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.

Match report: One slump or two?

Manchester United 2-0 Arsenal

And so, as feared, the sleep-slump to disaster continues. I can’t see this one ending well.

You don’t have to scour the Arsenal online diaspora for too long to sense as much despondency, verging on militancy, as you will have ever seen. Yesterday’s defeat was entirely predictable, and followed a well-trodden formula. Loads of possession, not enough chances taken, undone by moments of weakness at the back, the team populated by a handful of passengers. We didn’t play disastrously at all – their keeper was named man of the match – but we did play like a team feeling sorry for itself.

I do worry though. Wenger drums on and on about the mental strength of this team, but I’ve long sensed these are rallying calls for the benefit of the players as much as for anyone. What I see is a team that loses a game or a player – or usually in the case of Arsenal, both at the same time – and loses its way. The losing of the way can even happen mid-game – viz Newcastle, Spuds etc.

Man Utd lose two in a row, then grind out a result. We lose one game and our form flies out the window. What are they listening to in the dressing room – Leonard Cohen?

The unpalatable truth is that this side, for all its aesthetic beauty and occasional flashes of glorious form, is making the same mistakes as it ever did.

Moan moan moan. But we’re second, I hear you cry, and chasing the title. It’s true, we are in a strong position, it’s just that our team is not currently strong. And as for the title – well again, based on what I see at the moment, I’d say it’s a pipe dream. With half our first team out and a black dog day that’s gone on for weeks, from where are we going to summon up a turnaround in form sufficient to pull it off?

We are not helped by our one-in, two-out injury list. Szczesny, Vermaelen, Song, Fabregas, Walcott and Djourou represent 6/11 of our best side. In the cases of Vermaelen and Fabregas, they possess a drive and will to win that we have no replacement for.

In their place we rely on, amongst others, Denilson and Diaby, two midfielders who have completely lost their way. When both went off against Sunderland, we improved. When both went off yesterday against Utd, we improved again. We can barely afford to carry one of these, but carrying both is a recipe for disaster. Nursing them both through developmental crises is very altruistic but where is it getting us? Yesterday, Gibbs and Arshavin also had bad days at the office. Even with so many off colour, we did create chances – we just couldn’t take them.

So yes, I’m gloomy, and for once, I’m looking forward to a week off. There are only so many miserable blogs I can write and, I suspect, only so many you can read.

I’m sure I’ll cheer up. There is still plenty to play for. It’s at times like this I need to lean more on the online shoulder of Goodplaya. A more relentless optimist you will not see. I wish I shared it – but I don’t.

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: Theo Speedwagon

Arsenal 1-1 Leeds United

Cracking cup tie this. I couldn’t make the game yesterday so watched it on HyundaITV while following the mood on Twitter. There was a fair bit of chiding for various facets of Arsenal’s display but Leeds played very well indeed, let’s not forget. It’s the FA Cup – teams from lower leagues are always up for it and that’s what still makes it a great competition. Anyone can play anyone at any point, unlike the Champions League where Uefa do their very best to mollycoddle the big sides through to the knockout stages.

Distilled down, we had a lot of good chances that we didn’t take, gave away a silly penalty and lost all our momentum before bursting back to life right at the death.

Arshavin’s was the best, a one-on-one early in the game that he really should have scored. At the end of the game, Bendtner had several presentable chance that he skewed wide or high. I take no pleasure in seeing those two suffer for form as they did yesterday.

It’s not that they didn’t work hard enough. Arshavin got himself into plenty of decent positions but everything he did went wrong and you can see that his confidence is at rock bottom. The fact that he is now considered to be one of our ‘second XI’ pretty much says it all. He’s completely out of sorts; he knows it, the crowd knows it and it’s a real worry.

Bendtner too. In his case, it could be a combination of many things. He was playing on the wing for starters, hardly his ideal position. It was also only his sixth start of a very stop-start season, and that cannot help any player looking to build up some form and confidence. The catch 22 is that he needs the games, but how is he going to play ahead of Chamakh or van Persie? Funnily enough, yesterday’s draw will probably suit him; it means he will almost certainly start again at Leeds, and also in at least one of the games against Ipswich. He’s a man that needs to play and to win some doubters over.

