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.

Up tight (everything’s not alright)

Arsenal 0-2 Manchester City

What can I write that won’t make us all teeter over the edge again and bash our already bruised heads against brick wall, or wail uncontrollably? Well I suppose it’s fair to say that a sending-off after nine minutes makes any game impossible to judge properly. Going down to ten men that early in a match tests the mettle of the meatiest, most blow-your-own-trumpet of sides, and we are neither especially meaty nor enormously capable of the correct utilisation of our brass instruments. By the end of the match we came out of things looking rather dishevelled – though having managed at least to do our shirt buttons up – and having done what we often do these days, which is asking as many questions as we manage to answer.

And I will add that we perked up quite a bit in the second half and showed some character and a bit of vim, with Jack Wilshere excelling, even if we couldn’t get a consolation goal (Giroud should have at least nodded an effort on target, and the otherwise invisible Walcott hit the post).

But by and large what I took away from it all is that we remain as far off the pace as ever, as inconsistent as always and still some distance from hitting upon the elixir of continued success. The team that Wenger rather baffling called ‘quite complete’ is nothing of the sort. (I hope that may have been lost in translation).

Timid, lacking in both authority and concentration are three ways of putting it – Wenger’s way of putting it in fact – and just how can that be? Why are we so timid? Where is our authority? Why are we not concentrating, for the love of god, against the current champions of England? For what reason does our confidence ebb and flow as rapidly as the Thames? There’s only so much pointing fingers you can do at the players before the finger inevitably swings back towards Wenger.

In the first half we were poor before Koscielny got sent off, and we were poor after he was sent off too. We should have rolled up the old sleeves and scrapped like hell to weather the ten v eleven storm, but instead we pressed the timid button by mistake. Had we played like we played in the second half from the moment Koscielny got his marching orders, who knows. But it’s all if, if, iffety iff.

Look, I have no idea what to make of things anymore. The team can be up, it can be down, it can be flying around. But it can totter out the blocks too.

So despite all that there really is only one thing for it, and that’s to come again and put myself through the mill once more.

Wednesday night, you say?

Don’t mind if I do.

Fortify yourself in advance, you say?

Might be a sensible idea.

Getting used to sausages

Wigan 0-1 Arsenal

One-nil to the Arsenal, that old war-cry of a result, forged during an era when we were often dour but brutally effective in defence. It was a long time ago, that. In fact it’s only the second win by that scoreline this season, the other being QPR at home.

Since that era we’ve gone to the other extreme, scoring willy-nilly but defending like a sieve, and now we’ve changed again I suppose: trying to relearn the art of winning ugly. Well it wasn’t easy on the eye yesterday, definitely not a case of ‘everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home’, but it was a backs-to-the-wall effort on a stodgy pitch in the lashing rain against a side that looked a lot better than its league position suggests.

And you know what, there’s a lot to appreciate in the kind of result that you get away with a bit, throwing bodies everywhere, in which some of the players end up with their hair plastered askew on their bonces and with mud caked up their Nikes. Yes, we once ate caviar – but we are all getting used to the taste of sausages again. (As a mild aside, let it be said that sausages are fantastic – Lincolnshire ones are great and I recently had a Polish lunchbox – you at the back stop sniggering – the centrepiece of which was a quite momentous sausage. Well done Poland).

And the stats show that Arsenal were not at their fluid best, having fewer shots than Wigan, less possession, fewer crosses, key passes, and passes attempted – but we won. We won!

And by winning we went third (where we still remain, until this afternoon at least), won our third league game in a row for the first time this season, and winning, as you know, is the elixir of life. It’s the medicine of choice for managers, players and fans alike.

