Arsenal’s rotten week ends on a high

Aston Villa 2-4 Arsenal

The sight of Arsenal sitting atop the league table – albeit briefly, until Turkey Rovers twizzled over at Old Trafford – was as much as anything conformation that this is no ordinary season. On Thursday’s Football Weekly podcast we were told that 28 points after 14 matches (which is what Chelsea had yesterday morning) was the lowest points total of the top-placed side since time began. The fact that Arsenal are up there, scrapping away, says a bit about Arsenal but also a bit about the inconsistency – or is that equality – among the top teams this season.

Yesterday’s trip to the Villa was – as most league games seem to be at the moment – crucial for Arsenal. After two truly rotten defeats, a win was much needed to steady the ship. That we got it and went top is, as I mentioned, a bit nuts.

We absolutely deserved it though. In the first half, we were utterly dominant and should really have scored long before Arshavin’s very Arshavinesque right-foot daisycutter. Nasri’s second, from the excellent Russian’s corner, prompted an outpouring of gallows humour on Twitter. Surely we couldn’t keel over like we had done last weekend?

Cue a Villa goal on 51 minutes and some painful memories of the weekend before. It was a lovely finish but the Arsenal defence backed off for so long that Clark had time to stop, do his hair and floss his teeth before letting rip. [A bit harsh perhaps – the goal should never have stood as Carew was offside and interfering with play by blocking Fabianski’s line of sight.]

Fortunately, Chamakh eased the nerves with a deft toe-poke but this being Arsenal, we were pegged back again when Clark rose unmarked in the box and nodded it over the line. After that it was a little bit frantic but Jack Wilshere rounded things off with a headed goal, his first in the Premier League.

Going forward, we were a joy. Arshavin had a superb game, ably helped by Wilshere and Nasri, both of whom were again excellent. But at the back we were less convincing when put under pressure, and the fear when we concede is palpable. I’m not sure I need go into it any more detail. We have not defended very well all season, and if there are any dances or sacrificial beasts that can be offered up to the gods of Achilles heels, I will happily perform them to ensure Vermaelen comes back firing on all cyclinders. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. But it also makes the defence defend worse.

A quick word about Nasri and Chamakh. It is very doubtful had you placed a bet on the opening day of the season that you would have tipped those two to top our scoring approaching Christmas, but with 10 and nine goals respectively, they have exceeded expectations. It’s no surprise that in a formation where only one striker starts, van Persie is struggling to get off the bench.

Nasri scored just five goals last season, and even if you’re being conservative you’d now expect him to hit 15 this time round. Some improvement from a player who is comfortably our stand-out performer of the season.

So a very good win sets us up well for three important but very winnable games – Wigan in the Carling, Fulham in the league and Partizan in Europe – and from there it’s a trip to Old Trafford on Monday 13th.

Dear Father Christmas. Please can I have a month of consistent winning. Thanks, bye.

Doubting Thomas’s red / Songtral defence

Lionel roars

It’s now just a week to go until Barcelona roll into the Grove, and quite honestly, I think I can allow myself another dose of early excitement. Yes, I know there’s a crucial Premier League game at St. Andrews first up – they’re all crucial now – but without a midweek match there’s plenty of time to think about both.

It’s all about Messi, with his spectacular hat-trick against Zaragoza (“that’s for Nayim”, I muttered) well worth a watch if you’ve not seen it. He’s in such ridiculous form at the moment that the world’s pundits are running out of players to compare him to. I can’t wait to see him play to be honest. I’m sure Wenger will devise a cunning plan involving the periscope sprinklers to negate him.

One person who does find the whole thing a bit weird is Thierry Henry, who has said “I don’t want to play against Arsenal”. I can understand the sentiment but it’s still odd to be seen to be talking yourself out of a place in the starting XI. Perhaps he knows already that he’s unlikely to start?

Verm but fair

I was surprised to learn that Arsenal tonight appealed against Vermaelen’s red card on the grounds of wrongful dismissal. I must admit, I did think the club would take the one-match ban on the chin, but clearly they a) feel they can get this one overturned or b) are sufficiently worried about Saturday to give it a go. Presumably the FA cannot extend it further if the appeal fails?

Songtral defence

Having seen Song drop into central defence against West Ham, and do very well there, it does of course give us more options for Saturday, albeit at the expense of the holding midfield role in which the Cameroonian has so excelled this season. Given the proximity of the next two games, I’m inclined to think Campbell will play in only one of them, and seeing that Arsenal have appealed against Vermaelen’s red, it could well be that Sol is earmarked for Barcelona only. That would leave Song and Silvestre as the only option for this weekend, which might explain the appeal. I could of course be talking absolute guff, but Campbell and Vermaelen, with Song mopping up in front, would be my choice for Barcelona.

