Still waiting, still patient

The Cleash

It’s 18 days since I last peered over the blogging parapet. The last time I did there were very few bullets whizzing over my head. Now there’s a full-blown barrage, though I must confess, I’m not sure who is firing at who.

Until someone valued at £10m+ comes in – a big signing, if you will – then the mood will remain as glum as it has become. 18 days ago, my blog was about Nasri, Clichy and Fabregas. This one is too. Nothing’s really moved on.

You could look at the potential exit of Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy in two ways, I suppose. The first would be to regard it as an exodus; a red flag, a dark portent. There are plenty taking that route. The second would be to see it as the coming together of three unfortunate scenarios, all at the same time. Of course, it’s much more pleasant to think of it being the latter.

Looking at the second of those, we have Fabregas, who has long harboured a desire to return to Barcelona. We have Clichy, who has refused to sign a new contract, and we have Nasri, who is acting the giddy goat, partly over money, but perhaps not entirely. That’s football I suppose.

Fabregas would be the real loss. His tenacity, vision and technique are second to none. Unless he is carrying an injury, he is a remarkably consistent footballer. He’s been the lynchpin of this side for a long time. But he wants to ‘go home’.

Nasri is an excellent footballer, a tough fighter, but he is not the finished product. He’s not worth £150,000+ a week, if you ask me. I’d say that even if we could afford to pay those wages. Incidentally, we can’t, at least not without an immediate upsurge in wages across the board.

Clichy divides opinion. He gives his all, he’s quick, he’s a very decent left-back. But he’s not as good a defender as his three long-term predecessors at Arsenal (Sansom, Winterburn and Cole). He is prone to error and his crossing could be better. But at the same time, he is currently better than Kieran Gibbs, he’s better than Enrique (who we have been linked to, not that I should be making much of that), and for a club on a limited budget, which we are compared to some, do we really want to be spending £15m on a new left-back?

Still, the consensus is that that deal is done.

Back to the original scenario though: Players who do not earn as much as some of their peers are easier to keep happy if the team they are playing in has been successful. As our groundhog seasons merge into one, you can see why things have come to a head. From a wages perspective, we are struggling to offer what other teams can offer. Maybe, like the fans, some players have tired of waiting for the promised land. This scenario is not much fun to contemplate.

Until the futures of these three players are sorted though, we’re in for a bit of turbulence.

Overall though, we’re hardly staring down the barrel at the Champions League qualifiers. There’s time – plenty of time.

Yours, Disappointed of London

Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal

Another big game, another defeat, and the unwelcome stat about our record against Chelsea and Man Utd can be dusted down, edited and bandied about. I’ll spare you the pain of repeating it but it doesn’t make pretty reading.

I was confident, if we played as we are capable of playing, that we would give Utd a very good game last night. We never crumbled defensively and we acquitted ourselves well physically (a little more robustly than was needed at times, even), but we were horribly toothless and in the end, nobody can complain that we came away with the mandatory nul points from Old Trafford.

It has become a familiar refrain for the fans and you have to wonder whether the same sense of fatalism when encountering these fixtures has also affected the players. We played well within ourselves from a creative point of view. No doubt Utd’s gameplan partly involved cutting off the supply lines and disrupting our rhythm at the earliest opportunity and those two things made our performance disjointed. Well it worked. We found no real way through and didn’t look like finding one.

No, they are not the best Utd team ever seen but they play for each other, they do not let up and they adapt very impressively from team to team and match to match. They are unbeaten in the league all season and while that might be a little fortuitous (we had a bit of that luck ourselves in 2004 to remain unbeaten) it also tells you that they retain the art of not losing even when not at their best.

Oh for a bit of that ourselves. We have now lost five league games and when playing below our best, it is clear to all comers that we are beatable.

At some point or other the discussion will loom as to whether this team is merely experiencing growing pains, or whether more unpalatably, too many of them are simply not good enough or lack the required mental edge to move up a level. You will forgive me for not having that conversation now.

One or two players deserve a mention of sorts. Szszesny came in for his first ever league start in the game you would least want to make your debut in and did very well. He’s a tall lad – much taller than the Flaps – and he has a commanding air about him. He was a little nervous as you might expect but given the circumstances, I thought he was superb. He made several good saves and could not be cricitised for their goal. For all that, the merry-go-round that is our goalkeeping situation cannot be doing anyone any good. I know Fabianski was injured last night (albeit not enough to not be on the bench) and will no doubt come back on Saturday, but the fact that some of us were talking about retaining Szczesny as number one on the back of one performance tells you all you need to know. Arsene, who is our number one? Who will be our number one next season?

