No big sales. Let’s start with that.

We have arrived at the breathless finale, and it could go anywhere. Same as last year, then.

The Wigan game was no doubt fantastic for the neutral – ebbing and flowing like the tides – but it was hard work for the partisan until the triple-goal salvo. But here we are again and I have no idea what I think, if I’m honest. It’s desperately close.

What I do believe though – and it’s worth saying before fourth (or fifth, or third) is decided – is that irrespective of where we come this year, we are in as strong a position as we have been for several years to keep our pivotal players. We have been a selling club for a while now and as well as sending out the wrong signals, weakening our squad every summer has clearly also weakened the effect of buying new players, and has led to a lot of treading water. Last year we lost two key players, the year before two, in 2009 we lost two. Only in 2010 did we not shed too much.

If you look at who Wenger brought in last summer – Cazorla, Podolski, Giroud – all three have had very decent first seasons (and in the case of Cazorla, an outstanding first season). But their additions were mitigated by sales. The year before, we bought Mertesacker, Arteta, Jenkinson and Gervinho (plus others of limited impact, though perhaps I am being harsh on Benayoun) but we lost Fabregas and Nasri. Always fighting fires.

Now though, with perhaps fewer vultures circling, more money from TV and from Emirates and potentially also from a better shirt deal, we ought to hold a stronger hand.

Sagna, Vermaelen? Perhaps the former will go, and that would be a shame. But given his form and age, would that be as hard an exit as others have been? Jenkinson has done well.

Vermaelen we need to keep, frankly. You can’t prosper with anything less than three top-draw centre-halves.

Build on what we have, rather than react to departures – which is how it has sometimes felt – and we might end up with the stability and growth we crave. But another drawn-out summer exit saga – no thanks.

One nil to the Arsenal²

Sunderland 0-1 Arsenal

Backs-to-the-wall, fighting spirit, riding our luck, throwing our bodies at everything, defiance &c. (And I’ll skate over ‘missing a hatful in the first half’).

Yes, there’s something deeply satisfying about a one-nil away win in these kinds of circumstances, where at the end of the game the shirt colour can be described as ‘off-brown’ and Szczesny’s back has huge bruises on from being patted so hard and so often by his teammates.

The big Pole – who has been a bit skittish of late – pulled off a couple of blinding point-blankers. Such are the fine lines between success and failure that had he not done so we’d this morning have been wailing and caterwauling (Cattermoling?) about more dropped points.

A couple of observations:

The Corporal deserved to be sent off, with two badly-timed lunges, and while it could have been costly I find it hard to be too critical. I’m not sure he’s started in the league since that confidence-sapper at home to Swansea (when to be fair he did make a majestic howler). And yesterday he was drafted in at the last minute, which means he probably wasn’t mentally ready. It just goes to show what a run of games, or a single mistake, can do to your season. Earlier in the autumn he filled in admirably for Sagna, with no complaints. Now he looks rusty. He needs to cut out the wild stuff but he’ll be fine.

The former contract rebel needs to sharpen his arrows a bit, sure, as does Giroud, but overall Theo really is growing into his shoes (abysmal – Ed) and is having a tremendous season. Top scorer with 18 goals, his confidence is right up and he’s a really important cog in the machine just now. Again, autumn seems a long way off – when Wenger wasn’t playing him and a lot of the fans were in two minds about his worth. I don’t doubt there are still plenty who think he engineered a salary above his value, but at 23 he is now maturing lickety-split and can you imagine how sour we’d have felt had he walked away in the summer for free, on this kind of form, to either Chelsea or City or United? Sour as the blazes, that’s what I’d have felt.

Ram Zamzi* is having a good run of form but for the love of god will someone let him have a goal (and I make this entreaty to the opposition as well as to our players). He had a great opportunity yesterday but was just a bit too close to the keeper. I don’t subscribe to ramseyisnotgoodenough.rss which is why I somewhat desperately want him to get his first league goal of the season.

*Aaron Ramsey to a three-year-old

Super Jack is always going to get rough-housed, I’m afraid. He’s a little terrier and puts himself forward for all encounters. The opposition will go for your best player – it’s a fact. I’d like the refs to bear this in mind, but that won’t stop him getting involved. He’s an incredible little player – already our player of the season. It’s a shoe-in.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I don’t think it will be a case of Bacary Sayonara. I know we are hearing worrying murmurs about his future but it feels to me like the opening salvo in contract negotiations. You know, leak a bit about how you might leave, and let Arsenal take up the slack. Certainly, we’d be insane to let the Bac go. Jenkinson has the ability to take over eventually, but he’s just turned 21 and only has 16 Arsenal starts under his belt. He’s a rookie, albeit one with Arsenal wallpaper, an Arsenal duvet and a Gunners lampshade. Another year or so learning the ropes will do him no harm.

