You can’t make all seven happy, you know

Here I am again, fleetingly, and now boasting a 50% attendance record at the Arsenal this season (it’s a pass – but must do better).

I’m looking forward to Hull City’s arrival, if only for the novelty of attending an actual football game in the flesh. Reading a bit today about Vermaelen and Monreal and Jenkinson – good players all, but bowing to the solidity of Gimertescielgna – it struck me that there are downsides to every slice of good news.

The good news of course being that we have settled upon a solid defensive partnership for the first time in years. We can swivel the midfield as we please – and have done – but the elixir of success at the back is not something to act the goat with, in Wenger’s view, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

It leaves three good defenders warming the bench, hardly ideal for them in a World Cup year. Or for any ambitious player in any year, if we’re honest. Of those, Jenkinson is probably the least restless, learning as he is, and having an Arsenal lampshade as he does. He should take heart from the fact that a year ago, when Sagna’s form was stodgy, he had a good run in the side and did well. This season he’s had only four starts and it must be hard for a young player to be such a bit part. Tomorrow, with Sagna injured, he is “likely” to get his chance – and if he does you can be sure City will ping some balls his way so he’ll need to be sharp from the off.

As for Vermaelen and Monreal, there’s no doubt they’d prefer to play more. Neither has nearly swerved off the road in disgust, mind you. They might be getting frustrated and if they were who could blame them, but you can be sure Wenger won’t be losing much sleep over it.

Having a settled defence with talent itching to get at a chance in reserve is pretty much the dream of any manager. Gone are the days of Silvestre, The Squill and Eboue. Senderos and Djourou are long banished. Only the ghost of Igors Stepanovs remains. It is said that late at night you can hear his spectral studs rattling on the concourse concrete.

They’re gone I tell you – gone! Instead we have Vermaelen and Monreal and Jenkinson. Result.

Sorry chaps – stiff upper lip. Your time will come.

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.

A 7-game struggle awaits Arsenal

QPR 2-1 Arsenal

Like most Arsenal fans, I expect, I wasn’t naïve enough to anticipate a serene run of victories that would enable us to sail through to the end of the season unhindered. I expected a blip, but I didn’t really expect that blip yesterday. Maybe the players didn’t, either, and therein lies the rub.

It’s not easy to sound authoritative about a game based solely on Match of the Day highlights, so I won’t even try. From what I can glean, defensively it looked like a bad day at the office, with the usually towering Vermaelen in particular having one to forget. Hats off to QPR of course for taking the game to Arsenal – I’m sure that this morning that nobody at Arsenal will need reminding (or re-reminding, ha) that relegation-threatened sides are often like wounded animals. Underestimate them at your peril.

Wenger was pretty honest about our defeat – he’s been doing this a lot this season after we lose, and losing is something we have now done nine times.

“What we produced on the day was not good enough… subconsciously something was missing today. If you miss something on the commitment front you are beaten. That is what happened today”.

So he admitted that we simply weren’t as committed as we should have been, a bit complacent, which kind of makes me want to bash my head against a wall. If there’s one thing he’s been preaching – as have the players – it’s the need to not let the foot off the gas, take each game at a time and blah blah blah.

Of course, winning seven consecutive games is special, and maybe that focus and tempo simply gets harder and harder to maintain. And like I said, it’s not realistic to expect us to turn up and snaffle each and every three points.

Ramsey as a winger was a mysterious move, given we have two much more suitable options there in the shape of Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain. As much as I cannot fathom that, I doubt that was what lost us the game. We just weren’t at the races enough.

It’s a jolt back to reality and a reminder that a top-four finish is going to be a proper slog. A reminder too that for all the invention and spirit shown since February, this Arsenal side is not good enough to turn up and bully teams when not playing at 100%. If Spurs win today – and they will not lack for motivation now – the difference between us returns to being razor-thin. Chelsea are only five points behind. Frankly, with seven games left, third place remains anyone’s to win and lose.

Next up, Manchester City.

A good night for the Arsenal

Everton 0-1 Arsenal

Immediately after snaffling all three points against Newcastle by the whiskers on our Jimmy Hill, I was full of the joys of spring and confident that we could push on.

Then came a nine-day siesta and things wore off a bit. I looked over at Stamford Bridge, sniffed the pungent whiff of a mini revival, then looked at our fixtures and started fretting. Sorry, but that’s just the way I work, and besides – elephants never forget. I mean, have you seen us this season? I suspect you have.

“What we need”, I said to myself, “is three points at Goodison, with the other teams around us tripping up on their shoelaces”, before gruffling into my breakfast.

And Lo! It came to pass!

