The Mercury is rising

A very good morning to you on a humdinger of an English summer’s day. 30c+ days are like Chamakh goals in this country – we get a few in late summer then nothing at all for the rest of the year. The new season is upon us too, which means we have one of those glorious crossovers of high summer and football. I like those a lot.

Feeding time at the transfer zoo

Quick word on those who’ve left or might: We start the new campaign without van Persie, of course, which is no real surprise. In many ways it’s better it happened before the season started and didn’t Nasri on until the end of the month. I wish he hadn’t gone where he went but as Wenger said, “We had to act, and that is what we did”.* So he has gone. Life’s too short to tie yourself up in knots about these things. He was a terrific player for us, a goalscorer par excellence, and having given eight years of service you cannot say he flitted in and flitted out like a will’o-the-wisp. The end was messy, but last season was serene. £24m represents good business.

*Note to Arsenal: Worth fixing the reasons why this keeps happening, if you can. Thanks.

You could of course apply the same ‘having to act’ financial logic to Walcott’s situation too – I can’t see us letting him run his contract down either so something will have to give there in the next two weeks. Nobody seems quite so worried about this – should we be?

Then there’s Song – that’s an interesting one. For me this came right out of the blue. We don’t need to sell him, but Wenger hardly seems to be standing in his way. If it’s an attitude thing then I’m all for this new-found Wenger ruthlessness – Song is replaceable. And despite a midfield that is in numbers well-stocked, I think Wenger would try to replace him like-for-like as we are short of fit and experienced specialist defensive midfielders.

Season’s greetings

That’s for the next week or so though – it’s going to be a hectic month. Now though, it’s all about the season’s opener and I’m genuinely excited by what promises to be a forward line with plenty of options. We have an attacking midfield and strikeforce that has the potential to be very flexible, at least in principle – players like Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Cazorla, even Diaby can go wide or central. Arshavin (if he stays), Walcott (in his mind anyway) are to a lesser degree not rooted to one sole role either. In Giroud we have height in the forward line – hopefully a more reliable kind of height than that offered in recent seasons by Bendtner and Chamakh.

Combine those options with a more rigorous attitude to defending and there’s plenty to be excited about. Losing van Persie is a blow to our goalscoring potential and no doubt to our esteem too, but despite the same high-profile departures that we see pretty much every year, this summer’s proactive purchasing has, for me at least, meant there are far more positives than there are negatives.

I won’t even begin to try to predict a starting eleven. That we are not able to is a promising thing, no? We have options.

Here’s to three points and the dawn of a new era.

I can’t wait.

Arteta, we art in heaven

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester City

One-nil to the Arsenal, and as one goal wins go, that one was as sweet as it was deserved.

Sweet because we needed a win and we needed a performance after that baffling foot-off-the-pedal defeat at QPR. Wenger said it was a blip and that yesterday we’d see the real Arsenal back – the one utterly reinvigorated since February – and he was right.

And sweet because, well, it’s Man City isn’t it – the gaudily assembled team who have for several years now covetously eyed our players, and if you believe everything you read, continue to do so.

Toure and Adebayor, Clichy and Nasri – good players all but do we now miss any of them? We do not.


And deserved because only one team made any real running at all. We started and ended the game so hungrily, retaining the ball well, always looking to pass, pass, pass and eager to win it back when we did lose it. Although it looked towards the end that we’d pay the price for hitting the post twice and somehow clearing a nailed-on van Persie goal off our own line, sheer persistence had its reward with Arteta’s late thunderclapping howitzer.

How it remained XI v XI as long as it did shall remain one of life’s mysteries, right up there with Why Do My Headphone Cables Always Entwine Within Five Seconds Of Being In My Pocket. (The status of Where Are All The Baby Pigeons has since been set to: resolved).

Balotelli may well be a nice fella and he’s definitely richly talented, but he’s bafflingly brainless too and his knee-high studs-up tackle on Song was a red card about twice over. (On that subject, I did enjoy Arseblog News’ By the Numbers this morning). That Song – who was magnificent all afternoon – was not badly hurt is a big relief.

