Den and dusted

Adeus Denilson. Ta-da for now (though I am prepared to wager that the ‘for now’ part will become ‘for good’).

Denilson’s departure reminded me that this summer was as much about clearing out some deadwood as it was about bringing in some alivewood [find a new word – Ed]. He’s the first of the exclusive gang to go – though who is in that gang is subjective and ebbs and flows accordingly.

Poor old Denilson was – along perhaps with Bendtner & Almunia, though it wasn’t an exclusive triumvirate – the butt of things last season. Personally, as I have said before, I think Bendtner got it a bit hard. He was shoved on the wing for the most part – nuts really – and his goalscoring ratio was not that bad.

But Denilson, well Denilson was in part a victim of the emergence of the staggeringly good Wilshere and the returning Ramsey. But it was only in part: Denilson was shorn of confidence, while Wilshere brims with it. He was too timid, where Wilshere exudes forward threat. He half-tackled, half-tracked. He just never seemed to do enough. So this loan has hardly slapped us in the face. He played 153 times for Arsenal but his 51 appearances in 2008-9 seem a long time ago now.

So who’s next? We were told pre-Asia that Almunia and Bendtner were negotiating moving-on deals (they’ve clearly been imbued with the same glacial negotiating tactics favoured by the club).

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Eboue go, too (if someone will have him – a foster club?) In a moment of sleeplessness the other night, I tried to name a few starting XIs across the years, and attempted to recall the line-up of the 2006 Champions League final. Eboue was right-back then (no, it didn’t help me get back to sleep). But what is he now? A jobbing fill-in. Sad but true. You can’t push an opponent over in your own box in the 102nd minute of a 90-minute game and carry on as normal. Or can you?

As for the rest, well I can’t see much doing unless we sign a new centre-half. If we do get in Garris Samhill, I can see us ditching a centre-back (even for balsawood Arsenal, five seems a bit greedy). The Squill would be the obvious victim there, though I’m afraid we’ve now entered the realm of pure conjecture.

So anyway, good luck Denilson. I hope you come good. You need to play.

Squill’s red and Nasri’s blues

Arsenal 2-1 Huddersfield Town

Quick blog ahead of a hectic transfer deadline day, which I’m sure you’ll all want to get back to as soon as you can. A £38m bid here, a £95m transfer package there, and the sound of tumbleweed coming from London Colney. We have spent money in January before (Arshavin, Reyes, Diaby etc) but as ever with Arsenal, you’re better off expecting nothing than sitting glued to Sky Sports News waiting for a 25-year-old wizened European Cup-winning centre-half to pop up up in exchange for £20m.

However, just in case my monstrous cynicism is disproved, I have reserved some space on this blog for any potential signing and will update it during the day.

[ ____ ]

As for yesterday, well I agree with Goodplaya, Arseblog et al in their assessments of our second string: As an ensemble, not good enough. Catapulted in groups or one or two into the starting XI it works, but a revolving door of a line-up like yesterday does not. I find it hard to criticise though. We all clamour to take the cups seriously – rightly so – but the reality of competing on four fronts is that you are going to get good and bad and mix and match. It’s just a shame that so many players, faced with diminishing opportunities, do not grasp them as you might hope they would.

The biggest downside of yesterday was Nasri’s hamstring, leaving him unavailable for an undetermined number of weeks. We will miss him.

We will miss Squillaci for a game too, at least numerically, after a daft block led to his dismissal. I thought he started brightly enough this season but his form has tailed off and looking at him, it’s clear he is what he was bought as: a fourth-choice centre-half.

Clearly, Fabregas is the model to aspire to and he made a big difference yesterday. I thought Diaby did fine seeing he’s been out for such a long time and I’d also agree that Arshavin, though his shooting was wayward, got stuck in. Bendtner scored one, earned one, and performed a hilarious air-shot: which just about sums him up I suppose. He gave it his all and contributed well.

