Are Arsenal Up For The Cup? You’d hope so.

The magic of the cup, up for the cup, Wemberlee, wearing yellow ribbons – here we are again on third round weekend, and I still love this competition to bits. Wenger Mark I loved it to bits too and was rather good at it – four-times winner of it, and it should have been five given how we were mugged in 2001. But Wenger Mark II, as Goodplaya and Arseblog have pointed out, has a pretty poor record with one semi-final in seven years.

Playing weakened sides in this competition because it pays less than a higher league place, or the Champions League, sums up what I hate most about modern football. It’s the same argument that leads to Wenger saying that fourth is like a trophy, and if I ran a poll now on the blog asking whether the fans would prefer an FA Cup win or coming fourth, I suspect coming fourth would win – meaning plenty of people agree with him. Where has winning for the glory of it gone?

Given how we blew a presentable chance to get to the semi-final of the Milk Cup, and how we continue to veer from decent to dismal, this year’s FA Cup has taken on an importance all of its own.

Trouble is, even with a strong side we have no real idea how Arsenal will approach the game, physically or mentally. If even Wenger is now questioning their desire – I am still slack-jawed at that comment, if I’m honest – then you know that the inconsistency is so ingrained it’s practically tattooed. That it is crucial to the season, and possibly even to Wenger, seems rather clear to me.

In other news, the transfer window has sprung open, and in a classic Wenger bluff, our first moves are not incoming but outgoing. Chamakh has joined West Cham on loan, Djourou looks set for a loan to Hannover, Squillaci has been told he can go (it’ll be a loan, let’s not kid ourselves), and Arshavin is being touted around for a similar arrangement. It weakens the squad in terms of numbers, but not hugely in real terms – those four players have started seven games between them (five in a competition that we are no longer in), and have combined league starts of zero. That’s probably not far short of £200k, even £250k a week going nowhere.

Given how seriously we need to take the FA Cup, they wouldn’t have started in that either, barring a plague of injuries, so freeing up some space in the squad and some money would make sense there, but only assuming that we sign some replacements. Other teams have hit the ground running on the transfer front, long ago identifying needy areas and striking early – but we, characteristically, have hit the ground creeping. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, I dunno. It’s only 5th Jan.

I’m particularly interested to see how Chamakh gets on. Wenger has a long and marvellous history of only selling players when he has got all he can out of them – Vieira, Henry, Overmars, Toure etc – with some obvious exceptions in the shapes of van Persie, Fabregas, Cole. Should Chamakh be equally as poor at West Ham as he has been at Arsenal, nobody would be surprised. But if Allardyce can get something out of him – even 75% of what we saw in late 2010 – then it’s a punt worth taking. My own view is that it depends how much he plays. If you played him ten times in a row, he’d surely get better – something he has not done for years with us (why that is, who knows).

I suspect he is a back-up though, and not much more. Andy Carroll is injured, and Modibo Maiga is off to the ACN, leaving them with Carlton Cole alone (I was reminded – or informed of that by the Times here £). Good luck to him though. A decent spell there and we are more likely to be able to move him on in the summer.

Who knows what will happen. Come on you reds (or blues/purples).

Handbrake off, defensive sureness on: Job’s a goodun

It’s been another fortnight of stewing over Arsenal’s weaknesses. The previous international break came right after the pounding at Old Trafford; this one came after the derby defeat. On each occasion the fortnight off has been seen as something of a blessed relief – a time to lick our wounds and work on the basics. I can’t say I’ve missed football an awful lot over the last two weeks, which is a fairly depressing admission.

And on both occasions, the next match has been an eminently winnable home game. We scraped past Swansea last time. A scraping past of Sunderland would be acceptable, of course, though ideally you’d want to see the handbrake, lubed to the max, well and truly off.

There really are reasons to be a bit more positive though. To mitigate against Sagna’s injury, we have a cavalry charge of returning defenders in the shape of Koscielny, Djourou and Squillaci. This lets us slot Song back into midfield, where he is much more effective, and it gives us more aerial dominance at the back. Scoff ye not: Koscielny is our most effective defender at aerial challenges, and Mertesacker, while still finding his feet, is as tall as a house and that alone counts for a bit.

