Monday, April 8, 2013

It's Up For Grabs Now

West Brom 1-2 Arsenal
Tottenham 2-2 Everton

At this moment, it's Tottenham who feel as if they're living Groundhog Day.

Their form is threatening to collapse again, and again it coincides with an Arsenal revival.

Again, Tomas Rosicky is proving something of a catalyst. His brace at the Hawthorns put Arsenal in control against West Brom.

After twenty minutes, Arteta pinged a pass over the home side's rearguard for Gervinho to chase. The Ivorian twisted and turned before curling the ball rather tentatively in the direction of the far post; if it was probably a poor shot Rosicky made it into a great cross by bursting into the goalmouth and stooping to nod emphatically past Foster.

Early in the second half, a quick break saw Ramsey make inroads down the right before passing infield to the Czech, who took a touch into the air and smashed a volley straight at Foster. There was too much power on it for the keeper to handle, the ball dropped, and Rosicky was first to react to blast a second effort into the corner from close range.

At that point the Gunners looked in complete control but the match almost turned on a moment of rashness from Mertesacker. A ball over the top found Long, whose chested control tempted the German into a slide for the ball, but he missed it, felled the Irishman, gave away a penalty and was sent off.

Morrison's penalty was poorly directed but well struck and squirmed under Fabianski to set up a nervy finale.

Arsenal's nerve failed somewhat, but their luck did not. They couldn't string any kind of move together, couldn't relieve the pressure in any way, and Wenger's changes invited pressure rather than trying to regain some kind of foothold.

Three times West Brom should have equalised, but McCauley fluffed a close-range header, Lukaku blasted just wide from eight yards, and Long shot high when through on goal in stoppage time.

Spurs missed Bale on Sunday against Everton- and with Lennon and Defoe also out, they were less penetrative than usual. After an Adebayor opener inside a minute, Everton turned it around either side of half time with a Jagielka header and a brilliant solo effort by Miralas. With time ticking away, Kyle Walker stormed forward brilliantly, cut back, and when Adebayor placed his shot against the inside of the post, the rebound fell kindly for Sigurdson to net the equaliser.

Arsenal trail their neighbours by a couple of points but with a game in hand.

They are now in control of their own destiny.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


It has become the way of the Arsenal.

When things seem on the brink of falling apart, when Wenger's long tenure starts to seem untenable, the team  lurch back into life.

The 2-1 defeat at Spurs opened up a big gap and spawned a typically measured headline from Moral Courage Dot Com- "Forget Fourth".

Since that game, Arsenal beat Bayern Munich away, beat Swansea away, battered Reading at the Emirates.

Spurs lost at Liverpool, lost at home to Fulham, beat Swansea themselves to get back on track.

Chelsea have stuttered too.

Fourth, or even third, remains the target for Arsenal.

BUT, and there's always a but, can Arsenal put together the kind of run they need?

The upturn in form is welcome and undeniable, but Arsenal have failed to sustain a winning run all season.

The run-in reads like this:


The time when Arsenal could have been expected to win every one of those games is, sadly, long gone.

They are all winnable, sure, but we ought to have learned by now that every single match represents a potential banana skin.

The revival of last season, kick started by that rousing comeback win against Spurs, was truly rousing stuff.

But Arsenal were a better team then because they had Van Persie.

And Spurs absolutely imploded.

Arsenal did not sustain form until the end of the season anyway- they actually did their best to throw away 3rd place by dropping seven points from home games against Wigan, Chelsea and Norwich.

Spurs have suffered a blip, but they still have a match winner in Bale who Arsenal can't quite match.

With high stakes in the final games of the season, can we trust in Giroud, Podolski, GERVINHO to do the business?

It's good that Arsenal have given themselves a chance at yet another year in the Champions League, because after the Spurs game a few weeks ago it seemed that the season was set to merely fizzle out.

But in the words of The Wolf, let's not start sucking each other's dicks just yet.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Back Despite a Lack of Popular Demand...

the Zombie Blog Plods On...