Anyway, we’re through to face The Orient at Brisbane Road, another cracking FA Cup tie. It might not have gone 100% to plan this season, but you can’t argue that it hasn’t been good viewing. Huddersfield yesterday were excellent and merited a draw. Leeds were impressive too.

Red card, hamstring, dodgy defending and a late penalty.

And yes, there were balloons.

Right, back to the transfer tumbleweed.

Match report: Arsenal’s perfect riposte

Leeds Utd 1-3 Arsenal

A thoroughly satisfying evening in Yorkshire. With memories of the preceding Leeds and Ipswich ties still fresh, I said to @feverpitch before the game started last night that we’d know which Arsenal was present within five minutes of the whistle. Rather neatly, exactly five minutes had elapsed when Arshavin and Chamakh ping-ponged the ball through to the waltzing Nasri, who scuttled past a couple of players and sunk one into the bottom right corner. Game on: Arsenal were up for this alright.

Both Bendtner and Arshavin – more of which later – then missed gilt-edged crosses to make it 2-0, but in the end it fell to Bacary Sagna to rifle the second goal in. Not to be outdone, Leeds – who I was again impressed with all night – made it 2-1 with one of those 30-yard screamers that don’t come around too often. It had me wistfully dreaming of that Vieira rocket against Newcastle when we won 3-1 in April 1998.

It strikes me that Wenger has got the balance right between playing ‘scratch’ sides and overusing his first XI. Last night, Walcott, Fabregas, Wilshere and van Persie were given a rest, but all four were on the bench if required. Gibbs came in for Clichy (also on the bench) but Sagna replaced Eboue, so the defence was as good as we can field (not that we have a lot of leeway at centre-half).

As it happened, with the game still at 2-1, Wenger called on van Persie and Fabregas and it wasn’t long before our third goal put the game to bed.

Bendt it like Beckham

*headline groan* – and one I was beaten to by @White_Ox, damn him.

The third was a delight. Fabregas passed to our man on the right, Nicklas Bendtner, whose cross was absolutely inch-perfect. van Persie, or more precisely van Persie’s head, simply could not miss. It was the best thing Bendtner did all night. Lord knows he tried though, I can’t blame him for a lack of effort – it’s just he’s in a monumental rut. It’s more of an escarpment. There was one time when he was back defending – an admirable place to be – at right-back, he won the ball through sheer tenacity but then somehow contrived to lose it again. It’s hard to be too critical. On the contrary, I have some sympathy. Can we have a whip-round and buy him a goal?

If you peer over the edge of the confidence escarpment, you will also see a Mr A Arshavin of St Petersburg, Russia, waving at you from the bottom. If there are two options available, Arshavin is in one of those places that means he will always take the wrong one. OK, he played a key part in Nasri’s opener but he missed a couple of other presentable chances, and skied one shot (in the box) so high the RAF had to be scrambled.

Still, talk of offloading one or the other of these players is a nonsense. Quite apart from anything, we can’t afford to weaken our front line. But beyond that, both players are capable of much more, and I’d rather we found a way to nurse them back to form.

Cracking FA Cup tie, and one that vindicates my love of the old pot. I can’t wait for Huddersfield Town to come in the fourth round.

Onwards and upwards. Here we are, mixing it on four fronts, looking hungry, relatively injury free. Let’s keep going in this vein. I’m buzzing all over again.

(And Arsene – sort that new defender out please. Koscielny and Djourou are not made of titanium. Thanks.)

Arsenal: Headers and long balls

The Times, recently ensconced behind a paywall, has become pretty inaccessible to the vast army of online football fans used to getting their football news for free. Whatever the rights and wrongs of a paywall, it’s a great shame if you ask me, partly because in Oliver Holt and Patrick Barclay they have two correspondents I agree with more often than not, and partly because on a Monday their excellent football pullout – The Game – lasts me through my entire tube journey to work.

