Arsenal send Arsène off in style

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Arsenal 5-0 Burnley

A perfect ending. The sun set on Wenger’s tenure at the Emirates, with the team on the one hand lashing five past Burnley, and the club on the other getting the tone spot on in a goodbye that gave Le Boss the farewell he’s earned and deserved.

It was an emotional day – one for reflection but also for thanks and for looking forward – and the mood was bubbly and celebratory throughout. “Why can’t the atmosphere be like this every game?”, asked my brother. A fair point – it was certainly raucous for most of the match, with numerous, throaty renditions of ‘One Arsène Wenger’, paeans to Per Mertesacker and plenty of other Wenger-era songs that have been gathering dust in the attic brought out for a Sunday drive.

The match was irrelevant, to some degree, though of course had we ended up seventh we’d have had to start our Europa League campaign about three weeks ago, so it was good to put that piece of time travel to bed. Needless to say, there were some lovely performances and some beautiful goals under the May sunshine. As Wenger said after the match, this team is team is better than many people think, and though there’s plenty of evidence to dispute that, on a day like yesterday you can see that the next man to take to the touchline will have some fantastic tools to work with. It’s a plum job, alright.

Sent off in style

And so to the end. In a sea of red, two floating sausages emerged (no caviar was available, but that’s OK because we haven’t been so used to that recently), one with Wenger’s face draped beneath it, the other with his trophy roll-call, and the party began. Bob Wilson and Pat Rice were the perfect compères, Wenger was awarded the gold Premier League trophy for going unbeaten, he then said some measured but lovely words before lapping up the adulation as he walked round the pitch, and that was that.

As I said, it couldn’t have been better pitched. I took my two boys along, who won’t forget an occasion like that in a hurry, and nor will I. I dread to think how much and how often I’ve thought about Arsène and his teams over the years – every day, repeatedly, is probably the honest answer – but now it’s over, and the next time I go to the Emirates there’ll be a different man on the touchline, almost certainly quite a few new faces on the pitch, and a new era will begin. I’m looking forward to that, and I have been for a while.

But I’m also proud that we saw Wenger off in a way I always knew we would. With class.

 

This time, it really feels like the end

Arsenal 0-3 Manchester City

The thing about saying “it feels like Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal reign has reached its end” is that I’ve definitely said it before, at various points over the last five years. And it never has been the end of Wenger’s reign, because – remarkably – he’s been the one who decides his own fate, and he has always found a way, to date, of changing the narrative or convincing himself he’s still the man for the job.

And that’s the thing: he still thinks he can do it. He said it again last night. After Sunday’s game, he called for “perspective”, but with seven defeats in 2018 already, just three away wins in the league all season, a dismal away record against the top six (just two wins in over 20 games stretching back to 2013-14), and a European record at the knockout stage that over the last seven years has been an embarrassment, the bigger picture tells its own story.

But it does feel different now. Over the years, Wenger’s made an art of turning things round just when they seemed to be smothering him – those recent FA Cup are a classic example – but even that skill appears to have deserted him now. We’ve had one or two excellent performances this season, but they’re very isolated. The real consistency can be found in the mistakes we keep making: the sames mistakes we’ve made for years.

And many fans see it for what it is: a team that, in league terms, has been at best treading water and at worst in slow decline for a long time.

Last night was just no surprise. A team that is laced with attacking talent will only get so far if you don’t supply it with chances, if it can’t reliably and consistently defend, or if structurally it loses its way mid-match so readily.

The changes haven’t worked

It’s not that he hasn’t tried to do something about it – just that it’s not working. Rather than sticking with what we had, the club twisted in the summer and then again in the January transfer window, breaking our transfer record twice. We offloaded our three top scorers from last season and brought in fresh faces to kick-start something new. Now, I wouldn’t want to equate the quality of our recent transfer moves to the last signings George Graham made (Kiwomya, Hartson) but both cases, it now seems clear, were last throws of the dice.

It didn’t work for George Graham and it looks unlikely to work now for Wenger. The squad is unbalanced and has lost its way. It’s miles off where it needs to be, both in terms of personnel, and when it comes to mentality and organisation. The need for change has been clear for a while, the players needs reinvigorating, the way we play needs a total overhaul and the fans need it too. The empty seats or fans leaving in droves mid-match is a sign that something’s very broken.

