Sunday, December 30, 2012

An Early New Year's Resolution

In 2012 so far, a paltry twenty- twenty!- posts.

Like the Arsenal team these days, it's just not good enough.

I missed the chance to ruminate on so many fucking things.

The 5-2 comeback win against Spurs last season!

Arsenal's salvaging of a very respectable 3rd placed finish!

Ireland's humiliating horror show in Poland!

Spain's inauguration as the most boringly brilliant international team in history!

From now on, I will endeavour to write something at least once every couple of days.

Lucky Christmas (?)

Wigan 0-1 Arsenal... Arsenal P-P West Ham... Arsenal 7-3 Newcastle

Arsenal led a charmed Christmas, enjoying slices of luck on the pitch and off.

A tube strike meant that the West Ham game on Boxing Day was postponed, and unlike most Premiership teams, the Gunners had a significant rest between holiday period games.

At the JJB, Wigan performed well, pressing all over the park and denying Cazorla the room to influence matters as he had at Reading. Chances were at a premium throughout. In the first half, Di Santo released Kone on goal, but the striker snatched at the chance and shot wide.

Arsenal perked up after the interval, and Chamerlain broke free on the right to tee up Walcott, but his awkward first-time effort was repelled by the keeper.

Overall, Arsenal looked worryingly toothless, as on many occasions this season, but this time there was a clean sheet, and this time there was a piece of luck to turn the game their way.

Around the hour mark, Walcott entered the Wigan area on the end of a one-two with Cazorla, felt the slightest of contact from Beausejour at his back, and tumbled. He heard the welcome sound of Jon Moss's whistle, saw the referee point to the penalty spot, and Mikel Arteta coolly sent Al Habsi the wrong way. It was a contentious decision, but Arsenal did what they haven't done half often enough in recent years- they ground it out.

It was far from a flowing performance- the team continues to lack the ability to truly control a game- but the defence was as disciplined as it needed to be. No silly stuff, or at least much less of it than we've become used to. When Kone wriggled past Sagna to find a clear sight of the target, Szczesny saved well. After a couple of hopeful penalty shouts for the home side, the points were safe.


Arsene Wenger could put his feet up on Stephen's Day as Newcastle toiled in a losing cause at Old Trafford, safe in the knowledge that a tired, injury-blighted Magpies team were next on Arsenal's agenda. It was only in the latter stages of the game at the Emirates, however, that Arsenal looked comfortable, Newcastle fell away, and ruthless finishing lent the scoreline a harshness that had long looked unlikely.

In the first half, Arsenal were slow and sluggish, and Newcastle deserved at least the parity they held at the interval. Ba had already missed with a free header before Walcott broke the visitors' high line from Podolski's piercing pass and drew Krul to finish with his best Henry impression.

Minutes before half time, Sagna felled Obertan with a rash challenge on the edge of the Arsenal area. Ba went for goal from the free kick, and a flinching Wilshere deflected the shot beyond Szczesny. The away side had chances to take the lead before the break and if Arsene Wenger was moved to anger by his men's listlessness, they responded immediately to his pep talk.

Gibbs was denied by Krul from a Podolski pass, before Newcastle lost possession cheaply from a throw-in, Cazorla shifted the ball across the edge of the area to Chamberlain, and the winger fired crisply across Krul for 2-1.

It felt like Arsenal were finally taking control of proceedings but the craziness was yet to truly begin. When Obertan jinked past Sagna (the right back enjoying a rare bad day) and into the box, his cut back clipped off Koscielny and landed kindly for Marveau, all alone at the back post. 2-2.

Arsenal responded again. Wilshere jinked brilliantly into the box after winning the ball from Tiote, but looked to have been crowded out, before scooping a superlative cross to the back stick. On the goalline and under pressure, Collocini tried to nod the ball over his own bar, but it bounced down off the woodwork for the waiting Podolski, for whom the finish was a formality.