There were some impressive performances across the pitch and good though Song was, he wasn’t the only one worth praising. Rosicky and Arteta were excellent, Benayoun was tigerish and defensively we were excellent. It’s a shame that Gibbs retired hurt but Santos is a tidy replacement indeed. The other downside was Koscielny’s yellow, his tenth of the season, which rules him out for a few games.

Back into third we go, two points clear, but the battle for third and fourth remains immense and the difference between all four teams just five points.

There’s a long way to go.

Song serves, van Persie volleys and it’s game Arsenal

Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal

And so a points difference between us and Our Friends Up That Road™ that was looking at 1.20pm last Sunday like it might be 13 points turns out, just a week later, to be only the four.

Football fortunes can swivel on a sixpence: there’s not much getting away from it.

After three straight defeats in January, when the merest notion of making fourth was taped up in bubble wrap and deposited in the attic, we had two cups to rip into by way of compensation.

Blink again and we’d blown the cups, only to make a quiet then explosive recovery in the league. Dreams of fourth were fetched back down and unwrapped, and now there’s foolish talk of third.

(I say foolish because a) I refuse to jinx anything and b) I’ve watched us play a lot this season and dampen my enthusiasm accordingly).

You won’t get any triumphalism from me though for those very reasons. You only had to look at the first half yesterday – when we were stretched hither and thither – to realise that there’ll in all likelihood be loose shoelaces, black ice and banana skins aplenty over the course of the next 11 games.

But what I liked about yesterday was the togetherness and the spirit. We worked hard – as a team – rode the storm then imposed ourselves better and nicked it at the death. There was a bit of lady luck, maybe, but at the same time the penalty was highly dubious and the own goal was a quite literal slice of bad luck.

All hail the might of Sir Chesney though – he was quite astonishing. Double penalty save, headed clearances, several other crucial saves – the man was the rock we needed in a testing first half.

And there was nothing lucky about our goals. Sagna’s cross (how we’ve benefited from having him back) was so inch-perfect that I reckon even I could have wheezed my way into a scoring position. And Songinho, fresh from unleashing Walcott in the last game, did the very same for van Persie to whistle in another persielicious winner. Our 31-goal captain defies words, at the moment. He scores when he wants.

And so on to the Milan game we go, on Tuesday, for a rubber that, if not yet dead, is barely twitching. Wenger appreciates the reality but says that “everyone expects us to be out, but we are not yet, we are still in there.”

We need to “just go for it”.

Well, yeah. We might be mathematically “still in there” but this is an order of the tallest variety. I can’t dispute the call to “just go for it” but retrieving a four-goal deficit against a wily old dog like Milan is a massive ask. Nevertheless, there’ll be no handbrakes, for sure. You don’t need a handbrake at the bottom of the hill.

There may well be a few less empty seats in the 60,012 crowd though, given our last two results.

And – ooh – I think I might be getting a bit excited about it.

Stop it man, stop it. This is patently daft.

Arsenal wobble but they don’t fall down

Arsenal 2-1 Olympiacos

Whaddya mean, why can’t Arsenal do things the easy way? When did we ever do things the easy way? No no no, we can’t possibly put the game to bed at the earliest opportunity. Much better to give us all real value for our sky-high ticket prices by keeping the outcome of the game up in the air until the very last minute. It’s the Arsenal way! You know you love it really.

Certainly, we conspired to turn a commanding position into a breathless rearguard action, but we got the three points (leading the way in England on that front) and made it three whole wins in a row. Are we finding our form again? Do you mind if I think about that one and get back to you later?

Joking aside, the result was what mattered and we got it. Special mentions go to Alex Song, Per Mertesacker & Co for keeping the Greeks at bay once we had presented their goal to them on a silver salver with a congratulatory letter from the Queen.

I have no idea whether this Olympiacos side are the best Greek side I’ve seen or whether this Arsenal side have the current altruistic knack of making anyone look good, but the two goal cushion certainly was much needed given what came later.

Who’d have thought, after Santos rifled the second goal in, that by the end of the evening Olympiacos would have had 16 shots on goal to our 13? Our gifted goal gave them the momentum that had threatened to come and it rendered the match wide open and (in hindsight, and certainly for the neutral) hugely enjoyable.

