No swashbuckling, but no buckling either

Swansea 0-2 Arsenal

Optimism is not an emotion I have much associated with this stuttering season, during which all our weaknesses have been laid bare on far too many occasions, but I have been in a curiously upbeat mood since our ultimately futile win in Bavaria.

I thought we’d win in Swansea – based on nothing but the clutching of straws, probably – but my bullishness had started to fizzle out by the middle of the second half. Neither side created much and it wouldn’t have surprised me had it finished 0-0. A few high-scoring games aside (Reading, Southampton, Newcastle), we’re not scoring for fun these days. So when the goal came, it was after some huffing and puffing, and it was a bobbler of the first order.

I have to say, I love a bobbler. A scuffed slicer, one off the knee, or something bouncing off a player’s rear echelons. There are pirhouettes, volleys, 30-yard raspers and there are daisy-cutting scuffed-bobblers. I’m standing up for the latter.

It was a first goal for Nacho Winterburn (Nacho Winterburn, Na-cho Winterburn – thanks Nige) and boy did we need it. Then as if to turn the world as we know it on its head, a second came at the end from Gervinho, who hasn’t scored since the trees were in leaf, a goal set up by the oft-maligned (but in my view increasingly impressive) Aaron Ramsey. Substitution-tastic.

I’m not sure Fabianski could have had a gentler re-introduction to Premier League football – but things could have been different had Michu rolled a good effort a bit to the left. Overall though we defended pretty well again and whatever our weaknesses elsewhere on the pitch we do now boast real quality at full-back. Gibbs and Monreal, Sagna and Jenkinson. A lot of teams would kill for that depth.

We’re still a way off where we want to be, let’s be honest, and it’d be a fool who got too confident, but it’s been a good week – however bitter-sweet Wednesday was.

Heading into the ‘lull pointless and back to square one would have been no fun at all.

So those three points were sweet.

A three point turn as the handbrake eases off

Arsenal 2-0 WBA

Back to winning ways and – ahem – it’s all on again!

Given that we couldn’t realistically expect to go from 0mph – Swansea – to 100mph in one week, this was a decent upgrade from standing still, probably around the national speed limit in fact (terrible analogy – Ed).

Some of the fluency came back, there was a lot of energy and commitment, and a stand-out performance from Jack Wilshere who had his best game yet since coming back from his über-injuries. The Opta stats gave us 19 attempts, of which three were on target, which kind of tells you what you saw with your own eyes – namely that we got into a fair amount of encouraging positions in open play, created some good chances, but singularly failed to take any of them. The Gerv created a good one for Wilshere in the first half that Jack really should have scored, and there were a few decent opportunities in the second half too, culminating in Podolski chipping it over the bar from six yards out. Not very deadly but I think there was a bobble. Let’s say there was anyway – it is nearly Christmas, after all.

Gervinho was his usual enigmatic self, zipping up and down the wing relatively well, but he needs smelling salts when he gets anywhere near the goal. There was one total air shot, and a header that boomeranged wide, all of which suggest to me that he needs some kind of elastic belt attached to a zip wire that runs the length of the line, which keeps him within 10 yards of the side of the pitch. Perhaps the lino could use one of those leads that are attached to enthusiastic puppies. It’s just a thought. (To be fair, he has of course scored five goals, including a ripper against Chelsea – you never quite know where you are with him).

I was sitting next to an Ajax fan who has been a fair bit to Arsenal before, but who has never had the pleasure of seeing Gervinho weave his magic. He offered up the reason for Wenger buying him as being simply “because he sounds Brazilian”, which may be a good shout. Although we settled in the end on a different pronunciation of his name, which sums him up rather better – “Gervinh…oh”.