Again, calm and control were elusive. The team look nervy in possession, but lack the defensive nous to effectively sit on a lead. With Walcott in the central striker's role again, there was nobody to hold the ball up and take the pressure off. It was no surprise then that Newcastle kept coming. They were without Ben Arfa and Cabaye, their main creative players, but either would have been proud of the cross that Marveau produced with the outside of his left foot to set up Ba for a third equaliser. Gibbs was daydreaming at the back stick, but made amends minutes later.

After a flowing move, Podolski played in the left back in a similar position from which he'd earlier shot straight at Krul. This time, he tried to return the ball to Podolski, who took a fresh air swipe, but the ball fell for Walcott who spun and, just when it looked as if the chance was gone, blasted the ball into the roof of the net.

With just the 73 minutes gone there would have been little confidence on the Arsenal bench of the team's ability to shut the game down, and so it was a shrewd move to go ahead with sending Giroud on even though the substitution was being planned at 3-3. Walcott turned provider to help make the game safe, overlapping Sagna to whip a wicked cross that met the forehead of the diving Giroud.

A flurry of further goalmouth action buried somewhat the memory of Arsenal's earlier lethargy. Walcott dribbled infield and fell but the ball made its way to Giroud in the box, who blasted home near post with his right foot. Then Walcott dribbled infield again, this time from the left, and again fell, this time fouled, but with no decision forthcoming sprang back to his feet and flipped a cheeky dink over the keeper to seal an impressive hat trick.

There was still time for Giroud to almost emulate that feat- and in only twenty minutes- but his effort from fellow sub Ramsey's low cross clattered off the bar, and we had to make do with just the seven goals.

It was a crazy game that showcased the best and worst of the current Arsenal team. Our most efficient attacker is a limited all-round footballer, not suited to the complexities of the centre forward role, but a great finisher and a player that Arsenal certainly need, at least for the remainder of the season.

Is that need the reason for his sudden deployment as an out-and-out striker? Is Wenger playing him there to encourage him to commit his future? Or is it just a pragmatic move? After all, Gervinho took up the role early in the season and he seems even less suited to it than Walcott.

Statisticians may point to four goals in three games, some assists and a very important penalty won, to support the assertion that Walcott is now ready to be the main man. But looking at the general standard of Arsenal's play, especially at Wigan in the last half hour, I think it a real gamble to play Walcott up front. He has no physical presence, and for a team with a not very physical midfield, in a league that is very physical, it makes matters even more difficult.

It was notable, as Arsenal defended that slender lead against Wigan, that there was no outlet to help relieve the pressure. The home side just kept coming. On that occasion, Arsenal proved unusually sturdy, but better opposition would have punished our inability to control the ball. Against Newcastle, without the ill Mertesacker, the defence was unable to shackle Ba, and a lightweight midfield was unable to protect that defence. We got away with it thanks to some great attacking play (and Newcastle's falling away), but overall, my impression is that the team desperately needs more muscle. That means, at the very least, starting Giroud up front.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Arsenal Need a Lot of Small Victories...

...and One Big One

Wigan tomorrow, and with the Stephens' Day fixture postponed, the result will decide whether it's a happy Christmas or a depressed one.

There is a tentative sense of momentum, perhaps. The nadir of Bradford was followed by an easy, enjoyable win at Reading, and that by the news of new contracts for Gibbs, Wilshere, Chamberlain, Jenkinson, and Ramsey.

The rhetoric was familiar- it's paramount to keep a young team together. But there are some subtle differences this time around. Because the 03/04 title winning side was broken up so quickly, Arsenal's youngsters have often seemed to lack for guidance. But this squad has more experience.

In addition, these youngsters are British, and so, in theory at least, less likely to get itchy feet.

But Arsenal need to establish something more than rhetoric to build on. Rather than building on a position of strength, the club are in danger of losing what has become their habitual place in the Champions League, and unless they regain the habit of beating the league's also-rans, next summer could be a time of even greater than usual upheaval.

Wigan away is the kind of fixture that a serious team wins. It's one that Arsenal have slipped up in on a couple of occasions over recent years.


The Champions League draw threw up a welcome glamour tie against Bayern Munich, the team that should have won the competition last season.

