A good night for the Arsenal

Everton 0-1 Arsenal

Immediately after snaffling all three points against Newcastle by the whiskers on our Jimmy Hill, I was full of the joys of spring and confident that we could push on.

Then came a nine-day siesta and things wore off a bit. I looked over at Stamford Bridge, sniffed the pungent whiff of a mini revival, then looked at our fixtures and started fretting. Sorry, but that’s just the way I work, and besides – elephants never forget. I mean, have you seen us this season? I suspect you have.

“What we need”, I said to myself, “is three points at Goodison, with the other teams around us tripping up on their shoelaces”, before gruffling into my breakfast.

And Lo! It came to pass!

There was though, and remains, good reason for tempering my excitement: there’s a hell of a long way to go before this season can be stamped and filed away as a success. But if we make the Champions League – in third or fourth – then it will rank bang up there with anything. From staggering around punch drunk, riddled with injury and seemingly devoid of organisation, to finding the form, order, precision, spirit and passion needed to go on a run to confound the ghost of Collaps-o-Arsenal™, well that would be incredible. Not a trophy, of course, but an amazing achievement nonetheless.

Last night was another step in the right direction with a performance that was pure current Arsenal – part swashbuckling and part backs-to-the-wall defiance.

We started like a train, scoring early and missing a few other decent chances to make it 2-0. When Everton started getting back into things, I could not see one goal being anything like enough, but with a bit of luck and some refereeing going our way, it ended up being just that. If there is often a lot to admire about our forward play, then there is increasingly a lot to admire about our defensive resilience. Yes, we still make mistakes – we’ve had to come from behind to win four times in a row, after all – but you can’t overstate the effect that having a settled back four, playing in their correct positions, has had on us.

A while back I wheeled out a stat that I read in the Independent about the amount of defensive partnerships and centre-back pairings we’ve had this season – it was 26 different starting back four combinations in 47 matches, involving 14 different players and nine different centre back pairings – so to have now played the same back four for five matches is a rare pleasure. They are perhaps not surprisingly getting better and better with each passing match.

So a good night all round, and we find ourselves sitting in third. Staying there will be hard and you won’t find any gloating or over-confidence from me, but there is much to admire about the way we are trying to do it.

It’s one game at a time territory – bring on the Villa on Saturday.

Arrivederci abject Arsenal

AC Milan 4-0 Arsenal

I have not been blogging recently and I must say, I’ve not really missed it. It would not be fair to solely blame the gradual declining form of Arsenal for the gradual declining form of this blog but the seemingly perpetual cycle of poor defeat followed by gentle recovery followed by poor defeat does not help. Arseblog churning one out every day at the moment beggars belief – I’d need the help of medical science to do that. Either way, every time I have sat down to put finger to keyboard I’ve run out of steam before the boiler has even been stoked. Which I suppose segues me rather well onto Arsenal.

Make no bones, this was a bafflingly bad display in a season that has been marked by them. From pretty much the off Milan had the look of a streetfighter picking a fight with an urchin. We didn’t play as a team, our passing was poor, our defending was rank, our energy was low – nothing was right. It was so easy – far too easy – for an admittedly hungry and impressive Milan. We were awful.

Wenger did not mince his words post-match, calling it Arsenal’s “worst night in Europe” and a “shocking performance”. He’s been much freer in public with his criticism of the players this season, presumably to motivate them, but it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference. Besides, he knows that the buck stops with him and the sad fact is that on last night’s display, this looked to be exactly what it was – a distinctly average Arsenal side.

In the Standard yesterday there was a piece comparing the 2008 team, who won 2-0 in the San Siro, and this one. It rated all the players and came out with a tally in favour of the side of four years ago. Some of the ratings are arguable but the essence is not. This team is not as good as that one was. The decline might be gradual, but it’s there for all to see.

The amazing thing is that that 2008 team had Almunia, Eboue, Senderos and Hleb in it: four players who declined badly and who many people were happy to see go. But that night, they played as a team, with purpose and power, and they had Fabregas pulling the strings. Last night we didn’t play as a team and who was pulling the strings?

