Triple whammy leaves Arsenal on the ropes

Arsenal v Bayern mosaic
Image courtesy of Arsenal Tickets

Arsenal 0-2 Bayern Munich

Another year, another mountain to climb. This time, it’s all about the frustrating ‘what ifs’. Things could and should have been so different but a missed penalty, an injury to Gibbs and a red card for Szczesny meant we were up against it with limited scope to do much about it.

Instead, in the end, being down to ten men made the whole second half something of a turkey shoot, with Bayern registering more possession than Borley Rectory. They are a phenomenal side to face with eleven men. With ten men – forget it. It’s sad as the red card ruined a fabulous end-to-end game. It stopped it dead as a proper contest. Red cards often do.

Was it a red? The trouble is, clear goal-scoring opportunity or not, it was an easy one for refs to give and this one didn’t think twice. I’m not armed with the stats but I suspect those ones are given more often than they are not. That said, it’s debatable whether Robben had any real chance of scoring.

Before that we had made a fantastic, bright start and seriously rattled the Bavarians. Ozil should have put us a goal up from the spot but fluffed his lines. How we needed that. In hindsight, how he needed that too as he faded badly as the game wore on. He’s not a man who gives much away so it’s hard to know what’s going through Ozil’s mind at the moment, but he doesn’t seem the happiest of sorts right now. Unfortunately, when you come with a £42.5m price tag you are observed and judged more frequently, and the pressure is always on. I think he needs, at the very least, a break – a few games away from the spotlight – but Wenger seems very reluctant to countenance that.

Other things conspired against us. Gibbs, playing so well, went off injured and was replaced by Monreal, who struggled. Fabianski came on for Szczesny. So we’d made two subs before half-time, leaving us with no room for manoeuvre at all.

Sanogo, the surprise starter ahead of Giroud (there’s a whole other sub-plot there I can’t be bothered to get into) did well enough for a while but struggled thereafter. Hardly surprising once we were down to ten men, but it was a big gamble on such a big night. I imagine he’d have come off had we not already made two subs (Podolski remained marooned on the bench – there’s another subplot, if you’re after more).

So here we are again, staring down the barrel of a last 16 exit for the fourth year running. I know we won at the Allianz last year but don’t bet on Bayern switching off like they did then.

It’s a funny competition, this. We bust a gut to get into it (valuing it over a real trophy), get through to the knockouts then come unstuck time and again when we meet the behemoths of Germany, Italy and Spain.

That’s why last night was so frustrating. That 0-2 should have been 1-0 and that, with eleven men, would have given the night a different complexion entirely.

One last, positive thing – the red and white display was amazing. Hats off to Red Action.

Sir Chez knighted at the Palace

Crystal Palace 0-2 Arsenal

Two points clear at the top of the league going into November – nice, isn’t it? This time last year, and the year before that, we were seventh after ten games so to be top after nine this time round really has blown the cobwebs off. We’re also seven points better off at this stage than we were last year – another thing to write home about. (“Dear Mum, I feel compelled to write to you about Arsenal’s seven point upswing. Hope you’re well, much love, Jim.”)

I say this of course because we’ve all known for some time that November brings sterner autumnal tests gusting in from the north and west. The last thing we needed ahead of that kind of storm front was to get our chimney knocked off by gentler breezes in the south.

As it happens, managerless Palace were far from a breeze and it took a performance of some determination from us to take the points. It wasn’t pretty and we weren’t at our best, which is why the man of the match award went not to one of our midfield creators but to Wojciech ‘The Woj’ Szczesny for a superb double save just at the point where, at 1-0 up, we were wobbling.

He was excellent – as were, in the second half in particular, Sagna and Ramsey. Perhaps I ought to add Giroud to that list, who ran himself into the ground. He looked utterly destroyed at the end of the game, which is both heartening and faintly terrifying in equal measures.

As for Arteta, it was perhaps foolish to get that close to Chamakh but a red for that? He was on the right-hand side of the pitch and 45 yards from goal. Defenders were not a million miles away. Very harsh.

In midweek we have a date with Chelsea in the Rumbelows, and it’s very hard to know what approach to take in that, especially with Liverpool looming on the weekend. In the absence of our legion of crocks (Walcott’s three weeks out has turned into another infamously un-three-week absence), some of our players need a breather. Ozil looks like he does, Giroud too, Wilshere is not 100%, Flamini and Arteta are both out. Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain are still nowhere to be seen.