In 2005/06, Arsenal seriously struggled with their league form, and spent a lot of the season outside the Champions League places. In the second round of the European Cup they were drawn against Real Madrid, and few people gave them a prayer. But at the Bernebeau, the team found a new formation and found a performance that got everyone believing again. They won 1-0, progressed to the final, and almost won the competition. They also clawed Spurs back and regained 4th spot. It all started that night in Madrid, and maybe rather than fearing what Bayern can do to Arsenal, we need to welcome what is a big challenge, and acknowledge that this Arsenal side might need a huge result to get everybody believing again.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Post with No Name

Theo Walcott is now, a) one of the club's longest serving players, and b) one of its most important.

How did this happen?

Over the years, Arsenal have made an infuriating habit of losing their best players. But recently, the quality of our reinforcements has plummeted. Arsene Wenger has lost his magic touch in the transfer market. Maybe David Dein offered more of a helping hand than some like to admit. In any case, where once the team could wave goodbye to Overmars and welcome Bobby Pires, and use only half of the Anelka money to bring in Thierry Henry, now we look at the team and see Gervinho, Podolski, Giroud. Gervinho is wretched, while the other two are decent players when we need more than decent players. The pool of world class talent at the club had been shrinking and shrinking; now it seems to have finally disappeared. And so we fret about Theo's contract situation.

THE TEAM have continued to yo-yo between vague suggestions that they may yet salvage the season, and more concrete suggestions that Wenger's reign is nearing an ignominious end.

Bradford away in the League Cup quarter final was yet another low point. As the team sheets were announced it seemed as if Wenger had belatedly decided to make the least important of the available trophies a priority; a touch of pragmatism creeping in perhaps as even the sometimes deluded manager recognises that a piece of silverware may do the players a world of good. Unfortunately, as was proven in the final against Birmingham a couple of seasons ago, playing against teams you're expected to beat brings its own kind of pressure.

Arsenal were awful, Bradford were brilliant, and really deserved to claim their scalp after 90 minutes, only for a late Vermaelen header to force extra time. As chances came and went for the Gunners, the feeling grew that an upset was still on. Penalties, while not, as the stupid cliche would have you believe, a lottery, are unpredictable, and Cazorla was denied from Arsenal's first. Chamakh then hit the post and all seemed lost until Szczesny brought his teammates back into contention with a couple of saves. Vermalen had the chance to force sudden death but he, too, struck a post and the League Two side were through. The journalists sharpened their pencils and Wenger's critics sharpened their knives but Monday night's trip to basement boys Reading provided some respite and, at last, some cohesive attacking play.

Walcott finally got the start he's been asking for as a central striker, and, to be fair, played well, but both he and the team need to realise that they won't play Reading every week. It really was woeful stuff from the home side, allowing Cazorla acres in which to dictate the game and also plunder a hat trick- all poacher's goals from Arsenal's supposed playmaker. But even at four nil, the Gunners managed a serious wobble in which they conceded two goals and stoked memories of that ludicrous game at St. James' Park, before Walcott took Cazorla's reverse pass, ambled inside and slid the ball home with his left foot to dash any nascent hopes of a Reading revival.

Better from Arsenal, but this needs to become the norm over the next few games if they are to turn this season around. But when you look at the calibre of players we're being asked to put our trust in, particularly upfront, you wouldn't bet much.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Urgent Questions, Unconvincing Answers

Arsenal 0-2 Swansea... Arsenal 2-0 West Brom

Discontent reached fever pitch again as Arsenal were outplayed and beaten by an impressive Swansea side.

It took two late goals from Michu to settle the issue but that really didn't reflect the Welsh side's dominance overall. Worryingly, this kind of thing can no longer be called a fluke or an unwanted aberration. I said after the Fulham game at home that teams no longer come to the Emirates with a very defensive gameplan, fearing a hiding. There was a time when coming to Arsenal and playing an open game was suicidal; now it's acceptable and not just for the top sides.

Arsenal looked spent, with the league not even at its halfway point. Arteta and Cazorla played into the ground, Wilshere still playing his way back. Again, serious questions raised about the manager. He doesn't seem to trust Coquelin quite yet, so why the inactivity after Song's departure? Was it really expected that Abou Diaby would stay fit? And even if that happened, would it have really been the answer?