And so to the finale

A fairytale ending – as much as there is one – would be for him to announce he’s leaving then for us to go on and win the Europa League. But the prospect of a European trophy seems incredibly remote at the moment, especially as two-legged ties require concentration, tactical maturity and defensive nous. This is not a smooth-running machine, right now.

The sad reality is that, Europa League or not, Wenger’s course is surely now run.

There are people saying he should go now, but I’d hate for it to end that way. I want to send Wenger off as he deserves to be sent off – with respect, and with thanks for a remarkable and at times quite brilliant tenure – at the end of the season.

It’s time for a fresh beginning.

We’re banking on Jack’s loyalty

Crystal Palace 2-3 Arsenal

I enjoyed that – well, most of that. Reverting to a back three (having previously reverted to a back four having converted to a back three in desperation at the back four not working – do keep up) seemed to give us a bit more attacking oomph, if not any additional defensive prowess.

I’d be complaining had we let in more than we did, but as it happened we pipped it thanks to a couple of dominant performances further up the pitch: in the middle from Jack Wilshere, who’s reaping the benefits of a few consecutive games, and Alexis Sanchez, who appeared to wake up from some form of mental hibernation to wreak mayhem. Combined, it was more than Palace could handle and it made for an entertaining game. That makes it two exciting to watch, if defensively wobbly performances in a row, so excuse me while I go for a lie-down.

At threes and fours

I’m not convinced going back to a back three answered many questions about the general competence of our defensive set-up. Chambers was the wild card, and given he’d not started a Premier League game all season I think he did OK.

People always say “you should grasp your opportunity when it arrives” but it’s easier said than done. I mean, obviously if you trip on your shoelaces, score an own goal then get yourself sent off in the space of 10 minutes then you’re not likely to be asked back. But players need game time to really grasp their opportunity, and that means more than one cameo appearance after six months in the wilderness. So that’s a long-winded way of saying Chambers did just fine, but needs to play more.

One, two, free

Where did I get to? Ah yes, the subject of this post. I know the contractual situations of so many Arsenal players is a boil that Wenger has so far been unable to lance, but it’s becoming quite acute now. In three days, Wilshere, Alexis and Ozil could all negotiate free transfers for the summer. On last night’s performance, that’s essentially our three best players.

We’ve known about them for a very long time. Alexis, despite Wenger saying he wasn’t for sale, was almost sold in the summer. If there was a buyer in January, and a replacement for him that could get us all excited and lay down a bit of a marker of our ambition (you at the back, stop tittering), then much as I’d rather keep him, I wouldn’t rule that one coming to pass in January.

Ozil, I suspect, is happy to stay until the summer then move onto pastures new. And that’s what I expect to happen.

Wilsh he or won’t he?

That leaves Jack, who I suspect is also playing a waiting game. Wenger is making positive noises, but the whole thing is so ludicrously late that Wilshere now holds every single one of the cards. I doubt it’s happened this way by happenstance either – it’s high-stakes for him if he gets another injury, but if he stays fit, waiting to the bitter end opens up his options and his earning capacity. Sometimes, it takes two to not sign a new contract.

So now we’re essentially banking on his love of the club to tie him down to a new deal – on terms that he can largely dictate.

I know he’s a huge risk to any potential buyer, and that he’s only just now reaching the level required to play week in, week out. But on last night’s performance there would be plenty willing to take that risk. Imagine if he left in January, or in the summer, and managed to keep this up? It would be sad to see and it could easily have been avoided.

I’m not the Arsenal bean counter, and I’m also aware you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. But of all the three whose contracts are winding down, is strikes me that his is the one that could have been done. He’s a bit of a talisman for the fans – an Arsenal fan who wears his heart on his sleeves. It was worth a gamble.

Giving him a new long-term deal sooner might have backfired, and it might yet – but I think it would have been worth a punt and the risk involved, and it wouldn’t have bankrupted a cash-rich club like Arsenal. Instead, we’re where we are now.

I hope Wenger’s positivity on this front is justified. Let’s see.

 

It was a game that had it all. Define ‘all’.

