Monday night squad ramblings

And so it came to pass that Arsenal’s midweek Anglian aberration was put to the sword with a fine performance at Upton Park on Saturday. There’s nothing like winning your next game to forget about losing your last one, and I’m in a forgetful enough mood now to have perked up no end. The equilibrium is once again balanced… for now. (Aha! I had to add that in).

Plenty of positives too, with the hitherto largely blank-firing van Persie scoring twice, Theo bagging a fine goal and creating another, and a return to battle for our strongest midfield five – Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Nasri and Walcott.

About Theo: His goal on Saturday, his tenth of the season, means he has scored the same number of goals mid-way through this season as he did throughout the previous two seasons combined. I think that deserves, at the very least, a manly handshake.

To me, Saturday also highlighted that within the one squad there is a clear first XI bubbling to the top. I know I know – that’s always the case. But I find it endlessly fascinating to see a football team evolve, how fate deals some players bad hands and form dictates the fortunes of others. This season’s biggest losers so far are Almunia, Vermaelen, Diaby, Arshavin, Bendtner and Denilson, all of whom would have hoped to make more of an impact, one way or another, than they have done so far.

In their place we see Fabianski, Szczesny, Djourou, Koscielny, Walcott, Wilshere and Nasri. Only Nasri was a definite starter last year, Walcott too, albeit to a lesser degree.

For my money, our best available starting XI at the moment is Szczesny, Clichy, Koscielny, Djourou, Sagna, Wilshere, Song, Fabregas, Walcott, Nasri and van Persie. A bit harsh on Chamakh perhaps, and I can see Gibbs, fitness permitting, giving Clichy a good run for his money. I’ve also stuck my neck out with Szczesny because to me he looks the real deal, but I concede that his lack of experience might make that pick a little premature.

There’s good competition in some areas but less in others, and there’s no doubt – I say this as I don my Hat of Perfection – we could do with the ‘second string’ pushing their first-choice teammates harder. That they are ‘second string’ should be motivation enough, but it’s easier said than done.

That’s the way things go. Our first choice XI has evolved in just one year – four changes (in the absence of Vermaelen), perhaps five if you were to include Theo – and who’s to say that come January 2012, it won’t have changed again? It almost certainly will have.

There were eight changes from ‘my’ first XI against Leeds, five against Ipswich, one against West Ham.

We know already that Szczesny will start in goal at Elland Road, but I wonder how far from the above XI Wenger will deviate on Wednesday?

We’re fighting on four fronts. It’s a tough call.

Clean sheet, dented goalposts, but no goals

Arsenal 0-0 Manchester City

In the pub beforehand, there wasn’t a single member of our party who envisaged anything other than a home win, and some of us thought we might get three goals (I think I went for 2-1). All I can say in hindsight is it’s a good job none of us are bookmakers by trade. Pre-match exuberance, eh.

It was pretty clear from the off that it would be tight, with City defending diligently and chasing us down off the ball. Nevetheless, the opening 20 minutes were our best period of the game.

I got a few disagreeing tweets last night when I suggested post match that it had been a game of ‘few chances’. Perhaps an overreaction borne of frustration on my part, but it is true that it was a game predominantly of half chances, with a few three-quarter chances thrown in. Nevertheless, in a tight game with a defensively savvy and pretty unambitious opponent, you need to make more of the chances you do get and clearly we were not able to do that.

It might aesthetically be your cup of tea – it’s certainly not mine these days – but there is much to admire in defensive obduracy. I grew up on a diet of George Graham and we would revel in stifling our opponents and nicking goals. City were content to do the same with the odd attempt to forage goalwards.

It’s no wonder they have kept the highest amount of clean sheets; when they choose to, they sit and stifle and they do it very well. I suspect most teams would have struggled to break that down.