Overall then a sad end to Henry’s second spell at Arsenal, and barring some kind of miracle, a sad end to the Champions League.

It makes Saturday’s FA Cup match at Sunderland just about as massive as they get. Rotation? Forget it.

Anyway, that’s me done. Erm, enjoy your day?

Thick and fast: Patch up and move on

Manchester City 1-0 Arsenal

Losses and goals conceded are always more palatable when your team acquits itself well. Giving up, or turning up expecting to win, or crumbling inexplicably has been something of a hallmark in recent seasons so one of the most pleasing things about this Arsenal side since October has been the blossoming of its spirit and its excellent attitude. We got all that in spades yesterday at City, even if we came away with a measly zero points. We did bloody well in most areas, particularly at the back until we ran out of central defenders to spread across the rear line. With a bit more luck, we’d have scored, or earned a penalty, but that’s football and it’s not as if Szczesny was leaning against his post picking dirt out his nails while we laid siege to their goal. They could have scored more too. As many people have pointed out, it was a belter of a game for a neutral. Just a shame I wasn’t one.

Strength in depth was not the only difference, but it’s a factor. Whereas City can afford to pay a prolific striker £250,000 a week to play golf in Argentina (is there any other walk of life where it’s that hard to sack someone?) and a further £100,000 a week to subsidise another of their strikers to play for a rival team, we currently rely heavily on the magical Robin van Persie. It’s not that we don’t have other attacking options, more that those attacking options are wading miserably through sticky declines. The late-2010 vintage Chamakh and the 2009-vintage Arshavin have corked. It’s more Arshavin de table and Babychamakh these days. Such a shame.

Not that a firing-on-all-cylinders Arshavin would have guaranteed a goal yesterday. Just that the Arshavin who helped himself to those four portions at Anfield would have scared the life out of City – out of anyone – had he come on as a sub with 15 minutes to play. Whatever happened?

I must admit, I agree with those who wonder when The Ox is going to be handed more chances. He’s looked good when called upon so far, is fast, strong, mobile and eager to shoot. I admire Wenger’s desire to protect him a bit, given his age and relative inexperience, but he’d be a dangerous bench option at a time when there’s not a lot of danger on our bench.

At least we can stop pretending we’re in the hunt for the title. A Champions League place remains the goal, but there are five other sides who will strongly fancy their chances of getting one of those four spots, making it harder than it’s ever been for us to retain.

The fact is, our next three games are more important to that end, and they come thick and fast. Of our three Christmas matches, two are at home and one against a Villa team with their own troubles. If we can get to New Year unscathed, it will cap a fascinating first half of the season, one that couldn’t have started worse but which has picked up considerably. Five league losses is the same as the top three teams combined, but the main story for me is how we’ve injected experience into the side and hauled our form up by its bootstraps. The two are, of course, connected.

But we’ve got to get to New Year unscathed yet…

Monday thoughts: Form, newcomers, radar

Norwich 1-2 Arsenal

Another game, another win. I’ve not dusted that little phrase down for a while now but it looks nice in print (and in pixels). Since losing at our lovely neighbours on October 2nd, we have registered seven wins and one draw in eight games – fine form indeed.

In fact, if you look at our form since our last rock-bottom performance – at Blackburn – it reads P12, W10, D1, L1. By any measure and with the clarity of thought offered by hindsight, that is pretty impressive. On an individual basis, some of those 12 have been close, frustrating, stuttery or just plain dull, but we were emerging from our worst start to the season in something like 40 years, so hardly a surprise.

From being so far off the pace for the Champions League places (I grind my teeth at the thought that 4th is a measure of success – but it is), we are now well and truly in the mix. Sure, we’re a long distance off the top, but we did not spend £194m more than we earned last year, so it’s not exactly been a level playing field.

