Dutch and Go

Aroused from my blogging slumbers again, now what is it this time? This had better bloody well be important.

Well, it’s Robin van Persie to all intents and purposes handing his notice in, without actually handing his notice in. Not extending his contract is all down – he says – to the fact that “we in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal FC should move forward.” Not financial, he says.

Arsenal countered with a brief statement, saying “Robin has one year to run on his current contract and we are confident that he will fulfil his commitments to the Club.”

Naturally there’s shock and anger and resignation and belligerence, but I ask you this: Are you really surprised? He has just a year to go on his contract, no doubt having had ample opportunity in the last year or so to renegotiate it should he have desired. This always seemed a likely outcome and in light of this information, Arsenal must have thought so too having already bought two strikers for around £23m. This now seems like a very shrewd move.

The manner of it is a bit galling, posting it on his own website, without Arsenal knowing, clearly wanting to push the issue. The pally tone of the announcement will sting with some people but I’m too long in the tooth to get too flustered by it all. Players leave, players arrive. Life goes on and the best you can do is to prepare for it – something we didn’t do last summer, but have addressed this time.

I don’t blame him, why should I? He’s done eight years at Arsenal, an age for a modern footballer. He’s been a good pro, a role model, and the only real regret is that he didn’t play more. Yes, we stuck with him when he was injured but he’s given us a lot of enjoyment – particularly the 37 goals last season – in return.

And whether you believe or you don’t believe his comments about it not being financial, are we all at peace about the direction of the club ourselves? We’re so not.

Has he backed Arsenal into a corner in which they have to accept a low fee? We shall see about that. The Arsenal response suggests that they won’t bow out quietly and nor should they. We do have one bargaining hand – holding him to his contract. It’s not entirely fanciful even if bridges have been burned to a cinder.

But the likelihood is, unless he is Rooneying us into paying an absurd salary (I find this unlikely), that we need to do a deal sooner rather than later. I don’t care much where he goes so long as it’s not to another English club with whom we supposedly compete for trophies (you at the back with the hollow laugh – see me later). That for me would be the salt in the wound. If it was City, that’s three years running. We can all titter a bit – a lot, maybe – about the ones we offloaded before but this would be different, essentially an admission that ‘we’re not serious about challenging you for this’. (You at the back with the hollow laugh – join your friend by the headmaster’s office).

We’ll see how this pans out. Messy end though it might be, I find it hard to get my blood up unless he takes the sheikh’s shilling. And even then – broiling internally is not good for the health. He’s a lovely player. Let’s sort it out and move on.

Gongs with the win

W.B.A. 2-3 Arsenal

We score an early goal, then we let two in, then we score two more before holding on for dear life for the win. And that, ladies and gentlemen, sums up Arsenal’s strengths and weaknesses in one handy cut-out-and-keep sentence.

Ultimately though, despite pretty much three dicky patches, ten league defeats and a defence that shipped 49 goals, we have come third and made our summer all the more enjoyable in the process. When we were two goals down at home to the Totterers, that outcome looked far beyond the wit of this side, so to surge past them and still make third despite taking just 6 points from the last fifteen is pretty remarkable. We stumbled, but we made it, so well done the lads. It’s an achievement – the 15th season in a row we’ve qualified for the European Cup – but above all for me it’s a relief.

Last summer has loomed over us for much of the season and although I have no crystal ball, I think it’s fair to say that whatever happens – and a lot may happen – coming third has at least mitigated against a similarly calamitous and damaging close season.

The post mortem would have been long and dispiriting had we blown third, or come fifth. We’ve avoided that, even though we all know that there’s work to do. And plenty of it.

But this is not the time for that. For now we can bask in what passes these days as Arsenal glory. I’ll get round to an end of season review in due course – there are plenty of players who deserve praise, I think – but I will start by dishing out a few early gongs: A Long Service gong goes to Pat Rice for 44 years loyal work. It was a good send-off, in the end. Thanks Pat for on and off field excellence.

And a What Would We Have Done Without You gong goes to Robin Golden Boot van Persie for 37 priceless goals. That was some season, peppered with world-class goals. I hope he stays but will not begrudge him if he doesn’t.

