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.

Arsenal’s lead whittled as floodgates open

Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal

I keep hearing how this was a cracking game for the neutral. That would be all well and good if I was a neutral. From my perspective we leaked six goals and there’s only so much heart you can take from your team being involved in a game that everyone but its own fans went away from with a warm glow. Everton last week was another cracking game for the neutral. Glad to be of service but we’ve taken one point from six…

It was a game of many facets though, hard in a way to pigeonhole. City scored six but could have had eight, we had the ball in the net five times and could have had a penalty. Our parsimonious defence chose a rotten day to switch off, but then again who can deny the impressive firepower of City? They’re tonking pretty much everyone for fours and sixes at home these days. I also read somewhere that we should take some comfort from scoring three times (five, if you’re cross with the linos) at a venue at which barely anyone else has ruffled the net yet. Small comfort but I suppose if there are two positives that do come out of yesterday it’s our ability to score goals and our determination to keep going when all seems lost.

On that note, a good game for Theo Walcott – absent all season – who scored two nice goals. It’s easy to forget that we have reached Christmas without two of our biggest scorers of last season, Walcott and Podolski, who between them got 37 goals. If you want to take another positive from a six goal clumping, it’s that we now have those two men back, and just at a time when both of this season’s main scorers, Giroud and Ramsey, have hit a dry patch.

At the back, we couldn’t really cope. Mertesacker was his usual composed self but Monreal – so good against Hull City – had a tough game and we were breached far too easily for my liking. Our midfield didn’t help, with Wilshere especially sloppy, and I think fatigue, though Wenger tried not to blame it, had an increasing effect as the game wore on with misplaced passes aplenty and losses of concentration. This was personified by Giroud, who missed several presentable chances and wore the hang-dog expression of a weary man.

We were never in control, really, always trying to chip away at a City lead rather than being able to hold what we had. The nearest we got to looking like we might get something was at 3-2, when Theo’s goal gave us a shot of energy, but almost immediately conceding a fourth did for us. The game was lost then.

We shall see what effect conceding six goals has on us psychologically. It’s hard to say but what is certain is that City look formidable. We’ll find out soon enough of course with Chelsea coming to town a week on Monday. One thing we’ll know for sure is that nine days off gives us a good opportunity to recharge our batteries and nurse our lacerated knees.

We are still top.

Which is worth remembering.

Interlull: Good for looking back and looking forward

One of the few benefits of downing tools for weeks on end, as I am increasingly doing, is the ability to view things in splendid hindsight. After the Utd game I was a bit tetchy at the no-show in our midfield, somewhat deflated at not getting at least a point at a place we have in recent times consistenty struggled at.

But looking back at it, no real complaints. It was an excellent performance against Liverpool, followed by a sapping rearguard smash-and-grab against Dortmund. There was just not enough in the tank to make real inroads against Utd.

Our away record finally fizzled out but it’s worth noting for posterity – 16 games unbeaten was the catalyst for 6 months of upturned fortunes. Szczesny, Gibbs, Koscielny, Mertesacker, Sagna – all have upped their games and are our best defensive unit in ages.

It’s also nice to observe that overall, people have been pretty sanguine about this loss. Compare and contrast with the previous league loss against Villa. So yeah, there’s plenty to be happy about.

Of course, with the transfer window peeking over the brow of the hill, thoughts turn to January. We ought to have both Podolski and Walcott back soon, both of whom could (but don’t tend to, as the team needs a Giroud-type player) play up front, but we still need more attacking options. I’m not saying we need to amass four £30m strikers, because that is patently unrealistic. But there was a time when we could muster one or all of Henry, Wiltord, Kanu and Bergkamp. Sometimes, all at once. We just don’t have that variety to call on.

I don’t know how these things work, but you’d like to think that, if we wanted someone earlier rather than later in January, we’d be doing some legwork now. For me, whether a target is cup-tied in the Champions League makes no odds – the league is probably more important and besides, you have to consider the longer-term picture anyway.

There have been some big names bandied around already (nothing concrete, but still) like Dzeko, Hernandez and Benzema. There’ll be a lot of this stuff over the next month or two but we’ve been here too many times to be anything other than cautious in the extreme. Two points about that: 1) No rival, if we are still there or thereabouts in January, would sell us one of their ‘spare’ strikers in a month of Sundays. Look what happened to the Ba deal when it became clear that the Ozil signing would make us more competitive. Canned straight away. And 2) I think it’s fantastic that we showed the ambition to spend £42.5m on a player, but it’s not the kind of deal we can afford to do often. Not many clubs can. So on that basis, if I had to bet I’d say that any player we bring in in January – if we bring anyone in – will be more in the £10m-£15m bracket, which would rule a Benzema-type player out. Partly because of availability, partly because of cost.

For now, we’re back to fiddling uncomfortably with the Giroud worry beads. In an ideal world we’d be able to rotate him in and out according to his condition. Not an option right now though.