Arsenal 3-3 Liverpool

After last night’s game, Wenger joined Kelly Cates and Gary Neville on the grass at the Emirates (maybe the camera-on-a-string had run out of batteries) to chew the fat on a match that had it all. I use the word ‘all’ as it’s sufficiently ambiguous and can be taken to mean ‘zero defending’ or ‘a baffling lack of understanding of what to do’, but I urge you to let your imagination run wild with your own take on what ‘all’ might infer in the context of last night.

He described how our dismal first half performance was ‘psychological’; a hangover from the Utd game (to which as Arseblog says, reasonably and with an admirable lack of beating around the bush, “Get over it”).

He then went on to lament how we were “a little bit naive defensively” to let the third goal in, at which point my eyes rolled round my head like a waltzer, I scratched my beard contemplatively and wondered to myself: where have I heard all this before?

Arsenal in a nutshell

What you have in that one interview is the essence of every Arsenal side since about 2006. Beset, on and off, by psychological issues and serially incapable of taking a grip on a glorious situation.

Add to that the sheer incoherence of what we were doing before that four-minute splurge, and you’ve got it all. Liverpool have a game plan that involves breaking at pace and countering lethally. It really works, though we can be thankful that their defence gives ours a run for its money when it comes to individual errors.

Our game plan these days is harder to ascertain. What were we trying to do? Bizarrely, it looked to all intents and purposes that for the first 25 minutes we were firing long balls over the Liverpool midfield. We couldn’t keep hold of the ball for love nor money and how we went in at half time only one down I do not know.

Back from the dead

Then came their second, and it seemed to be all over. Step up our saviour – Mr D. Fensive-Error, who conspired to draw us level (though props to Sanchez for his determination and to Xhaka for firing off that howitzer), before Ozil applied the icing on the least likely cake by chipping it in, via the ground – though it’s so good that even now I can’t quite work out how he did it – to give us the lead.

It was a turnaround in fortune that would have had Lazarus nodding in approval, but did it last? Did it Sheringham.

So 3-3 it ended, a game that couldn’t have been more late-era Wenger’s Arsenal if it stood up, put on a long tubular coat and sang a sea shanty called ‘Too Much in the Wanting Zone’.

Exciting? It was, from beneath my duvet (pre-Christmas flu – joy to the world). For all its faults, and they were manifold, there were goals everywhere, in short bursts and against the run of play, and it was a febrile, Friday-night, Christmas-fuelled atmosphere that reminds you how the Emirates can be when it wants to.

Take it at face level, and it was the kind of game that has the Premier League’s marketing men drooling. No doubt to have been in the crowd during those four minutes will stick in the mind for a very long time. Damn you, Christmas flu.

Just don’t look too objectively at where we are, where we’re going and what that performance says about the general state of things at the club, and we’ll all be fine 🙂

Merry Christmas to you all. I’m off for a stiff lozenge.

Christmas time, Mesut O and Wayne

Arsenal v Newcastle 151217

Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle

Firstly, an apology. After the World Cup of Christmas songs (congratulations to the Pogues for pipping Wham to the post) I had my heart set on inserting a cheesy Christmas song into the title of this blog post.

It’s a terrible pun

Yes, yes, I know. But here’s the pun-manufacturing thought process: Obviously the word ‘Christmas’ would fit the bill here for obvious contextual reasons. Then with Ozil having scored, I was thinking Mesut this, Ozil that (“The Mesut wonderful time of the year?”). And then the Mistletoe and Wine lightbulb went off, and goddam it wouldn’t go away even though I hate that song, though for the life of me I couldn’t make the last bit work. But lo! – manna from heaven! – I read that Wayne Rooney thinks Wenger should have sold Ozil in the summer. So there’s the angle I needed, folks, to make it sort of work – I have nothing to *actually* say about what Wayne Rooney thinks about selling Ozil, because we didn’t, and I’m glad, but I’ve shoehorned it in anyway.

But the goal was good

Onto the game. Let’s start with the tortured subject of the aforementioned tortured blog post title. Because it would be the highlight of any game, let alone one without that many highlights. Beautiful technique, and it was the kind of game that was going to need something special to break the deadlock. Overall, Ozil had a fine game: languid, understated – not exceptional, but very good.

