Oli and Wally earn their lolly despite dilly dally

Arsenal 2-0 Stoke City

A beautiful early autumn afternoon that saw me shedding layers as the match went on – sort of like a striptease, but without a single modicum of titillation – ended with what we’d all come for: a goal or two at home, and three satisfying points.

I would offer a more thorough match report, but as usual I failed to heed Matt Bianco’s advice and didn’t get out of my lazy bed. Then the day happened and here we are again in the evening. Increasingly, the days have a habit of doing this.

We missed a lot of chances. A lot. Better, I suppose, than not being able to miss chances because they weren’t there, but Stoke – now bottom – were not very impressive and we’ll have tougher assignments than that before too long. Let’s pluck a day out of thin air and call it ‘Saturday’. (Because you can lol all you like about Chelsea’s start to the season but it won’t go on forever, and you know what I’m thinking anyway so I won’t say anymore).

The goal Walcott did score wouldn’t have been scored by Giroud and the goal Giroud scored wouldn’t have been scored by Walcott, so I suppose that indicates perfectly well the benefit of not just having more than one striker, but of having different kinds of strikers. I liked Gabriel and I liked Bellerin and I thought Coquelin was absolutely superb.

Ozil won man of the match – which came as a surprise to me if I’m honest. Of course, his pass to Walcott was inch-perfect, and maybe that’s enough to warrant it. I have since read glowing reports of his contribution and his seven chances created, but from my vantage point at the time, looking at all eleven players a little bit rather than one player a lot, it didn’t really feel that way. He seemed to get a bit bogged down out wide. I guess that’s why Ozil divides opinion, even now: he’s hard to pinpoint at times. He pulls the strings under the radar but a whiff of the hang-dog doesn’t do him any favours.

Anything else? Well, the slither of an away end – I’d say they took about a third of their allocation – seems to be happening more and more these days. I don’t know how much we asked Stoke fans to pay for the away end – certainly not 62 fat ones – but perhaps cost is having more of an effect than we think. Maybe I’m wrong – do Arsenal release stats on away end attendance?

Final thought: we’ve started alright but City are flying. They have so much strength in depth that when Sterling and Silva are both out, they can still keep £28.5m Otamendi and £55m de Bruyne on the bench. We’ve rotated a bit ourselves – only five players have started all five games – but once we have Wilshere back, we’ll have even more flexibility and options in the midfield, and over the course of a gruelling season, we’ll need it.

Talking of gruelling… this headline. But I won’t apologise.

Theo, nothing about signings, and the sound of ambition

I have very little to say about the England game – less than normal, in fact – other than to say that it will have done Theo a world of good to nab some goals. And he’s better on the right, but we know that anyway.

That position has to be back on the table from now, surely? I think we work better with pace on the flanks, and that’s the one thing he guarantees us. Against the massed ranks of defence that are now the norm at the Emirates, is he not a better option buzzing in from the right than trying to lead the line?

It leaves the usual midfield conundrum: who to drop to play him or Ox there? I think the only answer can be rotation, to be honest. Ozil one game, Ramsey another, Cazorla too – there is competition and competition is healthy. A little risky to change a proven system, but the upside is the revolutionary possibility of players staying fresher for longer.

We’re lucky we have options there to be honest. And when Jack returns, we’ll have even more. A glut of attacking midfielders to counter the reliance on Coquelin at the base – but I don’t want to go into that anymore. You could lose years off your life by fretting about our transfer strategy. Here we are and we have what we have. And time will tell us if what we have is enough.

Are we ambitious enough, as a club? And even if we are, are we ever going to be able to bridge that obvious gap between paying our way and accepting the largesse of a foreign owner keener on brand-building for a country than on making a profit? Actually, the Gooner covers that quite nicely here. Food for thought at any rate.

I will leave you with the below as more food for thought, because I’ve been pondering it since I read it a while back, and I’d be interested to know whether others agree or whether I’ve simply misjudged it. It’s something Brian Marwood said as Man City closed in on de Bruyne, and after the Champions League draw:

“We want to get as close to winning it as we possibly can. We’re in it to compete, not just to get through the group stage; it has to be more than that. We haven’t been shy of spending money over the years because we have an ambition to be successful. Last year was a disappointment – that is how we are measured now. We were hurt by not winning [the Premier League] last year and not doing better in the Champions League.”