So of course, the game was won by two penalties, both of which could have not come to pass. The first definitely shouldn’t have been – it was a blatant dive by Cazorla – and desperate though we were for a win, I’d rather our players – all players – didn’t do that. I know it’s swings and roundabouts but still. The second was as clear cut a penalty as you will ever see, but on another day The Ox might have been penalised before he won it. Nonetheless, I think we were good value for the win and Arteta was steely enough to place both right down the middle of the goal. Maybe his saved penalty against Fulham prompted that. Or he could just be a cheeky poker-playing devil.

Happy enough with that though, the players were given solid applause and Wilshere came all the way down to clap the fans. Why they don’t all do this more often I don’t know, but it’s always worth it and was well received.

A couple more important things:

1) I came up with a genius marketing plan at half-time yesterday. “A pound a pint a point”. It’s catchy, for starters, as you will doubtless agree. And the essence behind it is that if Arsenal win, we pay £3 a pint. A draw and it’s a quid. Lose and we get a much needed loosener on the house. The small print needs some work maybe, but this seems like an excellent idea in principle to me. Are you listening to the fans, Arsenal?

2) Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will never be the player we want him to be – and he wants to be – until he reaches parity of font size on the scoreboards. The poor lad is a couple of sizes down in order to squeeze his double barrels onto the giant screen. I get the sense that this is a sore point in the dressing room and must be hindering his play. As you may have noticed, he is but ‘Chamberlain’ on his shirt, which is a step in the right direction, but he will not truly be unleashed until he’s an Arial 48 point* on the screens, like Squillaci and the rest.

*Typeface keenos – yes, this was a guess. A wrong guess probably.

Indefensible defence and a lesson in possession

Arsenal 1-2 Chelsea

Had Giroud not skewed a very decent chance to equalise wide in the dying breaths of the game yesterday, we might all be taking a different tack this morning. But it didn’t happen and taken as a whole there’s no getting away from the fact that it was a hefty bump back to earth.


From my vantage point we never had control of the game and that’s what it boils down to. Chelsea were more composed but above they kept the ball really well. The Opta stats suggest that we edged possession 51.4% – 48.6% but from where I was sitting it was us hurrying our passing, stretching to retain it or scrabbling to win it back. Chelsea also harried really well to retain it. That might explain why Cazorla had such a quiet day – not that he was the only one.

That old chestnut

Nevertheless, things might have been different had we defended better. I do think we have made big strides already this season but yesterday it was a return to the dark old days where set pieces induced what can only be described as a case of the heebie-geebies. Wenger didn’t much like what he saw either:

Defensively we were just not at the level you have to be in a game like that, which is where we were punished today… We did not attack the ball, on either goal. The difference between Chelsea on set-pieces and us was the way they were in the air – it was obvious today.

The bottom line is that Koscielny and Vermaelen had games to forget. I was one of the many – if Twitter is any guide – who thought dropping Mertesacker was a reasonable shout given the mobility of Chelsea’s attack but clearly that didn’t work out. We should have gone with Robolegs, who is having an outstanding season, but it’s easy to say in hindsight. Prior to the season starting I’d have had Koscielny and Vermaelen as my one and two, but it speaks volumes about Per’s form that I’d now be inclined to have him as the lynchpin at the moment. If yesterday was any guide we should have gone on form and form alone. I’ve just watched the goals again and both are disasters. I’ve gone squiffy thinking about it and I can only hope that Bouldy keeps them in for defensive detention this week.

I must say though that I was again impressed with Gibbs and Jenkinson who were tenacious to the end. Our midfield had to shift around once Diaby went off – you guessed it – injured but neither Oxlade-Chamberlain nor Ramsey nor Walcott nor Cazorla were able to wrest the momentum of the game away.

Up front, neither side had bags of shots on target which makes our defensive lapses – and I suppose our inability to take the chances that did come our way – the more frustrating. Fair play to Gervinho for a sensational finish and for already matching his goals tally for the whole of last season, but he doesn’t feel like the long-term solution up front to me. Nor did bringing on Giroud have the desired effect but he didn’t have much time to get into the game, either, and by all accounts most of his goals last season came as a starter and not as a sub.

