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.

Poor in the Ruhr

Borussian Dortmund 2-0 Arsenal

A few observations now that the dust of the Dortmund storm is settling (ha!)

World Cup focus?

I offer this as an olive branch to Messrs Mertesacker and (in particular) Ozil, neither of whom has started the season on fire. Could it be hard to re-adjust and re-focus after winning football’s foremost trophy? Pah, I hear you say, these are privileged and wealthy sportsmen who should be able to switch back on. But humans are humans and maybe it’s not that easy. (Andy Murray, after Wimbledon, has struggled a bit to adjust too).

Maybe I’m being cruel on the BFG here, but there’s no denying Ozil has been distinctly off colour. Perhaps it’s a physical thing too – a combination of the mind and the body.

Fitting the signings in

Le Boss has often said it’s a dangerous game to make multiple signings and upset a team’s rhythm. The Totts signed about ten players last year and struggled to fit them all together. Utd and Liverpool have done the same this year, and are yet to hit full speed. We’re playing with three new players every week – and maybe we need to make allowances for that.

Or maybe I’m being too forgiving.

The Champions League

Is an annual obsession to get into, but for all our seventeen years of experience, on nights like last night you can’t help but wonder what we’ve learned. We couldn’t cope with the pace and power and tenacity of a team like Dortmund, and it’s not the first time. I suspect it won’t be the last. It’s a competition we fight tooth and nail to get into, but on last night’s showing, seem remarkably incapable of properly competing in once there.

Le Boss

Dissatisfaction with Wenger is never far from the surface, is it? The FA Cup seems a distant memory at times. I can’t see this latent anxiety about him ever going away until we cut these kinds of performances out. His almost-but-not-quite transfer strategy has also had its usual effect.

Dortmund

Were absolutely fantastic. This is a team that competes at the top of European competition – it was in the final in 2013 – and is consistently up there. They’re canny and powerful and as a unit, incredibly effective. We didn’t help ourselves but we had no answer to a performance like that.

Danny buoyed

Strange old day at the ranch yesterday, with Wenger choosing to saunter off to Rome to ref the Pope’s Peace Match while the dildo and blow-up doll madness unfurled back in blighty. The score was 6-3, which made me laugh a bit. At least it wasn’t 6-0.

And would you know it, as Wenger fiddled with his whistle [enough of that – Ed] Danny Welbeck signed for the Arsenal. As the chaps said on the Arsecast Extra, there was a curious reaction to the whole thing from many Arsenal fans. Residual doubts about his goal-scoring prowess is probably one reason why, but I do think that the frustration of an inactive second half of the transfer window played a part too.

Now that the calm of day (and subsequently night – that’s how I roll on the blogging front) has arrived, the mood’s more positive. I think he’s a decent signing. He’s a hard-working player at a good age, with something to prove. It’s got Arsene Wenger stamped all over it if you think about it. And of course, we need another striker, and he’s a striker. On top of that he cost £16m, which is a bog-standard rate for an English player. New TV deals has made £16m an average fee, so we’ve hardly gambled our life on it.

A few years back – roughly the time when Ashley Cole nearly swerved off the road – I’d have worried a bit about a young Manchester lad coming to Arsenal. We didn’t have a lot of British players back then. But now there are plenty of lads he’ll know from the England setup and I’m sure he’ll slot in just fine.

We’re short at the back of course, more so having sold Iggy Miquel. The result is that while it’s been a good window – one with a frame, and nice glass – it’s got no security locks. I can’t remember who it was, it might have been Alan Smith, or it just as easily could have been everyone on the internet, but it feels like we’ve once again gone into autumn with the sense of the squad being a frustrating man or two short of being spot on.

It might be fine. We might make it through the next 120 days without a calamitous injury pile-up in the rear echelons of the squad. That’s the gamble Wenger’s taken – unless he thinks Bellerin and Hayden are ready to be those back-ups right now. If so, it’s bold, if a little risky. (Others might say it’s a dereliction of duty).

Plenty to be excited about overall. Given we’ve not clicked at all, we’ve got five points from nine and have qualified for the Champions League. Get the balance right (ideally by the time City come to town – no pressure Arsene) and things could get quite tasty.