Why did it stick with me? In one paragraph it sums up a sense of naked ambition and bullishness that, in Champions League terms at least, you don’t hear much from Arsenal (“When we talk about the destination, it’s not winning a Champions League, it’s making fans proud,” Gazidis said back in April). Maybe I missed the memo, and am judging harshly as a result. Five consecutive last-16 knockouts have turned me into the arch-cynic that I now am.

And maybe of course, he speaks like that because he can spend £49m and £58m on two players and not bat an eyelid. With FFP evaporating before our very eyes, it’s a case of ‘To the victors go the spoils’ – at least financially.

Signing Alexis and Ozil and Cech &c is a sign of ambition, right? It is, of course it is, and this squad is as good as we’ve had in perhaps seven years. But do we do enough? Or do we actually do all we can in a market where – rich though we are – we are simply not able to pull the shots when it comes to the top echelon of players?

Maybe it’s just a perception then, but to me it feels like we strive to qualify for the Champions League to keep our seat on the top table and to attract players, but without really thinking we have a chance of winning it.

The Champions League equivalent of the ‘fourth place trophy’…

There’ll be no homegrown trolley-dash for Arsène

“I definitely wouldn’t go somewhere just because I’m a homegrown player.”

So said Jack Wilshere in the run-up to England’s match against Slovenia: a reminder, if ever it were needed, of the peculiar cachet of being British and half-decent.

Since then we’ve heard (admittedly unsubstantiated) rumours of Mourinho wanting an English Arsenal player – maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain – in return for Cech. Though we could just as easily put that down to a helping of typical Mourinho opportunism.

Man City would take Wilshere in a heartbeat, according to more rumours, but then again – is that because he’s English or because he’s good?

A bit of both maybe, because they’re short of homegrown players. That explains why they’ve bid a whopping £40m – and would probably go higher – for the admittedly promising Raheem Sterling. According to this chart, they’ve got six homegrown players (though that would be five now Milner’s gone). Chelsea, the same graph says, have three. Things may well have changed for both sides since then, I don’t know exactly – but probably not by much. We, apparently, lie on the borderline with exactly eight.

Of course, Arsène has been stockpiling British players for a while now, so compared to some sides it’s not something we need to overly concern ourselves about. What we do need to be careful about is keeping those we have. Partly because they’re good and partly because they’re homegrown.

The homegrown quota system was designed to bring more British players through the ranks, an aspiration I have no beef with at all. As an Englishman, I like seeing British players making it at Arsenal.

It’s a little complicated, but boiled down, a Premier League side is allowed 25 over 21-year-old players in its squad, and of those 25, eight must be home-grown. (This article from @heisenbergkamp explains it quite well, better than I can).

On top of that, Greg Dyke has vowed to extend those numbers to 12, phased in over several years, starting in 2016, and to make the ‘homegrown’ criteria tougher. I don’t know where we’re at with those proposals – not far, I don’t think – but you can see how even the prospect of this raises the premium on young British players.

| A valuable asset |

So good British players are valuable, and they know it.

That’s why, while I’m not remotely worried about Jack leaving, I do think Wenger has to find a regular slot for him (assuming form and fitness, naturally). Jack is valuable and Jack knows it. He wants to play and he needs to play. There are teams out there who’d bite and bite hard if he made the faintest flutter of the eyelashes.

But will any of our exciting young British crop actually go this summer? Wilshere, Walcott, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Welbeck, Gibbs, The Ox?

Hot air. Wenger would never countenance it and none of them are agitating for it in any way, shape or form. There is no swerving off the road at contract demands that we know of. Recent history says we buy rather than sell.

The only one who has the perfect storm of contract, age, nationality and ability on his side is Theo.

And until he signs, then you never quite know.

Where’s Wally? He’s right bloody here, that’s where

Arsenal 4-1 WBA

Walcott’s pootled along this season, slowly recovering his potency – oh so slowly – not always convincing on his infrequent forays off the bench, and nobody would have given him a cat’s chance in hell of making the starting eleven for the cup final on Saturday.

Until yesterday.

As timing things to perfection goes, that was straight from the It’s Up For Grabs Now handbook.

Theo was phenomenal, playing through the middle, causing absolute havoc. If he’d spontaneously combusted towards the end of the first half I don’t think anyone would have been massively surprised. He was that hot.

I’d say the general view is that Giroud will start, but I’m not so sure. Compare and contrast yesterday: when Giroud came on he looked languid and tired, much as he has done for the last handful of games. Walcott was the polar opposite. If you were picking the cup final side on form, you’d have to play Walcott, wouldn’t you?