On an ordinary day, I’d like to see Mertesacker paired with Koscielny and take it from there, but there are no such things as ordinary days at Arsenal, and our lack of experience at right-back complicates things. Jenkinson has looked raw – if willing – and while it might be worth blooding him against teams at our level (like Sunderland, haha, ouch, that’s quite enough of that), can you see Wenger playing him at Stamford Bridge at the end of the month? I can’t. And working backwards from that logical conclusion, it might make sense to play Koscielny there now (he’s a trained right-back, it transpires) to get him back up to speed. This would make even more sense given Vermaelen’s imminent return (has that jinxed him?). All of which means it’ll probably be Jenkinson on Sunday.

I confess that I have no idea what Wenger means when he says we were beaten “because the details you need in big games were not on our side”. The fact is, we have struggled on many levels this season. I can’t be bothered to go back over them, it’s not like we don’t all know our failings. Repeating them now would be like teaching you all how to count to ten.

Interesting then to note that in a sea of gloom after the derby defeat, it was none other than David Pleat who spotted signs of progress, both in midfield and with some “flashes of newfound defensive sureness.”

Whether I believe it or not, that’s precisely the kind of positivity I’m in the market for.

PS – Glad to see that Wenger read my ‘5 things to do in the international break‘ piece. He’s found Abou!

Arsenal: Downsizing to fourth

Arsenal 1-2 Aston Villa

So that’s the Grove done and dusted for another season, on a day when there were plenty there in person but not in spirit, and plenty more there in theory but not in reality. 60,023 in the crowd? That’s right up there with ‘great mental strength’. Poppycock.

The Gunners have been misfiring for so long that thousands of empty seats pretending to have people in them – or is it creative turnstiling – is hardly a surprise. As Philippe Auclair said on Friday’s Arsecast, since the Carling Cup final it’s been the longest hangover in the history of football, a truly miserable punch-drunk stagger from one infuriating performance to another, perforated by the odd boosting win. Top that off with a 6.5% rise in ticket prices at a time when players’ wages are going up 8%-10% a season and you’ve hit a magic cocktail of frustration that manifested itself yesterday in widespread anti price-rise chants. Six percent? You are indeed having a laugh.

It’s a PR blunder that could have been scripted by Squillaci or Almunia.

So anyway, the match. We started slowly again, let poor goals in again, putting ourselves within 15 minutes into a position that rendered a much better second half redundant when taken in tandem with some bad luck with refereeing decisions.

It’s true, we looked more dangerous when Chamakh and Bendtner came on for the hapless Squill and the hopeless Arsh and went 4-4-2. These half-time substitutions are becoming quite a habit. Food for thought for next season.

And yes, we were missing three of our best players in Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy.

But to cling to tight (Ramsey pen) or plain wrong (Chamakh ‘push’) refereeing decisions going against us or missing individuals as the main reasons we lost would be barking up the wrong tree. We started slowly and foundered on the rocks of determined defending, as we have so often done. Our build-up play for too long was too ponderous, as it so often has been. Too many away teams have confounded their form at Arsenal this season by putting in excellent performances. Coincidence? I think not.

We have won more away games than any other team this season, but at home we have dropped 20 points out of 57.

As for the lap of deprecation, I didn’t stay to see it. I took my five-year-old son to his first ever game and took the opportunity, as did many others, to make good my escape.

The little man? Well he was looking at me aghast after the first quarter of an hour. But van Persie’s goal gave him a fillip and by the end he told me he wanted to come again. Now that’s real mental strength…

The reality now is that third place – and with it, automatic qualification to the Champions League group stages – is Manchester City’s to lose. We threw away any chance we had of winning this league, then we threw away second, and we could well now have thrown away third.

The fans are in foment and the team is in end-of-season freefall. Bring on the summer and bring out the new broom.

Holed in the O’s own lair

Confession: I used the above headline as it’s simply too cheesy to let pass, and if I don’t use it now, it will be even later than the too late it already is. [I haven’t seen it elsewhere but if I’m late to the party I’ll be happy to admit it].

In brief though: Having sung the praises of the FA Cup and insisted upon the retention of cup replays, I can have no complaints about the draw at the Orient that forces us to squeeze another match into the jammed schedule. If anything, I tend to agree with the much-aired view that the second string, far from requiring fewer games, could do with more. It certainly reinforced my view that two, three or even four changes from our first XI can be accommodated, but that most of a team revolving in cannot.

Is this a case of a collective lack of drive from the second string? No. It’s not that simplistic. It was a feisty cup tie and an almost completely changed line-up from Wednesday. But more than that, the absent midfield combination of Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas adds so, so much to the side on so many levels. They are simply far better than the alternatives. Not just from a creative perspective, but collectively their will to win is huge. Can we keep those three fit until the end of the season? It seems unlikely given the fixure list but much could hinge on their availability.