Clichy came in for a bit of flak too (from me as much as anyone) and is another of those players who divides opinion. He looked shaky at times last night but in his defence, he had zero help from the man in front of him, Arshavin, who had a stinker of a game. I’ve defended the Russian all season but last night it was something akin to a miracle that he lasted as long as he did.

Overall, a really disappointing, but let’s be honest, not unexpected result.

We simply move onto the next game against Stoke. I don’t know what to expect from that as much as I didn’t know what to expect from last night. We could be one thing or we could be another.

All I do know is that we are still up there – eye-rubbingly, perhaps remarkably – in contention and with Man Utd & Chelsea locking horns on Sunday, we can go top of the table.

Yes, I know. It’s all a bit nuts.

An Arsenal-heavy interlull delays my derby nerves

Before we can all properly address the tightening stomach muscles associated with Saturday’s derby showdown, we have for once got an interlull containing no little Arsenal interest to contend with this evening.

Not only has that serial ignorer and arch hater of English talent, Arsene Wenger, gone and quietly provided England with three players – Gibbs, Walcott and Wilshere, the latter since withdrawn through injury – but the opposition is France and one thing we haven’t got at the club is a deficiency of Frenchmen. The French national side even trained at London Colney, and as far as I can ascertain, they didn’t go on strike or have a strop.

I’m not quite sure how many of our French boys will start tonight but I’ll pop a guess that we’ll see all three of Clichy, Nasri and Sagna begin the game.

Looking forward to it as I am, it also has a rather combustible air to it and with five Arsenal players on the same pitch, the miserable sod in me has started panicking about injuries. We are told that Gibbs will start, which is fantastic news. To be honest, in his case it is a much needed game. He’s had a miserable run of injuries since having his foot broken almost exactly a year ago. By my money playing for England tonight will be his third comeback from injury this season, so of all our players on view tonight, he is the one for whom I will be clutching the lucky rabbit’s foot.

Across London, Chelsea appear to have been Arsenalled somewhat, with their first-choice centre-half pairing both now crocked long-term. Seemingly untouchable this season, Chelsea have in recent weeks wobbled somewhat and Arsenal’s two excellent consecutive away wins mean we have capitalised on it. However, we have had a dismal run of injuries at Arsenal for several seasons now, so you won’t catch me ner-nerring in the general direction of Fulham Broadway. Although many of our walking wounded are back in action, we’re still missing our best centre-half.

Koscielny has had a steep learning curve since he joined, and on current form you’d have to say our first-choice centre-back pairing is Djourou and Squillaci. The lofty Swiss had in recent games found his football boots after an absurdly long absence and is being talked of as another Arsenal renaissance man.

If talk in August had been of potential renaissances, who’d have put their money on Fabianski and Djourou?

For what it’s worth I reserve judgement – principally because he’s only been back a few games and he seems to be clad in various bandages every time he steps out onto the pitch.

As an appendix, my players of the season so far are Nasri (up a massive notch), Fabianski (purely for rising from the ashes), Chamakh (better than Bendtner) and Wilshere (staggering talent coming of age).

Right, I shall enjoy tonight. Tomorrow I might get in there early and endulge myself with a few pre-derby nerves.

Few links here I couldn’t be bothered to shoe-horn in:

Blanc’s new French revolution
Ashley Young to Arsenal [believe that when I see it]
Manu Petit on football life in London [in French]

Tomas… It was up for grabs then…

Sunderland 1-1 Arsenal

Football has the capacity to bowl all manner of unpleasant googlies at you – if you’ll pardon my mangling of sporting metaphors – and the last-minute equaliser is right up there with the least pleasant of them all.

Sometimes you score them and sometimes you concede them, and yesterday it was our turn to concede one.

You can argue all you like that it once again highlights Arsenal’s soft underbelly – we wobble under pressure, don’t like it up us etc – but the frustrating thing about yesterday’s equaliser was that, to that point, we had actually defended pretty heroically and had given as good as we had got.

Squillaci and Koscielny had repelled all that had been thrown at them, and Almunia was (thanks, I believe, to his new tiger-stripe jersey sleeves) solid. Despite not playing especially well, we had looked like winning an away game in a tough encounter at a tough ground.

I wouldn’t say we switched off, but Clichy’s clearance – 25 seconds after the final minute of injury time had ended – hit Koscielny and fell to lifelong gooner Darren Bent, who put his pay packet before his poster of Ian Wright and levelled things up.