Right then, laters.

One down, three to go

Good result, bad result, two points lost or one gained – we just don’t know yet. I would wager that a draw at Villa is a good result, but ask me again after the next three games and we’ll know more. We were hardly going to go there and waltz it.

The main sensation I had from last night though was that we didn’t play that well. We didn’t lose but we hardly set the pulse racing. That feeling fans can get of an unstoppable head of steam building up – of a team on the verge of take-off – well my own view is we’re still a way off that.

What it does mean though – and don’t tell the marketing men at Sky in case they milk it – is that Sunday’s set-to is undeniably hugely significant. Winning it might put the wind into our sails. Losing it might knock us into the doldrums.

I know Vermaelen and Eduardo succumbed to Arsenal Fever – the former fortunately not breaking a bone – but there is at least some comfort in the knowledge that we’ve got fewer players out now than we’ve had out for a while. Nasri, Song, Eboue, Walcott, Rosicky, Bendtner, Clichy, Sagna, Fabregas – all have had recent injuries of varying severity, or have been away, and all are now back.

I said back at the beginning of the month that to not strengthen the squad at a point where we find ourselves in a healthy league position would be almost criminal. It’s a young squad with some extremely talented players and potential oozing out its pores but there’s surely not a soul on this planet who believes Arsenal could not be strengthened.

So I 100% agree with those who say that buying could only benefit us. How could it not? Look what spending £10m on Vermaelen did. The market, it’s clear, is hugely subdued, so I’m not expecting miracles. But I do still think we might swoop (for that is the only suitable verb to use across all media outlets as Jan 31st edges closer) for someone. It’s not due to some magical intuition or insider knowledge.

It can probably be put down as being nothing more than the eternal optimism of the average football fan.

PS – Comments are totally kaput since I upgraded to the most recent version of WordPress. They’ve disappeared. Can’t post new ones. I have no idea why so if you can help on that front, or know someone who can, I’d appreciate any advice going. You can mail me at eastlower AT googlemail.com or DM me on @eastlower on Twitter. Ta!

Update: Comments are back. Thanks to all who responded to my desperate plea and in particular @arseblog, @jim_aboutaball and @govindraj

Match preview: Time to tighten the defence

Morning all. I did the classic thing of waking up in the middle of the night, and in the course of trying to get back to sleep thought of something particularly noteworthy to blog about this morning. Sure enough, when I woke up, I couldn’t remember a jot. I remember once being advised by someone to leave a notebook by the side of my bed so I could write down dreams, nightmares, blog ideas. But I never remember to do that either. It’s a vicious circle.

Anyway, one thing I did do this morning is look at the league table. Now, there’s no doubt we’re still in there and the top of the table has certainly not run away from us. But it’s noticeable that when the margins are so tight, even playing 24 hours after your rivals, as we are doing today, adds an extra pressure. Win today and on Wednesday and we all know we’ll be right up there. Lose or draw today and suddenly we’re back to being five or six points off the pace.

Which is why a couple of tepid performances can be very damaging. We were pretty awful against Everton and we can’t afford to do anything other than fly out the blocks this afternoon as a result.

It could be the classic banana skin. New managers have an uncanny ability to galvanise their new sides, even if that galvanisation only last a few games. Typically, today is Bolton’s first game under Owen Coyle.

Fortunately for us, we’ve got Fabregas back, and well enough though our third-choice left-back Armand Traore has done, I’d hustle Clichy back into the side if he’s as near as Wenger insists he is to being ready. Vermaelen has been an excellent addition to our defence, but as a unit we’re still shipping goals and Clichy’s return could tighten things up.

While we’ve had a fair few clean sheets at home, as you’d expect, it won’t surprise you to discover that away from home we’ve not kept a clean sheet in the league since 26th September, a 1-0 win at Fulham.

Yes, we still need a striker, but there are things we can do in the interim to help ourselves. Defending better, both individually, as a defensive unit and as a team is as good a place to start as any.

Lucky goals, but not lucky Arsenal

Celtic 0-2 Arsenal

Let’s get something straight here: Arsenal’s goals may have been a tad fortunate last night (a ‘backer’ from Gallas and an own goal from Gary Scoredwell), but Arsenal earned their luck and more than merited the first English success at Parkhead since 1983. Once that first goal went in, we were in complete control of the match. In the second half, we dominated.

I thought Celtic played well, throwing everything they had at us, and it was a good, physical, high tempo scrap.

It was a very, very encouraging evening overall. Scrappy at times, yes, but we dealt extremely well with everything.

I don’t want to tempt fate here, given we’re only two games in and with Arsenal’s injury record, Gallas could easily sprain an ankle tripping over a ketchup bottle and Vermaelen could come down with scurvy, but our defence looked pretty solid. Both central defenders deserve praise – the former marauded about all night and look an absolute snip at £10m, while the latter has started the season as bright as a button. In fact, he’s now our joint top scorer.