I know everyone else will have mentioned these exact words, only in a different order, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a superb debut. Not only did he take his goal well, but his speed and strength really stood out. Walcott has many strengths but strength is not one of them, and it’s that pace allied with real power makes The Ox in the Box an enticing prospect indeed. It’s safe to say that his contribution this season this season will be anything but a bit-part. Wenger has eased him into the fray thus far but you can’t keep a big talent down and we’re bound to see a lot more of him. Well played that (young) man. He’ll certainly keep Theo on his toes.

Otherwise, the game at my end (so the second half) went in a blur of missed passes and lost possession, with a few missed chances for Arsenal to seal it thrown into the bag. That was the thing that struck me most last night – our inability to hold onto the ball for more than a few passes at a time. It really is a good job we held firm at the back.

Astonishingly, Szczesny has now had eight different back-fours in front of him this season, which might go some way to explaining our general defensive ailments. We have six central defenders – Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Djourou, Squillaci, Koscielny and Miquel, but only one was fit. Song stood in admirably but yet again, we are being skittled by a long injury list. You get the feeling we could have ten centre backs and still have a few games in the season when we’re forced to patch things up by calling upon the services of a midfielder. It’s mind boggling.

Props to Arteta for his extraordinary goal-line clearance too – I had to rub my eyes to check that ball hadn’t gone in.

So a win, a decent position in the group, a bit of a rest for Ramsey & van Persie and onwards we go to Sunday.

Tin hats on…

Mayday, mayday – Arsenal catch fire

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United

Well, that was fun.

Fresh out of the title race and with the handbrake well and truly off, Arsenal put in the kind of shift and performance that – had they happened more frequently this season – would have been the benchmark.

That our benchmark has in fact been drawing or losing from winning positions, or not taking our chance to edge ahead even when the opportunity is presented to us on a silver salver, makes yesterday all the more frustrating. You could spend months turning yourself inside-out mulling over the What Ifs if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere, so what’s the point?

Best I think to take it as a fine one-off performance, and it really was.

Maybe it was the glorious sunshine, refreshing breeze and the glow of Bremen’s finest export, but I was in a state of almost horizontal calm before the match. This is what happens when you don’t expect too much.

From the off though, you could tell that Arsenal were up for it, with both Walcott and Wilshere squandering presentable chances early on. Ramsey, Song and Wilshere were having a ball in midfield, with Djourou and Koscielny untroubled at the back. The latter made one particularly thunderous interception on Fabio. Tackling at its finest.

The referee was doing his best to get in the way of Arsenal passes wherever possible – one of them even looked like a nifty backheel – and was clearly too busy honing his positional interceptions to spot Nemanja Maradona’s handball. Rooney was bubbling with frustration; always a good sign.

The goal, when it came, was not dissimilar to Arshavin’s against Barcelona. Van Persie waited and waited, before passing to the unmarked Ramsey to slot it home.

Hats off to the Welshman. For my money it was his finest Arsenal performance to date, against tough opposition, and if there’s anyone who better deserved the catharsis of a goal then I’d like to know who it is.

His partnership with Wilshere, sitting in front of the equally excellent Song, really blossomed. That we did not miss Fabregas yesterday says it all, and bodes extremely well. For me, the Wilshere/Ramsey partnership was the stand-out highlight of an all-round impressive performance.

Ramsey also seems more vocal than I remember him being – when Sagna made a clearance in the first half, he was first to him to slap him on the back. It’s easy to see why Wales took a punt on making him their captain.

OK, so the last 30 mins was a bit hairier, but we held on well and can be grateful that the referee was at least as poor for Man Utd as he was for us. Clichy’s clumsy tackle on Owen would have been given as a penalty more times than it wouldn’t. But the old saying that things even themselves out was very apt here – one penalty apiece not given – and we were well worth our win.

Clichy – prone to this – did otherwise have an excellent game, particularly from an attacking perspective. Szczesny showed once again that while he needs to work on distribution – he wasted several goal kicks at the end by kicking them all the way to van der Sar – he is an imposing keeper and a fine shot-stopper. We do not need a new number one in the summer.

Anything left to achieve this season? Of course. As well as cementing an automatic Champions League place, which is well within our grasp if we play like that, I’d like to see us win all of our final three games of the season. Should we do that, it would be the first time this campaign that we will have won four league games in a row.