This morning, in lieu of Premier League match reports, the pullout was a little looser round the waist, but one thing it did have was a Statistics centre-spread looking at some of the trends of the early stage of this campaign. Being a fan of the stat, it was intriguing. It’s a bit late to pick up a hard copy by now but it might be online if you fancy negotiating Checkpoint Rupert and paying your £1 due.

I don’t imagine that either of their stats I will relay will surprise you. The first is that of the current top four (Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd and Arsenal), we are the weakest in the air. Man City have won 56% of their aerial duels, while we have won only 44%.

Given that we are one of the better short passing teams, and that when in our stride we retain the ball well, it’s easy to see why some teams prefer to take us on in the air than on the ground. It probably explains why Wenger was so keen to play Diaby at Stamford Bridge (where to be fair, he had one of his better games), but I’d be interested to know whether this lack of height is actually affecting our chances overall. Wenger’s argument, I suppose, could be that we create enough chances through playing our passing game than we concede by losing the odd header here and there. I also wonder whether this stat has been skewed by not having Bendtner available, who for all his failings is as tall as a house.

And at the back, it seems to me that we’re not being beaten for height so much as being caught out from time to time by lapses in concentration and positioning.

The other stat I’m plucking out relates to short ball v long ball. In this regard, we have apparently only hit a long ball 6.6% of the time – or about once every fifteen balls. This is the least amount in the league, and compares to 21.7% of the passes made by Blackburn.

Again, not too surprising. We are chokka with nimble technical attacking players – Arshavin, Rosicky, Walcott, Wilshere, Nasri, Vela etc – none of whom I can envisage having circulation problems when they get out of bed in the morning. We do have aerial outlets up front in the form of Chamakh (6′ 2″) and Bendtner (6′ 5″), but the latter has not yet played this season and the former is still bedding in.

Nevertheless, having both fit might enable us to change things around a bit when necessary – for example when chasing a game, if our usual intricate passing game is not making headway.

Right, is Saturday any nearer yet?

Injury forecast: Chance of sun on Saturday, chance of rain too

What else is there to do during the international break but worry?

Worry, primarily, for the health of the Arsenal XI currently scattered across the globe being hacked to pieces in the name of glory for their motherland. I am so bored that I have even worked out which of those eleven has had the longest journey. It’s been a close-run and exciting thing, as I’m sure you can imagine, but the winner is Chamakh, who is representing Morocco in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Eboue runs him a close second and is a short hop away in Bujumbura, the magnificently named capital city of Burundi.

Back at the ranch, Wenger is reaping the benefit of his policy of buying brittle players, no doubt allowing himself a small chuckle at how he has cleverly denied a selection of countries their players thanks to them being injured.

One has to jest in these matters, I find, or one will cry.

The good news is that some of the long-termers are approaching fitness again. Fabregas should be back for Birmingham on Saturday, and blow me down if Nicklas Bendtner isn’t also threatening to return to fitness for that game too. Better still, Walcott could be ready and van Persie is not far behind him.

Good timing, that. It’s been immensely frustrating that so early in the season, we have been denied so many players.

It’s been especially true up front, where our over-reliance on the ever-willing Marouane Chamakh has been another of my worries. I think he’s started his Arsenal career really well, but until Bendtner and van Persie come back into the fray he cannot really be afforded a rest, and the longer that situation remains, the more I can panic a bit inside.

On top of that, having more strikers also has the added effect of giving us more options. Talk about stating the bleeding obvious, but you know what I mean. Bendtner, van Persie and Walcott have made a grand total of six appearances all season, with Chamakh being called upon ten times.

All we need is a minor miracle – all players returning, present and correct – and we could go into Saturday’s squad looking forwards rather than backwards in the direction of London Colney.

Now that would be a bit nice. But what are the chances?

More goals from Arsenal’s wings required

Scattering my eyes across the Sundays and the general theme hasn’t changed much: there’s the rustle of keeper talk and a persisting link to Everton’s Phil Jagielka. The latter story has been lingering long enough that the fee is now being quoted at a very un-Arsenal-like £15m. At that price, I can’t see us getting involved.