A week off now – I reckon some of those legs need it.

My season opener / Wenger Mark IV?

Season opener

This feels absurd – my first game of the season and we’re a month in. Damn you fixture list and blast you international week. Still, here we are and I’m ludicrously excited. So excited I’ve dusted off the blog! That’s a sign that something giddy is afoot, if ever I’ve seen one.

I’ve even got a new home shirt, given to me by my boys for my birthday a while back, my first new Arsenal shirt since the yellow one we wore in Paris. I only every used to buy one on the eve of something big or a proper cup final, which *weeps* explains the *sobs* seven years without a *wails* new shirt. But I have one now and maybe that’s a good sign? I think I might be clutching at straws.

I want to see New Abou (but don’t want him crocked, so don’t want to see him in equal measures), I’m obviously keen to see the new signings, I want to see the shape of the team and I’m keen to whiff the aroma of Steve Bould, if you will. Having him back in the thick of the first team is a tenuous link right back to my first-ever Arsenal game, in December 1985, when Martin Keown was in the first XI. That’s 27 years in the shadow of the best back four we will ever see.

Wenger’s Arsenal Mark IV or V?

“if he is not completely happy with it then he has to go somewhere else”.

And so speaks Arsene with his new-found shoulder-shrugging and steel, talking in this instance about Sagna.

If players don’t believe in what we’re doing here, or don’t want to be here, then they can leave – that’s a risky strategy, isn’t it? However problematic, maybe it is the only way. A team grows together, ultimately falls short, grows disillusioned together then gets dismantled. This could well be what Wenger spotted a while back, and what we have seen over the last year is what he’s been doing about it since. We’re way past the dismantling stage in this now – in fact, we’re towards the end of mantling. It could be the main reason why Song left too: not money, not attitude, but just a feeling that the old squad needed renewing (I’m just throwing this out there – money was probably a factor too). Walcott maybe too, who knows. It feels like he’s in the doghouse a bit, anyway.

All those remaining (and properly in the manager’s thinking) are either new – this or last season new – or young and in need of proving themselves, or experienced but with something to prove (or-reprove). Whether you or I believe that Wenger has the wherewithal to turn this side into winners is very much open to debate, but the players he has need to think that, absolutely they do. It’s hard enough fighting against the roubles and dinars of this world without a side fully on-board.

What you end up with, hopefully, is a squad that is flushed out and raring to succeed – and one that is 100% behind their manager. Essentially, what we’re looking at is Wenger’s Arsenal Mark IV or V. I probably need to think about this more but Mark I was the team with the new and old bolted together, which lasted maybe until the back four retired in about 2002. The next side, the Invincibles, was dismantled depressingly fast. The one after was the Fabregas one, which came close in 2008, and now we have another new squad altogether. (I mean, the timings here and the definitions of how many ‘teams’ Wenger put together and took apart is not straightforward but there can be no denying that the squad we have today is a new version, that’s very clear).

Incidentally, I don’t have the feeling Sagna will be sold off, nor that he wants to leave, but he does need to be on-board 100%. His contract situation is also delicate, a bit, in that he is injury-prone and 29, and he now has a player – Carl Jenkinson – who is only going to get better, coming up in the rear-view mirror.

Right, the kids have gone feral, I need tea, the day’s begun. Come on you rip-roarers.

Arsenal doldrums: Still not enough wind in the sails

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal

Another league game, another defeat. It’s hard to be positive when Arsenal’s season lurches from one reverse to another with such predictable regularity. We sit 15th, which is pretty much where we deserve to be, so post-match yesterday Wenger ruled out challenging for the title. It’s October 3rd.

To be fair, he’d sound like Comical Ali if he said anything otherwise, given that far from sniffing a tilt at the top, we are two points off the relegation zone. The only thing we are currently sniffing is the whiff of stagnation.

The overbearing feeling for me is that, while we played tidily enough in patches – bossed the midfield at times – and had plenty of possession, too much of it was without consequence and despite one or two decent chances, we never did enough to stretch Spurs’ defence for long periods. Our lack of incision, coupled (in the latter stages) with poor passing and chaotic defending, made things relatively easy in the end for Spurs, who could have scored more had it not been for the heroics of Wojciech Szczesny. Or put succinctly: We were not bad, but we were not good. We were decidedly average. At the moment we are decidedly average.