There was a rush early on this season to suggest that Arteta is a superior player to Song, even at the base of the midfield, and that no straight replacement was necessary. This idea now looks a folly. Song may not have been what Arsenal needed to provide real solidity in the centre, but neither is Arteta. Not on his own. And so a notoriously gaffe-prone defence is now exposed again by the lack of protection in front of it.

Arsenal's midfield should be more creative than it is at the moment but another obvious worry is that, when chances are created in greater amounts, there is no Robin Van Persie to gobble them up. When Gervinho is on the pitch, the word 'wasteful' is never far from your mind.

A comfortable win against West Brom provided some respite, but can't be said to have stopped the rot. Arsenal were the better side- our most important players seeming to have benefited from the midweek rest in the Champions League dead rubber- but what chances were created in open play were fluffed, and it took two lucky penalties to turn the game in the home side's favour.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is The Ship Being Steadied...

Or is it springing a leak?

There is no sense of momentum at the moment, one way or another.

Arsenal 5-2 Spurs... Arsenal 2-0 Montpellier... Aston Villa 0-0 Arsenal... Everton 1-1 Arsenal

The home North London derby produced the same result as last season, but the occasion never felt as morale-boosting. Spurs were in front and in control when Adebayor launched into a typically reckless lunge on Cazorla, an act of stupidity rightly rewarded by a straight red card.

It proved a turning point. Beforehand, Arsenal had given away a soft goal, Mertesacker stepping up dopily under Vertonghen's lofted pass before Adebayor gobbled up the rebound from Defoe's parried shot. Shortly after that, Lennon had shot narrowly wide.

After the red card, Spurs predictably ceded some ground, but it is not easy to break down ten men and so Arsenal deserve credit. There was little chance for the atmosphere to grow tense and restless because the Gunners stormed into a 3-1 lead before the break. Mertesacker produced a brilliant header- surely one of the best such goals of the Wenger era- from a Walcott cross, before Podolski's snatched effort dribbled in off Gallas. Then Cazorla shimmied into the area and teed up Giroud to sweep home.

Even with an extra man, this Arsenal team is incapable of complete control, so it was a relief when Cazorla converted Podolski's low cross on the hour mark to make it 4-1. Especially in light of what came after. Bale pulled one back, then had a chance to make it 4-3, but dragged his shot wide. Finally the away side's threat fizzled out and in stoppage time sub Chamberlain released Walcott to restore the gloss on the scoreline.

If derby day delight had restored a sense of confidence, there was little sign of it in a wretched game against Montpellier. Arsenal needed a win to avoid a rather complicated closing game in the Champions League group stage, and they got it, but only after a display that was riddled with sloppy passing. Still, at least the defence looked somewhat solid (though there seemed little interest from the French side) and two nice goals were scored. Wilshere got his first since his return, dinking home from a Giroud knock down, and then Podolski smashed in a cracking first time volley to cap a nice one-two with the Frenchman.

At Villa Park, Arsenal again struggled for a sense of rhythm. They never looked like winning the game, but happily enough, didn't give anything stupid away on the defensive side. Wenger incurred the away fans' wrath by replacing Cazorla with Coquelin when we should have been pressing for a winner, and Arsenal's worrying toothlessness was summed up with the final kick of the game, when the substitute was released into the area at the end of a rare good move, only to slash a thoughtless, harmless cross into no man's land. This result saw an early end to any nascent optimism engendered by the Spurs win, and the lack of any genuine momentum was underlined by a tired performance at Goodison.

Everton were suckered in the first minute by Walcott, returning from injury, but the home team recovered well to enjoy the better of the game. Fellaini equalised after a mistake by Sagna, and Szczesny was kept busy after that, but the fame eventually faded into a stalemate that both sides were probably appeased by.

After a fairly poor showing fourteen games into the season, Arsenal should probably count themselves lucky. They are two points behind Tottenham, one behind Everton, five behind West Brom. With due respect to the Baggies, only a fool would expect them to be in the top four come May, and so Arsenal look fairly well-placed to qualify for the Champions League yet again, assuming there is some kind of improvement on the horizon.

