course of action is simply to hide all the dog-eared and moth-eaten parts of Arsenal’s game behind the sofa and enjoy the catharsis of a late win. This is definitely one of those times.

As the game drifted on in the second half and Walcott spurned what looked like the best chance we would get, it looked like it would be another one of those games. Marseille offered nothing, Arsenal looked neat and tidy without being remotely ruthless. I can’t remember the last performance that would have got Arsenal fans, let alone neutrals, standing around the water cooler the next morning evoking Arsenal’s delicious football, but grinding out results is where we find ourselves at the moment.

And then, deep into injury time, came our one moment of ruthlessness. You see lads, it’s a winning formula! Djourou curved in a nice cross, Gervinho touched it on to Ram Zamzi* who coolly swapped feet and slotted the winner home.

I tell you what, that felt good. We weren’t great, but we were far and away the more aggressive side going forward and to nick it in the end is always fun. For too long the perception is that we’re the ones likely to concede late on – no smoke without fire – so for us to dish it out right before the klaxon sounded will have done the lads a lot of good.

Some noteworthy performances too. Laurent Koscielny was absolutely excellent all night, so much so that you can now reasonably ask: Who will be our first choice centre-back pairing when Vermaelen is fit? You might think it would be Mertesacker and Vermaelen, but on last night’s form, Koscielny dropping to the bench would be a cruel move. Perhaps it’s just a case of rotating – though we’ve been doing that a bit too much in that position this year. And look where it’s got us.

A nod to Carl Jenkinson too. His journey from non-league to Arsenal is well known. He’s 19 and a total rookie. But what he lacks in experience, he possesses in heart and last night he bombed forward, always looking to cross, busting a gut. He spent most of the night grimacing with pain or gasping for air but he’s got real spirit. Shame for him he went off injured. The curse of the centre half has drifted east and is now the curse of the right back…

It was a mixed performance in midfield (decent in the middle, average on the edges) but overall, it’s a result that cannot fail to emit a warm glow.

A bit of luck, commitment to the very end, a touch of ruthlessness. That’s five wins from six in all competitions, and the first time in 17 Champions League games we haven’t conceded a goal (see Orbinho’s tweet from last night).

We’re ploughing on.

* My 3-year-old calls Aaron Ramsey ‘Ram Zamzi’. It has an air of international panache about it, I think.

Wanted: A big league win. Last seen: Ages ago.

Thinking about things a bit – I try not to do this, but it happened somehow – I have changed my mind. I did subscribe to the theory that any league win will do, just to get us back on track. But we got that ‘any win’ against Swansea and it didn’t put us back on track at all, did it. It was edgy and unconvincing. We lost the proceeding league game in a flurry of own goals and non-league defending. 

Seems to me, without wishing to overanalyse things too much, or to state the bleeding obvious, that what we really need is a therapeutic, make-no-mistakes, common-or-garden, text-book thumping.

I should qualify that: We need to be the ones dishing out the thumping. We’ve experienced being the thumpees this season, and character building though is, there’s only so much a stiff upper lip can withstand. Draw? Tick – we can do that. In fact, we’re particularly adept at drawing after being in front – market leaders, you might say. Where drawing is concerned, we know all the tricks. Narrow win? We specialise in those too. Spanking? We have not administered one of those for too long. Far too long.

We’ve not won a league game by two goals since 10th April (Blackpool away), and we’ve not won a league game by three goals since 22nd January (Wigan at home). You could argue that you have to go back an entire year, to August and September of 2010, to find the free-scoring Arsenal of old (two resounding home league wins, 6-0 and 4-1).

We can all disagree on many things, but on this we can be in accord: this is a sorry state of affairs for a side that prides – or used to pride – itself on excelling in the front third of the pitch. It’s all very well wobbling at the back if you’re knocking goals in as if they’re going out of fashion, but while we’ve not lost the knack of defending poorly, we’ve clearly lost the art of taking a game by the scruff of the neck and shaking it until it’s limp.

This needs remedying.

Confidence undoubtedly plays a part (Wenger’s ‘handbrake off’), but so does the way some teams line up to play us, defending stoutly in front of the box while we piffle around in a holding pattern weaving fruitless passing looms. We need to go in for the kill.

All rather obvious and easier said than done, I hear you say: Of course it is. I’m sure the boss is scratching his head as we speak for a solution to our acute home goalshyness on deck, coupled with general leakiness in the hold.

I’d take a 1-0 on Saturday, or a 2-1, of course I would. But there’d be nothing like a convincing win to properly turn the corner, would there?

Answers or suggestions as to how we might actually achieve this should be addressed to a Mr A.Wenger, Emirates Stadium, London.

Arsène says Relax: Do it

OK, at last, here we are once more. Arsenal.