That our hosts have the upper hand on us, after a decade in the shadows, is hard enough to take (three wins in four derby games for them, now), but it would be easier to digest if against everyone else we were chugging along nicely. Instead we are stuck in win-a-few, lose-a-few limbo, against anyone and everyone, and have been since February.

A text from a Spurs-supporting friend of mine, who is not noted for his optimism, simply said “What on earth has happened to you?”

I wish I knew the answer.

I have never thought it’s down to the paucity of personnel. Taken individually, we still have fine footballers and a raft of excellent young ones coming in. Coquelin did well, Szczesny did well. Of course, we have some key injuries in the spine of the side (to which we can add Bacary Sagna, a bitter blow indeed).

This Arsenal side is a work in progress but right now we are not playing enough as a team, not playing for long enough with the right concentration, or always with enough drive, not doing some of the basics right.

Fix that and Wenger is a genius. But does he have any magic left in his magic hat?

Match report: Arsenal’s perfect riposte

Leeds Utd 1-3 Arsenal

A thoroughly satisfying evening in Yorkshire. With memories of the preceding Leeds and Ipswich ties still fresh, I said to @feverpitch before the game started last night that we’d know which Arsenal was present within five minutes of the whistle. Rather neatly, exactly five minutes had elapsed when Arshavin and Chamakh ping-ponged the ball through to the waltzing Nasri, who scuttled past a couple of players and sunk one into the bottom right corner. Game on: Arsenal were up for this alright.

Both Bendtner and Arshavin – more of which later – then missed gilt-edged crosses to make it 2-0, but in the end it fell to Bacary Sagna to rifle the second goal in. Not to be outdone, Leeds – who I was again impressed with all night – made it 2-1 with one of those 30-yard screamers that don’t come around too often. It had me wistfully dreaming of that Vieira rocket against Newcastle when we won 3-1 in April 1998.

It strikes me that Wenger has got the balance right between playing ‘scratch’ sides and overusing his first XI. Last night, Walcott, Fabregas, Wilshere and van Persie were given a rest, but all four were on the bench if required. Gibbs came in for Clichy (also on the bench) but Sagna replaced Eboue, so the defence was as good as we can field (not that we have a lot of leeway at centre-half).

As it happened, with the game still at 2-1, Wenger called on van Persie and Fabregas and it wasn’t long before our third goal put the game to bed.

Bendt it like Beckham

*headline groan* – and one I was beaten to by @White_Ox, damn him.

The third was a delight. Fabregas passed to our man on the right, Nicklas Bendtner, whose cross was absolutely inch-perfect. van Persie, or more precisely van Persie’s head, simply could not miss. It was the best thing Bendtner did all night. Lord knows he tried though, I can’t blame him for a lack of effort – it’s just he’s in a monumental rut. It’s more of an escarpment. There was one time when he was back defending – an admirable place to be – at right-back, he won the ball through sheer tenacity but then somehow contrived to lose it again. It’s hard to be too critical. On the contrary, I have some sympathy. Can we have a whip-round and buy him a goal?

If you peer over the edge of the confidence escarpment, you will also see a Mr A Arshavin of St Petersburg, Russia, waving at you from the bottom. If there are two options available, Arshavin is in one of those places that means he will always take the wrong one. OK, he played a key part in Nasri’s opener but he missed a couple of other presentable chances, and skied one shot (in the box) so high the RAF had to be scrambled.

Still, talk of offloading one or the other of these players is a nonsense. Quite apart from anything, we can’t afford to weaken our front line. But beyond that, both players are capable of much more, and I’d rather we found a way to nurse them back to form.

Cracking FA Cup tie, and one that vindicates my love of the old pot. I can’t wait for Huddersfield Town to come in the fourth round.

Onwards and upwards. Here we are, mixing it on four fronts, looking hungry, relatively injury free. Let’s keep going in this vein. I’m buzzing all over again.

(And Arsene – sort that new defender out please. Koscielny and Djourou are not made of titanium. Thanks.)

An Arsenal-heavy interlull delays my derby nerves

Before we can all properly address the tightening stomach muscles associated with Saturday’s derby showdown, we have for once got an interlull containing no little Arsenal interest to contend with this evening.

Not only has that serial ignorer and arch hater of English talent, Arsene Wenger, gone and quietly provided England with three players – Gibbs, Walcott and Wilshere, the latter since withdrawn through injury – but the opposition is France and one thing we haven’t got at the club is a deficiency of Frenchmen. The French national side even trained at London Colney, and as far as I can ascertain, they didn’t go on strike or have a strop.