We’re now some distance – seven points – off the top already but it’s not time to don the hairshirt yet. We were second best in possession yesterday, defended badly and missed a clear-cut chance to get at least a point. Room for improvement on all three counts.

Not a great day, basically.

Another throw of the dice

Arsenal 3-3 Norwich

I would like to tell you with a straight face that I withheld my thoughts on Saturday’s ‘thriller’ because I anticipated yet another twist on Sunday afternoon, but if I did say that I’d be lying the lie of a thousand liars. I honestly expected the Totteringhams to take the gift we had presented them on a platter, once and for all, and put us all out of our misery.

Instead, it looks as if we’re going to have to go through it again though, doesn’t it.

I doubt that I am the only person who has developed an unhealthy dollop of fatalism about the eventual outcome. I mean, if you fail to grasp your chances several times in a row, despite klaxons sounding, who’s to say you’re ever going to grasp it? Wenger couldn’t pinpoint the reason why we stodged through the first 45 minutes – “We have to analyse the reasons why we were not sharp enough in the first half”, he said, “There is no obvious reason because we prepared normally…” before then pinpointing exactly why: “But maybe subconsciously [we thought] we would win it.”

Complacency is a fault line that runs through this side, regrettably. It has been for ages. As Gunnerblog said on the Twisters, most teams have a sticky patch during a season – we have now had three.

Or as my brother said during half-time, “There’s nothing wrong with our players, physically or in terms of technique…. THEY JUST HAVEN’T GOT IT UPSTAIRS”.

Well in that case they have a week to go rummaging around in the attic, don’t they, because to throw away one or two chances to nail this consolation prize is regrettable, but to blow the final chance would be unforgivable.

Luckily, there is a blueprint for success, and it involves a more disciplined approach to defending – throughout the side – combined with the kind of attacking verve that suddenly and belatedly exploded us into life in the second half on Saturday. A verve that even seeped into the pores of Gervinho. Anonymous in the first half, he was like a slippery eel in the second.

Slippery eels – we need more of them.

One further thought: I think it’s probably better that we’re playing our last game away from home. I’ve had a feeling, since we ballsed up the home game at Wigan, that the understandable frustrations of the crowd (long-standing, often just under the surface) would be sensed and mirrored by the players, and maybe that’s another factor in the tepid performances that have followed. Not that I’m trying to defend them, but maybe it’s something to add into the mix.

But anyway, here we still are with a decent shout for third. 47 goals conceded, ten defeats, three points from 12 – and yet, still our destiny is in our hands.

What we need though, to end this on an upbeat note, are some positive stats, not negative ones. So before I bid you a happy bank holiday Monday, I shall leave you with this note of optimism.


One more thing: My scientific poll has ended, results below. The conclusion: We are all losing our minds.

Titime to move on / midfield goals

Wallowing in the glory of Henry’s movie-moment comeback was not meant to last all week, but for me it has. The YouTube video I breathlessly uploaded at about midnight on Monday has now had about 37,000 hits (and Analytics tell me 90.3% of those who watched it were male, with 9.7% female – how do they know this I wonder – though my brother did confidently predict that he had watched it “about 28,000 times” so maybe there’s some truth in that). It certainly captured the moment.

But now we’re back to the mundane grind of trying to reach fourth, win the European Cup and bag the FA Cup. On the whole coming fourth thing, I had this blinding-light Eureka moment a few days ago. I swear, it’s genius*. Here it is:

Fourth, we know, is an achievement. It’s got kudos attached, it earns oodles of dough, the players want it to stay and players want it to come. But it’s not a trophy. It doesn’t get listed in the programme masthead and it won’t go into the Rothmans Yearbook. So why not assign it a trophy? Let’s call it the UEFA Champions League Fourth Place Qualifying Cup (CLFQC if that’s too much of a mouthful, though I’m not sure I’m helping my argument here) and the winners can all go on an open bus tour, put it in the cabinet and whack it on the masthead. Job’s a goodun, eh? We’d have had loads of trophies in recent years had this idea been taken up and we could bury the whole ‘six years without…’ thing once and for all.

