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.

Fact: Watching a game ‘as live’ never bloody works

Sunderland 1-4 Arsenal

Ferrying children to various sporting endeavours is pretty much my weekend. I am a dad taxi. That is my life.

It’s unpaid, to flag up an obvious downside, but on the upside there is marginally less vomiting and haggling to deal with, and they never ask me to go south of the river, which is a blessed relief.

Anyway, there I was at midday shuttling Child One hither, while lugging Child Two thither, knowing full well that a 12.45pm kick-off was problematic in the watching department. So between the three of us we decided to lock down the gadgets, switch off the radio and watch as-live later in the day.

It was working well. There I was in the supermarket, snatching an hour mid child-gathering to do some shopping, with my phone buzzing like a furious wasp in my pocket. I left it untouched.

(I do realise that for you young folk of the world, this snapshot of the mundanity of middle age is terrifying to envisage, and I can only apologise, but steel yourselves for the future).

And the plan was still working well at 1-1, some hours later, watching as-live, as I wondered whether Arsenal had blown the three points and whether Sunderland’s equaliser would mark their ascendancy.

Until Child One, who had momentarily disappeared for biscuits, re-emerged wide-eyed and said, “I’ve seen the final score Dad, and I’m not going to tell you what it was but IT’S ACTUALLY AMAZING.”

Noted, thanks pal. So we don’t lose then 😉

And then, as if on cue, Giroud swept his first and Arsenal’s second in, and the world was calmer. Then again, then again, and before you could say ‘Next time don’t give the score away’ it was 4-1. Game, set and match and onwards we march.

Sanchez, talking of furious wasps, was outstandingly good, but Giroud’s cameo was hardly any worse – a gentle reminder, as if it were needed, that when there’s sweeping in crosses to be done, or looping headers to dispatch, Olivier’s your man. Perfect timing with the bad news about Lucas Perez, too.

Coquelin was his aggressive self, Elneny was tidy AF, and Gibbs gave Wenger a pleasant headache with a performance of attacking verve.

We have a squad, ladies and gentlemen, that can be rotated. We have strength in depth. We have players out but it wasn’t a calamity – and By George, it’s handy.

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.

Squeezing into the final, Arsenal style

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Reading 1-2 (AET)

So it’s the FA Cup final for the second year running, Arsenal’s 19th of all time – a record. And if we go on to beat the Villa, it’ll be another record – 12 wins. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Still, the grin on my face is only just beginning to subside.

I’ll spare you a match report, given how late in the day this is. Suffice to say, the old pot brought the best out of Reading and made us go all stodgy. It has a habit of doing that, as do Arsenal. We’ll need to play a lot better that on 30th May, or we’ll be filing out of Wembley miserable.

But like Wigan last year, and countless anxiety-riven semi-finals before it, it’s the getting through that counts, and get through we did. Roll on the final – now I just need to strike it lucky getting a ticket.

But the buzz was very much alive and kicking before, as I thought it would be, and that’s the magic of the cup for me. It’s something intangible that lifts a match from the mundane to the special. I loved it all.

It was there in the pub we were in beforehand, it continued on the tube (which ended up being more song-fuelled than the ground was) and it was there as we chased a winner at 1-1.

That said, it was a bit odd where we were in Row 9 behind the goal. I’m not sure if it was the blue and white of the Reading colours, or the sun that bathed the other end of the ground, or whether it was simply because we were low to the pitch, but we couldn’t see a thing happening down the other end. That wouldn’t have mattered if all the goals had been down our end, but they weren’t, and the upside was that when Arsenal scored both their goals, the reaction was for the first few seconds a bit muted. We simply couldn’t see what was happening, and many of us ended up turning backwards to look at the screen. That split second it took to realise made the celebrations a bit muted. Odd.

Then there was the tannoy, and yes, I sound like an old git when I keep banging on about it, but it’s horrific. It’s so loud, so grating and so completely unnecessary that you can barely hear yourself think. I said it on Twitter the other week, but who actually asks for that? Is there a groundswell of opinion that demands it? Are they mimicking other sports in other countries? It genuinely puts me off Wembley, a ground I otherwise don’t mind.

But otherwise, a cracking day. Hats off to Reading, who played out their skin and didn’t deserve to lose it the way they did. But we’re there – and I can’t wait.

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And here’s a little something else for you.

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.

Sanchez in, Puma out, Arsenal shake it all about

It was one of those days when the stars aligned and Arsenal fans got a bit giddy. The best of days…

I suspect that Puma riding the crest of the Sanchez wave might not have been that accidental, either. Someone in the Arsenal PR department will be pouring themselves a glass of something cold this evening. There’ll be some schnapps wheeled out at Puma.