There was though, and remains, good reason for tempering my excitement: there’s a hell of a long way to go before this season can be stamped and filed away as a success. But if we make the Champions League – in third or fourth – then it will rank bang up there with anything. From staggering around punch drunk, riddled with injury and seemingly devoid of organisation, to finding the form, order, precision, spirit and passion needed to go on a run to confound the ghost of Collaps-o-Arsenal™, well that would be incredible. Not a trophy, of course, but an amazing achievement nonetheless.

Last night was another step in the right direction with a performance that was pure current Arsenal – part swashbuckling and part backs-to-the-wall defiance.

We started like a train, scoring early and missing a few other decent chances to make it 2-0. When Everton started getting back into things, I could not see one goal being anything like enough, but with a bit of luck and some refereeing going our way, it ended up being just that. If there is often a lot to admire about our forward play, then there is increasingly a lot to admire about our defensive resilience. Yes, we still make mistakes – we’ve had to come from behind to win four times in a row, after all – but you can’t overstate the effect that having a settled back four, playing in their correct positions, has had on us.

A while back I wheeled out a stat that I read in the Independent about the amount of defensive partnerships and centre-back pairings we’ve had this season – it was 26 different starting back four combinations in 47 matches, involving 14 different players and nine different centre back pairings – so to have now played the same back four for five matches is a rare pleasure. They are perhaps not surprisingly getting better and better with each passing match.

So a good night all round, and we find ourselves sitting in third. Staying there will be hard and you won’t find any gloating or over-confidence from me, but there is much to admire about the way we are trying to do it.

It’s one game at a time territory – bring on the Villa on Saturday.

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.

Monday thoughts: Form, newcomers, radar

Norwich 1-2 Arsenal

Another game, another win. I’ve not dusted that little phrase down for a while now but it looks nice in print (and in pixels). Since losing at our lovely neighbours on October 2nd, we have registered seven wins and one draw in eight games – fine form indeed.

In fact, if you look at our form since our last rock-bottom performance – at Blackburn – it reads P12, W10, D1, L1. By any measure and with the clarity of thought offered by hindsight, that is pretty impressive. On an individual basis, some of those 12 have been close, frustrating, stuttery or just plain dull, but we were emerging from our worst start to the season in something like 40 years, so hardly a surprise.

From being so far off the pace for the Champions League places (I grind my teeth at the thought that 4th is a measure of success – but it is), we are now well and truly in the mix. Sure, we’re a long distance off the top, but we did not spend £194m more than we earned last year, so it’s not exactly been a level playing field.

Those additions to our reeling late-August squad, all purchased in a very un-Arsenal like manner, are now showing their worth. Three of them are regulars, two on the periphery, but without them we can surmise that things wouldn’t be as improved as they are. I am well aware that Mertesacker has been caught out a few times, but there’s something about him I find reassuring. He’s like a pair of cords. It’s only fair to give him time to properly find his feet.

The luxury of choice – and strength in depth – at the back is most welcome indeed. Even with both our right-backs injured, we have Koscielny to cover. We have five centre-halfs (whither the Squill?) And we have two decent options at left-back. Sir Chesney is the real deal. I know we have let in a lot of goals (22 in the league) but this defence has had absentees and new joiners and is still bedding down. (And since Vermaelen returned – one goal conceded in three matches).

As an interesting aside, I do wonder just how long a professional footballer should need to find his feet in a new country. 10, 15 games – absolutely. But a whole season? Sometimes I think it’s used as a bit of an excuse, but then you look at someone like Koscielny, who has leapt and bounded to prominence this season in particular, and it makes you wonder whether it really can take that long. Wenger claims it’s extra hard to buy defenders from abroad. Doesn’t stop him doing just that, though, not that I’m being critical. Vermaelen, Koscielny and Mertesacker are three great options.

Arteta has done well and Santos has added and detracted in equal measures. His attacking oomph has added a interesting new dimension to us that simply wasn’t there with Clichy, but he does leave gaping holes at the back as a result. Overall though, it’s hard not to like him.

The other two – well jury out. Benayoun seems set to remain a creative sub, which is no bad thing, and Park, if we’re being kind, remains a work in progress.

What I do like is that we remain, to a degree, under the radar and I think it serves us best to be there. Our early season calamities meant many people – myself included, at times – wrote us off. Our improvement has been slow and quiet, our highlights have been nestling at the back end of Match of the Day, while everyone swoons over the Manchester duo slogging it out at the top. I can’t say I mind.

Thoughts over to Europe now, with qualification for the knockouts in our grasp. I know Marseille were much improved when they came to town, but that 0-0 remains a missed opportunity. There’s no further elbow room for qualificational dithering anymore, I suspect.

