It’s time to get out of the coop and face the Foxes

Like many people who tuned into Man City v Leicester last week, I was amazed at how razor-sharp the Foxes were on the break. Neutral or not, it’s hard not to be thrilled by this most improbable of sides: put together for £25m, sitting pretty at the top of the league and ripping through all and sundry with energy, directness and speed.

Three attributes that seem to have evaporated from Arsenal’s play, if we’re honest. Any progress that we have made since dismantling Man City before Christmas has been fleeting at best. A few starchy wins, a couple of defeats, a brace of goalless draws and that bonkers 3-3 at Anfield.

So Leicester are a team in a rich vein of form – the form of their lives – while Arsenal remain subdued. The atmosphere at the Emirates has mirrored our stodgy form: it’s been flat.

Hardly surprising really – just as the players feed off the crowd, the crowd feeds off the players and Arsenal have simply not been playing the kind of football that sets the pulse racing. It’s been laboured, with too many players off-colour and a prevailing sense of confidence misplaced.

Or put rather more simplistically, Arsenal have not been enough like Leicester, who have ripped up the rule book and are playing with the most extraordinary self-belief and sense of freedom.

Forget the permutations of what three points would do to each side’s chances. At the moment, while it’s obviously important, it feels to me that for Arsenal points are not the most important thing.

No, the most important thing is for Arsenal to rediscover some swagger and some can-do. If we carry on like we are now, grinding away, we will probably fall short. But if we can kick-start the way we are playing by throwing some caution to the wind and learning how to bully rather than doubt, then the fans will respond and the players might believe – really believe, not soundbite-believe – that they can do this.

So that’s my wish for tomorrow.

Unlock the handbrake.

Go for it.

Per-shaped, points plundered

Fulham 0-1 Arsenal

What will posterity tell us about this game? Not, I suspect, that it was a curiously below-par performance despite an 80-minute numerical advantage. History will record it as a win. Three potentially crucial points for supremacy among the title unchallengers.

I do not deny that it would be preferable, having accelerated into some promising form, for us to be playing with a bit more swagger than we are. We looked sapped yesterday, as if the pressure was getting to us a bit. I wish there was a handy catch-all phrase that Wenger could come up with to describe playing in this way. Something that refers to us playing within ourselves. Perhaps something automotive. Anyway, here’s what he said:

We played a bit with the nerves, a little bit with the handbrake in the second half

The bottom line is that we won. What is a bit of a concern is that the goals have dried up a bit since thumping Reading. A 3-1 win against Norwich that could so easily have been a 1-1 draw. No goals against Everton and the solitary one yesterday. But 7 points from 9 – I call that efficient…

Red cards? Sidwell (Slidwell? Slidbadly) can have no complaints and I suspect Arteta will have a sore ankle this morning. And Giroud’s, while I think less dangerous, was still over the top of the ball. I can’t really envisage Arsenal challenging it but as someone asked on Twitter (and I forget who, sorry), is there anything to lose in giving it a go? Can the FA extend a ban if it considers the challenge to be spurious? I think it might be able to but I can’t remember.

Of course, Giroud’s card has a knock-on effect, banned for three games as he is. I guess in simple terms it opens the door for one of Walcott, Gervinho or Podolski to lead the line for a bit. Walcott’s form is such that I wouldn’t even go there. Gervinho simply doesn’t need the opprobrium that would inevitably be heaped upon him and Arsenal could do with someone more reliable in front of goal anyway. It’s Podolski all the way for me. Plus, he ought to be the freshest of the lot as he’s made his home in recent weeks on the bench. He’s probably the best striker of a ball at the club.

There are some huge games today but whichever way they go, next Sunday’s visit of the champions elect is shaping up to be a humdinger. They have a bit of a hoodoo on us right now. We’ll need to douse some WD-40 on the old handbrake if we’re to undo the hoodoo.

If I could sum up the reality of the last few games of the season, it would be ‘points first, performance second’. If we can end the season well – by which of course I mean *weeps silently at the thought of bygone eras* coming in one of the holy grail places – then we can worry about our deficiencies a little more calmly at a later date.

Glorious day here in London – go on, off you go the lot of you.

PS – This blog was brought to you in a 2002 gold Grimandi 18 shirt. Possibly my favourite shirt.

“Really? Well, that’s vintage Arsenal.”

Those were the exact words from Mrs Lower when I came home last night and she asked me what the score was (she’s not into this football thing you see, and at times like this, I can’t say I blame her).

