Arsène says Relax: Do it

OK, at last, here we are once more. Arsenal.

I had a scratch of the old noggin and realised – to my dismay but not surprise – that today’s match is my first game since Barcelona, and my first league game since Everton on 1st February. That’s two months off league football, I’ve had: I’m almost hoping to be picked to watch the England U21s over the summer to make up.

I’m champing at the bit, and I want the team to be too.

But we need to start fast. Don’t ask me about the psychological reasons for why we do it, because I’ll look back at you blankly. I simply want us to tear out the blocks today, and put in the same yards from the start that we did in the last 20 minutes against Sunderland and West Brom. Why have we taken so long to get going in some games? It’s not relevant if we don’t do it again. I want early, heavy, sustained pressure against Blackburn and I want it to go on until things are comfortable [that’s 5-0 then – Ed]. [Stop being such a cynic Ed – Big Ed].

The fabled handbrake goes on when the team is nervous or lacking in confidence. So do these players honestly believe – beyond the usual David platitudes – that they can win the title? Then today is the day to show it. We’ve moped our rears off, metaphorically listening to Enya on loop, and it’s time it stopped. Wenger alluded to the pressure when he said: “Let’s enjoy it and go for it”.

I’m also looking for more pace, and with Walcott back we should get that. We have other fast players – Nasri for one. But without Theo Walcott, who is as fast as a butcher’s dog, we are a slower team. For my sins I happened upon the Invincibles DVD in the ‘Lull and the amount of goals we scored by thundering upfield was eye-opening. Patient build-ups work sometimes, being more direct does at other times. We need to mix it up.

I mentioned it on the ‘Cast last week, but for me the benchmark performance this season was Chelsea at home. OK, so they were in a funk but Arsenal that day were everything Arsenal should be – and more pertinently, can be. When we had the ball we went for the jugular and when we didn’t, we hunted to get the ball back. From that point on I hoped we’d cracked the formula but it never quite happened.

Another key to that game was the personnel – we had for the most part our best XI available, Szczesny aside, for that Chelsea game. Today we ought to be strenthened immeasurably with the additions of Fabregas, Walcott and Song.

As ever, the first ten minutes of the game will be interesting.

Come on you rip-roarers.

All eyes on Arsenal’s emerging midfield

So another interlull zips by, and there was me thinking this one would be a blessed relief. It may well be for the team, for Wenger and for the fitness coaches, but as is often the case I’m already a little bit more excited than I ought to be about a game eight days away against the kind of northern outpost not usually noted to bring out the giddiness in me. Even by my own standards, this is an early bout.

Ramsey v Wilshere will more than pass the time on Saturday. It’s always gratifying to see two extremely talented Arsenal boys lauded as these two have been. I don’t know whether, as some have said, Wilshere will be the finest English player of his generation – I wouldn’t want to burden him with such an absurd and premature label – but I do know a good player when I see one. He’s without doubt – with a cap doffed in the direction of the tireless and underestimated Raymondo Parlour – the best English midfielder to come through the ranks at Arsenal since the rich mid-80s seam containing Rocastle, Thomas & Davis.

From last season being a young footballer who desperately needed games to progress, he’s gone, in a short period of time, to playing every game and being lined up for every tournament known to man stretching away into the future. He could be at the Euro U21s this summer, he could be playing for GB at the Olympics in 2012. He could be shagged out by 2013. It’s a tricky one to manage though.

Ramsey – well who knows how his progress would have measured against that of Wilshere? He was ahead of him in developmental terms before his sickening injury. Now he’s behind him, for obvious reasons, but he’s once again staking his place at international and club level. Given that I get twinges in my own leg when I think of his injury, he has done remarkably well to get both physically and mentally fit, and to thump into tackles as he has done since his return. It’ll take a bit of time to regain the sharpness needed but in a midfield containing players of oscillating form, he could be a big addition for Arsenal between now and May. Especially if he can play goalie or centre-back [that’s quite enough of that – Ed].

This morning, you will find my dulcet tones, as well as those of Arseblogger [of course], Goonerholic & Arse2Mouse, on the Arsecast. My suspicion is that I am a bit mopingabout-ish, but not I hope, overly so.

I do feel in recent weeks that I have been dunked, Obelix-like, into a vat of woe. I certainly appear to have superhuman levels of pessimism, but they’re wearing off, albeit slowly, and unless Blackburn Rovers dip me once again into the cauldron of gloom, I can feel the tingle of a rising tide of random optimism just around the corner. I’m leaning towards the notion of absurd blogging positivity, whatever happens, just to balance the books.

Five points behind you say? Game in hand, is that? Win them all and we’re the champs – you sure? Let’s magic some form out of the ether for the Blackburn game and take it from there.

