Nil nil, hey hey, kiss it goodbye

Aston Villa 0-0 Arsenal
“The thriller at the Villa”

I spent a little while on Saturday morning musing about whether the new sponsorship deal could have an immediate uplifting effect on the club on the pitch as well as off it. You know, give the players something to think about. Spur them onto a barnstorming run with the promise of riches untold and trophies galore. Naïve, eh? Or just a little bit handbrake off on my behalf.

Instead two very good results – one of which secured qualification for the knockouts, and ergo another substantial boost to income – were followed by yesterday’s flat goalless draw. You could say that’s just football. It was a tight game in terrible conditions with tired players against a team fighting hard to get itself out of a rut. But it did feel like a step back after two steps forward, which is pretty much the hallmark of Arsenal in recent years. This would partially account for the subsequent reaction, which is another hallmark of Arsenal in recent seasons.

The boss got it in the neck for leaving Wilshere on the bench, and withdrawing Giroud for Coquelin (essentially protecting the point and not going for the win), and the fan disquiet has had a fair few column inches today. But on Wilshere, I understand the logic – look what happened last time he was overplayed. Regarding Giroud, it seems odd given how little time there was left, but what were the options? Where the hell is Chamakh? We have nobody else and Giroud was maybe tired, certainly ineffectual. The stop-start nature of our performances though is a long-running saga and is very much Wenger’s job to fix. On that basis nobody is above criticism.

A big issue, as many have pointed out, is the paucity of options. Decent first XI when fit and firing, but one that we are over-reliant on. In risk of burn-out. Cazorla will need a rest at some point, as will Giroud, Podolski and Arteta.

Of course, if Wenger goes on a winter splurge then you just never know. When our situation got perilous a few years back he spent £17m on Andrey Arshavin, and it was a catalyst, for a while. The intention was there. This time round, he has the money – quite a lot of it, assuming everything we are told and read in the accounts is correct – but will he spend it? He must know we need to, with only one frontline striker, and a Diabyless midfield (the ghost of Diabys past howls through it). I agree that Henry is not the answer – at least not on his own.

There’s plenty going for this team, and there’s plenty to go for (four trophies – League Cup, FA Cup, European Cup and Fourth Cup). But for it to stand a chance, we patently need to show some ambition in the transfer market in January. Sixth place is a fair reflection of where we are now.

Nice to see Gibbs back, by the way.

Wenger’s New Year turns sour

Fulham 2-1 Arsenal

So, a pretty dismal start to the New Year, but perhaps a focus sharpener as this month’s transfer window opens.

It was the ultimate clichéd game of two halves. Arsenal were pretty damn good in the first, creating loads of chances, passing neatly, very enjoyable to watch and well worth their advantage. That the lead was only slim at the break ultimately came back to haunt us and there are not an awful lot of people that Wenger can blame for that other than his own team. We were very wasteful.

That said, there was a penalty shout on Gervinho, and with the benefit of video replay it was a clear spot kick. I can’t help but think that had our Ivorian not gone down quite so elegantly it would have been given, but it did at least add fuel to Wenger’s post-match rage: “We had a penalty in the last game, a clear handball. We had a penalty at Man City, we had a penalty at Villa Park”.

The other thing Wenger was incandescent about was Djourou’s sending off, accusing Fulham of getting the Swiss red-carded. I’ve not studied either yellow since I saw them live (Basically, I am using the ‘I didn’t see it excuse’ – learned from the master) but I will say this: Neither yellow was so outrageous that it was mystifying. Reds have been given for less. However, it did make our job all the harder and so it proved.

The fact is, we continue to play with a centre-half at right-back and, yesterday, a right-footed central midfielder at left-back and until we can sort that mess out we will not look as secure or as dynamic as we need to look. That Coquelin had a really fine game slightly holes my argument below the waterline but the point stands.

In the second half we were a pale shadow of the side that dominated the first. Fulham improved and we tired. I know we’ve all played similar numbers of games over the Christmas period, but Arsenal in particular looked to have long run out of gas and you can’t say that Fulham’s equaliser hadn’t been coming.

Which brings me to another point: we’re relying too much on a small core of players. Walcott (through illness) and Ramsey got a break against Wolves, and Gervinho got one against QPR, but other than that Wenger has stuck with the same players for four games in 13 days. A lot of this, of course, is out of his hands: our back line picks itself and without Wilshere & Diaby our midfield options are fewer. Up front, van Persie has played all 360 minutes of the festive period. Chamakh has played five minutes and Park none. That van Persie needs a rest is surely no longer in doubt – it’s a good job we have seven days before our next game and he may be spared that one anyway. Well deserved. As @steve4good pointed out on Twitter, that Wenger could not trust anyone but van Persie to start against Wolves, QPR or Fulham speaks volumes. He’s the best striker in the land right now but he’s not superman.