Song and Denilson, too, have begun the campaign very well. Song, in particular, was calm, composed, crisp in the tackle and mopped up like a demon. I would have struggled to write such complimentary words, had the tail-end of last season not threatened this – and as far as humble pie goes, I’m prepared to munch it all night – but he really has come on leaps and bounds. Arsenal.com might still be listing Song as a defender, but surely last night’s performance proved that he’s really anything but. He’s a midfield anchor, at the moment.

Wenger said of him:

“In the last two games Song has played extremely well. He can win the fight, not only with physical strength but he has that sense to nick the ball from his opponent without giving away the foul. That’s a very interesting quality.”

Up front, we worked hard and carved a few chances out, but Celtic closed well and there wasn’t much doing.

It’s far too early to make any judgments about where the Arsenal are, compared to last season, but there are some really encouraging signs that there’s a hunger there, and a steely determination, and that bodes well. Whether some of these players have stepped up a gear – well again, that’s hard to gauge at this stage, but the early signs are good. We’re scrapping hard as well as creating, we’re matching teams physically, we’re defending well, and all this with the usual arsenal of injuries (a worryingly apt collective noun).

The mood is buoyant.

On to Saturday…

All Gunners blazing as Arsenal run riot

Everton 1-6 Arsenal

Here I am again, eight days since I last fired up the blog. I’ve been away, breathing in deep gulps of bracing coastal air, and though I had access to a laptop and a broadband connection, I let the blogging go fallow. So no season preview – seems a bit late now anyway.

However, I did say on Twitter a couple of days ago that I was “strangely confident” about this season ahead. I accept that part of this optimism could be put down to the kind of giddy irrationality prevalent ahead of new seasons. But on top of that, I do think that, a year older and wiser, some of the players who struggled at times last season could be 10%-20% better this time round. Although we had some teeth-gnashingly dull 0-0 draws and lost in the Champions League semi-final (heavily) and FA Cup semi-final (depressingly), we have only lost once in the league since November 22nd.

A team gelling and growing together is hard to gauge – and though a 6-1 destruction is no exact measure of how we will do over the next nine months, it’s undeniably a statement of intent.

I’m not denying that we’d still benefit from a few new faces in key areas, but try telling Song and Denilson yesterday that they need someone in ahead of them – both were excellent.

The fact we came away having scored six, despite having Walcott, Diaby, Rosicky and Nasri on the sidelines, is a massive fillip. You could not ask for a bigger shot in the arm than a 6-1 drubbing of a very decent team on the first day of the season.

One thing I had been worried about was a poor start to this season, and what it might do to some fans’ relationship with the team. There was a lot of negativity at Arsenal last season – more than I’ve ever seen before – and though some of it was merited, I really hoped for a clean slate this season. You sense that some people, when they don’t see half a dozen new faces, plunge into a sea of gloom far too readily.

After yesterday, the team and the fans will be flying, and rightly so. We were excellent – all six goals were fantastic. Denilson’s opener was a rasper, Fabregas’s second a gem, but my pick was Vermaelen’s debut goal. I love a well-placed header, me, and that one was a mouth-watering looper. I really do like a header. Terrific things.

So what better way to warm up for the (warning: cliche coming) Battle of Britain? I’m looking forward to it already, a bit too much in fact.

In fact, the return leg will be my first game of the season as I’m foregoing the Arsenal on Saturday to go to the Oval to see the Ashes. I know I might get a bit of stick for admitting that – but some of you will understand the dilemma… I hope…

So anyway – I am planning to resume normal blogging service henceforth. Sadly (though not for you, probably), these days that doesn’t mean a daily update. Small children are too draining for that. But it’ll be more frequent than once every eight days…

Right, onto Tuesday. Football is back. Ah, joy.

Phew! Pre-season is here.

So it all kicks off again, at Barnet, this afternoon.

And while the squad does contain the expected Frimpongs, Coquelins and Barazites of this world, it’s a surprisingly strong 21-man squad when you add Rosicky, Arshavin, Gallas, Vermaelen and Almunia.

How marvellous it is to see Tomas Rosicky back. By my reckoning (with a little bit of help from the worldly-wise internest), he has been absent from the pitch for roughly forty-six million, six hundred and fifty-six thousand seconds. The poor fella has had to rehabilitate for 18 long months, and his treadmill-pounding began just when the world went to the financial dogs. It must have been pretty miserable looking at the looped news on Sky on his sofa with his hamstrings all askance.

Anyway, welcome back the T.

