Holding in and holding out

Leicester 0-0 Arsenal

There was some good and bad to chew on in that performance, an entertaining but low-quality trip to the champions. But it’s not about the points at this stage, more about the performance.

Was there a measurable improvement on that front from last weekend? Well, we didn’t collapse. That’s a bonus. In fact, I thought we defended pretty well, with Holding and the immense Koscielny marshalling the back line very well, ably assisted by a bank of defensive midfielders and by Cech. In tough games, we now have three defensive midfielders to choose from to shore up the rear, and that can only bode well. Xhaka was tough, diligent, neat and tidy, and I really do like the cut of his jib. We need that kind of player.

We were a bit lucky too, with Coquelin about as disciplined as wasp who’d just had a parking ticket, and a late penalty shout that was about as contentious as night following day. Yes, referees are human, but we’d have laminated the hell out of some A4s if that had happened against us.

Further up the pitch: not so very good. I thought it was a bitty performance and without Ozil there was a severe lack of creativity. The Ox started brightly but faded, and while Theo worked hard, had a few shots and put in some muscular recovery tackles, it was a difficult afternoon and he had the kind of invisible touch that takes control and slowly tears you apart.

So too Alexis. His passing was off so often that I wonder if he’s even properly fit. Alexis is many things, but he’s no striker, not on this showing.

So perhaps it was no surprise that we struggled for momentum and for cohesion up front, and that didn’t really improve when Giroud came on as it was pretty late in the day.

The catalyst for our best period was Ozil – devilish little wizard – and how nice it was to see him back. But in the end, we cannot complain too much with the result.

It’s a draw that teaches us nothing we didn’t already know, except perhaps that Wenger has unearthed a good prospect in Holding. I did like Wenger’s tetchy but very apt post-match comment:

“Nobody is speaking about the performance of Rob Holding today. You should be happy; he is English, he is 20 years old, but I’m sorry he didn’t cost £55m, so it cannot be good.”

Proof that for all the maddening things he does and says, he can still throw some pearls out there.

Sadly, he’s up against it pretty much permanently at the moment. There’s disquiet in the stands with chants, banners have started already, and as I mentioned yesterday it’s very difficult to turn this level of feeling round now for him, which is why I feel this season is it for him. The desire for change is embedded and hard to shift, but I’ll tell you what could buy him some leeway…

With rumours about Mustafi persisting, there’s clearly the desire to bolster the squad there. But with desire you need action. Most pressing for me is a striker (if I had to choose), because we looked threadbare up there yesterday. It really is now or never on that front.

Get those two positions sorted and we have a much more complete squad. But getting nobody in is not an option. Not for the squad, not for Wenger and not for the fans.

Bring on the cricket

banners

Arsenal 1-0 Norwich

One nil to the Arsenal, three points and we shuffle into third.

That’s a sentence you could seamlessly copy from one Arsenal season and paste into another, and nobody would haul you up before the magistrates for ruinous fibbing.

Only the circumstances were different of course, and yesterday’s narrow win was played out in a stadium where the fans were at odds with themselves and the atmosphere veered from an apathetic low hum to quiet mutiny and then onto lung-bursting support.

Were you in London on Friday when the sun came out as a warm-up act for heavy hail, before introducing the wind, which gave way to rain then passed the baton onto more sun? It was a bit like that yesterday in the ground.

The apathetic low hum

It’s has been brewing all season and is borne, as if I need to remind anyone, from a multitude of factors. You could layer them in order of importance if you want; take a pick from manager or injuries or tactics or ambition or mental strength or strikers or… well, you get the picture.

For me, home tactics – or specifically coming up with a way of countering the deep defence of the away team – would be as good a place to start as any and might dispel some of the apathy and resignation next season. Yes, we’ve had some good home games this season where we’ve blitzed our visitors. (Incidentally, the concourse at half-time against Man Utd was the loudest and most raucous I have ever heard it. Great atmospheres are made by great football, just sayin’…)

But mostly, though we’ve won a similar amount of home games to those around us – only City have won more, 12 to 11 – many of our games have felt like a struggle and yesterday against Norwich it was the perfect illustration of that.

Plenty of neat and tidy football, most of which faltered at the edge of the box and built up too slowly to overwhelm Norwich. No shots on target until midway through the second half. Too predictable.

What changed it? Welbeck’s directness and pace was a breath of fresh air compared to Giroud, whose form and confidence has melted away in the spring sunshine. Then he scored (though cap doffed for the assist). But swashbuckling, ruthless and lightning-fast football has been thin on the ground for too long this season and it’s had an effect. All I’m saying is that there has to be a more exciting way to grind teams down than this.