That aside – it was all peak late-era Wenger Arsenal, with the kind of wastefulness we’ve grown used to. Players always looking for the extra pass – you know the drill. Once the goal went in, the win never looked much in danger because Newcastle were so poor, especially in attack, but the inevitable period of nerves duly arrived thanks to only being a goal up. Still, we survived that and scuttle up to fourth in the league.

More oomph needed

A little bit flat, to be honest, and the crowd responded to that lack of intensity by largely keeping shtum. It wasn’t off-your-seat stuff, but then these days it only ever is in short bursts, or for the odd game.

Easy to blame the crowd for sitting there semi-mute, but it takes two to tango, which is why the noise level finally rose when Maitland-Niles (playing very well at left-back) shot off on a mazy run that ended with the side netting rippling. You see, the formula for getting us excited isn’t that hard: take the bull by the horns and put the opposition under some real pressure.

Take a few risks, run at them. Run at them! Play like we did against Spurs! Ozil did something similar later in the game, and the decibels rose again. Look, you can’t boil down the essence of football into one word, because it’s a hundred things at once, but for me going to the ground and getting a buzz of adrenalin from seeing my side assaulting the ramparts of the opposition like a stormy sea against the harbour is one of the things I love the most. And we don’t see that enough at the moment in my humble o. The storms are few and far between.

Up for grabs in the middle

Jack deserves a shout, because he played well and in Ramsey’s absence that slot is his. I’d wager that Xhaka’s the one who needs to worry, because he was his usual lackadaisical self. To that suggestion I will merely say ‘yeah but Wenger’. That’s to say, Jack might deserve to play but second-guessing Arsene is a mug’s game and he remains pretty loyal to Xhaka.

So a win’s a win and there were bright periods, but it was the kind of Arsenal performance that gets us relegated to about fifth on Match of the Day.

A 6/10 kind of a day, with special nods to Ozil for scoring a glorious goal, to Maitland-Niles for being young and being bold and doing well, and to Jack for slowly getting better and doing some simple things well.

 

AOL: service providers

Arsenal Spurs 181117

Arsenal 2-0 Spurs

Well stone the crows – wotcha Arsenal!

There was a heavy dose of pessimism in the air in the run-up to this one; or if not pessimism, at least more anxiety than usual. All but the most myopic of us have seen Spurs improve in recent seasons, and we’ve also watched the Arsenal be their usual inconsistent selves. That might explain it in a nutshell.

Shimmying down the aisle to my seat, it was immediately apparent that it was one of those days where the Arsenal roof, in all its curved and comforting glory, had once again failed the good citizens of row 8. It doesn’t happen often, but you look up and see a roof that seems more than capable of putting on a show, then you look down and see rain, and you shake your first and mutter ‘Why I oughtta’ to the useless lump of cantilevered steel.

All I hoped was that the roof letting in the rain wasn’t a metaphor for what we were about to see.

So what would we get for lunch this time? It’s the classic Arsenal club sandwich – take your pick from fillings of winning unconvincingly, overdue brilliance and downright awful.

Fortunately, yesterday we dined on overdue brilliance. It was a little cagey at first, with a hairy moment when a defensive header went the wrong way (never a wise move) into the path of Kane, but fortunately nothing came of it. There was a lot of probing but a lot of solid defending on both sides.

Then just as I was prepared to laud a decent half that we could build on, we scored. I’ll be very Wengeric about this when I say I couldn’t see the free kick: you rarely can see the nuances of decisions from row 8, damp or otherwise, that happen down the other end. Not that it ever stops me claiming otherwise, you understand. Anyway, in it floated to a clearly onside Mustafi – I can see everything down the other end from where I sit, so I know what I’m talking about – who looped a glorious header in off the post.

Pandemonium! Then moments later, or so it seemed, we had number two. It was a Davor Suker-ish 45 degree finish from Alexis – risky to get your foot under it, but lovely when it works. There might have been some songs at this point questioning if the opposition would ever be any good. I may have joined in.

In the second half, with our tails up, we went up a gear. Solid at the back, where Koscielny and Mustafi were magnificent, we probed from wing-back and started taking advantage of the gaps being left as Spurs tried to get back into the game. It’s this kind of stage where Alexis and Ozil can be particularly brilliant, and they didn’t disappoint. There was one period of play – maybe 15 minutes, maybe 25 – when Ozil was the puppeteer pulling the entire team’s strings. Everything he did was brilliant and both he and Alexis – ably helped by the willing Lacazette – ran themselves into the ground.