Those additions to our reeling late-August squad, all purchased in a very un-Arsenal like manner, are now showing their worth. Three of them are regulars, two on the periphery, but without them we can surmise that things wouldn’t be as improved as they are. I am well aware that Mertesacker has been caught out a few times, but there’s something about him I find reassuring. He’s like a pair of cords. It’s only fair to give him time to properly find his feet.

The luxury of choice – and strength in depth – at the back is most welcome indeed. Even with both our right-backs injured, we have Koscielny to cover. We have five centre-halfs (whither the Squill?) And we have two decent options at left-back. Sir Chesney is the real deal. I know we have let in a lot of goals (22 in the league) but this defence has had absentees and new joiners and is still bedding down. (And since Vermaelen returned – one goal conceded in three matches).

As an interesting aside, I do wonder just how long a professional footballer should need to find his feet in a new country. 10, 15 games – absolutely. But a whole season? Sometimes I think it’s used as a bit of an excuse, but then you look at someone like Koscielny, who has leapt and bounded to prominence this season in particular, and it makes you wonder whether it really can take that long. Wenger claims it’s extra hard to buy defenders from abroad. Doesn’t stop him doing just that, though, not that I’m being critical. Vermaelen, Koscielny and Mertesacker are three great options.

Arteta has done well and Santos has added and detracted in equal measures. His attacking oomph has added a interesting new dimension to us that simply wasn’t there with Clichy, but he does leave gaping holes at the back as a result. Overall though, it’s hard not to like him.

The other two – well jury out. Benayoun seems set to remain a creative sub, which is no bad thing, and Park, if we’re being kind, remains a work in progress.

What I do like is that we remain, to a degree, under the radar and I think it serves us best to be there. Our early season calamities meant many people – myself included, at times – wrote us off. Our improvement has been slow and quiet, our highlights have been nestling at the back end of Match of the Day, while everyone swoons over the Manchester duo slogging it out at the top. I can’t say I mind.

Thoughts over to Europe now, with qualification for the knockouts in our grasp. I know Marseille were much improved when they came to town, but that 0-0 remains a missed opportunity. There’s no further elbow room for qualificational dithering anymore, I suspect.

Crikey, I seem to have gone on a bit.

Match review: From Blustered to Unflustered

Red Sky

Arsenal 3-0 West Brom

No perching on the edge of the seat, nails bitten to the quick or hearts a-racing. No early goal for the visitors. No visions of wildebeests surrounded by lions at set pieces. No clinging on to a slim lead for dear life as the clock approaches 90 minutes. Is this the Arsenal we know and love? Well if it is, let me confess that I like it rather a lot.

I’m sure we will soon welcome stronger teams and teams in richer veins of form than the Baggies, but we controlled yesterday’s match from beginning to end and – if you are being uncharitable to West Brom – I always thought there was another gear should another gear be needed.

The timing of the goals was impeccable. A goal on 22 minutes set us up nicely, another on 39 – that morale-sapping period before the first half ends – made the challenge even harder for the visitors, and the final one, on 74, and the game was up. For you, West Brom, ze match is over.

For the first, it was all about Aaron Ramsey’s sumptuous (and dare I say it, Fabregasesque) pass to Walcott. What a fine talent he is – just think of his chipped pass for Gervinho against Sunderland, and again at Chelsea for Gervinho to set van Persie up on a plate. Just as we know have three strong options in central defence, imagine the potential when Wilshere comes back with Ramsey and Arteta – and Ben-Eye Oon and Rosicky – in the creative positions.

van Persie turned provider – adding another feather to his already feather-riddled cap for numbers two and three, the pick of the bunch being the last one. van Persie, bish. Rosicky, bash. van Persie, bish bash and Arteta bosh*

*This technical analysis is hard to beat, anywhere on the web

Mertesacker was rested, and in his absence Vermaelen and Koscielny made a formidable pair. I have to laugh when I look at Koscielny, because after a season bedding in he’s turning into *yet another* Wenger bargain. What was he, £8 million? He’ll be worth more now. As, you can assume, will the £2.75m van Persie be. On Friday’s Arsecast, the Frenchman was much discussed and it was pointed out – I can’t quite recall whether it was by Philippe Auclair or Arsebl Augger – that for a man who has been lambasted for his defensive signings, this one looks to be turning out alright for Wenger.