This might be the least coveted pot of the four, but the importance of maintaining form and confidence – the easiest things to lose and the hardest to regain – should not be underestimated. Wenger has some tough decisions to make on that front. Can we throw Frimpong into the mix? Is he even fit? How about Monreal at left-back and Gibbs on the left of midfield? Why am I not a football manager?*

*Rhetorical question

On midweek, Wenger said:

I will rotate against Chelsea, yes, but play with a team as well who has a good chance to qualify, that will be the target.

So basically, your guess is as good as mine.

Four, five? Senses working overtime

I think I would perhaps be enjoying this fourth-place run-in a bit more if Arsenal were a little less in the wanting zone. I’m finding it hard to prefer this new-found gritty football (‘unremarkable’ as the Independent have it, though they also admired our ruthlessness) over its free-flowing predecessor. But it’s no use forever harping back – this season and perhaps the last one too have been marked by a less flamboyant style of football. That’s diplomatic speak – you can interpret it how you like. Besides, I’m with L.P. Hartley on this one. The past is a foreign country and all that.

It used to be said that even when we were no longer winning stuff, we were still playing the best football in the league. That accolade has been quietly filed away and I am having to fast re-learn the art of grinding one-nils. We’re certainly defending better than we have done in ages. Mertesacker and Koscielny are impressing, Sir Chesney has come back in re-focused and there are options on both defensive flanks.

(PS – I wonder what Sir Ches’s dad thinks now? Credit where it’s due because dropping him worked).

The late George Graham era is so long ago that the mind plays tricks, but I basically remember it as being trillions of one-nils, with all of the goals coming from Ian Wright. It felt a bit like that last season too with almost forty goals coming from one player, but we’ve had to share things around this season. In this period of impressive results but limited goalscoring, we’ve had six different scorers sharing our last eight goals.

Even though his form has not been great, we’ve missed the waving arms and focal-pointiness of Olivier Giroud. Podolski can’t do that, Walcott can’t do that, and of the other two Arsenal players who could fulfil that role, one has forgotten how to play football and is warming the bench in east London and the other prefers coming out of nightclubs with his trousers at half-mast and driving the wrong way down streets.

We’re heading towards the relay finishing line with one baton pass to go. That baton pass has to go in our favour and if it does we need to run our arses off to the finish line. It’s a scenario with too many ifs and buts at the moment and I’d be lying if I said I was enjoying it.

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.

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.

Spoils shared in wonky derby

Tottenham 3-3 Arsenal

Ok, Ok, let’s get it out the way first: I know we let a two goal lead slip for the umpteenth time and I know we ended up drawing our fifth league game in six. And I am well aware that we continue to be deficient in the match-winning department. As for the t-word – well it stands for third, doesn’t it?

But you know what – it was some match. Not one for the faint-hearted partisan fan, perhaps, but a proper humdinger of a football match all the same. Did either side deserve to lose?

There was the usual welter of misery on Twitter last night but I’m with @arse2mouse in feeling far more positive about things than I’m feeling negative.

Why? Well in the first half, the Arsenal that I can barely recall finally made a belated reappearance. We looked menacing pretty much every time we went forward, we attacked with pace, we snapped into tackles and we scored three lovely, well-worked goals. To see us play like that was just a joy. We all know we’re capable of it, but it’s just not been happening. Why it hasn’t – well that’s been covered in acres of webprint here and elsewhere. I just wanted to see it back, and it was back.

As for the three goals conceded, well you can pick holes in Arsenal for a couple of them – this is Arsenal we are talking about, after all – but let’s be fair, both of their goals from open play were excellent finishes. Szczesny’s penalty was hardly Eboue-esque – he made a snap decision to come out to rescue a dangerous situation and got the timing wrong. Also worth noting is how we defended for our lives at other times – Szczesny made a couple of excellent saves. It was frustrating, as ever, but to my mind hardly the Collaps-o-Arsenal we have seen elsewhere this season.

van Persie scored a goal that may have been onside – the infuriating roof support that ruins the camera view at the Spuds ground makes it hard to say with certainty – but they are the kinds of decisions that go one way or the other week in, week out.