What a shame two of that three are leaving. But that’s a discussion for another time.

We should have scored more, to be honest, but managed to see the game out with relative ease to mark out first win in eight north London derbies. And how good that felt, after all the stories of power shifts and first XIs filled with the token Arsenal player.

But let’s not get carried away with ourselves. Just as Spurs need to win something before the accolades can be justified, so too do Arsenal need to be more consistent to prove it’s not just your classic Arsenal cycle of boom, bust and somewhere in-between. Inconsistency is our age-old weakness.

Of course, I’ll enjoy this one till the cows come home. But how we could do with this being the start of something good, and not just an outlier.*

*Says he for the trillion-and-ninth time.

Up the rip-roarers!

Arsenal routed and here we all are again

Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal

How many times has Arsene Wenger stood in front of the cameras after a defeat and pointed out that we were not “at the level requested”? I’ve lost count. Arsenal not being properly prepared or set up for big games is a festering sore that he now cannot fix. You’ve all seen the stats about how often we’ve won away against the top six in recent years, so I’ll spare you it.

Yesterday: well where to start? Bellerin was in the wrong place and Kolasinac was sacrificed, all to squeeze in the Ox, who wants to leave and how it showed. Monreal was in the wrong place because Wenger either doesn’t trust his other central defenders or they don’t want to be here. Holding looked every inch a 21-year old defender plucked for £2m from the Championship, because we didn’t have a midfield to speak of to help him. Ramsey was playing some kind of modernist free-form role – what was that all about? Xhaka was a mess. Our £55m striker was also sacrificed to fit in both Welbeck and Alexis. The former shanked our only presentable chance and the latter’s body language told you everything you needed to know. Ozil was invisible.

“There are some reasons”, said Wenger when pressed on quite how we were so ill-prepared despite not having played all week, “but I don’t think I have too much to come out on that now”. Wise, Arsene – because it doesn’t reflect well on you.

“I’m happy with my squad”, said Wenger a while ago, or words to that effect, and you have to wonder what they’re smoking over at the Emirates. It’s got holes all over it, players want to leave and on yesterday’s evidence it looks to be a pretty unhappy place.

Somewhat fittingly, today is the 6th anniversary of the 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford. “These are all problems of Wenger’s making,” I concluded then, and the same can of course be concluded now. Both teams were set up wrong, played out of position, tactically absent, low on energy, error-riddled, lacking concentration, and were weakened either by recent exits or by players who patently wanted out.

On that note, to have so many players in their last year is not just a huge error of strategic planning, it feels like a bellwether for what the players think about this team’s prospects under Wenger. Ozil, Alexis, Mustafi and Ox don’t want to be here anymore, and other players aren’t so stupid as to not be affected by it. Some of them will be thinking it themselves. I wasn’t keen to get rid of any of them, but seeing those who played go through the motions yesterday makes me care just a little less. I think Ox will go, I think Mustafi will go and I still think Alexis might, too.

So finally, belatedly, onto the man himself – Wenger. The performance yesterday was a slaughter; an embarrassment. It could not be more removed from the exhilaration of taking Chelsea apart in the cup final a few short months ago, when we dominated from beginning to end. But that run at the end of the season, culminating in Wembley, now feels like a blip. Yesterday, while not the norm, is the kind of result that Arsenal are always capable of under Wenger, and have been for seven or eight years, because he simply isn’t the manager he once was. He doesn’t motivate his players like he once did. This side is not set up to challenge for the big prizes in this market of ruthlessness and naked ambition. It’s not set up to win the difficult, big matches away from home. Wenger is still erudite and charming, and his achievements are legion, but in managerial terms he’s yesterday’s man.

Ah, but it’s just one game, don’t go overboard, some of you might say. True enough. It’s one bad game – one very bad game. But it’s symptomatic of so many other things that are wrong and that won’t change until Wenger’s gone. Most fans have seen this for a while; most journalists know it only too well.

Where that leaves us is anyone’s guess.

Just the seven goals then

Arsenal 4-3 Leicester

Do I have the strength to dust myself down and go at it for another year, with diminishing returns, or shall I just pack it all in? I ask myself this question every summer.