I had a scratch of the old noggin and realised – to my dismay but not surprise – that today’s match is my first game since Barcelona, and my first league game since Everton on 1st February. That’s two months off league football, I’ve had: I’m almost hoping to be picked to watch the England U21s over the summer to make up.

I’m champing at the bit, and I want the team to be too.

But we need to start fast. Don’t ask me about the psychological reasons for why we do it, because I’ll look back at you blankly. I simply want us to tear out the blocks today, and put in the same yards from the start that we did in the last 20 minutes against Sunderland and West Brom. Why have we taken so long to get going in some games? It’s not relevant if we don’t do it again. I want early, heavy, sustained pressure against Blackburn and I want it to go on until things are comfortable [that’s 5-0 then – Ed]. [Stop being such a cynic Ed – Big Ed].

The fabled handbrake goes on when the team is nervous or lacking in confidence. So do these players honestly believe – beyond the usual David platitudes – that they can win the title? Then today is the day to show it. We’ve moped our rears off, metaphorically listening to Enya on loop, and it’s time it stopped. Wenger alluded to the pressure when he said: “Let’s enjoy it and go for it”.

I’m also looking for more pace, and with Walcott back we should get that. We have other fast players – Nasri for one. But without Theo Walcott, who is as fast as a butcher’s dog, we are a slower team. For my sins I happened upon the Invincibles DVD in the ‘Lull and the amount of goals we scored by thundering upfield was eye-opening. Patient build-ups work sometimes, being more direct does at other times. We need to mix it up.

I mentioned it on the ‘Cast last week, but for me the benchmark performance this season was Chelsea at home. OK, so they were in a funk but Arsenal that day were everything Arsenal should be – and more pertinently, can be. When we had the ball we went for the jugular and when we didn’t, we hunted to get the ball back. From that point on I hoped we’d cracked the formula but it never quite happened.

Another key to that game was the personnel – we had for the most part our best XI available, Szczesny aside, for that Chelsea game. Today we ought to be strenthened immeasurably with the additions of Fabregas, Walcott and Song.

As ever, the first ten minutes of the game will be interesting.

Come on you rip-roarers.

A grumpy man’s belated thoughts

Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

I must admit, I haven’t taken this one well. I was exceptionally downbeat after the game on Sunday. As soon as their first goal went in, my mood darkened.

For years, we held the upper hand over Chelsea, and once those things take hold, they can be hard to shift. In recent years it’s swung the other way more than we’d all like it to. But I doubt it’s down to being a jinx or a mental block. The harsh reality is, they remain a better unit than we are, just as we were better than them back then.

Maybe now at times only marginally – Wenger maintains, optimistically, that it’s close – but better than us all the same. More experienced, cannier, more disciplined, more solid and more ruthless.

But let’s scotch one preconception now – we didn’t lose on Sunday because we are by nature shot shy, or as David Pleat put it in the Guardian, “reluctant shooters”. According to @orbinho, we lead the table in terms of shots on goal at 143 (the Telegraph has the stats slightly lower but because they do not include blocked shots). Ordinarily, we have plenty of shots. The trouble yesterday was that we were not able to take any of the presentable or half chances that did come our way. We couldn’t get through and when we did, we fluffed our lines.

Against a team as parsimonious as Chelsea, you have to be ruthless and for a long time, ruthlessness is something we have not been noted for. How many times have we said this now? It’s easy to say of course – but it’s not a tap that can be switched on or off. It can’t be drilled. It comes with experience.

And talking of parsimony, we really need to work more on the defensive side of our game. Yes, I know, as chestnuts go that one is positively antediluvian. But it’s also been true for a long time – I suspect most teams will fancy their chances of nicking a goal against us, and that can’t be right, can it? It is possible to tighten up defensively as a team, but still attack with hammer, tongs and bells ringing.

I don’t think it’s all about the personnel. We used to let goals in with Campbell, Gallas and Toure. Koscielny and Squillaci have both looked good at times this season, but they’ve struggled a bit in recent games and the midfield ahead of them is not helping matters. It’s about defending as a team, and that is something that can very much be addressed on the green fields of Colney.

Positives – yes, the benefit of a day of reflection tells me there were. We put some decent yards in, we had plenty of possession, we matched them physically. An improvement on last year on that front, for sure. Fabianski was solid, Wilshere played well again, and Arshavin at least had his shooting boots on. Sagna showed that his WBA wobble was just that.

But we came up short, again.

As we now head into another international fortnight, we can at least be grateful that injured players do not get called up for duty. We have two weeks to cajole Fabregas, Walcott, Bendtner, Vermaelen and whoever else can be magically hauled off their sick beds back into the first team.

Clear the heads, move on.