So I could dwell on the inability to close yet another game down, or on the one point from six we have taken against the Spuds, having had two-goal leads in both matches. We are many of us pretty sure where the surgery – in the form of new players and new approaches – is required but to dwell on the negatives is no good for the soul. So I’m not going to. I’m done with that for now.

Besides, as James Lawton says in the Independent this morning:

“There are times when there is simply nothing more to say about the sweet agonies of Arsenal.”

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…

Match report: The wait goes on


Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City

As a football fan you roll with the highs, but you also have to cope with the lows. Barcelona, a few weeks ago, was as good as it gets. Yesterday, losing in the last minute to an amateur defensive error, was of course the opposite.

You could line up the disappointing aspects of that game and ask them to form an orderly queue, but for me the most frustrating thing was the way we played. We had good, short bursts in each half, and plenty of possession, but overall the Arsenal that we wanted to see just wasn’t there for enough of the game. We did make Ben Foster work at times, and scored a superb equaliser, but we just didn’t do enough. I have no idea why.

Of course, credit to Birmingham. They hustled and harried, knew our weaknesses, played to them well, and it worked. We were undone by bad defending at a set piece and by a freak defensive howler. Had we played better it may not have mattered. But in a tight game like yesterday’s, those mistakes were pivotal. They deserved to win and you can’t begrudge them a first major trophy since 1963. That’s a lot more than a six year wait.

We missed Walcott and Fabregas, but that’s no excuse. Most of our best XI was out there but how many of them can you say played the game of their lives? Wilshere was tireless again but he couldn’t do it all on his own. There’s little point hauling players over the coals but I do look at Rosicky with increasing frustration these days. I don’t think he’s done enough in recent weeks to merit a starting place in a cup final, and he struggled again yesterday. But there you go – he wasn’t the only one.

As for the goals, well both were easily avoidable. It was not the finest hour for Koscielny or Szczesny. I imagine they’re feeling particularly blue this morning.

It was a big test, and we failed it. Wenger desperately wanted to win this to push on and hush the naysayers, but the wait goes on. He’ll be as frustrated as anyone that we did not rise to the occasion. Were we hampered by the ‘need’ to win something? We could debate that until the cows came home.

The fans filing out at the end were pretty mutinous (‘Wenger get your chequebook out’ being a familiar refrain). There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam at the end of a bitter defeat. It was pretty hard to be anything other than downbeat.

I dipped into the interwebs and sure enough, there are already acres of newsprint dedicated to the potential psychological effect of this defeat on our prospects for the rest of the season. Certainly, it will be hard to shake off. But luckily for us we have a very winnable FA Cup replay on Wednesday. Better that way than a ten-day wait to stew on things.

The reaction again the O’s will be interesting. The team Wenger picks will be interesting.

Ah well, onwards and upwards.

Need a pick-me-up? Own an iPhone? Here’s a wallpaper made from the ’92 away shirt to cheer you up.

Keepers / crowds / blow-up haddock

Good morning from a – you guessed it – grey London. Where is the sun? Seriously, where is it?

As usual, Wenger had plenty to say yesterday ahead of Sunday’s FA Cup game against Huddersfield. The most interesting – usual deflected stuff about buying a defender aside – was what he said about our goalkeepers.

“At the moment Wojciech is No 1. He’s done nothing for me to take him out”.

Of course, in typical Wenger way he added some ambiguity by saying “at the moment”, which could mean, ‘while Fabianski is injured’, in which case it’s rather less revelatory. But my guess is he meant it at face value, and it’s well merited too. I was chatting to Goodplaya yesterday and he pointed out we’ve now had three first-choice keepers this season. Incredible, really, but in the end Wenger has settled on the right one of the three.

Despite the history attached to this tie, my guess is we won’t be seeing a completely full Grove tomorrow, even if the official attendance isn’t far off. It looks like there are still tickets available to buy, and I’ve certainly seen more than you’d normally see bandied about on Twitter. It’s not hard to guess why this might be: it’s winter, money is tight, we’ve played a lot at home recently, we’re playing again on Tuesday, the match is at midday and is against lower league opponents. My view on the old jug has never changed: it’s a fantastic competition, in which you can draw anyone anytime, you can be taken to a replay, and as a knockout it provides you with the typical lickety-split on-pitch tempo. Compare and contrast, from an excitement point of view, with the Champions League group stages.