But enough about this blog, because the season’s started, and it started with a bang, a crash, several more bangs and a cavalcade of comedy defending. Wotcha Arsenal!

If you were the kind of person who’s prone to pass judgement on our chances after a game, you’d suspect that having drunk another potion of neat Arsenal from the cup of pure Arsenal, we’ll spend the season hallucinating undistilled Arsenalness all the way through till April. Then we’ll come round, wondering why we’re 6th, and stagger off on a run of solid form before resting once again for the summer.

But honestly, it’s a wee bit too early for that. We had just one real central defender available (there are a further four, if you include the unloved Calum Chambers, waiting in the wings) and we duly defended as if we’d erased defending from our minds over the summer months. I forget my work password after a week off – so I can understand how easy it might be for the concept of marking set pieces to disappear in a puff of smoke after eight weeks on sunloungers. Maybe they should just write it down?

It was a day to remember for Lacazette, who showed a real instinct for goal and looks like he’ll fit in well. Eat that Dennis Bergkamp, with your seven fallow games with no goals! (No, I’m not sure where I’m going with this either).

Aside from that, it was a reminder from two oft-derided players of their value. Ramsey got us level with a lovely finish, and Giroud powered a honker of a header over the line for the winner. Yes, he’s a bit slow, and no, he doesn’t always fit in when you want to play at pace and on the break, but how the hell do you replace a contribution like that? Who else scores those kinds of goals for us? It would be nuts to jettison Giroud, frankly, and I hope when Wenger says Giroud’s happy and wants to stay that that’s the end of it. Because in Giroud, Walcott, Welbeck, Lacazette and Alexis* there are a lot of goals and there’s a lot of variety. There’s room for a break and there’s room to chop and change.

*INSERTS GIANT IF-ALEXIS-IS-STAYING CAVEAT

So although we promised to screw things up on day one, we kept ourselves intact for some stern incoming tests. Job done.

August is a strange month, because when the season begins there’s still three weeks of transfers to go. I know we all like to have everything nailed down and ready to go, but that’s never going to happen.

The way things are, with the amount of money still left unspent and some big transfers brewing in Europe that could foment things further, I’d be amazed if our squad doesn’t change some more by 1st September.

In the meantime, we just need to battle through the jittery early stages. And learn to defend a bit – that would be nice.

It’s good to be back. Good summer, everyone?

I just don’t think you understand

Wembley Stadium

Wembley Stadium

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

What a day, what a performance, and if anyone over the last few years has ever said to you: ‘Think how good Arsenal could be if they played to their full potential’, simply point them to Wembley Stadium, 27th May 2017.

No shrinking in the face of the big challenge here. In the white heat of a cup final against the champions, a match few expected us to win (not least me), we pulled our best performance of the entire season out of Arsene Wenger’s moth-eaten magic hat. He clearly said, “I’m having that”, and have that he did.

Our motley back line held firm for all but one moment. Our midfield was in control and high-energy, and going forward our pace caused considerable problems.

I’m not going to run through the whole team, because to a man they were magnificent, from the evergreen Mertesacker (an inspiration on and off the pitch) through to the fizzing dynamism of Ramsey and beyond to the irrepressible Alexis.

What got me out of my seat was the way we broke with such menace. For too long (and too often) we’ve watched as Arsenal ping it upfield then get bogged down. But on Saturday, with extraordinary regularity, we went for the jugular with our directness and pace. It was genuinely exciting football, and a reminder of the sheer excitement it can bring when all the elements come together. It hasn’t been like that enough this season. But – ah yes – that’s how it can be.

It was a final that just had it all, to be honest. A hot May day, two big teams contesting it, a bit of controversy right at the beginning, a hatful of chances and a winning goal only several minutes after the equaliser. An embattled manager proving a point against a manager whose stock couldn’t be higher.

And then there was the build-up, with that special tingly pre-cup-final atmosphere that is palpable but hard to explain. Nerves, excitement, anxiety. Fans and friends from far and wide.

It baffles me that some seem so willing to denigrate the FA Cup – the most important domestic cup competition – while simultaneously complaining about clubs celebrating getting into the top four as if it was a trophy.

Let me clear this up. The FA Cup is a trophy; getting into the Champions League is not. I would rather have an FA Cup win over getting a place in the Champions League any day of the week, frankly, and not just because we’re very good at one and very bad at the other.