I was impressed again with Song and Wilshere, shielding from deep, and Djourou / Koscielny both receive nods of approval. Theirs is clearly the best central defensive partnership we have at the moment. Interesting tweets from the Guardian’s @seaningle this morning:

“Last night was the first time this season that Arsenal have dropped a point in the PL when Johan Djourou has played (P9 W8 D1) …”

“… and think I’m right in saying that Arsenal haven’t lost a PL game with Djourou since 22nd November 2008 v Man City (P21 W18 D3 L0)”

So two successive nil nils against City at home, but this one was not as eye-rollingly dull as the one at the tail end of last season. City were equally cautious then, but the added ingredient was that we were entirely ineffective in May whereas last night we had a lot more to us. It was an intriguing battle in the end – and as Wengerball says, it was a clash of ideologies that made for good viewing.

Sadly, we couldn’t snaffle the three points but c’est la vie.

And on the plus side – Arsenal’s kit lady will have had one less kit to wash. Fabianski’s jersey can go straight back on the peg.

A grumpy man’s belated thoughts

Chelsea 2-0 Arsenal

I must admit, I haven’t taken this one well. I was exceptionally downbeat after the game on Sunday. As soon as their first goal went in, my mood darkened.

For years, we held the upper hand over Chelsea, and once those things take hold, they can be hard to shift. In recent years it’s swung the other way more than we’d all like it to. But I doubt it’s down to being a jinx or a mental block. The harsh reality is, they remain a better unit than we are, just as we were better than them back then.

Maybe now at times only marginally – Wenger maintains, optimistically, that it’s close – but better than us all the same. More experienced, cannier, more disciplined, more solid and more ruthless.

But let’s scotch one preconception now – we didn’t lose on Sunday because we are by nature shot shy, or as David Pleat put it in the Guardian, “reluctant shooters”. According to @orbinho, we lead the table in terms of shots on goal at 143 (the Telegraph has the stats slightly lower but because they do not include blocked shots). Ordinarily, we have plenty of shots. The trouble yesterday was that we were not able to take any of the presentable or half chances that did come our way. We couldn’t get through and when we did, we fluffed our lines.

Against a team as parsimonious as Chelsea, you have to be ruthless and for a long time, ruthlessness is something we have not been noted for. How many times have we said this now? It’s easy to say of course – but it’s not a tap that can be switched on or off. It can’t be drilled. It comes with experience.

And talking of parsimony, we really need to work more on the defensive side of our game. Yes, I know, as chestnuts go that one is positively antediluvian. But it’s also been true for a long time – I suspect most teams will fancy their chances of nicking a goal against us, and that can’t be right, can it? It is possible to tighten up defensively as a team, but still attack with hammer, tongs and bells ringing.

I don’t think it’s all about the personnel. We used to let goals in with Campbell, Gallas and Toure. Koscielny and Squillaci have both looked good at times this season, but they’ve struggled a bit in recent games and the midfield ahead of them is not helping matters. It’s about defending as a team, and that is something that can very much be addressed on the green fields of Colney.

Positives – yes, the benefit of a day of reflection tells me there were. We put some decent yards in, we had plenty of possession, we matched them physically. An improvement on last year on that front, for sure. Fabianski was solid, Wilshere played well again, and Arshavin at least had his shooting boots on. Sagna showed that his WBA wobble was just that.

But we came up short, again.

As we now head into another international fortnight, we can at least be grateful that injured players do not get called up for duty. We have two weeks to cajole Fabregas, Walcott, Bendtner, Vermaelen and whoever else can be magically hauled off their sick beds back into the first team.

Clear the heads, move on.

Wonderful Wilshere takes control

Tottenham 1-4 Arsenal


There’s nothing quite like thumping the old enemy in their own back yard, as Liam Brady will tell you.

The argument for playing rookies in this competition is a strong one, but the alternate view – that winning breeds winning – has been gathering strength and last night Wenger clearly took that line with the team he picked.

Last season, this team struggled to get back on track after defeats. This year’s start has been strong and Wenger clearly didn’t want to risk a damaging defeat by playing an XI largely plucked from the reserves.

It worked.

