Tom and Merry: That’s all, folks!

Arsenal 2-1 Newcastle

I must confess that with the late flashing wide of a shot by van Persie, the shinning of a presentable chance by Rosicky (it fizzed off to the corner flag), the air swipe by Gervinho about a yard out and Vermaelen’s header scooped away from under the bar, I thought the evening’s three points had gone begging. ‘You can’t bat away that many chances and expect any sympathy’ I mumbled, or words to that effect, and duly penned a frustrated tweet along those lines.

Fortunately for me I didn’t press send, because as it was sitting there in my Twitter holding pen, three minutes into the added time kindly earned for us by Tim Krul’s majestic fannying about ([he] “could not have taken a more languid approach to goal-kicks had he dressed as Noel Coward”, said Henry Winter in the Telegraph), the ball broke out of our penalty area, it arrived after a bit at Song, who curved it wide to Walcott, who curved it back into to the box like an exocet. It caused pandemonium and fell for Vermaelen to sweep it in gloriously and deliciously.

How did Vermaelen get there? Well like the rest of this side, he just didn’t give up, lung-busting up the field as the chance unfolded. His persistence paid off.

Honestly, we deserved that. Newcastle defended doggedly and had one or two adventurous moments of their own – they were never going to play a Tottingham-esque kamikaze high line – but for our second half possession alone, and our 23 attempts to their four, we merited more than a draw. Quite how we didn’t score more than one goal until injury time can now become one of those pleasant pub chats of no great consequence, but it damn-near cost us.

Walcott, incidentally, had a tremendous game. Most of the danger came from the right, with he and Sagna dovetailing nicely and taking it in turns to curl crosses in. Makes a change from trying to squeeze down the congested middle, doesn’t it? Walcott’s pin-point crosses created both our goals, and there should have been more; there was an early one to the toe of van Persie that the Dutchman was an agonising inch away from.

So too Rosicky, whose transformation – and I am fiddling with my worry beads as I write – is pretty remarkable. You can argue all you like whether three or four good games a new contract makes, but if you take it at face value, he’s one of our best players at the moment. Tigerish in the tackle, dogged in possession and dangerous with the final ball: Yes, this really is the Rosicknote of old.

Overall though, it was a tireless performance from Arsenal and the spirit many of us so questioned in January and earlier in the season is very much in evidence now. The players are up on their haunches, they’re fighting for lost causes, they’re working as hard off the ball as they are on it. With full-backs and a fuller squad, we look better balanced. Best of all, they’re a joy to watch again. Five league wins on the nose, four of which we’ve had to come from behind – apparently a Premier League record – is testament to that. We’re now very much in the hunt for third.

Long may it last.

Song serves, van Persie volleys and it’s game Arsenal

Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal

And so a points difference between us and Our Friends Up That Road™ that was looking at 1.20pm last Sunday like it might be 13 points turns out, just a week later, to be only the four.

Football fortunes can swivel on a sixpence: there’s not much getting away from it.

After three straight defeats in January, when the merest notion of making fourth was taped up in bubble wrap and deposited in the attic, we had two cups to rip into by way of compensation.

Blink again and we’d blown the cups, only to make a quiet then explosive recovery in the league. Dreams of fourth were fetched back down and unwrapped, and now there’s foolish talk of third.

(I say foolish because a) I refuse to jinx anything and b) I’ve watched us play a lot this season and dampen my enthusiasm accordingly).

You won’t get any triumphalism from me though for those very reasons. You only had to look at the first half yesterday – when we were stretched hither and thither – to realise that there’ll in all likelihood be loose shoelaces, black ice and banana skins aplenty over the course of the next 11 games.

But what I liked about yesterday was the togetherness and the spirit. We worked hard – as a team – rode the storm then imposed ourselves better and nicked it at the death. There was a bit of lady luck, maybe, but at the same time the penalty was highly dubious and the own goal was a quite literal slice of bad luck.