Anyone who was at Wembley, and all those watching in pubs or at home with friends – feeling the highs and the lows, the swings and the roundabouts, the tantalising prospect of elation and of real success – will surely agree.

And finally to Wenger, the seven-times-FA-Cup-winning elephant in the room. All but the most curmudgeonly will grant Wenger the respect and gratitude he deserves for an unparalleled achievement. The team rose to the occasion and showed us what it can do. He got it right.

I’m well aware this muddies the water for some, myself included. But I suspect it has calcified the thinking of the man who pulls the strings, Stan Kroenke, and for all the recent obfuscation and whiff of power struggle, for all the deflection and uncertainty, I’d still be surprised if Wenger wasn’t here next season.

Well played Arsenal. You have made me happy.

*goes off to watch highlights again*

That warmed the Coquelins

Stoke City 1-4 Arsenal

Fourth is on – until it’s off again.

From the rubble of a north London derby no-show, we’ve dusted ourselves down to win three on the bounce and revive our annual race for fourth. What’s more, we’re cranking up the style with yesterday’s thumping of Stoke (it’s been so long since we’ve won there that I think ‘thumping’ passes muster) being our best performance in some time.

Solid as a rock

Ah, fourth, my old friend. As Jonathan Northcroft says in today’s Sunday Times, “If only this team pursued league titles with such a sense of destiny and irrepressible vigour” as it does the final Champions League place.

But you take what comes your way, don’t you, and yesterday was a lovely pre-season-ticket-renewal reminder of what Arsenal can really be all about: solid defending when needed, poise in midfield, some beautiful, carving attacking play and graceful finishing. No, I don’t know what happened to it between December and May either.

Holding out for a hero

So, to yesterday, when the back three worked again, with Holding (better than Cannavaro, don’t you know), Koscielny and Mustafi all good. Is this the back three for next season? Could well be. With respect to Mustafi and Koscielny, Holding’s the exciting one here. He started the season well then disappeared, before Wenger’s desperate change to a back three opened a door for him. How’s he’s grasped it, and it’s always nice to see a young English player plucked from nowhere make a good start to his Arsenal career. Long may it last.

So Nacho

Nacho could have had a goal or two himself, and a bit of game time acted as a dose of WD-40 for Bellerin’s early rustiness too – he got two assists.

Love Xhak

Yesterday, I made an extra effort to study Xhaka, who’s had a lot of recent accolades but who for a long time looked too slow and clumsy to me. It’s funny, because you know how you notice some players more than you notice others when you’re watching a game live? Well he’s not really one of them – but watching him yesterday, you can see him growing into his role. He’s a midfielder in the Steve Williams or Paul Davis mould; quietly effective but not obviously stand-out.

Olivier’s army

Giroud, who I cursed under my breath until he scored, before lauding him to the heavens (sort of sums him up), notched a brace to make it 16 this term. Not bad, let’s be honest, and at 104 minutes per goal, also the most lethal of all our strikers. Statistics, eh.

You can call me Al

Finally to Alexis and Ozil, our stardust players. I’ve been so frustrated with Ozil at times this season, to the point where doubling his wages seems insane (it still does), but when he plays like he played yesterday you’re reminded why he’s so good. In that sense he personifies Arsenal: stylish and lethal when good, a passenger when bad. His goal was calmly taken, and his passing in general was pinpoint.

As for Alexis, what can you say? That pass to Ozil was 100% through-ball-porn, and he finished the game by scoring with his only operational leg, before tapping the crest on his shirt and giving me hope (damn you, hope) that all might not be lost between him and Arsenal.

So overall, a performance that warmed the Coquelins. The cynics among you – says he, deflecting his own cynicism adroitly – will tell you that disappointment is only round the corner in one form or other. It probably is, but playing well is nice and that is all that matters right now.

Superstition

A final thought about how nuts humans are. Take a look at the Arsenal team emerging from the tunnel and you’ll see all manner of nervous, superstitious tics. Coquelin hops on his right leg, Bellerin picks up some grass then crosses himself, Xhaka hops then bounces, before Ozil does his own hop.

Hopping mad, the lot of them.

So are we for investing some much emotion in this nonsense. Damn you, football, you cruel mistress!