I cann’t be too critical of Clichy. The gaping goal was in front of him and a phalanx of marauding Mackems behind him. With the ball to his right-hand-side, what else could he do but try to clear it to his right? I suppose he could have wedged it skywards but under pressure it’s probably easier said than done.

All the same, under the circumstances, there’s no doubt it was two points dropped – especially so given we had the chance earlier on, from 12 yards, to make it 2-0. And would you credit it, Rosicky converted the spot kick before scoring the try. There I go with my mangled metaphors again.

Had we earned them, three points would have been a terrific return. Sunderland played very well indeed, and with Fabregas out injured midway through the first half and Alex Song sent to an early bath in the second, to have held on for the win would have felt very sweet – and would have sent us top.

But it wasn’t to be.

The red card for Song was, thinking about it now, written in the stars after a week of verbal jousting between Wenger and various enlightened footballing souls. I think it was a harsh one though. Song didn’t touch him for the first yellow – it’s no surprise he was frustrated.

Once the post-match blame game subsides though (and there was a dose of that on Twitter after the game last night), I’m sure it won’t look like the hair-tearing disaster that it felt like five seconds after Bent ruffled the net. Lady Luck might have deserted us deep into injury time but she’d been at our side when Fabregas kneed his spectacular goal in the first half.

As Bruce Hornsby once said, that’s just the way it is.

Last day thoughts and my last word on losses

Some thoughts on winning

Yes, winning – you remember it. It’s what I’m confident will happen on Sunday. A combination of hot Spuds breath down our necks, Fulham’s pressing engagement in Hamburg and it being a home fixture ought to be enough to lift the players from their black dog days and ensure the season ends on an even keel.

Our injury list, far from shortening, remains stubbornly lengthy though. Denilson, Bendtner, Rosicky and Song join Almunia, Fabregas, Gallas, Ramsey and Vermaelen on the sidelines. Clichy is a doubt.

We do suddenly have a bit more depth in defence though, with Gibbs and Djourou fit and presumably eager to contribute in some way before the summer kicks in.

Gibbs is still young, but nevertheless I wonder, when the World Cup squad is announced and he is not in it, whether he will consider it a chance missed. I do honestly think that he could have made the left-back backup place his own had he not had his foot broken against Standard Liege. It’s rank bad luck.

Djourou too will no doubt be keen to play at least a few minutes of Premier League football this season. He’s not kicked a ball in anger. In fact, he’s such a forgotten man he’s not even on the squad stat page.

Personally, I’d be happy to play both of them – though given the sudden importance of the match, I’d be surprised if more than one of them started, and not very surprised if neither did.

Some thoughts about losing

I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but as downers in your heads go, this one has been a belter.

Wenger: “Since we have gone out of the Champions League there was a little downer in our heads, but we have enough pride and quality to finish the season well and to secure the third place.”

I do understand how a shattering 6-3 aggregate defeat can badly affect morale, but you’d think four games is a long time to wallow. One thing that the current team has been accused of is failing to bounce back fast enough after a disappointing result – the above Champions League and its subsequent games being the prime example. After all, one of the signs of a strong side is the ability to rustle up a win after a defeat.

There’s one thing thinking we take too long to recover, but what’s the reality?

Well, we’ve lost nine league games this season, and it’s very interesting to note that not one of them has been an isolated defeat.

Our first league defeat, away at Man Utd on 29th August, was followed by a loss at Man City.

Our third league loss, away at Sunderland on 21st November was followed by reversals against Chelsea and Manchester City (OK, League Cup), albeit with a home win against Standard Liege sandwiched in between.

We then went on a decent unbeaten league run, losing none for almost two months.

However, when we lost again at home to Man Utd on 31st January, we followed it with a defeat at Chelsea.

Then there’s the final, freshest of these funks, two consecutive losses against the Spuds and Wigan, followed with a nil-nil bore draw and another loss at Blackburn.

Now of course, these losing streaks were often against very strong sides, with many of these tricky matches strung one after the other in a peculiarity of the fixture list.

But it’s striking nonetheless.

The form factor

Arsenal 5-0 Porto

24 hours late, this. Just like the old days, when you went abroad, burned in the sun to cinder and had to wait a day for the papers to pitch up from blighty. Cast yourself back to 1985 and it won’t feel so late.

Anyway, we were the first English club through to the European Cup quarter-finals this season, it was the first comeback from a first-leg deficit since Hajduk Split in 1978 and… was it the first goal we’d scored in the first 15 minutes of the first half all season?