Talking points:

Walcott is still auditioning for his preferred role as a striker, but obviously had a pivotal role yesterday in the goal. But the contract thing hangs over him everywhere he goes and it’s immensely boring now. His stalling tactics are boring me too, even if he is being polite and professional enough about the whole thing. He originally stated not being selected as a reason not to sign up, (he now is being), he then blamed not playing up front (he now is doing). Both ‘excuses’ are now rather watery so imagine my surprise when yesterday I read in the Times (£ link) that the reason now is that he is a bit miffed with Wenger, for various reasons, and wants assurances about the direction Arsenal are going in. Which could of course be true – views mirrored by many, after all – but it’s the first we’ve heard of it. I think he’ll stay till the summer, and I think we need him to – but he’s a high-profile player and the questions will be asked every single time he does his interviews, and it’s all a bit dull, but there you go – hey ho.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is edging back into form and sliced down the right in the second half to great effect. Like a new player? (*takes poison*)

Coquelin did a great job breaking stuff up and getting stuck in when he came on

Wilshere is going to have to get used to being targeted wherever he goes. Booked for a superb tackle yesterday, he was upended and clattered with regularity. It’s the price he’s paying for being the talent he is, and for being the kind of player who relishes getting stuck in.

You can throw any kind of weather you like at Arteta’s hair, but it will not be bowed.

Overall then a great result to set up the Christmas period – in which we have a mini-break – and the gloom has lifted, for now. How we are third is hard to fathom, but I’ll take it with jingly bells on.

Which is a reasonable way to lead onto my final point: Happy Christmas to you all – or happy holiday if you prefer – or happy days at work if neither of the previous applies. Enjoy the time off, relax, have a rip-roarer.

A three point turn as the handbrake eases off

Arsenal 2-0 WBA

Back to winning ways and – ahem – it’s all on again!

Given that we couldn’t realistically expect to go from 0mph – Swansea – to 100mph in one week, this was a decent upgrade from standing still, probably around the national speed limit in fact (terrible analogy – Ed).

Some of the fluency came back, there was a lot of energy and commitment, and a stand-out performance from Jack Wilshere who had his best game yet since coming back from his über-injuries. The Opta stats gave us 19 attempts, of which three were on target, which kind of tells you what you saw with your own eyes – namely that we got into a fair amount of encouraging positions in open play, created some good chances, but singularly failed to take any of them. The Gerv created a good one for Wilshere in the first half that Jack really should have scored, and there were a few decent opportunities in the second half too, culminating in Podolski chipping it over the bar from six yards out. Not very deadly but I think there was a bobble. Let’s say there was anyway – it is nearly Christmas, after all.

Gervinho was his usual enigmatic self, zipping up and down the wing relatively well, but he needs smelling salts when he gets anywhere near the goal. There was one total air shot, and a header that boomeranged wide, all of which suggest to me that he needs some kind of elastic belt attached to a zip wire that runs the length of the line, which keeps him within 10 yards of the side of the pitch. Perhaps the lino could use one of those leads that are attached to enthusiastic puppies. It’s just a thought. (To be fair, he has of course scored five goals, including a ripper against Chelsea – you never quite know where you are with him).

I was sitting next to an Ajax fan who has been a fair bit to Arsenal before, but who has never had the pleasure of seeing Gervinho weave his magic. He offered up the reason for Wenger buying him as being simply “because he sounds Brazilian”, which may be a good shout. Although we settled in the end on a different pronunciation of his name, which sums him up rather better – “Gervinh…oh”.

So of course, the game was won by two penalties, both of which could have not come to pass. The first definitely shouldn’t have been – it was a blatant dive by Cazorla – and desperate though we were for a win, I’d rather our players – all players – didn’t do that. I know it’s swings and roundabouts but still. The second was as clear cut a penalty as you will ever see, but on another day The Ox might have been penalised before he won it. Nonetheless, I think we were good value for the win and Arteta was steely enough to place both right down the middle of the goal. Maybe his saved penalty against Fulham prompted that. Or he could just be a cheeky poker-playing devil.

Happy enough with that though, the players were given solid applause and Wilshere came all the way down to clap the fans. Why they don’t all do this more often I don’t know, but it’s always worth it and was well received.

A couple more important things:

1) I came up with a genius marketing plan at half-time yesterday. “A pound a pint a point”. It’s catchy, for starters, as you will doubtless agree. And the essence behind it is that if Arsenal win, we pay £3 a pint. A draw and it’s a quid. Lose and we get a much needed loosener on the house. The small print needs some work maybe, but this seems like an excellent idea in principle to me. Are you listening to the fans, Arsenal?

2) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will never be the player we want him to be – and he wants to be – until he reaches parity of font size on the scoreboards. The poor lad is a couple of sizes down in order to squeeze his double barrels onto the giant screen. I get the sense that this is a sore point in the dressing room and must be hindering his play. As you may have noticed, he is but ‘Chamberlain’ on his shirt, which is a step in the right direction, but he will not truly be unleashed until he’s an Arial 48 point* on the screens, like Squillaci and the rest.

*Typeface keenos – yes, this was a guess. A wrong guess probably.

Nil nil, hey hey, kiss it goodbye

Aston Villa 0-0 Arsenal
“The thriller at the Villa”

I spent a little while on Saturday morning musing about whether the new sponsorship deal could have an immediate uplifting effect on the club on the pitch as well as off it. You know, give the players something to think about. Spur them onto a barnstorming run with the promise of riches untold and trophies galore. Naïve, eh? Or just a little bit handbrake off on my behalf.

Instead two very good results – one of which secured qualification for the knockouts, and ergo another substantial boost to income – were followed by yesterday’s flat goalless draw. You could say that’s just football. It was a tight game in terrible conditions with tired players against a team fighting hard to get itself out of a rut. But it did feel like a step back after two steps forward, which is pretty much the hallmark of Arsenal in recent years. This would partially account for the subsequent reaction, which is another hallmark of Arsenal in recent seasons.

The boss got it in the neck for leaving Wilshere on the bench, and withdrawing Giroud for Coquelin (essentially protecting the point and not going for the win), and the fan disquiet has had a fair few column inches today. But on Wilshere, I understand the logic – look what happened last time he was overplayed. Regarding Giroud, it seems odd given how little time there was left, but what were the options? Where the hell is Chamakh? We have nobody else and Giroud was maybe tired, certainly ineffectual. The stop-start nature of our performances though is a long-running saga and is very much Wenger’s job to fix. On that basis nobody is above criticism.

A big issue, as many have pointed out, is the paucity of options. Decent first XI when fit and firing, but one that we are over-reliant on. In risk of burn-out. Cazorla will need a rest at some point, as will Giroud, Podolski and Arteta.

Of course, if Wenger goes on a winter splurge then you just never know. When our situation got perilous a few years back he spent £17m on Andrey Arshavin, and it was a catalyst, for a while. The intention was there. This time round, he has the money – quite a lot of it, assuming everything we are told and read in the accounts is correct – but will he spend it? He must know we need to, with only one frontline striker, and a Diabyless midfield (the ghost of Diabys past howls through it). I agree that Henry is not the answer – at least not on his own.

There’s plenty going for this team, and there’s plenty to go for (four trophies – League Cup, FA Cup, European Cup and Fourth Cup). But for it to stand a chance, we patently need to show some ambition in the transfer market in January. Sixth place is a fair reflection of where we are now.

Nice to see Gibbs back, by the way.

Nothing to write home about, but nothing to boo either

Arsenal 1-1 New York Red Bulls

I have been to pre-season games before. I stood on the terraces at Underhill one July afternoon and though the memory is a bit hazy now, I’m sure I have also paid visits to Borehamwood and Stevenage in my time. Solid pre-season turf on all counts.

Craning my neck further back, I even remember going to the Makita International Tournament at the old Wembley in 1988. It was about as full as it was hearted – that’s to say, around half.

But I’ve never before been to the Emirates Cup, so today was a new one for me. I’m not sure I saw it in its best light.

Once the game started – we didn’t bother with the first match because we didn’t want to push our luck with the attention spans of two small boys to consider – I was quickly reminded that it’s only when you attend one of these games in the flesh that you realise just how inconsequential they are. Maybe it was different against Boca Juniors, but today’s game, though committed, lacked the obvious competitive bite. The opposition was weak. The pace was slow. Quite frankly, and this is putting it mildly, the edge of my seat was at no stage being put under any undue pressure.