I’m not quite sure how many of our French boys will start tonight but I’ll pop a guess that we’ll see all three of Clichy, Nasri and Sagna begin the game.

Looking forward to it as I am, it also has a rather combustible air to it and with five Arsenal players on the same pitch, the miserable sod in me has started panicking about injuries. We are told that Gibbs will start, which is fantastic news. To be honest, in his case it is a much needed game. He’s had a miserable run of injuries since having his foot broken almost exactly a year ago. By my money playing for England tonight will be his third comeback from injury this season, so of all our players on view tonight, he is the one for whom I will be clutching the lucky rabbit’s foot.

Across London, Chelsea appear to have been Arsenalled somewhat, with their first-choice centre-half pairing both now crocked long-term. Seemingly untouchable this season, Chelsea have in recent weeks wobbled somewhat and Arsenal’s two excellent consecutive away wins mean we have capitalised on it. However, we have had a dismal run of injuries at Arsenal for several seasons now, so you won’t catch me ner-nerring in the general direction of Fulham Broadway. Although many of our walking wounded are back in action, we’re still missing our best centre-half.

Koscielny has had a steep learning curve since he joined, and on current form you’d have to say our first-choice centre-back pairing is Djourou and Squillaci. The lofty Swiss had in recent games found his football boots after an absurdly long absence and is being talked of as another Arsenal renaissance man.

If talk in August had been of potential renaissances, who’d have put their money on Fabianski and Djourou?

For what it’s worth I reserve judgement – principally because he’s only been back a few games and he seems to be clad in various bandages every time he steps out onto the pitch.

As an appendix, my players of the season so far are Nasri (up a massive notch), Fabianski (purely for rising from the ashes), Chamakh (better than Bendtner) and Wilshere (staggering talent coming of age).

Right, I shall enjoy tonight. Tomorrow I might get in there early and endulge myself with a few pre-derby nerves.

Few links here I couldn’t be bothered to shoe-horn in:

Blanc’s new French revolution
Ashley Young to Arsenal [believe that when I see it]
Manu Petit on football life in London [in French]

Eleven sent

Arsenal 3-0 Tottenham

For a football fan, there can be few things as satisfying as an epic goal bundle.

In order to achieve optimum conditions for bundles, several key elements need to be in place. Surprise is definitely one. Scoring against your old rivals is another. Scoring twice in quick succession is the cherry on icing on the cake for a bundle of unrivalled silliness.

I hadn’t seen the first goal coming. We had created the better of the few chances without – as Wenger is now wont to remind us – taking the handbrake off. We didn’t look in trouble at all but at the same time it was a tight game and we weren’t running through the gears at all.

Then boom – a cross comes in from Sagna, van Persie evades his man and it’s 1-0. Their keeper should have done better – not for the first time, as it transpired. And we think we have issues with keepers.

Then a mere 11 seconds after the restart, it was 2-0 and the real bundle began. The Totts fell asleep completely, Fabregas ran right through the goal pretty much unhindered and it was 2-0.

I wasn’t alone in leaping skywards, bouncing up and down and offering to hug anyone within reasonable hugging range. My phone shot out my coat pocket, hit Mr A to my left on his head (he accepted that having something ricochet off his dome was perfectly reasonable under the circumstances, though he didn’t know what it was) and landed about three rows ahead of me. My season ticket went in a different direction entirely (escaping from a different coat pocket). Had someone been watching, they’d have probably seen several thousand objects from several thousand other pockets hurtling skywards at the same time. It was monumental.

I recall a bundle of similar stature when Gallas equalised against Man U a to make it 2-2 in the dying seconds a few years ago, and Henry scoring with his head against the same opponents a year before to make it 3-2. But for those who can’t make it to see the Arsenal that often, trust me, epic bundles are not commonplace. It was great fun.

We were utterly dominant in the second half, could have scored three more, but in the end had to settle for just one, thanks to some smart thinking from Sagna and van Persie, and aided by another piece of poor keeping.

So that made it a nice, round ten years (or twenty matches if you prefer) since last succumbing to defeat in this fixture, and as victories go, taking all the hype and hyperbole into account, it was as sweet as any.

And really, I don’t think we ever hit top gear, though Fabregas and van Persie played magnificently. We were patient for our chances to come and we were clinical when they did (though we did get a bit wasteful once we were 3-0 up. I can forgive that). And remarkably, we kept a clean sheet for only the third time this campaign.

Bendtner’s groin injury was probably the day’s only real downer – another player out, this time for a month. But it can’t detract from a memorable derby win.

Great fun.