Glorious Failure. Arsenal have made an art of it in the last two seasons of the Champions League. Last year they were out after that atrocity at the San Siro, where they lost 4-0 to an ordinary enough AC Milan team.

Then they resurrected the tie with a storming first half showing at the Emirates, building a three goal lead. Milan held on grimly; Arsenal were able to exit with their heads held high.

Bayern came to the Emirates and plundered a 3-1 advantage this time round; again, Arsenal launched an unlikely comeback in the return leg to make a tie of it.

Giroud's early goal made Bayern nervous and unsure of how to approach the rest of the game. In truth, they were largely untroubled for the remainder by an Arsenal side who seemed- belatedly- to have taken a more measured approach, perhaps in appreciation of the fact that an open game might have led to a massacre.

The opener did not lead to a storming fight back but there was always a glimmer of hope and it became even more than that when Koscielny headed in with a few minutes to go. Another Arsenal goal and they would go through!

But the Gunners did not muster any pressure at all in the closing stages and Bayern held on.

Glorious Failure again and it reinforces the sense that this Arsenal team perform best when the pressure is off. They don't deserve all that much credit for giving themselves an absolute mountain to climb in each of the last two seasons with criminal first leg showings.

There was too much talk of Bayern as the uncrowned kings of Europe after a first leg in which Arsenal gifted them goals and barely mounted much of a response. They will get a proper test starting tonight against Juventus in what is shaping up to be the most intriguing Champions League knock out phases in years.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Laird of the Premier League...

...with an Unconvincing European Record

Manchester United were unlucky to exit the Champions League, suffering a 2-1 home reverse in the second leg that saw them lose out 3-2 on aggregate.

Mourinho's Real Madrid toiled without much by way of inspiration until Nani's deeply contentious red card. By that point, United were leading 1-0 through Sergio Ramos's own goal. They had defended in an organised and resilient manner, and looked capable of producing more of the same, until Modric weaved past a couple of challenges and belted in a sensational equaliser. Minutes later, still reeling, United succumbed to something that these days, seems inevitable: a Cristiano Ronaldo goal.

A man down, a mountain to climb. But still, with the situation now apparently favouring Madrid's counter punching style, United attacked with vigour and might even have plundered the two goals they needed only for some wayward finishing.

The most entertaining thing about an entertaining night was the look of helpless rage on the face of Alex Ferguson after Nani's harsh dismissal for a high foot.

Ferguson's team are the perennial beneficiaries of contentious decisions at Old Trafford in domestic games as referees bow to the pressure of United's standing in the game and to the fearful rages of their manager.

But in Europe, United and Ferguson don't have quite the same sway. Ferguson's face was the face of a man not used to such obstacles. Welcome to everyone else's world Mr. Ferguson.

It was back to normal, however, in the FA Cup game against Chelsea. Rio Ferdinand was not called up at the time when he needlessly tripped Fernando Torres from behind, off the ball, an offence that should have resulted in a red card.

And though a player in another shirt would doubtless face retrospective punishment for less, Ferdinand has gotten away with it.

Despite this, Ferguson persists with the laughably deluded idea that the FA seek to persecute Manchester United. He might have bullied most of Britain into submission, but his haul of only two Champions League titles shows that European competition is a different proposition.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Forget Fourth: Spurs 2-1 Arsenal

Progress at last... from bad to worse.

After seeming to stand still for so long, Arsenal are now clearly going backwards.

Barring an absolute collapse from Chelsea, Arsenal will not play in the Champions League next season.

Ignoring for a moment the bigger picture, the derby was far from Arsenal's worst performance of the season, but it was compromised completely by goal-costing errors at one end, and absolute toothlessness at the other.

For the first part of the game, up until the opening goal, Arsenal were quite dominant without creating much of note. Giroud and Walcott both threatened but were denied by late saving tackles. As so often this season, they were failing to threaten the opposition goalkeeper.

Then, when Arsenal's pressing slackened, Spurs took ruthless advantage. Sigurdson slipped through a simple   ball, the Arsenal back four stood and watched, and Bale ran on to knock tidily past Szczesny.