All hail the might of Sir Chesney though – he was quite astonishing. Double penalty save, headed clearances, several other crucial saves – the man was the rock we needed in a testing first half.

And there was nothing lucky about our goals. Sagna’s cross (how we’ve benefited from having him back) was so inch-perfect that I reckon even I could have wheezed my way into a scoring position. And Songinho, fresh from unleashing Walcott in the last game, did the very same for van Persie to whistle in another persielicious winner. Our 31-goal captain defies words, at the moment. He scores when he wants.

And so on to the Milan game we go, on Tuesday, for a rubber that, if not yet dead, is barely twitching. Wenger appreciates the reality but says that “everyone expects us to be out, but we are not yet, we are still in there.”

We need to “just go for it”.

Well, yeah. We might be mathematically “still in there” but this is an order of the tallest variety. I can’t dispute the call to “just go for it” but retrieving a four-goal deficit against a wily old dog like Milan is a massive ask. Nevertheless, there’ll be no handbrakes, for sure. You don’t need a handbrake at the bottom of the hill.

There may well be a few less empty seats in the 60,012 crowd though, given our last two results.

And – ooh – I think I might be getting a bit excited about it.

Stop it man, stop it. This is patently daft.

Thick and fast: Patch up and move on

Manchester City 1-0 Arsenal

Losses and goals conceded are always more palatable when your team acquits itself well. Giving up, or turning up expecting to win, or crumbling inexplicably has been something of a hallmark in recent seasons so one of the most pleasing things about this Arsenal side since October has been the blossoming of its spirit and its excellent attitude. We got all that in spades yesterday at City, even if we came away with a measly zero points. We did bloody well in most areas, particularly at the back until we ran out of central defenders to spread across the rear line. With a bit more luck, we’d have scored, or earned a penalty, but that’s football and it’s not as if Szczesny was leaning against his post picking dirt out his nails while we laid siege to their goal. They could have scored more too. As many people have pointed out, it was a belter of a game for a neutral. Just a shame I wasn’t one.

Strength in depth was not the only difference, but it’s a factor. Whereas City can afford to pay a prolific striker £250,000 a week to play golf in Argentina (is there any other walk of life where it’s that hard to sack someone?) and a further £100,000 a week to subsidise another of their strikers to play for a rival team, we currently rely heavily on the magical Robin van Persie. It’s not that we don’t have other attacking options, more that those attacking options are wading miserably through sticky declines. The late-2010 vintage Chamakh and the 2009-vintage Arshavin have corked. It’s more Arshavin de table and Babychamakh these days. Such a shame.

Not that a firing-on-all-cylinders Arshavin would have guaranteed a goal yesterday. Just that the Arshavin who helped himself to those four portions at Anfield would have scared the life out of City – out of anyone – had he come on as a sub with 15 minutes to play. Whatever happened?

I must admit, I agree with those who wonder when The Ox is going to be handed more chances. He’s looked good when called upon so far, is fast, strong, mobile and eager to shoot. I admire Wenger’s desire to protect him a bit, given his age and relative inexperience, but he’d be a dangerous bench option at a time when there’s not a lot of danger on our bench.

At least we can stop pretending we’re in the hunt for the title. A Champions League place remains the goal, but there are five other sides who will strongly fancy their chances of getting one of those four spots, making it harder than it’s ever been for us to retain.

The fact is, our next three games are more important to that end, and they come thick and fast. Of our three Christmas matches, two are at home and one against a Villa team with their own troubles. If we can get to New Year unscathed, it will cap a fascinating first half of the season, one that couldn’t have started worse but which has picked up considerably. Five league losses is the same as the top three teams combined, but the main story for me is how we’ve injected experience into the side and hauled our form up by its bootstraps. The two are, of course, connected.

But we’ve got to get to New Year unscathed yet…

Ruhr draw suits Arsenal fine

Borussia Dortmund 1-1 Arsenal

For some reason, it had not dawned on me how tough our Champions League group would be until last night. Maybe it was all the other stuff going on – I simply hadn’t thought much about it. Maybe it was years of sailing through this part of the competition (though we made a meal of it last time round).