There’s no doubt it was the strongest Milk Cup lineup in ages, with Rosicky, Nasri and Eboue starting, and Arshavin and Chamakh coming on later in the game.

But perhaps the most pleasing thing, if you think about it, is the amount of other players who played last night that had made their names in this competition and have since cemented their places in the first team squad. Home-grown, but no longer rookies – Wilshere, Djourou, Gibbs, Denilson, Vela. Only Lansbury – and on the bench, Eastmond and Emmanuel-Thomas – have not yet made that progression to first team regulars.

We were utterly dominant in the first half, but with just Lansbury’s goal to show for it, there was always the danger of parity and so it came to pass. What a terrible goal to concede though – Keane was offside (a poor decision by the lino compounded by a similar decision in the first half when Gibbs was clean through, but was wrongly called offside). Nevertheless, his shot should have been saved by Fabianski but the hapless Pole wasn’t able to push it away. Enough said about him the better I think. Almunia will not be losing much sleep.

So extra time it was, and a lethal 15-minute spell sent the travelling hordes into raptures. Nasri took both penalties with aplomb, and the icing on the cake came from Arshavin, put through by the quick-thinking Wilshere.

A word about our 18-year-old Englishman. He has been simply sensational this season and last night he absolutely ran the show, despite some rough-house treatment. As Wenger admitted, he’s far ahead of where people expected him to be and there’s no doubt that already, he’s a huge asset.

Koscielny too deserves what I believe young people refer to as a ‘shout out’ for his all-action performance. I love his energy and commitment.

The only dampener of course is Gibbs’ injury – a potential metatarsal that would be a huge blow if confirmed. He must rue the gods of ill-timing, poor bloke. Last season he had just broken into the first team – and may well have made the first-team squad – when he had his metatarsal broken. This season, he must have scented a chance with Clichy wobbling slightly. Fingers crossed it’s not broken.

Overall, much fun and a lovely performance.

And the sun is out. It’s all good.

Shall we make a DVD?

It’s Fab to be back

Arsenal 4-1 Bolton

Good weather, good mates, good football. A fine cocktail that makes for a very pleasant Saturday afternoon indeed.

Bolton going down to ten men might have made things ultimately a bit easier, but I don’t think 4-1 flattered us at all. Poor old Arshavin for one must be wondering how he ended up without a goal to his name, but he wasn’t the only one who was one-on-one and missed – Chamakh got in on the act too. Yes, there was only one goal in it until the sending off but offensively, Arsenal bristled with creativity all afternoon.

All this too without three important attacking players. As I briefly mentioned yesterday, it bodes well that all it takes to compensate for the lack of van Persie, Walcott and Bendtner is a little shuffling of the pack. Rosicky, Wilshere, Fabregas, Song and Arshavin supporting Chamakh is a tidy unit indeed – and still left us Denilson, Diaby, Nasri and Jollygood on the bench.

Picking a stand-out player from that front six is not easy but it would have to be between the inimitable Fabregas and, for his second half performance, Alex Song. For his sheer vision and range of passing, Fabregas would get it though – wherever his head or body was away to Blackburn, they were back here and he was in flying form yesterday. He split the Bolton defence two or three times with ease; it was sublime.

That said, the best pass of the day came from Rosicky, who carved an Arshavin-sized hole in the Bolton back line early in the game. Shame Arshavin couldn’t convert it.

The goal that was and inevitably will be talked about was Jollygood’s – he ran onto another Fabregas splitter and side-footed home a lovely fourth. It was preceded by 26 ole-assisted passes. Gorgeous.

But perhaps Song’s goal was better. Not only was it the 1,000th league goal under Wenger, but the dinked finish was a mixture of persistence and delicacy. He was fabulous in the second half.

There was a niggly edge to the game at times, often encapsulated by the brute force of Davies, but I wouldn’t say it was a dirty game overall. Nevertheless, ref Atwell dished out a red and four yellows (slightly down on his season’s average) and we await the news on Diaby – “It is ankle or shin – he cannot move his leg at the moment so we will see” said Wenger. Amazingly, the tackle on him was not even a yellow. We can but hope that Diaby is not out for a Diaby.

