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”.

The Wenger generation

 
It’s been the worst kept secret, and now it’s not a secret at all – Wenger has signed up for another three years. If he lasts the distance, that’ll be a mighty 21 years at the helm, a phenomenal achievement in the want-it-now era. It’s a whole generation. Remarkable, in many ways.

I’m happy for him, and I’m glad he’s staying, because we’ve all seen him live the highs and lows in recent years (the lows being increasingly frequent). He’s looked almost ill through the pressure at times this season, so to see him as we saw him above warms the heart.

I suspect he did think of calling it a day, but Arsenal closed the gap on the leaders this year and won the cup. It’s a successful season by any benchmark and the side has matured. He wants to see this team through.

It’s a leaner, hungrier and more talented side than it has been for years, and with Park and Bendtner gone, I can’t think of many players who are at the club by some curious magic rather than thanks to ability. The side is on the right track.

I’d be lying if I didn’t have my reservations though. For all the consistency this season, we were badly shown up, in terms of approach as much as anything else, on three painful occasions. On all three days, we were despairingly slow out the blocks. As a side, without Walcott, we lack pace and more generally, a bit of power. Ozil aside, we’ve had several poor transfer windows.

All these things need to change, but Wenger is in a good place, and on a good platform, to do that. All of them can be addressed.

Whether he does push the boat out, and change, only time will tell. In times past he’s needed to, but hasn’t. History tells us he’s stubborn. All too often he’ll do a shimmy and pull a Kallstrom from the hat.

I hope, as I hope every summer, that this time things will be different, and that we’ll be bold and decisive. These are in all probability the last three years of his reign. Now’s the time to push on.

Over to you, Arsene. Onwards – and hopefully upwards – on the Wenger rollercoaster we go.

Basking

The last two weeks have mostly revolved around basking in cup glory. Just when you think it might all subside, up comes another excellent video and I’m off again, bouncing up and down at Wembley, all wide-eyed and happy.

Not much has happened since. We’ve lost Fabianski to Swansea (a good signing for them – though I thought he might go somewhere like Italy) and Sagna to TBC FC. But we knew both of those things anyway. The transfer wheels are spinning, and if you read what you believe, HMS Southampton is being shelled and torpedoed into submission. Women, children, 32-year-old strikers, left and right-backs into the lifeboats first.

(In all seriousness – I do feel sorry for Southampton. An excellent side that already has the wolves at the door. They won’t all leave, but whoever comes in next to manage them has a job on their hands manning the pumps).

But like I said before, I’m staying detached from this transfer hullabaloo. There’s too much smoke, and too many mirrors. Too much swooping and not enough action, too many come-and-get-me pleas and not enough signing on the dotted line.

We live in a world where footballers who want to leave cite a lack of attention on their birthday.

Swat it aside, folks, and ignore it.

Stop starting, starting going

2014

Right hook:

“We are not on the market specifically at all.”

Left hook:

“I believe this year again you will have to wait until July 15 to start going.”

2010

Right hook:

“The World Cup will not affect our recruitment”

Left hook:

“It is dangerous to buy on the back of a World Cup. The prices are artificial and you have to bear in mind that anyone can have three weeks of glory.”

Compare and contrast, before breathing deeply and reminding yourself that the summer is long and packed with fun stuff. Wenger’s pronouncements on signings have the remarkable ability to get under everyone’s skin, so the best advice I can give – and I’m going to try to follow it myself – is just to not be driven to distraction by it. Not at all.

Transfer season is silly, misleading, stressful, packed with lies and counter-lies, and life is just too bloody short.

So I’m not falling for anything, not hanging on anyone’s words. I’m going to spend some more time with my family, watch the World Cup, enjoy Wimbledon, go to some cricket, have the odd glass of something cold and refreshing. I’m going to enjoy the summer.

[How long do you give me?]

Into the valley of dearth rode the 50,000

I woke up at 6am, bright as a button, and football rarely does that to me these days.

It must be FA Cup semi-final day.

The days have long gone where this involves getting the car ready, hanging the scarves and flags from the windows and slipping @feverpitch’s mixtape into the trusty tape deck before heading off to Birmingham or Manchester.

Tube it is then.

By all accounts there will be 50,000 other Arsenal fans heading to Wembley, perhaps more, a phenomenally lop-sided game in terms of support. We might be permanently tormented by numerous anxieties but – let’s be frank here – that’s been our default position for years now. It’s never stopped us turning up in our thousands before and it clearly won’t today.