So this break comes at a good time, and I fully expect us to be bombarded with transfer silliness henceforth. That we need to strengthen though is beyond argument for me.

Back to work then. Hurrah! Happy New Year all.

All I want for Christmas is…

The cancellation of the Stoke game appears to have robbed me temporarily of the use of my blogging faculties. There’s just not been a whole lot to get my off my sofa and onto my laptop.

In fairness, Wenger’s since come out with some festive tit-bits, praising loanee Lansbury at Norwich and admitting frustration that the weather means Ramsey has spent more time driving to Nottingham than he has done actually playing for them.

It’s hard to say how much either player might be able to affect the remainder of the Arsenal season. I suspect it could be too early for both of them. The example of Eduardo makes me extremely cautious about Ramsey coming straight back at the level he was at when his leg was snapped, and Lansbury, who has already had his month’s loan extended by another month, might be best served getting more of these games under his belt.

With Christmas now looming, and the transfer window following it, I glanced back at my posts at this stage last season and it’s interesting to note that the three main issues vexing me most back then (and many others) were the injuries, the lack of strikers and the team’s inconsistency.

Well, to be fair two of those issues are not hugely pressing a year on. By some miracle (says he touching wood and wafting special incense), our injuries are clearing up faster than they are occurring, leaving us with a few short-term ones (Fabianski, Gibbs), a few more mystifying ones (Vermaelen, Diaby) and one rather convenient one (Almunia). We certainly can’t use a lack of players as an excuse.

And as for strikers, suffice to say we have not had to call on Arshavin to lead the line this year. Judging by his recent form, that is something of a blessing. Chamakh has been a hit, van Persie and Bendtner are finally fit and Nasri/Walcott are chipping in from the rear. We made next to no inroads against Man Utd but otherwise, we are the league’s second top scorers and if we didn’t dither around so damned much, we might well be the most explosive in terms of goals scored.

Onto infuriating inconsistency, and this is what I said after the 1-1 draw at Burnley on 16th December last year:

“We blow so hot and cold as a side that the fans are getting chill blains. The inability to push on is probably the most infuriating thing for me.”

Well that’s not really gone away, has it? Our league record this year is peppered with two or three wins in a row being followed by a loss or two. We’re lucky that the other sides at the top are showing their own weaknesses (a bad run of form for one, too many draws for another). I just can’t help but think that while it’s the kind of form that seems redeemable right now, the first side that clicks into gear will be in the box seat. It needs to be us.

And while we are well served up front, Vermaelen’s absence has been key and our defending can be added to the list of areas requiring some New Year WD-40. Does it need wholesale changes? Defenders of our defending would point to the fact that only four teams have conceded fewer goals than us but we have let too many soft goals in and four clean sheets in the league tells its own story.

So in short Santa, I’ve been a good boy this year so I want some better defending and more consistency and ruthlessness for Christmas. (PS – the last two things I recall asking for last year but they never came in my stocking. Just a polite reminder).

And if I don’t squeeze another post in – Happy Christmas and holidays one and all.

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.

Better performance, but same weaknesses

Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

Improved performance? Yes, but with the same defensive clangers and the same lack of striking options as ever. All too familiar, all too avoidable.

The bottom line for me is this side is not currently good enough to challenge for the title. Against Chelsea and Man Utd, we are consistently coming up short.

Whilst against most sides we can still score enough goals to give us a good chance of winning despite our porous defence, against the best sides we let in more than we are able to score.

All the possession in the world means nothing if you do not do enough with it and defend poorly. After just eight minutes we went AWOL and let in a soft goal. It was truly shambolic stuff and yet, who’s really surprised? We’ve been defending like that all season. All of the top three have scored 60 goals, yet Arsenal have conceded a third more – 30 rather than 20. Therein lies one of the reasons why we are nine points behind.

Arshavin should then have equalised with one of the two decent chances we had, before we were undone again, this time on the counter. 2-0 down, and no Kanu to save us.

Up front, our one fit striker Bendtner was not fit enough to start, so Arshavin once again led the line. He had one decent chance as mentioned, but really, he shouldn’t be there. He’s only there for lack of options.

Which does beg the question – again – why did Wenger not buy a striker this January? Was there really not a single striker available who could have given us something for four months?

Still, there were positives. It was a much more spirited performance, much more committed. You can’t fault them for that. And on an individual level, It was good to see Diaby back. I think he’s growing as a player and adds a lot to the team when fit.

Right, I need to leave it at that. No more time to dwell.

Onto Wednesday…