In typical fashion, Arsenal were stupid enough to repeat the same mistake a couple of minutes later. Parker bombed forward, and this time it was Lennon who ran through unmolested onto the midfielder's pass. Szczesny's rash charge out of goal made it so easy for the winger, who took a simple touch around the keeper and slipped the ball into the open net to double the home side's advantage.

There's been plenty of talk already about Arsenal's suicidal high line, inviting punishment by the pace of Bale and Lennon. But there was plenty more about the game to worry about.

Second half, Arsenal seemed to have grabbed a lifeline when Mertesacker's near post header flicked in off Bale. But after a brief period of danger, Spurs composed themselves again, and saw out the game with minimum fuss. Wenger's changes seemed to take the wind out of his own team's sails. Spurs made chances on the break, Arsenal created little.

Jack Wilshere was peripheral. The danger here is that Wenger is repeating a mistake he arguably made with Arsenal's last great central midfielder. After changing to 4-5-1/ 4-3-3, Wenger shifted Cesc Fabregas further forward, and while the captain scored more goals, he also lost some of his usual influence, especially in big games.

Wilshere needs to be in the centre of the pitch. He is a creative player and the temptation, with the current formation, is to play him in a position from which he is relatively free to roam. But when Wenger plays Wilshere in the hole, and Cazorla wide, he takes Arsenal's best two players out of their best positions.

Arsenal now lie well adrift of Spurs, five behind Chelsea, and showing no signs of putting together the sort of run they now need. The impression is that they are finally arriving at a nightmare destination that has threatened them for a long time. Wenger has done well in recent seasons to keep Arsenal in that top four, but he has also shown incredible hubris in refusing to alter his methods, inviting the very situation that the club now finds itself in.

It's been a long time coming. Arsenal are heading for the Europa League, and what lies beyond may be mere mediocrity. Is this the monumental kick up the arse that the club and the manager have needed? Is he still capable of leading the club out of trouble? Even if he does now choose to spend proactively, can he no longer be trusted to spend well?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Well Beaten by a Better Side...

... and then they Scrape a Win against a Rubbish One.

Arsenal 1-3 Bayern Munich
Arsenal 2-1 Aston Villa

Arsenal came perilously close to repeating their familiar and unwelcome trick of allowing a whole season to crumble in the space of a week.

Defeat to Bayern was expected, but the performance didn't get half the criticism it deserved. It was another exhibition of naive defending, the self-destruct button pressed yet again on the big occasion.They play like a team that knows it's not good enough. The lack of belief in whatever it was they were supposed to do was painfully clear.

Anything less than a win against Villa and Arsenal's top four hopes would have been hanging by a thread. Cazorla scored early; they failed to build on it. Yet another soft concession to add to the collection, and it was 1-1 without much time to change things. It was some relief when Wilshere scooped a super pass through to Monreal down the left, and the new boy conjured a clever cut back for Cazorla to slide in his second of the game.

Back to Bayern. The manager, and many pundits, were happy to shower the impressive German side with praise, rather than spotlighting Arsenal's failings. Maybe it's because those failings have been evident for so long. Maybe people are tired of talking about them. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't acknowledge that Bayern didn't have to be particularly impressive to kill the tie at the Emirates. And that, for a club of Arsenal's stature, is embarrassing.

After a promising, high tempo start by the home side, the inevitable sucker punch wasn't long in coming. Muller's cross from the right seemed harmless enough, but bounced beyond a flat footed Ramsey, and Kroos drove an emphatic, demoralising shot past Szczesny. A brilliant finish, but the chance came so easily.

The second was even more disappointing from an Arsenal viewpoint. A corner, a painfully free header, Szczesny scrambling the ball out only for Muller to knock the ball in from point blank range.

Arsenal toiled to almost zero effect for the rest of the opening period, could have been three down by half time. A glimmer of hope was gifted to the Gunners when a wrongly awarded corner was inexplicably allowed to bounce in the goalmouth and Podolski simply nodded the ball in.