A spoonful of hope on a cereal of improbability

Good morning to you all on a cloudless, plane-free and gorgeous spring London morning. Having no aircraft humming overhead or vapour trails criss-crossing the skies has been as peculiar as it has been welcome. It would have been even nicer yesterday had someone on my road not chosen the enforced tranquillity to fire up a tree-mulching machine – all day. It sounded like a giant having an electric shave.

Yesterday, I was giving some thought to which young players Wenger could feasibly slot in between now and the end of the season, out of necessity or opportunity, given that we are no longer challenging for first.

Then along came yesterday’s string of results, and however unlikely it may still feel, a win at Wigan today would put us three points behind the leaders with three games to go. Hope, however much you try and banish it to the attic, keeps peering his head round the banisters and gurning at you.

Goodplaya – who has been something of a lone voice of optimistic lunacy on Twitter – said yesterday morning, “Am I the only one thinking that if Spurs beat Chels we can draw level before they play again? Unlikely, but wd we feel safe in their shoes?” How right he suddenly is.

How might the Spuds’ result have changed Wenger’s plans? We’ll see today. On Twitter yesterday, there was a groundswell of opinion in favour of giving Eastmond (one league start, two sub appearances) a game in the middle of the park. With Denilson a major doubt – and hardly in the form of his career anyway – I’d take that gamble. I’d also play van Persie from the start, as with a back line of Campbell and Silvestre for the remainder of the season (injuries allowing – ha), attack is going to be our best form of defence.

Some other interesting stuff slewed out of the official website late last night. Wenger in recent days – since the Spuds win in particular – has been on something of a warpath and yesterday not only was he bullish about our chances of matching Chelsea from a financial point of view:

“I think we can overcome [Chelsea]. For a while we were not investing maybe because we had built the stadium but I think our financial situation is now becoming much stronger and we will be capable to buy the players we need to buy.”

But also he talked about transfers:

“We will announce the deals after the league [finishes]. He [Chamakh] is one of the players who has a good chance to join us.”

So good news there – the Chamakh deal sounds close and tantalisingly, he talked about ‘deals’ in plural and of money being available. Now excuse me for clutching at straws, but that’s just what I wanted to hear so clutch at straws I will.

Onto today, and here we go again. I’ve asked Goodplaya for some of his mind-warping optimism-inducing pills and we can take it from there.

Derby defeat puts title out of reach

Tottenham 2-1 Arsenal

It’s easier to damn than to praise after a defeat against your long-suffering nearest rivals, so let’s start off with the praise.

Firstly, for Arsenal to retain bragging rights in this fixture for 20 games, lasting over a decade, is a magnificent achievement for Arsene Wenger, it really is. History will forever remind us that between November 1999 and April 2010 we did not lose a single league game to them.

Secondly, Sol Campbell. For a creaking 35-year-old, he really did roll back the years last night. Despite the predictable abuse, his experience was there for all to see, and his urgency and drive was bettered by no-one. When we were chasing the game in the second half, he was often mixing things up at the half-way line. And when we had pushed up right at the end looking for the equaliser, and suddenly it was a one-on-one chase to get the ball with Bale, Campbell matched him yard for yard. I’m not sure what his plans are for next season, but given the possible departure of Gallas and the certain departures of Silvestre and Senderos, on this form another year would hardly be a gamble.

Thirdly, Robin van Persie’s return showed us what we have missed. Despite the lion’s share of possession we had done little to trouble the Spuds defence until he came on. He was incredible when he did, having one volley and a pinpoint free kick marvellously saved by the not so Hilarious Gomes. How we have missed him.

Overall though, it was a performance full of what-ifs.

What if we had had fewer injuries over the course of the season? Vermaelen was last night added to the roster of the crocked, joining the back of the snaking Colney queue for plaster and strepsils. For much of the game we were without three of our best midfielders, both of our best central defenders and our best striker. Spuds were without a few of their best players too so it’s not an excuse, but over the course of a season it’s been a major factor.

What if we had played with the incision and wit of the last 15 minutes a bit sooner? All the possession of the first half counted for naught. While some of our players stood up to the occasion, others did not. Wenger’s comments on Sol Campbell and the team in general were telling:

“Sol was one of our better players tonight. I think he was outstanding and he has shown what a winner he is and if he won championships, you see why. He deserves a lot of credit tonight because he turned up with a real performance.”

Others, he said, “were not mature enough”.

It wasn’t the night for a mixed bag of a performance, but that’s what we got. For all our possession, we weren’t creative enough in the midfield and we gave away both the goals weakly.

“Our passing was not quick enough, not sharp enough,” said Wenger. “We had a lot of ineffective possession.”

But the bottom line is we lost, and that means, unless you’re a big fan of improbability, we’re out of the title race for another year. To be honest, it’s been a long shot for a while. We’ve come back from the dead twice this campaign, which is impressive enough, but we were always chasing, chasing, chasing, and four points from the last nine has made that chase all but mathematically impossible.

Where do Arsenal go from here, you might ask?

Wigan is the answer.