The quiet mutiny

The banners were raised calmly and made their point, but it’s no surprise that the reaction was mixed. Where I sit, some shouted their displeasure, others got at one another’s throats, others supported. It was a bit unpleasant and one bloke had to be removed by the stewards. My seven-year-old learned some new words.

The number of banners were small, but my own guess would be that the majority still want change, but just aren’t comfortable voicing it in this way or during the game. That’s certainly where I fit in.

The lung-bursting support

The singing followed instantly from the banners and was a reaction to them. A reminder that most people just want to support the team. There’s wasn’t any pro-Wenger singing where I was, though I heard a little bit. It was loud and a welcome reminder that when we want to, we can make a lot of noise.

An outsider would judge that it’s all a bit of a mess to be honest, and a bit sad, and they’d be right.

But that’s where we are. Three points edges us closer to Champions League football and the season’s end.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for that.

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.

No laughing Mathieu

Like most people, I’m intrigued to know what will happen in January, not least because it’s rare to hear Wenger this bullish about doing business.


I am already busy. We are a bit short at the moment, especially in the midfield. We will be busy, yes.

It looks like El-Nenny is in the bag, a decisive piece of business, albeit for a ‘cheap’ player (even if, as suggested, he costs £7m that’s peanuts in the current market). But will there be anyone else? I have the feeling there might be. Why leave anything to risk when you are top and need as many weapons in the armoury as possible in order to keep that up?

I know we’ve said this before, and many times too, but for all the tumbleweed Januarys, there are one or two exceptions too. In January 2006 – ten years ago now, blimey, where has the time gone – he brought in Diaby, Walcott, Adebayor and Poom (Poom shake shake the room). So there are precedents.

But the football door often revolves, and we may also see Debuchy go the other way too. In fact, Wenger, who rarely gives much away, seems to indicate it’s in Debuchy’s hands.

“It’s not impossible. I’m happy if he stays, we’ll see.

On the one hand, it’s a bit of a headache if he leaves, because Chambers is the only backup short of recalling Jenkinson. I know we recalled Coquelin last January, but presumably the terms of loans differ and it tends to be a rare thing to do midway through a season.

But on the other, Debuchy has not played particularly well in the few games he’s had an opportunity, and could do with a new challenge. With the best will in the world, he’s not going to ever replace Bellerin full-time now. I just can’t see that.

So much in football depends on fortune or a lack of it, on opportunities grasped and opportunities missed. Would Coquelin have returned had Arteta and Flamini not got injured? Would Campbell have ever had more than a cursory run-out for Arsenal had our midfield not been decimated by injury? Would Bellerin have broken through this soon had Debuchy not had two bad injuries in his first season?

So I do feel a bit sorry for him. His Arsenal career, which he may have hoped would last three or four good years, has been massively curtailed. But on the flipside of the coin, that’s what happens in football and on this occasion Wenger has been ruthless. We sometimes accuse him of sentimentality but there has been none of it here – Debuchy was usurped by Bellerin and that was pretty much that. Yes, happenstance played a role initially, but it would have happened sooner rather than later anyway.

What would I do? I’d make him stay, because he’s our second-best right-back and we need as much strength as we can get in a season where we are fighting on three fronts – unless Wenger has someone new he can replace him straight away.

Things may well be more advanced than that though – Wenger hints as much. And Andrew on the Arsecast Extra suggests he was meant to play against Bournemouth but didn’t at the last moment. Make of that what you will.

You get the feeling an interesting month awaits.

(By the way, I’m enjoying this holiday lark, gentle blogging in my own time. You’re probably entirely indifferent, but I’m happy. Expect a return to blogstinence in January though…)

Arsenal feel like they’re two players short, again

Arsenal 0-0 Liverpool

A weird game in which we should have been one nil up, then two nil down, and could finally have won. It was a defensive horror show in the first half but it became less terrifying as the game went on, but we didn’t have the firepower or the form to blow the doors off.

On the plus side, Cech and Coquelin excelled. Our new keeper found his feet and showed his value – though the amount he had to work probably gave him a sleepless night. He’d have been hoping for something more solid in front of him. Welcome to Arsenal, Petr!

Even with our first choice central defence, this is a creaky unit. With Chambers and Gabriel – little experience, no games so far, last-minute starters – it almost burst at the seams, though there were green shoots as the game wore on.

Loathe as I always am to pass judgement after just three matches, this has been, in Wenger’s own words, an average start with only two goals scored in three games (one by us and one own goal – though maybe Alexis’ header at Palace would have gone in anyway).

Last night, we felt a bit predictable and a bit narrow, and very sloppy, and for me it wasn’t until the Ox glued himself to the line that we stretched Liverpool as much as we needed to.