Wenger loves a surprise signing

Wenger has always been something of an expert at the surprise signing. You could never bet against him pulling a Frenchman with something to prove out of a hat. The ultimate ‘Abracadabra’ was Sol Campbell, who emerged like a mirage, grinning into the Colney sunshine. On that occasion Wenger allowed himself a wry smile in public, while behind the safety of his office door he was far more effusive, flicking his fingers and saying the word ‘sick’. Sol Campbell was the surprise signing benchmark.

So yes, Wenger likes a surprise signing. He really likes one.

But they’re becoming harder to do. The rapacious internet leaves no stone unturned. The web is a foreign language too far for Wenger. Imagine the chit-chat with Podolski. Wenger thinks #aha went downhill after Living a Boy’s Adventure Tale. It’s Oldie v Poldi.

But Wenger likes a challenge, and if he can defeat the internet and its binary inquisitiveness, then quite frankly it’s like a trophy to him. There’s a small glass of Dubonnet with his name on if he can sign a player for Arsenal from right under the nose of the internet.

That’s why I gave myself a small fist-bump when I switched Twitter on last night to read that we’re close to signing Calum Chambers from Southampton. “If this one comes good”, I said to myself while whistling suggestively, “Wenger’s defeated the internet again”.

Even if it doesn’t happen, Wenger’s back on form. Everyone knew (and hoped) about Sanchez before he came. Debuchy was common knowledge. The name of Ospina was a bit more Wenger, but Chambers has come from nowhere. It’s hallmark stuff from Le Boss.

People are taking it seriously because it comes from the BBC’s David Ornstein, who is pretty adept at separating wheat from chaff. If you don’t follow him already, you really should.

At 19, Chambers is very young. With only 25 appearances at the top level, he’s also very inexperienced. Being English, he’s expensive – I’ve read £7m and I’ve also seen £16m. But he’s versatile, being a right-back also able to play centre-half, much like Sagna. It makes sense in many ways. Debuchy number one, with a more inexperienced number two who can also fit in elsewhere.

That would leave Jenkinson with the fight of his life. Should this deal go through he’ll almost certainly go on loan, which is what he needs to kick on. Coming back to Arsenal would be tough, you’d think, a huge challenge. Ashley Cole was one of the few players to come back from loan a better player, but he was far younger than Jenkinson.

Anyway, we shall see. I’ve enjoyed this summer so far, what with the World Cup and some Arsenal business cooking nicely. There’s a sense of urgency and a dynamism this year that felt absent for most of the summer of 2013.

Long may it last.

Stockpiling Arsenal midfielders

The recruitment continues apace, with Debuchy coming in as our first-choice right-back. In the website photoshoot he’s got his arms on his hips (psychologists will tell you he’s ready and in control – that’s a good sign for us. He may also be showing off his armful of tats, two of which seem to be dates in Roman numerals. Not his birthday, I checked. Perhaps his children’s. Is this interesting? No? Sorry).

Last summer, at about this time, and a lot later, we tore our hair out trying to second guess what Wenger was up to (answer: not a whole lot), but there’s no angst this summer. Two signings in, both filling obvious gaps. And it feels like there’ll be more – two or three, I’d guess.

Is that the kiss of death? I don’t think so. But if it is, I’ll delete this post and pretend it never happened.

Defence is obviously an area that needs attention, as illustrated by Arseblog the other day. But it looks like we’re in for another midfielder too. Whether it’s Khedira or not – and it feels like there’s some smoke and mirrors going on there – it’d not surprise me to see us strengthen there.

This makes sense to me. But if we do, would anyone make way? To be honest, I’d not have been massively surprised to see Arteta moving on this summer, but he’s featured so heavily in all the Puma marketing, and told us he’s happy as Larry, that I can’t see that happening. Diaby? Maybe, if someone would have his large wages. Flamini? Maybe.

Does it matter though? If Wenger is keen to stockpile midfielders it’s easy to see why. We mostly always play with five in the middle, and suffered our usual Arsenal-esque midfield injury pestilence last season. Diaby didn’t play at all, The Ox was injured a lot, Ramsey got skittled over at Christmas, Walcott not long after. Ozil did his hamstring, Wilshere only started 19 league games. Rosicky might well be the Peter Pan of football but he’s clearly an impact player these days.