I’m excited, genuinely excited, by our tilt at the old jug. This is what it’s all about: we’re having a crack at something that really matters. It’s been far too long.

Ordinarily, a team lying fourth in the league and in the semi-final of the cup would be seen to be doing pretty well, but this is Arsenal and things are never that simple. The match takes place to a backdrop of dismal form, swathes of injured players and very real and reasonable doubts about the direction of the team and the manager’s future.

It’s a lethal combination when it comes to overall confidence, but it’s hardly baseless pessimism. We’re in a massive rut. Last season we tightened up and went on an impressive end-of-season run to secure the Fourth Cup. This year, we’ve ground to a halt and gone into reverse.

The cup though, lest we forget, has been an oasis of calm. We’ve beaten everything thrown at us with some applomb. So it will be interesting to see how the players start today. Will the shackles be off a bit, or will the nerves descend like a fog?

Forgive me for bringing it up, but I remember as I waited for the Carling Cup final to start in 2011 seeing the Birmingham players huddle in concentration, and compared it to our players who were all sauntering about laughing. That day, we were complacent and we paid for it.

I don’t think there’ll be any of that today. They’ll bust a gut. Today though it’s about dragging tired bodies and minds into some semblance of form. Not hurtling forward shapelessly. Defending stoutly. Back to basics, as Wenger has said. But above all, the players need to enjoy the day like the fans will.

Big day, massive day. Exciting day. Come on you rip-roarers!

Team in red mistaken for Arsenal

Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal

“History will be kind to me”, said Winston Churchill, “for I intend to write it”.

Wenger, sadly, has no such luxury, and when the history books recount the amazing achievement of his 1,000th game, they will also tell of a man whose team put in possibly the most abject display of his entire 18-year tenure.

It was so lamentable as to almost defy words – sloppy, off the pace, too open, horribly naive, toothless and rudderless. And maybe the very worst thing is how easy it was for Chelsea. It was over – much as it had been at Anfield – after seven minutes. It was a cakewalk.

The timing of this performance could not have been any worse. With a pretty decent season behind us, Wenger will have been desperate to lay some kind of marker down. To say: Stick with me, this team is going places, we can compete at the top table. Instead, all the old questions about him and his team came flooding back. They gave up the title fight without so much as a by-your-leave.

For what it’s worth, I do think we have the core of an excellent side. But for us to have been beaten 6-3, 5-1 and 6-0 at our rivals tells you as much as you need to know about the fault lines that still remain unfixed. Until we can overcome that mental hoodoo, and set ourselves up better in these kinds of games, we are never going to make the leap. Those are the kinds of defeats you see once every ten years at a club like Arsenal. It’s happened three times in a season.

I feel sad for Wenger. Mourinho knew exactly what to do to break this team down but Wenger and his team had no answer. Arteta was overrun – why didn’t he play Flamini? Why play such open football, so high? What is going on with Giroud? I know it sounds absurd, but where is Bendtner? How naive do you have to be to try to deflect a ball in the box with your hand? Why has Szczesny started fumbling the ball?

I know we have Walcott, Wilshere, Ozil and Ramsey missing, and god knows they’d have made a difference, but no Arsenal team should be shipping that number of goals, irrespective of the circumstances. That was still a strong XI.

“A nightmare” is what Wenger said, after the game. It’s bad enough having Mourinho preening and peacocking at the best of times, so to feed him this kind of ammunition will have felt desperate for Arsene.

A truly baffling performance.

Now, to send the wrong man off is quite amazing. I’d be more angry had it had a material outcome on the game, but we were already 2-0 down and in full retreat. It is astonishing, none the less, especially so in the face of such vehement admissions and denials from Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Did the referee think they were lying, in front of millions? Where is the common sense here? That said, what was Oxlade-Chamberlain thinking?

Either way, it’s irrelevant. Yesterday was meant to be all about Wenger, and indeed it was. But for all the wrong reasons.

One final thing – I know I’m rambling. Narrow defeats are far easier to bounce back from than poundings like this. Remember how we played against Utd after our thumping at Anfield? We played cautiously, within ourselves and shorn of huge confidence. I imagine the same ‘healing process’ will apply this time round, which makes Tuesday’s game against Swansea harder than it needed to be.

Unhappy 1,000th, Arsene.