It reminded me of the game he got injured against the Totts. Almost everything he touched turned to goals – that first one was just outrageous from that angle. It was, as my nephew says, ‘toast and meatballs’.

The second was less Hollywood but more deft, a shimmy then a smart finish, and by this point there was no stopping him.

The third, a tap-in, sealed the deal. I’d like to think I could have scored that one but the reality is I’d have been 50 yards back with my arms on my hips, searching for my inhaler, as red as a beetroot.

Wilshere was equally as convincing, though I’m not sure he has as good a chance of starting as Walcott does for the simple reason that the player he’d need to displace – Ramsey in all likelihood – is himself playing very well. Welsh Jesus hit the bar twice when he came on, a gentle reminder that Wenger is going to need to double-dose on Anadin ahead of picking his midfield.

As for his goal, it was a rising rocket. Vieira v Newcastle in 98. Goals don’t get much better than that.

The second half was a non-event by comparison, but that always happens after first halves that scintillating. Plus, who wants to get injured ahead of the cup final?

Everyone else contributed to the spectacle, with the only worry being the form of Ospina. He did not cover himself in glory either for the Baggies’ goal or for the fumbled long-ranger. Can Szczesny expect a call? I can’t see it. He’d surely have had a warm-up game first. The relationship there is irrevocably broken.

Overall, pretty much the perfect way to end the season, a return to goalscoring form after a mini-drought, and some lovely, lively and convincing auditions for the big one on Saturday.


My mind is racing to Saturday already. Don’t lie to me – yours is too. How would I line up for the final? Based on form (and in Ospina’s case, other factors) I say Ospina, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Bellerin, Monreal, Coquelin, Cazorla, Ozil, Sanchez, Ramsey, Walcott.

Sorry Jack, sorry Olivier. Some amazing potential stories in that line-up though, if it came to pass. The rise of Bellerin. Monreal displacing Gibbs. Coquelin the phoenix from the ashes. Walcott coming from nowhere.*

*But what do I know. Plus, I reserve the right to change my mind between now and Saturday.

Weave your magic, Tony Colbert

Good morning, and as the French say, ‘April Fish’.

Internationals have been and gone, and there seem to have been wall-to-wall matches since Thursday. Uefa changed this a few years ago, it transpires. Was it changed because:

a. We need to think about the fans more
b. To benefit the players
c. To maximise TV coverage and broadcast income

Clue: this is Uefa we are talking about.

Anyway, what do I care. I did watch England dismantle Lithuania. At the start of the game my ‘Eyes on TV to iPhone’ ratio was about 90:10, but after about ten minutes it was about 10:90. Gave me a chance at least to organise the folders on my phone (‘Stuff 1 and Stuff 2 are all over the place) and reinstate my Bergerac ringtone. So all’s well that ends well.

I watched England against Italy too, and quite enjoyed it. It made me feel a bit dirty, but it was nice to see Woy tweak and twang and turn a bit of a dog’s ear of a first half into a second half more akin to a sow’s purse. [How did your idiom training go? – Ed]

I thought Gibbsy did OK, though he did miss a Monreal in the second half, but Walcott was involved far too little. It seems very peculiar to me that he’s been playing centrally so much when it’s patently not where he is at his best. Against Monaco away, when we needed one more goal, he dolloped about in the middle when we could have done with him delivering the shizzle from out wide. He did the same against Italy, as well as playing at No 10, which is a bit like asking Berkgamp to fill in at right back.

I’ve been a big advocate for patience when it comes to Walcott, as he had a stinker of an injury, but he’s very peripheral at the moment. On this kind of form, the question is less “Can we turn down £25m for him” and more “Who would pay £25m for him”, but form changes fast and I’m sure his will improve. I’d still keep him, of course I would, but I am worried about how he’s played since his return, a few well-taken goals aside.

Incidentally, the answer to “Who would pay £25m for him” is still “many teams”. He was our top scorer two seasons ago.

Partly because he can be so much better than this, partly because it’s not a big outlay for an established international and partly because he’s English and so many teams have completely forgotten to buy or bring through English players.

Great to see four of our crocks back too – immaculate timing. As Arseblog says this morning, it will be interesting to see how we can fit them all in, Jack in particular. If Wenger has the nerve to genuinely rotate our midfield, then we might see a fair bit of him. He tends though to go with the same players when they are playing well – which is perfectly logical and reasonable – so Jack might have his work cut out unless we get an injury or two. What are the chances of that happening at Arsenal, I wonder?