The next seven league games, before a home match against the Champions, are as follows:
Swansea (H)
West Brom (H)
Reading (A)
Wigan (A)
West Ham (H)
Newcastle (H)
Southampton (A)

I think that speaks for itself. The team may look tired and low on confidence, but they have already dropped points in games we traditionally expect them to win, and they need to lose that habit fast. This run of games should be viewed as an opportunity to establish some form and to move up the table. There is plenty of doom mongering these days, and I'm often a part of it, but as mediocre as this team's performances have been, we should still expect Arsenal to take close to 21 points from those seven games.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Decline Becomes Clearer

Two goal leads thrown away- twice in a matter of days.

Arsenal's trademark in the George Graham days was a rugged resolve.

In the first half of Wenger's reign, it was thrilling football and trophies.

Now, and for some time, it has been complacency, inconsistency, unpredictability.

What was once unthinkable has now become the normal state of things.

Nobody was particularly surprised at Arsenal's ability to draw 3-3 at home to Fulham, having led 2-0 in the first half.

What is worrying about this particular farce, and others that have unfolded since the start of the season, is that they seem less the result of profligacy and arrogance, and more a symptom of a decline in quality.

Arsenal not being able to defend is nothing new. But this Arsenal are getting outplayed with a worrying regularity. Not just the traditional roastings against the serious teams. Norwich were hardly troubled by the misfiring Gunners a few weeks back, and now Fulham came to the Emirates full of attacking intent and proved worth at least a draw. It used to be that a lesser team coming to play an open game at Arsenal had you licking your lips in anticipation of the rout that would invariably follow, but it becomes harder to perceive who the lesser team actually is.

Early in the season, with clean sheets and an apparent new emphasis on compactness and solidity, there was a fairly widespread optimism. This optimism should have remained tentative, but was quickly blown out of all proportion. Such exaggeration led to deflation, as Arsenal produced a familiar wet squib performance against Chelsea in the first big home match of the season, then succumbed to Norwich without showing an ounce of attacking prowess.

The wretched, listless display we saw at Old Trafford was dispiriting, but at least familiar. The response to that defeat- throwing away sizable leads to draw successive games- has seen the mood shift from deflation to panic stations.

Some may have thought that Arsenal's worst problem  this season would be something approaching boredom- can't win the title, can't win a cup, but will get into the top four again cos we always do, no need to panic- but at the moment, this team doesn't look good enough to accomplish even that. Their record in this campaign so far speaks for itself.

So it is with trepidation that Arsenal fans should regard the next game, at home to Spurs. Last season, Arsenal's stirring fightback in this fixture proved the catalyst to reignite a stumbling season, and propel the team into a very respectable third-placed finish. It's early days yet but a similarly emphatic result either way this time around could have a similarly decisive influence.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Annual Defeat at Old Trafford

Manchester United 2-1 Arsenal

A close scoreline. Not a close game.

The last time Arsenal took anything from Old Trafford was towards the end of 2008/09, when they coasted to a goalless draw that was enough for them to seal another title.

Arsenal have won one league game away to United in the last ten years. They never perform at Old Trafford.

This time around, United didn't have to be good, but still could have matched the eight goals they scored in last season's game. In fact, they made a greater number of gilt edged opportunities here, but whereas last time they were freakishly clinical, this time they were wasteful, and let Arsenal off with a flattering final score.

Vermaelen set the tone for a wretched performance by teeing up Van Persie for the game's opening goal with less than three minutes on the clock. The further we get from Vermaelen's early days at the club- when he seemed an endearingly wholehearted, all action defender- the clearer it becomes that he is a liability. His positional play is consistently poor, and when he makes the kind of schoolboy errors that pockmarked his performance on Saturday, there really isn't a way to justify his continued presence in the starting line up. Except for the fact that he's been made club captain. So the captaincy farce, like the goalkeeper farce, continues for another year.