Perhaps it was in anticipation of this that Wenger gave one of his most candid interviews about how realistic our ambitions could be this year. “It’s too early to speak about winning it,” he said. “Saying that would raise a lot of scepticism about the team at the moment and I don’t think any one would believe it.”

He’s right of course; ours is a much-changed team, riding (what we can hope is the tail of) a miserable, sticky run of very bad form, and with the riches available to four or five other European teams, winning this competition is a tall order indeed.

You could argue Wenger is trying to cushion himself against a fall but personally, I’m glad he’s being a bit more honest about our chances these days. It’s clear domestically that it is harder than it ever has been to compete with oligarchs, and that applies in Europe too, but with bells on given the addition of two teams who negotiate their own TV rights to the tune of €140m a year. I look back at 2006 now, when we were the width of a whisker away from winning it, and appreciate more than ever what an achievement that was.

Last night was another small step away from the nadir of Old Trafford. The late equaliser may have chafed a bit at the time but the result was an excellent one (and it was a humdinger of a strike, too). Resilient in defence, with Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny and the returning Song standing out, we stood our ground well. This, as they say, is more like it. Stubbornness, sticking together, fighting for everything – these should be givens at Arsenal. It’s a relief to see some of that spirit coming back, bit by bit, game by game, and there was no better place to show it than at the home of the German champions.

Weak going forward? We have not looked dynamic or ruthless enough in that department for a while. But Dortmund away, against a very good defence, was probably not the place to go all Harlem Globetrotters on us. van Persie’s goal was a lovely sucker punch, set up well by Theo and finished sweetly.

Two games unbeaten! I think I need to sit down.

Finally, a word about Dortmund. Huge crowd, affordable tickets, incredible atmosphere. Standing at Dortmund costs €14.90 – or €219 for a season. The cheapest season ticket at Arsenal costs £951 (€1,099). Even allowing for standing being a cheaper option, and for Arsenal giving us 7 cup games for that price (where Dortmund might not include that – but I don’t know), the difference in prices is embarrassing.

Busy summer looms as Arsenal’s season crumbles

Blackburn 2-1 Arsenal

Another day, another lifeless defeat.

Our ‘easy run-in’ has turned into a nightmare, with one point from the last 12 and a succession of infuriatingly weak, insipid performances. The alarm bells are ringing loud and clear.

A squad that was meant to end the season on a high – albeit just off the pace – has now completely given up the fight and there seems to be nothing whatsoever that Wenger can do about it.

A loss against Fulham, perish the thought, would leave us on 72 points, exactly the same amount as last season. Progress? It doesn’t feel like it.

I didn’t expect Wenger to lambast Flapianski in his post-match interview, but even he must cringe with embarrassment every time he has to defend such a liability. He was clearly at fault for the second goal. Blackburn saw him as the weak spot – they didn’t have to look too hard to find it – and successfully targeted him. Naturally, it worked.

Elsewhere on the pitch, after a fairly bright start we faded badly. Look at the starting XI and at the bench though and you can see part of the problem is simply a lack of quality available. It doesn’t excuse the lack of stomach for the fight but it does go some way to explaining the paucity of some of our play.

We have so many players out and the backups have simply not been good enough.

Let’s break yesterday’s squad of 18 into three groups.

There are at least five players there we simply wouldn’t miss, other than numerically. Not one of Fabianski, Silvestre, Traore, Vela, or Eduardo has improved this season. You can only assume that the new contracts offered to the latter two were given partly to ensure healthy sell-on fees.

Then there are others from yesterday’s 18 who are good squad players, but too inconsistent, immature, or ageing to be considered first-choice material next season. In that category I would put Eboue, Campbell, Walcott, Diaby, Mannone, Djourou, Gibbs, Eastmond and Henderson.