The Sanchez deal had been building a head of steam, so signing him wasn’t entirely unexpected – unlike the Ozil one, which came out the blue like a thunderbolt. The price, too, has had less mention than Ozil’s, which can only be a good thing. Last year we nearly fell off our perches when we spent £42.5m on one player. It was so far out of our comfort zone. Now, we’re back shopping in the same luxury outlet. That we can do it more often is a huge relief after years of relative parsimony and a healthy, but often untouched bank balance.

It’s just such a boost. The kind of player with power and speed and goalscoring ability that we really missed last year. 21 goals for Barcelona. It’s a signing that’s really got people going.

He’s even using his first name on the shirt, and has taken the number 17, which has pleased all those with Alex Song shirts. Just a little bit of tweaking and Bob’s your uncle.

And you know, maybe there is a domino effect. Would he have come if Ozil hadn’t come last season? Possibly, but who knows. From selling our best players, which we did for quite a few years, we’re now buying top ones and keeping the ones we want to keep.

It doesn’t feel like the last either. Claude Debussy’s looked like he’s on his way for a while. We’re also being linked to Khedira, the kind of rumour I’d have laughed out the room last summer and not even mentioned. Tough transfer to do? Probably. But not as impossible as it would’ve been in the past.

Exciting times.

And so to Puma, who finally launched their ‘trilogy’ of shirts. There’d been more leaks than a Welsh farm, so again, we knew what was coming, but I think they’ve struck a good balance. Stick with tradition, classic designs home and away, with a cheeky third shirt which also doffs its cap to the past.

Some people are staunch defenders of various brands – Adidas fans, Nike aficianados – but all I care is that they don’t balls around with the designs, and they haven’t. Mind you, if you’ve got a six-pack it’ll help. I’m a middle-aged man with a paunch.

Of course, they’re available all over the place, including here. I know this because JD Sports have sent me a shirt, the little devils. Now I just need to get rid of my wine belly. I need to be ‘buff’, at least that’s what I think it’s called these days.

So, new shirts, new striker. A deal done in the middle of the summer. You’ve changed, Arsenal. You’ve changed.

Pass Debuchy on the left-hand side

I’m sure you’ll all agree that no time is a bad time to shoehorn in an inappropriate Musical Youth headline.

Yes yes, I know he plays on the right-hand side. And that ideally we don’t want ‘pass Debuchy on the left-hand side’ to be the opponents’ tactical Plan A. And anyway, why would Debuchy be passing on the left-hand side? OK, I concede, it’s awful. But I’ve mentioned Wenger on the beach, I’ve thrown a cursory comment or two towards the World Cup and with not much else to fall back on, I’m resorting to shambolic wordplay.

Of course, he’s not actually signed yet, there’s still plenty of time for the tits to head in a northerly direction, but there’s a lot of noise about this one and he could well be our first signing of the summer, paid for by selling a player who was no longer ours anyway. How very Arsene that would be.

You can see his stats over at Arseblog, and some almost entirely positive comment from an NUFC blogger (unless he’s doing an “I’ll drive you to the airport if necessary”.)

He’s in his peak years, he’s used to the Premier League and he’s an established international. Nor, at £8m, is he expensive. So on the basis that this was a position that needed filling, but not the most crucial area of weakness in the squad, I think he’d be an excellent signing.

The Sanchez rumours bubble along too, and I’m hoping there’s no smoke without fire. It’s an ambitious one though, and as we saw last summer with ambitious attempts to land strikers, these things are easier said than done. What’s promising is that since last summer (let’s skirt over January for the sake of this point, y’alright there Kimmy) we’ve quite evidently upped what we can spend on players. £42.5m on Ozil buried our transfer record, with bells on, and the fact that we’re in for a £32m striker fills me with some confidence that, even if this one doesn’t quite come to pass, we’re no longer scrabbling around pretending.

An Englishman abroad

On another note, I see Ashley Cole is off to Roma. Now, as you know, we’ve not got a lot of time for almost-swerving-off-the-road left-backs in this part of north London, but I’m glad he’s decided to go there. English players have many faults, and one of them is parochialism. I know they earn good money here – better money than in most places – but the more English players that go abroad to learn both football, and to experience another culture, the better it will be in the long run for England.

Right, I’m going to make a cup of tea and watch the transfers roll in*

*Slash, just make a cup of tea.