As for the keeper talk, well it appears to be a case of ABA – Anyone But Almunia. Akinfeev? Stekelenburg? James? You can never second-guess Wenger but I think we might still shop within the Premier League, on the basis that we cannot afford a costly bedding-in process. On that basis, do all roads still lead to Schwarzer?

As for our attacking options, it was noteworthy that Wenger said we wouldn’t be replacing the departed Eduardo. If this is true, then we will essentially have three central strikers (van Persie, Bendtner, Chamakh) and a substantial array of wide or deep attack-minded players to back them up (Arshavin, Rosicky, Nasri, Walcott, Vela, Wilshere).

I can see why he thinks that might be enough, especially allied to the goalscoring prowess of Fabregas. But if that is to be our lot, it’s worth returning to a theme I picked up at the tail end of last season – the need for more goals from those wide men.

We all know that van Persie has a good 20 goals in him, and Bendtner at least 15, but Chamakh, at least until we can judge him, remains an unknown quantity. Given the injury records of the first two of those, we need more from elsewhere.

Arshavin is exempt from the criticism about to come. With 12 goals scored despite playing up front on his own at times last season, we know he can pack a goal or two.

But look at the record of the others: Rosicky, Nasri, Walcott and Vela scored just 14 goals between them, of which only nine came in the league.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect better contributions from all four of those. For the two younger players, Walcott and Vela, they at the right age and cannot now hide behind the excuse of youth. They will also have Wilshere breathing down their necks (and both Diaby and Eboue can play wide too).

Nasri – ditto Walcott – should be hungry following their World Cup snubs and Rosicky will be fighting for his future.

To them all I say: More goals, chaps.

That’s Bendtnertainment [Part 2]

Arsenal 3-1 Burnley

As I was heading to the game with my brother, crossing Highbury Fields, we saw a clown driving a car. He was in full clown regalia, including wig, make-up and huge red nose (though I assume he’d removed his oversized shoes by that stage, unless he had 2-foot wide clutch, brake and accelerator pedals as well).

At that stage, it seemed unlikely that we’d see anything more comedic before the day was out, but as it turned out we did – in the form of Nicklas Bendtner’s Incredible Goal-Missing Circus.

Now, had that kind of performance come mid-way through last season, you wouldn’t have been able to move for tuts and groans in the stands. But yesterday, the fans’ reaction to Bendtner’s afternoonus horribilus was one indication – the other I shall come to – that this season is very different from the last.

As gaping net after gaping net went unruffled, the groans (which were of amazement more than anything else) turned into chants. Bendtner merely got a rousing song. He immediately reciprocated with appreciation of his own, and was not long after subbed off to great applause.

It was just one of those days for him.

The other indication that things this year have changed in subtle ways was the immediate post-match actions of Emmanuel Eboue. He bounded over to our end of the ground on his own, leapt over the hoardings, took off his shirt and gave it to (I think) a young girl. It was a top gesture (no pun intended) and again, one that was responded to with huge applause.

Two players who had difficult seasons, now firmly back on track and enjoying what they do. How nice that is to see.

The game itself was great fun, but very Arsenal. We contrived to miss hatfuls of chances, let in a bad goal, conceded the initiative briefly when only 2-1 up and only made it secure right at the death.

The two most noteworthy performances – aside from Bendtner’s, of course – came from Nasri and Walcott. Both players have had their own critics this season, but pulled performances out the hat that threw their form out the window. Nasri was my man of the match – direct, probing and dangerous. Walcott though was not far behind, with a second half of real quality culminating in an excellent goal. It says a lot that a player who was already being airbrushed out of some people’s final 23 for the World Cup suddenly catapulted himself back into the frame in just 45 minutes. On that form, he’d make it easily; the trick now is to keep it up.