The materialisation of a Mexican Wave that rippled round the ground not once, not twice, but about eight times tells you all you need to know. We had been advised on the tannoy to do it in order to avoid deep vein thrombosis.

As a slickly-marketed money-making exercise, it’s a winner. The ground was full and the Arsenal shops were rammed with punters. I took my 5-year-old and two seats cost almost £50. At half-time I bought three hot dogs and two plastic bottles of beer (I’m a weak man: I’ve broken the merchandise promise I made to myself after the ticket price rise already) and it set me back £21. So that’s a £75 day-out. The outlay didn’t really match in the input, but there you go, it’s a pre-season game, not the European Cup final. All the same, I had hoped for a bit more excitement than we got.

Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to be there with a mate and it was a good opportunity in a benign environment to bring my still-learning littl’un.

But really, I find it hard to read too much into individual displays or the collective performance when so little was at stake, and it was so obvious that was the case. It was my first glimpse of Gervinho – he looked sharpish and direct. There was Wilshere’s injury and Chamakh’s form to ponder, van Persie’s goals-scoring prowess to marvel at, there were Afobes and there were Bartleys to assess, there was Henry to applaud to the rafters but the bottom line is, it was a pre-season game, and there wasn’t much else to conclude. Booing at the end? There was some. Amazingly, there was some. Not exactly a great portent, is it?

We’re off to Benfica next (what’s that one in aid of?) before the season’s start in two weeks’ time. What will the starting XI be that day? That’ll be when it gets interesting.

Mayday, mayday – Arsenal catch fire

Arsenal 1-0 Manchester United

Well, that was fun.

Fresh out of the title race and with the handbrake well and truly off, Arsenal put in the kind of shift and performance that – had they happened more frequently this season – would have been the benchmark.

That our benchmark has in fact been drawing or losing from winning positions, or not taking our chance to edge ahead even when the opportunity is presented to us on a silver salver, makes yesterday all the more frustrating. You could spend months turning yourself inside-out mulling over the What Ifs if you wanted to, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere, so what’s the point?

Best I think to take it as a fine one-off performance, and it really was.

Maybe it was the glorious sunshine, refreshing breeze and the glow of Bremen’s finest export, but I was in a state of almost horizontal calm before the match. This is what happens when you don’t expect too much.

From the off though, you could tell that Arsenal were up for it, with both Walcott and Wilshere squandering presentable chances early on. Ramsey, Song and Wilshere were having a ball in midfield, with Djourou and Koscielny untroubled at the back. The latter made one particularly thunderous interception on Fabio. Tackling at its finest.

The referee was doing his best to get in the way of Arsenal passes wherever possible – one of them even looked like a nifty backheel – and was clearly too busy honing his positional interceptions to spot Nemanja Maradona’s handball. Rooney was bubbling with frustration; always a good sign.

The goal, when it came, was not dissimilar to Arshavin’s against Barcelona. Van Persie waited and waited, before passing to the unmarked Ramsey to slot it home.

Hats off to the Welshman. For my money it was his finest Arsenal performance to date, against tough opposition, and if there’s anyone who better deserved the catharsis of a goal then I’d like to know who it is.

His partnership with Wilshere, sitting in front of the equally excellent Song, really blossomed. That we did not miss Fabregas yesterday says it all, and bodes extremely well. For me, the Wilshere/Ramsey partnership was the stand-out highlight of an all-round impressive performance.

Ramsey also seems more vocal than I remember him being – when Sagna made a clearance in the first half, he was first to him to slap him on the back. It’s easy to see why Wales took a punt on making him their captain.

OK, so the last 30 mins was a bit hairier, but we held on well and can be grateful that the referee was at least as poor for Man Utd as he was for us. Clichy’s clumsy tackle on Owen would have been given as a penalty more times than it wouldn’t. But the old saying that things even themselves out was very apt here – one penalty apiece not given – and we were well worth our win.

Clichy – prone to this – did otherwise have an excellent game, particularly from an attacking perspective. Szczesny showed once again that while he needs to work on distribution – he wasted several goal kicks at the end by kicking them all the way to van der Sar – he is an imposing keeper and a fine shot-stopper. We do not need a new number one in the summer.