Three of your finest points

Marseilles 1-2 Arsenal

Well that went well. we rode the storm a bit but hit the sweet spot with Walcott’s strike and never looked back from there. This is a devil of a group – the best one we’ve had in a while (I mean that – it’s much more interesting this way) so to hit the ground running with an away win is just what the doctor ordered. Keep the prescriptions coming, Dr Win.

It has to be said, the hand-wringing and wailing over our summer of glacial transfer action and the opening day defeat to Villa have obscured – at least they have to me, for I do like to wail and wring my hands – what a good run of form we have hit since winning in Munich back in March. Ten away wins in a row is phenomenal, to be honest, as is one defeat in 18.

Sorry to put a dampener on things, but there will be setbacks. However, the trick when that happens is to get back in the saddle like we did after losing at home on the opening day (I never was good at metaphors). It sounds easy but as we know, it is never quite that simple. There have definitely been times over the last few years that playing at home has hindered us, little bit handbraked us, left us wallowing too much in the wanting zone, but I do think that sloshing £42.5m on a proven, top class player has Ozilified the home crowd somewhat. Let’s hope so because the players can feed off us, we can feed off the players: job’s a goodun.

One more thing: In an era of angst about the dearth of talent of the home nations, it was heartening once again to see Gibbs and Ramsey having such good games, for Walcott to score the crucial opening goal and to see Wilshere edge back to fitness. If England do drag themselves over the line to Brazil, it’d be a shame if all three of those Englishmen didn’t make it on the plane, but for Gibbs to get there it might take an injury to Cole or Baines. It is his misfortune to play in one of the positions where England are genuinely strong. Still, he’s improving fast and it’s lovely to see.

Now, if you don’t mind I’ve got to make some finishing touches to my Giroud Knee Shrine. There will be humming and probably beads.

The year of the Ram

Sunderland 1-3 Arsenal

Every now and then I do that thing where I wonder what some of our home-grown players would fetch on the open market. Jack Wilshere, of course, form and injury notwithstanding, would command a pretty fee – a most handsome fee. But what about Aaron Ramsey? In just this last year his form has gone bananas, taking him from a squad player to a first choice teamsheeter. From being a victim of grumbles, he has emerged into the sunny uplands of the best form of his career. “What he has achieved is fantastic”, said Wenger. Damn right it is. We all saw that injury. My own leg goes wobbly even now, just thinking about it, so imagine how hard it has been for him to recover from that, both physically and mentally. To force yourself into a team, and then to make it stick.

This is what Wenger means, I suspect, about building your team rather than buying it ready-made. When you get someone who so utterly turns his fortunes around, it’s hard not to have a massive grin on your face. It says it all that on Ozil’s debut, it was all about Ramsey. His first goal was volleyed so hard the keeper couldn’t even drop a foot to block it. And his second was coolly slotted home after some ping-ping passing of the highest order.

Ozil, what about him? Top class despite having spent the day on the can (if it’s ok with you I’d rather not analyse this too much). Setting up Giroud’s goal and feeding Walcott the tastiest morsels. And that was just his debut. We’ve all read a lot about him, watched all the presentation videos, seen the fallout of his departure, so it was just a joy to get that first game done.

And so to Theo, a classic confidence player whose form is not quite that of his Welsh midfield mucker. Wide players – wingers, call them what you will – are the kinds of players who can drift in and out of games, due in part to their geographical location. Walcott was not peripheral yesterday, it’s just that he missed the chances he was presented with. I suspect he can’t wait for that first goal to come. Easy to forget though that he was our top scorer last season. It’ll come. As for his chances, the first one was the best. The header was a header, and he’s no Smudger Smith.

We got a bit of luck, for sure, and we seem to have developed an addiction to conceding penalties, which is not so amusing. But these are iron-outable things, I think. Maybe at the tail end of last season we veered too far into solid defensive territory at the expense of rip-snorting football, and this year we’ve veered too far the other way (these are eye-opening technical observations, I’m sure you’ll concur), and we need to get the balance right. Or maybe we just need Per back.

And Giroud? He says he’s ok. “He is the player at the moment that would be very difficult for us [to replace]” said Wenger. I am tempted to drop a sarcastic comment at this stage, maybe adding a throw-away soundbite about Bendtner, but given we find ourselves in a happy place, and in some good form, I might just button the old lip.

Onwards to France. Vive le genou de Giroud.

One nil to the Arsenal²

Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal

Backs-to-the-wall, fighting spirit, riding our luck, throwing our bodies at everything, defiance &c. (And I’ll skate over ‘missing a hatful in the first half’).

Yes, there’s something deeply satisfying about a one-nil away win in these kinds of circumstances, where at the end of the game the shirt colour can be described as ‘off-brown’ and Szczesny’s back has huge bruises on from being patted so hard and so often by his teammates.

The big Pole – who has been a bit skittish of late – pulled off a couple of blinding point-blankers. Such are the fine lines between success and failure that had he not done so we’d this morning have been wailing and caterwauling (Cattermoling?) about more dropped points.