I have a thirst for more firsts if they’re anything like that.

5-0 is perhaps more of a thrashing than at times it felt, especially during the first quarter of an hour of the second half when Porto woke up and a single goal would have left things finely balanced, but as soon as Nasri’s unbelievably mazy dribble and tonking tight finish made it three, it was party time at the Grove.

But there were some eye-opening performances, and if there’s ever a good time in a season for three or four players to come into form, that time is now.

The issue of form is always an interesting one, because so much depends on state of mind, confidence and so on. So while only a month ago we were lamenting the form of Clichy, Almunia, Arshavin et al, now we can talk of a quartet of players who have suddenly found theirs.

Clichy and Arshavin, incidentally, are among those who suddenly look menacingly good. We all knew Arshavin was world-class, but playing as the lone frontman seriously curtailed his effectiveness. Freed to play where he is more comfortable, he suddenly looks terrifying. Henry Winter’s line summed it up very well: Arshavin was “a box of fireworks that kept exploding in Porto’s face.”

I’m pleased for Clichy too. Coming back from injury, he was a pale shadow of the Clichy of old. But hard graft and a run of games have turned that round, and last night his workrate was exemplary.

Diaby and Nasri are the other two whose form has been building impressively. The former, to be fair, has been steadily improving for a while, but has been struck down by his usual temporary ailments all too frequently. Nevertheless, he’s looking fantastic at the moment.

Then there’s Nasri, a player whose injury – though I barely need to preface any description of an Arsenal player by mentioning the ‘I’ word, it’s a given – set him back months. It’s all clicking now though, and last night he was superb, scoring a mesmeric goal and creating space all over the pitch.

And I’ve not even mentioned Bendtner.

So form breeds confidence, which creates momentum. As a result we’re fizzing along now.

No new faces (just long ones)

Arsenal 1-3 Manchester Utd

So that’s that then – another less than gentle reminder that despite all the pre-match bullishness of Wenger and some of the squad, when push comes to shove the current crop are little more than pretenders.

Yesterday’s defeat was as lop-sided as the Chelsea game was, and equally as painful.

P8 W0 D1 L7

That’s the stat I put out on Twitter – I got it slightly wrong as it happens but the point is made whichever way you cook it. It refers to the last eight games against the top two. Goal difference of F5 A18 is perhaps even more painful to consider.

You know, had we lost all those games by a single goal having played well enough, you’d have been within your rights to shrug your shoulders at the bad luck of it all. But of those seven defeats, only one – the hapless 2-1 loss at Old Trafford this season, when we played very well but for two crazy errors – has felt like bad luck. In all the others, we have been seen off with either relative or consummate ease.

So for Wenger to suggest the problem is mental is perhaps not so very far from the truth. Against Chelsea and Man Utd, we’ve got the fear. And particularly at home.

At least, it might explain on one level just how rotten we were yesterday. And boy, were we rotten.

I’m not going to bother going through all our weaknesses player by player, because this blog post is late in coming and it’s been well covered elsewhere. I do concur with the criticism that has come to three in particular though – not that many covered themselves in glory. Clichy’s form has melted away, Denilson has been flattering to deceive for far too long (culminating in a truly horrible performance yesterday) and Almunia looks utterly shot.

Maybe much can be put down to problems of the mind, but really, should it be Wenger’s job to have to cajole a performance out of some of these players? Individual errors continue to cost us, and yet I can’t see any evidence of them going away. Wenger, of course, must take some of the blame for that too. Some of his players are just not performing, or are doing so in frustrating fits and starts.

So looking forward, what can be done? In the short-term, a change of personnel would help. Almunia and Denilson should be dropped. Clichy would probably suffer the same fate but for a lack of credible alternatives. Besides, I do think he deserves more time to pick his game up.

And up front, we need to stick B-52 on and hope to god he’s fit enough. There’s a man who – if nothing else – does not want for self-confidence. He offers us something we are clearly lacking – a tall front man who can hold the ball up.

Wenger could and should have addressed some of our weaknesses in the transfer window but, not surprisingly, he has chosen not to. That’s another baffling one but at least he’s in good company – the market has been massively subdued.

In fact, rather than strengthening the squad in January, we actually find ourselves a squad member shorter thanks to the departures of Senderos and Wilshere. So we’re stuck with what we have.

The previous time we were thumped, we did pick ourselves up and go on a decent run that – briefly – took us top. It feels like a long time ago now.