Diaby, well let’s not hold our breath. Best case scenario is that he’s fit for a bit and can find himself a new club in the summer rather than having to retire. I suspect the options are that stark.

Saturday still seems some way off, but it’s pivotal. Before then though, it’s the Tony Colbert Magic Sponge Show.

Enjoy OK Wednesday. The starter gun has fired for Not Bad Thursday, then Good Friday. I’m hoping for Excellent Saturday, but if things go a bit sour we might need resurrecting ahead of the FA Cup semi-final.

Don’t worry, I’ve already got my coat and fled.

Giroud fizzes, Arsenal fizzle out

Newcastle 1-2 Arsenal

Arsenal’s record after European games has not been too bad this season – DDWLWDWWW – but you never know how a team will cope both physically and psychologically after being dumped out of the competition, especially when coming so close to confounding the statistics.

The Champions League holds a big sway on the psyche of the players, bigger than anything else, so I always suspected yesterday would be harder than we thought. Turns out the players were weary of both body and mind, because those two halves were chalk and cheese.

Thank heavens for Olivier Giroud, who motored to seventeen goals with his two yesterday, drawing only two behind Alexis. He’s going to overtake him, isn’t he? Giroud’s carburettor’s, erm, clean (?) while Alexis’s tappets are – ahem – tapping.

There was me thinking the motoring metaphor was worth persevering with. Transpires it wasn’t.

But those two goals were so valuable, with Welbeck forgetting his shooting boots (he had several good chances and for all his good work must learn to take them better) and Alexis in his current goal funk. We weren’t to know it at the time, but Giroud’s knee and head were the cushions for us to cling onto the three points as we ran totally out of juice in the second half.

I’m sure the lack of Ozil played a part, but overall I think we were just dead beat. So on that basis, those were three of the finest points you will lay your eyes on.

We’re lucky that our squad options are decent at the moment, and Wenger made the right call by resting some players (in this case, Mertesacker and Bellerin). Had Ozil been fit, Cazorla might have had a rest too. Rosicky, maybe, should have started that would have meant both Ozil and Cazorla out the side.

Walcott’s omission could have been circumstantial. He’s morphed into more of a home player as Wenger leans toward harder-working players on the road. In fact, the only two games Walcott’s started this season have been at home (Villa and Leicester). Yesterday, Alexis and Cazorla were out on their feet and we were on the back foot. Walcott didn’t seem the right option to bring on when we needed players who could defend.

I’m not saying there are not other machinations behind the scenes. It’s pretty obvious, with his contract, that there are. But the problem in its essence is that when he does come on he’s just not doing enough. Personally, I maintain that his injury – one of the worst you can get in football – is still a factor. Not physically, but mentally. (Falcao had a similar injury – and look at him).

I think he’s still finding his way back in his own mind, but on top of that, the team has moved on without him. He’s a great option for us, but it does feel like he might be off in the summer, and I think that’s a shame. He might not be as integral as he used to be but every squad has to have different kinds of players, and our squad is better for having him in it. Not every player can be the same, or work in the same way. The trouble for Theo is less that he’s not tracking back or slogging his guts out trying to win the ball back – he’s never done that – and more that the things he excels at such as pace, running at defences, clinical finishing are not working either. When his strengths are not in evidence, his weaknesses are exaggerated.

For Theo, it’s one of those occasions when an international break has come at a good time. He really needs to play and I hope he’s selected for England.

Nine games to go, and I’m still cautious. While we are only a point of second, we are not that far off fifth either and it’s very much still a case of ‘hold onto your hat’.

All the more reason to raise a glass to yesterday’s three succulent, moorish, tasty points.

You won’t fool me this year, window

I’ve been off the radar recently, in the land of dirt-cheap petrol. I haven’t needed to think about Arsenal, because we signed Gary Pallister, he got a work permit and Wenger muttered “Job’s a good’un” to himself in French (“Le boulot est bon”?).

Had you told me on the evening of New Year’s Day that I’d be in the mental equivalent of a La-Z-Boy on the night that the transfer window slammed shut, I’d have rung up and had you sectioned on the spot. Even back then, if you ignored the Southampton game and Stoke game that preceded it, our form was very good (I appreciate the nonsensical nature of that comment, but maybe you know what I mean). Those results just groundhogged the whole thing a bit.