*It’s not genius, I know.

Of course, we face the fight of our lives to get there first. The main thing troubling me on that note is not the lack of full-backs, which fingers crossed will be imminently easing, but the drying-up of goals. Since beating Wigan 4-0 on 3rd December (the last time incidentally that we did have a recognised full-back – so maybe I should be more worried about it), we have scored just one goal in four of our six league games, none in one and two in the other (Yossi’s late winner at Villa).

Now, it’s very possible that the lack of goals is directly linked to the lack of full-backs, but in these instances we need other areas of the team to step up to the plate. This is where the midfield comes into the equation, and to my mind there haven’t been enough goals from that area. Sure, in those six games Gervinho and Benayoun did both score, but I think the point, if you take the season as a whole, still stands.

Our midfield has scored 21 goals all season – the same as Robin van Persie. That’s eleven players (Gervinho, Walcott, Arteta, Rosicky, Song, Arshavin, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Frimpong, Benayoun and Coquelin) who have started games in the midfield. It’s too much to ask some of those players to rattle goals in, but Arshavin, Gervinho and Walcott in particular have chipped in just seven league goals (ten in total).

Of course, how Wenger cajoles more goals out of his midfielders and wingers is the million dollar question, but if he’s happy to stick with van Persie (and Henry for six weeks) rather than twisting and buying a new striker, then he’s going to have to do just that.

Now, when’s Jack back?

Minimum blip, minimum fuss

If drawing 1-1 at home to Fulham and losing in the Milk Cup with an understrength team can be described as a blip, then our blip was batted away with that assured win at Wigan.

Nice too that the goals were scored not by one man, but by four. Particularly pleasing too that Gervinho netted one: I think he’s had a big effect on our attacking potency, even if he’s not sunk as many goals as we might have liked – though three league goals in ten starts is hardly a drought, either. He made a huge impact against Fulham (especially when you compare him to the Arsh, whose form remains consistently baffling) and wobbly one-on-one’s aside, I’m not sure we can fault the beginning of his Arsenal career too much.

So we’re creeping stubbornly up the table, with our form guide for the last six league games exactly the same as the leaders, Man City: WWWWDW. Our league form over that period is better than Utd’s, better than Chelsea’s, better than Liverpool’s. The only one grating thing – yes, I am about to moan, though not about Arsenal – is that while we have strung this excellent run together, City & Spurs have maintained theirs. You can’t have it all though.

And while all three of the other English Champions League protagonists sweat it out to stay in the competition this week, we have the luxury of naming a pared-down squad to travel to Greece minus nine fit first-teamers: Szczesny, Ramsey, van Persie, Arteta, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Walcott, Gervinho and Song. I am often sceptical about coming first or second in a Champions League group, but one thing you can never be too pleased about is a breather, especially with the usual sapping Christmas schedule, during which we play five games in 21 days, ho-ho-ho’ing over the horizon.

So all told, things are pretty rosy (for a Monday). Long may it last.

Arsenal report: On the fringe, muscle-wise

Arsenal 1-1 Fulham

So Arsenal’s five-match league winning run comes to a close. Churlish to moan too much, given how – until recently – we’d not strung two league wins together for donkey’s years. And overall, our recent form in all competitions remains nigh-on impeccable.

If you’re one of those glass-totally-overfilling types who still maintain we can catch Man City then yes, we’ve dented that ambition. But if you, like me, expect a challenge for a Champions League place to be a more realistic goal then a draw at home to Fulham is not a terrible result. It is, after all, only November.

I think we could and perhaps should have won it (Ramsey had a great, chance, Djourou and van Persie in a hectic finale too), but at the same time, Fulham played very well and really took the game to us. They no doubt would have felt hard done to have come away with no points at all.