And at the back, we played a defence unused to playing with one another, which included several relative rookies in Gibbs and Miquel and two down-the-pecking-order players in Almunia and Squillaci. We should have created more chances, but overall it wasn’t the world’s biggest surprise. At least it wasn’t to me.

As for it generating another midweek home game… I can’t say I’m too unhappy.

Match preview

Tomorrow night we’re straight back in the saddle, with Stoke City coming to town. It’s a fixture with baggage these days. As much as anything though, it’s a massive clash of styles. We all know how Stoke play; it can be effective – at home in particular, as we have found.

Arsenal have at times this season not defended set pieces well so it’s not hard to work out where City might plough their furrow.

Wenger though has hit on the solution: keeping the ball. “As long as we have the ball, they cannot be dangerous” he said. That does of course form part of a utopian wish list in any game, and is certainly one I’d like to have employed in the first half against Barcelona, but possession is not necessarily nine tenths of the win. Barcelona discovered this on Wednesday and we did too, on Sunday. As much as anything we need to be ruthless and make our possession count.

We’ll have to do it without van Persie and Koscielny too, both out with small injuries (with any luck not Vermaelen ‘small’) and therefore not risked ahead of Wembley on Sunday. Diaby is out twice – suspended and, of course, injured.

It was looking like a no-go for me, but the gods of football have been generous and I’ll be there.

Here’s to three of your finest points.

Match report: Arsenal relapse and collapse

Newcastle Utd 4-4 Arsenal

Having sailed serenely through the busy shipping lanes of the new year – W4, D1, L0 in the league with just one goal conceded in the process – Arsenal were well and truly depth-charged at Newcastle.

That a team has never before lost a four-goal lead in Premier League history tells you all you need to know about the second 45 minutes yesterday. It was a calamity, a shambles – it was, in fact, a reprisal of our speciality dish, the Collaps-o-Arsenal™. It’s a dish we’re becoming sick of the taste of. I won’t bother twisting the knife reminding you of the gory details, but suffice to say the words ‘Spuds’ and ‘Wigan’ still make my spleen vent. You can now add the word Newcastle to the lexicon.

Alan Shearer described it as his favourite game of all time on Match of the Day last night. You know what Al, I might beg to differ.

The difference between our slickness, dominance and all-round excellence in the first half, and the wheezing wreck that was desperate for the final whistle to blow in order to retain at least a modicum of dignity, was so extreme that there have to have been some catalysts. Well, there were three.

Firstly, Djourou’s knee injury in the 49th minute. He hobbled off to be replaced by Squillaci. Now, whatever you think of Squillaci as a fourth-choice centre-back (some think he’s ok, some look at him with the same vacant, bloodshot eyes with which they viewed Silvestre), it’s pretty clear that he and Koscielny are our least effective centre-back pairing.

Secondly, Diaby’s red card. Barton came thumping in on him, and while he got the ball, he also could have buckled Diaby’s leg. Diaby not surprisingly took offence, handbagged first Dolly Barton and then the Nolan Blister, and promptly received his marching orders. A soft red card in terms of the harshness of the offence, but a red card nonetheless and a slice of idiocy from our number two.

This was the bugle call for a general collapse, and all the ingredients were there. A weaker back line and just as crucially, a weaker defensive shield. Without Song, and now Diaby, it fell to Fabregas and Wilshere to hold the line and it was just too much. Eboue and Rosicky did absolutely nothing of value when they came on. Two players whose days are, I would wager, very much numbered at Arsenal.

Thirdly, the referee, Phil Dowd, who was horrendous. The first penalty he gave was softish but giveable, but for the second one, when we were still 4-2 up, he magicked an offence out of thin air. Barton got away scott-free all afternoon, and when the Nolan Blister put Szczesny in a headlock for getting the ball out of his own net, he booked Szczesny. He had a shocker and when you are up against phantom decisions too, it’s always going to be harder to keep your cool.

After the invisible penalty, events took on an inevitability of their own and when Dolly won a free kick (having flung his arms skywards just to make sure the referee saw it), Tiote lashed the equaliser home from a clearance. In the end, remarkably, we could have lost it but there it ended.

Catalysts notwithstanding, it was far from our finest hour. Or to be precise, our finest forty-five minutes. We simply could not withstand the onslaught – this from a team that had just sold its best striker. All of our cohesion and organisation went out the window, we panicked. It was awful to see. But sadly, not unprecedented.