Crikey, I seem to have gone on a bit.

Arsenal v Marseille: Move along, there’s nothing to see here

Arsenal 0-0 Marseille

Goonerholic summed up last night perfectly in his blog title – it was a classic case of ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’.

Fed on helter-skelter excitement, chaotic defending and a Gatling-gun of goals on Saturday, last night we were bumped back down to earth with a performance that if you were being generous was defensively sound, and if you were being less generous, as dull as ditchwater.

Some nil nils are full of excitement. This one wasn’t. Looking at the match stats, we apparently had six shots on goal. I can’t for the life of me remember more than two, but there you go. Their keeper Mandanda came out to gather crosses well but he didn’t have to work too hard otherwise. You could have put Suzanne Dando or Desperate Dan between the sticks: I’m not sure we’ve have noticed much.

It’s not a bad result and in the grand scheme of things, it oughtn’t mean much, but set the pulse racing it did not. Park, replacing the irreplaceable van Persie, proved that at the moment, he’s not able to replace van Persie.

I thought Gervinho and Ramsey were lively enough, and seeing Vermaelen commanding the back was a joy, but otherwise we struggled to make enough of the game. Walcott had a stodgy evening (the lot of the winger, I have always thought, is to blow hot and cold). And that’s really about it. Honestly, I think I might have forgotten about it already.

Also, in many ways it showed up the classic flaw of the Champions League group stages. Namely that when neither side is in imminent danger in the group, neither side needs to go for it 100%. It wasn’t a dead rubber but it had the air of a tie that didn’t really hold too many consequences. Whether that proves to be true only time will tell.

Certainly, we’re still in a good place – top of our group – and we’re unbeaten.

Props to the Marseille fans too – they were cracking.

KOs, woes and hammer blows

Hammer blow, Devastating injury blow, Major blow.


Just three ways to cook the same story, namely Vermaelen’s latest crock. It’s an injury that has rocked us, added to our woes and amounts to nothing less than a KO. Well, so we’re told. Maybe it’s not that bad though? He’s off school for another month, and should be back in six weeks. Yes, we’re a bit on the ropes already, but does it amount to a KO? I suspect not.


Before bombarding me with memories of last season’s injury – (I’m just going out, I might be some time) – which morphed from nothing major to a whole eight months of gloom, I merely write this with my positive hat on.

It has been an up-and-down season, though. The lows of the start of the league campaign (punctured by the respite offered by Champions League qualification) gave way to the highs of the five signings, which have since again been tempered by two of our spinal players being skittled for several months.

My guess though is that, despite the injuries, the signings will have really lifted the place. Their benefit will be seen straight away. Barring an unforeseen injury to Mertesacker – now that would be a hammer/major/devastating blow – he will slot straight in. Assuming fitness, we should also see certainly one and possibly both of Arteta and Benayoun. Possibly Santos too.

Will the addition of new players (and the sale of old ones), and the 8-2 defeat, in any way herald a change of approach? Time will tell but it’s a fascinating question. One of the pieces I read (damned if I can find it now) following the Old Trafford debacle and the transfer splurge was about us having lost, over the course of a few seasons, the ability to consistently do some of the fundamentals. So in addition to the obvious – set pieces and other defensive howlers – we had for some time lost the art of tracking back and harrying opposition when not in possession.

It is of course something many people have commented on in the past, but it’s a good point. As well as tightening up defensively, we need to start playing more collectively and upping the tempo of our play. When we do it – Chelsea and Barcelona at home last season were prime examples – it works. We just don’t do it enough.

So yes, I’m hoping that as well as strengthening the team in key areas, the new boys (and the pain of the 8-2) will herald some introspection, some honesty, and some tweaks to our approach. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction. We’ve not defended well for years. Our league form has been poor for months and months.

Add all these things into the mix and Saturday becomes fascinating.

I know I say this before every game, but I can’t wait.

RIP Danny / Returnees / Shirt & crest

Goodbye Danny Fiszman

The sad, but not unexpected news that Danny Fiszman has died, aged 66, comes just days after he sold his shares, and with them control of Arsenal, to Stan Kroenke.

Like Kroenke, he was not the kind of man who courted publicity, preferring to operate in the background. But by all accounts he was the driving force behind the stadium move, and in light of the ongoing travails of other London clubs trying to engineer moves to new, bigger homes, it remains a hugely impressive achievement.

He’d been involved at board level for twenty years, and was one of a now decreasing breed of major shareholders who bought into the club they loved. He was Arsenal to the bone.

RIP, Danny.


This particular donkey always likes a story with three carrots in – and this one (replicated elsewhere) fits that bill. Having bumbled through without Vermaelen all season, Szczesny for six weeks and Djourou for five, we are presented with the almost impossible scenario of all three returning.