Having said that, compared to some sides, attendances for the FA Cup have held up fantastically at Arsenal in recent years, and it won’t be too far short tomorrow. It’s easy to take for granted the fact we get nearly or over 60,000 for all our home games, but it wasn’t ever thus. From the mid 80s when I started going to Arsenal, I can remember only 3 or 4 matches where there were over 50,000 packed in, and crowds of 25,000 were not unusual. The lowest we’ve ever had at the Emirates, I think, is 53,136 (thanks, Twitter!) That is pretty amazing.

More interesting is the number of away fans that are coming to the Emirates generally. There can’t have been more than about 250 Wigan fans here, and plenty of other sides have not taken up the full 3,000 allocation. Far fewer away fans are coming this season than in previous years, I would guess, though I have no empirical proof.

All the same – I can’t wait. There’ll be a good away crowd this time, and probably some balloons. Balloons are important. (Digression: It’d be nice to see a return to blow up terrace extras. Back in the 80s they were all the rage – I remember Grimsby fans with their Harry Haddocks. There are few things as surreal as thousands of blow-up haddocks fizzing around in unison).

Well, that’s about the size of it.

Match report: Exhibit A – The Dutch Master

Arsenal 3-0 Wigan

Habsi days are here again

Ordinarily, the post-match pint is accompanied by a dissection of the things that went to plan and the things that went to pot, but there was a general shoulder-shrugging when mention of pots was brought up yesterday. Can we honestly complain that we missed too many chances, or that Theo should never have passed when one-on-one, or that van Persie’s penalty was a howler of the first order? When your bread is buttered on both sides, you should just eat it. [That one needs work – Ed].

It was a very easy win, but a very impressive one. 10 shots on target to nil? Don’t mind if I do. Szczesny could have been wearing a pink tutu for all we would have noticed. I’m fairly sure he spent some of the game counting Wigan fans. Not sure what he did for the other 89 minutes.

It could have been so much more, had it not been for Al Habsi’s fine goalkeeping. He was like Mr Tickle for much of the first half, but it couldn’t last. Sure enough, the defence was sliced open and van Persie administered the medicine.

The only thing that went near to triggering the collective home angst was the sight of both Nasri and Walcott hobbling about looking worried and clutching various limbs within minutes of each other. It’s a bit early for the first hobbles of spring, but as we all know, at Arsenal nothing stands in the way of our players conking out without so much as a by-your-leave, so it was a relief so see them both recovered before too long.

Expectation of injury is built into our very souls. When van Persie scored his second goal – and what a goal it was – the very first thought that entered my head was not ‘oh, well done’, or ‘crikey, that was a bit special’ but ‘When he did that against Man Utd he broke his foot’. I was genuinely surprised to see him get up and trot off as normal.

Robin Red Best

He is a bit special though. When he returned from injury he a looked a tad slow and a soupcon clumsy, but it’s now clear he was merely waiting for all the lubricant to sink down into the sump [Please check sketchy knowledge of combustion engine – Ed].

Not so clumsy now. He’s absolutely exploded, and his hat-trick yesterday, remarkably his first in England, came right out of the Deadly Finisher’s Guidebook. Number one, a bullet. Number two, an exquisite volley and number three, sensational technique.

We simply have nobody else who is so natural a finisher. Without wishing to disparage any of our other players, I’m not sure there’s another man at the club who could have scored that hat-trick. It was very, very good and his overall game was faultless.

Djou diligence

In the league, there’s no doubt we have tightened up defensively. We’ve not let a league goal in this year. Djourou’s made a difference, in my mind Szczesny too, Clichy’s improved, but a strong defensive shield of Song and Wilshere has helped too. It’s a key improvement all round, but we’re still threadbare at centre-half and I do hope this week sees some movement on that front. As much as I would be excited to see another 17-year-old wonderkid arrive, another centre-back would make me much happier. The more centre-backs in the pantry the better, and can only help retain defensive momentum. How do you keep them all happy? Who cares – it’s a nice problem to have.

Anyway – a lovely day at the office. Now to the Carling in midweek. It’s all go.