Enough positives too, notably the will to come back into the game having gone 1-0 down after 65 minutes. Naturally, Wenger seized upon this as a reason to be cheerful. “The positive again is that we have shown exceptional spirit, desire and refusal to lose the game”, said le Boss. “We needed to dig deep.”

And the double substitution made all the difference, Diaby & Gervinho coming on for Mertesacker and Ramsey. Both added a dynamism we had lacked a bit, and for Gervinho it was a very decent way to prove his doubters wrong. He might be dithering a bit in front of goal but he caused havoc attacking down the left.

Diaby, in that 20-minute cameo, showed why Wenger still loves him so. I suspect he won’t be kept back for the bench, either, with both Ramsey and Arteta seemingly in need of a breather. Ramsey has played 12 of 13 league games this term: remarkable given his injury, I think.

Redemption in the end for Vermaelen, whose two-goal salvo was not the kind of brace he’d have liked. But it was a delicious cross from Walcott, whose form (particularly his crossing, I think) improves with every passing game. He used to be subbed all the time. Not so much these days.

Overall, a slightly tired performance, no doubt, but a spirited one, especially at the end.

Onwards to Man City on Tuesday. Will Wenger change things around?

“I will have to”.

Gervinho: Uncorked at last

Arsenal signings 2 – 1 Arsenal sales

Arsenal: Specialists in snail-paced transfers. The good news is that Gervinho has definitely signed – or at least, he’ll “shortly join” us “subject to a regulatory process”. If Cesc and Nasri’s summer represents the longest goodbye – Wenger disagrees on this point, vehemently – then Gervinho’s has without doubt been the longest hello. His four-year contract has been dithered over so long it’s already only got three years left on it, which means that he’s only one year away from demanding a new one and a further one year away from agitating for a move away. Modern football – it’s great, isn’t it?

Sorry Gervinho, I am more than likely doing you a disservice. Either way, the Ivorian is a silky-footed striker, and if YouTube is any guide, he’s a very different beast to the departing Nicklas Bendtner. If £9m is the asking price for the Dane, then someone has a good deal on their hands, I think. He’s no winger, patently, and he misses more than he scores, clearly, but the main thing is, he does score and he can make an impact. He just never quite fitted into the system we play.

Cesc and Nasri: we have ominous signs on the one hand and an upbeat Wenger on the other. Wenger really has stuck his neck on the line with Nasri in particular. As usual though, we have very little from the players themselves. No ‘I’m staying’ or indeed ‘I’m off’ direct quotes, just tidbits and guesswork. Wouldn’t it be pleasant if they came out and actually told us what their plans were? Both players leaving would be a blow, of course it would, but the ceaseless rumour – the lack of conclusion – is the thing that hacks me off the most.

Here’s a thought: If you’re staying, be unequivocal and tell us. And if you’re not, well good luck and toodle-pip. We would need to replace you so give us time to do it. Sadly, the reality is that I inhabit a dream world. This kind of openness rarely happens when so much is at stake – money, mostly – and that’s why the chess game that is a high profile transfer gets played out, via agents and ‘representatives’, the way it does.

As for the issue of income from his transfer: if it’s clear he’s not going to sign a new deal then I’d be inclined to take the money and move on. But it’s a tricky one. OK, so you lose £20m but on the flip side you have a good player for one more year, you also have rivals who will not have benefited from him strengthening their team, and you have a message being sent out that we will not sell every Tom, Dick and Nasri who has had his head turned by more money.

Oh well – at least we have actual football to actually watch. With the obvious lack of star transfers to get excited about on the tour, we do at least have some interesting newish faces to pass judgement on. Miyaichi, Frimpong, Jenkinson – one a new signing, one returning from loan and one back from injury. They’ll all be Like A New Signing, so there.

The game against a Malaysia XI will be the first game streamed live on the new Arsenal Player, I think, so buffers ahoy!