Defensively, I’ll buck the consensus of some by saying we did pretty well. OK, so Koscielny (otherwise commanding) made a bad mistake for the Bolton goal, but given that Wenger had made three changes at the back, and one of them was making his debut, I thought we were pretty solid. Squillaci made a promising debut.

It’s not a scientific observation, but from where I was sitting, I was generally, the error aside, impressed with Koscielny’s heading. He was popping up all over the place and nodding it away.

Overall, with 10 points from 12 it has been an excellent start to the season. Next stop, Champions League.

Right, I’m cutting this ramble short and heading off on a bacon hunt.

Enjoy your Sunday.

Parlez-vous français, Manuel?

What’s the state of the defence? I was asked that question on today’s round-table arsecast, in which the ‘Holic, Goodplaya, Gunnerblog and I were participating.

Overall, I think, the additions of Koscielny and Squillaci are good ones. Yes, we have lost experience in Gallas and Campbell, but Squillaci is no rookie and Koscielny, for me, has great energy and is at an age when a) he’s ready to play and b) he can still learn. We shouldn’t forget though that he needs time to settle in and should allow him some leeway as a result.

I read somewhere (wish I could find it but can’t) that since 1996 Wenger has signed 26 French players. Clearly, many of those have been staggering successes. Petit, Vieira, Henry, Pires were all world class, to name but four. We made £23m in profit from Anelka – kapow. Wiltord, Flamini, Grimandi; I’m plucking names out of thin air now, we’ve had a lot of decent players from over the channel. The success to failure ratio has been heavily weighted in Arsenal’s favour (the Guillaume ‘Willy’ Warmuz of this world have thankfully been few and far between) – France has been a fertile hunting ground.

The trend continues today, with Nasri and Diaby in the middle (Song too speaks French) and Chamakh bedding in up front. But it’s our defence where the French speakers are packed these days.

Both of our new centre-halves are French, of course, plucked from the country Wenger knows best. Our first-choice left and right-backs are French, and Vermaelen, though Flemish, is a Belgian and it must be safe to assume he parleys a bit of the français himself. Djourou is a French-speaking Swiss, Eboue is a French-speaker from the Côte d’Ivoire, leaving us just with the firmly English Kieran Gibbs, the indubitably Spanish Manuel Almunia and the unquestionably Polish Lukasz Fabianski.

So what, I hear you say? So what indeed – this is a moot point of Interlull proportions and I’m not entirely sure I know where I’m going with this myself.

Of course, on the pitch English is the lingua franca and so it should be in a polyglot side drawn from all four corners of the globe.

But when the frites are down, it must be tempting for our defence to give it both barrels in French, mustn’t it?

With this in mind, and given one of the criticisms of our number one is that he doesn’t engender the full trust of the defence ahead of him, it might be a good idea for Manuel to swot up on a bit of French invective. It would be especially useful when responding discourteously to a referee – I can’t imagine there are that many English referees fluent in French spoken with a Spanish accent.

Either that, or he could just adopt the approach to speaking French that generations of English have adopted in the past – talk slowly, and loudly… in English.

Vive la difference, Manuel – here’s to a commanding season.

Arsenal’s new defence begins to take shape

And finally, Laurent Koscielny has signed for the Arsenal. His free video is a brilliant mix of new signing intro and new shirt promotion.

“We bought this! Now buy these!”

Luckily, both new shirts are ace.

We have laughed many a time in the past about how Wenger pulls signings from nowhere and presents them to us – but with both Chamakh and now Koscielny, there’s been very little surprise, other than how long the dotted line has taken to sign. It’s been all over the web for a while. I blame modern electronicalish communications.