It was Denilson who unwittingly brought the game to life in the second half with a ridiculously sloppy penalty giveaway. Cesc was surprisingly forthright when interviewed after the game and who can blame him? Denilson made amends of sorts by finding his shooting boots at the end as Arsenal scrabbled for the winner but these kinds of mistakes set his own cause back. Not good enough and Cesc knows it: “At this stage when you are a professional footballer you cannot risk these types of penalties. It’s so easy for them”, he said.

In the end, it was the introductions of Fabregas and Walcott that edged the momentum back in our favour, and the latter was involved in the two main talking points at the end. The first was a penalty shout that was given then not given, and which Walcott later admitted to having dived to try to win. The second, a legitimate and clear penalty despatched by Fabregas. Any defender idiotic enough to try to pull a striker back in the box, however subtly, can have no complaints.

As for the first one – it looked 50-50 but for Walcott to come out and apologise for trying to ‘win’ it is pretty extraordinary, especially as nobody was accusing him of doing that as far as I could see. The official site posted the full apology so it was clearly something Walcott felt very strongly about, and you know what, I rather admire him for it. It may mean he won’t get much sympathy from refs for a while but the fact we are surprised at a player’s jarring honesty says all you need to know about the modern game and its win-at-all-costs mentality. I found it pretty refreshing.

So overall, an thumping cup tie brought back from the dead by a team not playing at its best. Wenger might rue the replay but I don’t. I love the FA Cup. Can’t wait for it.

Home comforts and other stuff

Arsenal have been around almost 125 years now. I’ve been a season ticket holder for the last sixteen of those. In terms of success, I could hardly have chosen a better sixteen years in the club’s history. What Wenger has done for Arsenal is comparable to what Chapman achieved in the 1930s – of that, there is no doubt.

It’s going to be tougher than ever for him to add to that medal haul though. Gone are the days of the late 1990s and early 2000s when Arsenal and Man Utd were the only shows in town. This coming season, there are at least six sides who will fancy their chances of squeezing into the top four.

Clearly, we have been active in the transfer market this summer with two very promising players coming in. But we’ve also let a lot of defensive experience go.

Wenger has no intention of splurging tens of millions on players, preferring to see the current crop improve sufficiently to make the next step – to win us the title.

As mentioned in my last post, Alex Song is the template here – a much derided rough diamond whose development in 2009 and 2010 has been explosive.

For this squad to be the title-winning squad Wenger wants it to be, we need to see similar comings-of-age for players like Diaby, Denilson, Walcott, Vela and Djourou.

Which of these five will we be hailing come May 2011?

Home routines

Lucky pants, new shirts, old watering holes, familiar journeys – the first home game of the new season brings back all the little tics of being a football fan. I absolutely love it.

Unfortunately, my home debut is going to have to wait though. I can’t make the game on Saturday and I’m not sure how near to my laptop I’ll get in the days proceeding it.

Here’s to a thumping home win though.

Before then – may I point towards the Arsecast. My voice is on it this week.

Back in a few days…

Thoughts on the opener/keeper/patience

The Arsenal goalkeeping mystery

It’s not often I quote old Shakey, mainly because I’m not the brightest bulb in the room, but here goes:

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”.

For the goalkeeping situation to have gone on this long unresolved is really very odd if you ask me. It’s clearly now affecting Manuel Almunia, our current number one, who can no doubt see the writing on the wall.

Wenger has been understandably cagey when pressed, but one thing he hasn’t done is come out in full support of any of the current keepers at the club.

But he has, presumably, known all summer we need a new keeper – so what’s the hold-up? Why wait this long? With all due respect, how can it take so long to sign a 37-year-old keeper from Fulham? Is there something else cooking?

The uncertainty is doing nobody any good.

In the cold light of day…

As I sit here two days on, I must admit my views on the opening game at Anfield have changed slightly. At the time, I was frustrated at missing a big opportunity – being ten men up for a whole half as we were – and at not hurting them anything like as much as we should have given the possession we had.

But I’m often guilty of thinking only of where Arsenal went wrong and not making enough allowances for the opposition playing well. Neither side had many chances but Liverpool did play and defend well. And anyway, since when has Anfield ever been an easy place to go? I think it was a very decent result. We do need to add more variation to our game at times, when we are struggling to get through massed defensive ranks, but the lack of Fabregas, Song, van Persie (for most of the game) and Bendtner are worth a mention.