That being said, he was in abundant company in not turning up for this game. Santos and Ramsey both struggled again, raising the question as to why Wenger refuses to take them out of the firing line. Ramsey is a central midfielder and lacks any real pace or trickery. His common inclusion on the right of the attacking three seems confusing and self-destructive. Together he, Giroud and Podolski must rank as one of the most toothless attacks that lined up anywhere in the Premier League over the weekend.

Are there other options? Yes, but they are ones that Wenger does not seem to appreciate at the moment. Arshavin may be a frustrating figure, but he is surely too talented to be frozen out when alternatives are so limited. Walcott is the victim of his own greed, perhaps, but Wenger needs to be more pragmatic and admit that sadly, Arsenal are now bad enough that the brainless but sometimes effective speed merchant is a part of their best eleven.

At the back, meanwhile, Santos has served substantial notice of his status as a liability, and Vermaelen could be moved to left back, allowing Koscielny to take his rightful place in the centre of defence. Or Sagna could be moved left and Jenkinson come in on the right. But no. We are forced to tolerate the calamitous Brazilian again.

What was most disconcerting, perhaps, was the malfunctioning midfield. Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla probably constitute as technically proficient a trio as Arsenal have ever fielded in the centre of the park, and should certainly be expected to exert some degree of control against Carrick, Cleverley and Rooney. It never happened. Arsenal never had a foothold in the game.

Part of it was down to Rooney's effective man-marking job on Arteta, which meant that Arsenal found it difficult to build from the back, but that should hardly in itself be an insurmountable obstacle. Maybe it was just that the trio are unused to playing together, or that Arsenal are lacking muscle in that are of the pitch. But it is the weakest area of the United team and still the home side were almost completely untroubled.

The question is thus raised again as to whether Wenger is at this point capable even of exacting the maximum from the players at his disposal. To be fair, the fact that they secured Champions League football again last season means he still deserves a lot of credit for regrouping after a couple of hellish periods, but Saturday served up another reminder of how long it's been since Arsenal performed convincingly in the games that matter most.

It's so disappointing to see that United, a team who have done it all, are still palpably so much hungrier than a group of players who have won nothing at all. Patrice Evra enraged Arsenal fans and players alike in 2009 when he described United's procession  to victory in that year's Champions League semi-finals as a contest of "men against babies", but the words cut so deep because they carried an edge of truth. Here, it was the despicable left back who was allowed to head home United's richly deserved second goal and finally put the game to bed, after Rooney had dragged a penalty wide and he, Van Persie and Valencia had spurned opportunities from open play.

Cazorla found the top corner with a peach of a shot just as the game finished, but the contest was long over, especially after Wilshere was sent off for picking up a second yellow card. There was a real sense of optimism around Arsenal after they fought their way to a point at Eastlands, but that positivity has evaporated in the interim after listless displays at home to Chelsea and Schalke and away to Norwich were punished. Another defeat against United means that Arsenal are worse off, points-wise, than at the same stage last season.

Thus we are left to watch three superior sides disappear into the distance, and worry as to whether Andre Villas Boas will affect much of an improvement at Tottenham. Another long winter, in other words.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Arsenal 6-1 Southampton

The opening day frustration of a scoreless draw at the Emirates was washed away in the second home game of the season, as Arsenal demolished Southampton through a mixture of flowing football, clinical finishing, and a bit of self-harm by the opposition.

Cazorla's influence continues to grow. It took a season to happen, but it seems that Arsenal now have a genuine and worthy replacement for Fabregas in the number 10 role. Cazorla is a slightly different player to Fabregas but has quickly assumed a similarly central role in the team.

When you consider that Spain can choose from the Barca boys, Alonso, David Silva and Cazorla in those midfield positions, it leads you to wonder if there has ever been an embarrassment of midfield riches quite like it.

The Spaniard was influential again, as was Podolski, whose drive and determination set up Gibbs on the left in the 11th minute. The full back fired a cross-shot that Davis could only parry into his defender, and the ball trickled into the net for an own goal.

The German then curled in a free kick to make it 2-0 and further cement his solid start to life at Arsenal.