A couple of observations:

The Corporal deserved to be sent off, with two badly-timed lunges, and while it could have been costly I find it hard to be too critical. I’m not sure he’s started in the league since that confidence-sapper at home to Swansea (when to be fair he did make a majestic howler). And yesterday he was drafted in at the last minute, which means he probably wasn’t mentally ready. It just goes to show what a run of games, or a single mistake, can do to your season. Earlier in the autumn he filled in admirably for Sagna, with no complaints. Now he looks rusty. He needs to cut out the wild stuff but he’ll be fine.

The former contract rebel needs to sharpen his arrows a bit, sure, as does Giroud, but overall Theo really is growing into his shoes (abysmal – Ed) and is having a tremendous season. Top scorer with 18 goals, his confidence is right up and he’s a really important cog in the machine just now. Again, autumn seems a long way off – when Wenger wasn’t playing him and a lot of the fans were in two minds about his worth. I don’t doubt there are still plenty who think he engineered a salary above his value, but at 23 he is now maturing lickety-split and can you imagine how sour we’d have felt had he walked away in the summer for free, on this kind of form, to either Chelsea or City or United? Sour as the blazes, that’s what I’d have felt.

Ram Zamzi* is having a good run of form but for the love of god will someone let him have a goal (and I make this entreaty to the opposition as well as to our players). He had a great opportunity yesterday but was just a bit too close to the keeper. I don’t subscribe to ramseyisnotgoodenough.rss which is why I somewhat desperately want him to get his first league goal of the season.

*Aaron Ramsey to a three-year-old

Super Jack is always going to get rough-housed, I’m afraid. He’s a little terrier and puts himself forward for all encounters. The opposition will go for your best player – it’s a fact. I’d like the refs to bear this in mind, but that won’t stop him getting involved. He’s an incredible little player – already our player of the season. It’s a shoe-in.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I don’t think it will be a case of Bacary Sayonara. I know we are hearing worrying murmurs about his future but it feels to me like the opening salvo in contract negotiations. You know, leak a bit about how you might leave, and let Arsenal take up the slack. Certainly, we’d be insane to let the Bac go. Jenkinson has the ability to take over eventually, but he’s just turned 21 and only has 16 Arsenal starts under his belt. He’s a rookie, albeit one with Arsenal wallpaper, an Arsenal duvet and a Gunners lampshade. Another year or so learning the ropes will do him no harm.

A week off now – I reckon some of those legs need it.

Ten glorious minutes

In a season dotted with more than its fair share of lacklustre moments and peppered by curiously slow build-up play, the quick-fire four-goal salvo at the beginning of the second half on Wednesday was like music to my ears. So much so that I think I might just bundle the memory up and replay it in my head at whatever point now suits me. I could press play during a quiet patch in a future game to cheer me up, or at work to liven up a dull stretch of breadwinning.

But obviously, if I don’t write those moments down to preserve them, I’m going to forget them in all their detail. I can barely remember the scores of games within a few months and it would sadden me if, in future times, these explosive six-hundred seconds had disappeared off into the ether. So here goes. I should add that this is how I end up remembering all goals.

Giroud, 47

OK, there’s a corner at our end, over to my right. It looks like it might be Theo taking it. I’m craning my neck. “Too bloody low, Theo”, wails my brother in frustration, and then the ball flashes into the net and we’re all cheering. “Top work, Theo” he adds. Who scored it, I ask myself? Might have been Giroud. Nifty move at the near post? It was a bit of a blur.

Cazorla, 53

I’m still a bit agitated, so imagine my surprise when whoosh! Cazorla back-heels it in. My recollection of how he came to be in a position to back-heel the goal is blurred. Anyway, I cheer and as I write this I’m going to look at the goal (I’ve not seen them since).

[looks at goal]

How exactly do I not have that carved into my memory? I wasn’t looking at my phone, given than Vodafone is a matchday deathzone. So it was Podolski to Giroud, who arcs a belter back to Der Hammer, then Cazorla does some magic. Now that I’ve had my memory jogged, I do remember that glorious dinked pass from Giroud. Nice.

Walcott, 54

This I do remember. Podolski thunders down the left wing (I don’t have him down as a thunderer, but by god he was thundering), crosses it on a plate with tassels on for Theo, who obliges. I remember every bit of this. We are high-fouring now.

Giroud, 57

Replace Theo with Giroud and you’ve got the fourth goal, at least that’s how I remember it, or don’t remember it. I mean come on, give me a break, I was a bit befuddled by this point. Four goals in ten minutes – I’m not used to it.

I’ve just seen it again and it wasn’t like that, not exactly. The Podolski bit was, but it was near post not far. Ah well.

That’s that then – I’m glad I have it lasered into the bonce with such clarity. Ten lovely minutes. When you’re at the ground they go by in a blur and you remember them in a blur. At least, I do.

Thank heavens for Arsenal Player. And real match reports. And people who can actually remember live football.