Should I give a gong to Fulop? It would be deserved but a bit harsh. After all, we know what it’s like watching a goalkeeper suffer. (Actually, we know what it’s like watching two goalkeepers suffer). Well Marton, I will at least doff my cap to you.

And I’m pleased for Wenger. He has polarised fans like never before, but for battling on despite a dismal summer and season’s start, and for being as dignified as ever despite the brickbats, I think he deserves credit. It can’t have been easy.

We all know it’s not been a vintage season. We never challenged for anything made of silver. But something tangible has come from it and – though plenty will disagree – given the circumstances that makes it a decent season in my books. Now to a decent summer.

That’s it, really.

Stale, mate

Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea

One point from six now, and yet we remain in charge of our own destiny – just about – thanks to our twelfth man, ‘results elsewhere’. God bless Results Elsewhere and all who sail in her!

That our closest rivals now – or at least, for now – are not from London but from Newcastle will perhaps be as much as surprise to them as it is to everyone else. The Geordies are on cracking form.

The whiff of tottering-over-the-line is in the air though after another strangely listless performance from us. The dreaded handbrake (the on one, not the off one) made a reappearance in Wenger’s post-match interview, which probably tells you all you need to know. In fact, it’s is one-word match report, isn’t it?

Arsenal Match Report
By East Lower at the Emirates


On the face of it, these were two teams that were so far from home and dry in the race for Champions League qualification that they were still gulping seawater, and yet the game was tight, slow and cautious. Chelsea made wholesale changes, came for a point and sat on the game accordingly.

Ultimately, I think it was a game that both teams were too scared to lose, and it showed.

Not that we couldn’t have won it. Early on, van Persie hit the upright from a Walcott free kick, and in our best period of the match, just before half time, Koscielny hit the bar himself and van Persie fired straight at Cech. In the end though, the final whistle came as a blessing. It was pretty turgid stuff.

At times, the ball was like a hot potato for Arsenal. Our passing was poor and lacked invention. Ramsey was willing but wayward, Rosicky out of fizz and only really Song shone in the middle. Without the metronomic and underrated Mikel Arteta, and with both Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain completely shackled, getting through was our main problem.

I lost count of the number of times Arsenal players on the ball shrugged their shoulders in frustration at the lack of options in front of them – symptomatic of the difficulties we were having creating space and opportunities.

All our substitutions came in the middle of the field in an attempt to remedy things, and our last throw of the dice was introducing a left-back for a winger. Despite van Persie looking off the pace – it was his 50th game of the season – there was still no room for Chamakh. As an indictment on our forward options, that’s about all you need to know.

The fact is, van Persie needs a rest but we have nobody else that offers a goal threat in his position. It should never have come to this. That we remain third with only one operational striker is a miracle.

Now, it’s all about dragging ourselves over the line, but we’ll have to do that without Walcott, hamstrung yesterday and out for the season. A good opportunity for Gervinho, and indeed for the returning Diaby, so where one door closes, etc.

Our last three games are winnable ones, but only if we rediscover some spark and more energy.

I’ve a bit run out of battle cries though. Final word goes to my cousin Capability Mike, who texted me this last night:

“I think if the league finished today we’d all be happy”.


Benny sets the bit-part benchmark

Wolves 0-3 Arsenal

A fine win, but one I followed only via the Opta messages on the notification screen of my phone. I like to experience new matchday experiences, you see. It was a bit underwhelming if I’m honest.

Unlike the game itself, which from an Arsenal perspective at least was entirely whelming. Losing a man for most of the game was the last thing Wolves needed but it did us a favour. I’ve always thought a red card and a penalty is a bit harsh, double-punishing the offending side as it does. So that was 1-0 and once Theo lashed in the second moments later, it was an Everest-sized mountain to climb for Wolves.

Benny’s resurgence is interesting though, isn’t it? Perhaps cocking an eye at the marvellous form of Tomas Rosicky, he’s rolled his sleeves up and his high-energy approach is just what we need. It helps that the team is playing well and it helps that he’s getting minutes on the pitch (two starts in a row), but if we need a bit-part benchmark then Benny fits that bill. He warms the bench a lot and can’t last 90 minutes, but he’s rarely let us down when called upon and never moans.