At this stage it feels a tall order but with Arsenal, you never know. It would certainly be nice to put a positive dent into those bleak stats on Sunday.

Match preview: Time to tighten the defence

Morning all. I did the classic thing of waking up in the middle of the night, and in the course of trying to get back to sleep thought of something particularly noteworthy to blog about this morning. Sure enough, when I woke up, I couldn’t remember a jot. I remember once being advised by someone to leave a notebook by the side of my bed so I could write down dreams, nightmares, blog ideas. But I never remember to do that either. It’s a vicious circle.

Anyway, one thing I did do this morning is look at the league table. Now, there’s no doubt we’re still in there and the top of the table has certainly not run away from us. But it’s noticeable that when the margins are so tight, even playing 24 hours after your rivals, as we are doing today, adds an extra pressure. Win today and on Wednesday and we all know we’ll be right up there. Lose or draw today and suddenly we’re back to being five or six points off the pace.

Which is why a couple of tepid performances can be very damaging. We were pretty awful against Everton and we can’t afford to do anything other than fly out the blocks this afternoon as a result.

It could be the classic banana skin. New managers have an uncanny ability to galvanise their new sides, even if that galvanisation only last a few games. Typically, today is Bolton’s first game under Owen Coyle.

Fortunately for us, we’ve got Fabregas back, and well enough though our third-choice left-back Armand Traore has done, I’d hustle Clichy back into the side if he’s as near as Wenger insists he is to being ready. Vermaelen has been an excellent addition to our defence, but as a unit we’re still shipping goals and Clichy’s return could tighten things up.

While we’ve had a fair few clean sheets at home, as you’d expect, it won’t surprise you to discover that away from home we’ve not kept a clean sheet in the league since 26th September, a 1-0 win at Fulham.

Yes, we still need a striker, but there are things we can do in the interim to help ourselves. Defending better, both individually, as a defensive unit and as a team is as good a place to start as any.

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.

Make Do and Mend

Manchester City 4-2 Arsenal

Bit late in the day to add my tupp’orth about yesterday’s match – couldn’t get anywhere near the pooter till now. Obviously, it’s mostly about Adebayor, which is wrong, but there you go.

I only saw the stamp on Match of the Day last night. When you see it in slow motion you can understand why van Persie released the statement he did – and why Arsenal were happy to put it up. It was an intentional jab at van Persie and it was vicious. It’s so blatant that he will almost certainly get a 3-match ban. Couple that with him running 100-yards at great speed (as many have pointed out, something he didn’t do at all last season) to goad the Arsenal fans, and I’d be pretty amazed if he got away with less than five games out.

Listening to 606 last night, it seemed to me that some people were missing the point as to why he is now the undisputed, all-time villain for Arsenal fans. His greediness for a new deal was, frankly, expected – all footballers do it. His two-faced attempts to move to a new club are hardly new either – though he was more brazen than most. No, those aren’t the things that mattered most. But going through the motions was unforgivable – and he did that for most of the season. I’d say most fans can forgive most footballers for their myriad failings so long as those players give it their all. He didn’t. Anyway – he merits no more of my time.

More pressing, frankly, is how we lost again having played pretty well, why we are making so many errors and how we have already conceded eight league goals.

Mitigating factors: 3 away games from 4, post-international hangover, key injuries in creative areas, general play and movement good, unlucky not to have scored more.

But it doesn’t matter how rosy a picture you try to paint. The fact is, we’ve already lost two games we shouldn’t have, against teams that hardly ran us off the park. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a concern. Sure, they were away, and against two sides that will be competing at the upper echelons, but we’ve thrown points away, pure and simple.

Yesterday, we lacked some artistry – in many ways, it was the classic post-international match – but we also made elementary mistakes. Almunia is away with the fairies at the moment, and Clichy had a rotten game. Song should have done better for their second goal, and where was the marking for the third?

But still, it is very early doors, and far too soon to sharpen knives. Fortunately, we’re back in the saddle on Wednesday, then back to the Grove on Saturday. So no time to dwell.

How we could do with Arshavin, Walcott and Nasri back to add to the recently returned Rosicky, though. Two players on each wing – that was how it was meant to be. It’s a classic case of Wenger having to make do and mend – or should that be ‘make Diaby and Bendtner’?

Think of the options those three would have given us had they been fit.

Finally, I had an email telling me that there’s an investigative piece on BBC Radio 5live tonight – sometime between 7.30pm and 8.30pm – on the personal, political and business life of Usmanov. I’ll be listening – no idea what kind of a picture it will paint, but it should be interesting.