Pre-match, the banners and the songs for Ramsey were class, as expected. As for the first 45 minutes, they started well but fizzled out. The thing that struck me most for the first 30 minutes – in fact, until Diaby came on – was that there were almost no tackles of note at all. It felt like a pre-season match. Not surprising I suppose given the last 10 days, just as Walcott’s reaction to a hard but fair tackle by a Burnley player was not surprising either.

The only stain on things was of course the injury to Fabregas. We’re far from a one-man team but someone like him – head and shoulders above most of his peers – will be missed in any side, so clearly we face an anxious wait to see whether he will make Tuesday.

Anyone got any magic plasters?

Dragao’s Den: We’re not out yet

Porto Amateur Dramatic Society 2-1 Arsenal

I read somewhere earlier this week that Lukasz Fabianski was becoming frustrated by his lack of opportunities at Arsenal.

What can you say to that? On that performance, it’s some feat for him to have got any time on the pitch as Arsenal’s goalkeeper at all. When push came to shove – or should it be when slip came to slapstick – he once again fell short of what is expected from an Arsenal keeper. And sadly it’s merely the latest in a long line of howlers from him.

I don’t particularly want to make this a witch-hunt for a young keeper but when both conceded goals were at least in part down to him then you have to take him to task. The first goal was a simple slip-through-the-hands error. Awful and, for him, very embarrassing. There were mitigating circumstances in the second, but ignoring the ref’s rapid intervention and the way he seemed to get in the way of Campbell, it was still Fabianski who picked up the back pass and it was Fabianski who gave the ball back to the ref before the Arsenal defence had even sniffed the danger. Really naïve stuff.

There will now be those who wonder whether Fabianski has already sealed his own fate as an Arsenal prospect. Barring more Almunia injury woe, it already seems unlikely that he will play again this season. He does have a few things going for him though; namely Wenger’s patronage and his own youth.

Still, when we start seeing Almunia as some kind of goalkeeping demi-god by comparison, you know things are a bit screwy. Quite how we have assembled such a collection of substandard keepers is another matter entirely.

Enough of the negatives though, for with a better keeper, tonight could and should have ended differently. Although we were sloppy at times (in particular after their second goal), I thought we also showed some real attacking threat. Rosicky was very good on the right (and had a 100% nailed-on penalty waved away by the ref), Diaby was tricky until he faded, and Bendtner fought hard up front, having a few chances of his own.

All this with a pretty extensive injury list. For the return leg we’ll need some of the absentees back – that Song is now oodles better than Denilson is beyond dispute – but above all we’ll somehow, and I sigh a bit when I write this for the ninety billionth time, need to wipe out the incessant errors that have blighted this season.

Fabregas did not mince his words after the game when he said, “When you concede these goals you cannot go anywhere… schoolboy goal”.

So yes, it’s exasperating to have to report on another defeat, and another worrisome goalkeeping performance, but against the Porto side I saw tonight, I’m not trembling in my boots. They looked dangerous at times, but defensively they were like us – basically, porous – and at home, with an away goal, you’d have to say we stand a good chance of making it to the quarter-finals.

Looking beyond that is something of a lottery, but one thing is sure: if we continue to make rudimentary errors (tonight it was Fabianski but he’s hardly the first to have lost concentration this season) then we won’t be setting Madrid alight in May.

Snow, hype and the chance to go second

Breaking news: We’ve neither signed nor sold anyone.

I switched on Sky Sports News on about 2nd January and they were already lathering at the chops and reminding us that there were a mere 29 days and 6 hours and 14 minutes or whatever it was remaining before the end of the transfer window. Not so much flogging a dead horse as flogging a newborn foal.

So I’m calm as a millpond, though I will admit I’m intrigued how Wenger will play his cards this month. We’re always told that January is a bad month for buying players, what with them being cup-tied or their clubs unwilling to sell them mid-season and all that, but we’ve actually done some sterling business in previous windows. Reyes, Diaby, Walcott, Arshavin all spring to mind.