Jenkinson will receive some plaudits too. He looked like an Arsenal fan who won a competition to play for his boyhood club in the early stages of the season, but if you didn’t know what Wenger saw in him then, you will do now. Put simply: He can cross.

And boy, can he cross. He must have sliced, curled or powered five or six excellent crosses in yesterday. It was just a shame there was nobody at the end of any of them to finnish them*.

[*Red card – Ed]

It’s a powerful tool to have on the right side of the pitch, for sure, and with a bit more experience under his belt, the defensive side of things should get better, too.

Overall, a straightforward win, but you won’t hear me complaining. We’ve had too many edgy wins, frustrating draws or disappointing defeats over the last year to last a lifetime. Wins like this I hoover up gladly.

Over to you, International Break, you miserable wretch.

Arsenal v Marseille: Move along, there’s nothing to see here

Arsenal 0-0 Marseille

Goonerholic summed up last night perfectly in his blog title – it was a classic case of ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’.

Fed on helter-skelter excitement, chaotic defending and a Gatling-gun of goals on Saturday, last night we were bumped back down to earth with a performance that if you were being generous was defensively sound, and if you were being less generous, as dull as ditchwater.

Some nil nils are full of excitement. This one wasn’t. Looking at the match stats, we apparently had six shots on goal. I can’t for the life of me remember more than two, but there you go. Their keeper Mandanda came out to gather crosses well but he didn’t have to work too hard otherwise. You could have put Suzanne Dando or Desperate Dan between the sticks: I’m not sure we’ve have noticed much.

It’s not a bad result and in the grand scheme of things, it oughtn’t mean much, but set the pulse racing it did not. Park, replacing the irreplaceable van Persie, proved that at the moment, he’s not able to replace van Persie.

I thought Gervinho and Ramsey were lively enough, and seeing Vermaelen commanding the back was a joy, but otherwise we struggled to make enough of the game. Walcott had a stodgy evening (the lot of the winger, I have always thought, is to blow hot and cold). And that’s really about it. Honestly, I think I might have forgotten about it already.

Also, in many ways it showed up the classic flaw of the Champions League group stages. Namely that when neither side is in imminent danger in the group, neither side needs to go for it 100%. It wasn’t a dead rubber but it had the air of a tie that didn’t really hold too many consequences. Whether that proves to be true only time will tell.

Certainly, we’re still in a good place – top of our group – and we’re unbeaten.

Props to the Marseille fans too – they were cracking.

Handbrake off, defensive sureness on: Job’s a goodun

It’s been another fortnight of stewing over Arsenal’s weaknesses. The previous international break came right after the pounding at Old Trafford; this one came after the derby defeat. On each occasion the fortnight off has been seen as something of a blessed relief – a time to lick our wounds and work on the basics. I can’t say I’ve missed football an awful lot over the last two weeks, which is a fairly depressing admission.

And on both occasions, the next match has been an eminently winnable home game. We scraped past Swansea last time. A scraping past of Sunderland would be acceptable, of course, though ideally you’d want to see the handbrake, lubed to the max, well and truly off.

There really are reasons to be a bit more positive though. To mitigate against Sagna’s injury, we have a cavalry charge of returning defenders in the shape of Koscielny, Djourou and Squillaci. This lets us slot Song back into midfield, where he is much more effective, and it gives us more aerial dominance at the back. Scoff ye not: Koscielny is our most effective defender at aerial challenges, and Mertesacker, while still finding his feet, is as tall as a house and that alone counts for a bit.