We need to find our form and we need to find it fast.

The strange thing about this summer of outfield inactivity is that, by not signing anyone, Wenger is relying on our current squad to organically improve by at least 12 points – or perhaps more. That feels to me like a very tall order indeed, and even more so given our start.

Without an addition or two, the forward momentum needed is hard to get or to keep. I like this squad a lot but it seems a risky strategy to me, and very presumptuous.

It feels to me that we are yet again two players short. It’s a sort of permanent Arsenal state of being. Theo is not a reliable striker and nor, at this stage, is Welbeck so we need a striker to ease the burden on Giroud – or to replace him as first choice, depending on who we can get. I know there aren’t many around, but that’s what we need.

We also need a Coquelin Mark 2. He was fabulous last night, if overrun, but he can’t do it all and we have nobody else with his energy. Not Arteta, not Flamini – two players who are in the twilight of their careers.

Are we too late? It’s only too late on September 2nd.

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.

A welcome winning blip

mirage

West Brom 0-1 Arsenal

I could trawl back over my blogging years and find dozens of examples of my morale hitting rock bottom, only for Wenger to shed some ballast on HMS Crisis, refire the boilers and steam out of trouble.

He is an absolute expert at that – he’s outlasted every manager in the league by a country mile, and he’s outlasted George Allison as Arsenal’s longest-serving manager by five years. He knows how important it is to steady the ship as soon as possible when it starts taking on water. “To stop a crisis quickly is one of the most important qualities”, he told Amy Lawrence when she interviewed him for her excellent book Invincible, “The longer it lasts, the more you swim against the stream”.

So the wins against Dortmund and West Brom – while you’d be wise to caution against undue optimism given everything that has gone on ad infinitum – was a much needed dose of smelling salts.

Dortmund was, in hindsight, pretty straightforward, with Yaya’s duck-breaker setting the right tone and Alexis wrapping things up in style. I confess I was quite worried before the game, but my anxiety was without foundation as it turned out. Klopp thought it might be a holiday from their bizarre domestic form, but separating one competition from another is easier said than done and it showed.

At the Hawthorns, promising signs afoot. Defensive solidity, a cagier approach (Amen, Hallelujah and Huzzah) and a fine winning goal created by Cazorla and buried from above by Welbeck. Giroud and Koscielny through the revolving door in the right direction, Monreal and Gibbs heading the opposite way to nobody’s real surprise. But it was an encouraging performance in many ways.

They posited on the Football Weekly podcast that with Arsenal, Spurs, Man Utd, Man City and Liverpool all winning, perhaps some of the peculiar post World Cup lethargy and bittiness of most of the top four wannabes is wearing off at last. I like the idea of that when it comes to Arsenal. Not so much in relation to the others.

You can only go with what you see – hence a lot of miserable fans for much of this season – but in the last two matches, and out of nowhere, I see green shoots just at a point when I wondered out loud what Wenger was smoking over at the Emirates.

Perhaps it’s a case of me staggering parched through the desert, desperate for succour, only to be presented with a mirage. Just as it’s too early to write this season off, it’s also too early to head down the bookies with a glint in the eye.

Keeping it up and building on it is something that has largely eluded us so far. The frustration with Arsenal, and with Wenger, is not made up. It’s not magicked from nowhere. It’s an accumulation of things going back a long way. We could argue all day if it’s terminal, or turn-roundable, but the bottom line is that nobody can say with any certainty.

What we can say with some conviction is that you can’t argue with the tonic of winning. It puts a different hue on things, and how we needed that.

I like winning.

More of that please.

Arsenal Arsenal it up again

Arsenal 1-2 Manchester Utd

Taken in isolation, that was a crazy defeat against a team that we mostly dominated. But in the end, it was the same old Arsenal, fashioning plenty of chances but taking none of them, then Arsenalling the whole thing up with archetypical naïvety.

The trouble is, you can’t really take this result in isolation when you look at the last 15 matches against United, from which we have emerged with just one win. The story is the same against Chelsea. Ultimately, we aren’t good enough against the teams we measure ourselves against, time and infuriating time again. It’s the same old story. It really never changes.

Just four league wins this season, all against teams currently in the bottom seven, says it all.

The first half – we were good in most areas bar the most crucial one. Jack Wilshere in particular had the biggest sitter of the day, and fluffed it. It would probably have been a different result had we taken one of those chances. I’ve watched a lot of these matches over the years and this is one of the least scary United sides of them all – and yet, the longer it went on goalless, the more I thought it would end up the same way that it has done in recent years.

The first goal was so Arsenal. Keeper injured by his left back, who then turns a shot in for an own goal. After that, it felt ominous. As Rooney said after the match, their gameplan was to hit us on the break (as was Swansea’s, and countless teams before them) because they detected a weakness there. Well, guess what, it works.