Apparently, it was the most youthful team fielded by any side this season in the Premier League – averaging 23 years and 296 days. No doubt the boss will see that as vindication of his approach. It’s hard to disagree based on yesterday’s performance, but that doesn’t mean some hard work needs to be done on the training pitch and with the cheque book over the summer to ensure that performances like that are the norm and not the exception.

Enjoy your bank holiday – I know I will.

Match preview: Third home game lucky?

Warning: This blog contains the cliche ‘one game at a time’

It’s a glorious, bright spring morning in London: perfect for a trip to the Grove. It makes sense to me that if the man in the street gets an uplift from the joys of a beautiful spring day, then the man on the pitch must do too. We’re all susceptible to the same moods, after all.

Could it be possible that some players perform better with pleasant spring breezes ruffling their hair and the aroma of blossom wafting through their nostrils? I think I might ask @orbinho that, though I do suspect that even his legendary powers of stat-trawling might struggle to find a correlation between nice weather and good performances.

There’s no doubt that the general mood in the corner of the interwebs cordoned off for Arsenal fans is much less fraught than it has been. The win at Blackpool was the catalyst, the potential return of some key players – The Woj, Djourou, Song – another reason. The takeover and the death of Danny Fiszman put a few things into perspective, too, perhaps.

Or maybe we’ve just been forced to accept the reality of the situation we find ourselves in. We want commitment and drive between now and the end of the season, but to expect a seven-game, twenty-one point charge to the title is to expect something we have not seen all season. On top of that, look at our next four games: Liverpool, Spuds, Bolton, Utd. It really is one-game-at-a-time territory.

Should be good fun. I’m excited by the return of the players mentioned, but I’ll be keeping an eye on Song and/or Diaby too. Song has looked tepid in recent games, through injury as much as anything, but when bubbling along he ticks all the right boxes. Let’s hope he’s genuinely fit today. Diaby had a lovely game at Blackpool, but can he do it again against better opposition? Maybe if we all keep an eye on him, the sight of 57,000 eyes trained on him will spook him sufficiently into a commanding performance.

And can we defend better against Carroll than we did when he came with Newcastle? There’s never been a better time to have our defence bolstered.

A goal or two would be nice and stuff. We’ve sat through two consecutive goalless draws – one league goal at home in two months. It’s not too much to ask…

Guardian squad sheet
BBC preview

And finally, congratulations to Petter Randmæl and Johanna Jepekano Nekwaya, winners of the Paul Merson competition. Bad luck the rest of you…

Clean sheet, dented goalposts, but no goals

Arsenal 0-0 Manchester City

In the pub beforehand, there wasn’t a single member of our party who envisaged anything other than a home win, and some of us thought we might get three goals (I think I went for 2-1). All I can say in hindsight is it’s a good job none of us are bookmakers by trade. Pre-match exuberance, eh.

It was pretty clear from the off that it would be tight, with City defending diligently and chasing us down off the ball. Nevetheless, the opening 20 minutes were our best period of the game.

I got a few disagreeing tweets last night when I suggested post match that it had been a game of ‘few chances’. Perhaps an overreaction borne of frustration on my part, but it is true that it was a game predominantly of half chances, with a few three-quarter chances thrown in. Nevertheless, in a tight game with a defensively savvy and pretty unambitious opponent, you need to make more of the chances you do get and clearly we were not able to do that.

It might aesthetically be your cup of tea – it’s certainly not mine these days – but there is much to admire in defensive obduracy. I grew up on a diet of George Graham and we would revel in stifling our opponents and nicking goals. City were content to do the same with the odd attempt to forage goalwards.

It’s no wonder they have kept the highest amount of clean sheets; when they choose to, they sit and stifle and they do it very well. I suspect most teams would have struggled to break that down.