That leaves, as nailed-on starters from that 18, just Sagna, Nasri, Arshavin and van Persie. The form of Nasri and Arshavin has been up and down but to my mind, the quality is there.

So we are missing a lot of players, and in their absence we have seen that the balance is wrong, the collective will to win has been diluted and the quality is lacking. It’s not a good cocktail at all.

On yesterday’s evidence, it will be a busy summer for Wenger, chopping out the deadwood and bringing in players who possess the kind of drive and quality that will rub off on those of the squad who have the most to learn.

Apologies if this is a bit of a ramble but I thought I’d pour it all out and see how it dried.

Bring on the end of the season.

Arsenal take strength from Ramsey’s agony

Stoke City 1-3 Arsenal

Fortunately for anyone who watches football, the sight of a player screaming in agony with his leg snapped and at the wrong angle is a rarity. I can remember it happening four of five times in all my years watching football. When it happened to Eduardo in 2008, it was too horrible to look at. So yesterday, for it to happen again to Aaron Ramsey was sickening in the extreme, and it has overshadowed everything. I was thinking about it all last night and I’m still thinking about it this morning.

We don’t know how bad it was, or how complicated it will be to heal, but you don’t need to see something like that in any great detail to know he will surely be out of action for a year. It’s doubly depressing to see as he just coming of age for Arsenal. He’s a magnificent little player.

The sad truth is he might find it hard to come back at all. If you look at the list of those who have suffered similar injuries in English football, a fair few had to retire not long after. We can but hope that Ramsey’s leg will heal and he will pick his career up where he left off. I feel desperately sorry for him.

Look at Diaby and Eduardo though, both of whom suffered similar injuries, and you will see two players still ping-ponging between the pitch and the treatment table. It’s a long road back.

I don’t doubt that Ryan Shawcross is a decent lad and meant no malice. The look on his face as he left the pitch tells you as much. But he broke a player’s leg. The tackle was a shocking one, a wild lunge, and three matches out seems absurdly lenient when you consider what Ramsey now faces. To cap it all off, he was called up for England. That was a bad call from a PR perspective if you ask me.

As Wenger and Fabregas both said post-match, for it to happen three times in five years to Arsenal players feels more than mere coincidence. There might be no malice involved, but for years we have been told the way to play Arsenal is to rough them up a bit, to knock them out their stride, and you know what, it’s worked too at times. But perhaps this is the result of that; occasionally, inevitably, there’ll be a badly timed tackle that does something like this.

Fabregas called for more protection but it’s hard to know what can be done against individual acts of stupidity, other than in retrospect. Yesterday, for example, was a rough-and-tumble physical scrap – one in which Arsenal showed magnificent commitment – marred by one dreadful tackle. That’s the way some teams play football; they play to their strengths just as Arsenal play to theirs. It’s hard to legislate against an individual player’s wild, late tackle other than to punish the player himself more harshly once it has happened. The punishment needs to fit the crime. At the moment, it doesn’t at all. Not remotely.

Onto the game. I thought it was a magnificent Arsenal fightback. OK, so our collective defensive amnesia saw us let in yet another goal in from a throw-in, but we matched Stoke’s commitment and showed a fantastic spirit overall.

I was particularly impressed with the way we recovered after Ramsey’s injury. For ten minutes the team was shell-shocked but we drove forward and you could tell what those two late goals meant to the players. The fist-pumping release of emotion after the Verm’s third goal made me proud. I was doing the same thing myself.

Maybe, just maybe, this team came of age yesterday. Fabregas captained the team majectically, scoring one, setting up two, and to see Vermaelen and Campbell roaring at the crowd tells you all you need to know. Anyone doubting the merit of having big Sol yet? He was fantastic. Clichy looked like a man possessed, a completely different player to the error-riddled Clichy of recent times. Alex Song was exceptional.

Three points off the top, with a collective spirit and a will to win forged by Ramsey’s leg break and a decent run-in.

We’re back in this, make no mistake.