Rock me, Matheus

Braga 2-0 Arsenal

Here’s what Djourou said in the tunnel after last night’s defeat:

“We had the game under control and two counter-attacks and silly, silly mistakes – we can be disappointed because we should have won the game easily, it’s very hard to take. A point would have qualified us so it’s a shame to concede goals like that, I just cannot understand.

We have to look again, that shouldn’t happen. It was a lack of concentration, the team needs to concentrate and do better than that.”

Heard any of that before?

Just a few days after the team last made silly mistakes and lost concentration, they did it again last night. What had been a Champions League procession – we took nine points from nine – has become a breathless struggle for qualification. At least we are up against Partizan, nought points from 15, and are at Fortress Emirates (where the drawbridge keeps getting stuck on ‘down’). And at least we are getting value for money on our season tickets with a final group stage match that actually means something.

What of the game? It was rubbish. Wenger spoke after the Spuds defeat of the potentially worrying effects of giving up a two goal lead against our biggest rivals, and last night their hangover was so painful to endure I was reaching for the alka seltzer long before half time.

We had oodles and oodles of possession and passed the ball to deflation, but did next to nothing with it. 633 passes attempted (Braga: 248), 550 completed (Braga: 166). Shots on target: 1.* One measly shot on target.

So there was a reaction to the Spuds game, but not the one Wenger had called for.

Wenger was left belching fumes afterwards, directing much of his ire to the “useless” match officials for not giving as clear a penalty as you will ever see for a tackle on Charlie Vela. That should have given us a 1-0 lead and possibly – though there are no guarantees with this side – a cathartic victory. Fifa now have about 16 assistant referees dotted around the place yet not one of them apparently saw it.

That gave us time for a good old collapse. Both goals were utterly avoidable – yet more bad defending. The first was a punt right down the middle, which sliced the defence open like butter. The second was another counter, but this time Matheus had three players buzzing around him. Not one of them made a tackle.

It was a strangely lifeless, lethargic performance and there’s no doubt that we’ve dumped ourselves into a huge rut of our own making.

Unlike great sides, we never just bounce back after a defeat. We tend to take another one or two on the chin before staggering back to our feet.

Last night, we looked anything but a great side. We looked depressingly average.

Villa will be licking their chops at the thought of facing us on Saturday.

They will suspect we are there for the taking.

* Stats courtesy of Total Football CL 2010 app

“When we have to deliver, we can’t”

Ring any bells?

There are several dozen infuriating things about yesterday, all of them still fizzing away in my brain. It might be cathartic for me to list them but it would tip you all so far over the edge that it would be cruel.

But the thing I find most worrying of all, worse than the defeat itself, which had to happen one day, is the continuing seam of mental frailty that runs through this team. We can be brilliant, stubborn, resilient one weekend and we can collapse like a pack of cards the next. I don’t know how many times I have been forced to bring it up on the blog. Far too many.

For the fan – or for me, anyway – not knowing which Arsenal will turn up is the ultimate purgatory. Yesterday we even managed to squeeze both Arsenals into one match.

Technically, physically, these players are all good enough. But collectively there’s something missing and with dismal timing, after an almost faultless first half, the team migrated south at the first sign of a Spuds revival. As soon as Bale made it 2-1, I knew it could happen. There was an air of inevitability about it all.

It doesn’t always rear its head in a game, or even for two or three or four. But at some point it comes back, we switch off, and by the time we switch back on it’s all over.

Yesterday the players thought it was job done at half time, they saw the prize and the hula girls and the martinis and the adulation, and they must have started celebrating a bit in the head. That they switched off for a moment and conceded a goal is fairly normal. That they were unable to stop the rot is not.

Wenger talks about consistency all the time, but when the top of the table looms invitingly, we fail to show it. As he himself said, “What is worrying for me is that we had an opportunity to go to the top of the league and when we have to deliver we can’t.”