Plenty of Arsenal fans have remarked over the course of this season about squad depth and the depth of talent behind the first XI, but surely Benayoun is precisely the kind of squad player we need? Experienced and often effective.

A few months ago, if I thought about summer ins and outs (which I like to do from time to time – who doesn’t?), I’d have consigned both Rosicky and Benayoun to the Arsenal scrapheap. The former has already unscrapheaped himself spectacularly, and now I’m increasingly seeing the benefits of Benayoun – Benayfits? – as a more than useful squad player. Would he be prepared to play a lesser role on a permanent basis? He’s started eleven games and come on as a sub in another ten. That’s not bad for someone who will be 32 in a month.

If he is, the boss might just take a punt and sign him full time.

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.

Monsieur, with these goals you’re really spoiling us

Arsenal 7-1 Blackburn Rovers

It may sound a tad melodramatic, but I’ve not enjoyed watching Arsenal as much this season as I should have done. All the peripheral stuff has been as fun as ever – the Saturday morning anticipation, hopping on the tube, having a pint before the game and chinwagging with the usual motley crew. It’s the bit on the pitch that has at times edged more towards being a chore than a pleasure. Yes, I know, you take the rough with the smooth in this line of work. But that doesn’t mean I have to whistle contentedly through the rough.

We have had some excellent results, but by and large – and particularly at home – we have struggled to recreate the Flowing Football Of Old™ in sufficient doses.

And then Saturday came. I’m pretty sure I said “I’ll settle for a scrappy 1-0” before the kick-off, and I’ll wager I wasn’t the only one. So to tonk seven past someone – the most we have scored in the league in 5½ years at the Emirates – was pure joy.

This Arsenal side has been accused on many an occasion of not being able or willing to turn the screw and administer a proper humbling. What was so heartening about yesterday was that, at 1-1 and in potential heads-down territory, we simply kept going. Then once we nosed in front, we got the bit between our teeth and kept going some more. Ambassador van Persie stayed on the pitch for the whole 90 minutes, Walcott too, and though there were barren patches (how dare they not score for 30 minutes?) we always threatened more.

It didn’t look like that would be the case though, at least not at first. Early goal followed by no second one followed by the away team equalising bears all the hallmarks of Arsenal. This time though, at 1-1 we rattled two more past in quick succession, and coupled with the red card, we were able to enjoy the second half.

The majestic van Persie was of course peerless again, but what a way it was for Oxlade-Chamberlain to mark only his third league start. I thought he was outrageously good for someone so raw and already there’s no doubt that he has the capacity to terrorise defences.

Then there was the icing on the cake of Henry scoring at the end – in what could well be his final ever appearance in front of the home crowd. There is talk of Arsenal trying to extend his loan so he can play a part in the north London derby, but if that’s not to be then this is not a bad way to have dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.

I don’t want to rattle on about it forever, but suffice to say I lapped the whole thing up. It’s amazing how restorative a big win can be – for the fans as much as the players – and blimey did we need it.

I wouldn’t say I’ve gone as far as to pack up my troubles, but I have at least got my old kit bag down from the loft in case.

And I’m definitely smile, smile, smiling (for now).

Wenger’s New Year turns sour

Fulham 2-1 Arsenal

So, a pretty dismal start to the New Year, but perhaps a focus sharpener as this month’s transfer window opens.

It was the ultimate clichéd game of two halves. Arsenal were pretty damn good in the first, creating loads of chances, passing neatly, very enjoyable to watch and well worth their advantage. That the lead was only slim at the break ultimately came back to haunt us and there are not an awful lot of people that Wenger can blame for that other than his own team. We were very wasteful.

That said, there was a penalty shout on Gervinho, and with the benefit of video replay it was a clear spot kick. I can’t help but think that had our Ivorian not gone down quite so elegantly it would have been given, but it did at least add fuel to Wenger’s post-match rage: “We had a penalty in the last game, a clear handball. We had a penalty at Man City, we had a penalty at Villa Park”.