Also, when the official site tells us “The Arsenal manager intends to add quality and quantity” then the possibility of more than one incoming signing clearly raises its head. And when the boss himself tells us that “Ideally… you want to act as quickly as possible” then the fact it could be soon, and there could be one, two, or a whole army of new faces, then, then…

OK, I’ll admit it. The hype, while mostly baseless and clearly rather see-through, is good fun too.

The most pressing thing is tomorrow night of course. Snow permitting, and of course result permitting, we could go second, and with every decent performance comes renewed confidence, more belief, and more hope. Two late goals at West Ham can’t have hindered either, even if we struggled a bit before Diaby and Nasri came on. The fact is, we turned it round. It’s a promising sign.

With Denilson back, he will slot straight into a Song-shaped hole against Bolton. I suppose he’s the nearest we’ve got to a replacement, with Diaby more adventurous and the quite excellent Ramsey replacing Fabregas.

Also back is Arshavin, and as we chop and change our squad it’s a considerable light at the end of the tunnel to hear that Clichy returns to training next week, and that Bendtner should resume training soon too.

Right, I’m off to peer out the window and pray for flakes. Not enough to cancel tomorrow night’s game, but enough to make it impossible – simply not feasible – to go into work tomorrow.

(Just kidding, boss).

Meantime – this is always good value for a morning transfer tittle-tattle round-up.

Adding height and bite / Milk Cup preview

So Wenger, normally pretty cagey when it comes to issues of the chequebook, came out yesterday and admitted that he was in the market for a striker in January.

This can only, of course, be good news. It’ll boost (and in some cases, spur on) his players, and it will come as welcome news to those Arsenal fans who consider us light in a few departments.

As I mentioned on Arseblogger’s round-table yesterday, given that Wenger’s not in a position to blunderbuss away £100m, and nor would he have the inclination to anyway, he’ll be looking for one or two players at most.

Clearly, a striker is the priority. Bendtner cannot come back soon enough at the moment, just to add a bit of bite, height and variation to the frontline. Some might think it unfair to put add too much responsibility onto the shoulders of a 21-year-old, but if anyone’s got the self-belief to take the challenge on, he has.

Nevertheless, with all the will in the world it will take Bendtner a few more years to gain the experience and guile that Chelsea so patently have in abundance up front. He’s ten years younger than Drogba, a player at the absolute top of his game. So with that in mind, I think Wenger will plump for a striker around the 25-years-old mark.

That might be where the shopping starts and ends. There are of course other areas where strengthening would make sense – keeper, centre-back and defensive midfield – but nothing quite so urgent as a striker.

It’ll be interesting to see what he does about the centre-back position though, as I’d be amazed if Senderos didn’t depart to newer climes in the transfer window. Couple that with the fact that a) the only backup to our main partnership would be Silvestre and b) Gallas appears to be holding out for a summer Bosman, then Wenger’s hand might be forced there too.

Beyond that, I can’t see any movement. I don’t think at this stage we’ll look to reinforce central midfield. Song’s away for a month but there’s still Ramsey, Denilson, Diaby there. Which leads me nicely, if a little loosely, onto Craig Eastmond and tonight’s game.

To those, like me, who don’t pay enough attention to youth and reserve level, Eastmond came from nowhere. He did really well against Liverpool in the last round and he’ll get his chance again tonight – alongside other young players like Wilshere. The full squad gets released on this morning, so it’s hard to second-guess Wenger before that time. He has said it will be a “team that has a chance to win” – so he’ll want to get the mix between the Eastmonds and the Eduardos of this world right.

“I believe we have a good mixture of experienced players and young players but we will play young players that is for sure. It will be a typical Carling Cup side” he said.

Looking forward to it now – it’s going to be a tough game indeed. Hughes appears to be under a little pressure (ludicrous if true) and will play his big guns, including our old Togolese chum.

So it’s all hands to the pump.

Come on you reds!