Dead or alive, Alexis spins me right round

Arsenal 3-1 Bournemouth

As we tip-toe over the last few yards of November I keep expecting some chaos to unfold, as is longstanding tradition in our neck of the woods.

But with just one game to go, whilst not entirely unscathed, we have not been weighed down by scathing. It’s been two wins, three draws and one uncategorised Rumbelows.

I won’t pretend this month has been that pretty, because it hasn’t. But we’ve still managed to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League and are just three points off the teams everyone is drooling about.

What we were all looking for today of course was a chink of light at the end of the tunnel of plod. And I think at times we got that, with the industry of Alexis, the energy of Theo, the perseverance of the Ox and the tidiness of Xhaka.

‘Even when he looks dead, he’s still alive’ said Wenger of Alexis after the game, and you have to admire the Chilean’s extraordinary work ethic that has rewarded him with ten goals now. Watch and admire.

The Ox, perhaps, was Arsenal in microcosm today. There were a lot of positives, not least in his attitude, but with the feeling that there’s still more to come. It’s there somewhere, we’re pretty sure of that – but just not quite entirely there right now.

After an opening goal on a silver salver for Alexis, poor old Debuchy hobbled off with what could be a ‘severe’ injury after just fifteen minutes. Can you imagine the mental gymnastics Wenger must have to go through when forced to make a substitution before the 67th minute? It must be torture for him.

For Debuchy, what ought to have been a dream move to the biggest club of his career has been one injury after another, sandwiched between the emergence of one of Europe’s great young right-back prospects. I fear, Matthieu, that it was simply never meant to be.

With a soft equalising penalty followed by a header flashed over the bar by Bournemouth, things felt momentarily as if they could head south. The Cherries – dangerous all afternoon – ran the channels well and were intelligent in possession.

But the second half opened up for Arsenal, and we are so much more comfortable when we have space and pace to run, rather than congealing round the edge of the box as we can do.

It brought the rarest of Arsenal moments – a headed goal from Walcott. Stick that in your literal pipe and smoke it, because yes it did actually happen. Cue a rocking baby for the new dad – congratulations all round.

Alexis duly finished it off and while we deserved to win, 3-1 felt a bit flattering. November’s been a bit flattering all over, now that I think about it.

A final thought about our central midfield. By my reckoning we’ve had six combinations there now, so I think it’s safe to say that Wenger has yet to suss out which one he prefers best – though obviously, part of that is down to Cazorla’s absence. Xhaka and Elneny were decent today, but will it be those two next weekend? Don’t bet your house on it, that’s all I’m saying.

As we move out of November and into the jingle-jangles of the festive season, it has only just dawned on me that, for one reason or another, and a potential home FA Cup tie notwithstanding, I might not be able to make a game until the 22nd January. Not so much of a winter break as a full-blown sabbatical. Even Diaby had shorter lay-offs than that.

What is it with these prawn-sandwich, half-and-half scarf fans like me?

*shakes fist at self*

Xhaka, tackle and roll

Arsenal 3-2 Swansea

“Why are raspberry bonbons blue?” asked Shedman quizzically, during the early lull – a time when the mind is prone to wander to the weightier matters of life.

And then Theo Walcott immediately scored, so the sweet crisis was averted.

I missed the goal.

Why? Because at the very moment he scored I was WhatsApping Feverpitch, asking him if he was bored yet, so naturally the game duly exploded.

Yes, I am the kind of idiot who is easily distracted by his mobile telephone. At least I was physically in situ and heard it happen – an improvement on the time I left Highbury a few minutes before full-time against Birmingham with the game tied at 1-1, only to get home and look on Ceefax to discover that we’d won something like 15-12 on penalties. I thought it would go to a replay, not extra time. Happy days.

I’m moving off piste here. Anyway, back to Theo. We had probed a bit, but it hadn’t really been a case of Swansea crumbling in the face of the storm. It just sort of happened, with Theo nipping in like a terrier. And then it just sort of happened again, with Theo swivelling full-circle to make the most of a defensive hash-up.

At this point I honestly thought the fat lady was unscrewing her mouthwash for a pre-warble gargle, but Xhaka (not his finest day, as it would turn out), gave the ball away and it was 2-1.

And as we all know, 2-1 is the most dangerous score in football, apart from 1-0, 2-0 and all the other dangerous scores – including, in the case of Arsenal, being 4-0 up.

Error aside, we played some lovely stuff in the latter stages of the first half, and missed a few chances after that too before Ozil latched onto Sanchez’s cross and applied the coup de grace.

Game over! Out comes the mouthwash.

But no, this being Arsenal we let another one in (as soft as a summer camembert) and then Xhaka got himself sent off. I think Wenger’s assessment of it being ‘dark yellow’ was right – though it was more ‘dark arts’. A bit ‘daft arts’ in truth as it was the middle of the pitch and entirely unnecessary to even give the referee the option.

Then things got really sticky. Theo hit the post twice – both times he should have scored. In fact, he should have scored five times yesterday, but Swansea had a couple of great chances to level it up.

So the relief at the end was palpable, and takes us to six wins on the bounce. I can’t remember the last time that happened. That’s fine form, even we’ve got over the line in the last two matches by the skin of our teeth.

Anyway, back to blue raspberry bonbons. The best explanation I could come up with was that they’re often placed next to strawberry bonbons in a point-of-sale scenario, and two similar colours would be confusing to the demanding consumer. Consider it, if you will, to be as if raspberry bonbons are always wearing their away kit.

Anything more credible than that, which ought not be hard, then do let me know.