Anything left to achieve this season? Of course. As well as cementing an automatic Champions League place, which is well within our grasp if we play like that, I’d like to see us win all of our final three games of the season. Should we do that, it would be the first time this campaign that we will have won four league games in a row.

Apparently, it was the most youthful team fielded by any side this season in the Premier League – averaging 23 years and 296 days. No doubt the boss will see that as vindication of his approach. It’s hard to disagree based on yesterday’s performance, but that doesn’t mean some hard work needs to be done on the training pitch and with the cheque book over the summer to ensure that performances like that are the norm and not the exception.

Enjoy your bank holiday – I know I will.

All eyes on Arsenal’s emerging midfield

So another interlull zips by, and there was me thinking this one would be a blessed relief. It may well be for the team, for Wenger and for the fitness coaches, but as is often the case I’m already a little bit more excited than I ought to be about a game eight days away against the kind of northern outpost not usually noted to bring out the giddiness in me. Even by my own standards, this is an early bout.

Ramsey v Wilshere will more than pass the time on Saturday. It’s always gratifying to see two extremely talented Arsenal boys lauded as these two have been. I don’t know whether, as some have said, Wilshere will be the finest English player of his generation – I wouldn’t want to burden him with such an absurd and premature label – but I do know a good player when I see one. He’s without doubt – with a cap doffed in the direction of the tireless and underestimated Raymondo Parlour – the best English midfielder to come through the ranks at Arsenal since the rich mid-80s seam containing Rocastle, Thomas & Davis.

From last season being a young footballer who desperately needed games to progress, he’s gone, in a short period of time, to playing every game and being lined up for every tournament known to man stretching away into the future. He could be at the Euro U21s this summer, he could be playing for GB at the Olympics in 2012. He could be shagged out by 2013. It’s a tricky one to manage though.

Ramsey – well who knows how his progress would have measured against that of Wilshere? He was ahead of him in developmental terms before his sickening injury. Now he’s behind him, for obvious reasons, but he’s once again staking his place at international and club level. Given that I get twinges in my own leg when I think of his injury, he has done remarkably well to get both physically and mentally fit, and to thump into tackles as he has done since his return. It’ll take a bit of time to regain the sharpness needed but in a midfield containing players of oscillating form, he could be a big addition for Arsenal between now and May. Especially if he can play goalie or centre-back [that’s quite enough of that – Ed].

This morning, you will find my dulcet tones, as well as those of Arseblogger [of course], Goonerholic & Arse2Mouse, on the Arsecast. My suspicion is that I am a bit mopingabout-ish, but not I hope, overly so.

I do feel in recent weeks that I have been dunked, Obelix-like, into a vat of woe. I certainly appear to have superhuman levels of pessimism, but they’re wearing off, albeit slowly, and unless Blackburn Rovers dip me once again into the cauldron of gloom, I can feel the tingle of a rising tide of random optimism just around the corner. I’m leaning towards the notion of absurd blogging positivity, whatever happens, just to balance the books.

Five points behind you say? Game in hand, is that? Win them all and we’re the champs – you sure? Let’s magic some form out of the ether for the Blackburn game and take it from there.

Match report: The wait goes on

Wembley

Arsenal 1-2 Birmingham City

As a football fan you roll with the highs, but you also have to cope with the lows. Barcelona, a few weeks ago, was as good as it gets. Yesterday, losing in the last minute to an amateur defensive error, was of course the opposite.

You could line up the disappointing aspects of that game and ask them to form an orderly queue, but for me the most frustrating thing was the way we played. We had good, short bursts in each half, and plenty of possession, but overall the Arsenal that we wanted to see just wasn’t there for enough of the game. We did make Ben Foster work at times, and scored a superb equaliser, but we just didn’t do enough. I have no idea why.

Of course, credit to Birmingham. They hustled and harried, knew our weaknesses, played to them well, and it worked. We were undone by bad defending at a set piece and by a freak defensive howler. Had we played better it may not have mattered. But in a tight game like yesterday’s, those mistakes were pivotal. They deserved to win and you can’t begrudge them a first major trophy since 1963. That’s a lot more than a six year wait.