On an ordinary day, I’d like to see Mertesacker paired with Koscielny and take it from there, but there are no such things as ordinary days at Arsenal, and our lack of experience at right-back complicates things. Jenkinson has looked raw – if willing – and while it might be worth blooding him against teams at our level (like Sunderland, haha, ouch, that’s quite enough of that), can you see Wenger playing him at Stamford Bridge at the end of the month? I can’t. And working backwards from that logical conclusion, it might make sense to play Koscielny there now (he’s a trained right-back, it transpires) to get him back up to speed. This would make even more sense given Vermaelen’s imminent return (has that jinxed him?). All of which means it’ll probably be Jenkinson on Sunday.

I confess that I have no idea what Wenger means when he says we were beaten “because the details you need in big games were not on our side”. The fact is, we have struggled on many levels this season. I can’t be bothered to go back over them, it’s not like we don’t all know our failings. Repeating them now would be like teaching you all how to count to ten.

Interesting then to note that in a sea of gloom after the derby defeat, it was none other than David Pleat who spotted signs of progress, both in midfield and with some “flashes of newfound defensive sureness.”

Whether I believe it or not, that’s precisely the kind of positivity I’m in the market for.

PS – Glad to see that Wenger read my ‘5 things to do in the international break‘ piece. He’s found Abou!

Arsenal doldrums: Still not enough wind in the sails

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal

Another league game, another defeat. It’s hard to be positive when Arsenal’s season lurches from one reverse to another with such predictable regularity. We sit 15th, which is pretty much where we deserve to be, so post-match yesterday Wenger ruled out challenging for the title. It’s October 3rd.

To be fair, he’d sound like Comical Ali if he said anything otherwise, given that far from sniffing a tilt at the top, we are two points off the relegation zone. The only thing we are currently sniffing is the whiff of stagnation.

The overbearing feeling for me is that, while we played tidily enough in patches – bossed the midfield at times – and had plenty of possession, too much of it was without consequence and despite one or two decent chances, we never did enough to stretch Spurs’ defence for long periods. Our lack of incision, coupled (in the latter stages) with poor passing and chaotic defending, made things relatively easy in the end for Spurs, who could have scored more had it not been for the heroics of Wojciech Szczesny. Or put succinctly: We were not bad, but we were not good. We were decidedly average. At the moment we are decidedly average.

That our hosts have the upper hand on us, after a decade in the shadows, is hard enough to take (three wins in four derby games for them, now), but it would be easier to digest if against everyone else we were chugging along nicely. Instead we are stuck in win-a-few, lose-a-few limbo, against anyone and everyone, and have been since February.

A text from a Spurs-supporting friend of mine, who is not noted for his optimism, simply said “What on earth has happened to you?”

I wish I knew the answer.

I have never thought it’s down to the paucity of personnel. Taken individually, we still have fine footballers and a raft of excellent young ones coming in. Coquelin did well, Szczesny did well. Of course, we have some key injuries in the spine of the side (to which we can add Bacary Sagna, a bitter blow indeed).

This Arsenal side is a work in progress but right now we are not playing enough as a team, not playing for long enough with the right concentration, or always with enough drive, not doing some of the basics right.

Fix that and Wenger is a genius. But does he have any magic left in his magic hat?

Arsenal wobble but they don’t fall down

Arsenal 2-1 Olympiacos

Whaddya mean, why can’t Arsenal do things the easy way? When did we ever do things the easy way? No no no, we can’t possibly put the game to bed at the earliest opportunity. Much better to give us all real value for our sky-high ticket prices by keeping the outcome of the game up in the air until the very last minute. It’s the Arsenal way! You know you love it really.

Certainly, we conspired to turn a commanding position into a breathless rearguard action, but we got the three points (leading the way in England on that front) and made it three whole wins in a row. Are we finding our form again? Do you mind if I think about that one and get back to you later?

Joking aside, the result was what mattered and we got it. Special mentions go to Alex Song, Per Mertesacker & Co for keeping the Greeks at bay once we had presented their goal to them on a silver salver with a congratulatory letter from the Queen.

I have no idea whether this Olympiacos side are the best Greek side I’ve seen or whether this Arsenal side have the current altruistic knack of making anyone look good, but the two goal cushion certainly was much needed given what came later.