From Tomas to Thomas – it’s a big welcome for our Belgian defender Thomas Vermaelen. As it stands, he has to battle his way to the front by displacing Toure or Gallas – though I’m sure Gallas and Toure will feel threatened too – so we could see some concentrated minds at the back as the competition for places hots up.

(Incidentally, we do have another top Gunner out there – Thomas Cruise. Who will be his wingman?)

(As if the poor lad hasn’t heard that before).

Finally, and I was rather hoping this would have gone away by now, but I am struck by how much of a PR disaster Emmanuel Adebayor is. He and his ‘people’ have managed to go about this on-off transfer so hamfistedly that, in addition to the already lukewarm Arsenal fans, I can’t imagine Man City fans are wheeling out the brass bands in anticipation of his arrival either.

It’s not as if the non-partisan football fans of the world are looking upon him through soft focus either. The press he has received – whether it is fair or entirely fabricated – does not paint him in a pretty light and his advisors have a job on their hands to turn his reputation around.

Some of it’s been pretty vitriolic. Sure, I’d like to see him sold too, but reading some of the stuff I have read online, you’d think he was the most despised Arsenal footballer of all time. Is he really?

It’s all gone sour with him now, and he needs to move on as much as we would like him to. But he’s hardly the first footballer who wants to feather his nest, nor is he the first employee to wish he worked somewhere else and let his performances dip as a result. His obscene weekly salary does not protect him against that.

What City are taking a punt on is a player who – when his mind is right – has the ability to cause havoc. A player who, even in a bad season, can score 15 goals. For their sake, I just hope he wants the challenge there enough to replicate his form of 2007-8. (Clearly, personally I’d rather he forgot how to tie his shoelaces – that would serve the Arsenal best).

For our sake, I hope he realises that there’s no way back at Arsenal and that moving to City, as his only option, is something he should grasp with both hands and get stuck into.

New man Friday?

Ready to pounce here, preparing to swoop there: there’s genuine hope that Arsenal’s summer business is beginning to be done.

Clearly, the most likely and immediate incomer is defender Thomas Vermaelen, due we are told for a medical tomorrow.

All he needs to prove to Tony Colbert is that he hasn’t got balsa legs and the deal should be done. His arrival – fingers crossed and all that – could precipitate a bit of movement in the other direction. I can’t see Senderos staying (the only player currently on my transfer ‘Ins’ – strictly speaking he counts as an addition to the squad), but nobody is clear if any of our central defenders, Djourou apart, will 100% be here next season so your guess is as good as mine.

Other linkees are Marouane Chamakh, Felipe Melo and Uncle Tom Cobley. I have no idea of the veracity of any of these, except for the latter, of course. Cobley is not a footballer.

And finally, Theo Walcott’s peculiar pre-pre-season continued tonight with a second half cameo for the England U21s that was full of promise. He’s been average one moment and excellent the next, and substituted twice at half time – once for the seniors and once for the U21s.

The bottom line for me here is that Walcott is a work in progress. It’s absolute lunacy (though sadly, absolutely predictable) for people to write Walcott off so early in his international career, as some have done. He’s 20 years old. He still has a lot to learn, but overall, in a year that included 4 months out, Walcott has made massive steps.

Nothing to add, really.

Deal or no deal etc

We’re still ‘on the brink’ of signing Vermaelen, I see. It says so everywhere.

I suppose I can’t complain: compared to the Nasri transfer last summer, and numerous other last-minute in and out jobs like Gallas and Arshavin, this close season – all two and a half weeks of it – have been a breeze.

The Vermaelen story has the longest legs – it’s just a shame the player doesn’t.

In all seriousness, any central defender worth £10m must have something about him, even in this inflated market. Tony Adams might know a thing or two about defending but I doubt he’s been scouting him for months, as Wenger is bound to have been doing.

Wenger’s defensive judgment is not bad – he lengthened the careers of the famous back line, he bought Campbell, Toure, Lauren, Lehmann, Clichy and Sagna amongst others (let’s put Stepanovs down to a bad day at the office and this season’s sieve of a defence to there being something in the water).

Whether or not Toure, or indeed Gallas or Silvestre, will head the other way in any defensive revolving door remains to be seen. Personally, I’d be keen for both Gallas and Toure to stay. We all know the guff that went on in the run-up to Gallas losing his captaincy, but he was very good in the latter part of the season. And though Toure hasn’t been quite the buccaneering Ivorian of old, he’s an old head and a club stalwart.

It does feel as though one of them might go, though. We could do with four central defenders – we needed as many as we could muster this season – and we have four now. Who goes will depend on a myriad of factors. Whether we can get good money, whether it’s the right time, but above all, whether one of them wants to leave.

Talking of defenders, I see that Kieran Gibbs scored twice for the England U21s tonight.

With Gibbs and Clichy, we’re sorted in that department. I know it’s early days to say this, but for how long can we keep them both happy?