Mercifully, we actually ended the day clawing a point back off Man Utd, who finally lost, but what will this do to our confidence, just when our tails were up? It was a bitter and embarrassing blow. Wenger was livid aftewards, stonewalling questions with “My opinion is not important”. But he did say:

“Psychologically the damage is bigger tonight because everyone is very disappointed in the dressing room. Only the future will tell.”

We play Barcelona in ten days.

One final thing: East Lower now has a Facebook Page. Do with it what you will. Blog entries should come through via a feed, and I’ve stuck up a photo of some old socks. If that doesn’t entice you in, nothing will.

Squill’s red and Nasri’s blues

Arsenal 2-1 Huddersfield Town

Quick blog ahead of a hectic transfer deadline day, which I’m sure you’ll all want to get back to as soon as you can. A £38m bid here, a £95m transfer package there, and the sound of tumbleweed coming from London Colney. We have spent money in January before (Arshavin, Reyes, Diaby etc) but as ever with Arsenal, you’re better off expecting nothing than sitting glued to Sky Sports News waiting for a 25-year-old wizened European Cup-winning centre-half to pop up up in exchange for £20m.

However, just in case my monstrous cynicism is disproved, I have reserved some space on this blog for any potential signing and will update it during the day.

[ ____ ]

As for yesterday, well I agree with Goodplaya, Arseblog et al in their assessments of our second string: As an ensemble, not good enough. Catapulted in groups or one or two into the starting XI it works, but a revolving door of a line-up like yesterday does not. I find it hard to criticise though. We all clamour to take the cups seriously – rightly so – but the reality of competing on four fronts is that you are going to get good and bad and mix and match. It’s just a shame that so many players, faced with diminishing opportunities, do not grasp them as you might hope they would.

The biggest downside of yesterday was Nasri’s hamstring, leaving him unavailable for an undetermined number of weeks. We will miss him.

We will miss Squillaci for a game too, at least numerically, after a daft block led to his dismissal. I thought he started brightly enough this season but his form has tailed off and looking at him, it’s clear he is what he was bought as: a fourth-choice centre-half.

Clearly, Fabregas is the model to aspire to and he made a big difference yesterday. I thought Diaby did fine seeing he’s been out for such a long time and I’d also agree that Arshavin, though his shooting was wayward, got stuck in. Bendtner scored one, earned one, and performed a hilarious air-shot: which just about sums him up I suppose. He gave it his all and contributed well.

Anyway, we’re through to face The Orient at Brisbane Road, another cracking FA Cup tie. It might not have gone 100% to plan this season, but you can’t argue that it hasn’t been good viewing. Huddersfield yesterday were excellent and merited a draw. Leeds were impressive too.

Red card, hamstring, dodgy defending and a late penalty.

And yes, there were balloons.

Right, back to the transfer tumbleweed.

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.

Chamakh do and mend

The briefest of updates this morning ahead of my first trip to the Grove this season. A combination of being away for the Blackpool game (good job I didn’t miss many goals) and the shoe-horning of two internationals into the early part of the season means here were are, a month into the season, and I’ve gone all belatedly giddy.

I found myself comforted by the Guardian’s squad sheet.

Despite the early-season injury skittles – Bendtner, van Persie, Vermaelen and Walcott are all missing, as we know – there’s enough quality and depth in the squad to give us a very decent first XI indeed.

Perhaps I’m slightly jumping the gun here, seeing that Squillaci has never played in England. But I’m looking forward to seeing him make his debut. Wearing the number 18 shirt, he does at least not have the pressure of a huge pair of boots to fill.

Although Gilles Grimandi might disagree.

The main worry is the fact that Chamakh is our only fit and trusted front-line striker at the moment, and for the next month at least. Lose him and we are looking to Carlos ‘Chip It’ Vela or heading back into Arshavin territory (not a great success ploughing his lone furrow, let’s be frank). Beyond that, we are relying on the youth of players like Emmanuel-Thomas.

So please, Marouane – no injury.

But hey – must stop worrying about hypothetical scenarios. The reality of the day is: I’m off to see the Arsenal and I can’t wait.

Parlez-vous français, Manuel?

What’s the state of the defence? I was asked that question on today’s round-table arsecast, in which the ‘Holic, Goodplaya, Gunnerblog and I were participating.