You’re alright, Jack

Given he is 18 and was making his first ever start for his club, away at Anfield, I think Wilshere did very well. What I love about him is his ability to scan the pitch, slow things down, and make a pass, all in a split second. He’s always looking for the forward pass.

It’s completely unrealistic to expect him to morph into the finished article this soon though. Anyone remember Parlour’s debut at Anfield, or how Adams was in his earlier days? They made mistakes but turned out alright, if I recall.

Blooding players like him is a long process, and one that will entail good games, bad games and a lot of patience. But it’s crucial to Arsenal’s future that young English players do get a chance – and to Wenger’s credit they are increasingly getting them – so we have to accept that it will take time for them to learn and adapt.

18 is an incredibly young age to break into a top football side.

Even at 21 a player is only still learning his trade. Is it fair to write someone like Walcott off, and to dismiss him as having no football brain, on the basis that he has been at Arsenal four years already? How much of that decision-making comes with age and experience? Injury has curtailed his career to just 75 starts in that time – only 15 of which were in the last year.

What age did Song suddenly go from being a hopeless lolloping bumbler to a fine holding midfielder? When we lost badly to Man City in November 2008 in my fury I marked him (and Denilson) down as our worst midfield of all time – yet he had only just turned 21.

A mere 18 months later he was named third in our player of the season poll after Cesc Fabregas and Thomas Vermaelen.

Maybe with some teams spunking cash hither and thither as if it was small change, the patient development of players is harder to do, but coupled with a sensible approach to bringing in experience, it’s got to be the right approach.

A spoonful of hope on a cereal of improbability

Good morning to you all on a cloudless, plane-free and gorgeous spring London morning. Having no aircraft humming overhead or vapour trails criss-crossing the skies has been as peculiar as it has been welcome. It would have been even nicer yesterday had someone on my road not chosen the enforced tranquillity to fire up a tree-mulching machine – all day. It sounded like a giant having an electric shave.

Yesterday, I was giving some thought to which young players Wenger could feasibly slot in between now and the end of the season, out of necessity or opportunity, given that we are no longer challenging for first.

Then along came yesterday’s string of results, and however unlikely it may still feel, a win at Wigan today would put us three points behind the leaders with three games to go. Hope, however much you try and banish it to the attic, keeps peering his head round the banisters and gurning at you.

Goodplaya – who has been something of a lone voice of optimistic lunacy on Twitter – said yesterday morning, “Am I the only one thinking that if Spurs beat Chels we can draw level before they play again? Unlikely, but wd we feel safe in their shoes?” How right he suddenly is.

How might the Spuds’ result have changed Wenger’s plans? We’ll see today. On Twitter yesterday, there was a groundswell of opinion in favour of giving Eastmond (one league start, two sub appearances) a game in the middle of the park. With Denilson a major doubt – and hardly in the form of his career anyway – I’d take that gamble. I’d also play van Persie from the start, as with a back line of Campbell and Silvestre for the remainder of the season (injuries allowing – ha), attack is going to be our best form of defence.

Some other interesting stuff slewed out of the official website late last night. Wenger in recent days – since the Spuds win in particular – has been on something of a warpath and yesterday not only was he bullish about our chances of matching Chelsea from a financial point of view:

“I think we can overcome [Chelsea]. For a while we were not investing maybe because we had built the stadium but I think our financial situation is now becoming much stronger and we will be capable to buy the players we need to buy.”

But also he talked about transfers:

“We will announce the deals after the league [finishes]. He [Chamakh] is one of the players who has a good chance to join us.”

So good news there – the Chamakh deal sounds close and tantalisingly, he talked about ‘deals’ in plural and of money being available. Now excuse me for clutching at straws, but that’s just what I wanted to hear so clutch at straws I will.

Onto today, and here we go again. I’ve asked Goodplaya for some of his mind-warping optimism-inducing pills and we can take it from there.

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.

Seize the moment (and fix the unfixed)

Good things, as they say, come to those who wait.

I sat watching Sky Sports on 1st January expecting a flurry of new players to change hands within moments, and here we are some three weeks later with a 35-year-old prodigal-ish son having returned but not much else. This transfer window thus far has been a poker game, with few people yet prepared to declare their cards. Looks like we need to be patient and put on our flak jackets for a 31st January blowout.