Who’d have thought, after Santos rifled the second goal in, that by the end of the evening Olympiacos would have had 16 shots on goal to our 13? Our gifted goal gave them the momentum that had threatened to come and it rendered the match wide open and (in hindsight, and certainly for the neutral) hugely enjoyable.

I know everyone else will have mentioned these exact words, only in a different order, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had a superb debut. Not only did he take his goal well, but his speed and strength really stood out. Walcott has many strengths but strength is not one of them, and it’s that pace allied with real power makes The Ox in the Box an enticing prospect indeed. It’s safe to say that his contribution this season this season will be anything but a bit-part. Wenger has eased him into the fray thus far but you can’t keep a big talent down and we’re bound to see a lot more of him. Well played that (young) man. He’ll certainly keep Theo on his toes.

Otherwise, the game at my end (so the second half) went in a blur of missed passes and lost possession, with a few missed chances for Arsenal to seal it thrown into the bag. That was the thing that struck me most last night – our inability to hold onto the ball for more than a few passes at a time. It really is a good job we held firm at the back.

Astonishingly, Szczesny has now had eight different back-fours in front of him this season, which might go some way to explaining our general defensive ailments. We have six central defenders – Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Djourou, Squillaci, Koscielny and Miquel, but only one was fit. Song stood in admirably but yet again, we are being skittled by a long injury list. You get the feeling we could have ten centre backs and still have a few games in the season when we’re forced to patch things up by calling upon the services of a midfielder. It’s mind boggling.

Props to Arteta for his extraordinary goal-line clearance too – I had to rub my eyes to check that ball hadn’t gone in.

So a win, a decent position in the group, a bit of a rest for Ramsey & van Persie and onwards we go to Sunday.

Tin hats on…

Ruhr draw suits Arsenal fine

Borussia Dortmund 1-1 Arsenal

For some reason, it had not dawned on me how tough our Champions League group would be until last night. Maybe it was all the other stuff going on – I simply hadn’t thought much about it. Maybe it was years of sailing through this part of the competition (though we made a meal of it last time round).

Perhaps it was in anticipation of this that Wenger gave one of his most candid interviews about how realistic our ambitions could be this year. “It’s too early to speak about winning it,” he said. “Saying that would raise a lot of scepticism about the team at the moment and I don’t think any one would believe it.”

He’s right of course; ours is a much-changed team, riding (what we can hope is the tail of) a miserable, sticky run of very bad form, and with the riches available to four or five other European teams, winning this competition is a tall order indeed.

You could argue Wenger is trying to cushion himself against a fall but personally, I’m glad he’s being a bit more honest about our chances these days. It’s clear domestically that it is harder than it ever has been to compete with oligarchs, and that applies in Europe too, but with bells on given the addition of two teams who negotiate their own TV rights to the tune of €140m a year. I look back at 2006 now, when we were the width of a whisker away from winning it, and appreciate more than ever what an achievement that was.

Last night was another small step away from the nadir of Old Trafford. The late equaliser may have chafed a bit at the time but the result was an excellent one (and it was a humdinger of a strike, too). Resilient in defence, with Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny and the returning Song standing out, we stood our ground well. This, as they say, is more like it. Stubbornness, sticking together, fighting for everything – these should be givens at Arsenal. It’s a relief to see some of that spirit coming back, bit by bit, game by game, and there was no better place to show it than at the home of the German champions.

Weak going forward? We have not looked dynamic or ruthless enough in that department for a while. But Dortmund away, against a very good defence, was probably not the place to go all Harlem Globetrotters on us. van Persie’s goal was a lovely sucker punch, set up well by Theo and finished sweetly.

Two games unbeaten! I think I need to sit down.

Finally, a word about Dortmund. Huge crowd, affordable tickets, incredible atmosphere. Standing at Dortmund costs €14.90 – or €219 for a season. The cheapest season ticket at Arsenal costs £951 (€1,099). Even allowing for standing being a cheaper option, and for Arsenal giving us 7 cup games for that price (where Dortmund might not include that – but I don’t know), the difference in prices is embarrassing.