I was impressed again with Song and Wilshere, shielding from deep, and Djourou / Koscielny both receive nods of approval. Theirs is clearly the best central defensive partnership we have at the moment. Interesting tweets from the Guardian’s @seaningle this morning:

“Last night was the first time this season that Arsenal have dropped a point in the PL when Johan Djourou has played (P9 W8 D1) …”

“… and think I’m right in saying that Arsenal haven’t lost a PL game with Djourou since 22nd November 2008 v Man City (P21 W18 D3 L0)”

So two successive nil nils against City at home, but this one was not as eye-rollingly dull as the one at the tail end of last season. City were equally cautious then, but the added ingredient was that we were entirely ineffective in May whereas last night we had a lot more to us. It was an intriguing battle in the end – and as Wengerball says, it was a clash of ideologies that made for good viewing.

Sadly, we couldn’t snaffle the three points but c’est la vie.

And on the plus side – Arsenal’s kit lady will have had one less kit to wash. Fabianski’s jersey can go straight back on the peg.

This is not love love, Song

Arsenal 1-0 West Ham

There are days when I go to the football and soak the whole thing in. Then there are days when I don’t go to the football but follow it on TV or on the radio and on Twitter. And then there are days when I can neither go to the game nor give it any attention whatsoever. Yesterday was firmly in the latter camp.

In the end, my understanding of the game came from @feverpitch‘s increasingly desperate text messages, in situ in the upper tier. At one point he ‘quoted’ Winston Churchill’s famous saying about something being a ‘steaming pile’ of something or other – not a quote I’d heard before – before informing me Theo had come on to “tear shit up”.

I did watch Match of the Day but since when did you ever get the whole picture from a highlights package? I did however marvel at Denilson and Song, who are clearly having a season-long Hair-Off (not sure anyone is winning).

Song though, naturally, deserves plaudits, not least because he’s got a real taste for goals and has now bagged four this term. Yesterday’s was a peach of a headed goal, coming right at the death from a lovely Clichy cross. Hopefully, the two blokes who sit along to my right missed it. I say this because they habitually arrive ten minutes late, start their half time five minutes early and never stay beyond 75 minutes. Why on earth do they bother?

Apart from the late drama, and the fact it was a delicious, headed, deciding goal, the other notable thing about yesterday was that the goal came from an infinitely punnable source. Alex Song carving out the winner is clearly a headline writer’s dream, even if coming up with something new containing the word ‘Song’ is easier said than done. As you can see, I have tried and failed dismally today. But then again, I was never going to beat my favourite Song headline, which I used (though I doubt I can claim it as my own) in August 2007 ahead of a Champions League game – A. Song for Europe.

A much better fit than my headline today is Arseblog’s Alex on Song, or a variation of the same from A Cultured Left Foot with West Ham Left Frustrated As Arsenal Are Finally On Song, and then of course the old classic Walking along, Singing a Song from Highbury House.

The Express has gone with Ice-Cool Alex, the Independent with Song’s high note but maybe we’ll leave it with the Arsenal Mania headline: [Insert Song pun here]

So a good win – albeit tougher than expected – and a clean sheet. George Graham will be affording himself a smile this morning.

Right, off to make some more Song puns. Always room for more.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Belgrade Expectations

Here we go again! It’s time to get back on track, iron out our failings and learn from our mistakes. Simples.

Of course, losing is part of the rich tapestry of football. But losing while seemingly having forgotten the basics is harder to shrug off.

If you fall off a horse, they say, the best thing to do is get straight back in the saddle. Now personally, I wouldn’t know whether this is true or false as I’ve never sat on one. I’m quite probably the most allergic-to-horses man that has even set foot on earth. Many years ago I was invited and went to a horse race thing (rookie error for a townie like me), and despite only setting foot in the beer tent all day, my eyes bulged out like a bug and I developed a good line in loud, uncontrollable dad sneezes. Someone might as well have dipped my head in a beehive.

But the point is this: there’s nothing like a big game to remedy a recent bad one.

So what are we looking for tomorrow? Despite professing to being baffled by his team on Saturday, I suspect the Wenger knows exactly what is required. With Almunia out injured, we know already that Fabianski will get the latest in a long line of chances between the sticks against Belgrade. To say he’s under a lot of pressure to perform would be an understatement. The scrutiny will be immense. But he simply has to have an error-free game.

But even if he had been hypnotised by Gordon Banks and marinaded in the spirit of Lev Yashin he wouldn’t be able to do it on his own. To stand a chance of success, he needs not just his defence, but also the defensive screen in front of them, to remember what their jobs entail.