It was indeed vintage poor defending that got us into another fine mess, and vintage park-on-the-edge-of-the-area, out-of-ideas stuff that made for a second half of infuriating frustration.

Then in a year of handbrakes on and being too much in the wanting zone came There Wasn’t Enough Petrol in the Tank.

It would certainly explain our second half performance, which was as flat as a pancake. Instead of fizzing with energy and guile and determination – which we had done when we found ourselves two goals down after six minutes in the first half – we ran worryingly out of steam.

Wigan, spurred on by a miniscule band of fans – easily the smallest away section I have ever seen at the Emirates, let’s call it an away slice – were absolutely terrific though. If you take away the persistent time-wasting and the lighter-than-air toppling to the ground, which the referee largely either let go until it was too late, or fell for, they were a menace all night. They caused us constant problems defensively, where without Koscielny and Gibbs – 50% of our first choice back four – we looked ragged.

For the first goal we were well and truly suckered on the counter following a misplaced Sagna header. The second looked to me like Szczesny could have done better, but equally true, we were down to ten men as Arteta had hobbled off. Either way, it was a disastrous start.

The rest of the half was as you’d expect – Arsenal wounded and furious. Benny had two excellent headers acrobatically saved, Vermaelen scored a lovely header and it looked for all the world, if we could keep it up, that the game could yet be salvaged.

That we couldn’t keep it up and in fact fizzled out at such an important time is a cause for worry. “We didn’t see anyone who could make a difference”, said Wenger after the game, “…We have given a lot over the past two or three months and we were not sharp. Is it mental or physical? It is hard to know why.”

I think we missed the invention and calm of Arteta more than we think, and the worry is that we might now be missing that for the rest of the season – as indeed, it has been confirmed, we will be missing Wilshere.

That’s now ten league defeats – a tally that makes it slightly miraculous we are chasing third at all. I’m not sure we could have timed it worse, throwing the door for third and fourth open again once more rather than slamming it shut.

But again, well done Wigan – it was a well deserved win and we were, in the end, well beaten.

And who’s next? Chelsea at home and our old friends Stoke away.

Time to wheel out Djourou online for some damage limitation.

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!

Wanted: A big league win. Last seen: Ages ago.

Thinking about things a bit – I try not to do this, but it happened somehow – I have changed my mind. I did subscribe to the theory that any league win will do, just to get us back on track. But we got that ‘any win’ against Swansea and it didn’t put us back on track at all, did it. It was edgy and unconvincing. We lost the proceeding league game in a flurry of own goals and non-league defending. 

Seems to me, without wishing to overanalyse things too much, or to state the bleeding obvious, that what we really need is a therapeutic, make-no-mistakes, common-or-garden, text-book thumping.

I should qualify that: We need to be the ones dishing out the thumping. We’ve experienced being the thumpees this season, and character building though is, there’s only so much a stiff upper lip can withstand. Draw? Tick – we can do that. In fact, we’re particularly adept at drawing after being in front – market leaders, you might say. Where drawing is concerned, we know all the tricks. Narrow win? We specialise in those too. Spanking? We have not administered one of those for too long. Far too long.

We’ve not won a league game by two goals since 10th April (Blackpool away), and we’ve not won a league game by three goals since 22nd January (Wigan at home). You could argue that you have to go back an entire year, to August and September of 2010, to find the free-scoring Arsenal of old (two resounding home league wins, 6-0 and 4-1).

We can all disagree on many things, but on this we can be in accord: this is a sorry state of affairs for a side that prides – or used to pride – itself on excelling in the front third of the pitch. It’s all very well wobbling at the back if you’re knocking goals in as if they’re going out of fashion, but while we’ve not lost the knack of defending poorly, we’ve clearly lost the art of taking a game by the scruff of the neck and shaking it until it’s limp.

This needs remedying.

Confidence undoubtedly plays a part (Wenger’s ‘handbrake off’), but so does the way some teams line up to play us, defending stoutly in front of the box while we piffle around in a holding pattern weaving fruitless passing looms. We need to go in for the kill.

All rather obvious and easier said than done, I hear you say: Of course it is. I’m sure the boss is scratching his head as we speak for a solution to our acute home goalshyness on deck, coupled with general leakiness in the hold.

I’d take a 1-0 on Saturday, or a 2-1, of course I would. But there’d be nothing like a convincing win to properly turn the corner, would there?