It means that Wenger’s first two forays into the transfer market this summer are both from the country he knows best – France. They are the latest in a long line of predominantly excellent imports – a line that started with the best of them all, Remi Garde. (There was a bloke from Senegal too I think who was quite good).

More importantly, Koscielny forms the first piece in the new defensive jigsaw. It’s a jigsaw that will hopefully include at least a new keeper – with some people’s money currently being on Fulham’s Schwarzer.

Wenger pinpointed our porous back line as a priority for investment back in May – let’s be honest, he wasn’t alone in that conclusion – so it’s hardly a surprise to see a defensive addition coming in. Not least because sailing off over the horizon in the other direction are William Gallas, Micky Silver, and possibly also Sol Campbell.

I do expect him to be first choice though – at the price we have paid, it can be no other way, regardless of the fact he was playing in the French second division the season before last.

If Sol stays, that’s your lot in that department – but if he goes (and he must be pondering exactly how many games he will get), then there’s a vacancy for a fourth centre-half. Could it be Nordveit? Or Bartley? How much experience does a fourth-choice centre-half need? And who of experience would sign knowing they were that far down the pecking order?

Sol staying would be the best solution for me, but he is free to do what he will and is taking his time.

We all know this is a big, big season for Wenger, and for my money – the Cesc stuff aside – the close season is going well. We’ve got two hungry, young but not inexperienced players signed, both of whom have a big part to play next season.

Forget the fact that Man City have spent £75m and could spend another £75m – there’s nothing we or any other club can do about that.

The main thing is the gaps are being plugged.

I’m looking forward to seeing him play now. Bienvenue to you, Laurent, and all that and stuff.

Feed me some transfers, Arsene, I’m hungry.

So England have slunk home sheepishly, and the inquest has begun in earnest as to quite how it went so calamitously wrong.

I’m not going to get into that inquest here though, what with me being thoroughly bored of our biennial national slip-up, and this blog being of a club hue. A club, incidentally, that might not have won much in recent years, but can at least pass the ball.

If you do want to wallow a bit more in the sheer horror of it all though, then there was a very good piece in The Times by Matt Dickinson (‘Mutiny and misery: the inside story of a failed campaign’ – available free online, if you register), and amid the many excellent pieces of podcastery are this one from 5live – ‘Out of Africa: where next for English football’ – and a lighter look at things from Baddiel and Skinner. I suspect the latter two are UK only.

Right, well the good news is that inevitably, club news will begin to take over soon. I recall reading some time ago that both Gallas and Silvestre had deals taking them up to 30th June, and I read today that Laurent Koscielny could sign on July 1st. On these anecdotal snippets alone I am predicting a whirlwind of transfer activity at the tail end of this week. At least, that’s what I’d like.

Should he arrive, it’s fair to say Koscielny is the absolute nailed-on classic Wenger signing, and not just because he’s French. Wenger loves to sign a player whose skills have not been touted far and wide in England, someone with youth on their side and with the potential to get better and better.

I know nothing about him – another classic sign. Over on Twitter, @arsene_knows tells me he’s got bags of promise, and made the highest number of clearances in Ligue 1 last season. That might explain why his price is apparently £8.5m.

When we paid similar sums for Vermaelen last season, it was fully expected that before long he’d be first choice. As it turned out, he went straight into the team and was one of our players of the season. So I wonder whether Wenger will be expecting Koscielny to head straight in and partner Vermaelen, or whether he’s one for the future? It’d be a lot of money to spend on a reserve. With Djourou fit again (and presumably keen to play), and perhaps even another centre-back coming in, there should be some serious competition for places.

Looks at the same time as if Campbell – a fabulous stop-gap last year – will look for pastures new. I can see how that makes sense for him.

The Telegraph has us then turning our sights on Fulham’s Schwarzer, who is undeniably experienced, but also undeniably not a glamour signing. Does it matter? Not if he’s going to be better than Almunia it doesn’t.

So all in all, things could start nicely ticking. We’re only 18 days away from the traditional curtain raiser at Barnet.

That, as they say, is ace.