Overall, I think, the additions of Koscielny and Squillaci are good ones. Yes, we have lost experience in Gallas and Campbell, but Squillaci is no rookie and Koscielny, for me, has great energy and is at an age when a) he’s ready to play and b) he can still learn. We shouldn’t forget though that he needs time to settle in and should allow him some leeway as a result.

I read somewhere (wish I could find it but can’t) that since 1996 Wenger has signed 26 French players. Clearly, many of those have been staggering successes. Petit, Vieira, Henry, Pires were all world class, to name but four. We made £23m in profit from Anelka – kapow. Wiltord, Flamini, Grimandi; I’m plucking names out of thin air now, we’ve had a lot of decent players from over the channel. The success to failure ratio has been heavily weighted in Arsenal’s favour (the Guillaume ‘Willy’ Warmuz of this world have thankfully been few and far between) – France has been a fertile hunting ground.

The trend continues today, with Nasri and Diaby in the middle (Song too speaks French) and Chamakh bedding in up front. But it’s our defence where the French speakers are packed these days.

Both of our new centre-halves are French, of course, plucked from the country Wenger knows best. Our first-choice left and right-backs are French, and Vermaelen, though Flemish, is a Belgian and it must be safe to assume he parleys a bit of the français himself. Djourou is a French-speaking Swiss, Eboue is a French-speaker from the Côte d’Ivoire, leaving us just with the firmly English Kieran Gibbs, the indubitably Spanish Manuel Almunia and the unquestionably Polish Lukasz Fabianski.

So what, I hear you say? So what indeed – this is a moot point of Interlull proportions and I’m not entirely sure I know where I’m going with this myself.

Of course, on the pitch English is the lingua franca and so it should be in a polyglot side drawn from all four corners of the globe.

But when the frites are down, it must be tempting for our defence to give it both barrels in French, mustn’t it?

With this in mind, and given one of the criticisms of our number one is that he doesn’t engender the full trust of the defence ahead of him, it might be a good idea for Manuel to swot up on a bit of French invective. It would be especially useful when responding discourteously to a referee – I can’t imagine there are that many English referees fluent in French spoken with a Spanish accent.

Either that, or he could just adopt the approach to speaking French that generations of English have adopted in the past – talk slowly, and loudly… in English.

Vive la difference, Manuel – here’s to a commanding season.

The Squill is mightier than the board

Good morning from the tail end of a blogless week. My main dilemma these last seven days has been: Barbeque – gas or charcoal? I’m leaning towards the former for ease of use but to the latter for guaranteeing the proper whiff.

I did, however, crank up the phone for the annual jamboree that is the Champions League draw.

Cup draws have certainly taken on a new ‘importance’ since the FA Cup draws of my youth, when someone would be glued to their radio in double maths on a Monday morning, but I know which kind I prefer. What purpose does all the farting about serve? It’s monumentally dull, even if it does give the country’s media the excuse they need to crank up the live text coverage.

This year’s draw gives us a relatively benign group – again. From a footballing perspective there are some interesting ties against teams we have not got a lot of previous with, and I’m all for playing new teams. But in terms of avoiding one of Europe’s heavyweights, we’ve done it again. We drew Inter Milan in the 2003-4 group stage (heh – remember the away leg!). Since then, we’ve had Porto and Seville and a host of tricky away ties, but no group of death as far as I remember. This is, I suppose, what seeding does. Seeding might make the bigger clubs happy, but does it make the competition more interesting?

So Partizan, Braga and Donetsk it is. I must say, I’ve always fancied a far-flung Champions League journey and Donetsk would fit that bill. Hmmm… how am I going to get this one past Control?

A look at the group stages from the Guardian here and Telegraph here.

Elsewhere, the news is good on the squad strengthening front, with the arrival of the ‘ancient’ Sebestien Squillaci. It appears the Squillster has got himself a three-year deal and cost a much more plausible fee of £3.3m.

And come on, let’s be honest – the relaxing of the over-30 rule is long overdue. Letting Pires go because he had hit 30 seems as nonsensical today as it did back in 2006. A defender at 30 is nothing – look at Sol Campbell.

“He is a real defender and is good in the one-against-one, good in the air, and can score goals on set-pieces as well. I believe he will be suited to the English game. He will train with us tomorrow morning, but will not be involved on Saturday [against Blackburn Rovers].”

Now just the one position left to fill, by my reckoning – and it’s D-Day -4.

Reckon it’ll still happen?

Right, that’s me tuning out for a few more days.

Gas or charcoal, gas or charcoal. Hmm.