The sight of Per Mertesacker one-twoing to make something happen in the Utd half tells its own story. He’s doing his damnedest to make something happen, but it’s just not working. I’m sure Wenger feels the same way, but he appears to be out of answers too.

I’ve lost track of the amount of times he concludes that we’re not cautious enough, or we’re too naive, or we need to be more efficient. Countering those things is the problem.

And as for this:

It was just after a corner and we were not cautious enough. I don’t know why we had nobody at the back at all

Well, either he tells the players till he’s red in the face to do stuff but they never do it, which means the players are to blame, or he’s not telling them how to set themselves up at all and is left baffled when things go to pot. Either explanation is pretty troubling.

There’s no doubt we’re in a rut that Wenger is currently at a loss to extricate ourselves from. We’re making the same mistakes again and again (we have done for years, even if the nature of the mistakes changes with the seasons). The boss knows why things are going wrong, because he keeps telling us. But he hasn’t been able to turn it around.

In the heat of the moment, it’s hard not to make a correlation with Wenger now and George Graham in 1995, when terrible football was sticky-plastered with a good cup run to the Cup Winners’ Cup final. It felt like the end of an era then, and it feels a bit like that now. As I said on Twitter last night, ‘Wenger’s long goodbye’.

The football now is nothing like as bad was it was then. But turning the ship round against a tide of bubbling frustration, zero confidence, baffling tactics and a string of poor results is proving to be a very big job. We seem to have lost our way. What is our style? What is our plan?

Wenger used to be a magician. He’s going to need a ruddy big saw and a massive top hat now.

In which I get all pensive, again

Swansea 2-1 Arsenal

You know, at times like this it’s quite hard to come up with even the lamest pun to make me feel better. Something about whales, I thought, given the location. Blowholes. Blue. A bunch of planktons. Surrendering minkely.

But I don’t need to tell you how terrible these are, and then I ran out of steam and willpower. So instead I ploughed into a bit of gallows humour.

There, that’s better.

Anyway, what kind of comfort can I give you after yet another Collaps-o-Arsenal defensive shambles, another naive turnaround? No volume of puns will suffice, that’s what I think.

If anything, we seem to be going backwards this season. I look at the squad and I like what I see, for the most part (there are things I can’t see, because they don’t exist, and that’s part of the problem but I can’t pass judgement on things I can’t see). But the team, the unit – it’s not as good as it was last season. I keep expecting us to turn the corner but whatever we do, we do it in stutters, before reverting back to these weird half-performances, shooting ourselves in the foot.

And this with a superior attacking force at our disposal than last year, which now includes a player who is performing head and shoulders above his teammates, a player of genuine world class. Twelve-goal Alexis must be wondering what more he can do to shore up this side. Welbeck’s goals might have dried up but he’s working his socks off and getting assists. Everywhere else though, and as a collective – it’s not working or it’s not working for long enough.

The reasons? Injuries, confidence, an unbalanced squad, the World Cup, Uncle Tom Cobley. There are loads of tangible reasons, but there are others that are extremely hard to gauge. Psychological things like confidence, belief and trust also play a part. More prosaic things like organisation and tactics and decisions, too.

If there’s any consolation, the bigger picture tells us that of all the traditional top four-ish sides, only Maureen is getting his right at the moment. And how.

And that we can only get better and more consistent – surely.

But of course, it’s Wenger’s team, this, and it’s Wenger who can’t get the best out of it right now. It’s Wenger who didn’t quite finish the job in the summer, buying some great players, but leaving glaring gaps elsewhere. That our lack of defensive options has come back to haunt us has an element of extreme bad luck to it. But an element of mismanagement, too.

My thoughts on the boss waver, as do those of many people these days. He’s been the manager of the club I love for two-thirds of the time I’ve supported it. He’s incredibly consistent.

But I don’t think that questioning Wenger is knee-jerk these days. Arsenal’s weaknesses have been the same for ages. It’s boring listening to pundits on the TV and on the radio flag them up, then for them to say “told you so” when they manifest themselves again.

I don’t know whether this team would suddenly explode with a more stable defensive platform, cannier teamwork and more of a sleeves-rolled-up approach. It might. Like Arsenal did after losing to Blackburn 3-1 at Highbury in December 1997. (“Harsh words were exchanged within the dressing room…a watershed moment”). It would certainly improve us, you’d think.

What I do believe, though, is that this team needs new ideas, some new approaches, new motivation. It needs long-standing weaknesses properly addressed, once and for all.

Whether we’ll see that from Wenger – well I just don’t know. And that, I suppose, gets to the crux of it.