The other thing Wenger was incandescent about was Djourou’s sending off, accusing Fulham of getting the Swiss red-carded. I’ve not studied either yellow since I saw them live (Basically, I am using the ‘I didn’t see it excuse’ – learned from the master) but I will say this: Neither yellow was so outrageous that it was mystifying. Reds have been given for less. However, it did make our job all the harder and so it proved.

The fact is, we continue to play with a centre-half at right-back and, yesterday, a right-footed central midfielder at left-back and until we can sort that mess out we will not look as secure or as dynamic as we need to look. That Coquelin had a really fine game slightly holes my argument below the waterline but the point stands.

In the second half we were a pale shadow of the side that dominated the first. Fulham improved and we tired. I know we’ve all played similar numbers of games over the Christmas period, but Arsenal in particular looked to have long run out of gas and you can’t say that Fulham’s equaliser hadn’t been coming.

Which brings me to another point: we’re relying too much on a small core of players. Walcott (through illness) and Ramsey got a break against Wolves, and Gervinho got one against QPR, but other than that Wenger has stuck with the same players for four games in 13 days. A lot of this, of course, is out of his hands: our back line picks itself and without Wilshere & Diaby our midfield options are fewer. Up front, van Persie has played all 360 minutes of the festive period. Chamakh has played five minutes and Park none. That van Persie needs a rest is surely no longer in doubt – it’s a good job we have seven days before our next game and he may be spared that one anyway. Well deserved. As @steve4good pointed out on Twitter, that Wenger could not trust anyone but van Persie to start against Wolves, QPR or Fulham speaks volumes. He’s the best striker in the land right now but he’s not superman.

So this break comes at a good time, and I fully expect us to be bombarded with transfer silliness henceforth. That we need to strengthen though is beyond argument for me.

Back to work then. Hurrah! Happy New Year all.

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…

Arsenal review: van Persie ices the party cake

Pic courtesy of @agsibley

Arsenal 1-0 Everton

And so it was (and in hindsight, so it was always going to be) that on Arsenal’s 125th birthday party the score was one-nil to the Arsenal. That was a nice touch, eh?

To top it off, it wasn’t just any old bog standard, common-or-garden winning goal, it was a veritable van Persie humdinger; a sumptuous volley right up there in execution with the one he scissored in all those years ago at the Valley. It lit the place up like a Catherine Wheel. If most of his goals are Austin Princesses, then this one was an Ambassador Vanden Plas, [dreadful cars both – rewrite, Ed].

Honestly, if you watch it again and again and again you will on each occasion find another nuance to it to amaze and astound you. I might have to get a duvet cover made out of it. Come on Arsenal – if you’ve now got ‘Dench’ in your merchandising catalogue, you can go the extra mile and make me a van Persie duvet cover (single – there’s no way I’d get a double past control and I might get relegated to the sofa bed anyway). As it was, that goal was well dench.

Caveat: I was not, as some of you will know, at the game. Instead, I was ensconced in Clown Town at a children’s party (my own child’s party, to clarify). Now you know what, I love the little blighter to bits but this will go down as a calamitous failure of organisation on my part. Let’s be quite open about it: with a little less cotton wool between my ears I could have avoided dishing out fish fingers and scrabbling around trying to locate children who have climbed into the rafters of the soft play area, and instead, I could have been at the proper party. Six does not have a patch on one hundred and twenty-five.

So all the jamboree before the match; the bands and the statues and the line-up of old luminaries and the ‘125’ cards raised high (I should have been hoisting one of those above my head – oh woe, oh woe) obviously passed me by entirely. When I zoom in on the 360 panorama on Monday, it will feature not me, but my cousin (who cannot probably believe his luck and is this very moment toasting my incompetency). Seriously though, I hear the whole day was well done from top to bottom. When the club wants to do tradition, it does it rather well and massive credit where it is due.

The rest of the game – as much as you can glean from Sky’s Football First and Match du Jour – was a tale of missed opportunities, with very presentable chances squandered by Walcott, Gervinho and Ramsey, but none of this strikes me as particularly relevant in the grand scheme of things.

What matters is that Arsenal turned 125, Robin van Persie scored an eye-waterer and we won one nil.