Answers or suggestions as to how we might actually achieve this should be addressed to a Mr A.Wenger, Emirates Stadium, London.

Arsenal match report: Three refreshing points

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea

Back in the good old days, going one up at Highbury meant you could exhale and start enjoying the afternoon. You might not get much more entertainment but you could be pretty confident that you’d get the win.

No use comparing eras though: times have changed. Arsenal have changed, the game has changed, and 1-0 to Arsenal is never a safe scoreline. It’s a particularly unsafe scoreline when you’re caught in the kind of league rut we find ourselves in.

Nevertheless, despite wobbling in the second half we surfed the late Swansea pressure and eked out the win that we desperately needed. And we really did need this, only our third league win in 15 attempts since beating Stoke on 23rd February.

So given it was the first game after the international week, given we had two new signings in the starting XI and given the inevitable mental baggage following the 8-2 pounding, this was a very good result indeed.

It wasn’t pretty, for the most part. We didn’t put enough pressure on Swansea, or stretch their play enough (not enough crosses like the one Gibbs put in for Chamakh in the 84th minute). We didn’t use our pace enough.

In the second half in particular, the fabled handbrake was back in effect, but there were loads of positives in the game too. Arteta and Mertesacker were calm, steady influences and can be very pleased with their debuts. Benayoun was lively as a sub. You could tell straight away what their experience brings to the side. Elsewhere, Szczesny again made a wonderful save and commanded his box well. Ramsey was neat. Arshavin had an excellent first half and took the goal very coolly (he has Gervinho breathing down his neck. Nothing like a bit of competition, eh).

As Wenger said at the end, “We know that confidence goes quickly and comes back slowly.”

Well this was a first step in the right direction. To that end, an excellent afternoon’s work.

It was my first game of the season too, and it’s always nice to be back. How pleasant it is too to find that some things never change. Coming into the concourse at half time, I was greeted by queues about 20 people deep for beer. Is it any wonder people vacate their seats so early? This stadium has been open for five years now and they still haven’t worked out how to serve people beer, fast. I know it’s a tired old moan but how hard is it? And what difference would it make to the half time exodus? I’ve said it before, but the system they have at the Millennium Stadium shows the way forward. Huge beer-pouring machines dispense a dozen pints at a time, in no time at all. There are queues but I don’t remember them being substantial. Instead, the club have installed new mini shops in the concourse over the summer to sell shirts and other merchandising. I don’t see many people leaving early to get to the front of those queues.

Anyway, moan over. It was a very welcome three points.

Handbrake off required

So that week rolled past fast, complete with two excellent days off school. Thankyou banks, thankyou wedding – I could get used to these three-day weeks. I can’t believe they moaned about them in the 70s. OK, so there was crippling industrial strife, high inflation and not enough electricity to chuck about, but I could handle a bit of candelight here and there so long as someone remembered to keep the internet meter stocked with 20p pieces.

The last royal wedding on such a scale was of course in 1981, when Arsenal were at the start of a barren trophyless run of eight years. It included losses in the 1980 FA and Cup Winners’ Cup finals but zip else. History tells us nothing much happened until 1987 – a few changes of managers aside. How, in 30 years, will history measure the years between 2005 and [insert year when we next win a trophy]? Obviously, the stadium move, first ever European Cup final and change of ownership will feature in the memory banks. But will we wistfully recall the consistency of sitting at the top table, domestically and in Europe, year after year? Or will it just feel like XX barren years? Who knows, eh.

Anyway, a bit of a heavy one for a Sunday morning.

Wenger was his usual forthright self in his press conference. To be honest, you could pick apart a lot of what he said if you were in a cynical mood – which I usually am these days. I find it a bit frustrating listening to him at the moment but what else is he going to do ahead of a big game than stick up for his charges? It’s the right thing to do.

Three wins against Man Utd in the last 17 appearances does not make pretty reading. Today, Utd are in the midst of an impressive end-of-season run that neatly juxtaposes with our unimpressive fizzle-out.

Can we raise ourselves for this one? Form is against us and with them. Looking over our shoulder at the prospect of fourth place or worse should be motivation enough, you’d hope.

You never know with this team. Now that the title pressure has evaporated, we may pull off one of those handbrake off performances.

We’re certainly overdue one.

Either way, it’s always one of the best home games of the season to be at. The sun is out. The old routines kick in. Come on!