Szczesny and Djourou could even make it for Sunday, we are told. Meanwhile Vermaelen makes ‘impressive progress’ and is pain-free. That’s as maybe – but even if he leapt out of bed tomorrow, bursting at the seams to thunder through 90 minutes, he’d be as rusty as an old nail. Still, that won’t stop me setting up a Google News Vermaelen section (in fact here it is – tuck in) that I can monitor pointlessly until the middle of May.

The sharing of goalkeeping duties this season has been extraordinary – Lehmann has made one start, Almunia 13, Szczesny 17 and Fabianski 20, but that relative equality of appearances means nothing. Szczesny is without doubt Arsenal’s number one and we need him back. Lehmann’s return has been a glorious sideshow but the sooner The Woj waltzes back, the better.

White shirt, new crest?

Rumours of sightings of new shirts used to be one of the staple diets for close season blogging, yet here we are already with two. They are of course, just sightings, but the thought of another white away shirt fills me with triple doses of ‘meh’.

[rant begins]

Two points:

1. I think I know why Nike and the club liked white last time. It outsells yellow by about a dillion to one. White, I suspect, is simply more wearable than yellow outside a football environment. But it’s not an Arsenal shirt. It looks like a pair of pyjamas. Please make it not so.

2. We had two new shirts last season. Surely we can’t have another two this season? Sparkly new set of laurel leaves round the crest or not.

And as an additional point, is nine years too long for me to be still mourning our old crest? Latin motto, gothic script, Islington coat of arms. It’s absolutely glorious.

How many other clubs have completely discarded their lovely old crests for fisher price replacements? The current one presumably has its fans but as you can tell, I’m not one of them. It does nothing for me. The last one was causing them all manner of copyright headaches but it’s so, so much nicer. I know I should change the record, but about once every three years I need to let steam off about it. I’ll move on now. Sorry.

[rant ends].

Arsenal Ladies / WSL

Against a background of the professional male team winning nothing for a while, the Arsenal Ladies team stands out like a beacon, trouncing all in their path. They’ve just been announced as founder members of the WSL – Women’s Super League – and have gone semi-professional.

The first ever match was last night, which they won 1-0 against Chelsea. Really exciting times for the women’s game.

Some background on the new league here.

And finally – one last reminder for the road that my competition to win signed Paul Merson autobiographies ends tonight just before midnight BST. Fan of the Merse? Then get in.

Match preview: Gallop. Don’t trot.

Forget, for a moment, the tantalising news that Thomas Vermaelen may be as close as two weeks from returning (albeit to the reserves); forget also the mouth-watering prospect of a Xavi-inspired Barcelona coming to town. Wenger is spot on when he says:

“The best way to be in a good position to beat them is to defeat Wolves on Saturday”.

To face Barcelona we will not only need to be in as decent physical shape as possible, but we’ll also, from a psychological point of view, need all of our neurones plugged into the right synapses [check medical terminology – ed]. Imagine facing Barcelona having lost a four goal lead and having failed to beat Wolves? No, I can’t either. That’s why Wenger is going large on Wolves.

With that in mind, I know it might be tempting to rest Djourou or Song and one or two others, but I’d go for the whole shooting party and start with our best XI. As a nod to the forthcoming European adventure, he can maybe edge a few substitutions in earlier than at the mandatory Wengerish 70 minutes, but I wouldn’t tinker too much.

That last option does rather rely on us coming out the blocks fast and not zig-zagging around until the 80th minute, as can be our wont. In light of last week I’ve revised the official guidelines and current thinking is that we need to be at least five goals to the good to be assured of victory.

I jest, but only half. In an ideal world, one where anxiety and fear had been banished, we’d ask the players to give us a 1-0 to prove they can hold on to a narrow lead but today is not the day for worthy experiments. The last thing we need to today is a repeat of Collaps-o-Arsenal™ so to ensure that we need to put the Wolves goal under pressure from the start and make it count.

I can’t make the game today so I’ll be attempting to perform the standard web-based miracles and listening to the wireless. I’m also keen to give the Arsenal matchday app experience a pop so may well dish out the requisite £1.79p on that. I’ll let you know my thoughts if I do (and if you give a fig).

Finally: a thought on players using Twitter. The boss has taken a very enlightened approach to his players using it for the right reasons, as you’d expect. I don’t care about modding phat sports cars and I can’t understand a word one or two of them are on about, but hey, I’m a miserable old sod so what does that matter.

That’s all for now – more tomorrow, assuming the prevailing winds being are in my favour. preview
BBC preview
Guardian squad sheet