There was something of a revival, and sub Giroud might even have equalised. He was unlucky that his instinctive right footed strike from Walcott's cutback was straight at the keeper. Soon after, it was game over, tie over: Arsenal undermanned at the back, Lahm overlapping Robben, Mandzukic scooping the low cross into the net.

Some people are saying that Arsenal simply lack for quality. I don't think there are many poor individuals in the team though. They are poorly organised and tactically inept. And even if they lack for stars compared to Arsenal teams of the past, they should be able to recognise a superior team, and play with a suitable plan. AC Milan have less quality than Arsenal but were able to beat Barcelona. Arsenal should at least be able to give Bayern a game.

The fact that they didn't is down to the manager.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Bayern: No Expectations

You could scour London looking for a sane man to support the notion that Arsenal will progress beyond the second round of the Champions League; it would be a forlorn search.

There is no reason to expect anything other than a clear defeat over two legs.

This is Wenger's worst Arsenal team by a distance.

The Blackburn defeat may well have been the result of complacency, and the Gunners may well raise their game for Bayern.

But after years of steady decline, the line between success and failure is no longer defined only by mentality and motivation, it is now a question too of quality.

Arsenal, though far from completely lacking in it, have far less than they did in the recent past.

If they weren't good enough then, they certainly aren't now. Because if not superior quality, what else do they have in their favour?

To beat better opposition, you need a plan, and you need a backbone.

But Wenger doesn't do tactics, and Arsenal are so often spineless on the big occasion.

This last point is a particularly painful one, because for so long youth and callowness could be used as a convenient and indeed convincing excuse.

Now, the squad and the first team boasts several experienced heads, but the old problems of complacency (against the poor teams) and a lack of belief (against the good ones) continue to surface.

Bayern are the should-be-holders after Chelsea's flukey win last season, runaway leaders of the Bundesliga and among the favourites to triumph in Europe. For them, the Emirates will hold no fear. They may be vulnerable to wily, resourceful opponents who will sit deep and disciplined and wait for a chance to strike on the break. But for Arsenal, there are no precedents for such a performance. If it comes, it will come from nowhere. They have had it done to them so many times, by the great and the good and even by Championship Blackburn, but they've never done it themselves

If today affords no optimism, we can search for it in memories. In 2006, Arsenal were enduring what was, at the time, a shockingly bad domestic season, struggling to win on the road and struggling to fill the Vieira-shaped void in central midfield. Fourth place would be secured eventually, on the last day, after Spurs had led the way for most of the season. When the Gunners were drawn against Real Madrid in the first knockout round of the Champions League, most expected a drubbing.

Arsenal plundered a memorable win at the Bernebeau, via Henry's classic individual goal, and then progressed after a bonkers, unbelievably goalless slugfest at Highbury.

Unfortunately, it's hard to envisage a similar outcome this time around. That was bloated, late Galactico era Madrid, still boasting legends like Zidane, Raul and an ever-inflating Ronaldo and celebrities like Beckham. They were lacking in hunger, lacking in organisation, and Arsenal took sweet advantage, to kickstart a run that brought them to the very brink of that elusive European success.

And Arsenal themselves, while in something of a transitional phase (one that's arguably continued ever since!)     still boasted their own attacking riches. Henry was enjoying his last season of true greatness. Players like Pires and Ljungberg were now plainly saving their best for Europe. Gilberto Silva was a selfless World Cup winner who shielded the defence and left the fancy stuff to the others. Fabregas alongside him was busy announcing himself as one of Europe's great young talents.

That said, there were reasons to be very surprised by that European run. In league games, Arsenal's defending was often shambolic. Senderos sometimes appeared a liability, embarrassingly vulnerable to fleet footed attackers. Because both Cole and Clichy were injured, Flamini was playing at left back. And with Lauren also struggling for fitness and form, a lunatic called Eboue was marshalling the right side of the defence, in front of the similarly insane but sometimes brilliant Lehmann.

Somehow, this motley crew, along with the then still reliable Kolo Toure, conjured clean sheet after clean sheet. Arsenal, basically, need something that weird to happen again. Starting tomorrow night.