We relied too heavily on some players – Arteta, Ozil and Cazorla spring to mind – as a result and what’s the next best thing to solving our injury woes? Buying more midfield players, that’s what. Could this approach work with a 25-man squad limit? It might be tricky, but it’s not impossible.

Let’s have a look. In defence we ideally need two of every position – that’s ten. We still need to recruit two of those, three if Vermaelen goes.

That leaves fifteen players (sixteen if you take a gamble with three centre-backs). Rosicky, Arteta, Wilshere, Ozil, Ramsey, Cazorla, Flamini, Diaby, Podolski, Giroud, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanchez are obvious ‘keepers’ to me, though Diaby’s position could be in peril.

If we kept Diaby that would leave two more spaces. One for a new defensive midfielder leaving one to be hoovered up by other hopefuls currently on the squad list: Zelalem, Sanogo, Gnabry and Campbell.

If we were to buy another striker, I think it’s curtains this season for Sanogo and Campbell. But I can see Wenger keeping Sanogo as the blunt sword he’s been so far (he’ll get better once he grows into his paws).

So what does this all mean, I hear you ask?

I’d say, if I was to stick my neck out, that I have no absolutely no idea at all.

Update

And I’d clean forgotten about the U-21 players not counting on the 25-man list. So we’re fine: we can stockpile midfielders and probably buy another striker too. You know where to go for cold, hard, real sense on this matter – @Orbinho

Wenger from Ipanema

Am I the only one heartened by seeing Wenger on a beach having fun?

Everyone else is having fun. From my sofa, far from Ipanema, I am having the best fun since Italia ’90. Back then, a flawed but eminently watchable England side made it all the way to the semi-finals – our only visit there since 1966. Or was it 1066? I always get confused by the sixty-sixes. One thing I can say for sure is that we were managed by the Duke of Normandy and that someone got a nasty eye injury.

The football’s been exciting, the backdrops eye-watering (though not because of a Norman arrow), the fans passionate, the sun shiny. It’s been superb. And if I could put my finger on one thing that makes it so different, it’s the fans. Its location means that – unlike normally – most of the fans are South American. Argentinians are trucking over the border in their hundreds of thousands, there are Chileans, Colombians, Costa Ricans, Mexicans everywhere. The grounds are full. Everyone’s sitting together, no hint of the need for segregation. How nice that’s been.

Anyway, back to Wenger. He’s been spotted emerging from the water Baywatch style, rugged in a 64-year-old kind of way, he’s played beach football (or is it volleyball, I don’t know – when you grow up going to beaches lashed by high winds and icy cold, you mostly cower behind hastily erected windbreaks). He’s doing his telly, he seems relaxed and he seems like he’s having a bit of a break from being harangued by us.

He deserves it, to be honest.

That said, Arsene – ha, you knew there’d be a ‘but’, didn’t you – I do have one question. I speak as a married man when I ask you – how have you pulled this one out the bag? Are Mrs Wenger and the family with you? I hope they are, shopping hard in Rio or lolling about with you on Ipanema, because if Mrs Wenger’s in England waiting for you to get back, I sense that your section on her football offsetting spreadsheet will be be severely in deficit.

I can picture it now. Old Arsene will stroll through the door whenever he deigns to return from Brazil, all sun-tanned and happy, perhaps whistling, and with nothing more to do than to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s on some faxes to kick off an epic signing spree.

But Mrs Wenger’s there, bags packed and a taxi revving in the drive ready to take them on their summer holiday to Majorca for two weeks.

“Get in Arsene, we’re going to be late”.

“But Cherie, I have little bit transfer niggles…”

“Not now mon chou-fleur. I’ve been sitting her for a month waiting for you to get back. We’re off on our holiday”.

Arsene looks at his watch. It’s the 15th of July. He’ll be back by 1st August, no later.

“Very well Cherie, let’s go”.

Wenger draws his Nokia 6230 from the pocket of his baggy shorts. He scrolls down the menu to Dick Law.

“Dick, are you there? I have little bit time niggle. We have still month before the end of the transfer window. Remember Ozil? Yes yes, let’s wait and do it like that again. Au revoir. Ciao-ciao”.