Meek Arsenal are all at sea

Manchester United 3-2 Arsenal

The baffling thing yesterday was not so much that we lost – because lord knows, name a circumstance and Arsenal can magic up a defeat for it – but that we were, and still are, nominally in the hunt for the title. We look as if someone has poured us into the league table but forgot to say ‘when’.*

Up against an injury-ravaged team suffering from its own existential crisis, we excelled ourselves by bringing all of our own majestic psychological demons to the party.

And what a party it was. As if it wasn’t bad enough to be dishevelled in defence, inadequate in midfield and largely invisible up front, yesterday we simply did not look like a team that believes it can go all the way or has the stomach for the challenge ahead. We were well beaten and we were beaten too easily.

Congratulations to Marcus Rashford, by the way, who looked hungry and direct and fresh – all the things Arsenal weren’t. In two matches over four days he has scored ⅔ of the amount of goals Theo Walcott has scored all season. More on Theo later.

The comparison with the 3-0 at home, when we unleashed the dogs of war and blew United away in the blink of an eye, does not bear making. We’ve been harping on about that, and about City at home and one or two others, but sandwiched between all that has been a lot of stodgy football.

I don’t know what’s happened to this side, but something is missing. Welbeck’s late, great winner at Leicester was a moment to savour, but it didn’t spark us back into life as we’d hoped it would.

Our form has simply evaporated since Christmas. The best thing you can say is that we’ve hung in there, but the chance to win the most winnable of leagues is withering before our eyes unless we can engineer the kind of turnaround in form that seems entirely beyond us. Unless we can remove the lead boots.

I know it’s far from impossible, but where’s the belief? Where’s the bloody-mindedness? Who’s driving us forward? We weave pretty enough patterns, but the ruthless end product is absent.

You can’t get away with it when so many players are playing within themselves. Gabriel did not look ready to come back into a game like this, Coquelin struggled, Ramsey was ineffective and up front we basically carried two players. Wenger went top-heavy to generate some attacking momentum, but playing Alexis and Theo through these stormclouds of form is not working at all.

At least with Alexis you can say he never gave up: even if nothing else is working for him he tries to make things happen. But Walcott? I’ve stuck up for Theo many time before, but he was absolutely invisible yesterday. He’s too often invisible.

Three wins in ten does not tell a lie. With an injury list that has eased over the last month, now was meant to be the time to move up through the gears.

United away is always tough because it’s United away. But we wilted too easily against a far from vintage side. I don’t buy the notion that it’s a physical hangover after being ridden roughshod by Barcelona’s possession football, because there were five days between the two games and Utd played on Thursday too.

It’s as much psychological as it is physical – Arsenal’s great Achilles heel, some would say – and Wenger’s got about six days to fix it, via a midweek home game, before our Saturday lunchtime derby delight.

On yesterday’s evidence, I won’t hold my breath. But Arsenal are odd, football is odd and you just never know.

*With the greatest of apologies to P.G.Wodehouse.

Arsenal fluff their lines again

Arsenal 0-1 Chelsea

A weary sense of familiarity abounded after another crack at breaking Chelsea’s strange grip on Arsenal failed, practically before it had begun.

If Chelsea were meant to be the team lacking any confidence, then you wouldn’t have known it from the way the game started. Instead, it was Arsenal that began timidly, standing off their opponents and giving them plenty of time in midfield to start believing it could be their day.

Even before Mertesacker’s foolish tackle gave Costa all the encouragement he needed to swing the game in Chelsea’s favour, the warning signs were there. We weren’t at the races, and then we handed the match to them on a platter.

It was classic Costa: going down in a pirouette of agony despite barely – if at all – being touched, just to make sure the ref would get the message. He could probably have stayed on his feet and headed towards goal. That said, what was Mertesacker thinking? That kind of tackle had red card written all over it, touch or no touch. We all said it as soon as he’d done it, and off trotted Per without a backwards glance. It was a brainless tackle from someone normally so calm. So the gameplan, which was already bearing no fruit, went up in smoke.

Off went Giroud, a decision that in hindsight went wrong too. Wenger wanted to retain the capacity to hurt Chelsea on the break, but Cap’n Walcott barely scratched the surface of the match (though the linesman’s arm will have known it was in a game) and Campbell struggled to make any impact.

That Chelsea then scored seemed somewhat inevitable, and that it was Costa, strutting in front of the North Bank like a peacock, even more so.

So a terrible first half, really. We all wanted Arsenal to lay down a marker, but they once again played within themselves when it mattered, with a place at the top at stake, and against a team that brings out the worst in us.

Of course things got better – half-time rockets up half-time arses tend to have an effect – and in the second half we saw Monreal and Bellerin getting behind the defence a bit. Alexis came on and the place lifted, and there was the odd goalmouth scramble for our efforts. But in the end, Chelsea held on relatively easily against our ten men. One shot on target tells you as much. You can’t fault the spirit but the damage was done.

Wenger, as you’d expect, tried to accentuate the positive:

Despite the disappointing result, we should have even more belief in ourselves after the game, when I see how it went.

I hope he’s right but that could be wishful thinking, because at the end of the day we lost a game we really needed to win to give us the confidence to push on. We just weren’t good enough, dangerous enough or canny enough, and that’s a big worry.

Where does this leave us? Well, I was reticent to talk us up too much when our form was good, after we’d beaten Man City and played our way out of the Champions League group stages, because we’ve been here before and winning titles, as we all know, is bloody hard. Plus, while this is a good Arsenal side, it is not yet a great one.

Our form over the last few weeks has simply backed my caution up. Draws at Liverpool and Stoke are good results, most years. Losing at home to Chelsea is an awful one, but not fall-off-the-stool surprising. But taken as a whole that makes it two points from nine, and that’s hardly championship form.

We need to find form and we need to find it now. What else is there to say?

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.

WARNING: POINTLESS LINE-UP CONJECTURE IMMINENT.

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.