Whether that means changes in personnel, I’m not so sure. Sagna, despite a rotten game on Saturday, has not become a bad player overnight. He’s easily the best option at right-back. In the absence of Vermaelen and given the rustiness of Djourou, Squillaci and Koscielny are the best bets at centre-half (and besides, both have been largely impressive anyway). If you were going to make any change, you might consider Gibbs at left-back in the place of Clichy, who has not started this season well. If he is 100% fit then I’m all for it. He’s pushing Clichy very hard. But given his injury record, I’d worry about playing him if there was even the smallest chance it might backfire.

There is much more scope for change in the middle. Diaby has not even travelled and I can’t see any sense in using Eboue at all, other than as back-up to Sagna (which let’s face it, is the role that suits him most). Let’s remind Song of his defensive discipline – or else play Denilson. Play Wilshere and Rosicky from the start.

As for Arshavin; it’s clear he has his detractors but for his ability to change a game – conjured, often, from the depths of an average performance – I’d play him. He’s scored four goals in eight appearances (7 starts, 1 sub), let’s not forget. With scoring form like this, even allowing for a goalscoring lull, he is on track to beat his season best of 12 goals.

With Jollygood anonymous since his Braga brace, Chamakh will surely be holding the line again, but that’s fine – he’s made a good start to his Arsenal career with three goals in eight. He’ll need a break at some point but if we can keep him in one piece until Bendtner or van Persie return, then he’s very much the main man.

Overall though we need to concentrate and to iron out the silly stuff, but surely that’s a given. There’s always a positive reaction after this side has let itself down.

The trouble, though, with this team is that there’s often another massive disappointment after the positive reaction.

Now if Wenger can iron that little tic out, we’re onto something…

Tomas… It was up for grabs then…

Sunderland 1-1 Arsenal

Football has the capacity to bowl all manner of unpleasant googlies at you – if you’ll pardon my mangling of sporting metaphors – and the last-minute equaliser is right up there with the least pleasant of them all.

Sometimes you score them and sometimes you concede them, and yesterday it was our turn to concede one.

You can argue all you like that it once again highlights Arsenal’s soft underbelly – we wobble under pressure, don’t like it up us etc – but the frustrating thing about yesterday’s equaliser was that, to that point, we had actually defended pretty heroically and had given as good as we had got.

Squillaci and Koscielny had repelled all that had been thrown at them, and Almunia was (thanks, I believe, to his new tiger-stripe jersey sleeves) solid. Despite not playing especially well, we had looked like winning an away game in a tough encounter at a tough ground.

I wouldn’t say we switched off, but Clichy’s clearance – 25 seconds after the final minute of injury time had ended – hit Koscielny and fell to lifelong gooner Darren Bent, who put his pay packet before his poster of Ian Wright and levelled things up.

I cann’t be too critical of Clichy. The gaping goal was in front of him and a phalanx of marauding Mackems behind him. With the ball to his right-hand-side, what else could he do but try to clear it to his right? I suppose he could have wedged it skywards but under pressure it’s probably easier said than done.

All the same, under the circumstances, there’s no doubt it was two points dropped – especially so given we had the chance earlier on, from 12 yards, to make it 2-0. And would you credit it, Rosicky converted the spot kick before scoring the try. There I go with my mangled metaphors again.

Had we earned them, three points would have been a terrific return. Sunderland played very well indeed, and with Fabregas out injured midway through the first half and Alex Song sent to an early bath in the second, to have held on for the win would have felt very sweet – and would have sent us top.

But it wasn’t to be.

The red card for Song was, thinking about it now, written in the stars after a week of verbal jousting between Wenger and various enlightened footballing souls. I think it was a harsh one though. Song didn’t touch him for the first yellow – it’s no surprise he was frustrated.

Once the post-match blame game subsides though (and there was a dose of that on Twitter after the game last night), I’m sure it won’t look like the hair-tearing disaster that it felt like five seconds after Bent ruffled the net. Lady Luck might have deserted us deep into injury time but she’d been at our side when Fabregas kneed his spectacular goal in the first half.

As Bruce Hornsby once said, that’s just the way it is.