We’ve also been waiting for some time for the pleasure of looking down from the summit of the league. Yes, I know we were top after a few games this season, but I’m not counting that. If we counted early season form, we’d be top every year courtesy of being alphabetically superior.

With perhaps the toughest string of games coming that I can recall, it would have all sorts of positive effects to enter that fearsome foursome/queasy quartet from the top of the league. Which is why an ordinarily mundane fixture against a side who a) are struggling and b) have never been the easiest on the eye has got a bit of a fizz about it.

We can worry about those four games later. For the time being, we just need to beat Bolton to keep the momentum up and the confidence high. We also need to work out how on earth our season has been scuppered – and yet not sunk – by our extraordinary run of injuries. I know I bang on about it, but the sheer number of crocks we’ve had this season seems more than mere coincidence. Evidently, it’s something the Arsenal hierarchy have been scratching their heads over too. As the boss said today:

“We have analysed absolutely everything. It is strange because the more injuries you get, you then seem to get even more because you always play the same players. Also, you rush some players back and then you have more chance to get them injured again.”

I can see what his argument is, but at the same time, it’s a bit mysterious how Gallas and Vermaelen, for example, have not missed any league games this season whereby others – Walcott, van Persie, Diaby, Nasri, Denilson etc – have been in and out like the tides. It’s hugely frustrating.

Onto tomorrow though, and after a few missed games over the festive period I’m gurning with excitement at the thought of getting back into the Arsenal saddle.

I’ll be there, irrespective of the state of my hamstrings, knees, shoulders, shinsplints and ankles. Arsenal players, take note.

A toast to absent friends as Arsenal freeze

Arsenal 2-2 Everton

A point gained or two points dropped? Both; the former for us, and the latter for Everton.

Let’s face it, we were very lucky indeed, scraping a late draw on a day when nothing went right and few people covered themselves in glory. It was a bad day in the office, one to file away in the recesses of the mind. One to forget, and forget it we probably will unless it becomes one of those pivotal games that bookends the start of a great run (or heaven forbid, a bad one).

I know it’s easy to say with hindsight, but I had an uneasy feeling about this game all morning yesterday. Everton have emerged from their early season funk and it showed. They gave us a right fright. All we can hope for (now that we have played them home and away) is that they can maintain their improving form, because they’ve got some big games between now and late February, and we could do with them taking some points off our closest rivals.

Not that I’m really thinking of a title surge at this stage. I think, if anything, the fitful performance yesterday just reminded me – and a few others besides, I should imagine – that we remain something of an outside shot to win the league in May.

Despite some excellent recent form, and a very healthy league position, the bottom line is that there’s nowhere on the pitch we couldn’t improve. Between the sticks we have an increasingly skittish Almunia. Though he remains a good shot stopper – he prevented Vaughan from making it game over when we were 2-1 down – almost all other aspects of his game have gone to pot. He’s been dropped once this season, and I wouldn’t bet against it happening again. I appreciate the arguments against doing it – it’s pretty much a P45 – but his form is so poor it has to be considered.

In defence, we have a rookie left-back who has done well enough in Clichy’s and Gibbs’ absences but reminds us from time to time why he is our third choice left-back. The rest of our established back line is still motoring along, but needs to tighten up. We are always looking capable of conceding.

We’re missing important players in midfield in Fabregas and Song. We’re missing the pacy outlet that is Walcott. And of course, we’re missing Bendtner and van Persie, leaving us reliant on playing Arshavin out of position and Eduardo without a recognised strike partner.

Taken as a whole, and in that context, we are doing amazingly well at the moment, and it’s hardly a big surprise to see a blip such as yesterday against a very good and committed Everton side.

Of course, Wenger can work on the players he has, and he can hassle the physio to empty London Colney of crocks, but more importantly from a momentum point of view, he can work on bringing in new faces. At the beginning of the month I remember him saying he wanted to do any deals early; well here we are a third of the way through the window and there’s still nothing doing.

I’d frankly be amazed if nobody came in this month, and I was going to stick my neck out I’d say he’ll bring a maximum of two, and that those two would be a central defender and a striker.

As for who or when – over to you, boss.