We started the season going five games before defeat. The next unbeaten run was three matches long. Then we went on a two-match unbeaten run before losing yesterday.

Despite all this, we are still in a very strong position in the league. But would you bet on us going on the kind of long run required to win it?

Or are we more likely to win three of four before succumbing once again?

Sadly, I know what my money would be on.

I maintain we are not far away. But we need to learn to concentrate, to focus 100% of the time, to cut out the errors, and we are showing no signs of doing that.

Arsenal go AWOL

Arsenal 2-3 W.B.A.

I have for a long time inexplicably looked out for West Brom’s results, a footballing peculiarity I can trace back to collecting Panini stickers in 1980, when theirs was the first team I had all the stickers for. At that time, with players like Robson and Regis, they were one of the better sides in the old First Division.

Yesterday they may have won a few more admirers with a display of real craft, commitment and counter-attacking skill. It’s very unusual for Arsenal fans as one to applaud an away side off, but all four corners of the ground did just that yesterday. The Baggies had been brilliant.

But what of Arsenal?

With very few exceptions, we were lifeless, listless and sloppy.

The fact that Wenger was left scratching his head – “I didn’t recognise my team today… many players made massive mistakes… unexplainable” makes any objective judgement on what went wrong pretty tricky.

Something, as Wenger said, wasn’t right from the start. I said to my brother, 15 minutes into the game, that I thought we were going to struggle and he shot me down in flames for being a miserable old git. But I was right; there was a lack of focus and urgency throughout and we got what we deserved.

For a side with title ambitions to find itself 3-0 down to a promoted side, having already conceded a penalty, tells you that it wasn’t all about the excellence of West Brom’s performance.

That lack of focus and urgency, coupled with a pandemic of defensive errors, made it the mess it was.

Between the sticks, Almunia was an absolute disaster. It was he who gave the penalty away, but if you thought his smart save would be the springboard to a commanding second half performance, you couldn’t have been more wrong. He was blameless for the first WBA goal, but erred badly for the second, and ambled unconvincingly out his box, leaving the goal gaping, for the third.

With every error he and his understudy makes, Wenger loses credibility. There is only so long you can defend the indefensible. The simple fact is this: Lehmann was dropped for making two errors. Wenger cannot drop Almunia for his multiple errors because the only other established option is even worse. The situation is risible.

The ironic jeers that then greeted every simple piece of handling will not help his confidence but the fans are not aiming their frustration at him, they are aiming it at Wenger. Like the caller who rang into 606 and called Arsenal a team with a £56m profit but a 56p goalkeeper, they do not understand how this three-year-long experiment has not been shelved.

But let’s be honest, he wasn’t the only one and it would be most unfair to pick on him alone. Watching your defence unravel in front of you in the way it did would have tested the mettle of any goalkeeper.

Sagna at right-back was all over the place, Song and Eboue were sloppy and ineffective. Diaby, Chamakh, Arshavin – the list goes on. Our two new central defenders, having quietly impressed in the season’s opening salvos, looked vulnerable all game.

Of the starters only Nasri, who battled hard all game and deserved his two goals, comes out with credit from yesterday’s mess. Wilshere did OK but he’s no superman.

For me, the most frustrating thing about it was the sense that having taken several steps forward in the early stages of this season, we’ve shot ourselves in the foot with this performance. Two steps forward, one step back.

All the old Arsenal failings – poor goalkeeping, sloppy defensive errors, plenty of possession but no way through, lack of bite and fight – reared their ugly heads again, just when we needed it least.

I accept we played 120 minutes in midweek, and our injury list is very long. But these are not excuses – the players are all experienced, and mostly all internationals. They just never turned up. It worries me that without Fabregas’s effervescence and bloody-minded will to win, we can at times look like a sports car without a driver.

We can but hope it’s a one-off, but it’s a worry, because we’ve been here before in seasons past.

Blip or bubble burst? We’ll know soon enough, with two huge tests next week.

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.