It felt like we’d never learn, and yet here we are with four consecutive clean sheets, scoring goals from all angles and through to the next round of the cup. Walcott and Ozil are finding their form, Bellerin’s blossoming, Cazorla is imperious and letting Alexis rest has left no-one in a flap. How nice is that?

I didn’t think Ospina would retain his place, but he’s done just that, and on merit. Is he our number one stopper? (I ask that hypothetically. I just like the word ‘stopper’).

Meanwhile, Wenger’s at home with a glass of Beaujolais, you mark my words. And possibly a cheeky hobnob.

Cup tonic needed. Simply add gin.

Two wins and one defeat later, and it’s Happy New Year from me. Six points punctured by the now typical blip and Wenger readily admits we’re “haunted by the ghost of what we have seen since the start of the season”.

Finding a way to exorcise these ghoulish switch-offs is crucial, but it’s going to take more than garlic to add some tempo and nous to our daydreamers.

We could issue the players with crosses to wave when the ghosts turn up, but I don’t advise it. Us and crosses – weak spot.

Nor is it the only item on our to-do list.

So it felt odd that the first thing on the lengthening January list was off-loading Podolski. I understand why it happened, to be honest, but could it not have waited until the end of the month? What’s the logic in doing that now? Was he that much of an agitator? It’s not like we’re leathering goals in from all angles at the moment, is it.

Still, Poldi has gone and good luck to him. I will be interested to see where he is played and how he does. Will the same fissures be evident (workrate, etc) or will he prove Wenger wrong? Hard to teach an old dog new tricks but it will be interesting nonetheless.

So onto the third round of the cup today, and here’s to going two-nil down then fighting back heroically. Great memories from last season, but this (as they always are after a sapping defeat) is no break from the rigours of the Premier League. There’s no room for error.

But this game comes after a gruelling schedule and I can’t imagine it will be a sparkling attacking adventure. Hull have hit some form, we’re maddeningly hard to judge but at home. Everyone’s a bit weary. Call it if you dare but I have no idea.

Theo Walcott has said “I’m blowing the cobwebs away”.

If ‘The Cobwebs’ is the new nickname for Hull City, then we’re in for a treat.

I do love the FA Cup, though, so I’m bobbling-hatting it up and heading off with the boy.

Come on you leggy reds!

A bad time to stumble, stutter, splutter

Stoke City 1-0 Arsenal

You can’t really get away with blips or slumps or off days when you hit the final furlong of a season in which you are challenging for something. Look at how we won the league in 2002 – we got 13 straight wins from 10th February. In 1998, 13 wins and a draw between January and clinching the title.

Even last season, it took eight wins and two draws from 16th March to claw our way to the elixir of fourth. Form and momentum.

That’s what makes yesterday so ominous, really. Penalty or no penalty, we were very, very average until right at the end of the game. Two shots on target says it all. We let Stoke out-muscle us, and we let them get to us. We looked very one-paced until right at the end.

That’s now two wins, two draws and two defeats in our last six league games, with our next four being Spurs, Chelsea, Man City and Everton. From where I am standing it looks beyond our capabilities. Our form is too fitful.

True, Stoke have an excellent record against the top sides at home. And true, things might change. There will always be ups and downs. But to claw back those four points will require a phenomenal run-in and the kind of consistency we’ve not shown for a while.

We’ll be fourth if City take two points from their two games in hand. I suppose arriving at fourth having been top is an improvement on arriving at fourth having been sixth…

In all seriousness though, it’ll be interesting to see how Wenger approaches the rest of the season. Last season he tweaked things to improve our defence, and it worked, albeit to the detriment of our attacking play. Now, our defence remains mostly solid. It’s further up the pitch where confidence seems to be sagging. How can he boost us for the next stage of the campaign?

He could start by injecting a bit of pace. Theo, oh woe is me. We do miss his goals and his ability to stretch defences. The nearest we have to him is the Ox, who didn’t start yesterday. His confidence is up, unlike some of our players, and for me he comes straight back into the starting XI for the FA Cup.

Wilshere’s form is worrying too. He had a poor game yesterday following an excellent one against Sunderland – but we can’t afford that. Is he injured? Podolski didn’t offer enough either. But maybe it’s harsh to pick those two out. It was sub-standard stuff, really.

I wouldn’t say the Sunderland performance was a glitch – but they were very accommodating visitors and our next four league games will be anything but accommodating.

What better, then, than an FA Cup quarter final to get things right. What an important game that is turning out to be.