We missed Walcott and Fabregas, but that’s no excuse. Most of our best XI was out there but how many of them can you say played the game of their lives? Wilshere was tireless again but he couldn’t do it all on his own. There’s little point hauling players over the coals but I do look at Rosicky with increasing frustration these days. I don’t think he’s done enough in recent weeks to merit a starting place in a cup final, and he struggled again yesterday. But there you go – he wasn’t the only one.

As for the goals, well both were easily avoidable. It was not the finest hour for Koscielny or Szczesny. I imagine they’re feeling particularly blue this morning.

It was a big test, and we failed it. Wenger desperately wanted to win this to push on and hush the naysayers, but the wait goes on. He’ll be as frustrated as anyone that we did not rise to the occasion. Were we hampered by the ‘need’ to win something? We could debate that until the cows came home.

The fans filing out at the end were pretty mutinous (‘Wenger get your chequebook out’ being a familiar refrain). There’s nothing wrong with letting off steam at the end of a bitter defeat. It was pretty hard to be anything other than downbeat.

I dipped into the interwebs and sure enough, there are already acres of newsprint dedicated to the potential psychological effect of this defeat on our prospects for the rest of the season. Certainly, it will be hard to shake off. But luckily for us we have a very winnable FA Cup replay on Wednesday. Better that way than a ten-day wait to stew on things.

The reaction again the O’s will be interesting. The team Wenger picks will be interesting.

Ah well, onwards and upwards.

Need a pick-me-up? Own an iPhone? Here’s a wallpaper made from the ’92 away shirt to cheer you up.

Holed in the O’s own lair

Confession: I used the above headline as it’s simply too cheesy to let pass, and if I don’t use it now, it will be even later than the too late it already is. [I haven’t seen it elsewhere but if I’m late to the party I’ll be happy to admit it].

In brief though: Having sung the praises of the FA Cup and insisted upon the retention of cup replays, I can have no complaints about the draw at the Orient that forces us to squeeze another match into the jammed schedule. If anything, I tend to agree with the much-aired view that the second string, far from requiring fewer games, could do with more. It certainly reinforced my view that two, three or even four changes from our first XI can be accommodated, but that most of a team revolving in cannot.

Is this a case of a collective lack of drive from the second string? No. It’s not that simplistic. It was a feisty cup tie and an almost completely changed line-up from Wednesday. But more than that, the absent midfield combination of Wilshere, Nasri and Fabregas adds so, so much to the side on so many levels. They are simply far better than the alternatives. Not just from a creative perspective, but collectively their will to win is huge. Can we keep those three fit until the end of the season? It seems unlikely given the fixure list but much could hinge on their availability.

And at the back, we played a defence unused to playing with one another, which included several relative rookies in Gibbs and Miquel and two down-the-pecking-order players in Almunia and Squillaci. We should have created more chances, but overall it wasn’t the world’s biggest surprise. At least it wasn’t to me.

As for it generating another midweek home game… I can’t say I’m too unhappy.

Match preview

Tomorrow night we’re straight back in the saddle, with Stoke City coming to town. It’s a fixture with baggage these days. As much as anything though, it’s a massive clash of styles. We all know how Stoke play; it can be effective – at home in particular, as we have found.

Arsenal have at times this season not defended set pieces well so it’s not hard to work out where City might plough their furrow.

Wenger though has hit on the solution: keeping the ball. “As long as we have the ball, they cannot be dangerous” he said. That does of course form part of a utopian wish list in any game, and is certainly one I’d like to have employed in the first half against Barcelona, but possession is not necessarily nine tenths of the win. Barcelona discovered this on Wednesday and we did too, on Sunday. As much as anything we need to be ruthless and make our possession count.

We’ll have to do it without van Persie and Koscielny too, both out with small injuries (with any luck not Vermaelen ‘small’) and therefore not risked ahead of Wembley on Sunday. Diaby is out twice – suspended and, of course, injured.

It was looking like a no-go for me, but the gods of football have been generous and I’ll be there.

Here’s to three of your finest points.