Southampton at this point were failing to provide much solid resistance and the third goal was staggeringly simple in its execution. A Saints defender tried to anticipate a ball into feet and Arteta, who might as well have had a fat cigar in his mouth, clipped the ball through to Gervinho, spinning into the vacated space. The Ivorian smashed the ball in at the near post for his first goal of 2012, player and supporters breathing a sigh of relief.

He was having a good game, as was Gibbs down the left, and the two combined to force Southampton's second own goal shortly afterwards.

Just before half time, a clanger from Szczesny saw Arsenal's first concession of the season, but late on the Gunners roused themselves again. Ramsey worked an opportunity from Cazorla's pass and struck the post with Gervinho gobbling up the rebound.

Then, with minutes to go, Walcott got his first of the season against his old club.

The season is well and truly up and running, but greater tests await. Montpellier in midweek will be followed by a trip to play the champions.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

From Two Games Without Scoring... Three Clean Sheets in a Row

Liverpool 0-2 Arsenal and suddenly it's easy to put a positive spin on our start to the season.

But first, we should cast our minds back to the drudgery of the opening two games, in which another new-look Arsenal laboured to create genuine opportunities.

The game against Sunderland at the Emirates always looked, to me, a difficult way to kick off. Their team is hardly packed with superstars, but with Martin O'Neill at the helm they can always be relied upon to be well-organised and hard to break down. Arsenal were not helped by a relative dearth of pre-season games, the Emirates Cup having been cancelled due to the Olympics (thus ending Arsenal's hopes of silverware for the season). It was clear that a lot of the players were unaccustomed to each other, but Santi Cazorla immediately looked a class above, carrying a threat throughout and ultimately providing the pass late on that should have led to the winner. His fellow new boy Olivier Giroud did a passable Bendtner impression, shanking his effort wide, and Arsenal were left with a frustrating home draw.

The departure of Alex Song to Barcelona was announced in the game's aftermath, and many fretted over Arsenal's trip to Stoke, as the team had lost one of its few overtly physical players. But physically, Arsenal dealt much better with this trip to the Britannia. Mertesacker and Vermaelen were largely untroubled until Jon Walters stabbed a late chance wide. Going forward, however, was a different story. As against Sunderland, chances were at a premium. A stalemate always looked on the cards and so it proved.

And so to Liverpool, the transfer window having closed. On the monetary front, the initial optimism provided by the early signings of Podolski and Giroud, and the more recent capture of Cazorla, had been deflated somewhat by the recent departures of RVP- though that was expected- and Song. With no further new additions, it seemed another symbol of Arsenal's ambition, or lack thereof. What had threatened to be, by Wenger's standards, a splurge, had become another summer where more money came in than went out, and the squad was only marginally improved, if at all.

The match at Anfield restored the feelgood factor of early summer. Liverpool are, after all, to be viewed as serious rivals for a top four position. Last week, they had the beating of champions Man City, but were forced by silly errors to settle for a draw. This week, they were outplayed and comfortably beaten by Arsenal.

They have their own reasons to be disgruntled at the close of the transfer window. Brendan Rodgers' commitment to his own footballing philosophy is something that Arsene Wenger would no doubt admire, but he has allowed Andy Carroll to depart and no replacement has arrived, leaving an apparent burden on the shoulders of Luis Suarez, a very good player but not a very good finisher.

They did bring in Nuri Sahin- who Wenger spent much of the summer trying to sign- but Arsenal grew to dominate the game in midfield. Arteta was again outstanding, showing the benefit of his many years in the Premiership with some robust defensive play, and almost always choosing the right option while on the ball. Diaby had quite possibly his best game in an Arsenal shirt. With Song gone, Wenger may well be taking a sizeable gamble on Diaby's fitness holding up, but today was one of the days when you can see why Wenger has had so much patience with him.

The greatest plus point of all might be the unexpected hat trick of clean sheets. That said, there were some iffy moments early on. Liverpool never looked like creating much, but Jenkinson and Mertesacker did their best to help them with some sloppy passing from the back.

When Gerrard gave the ball away near the Arsenal box, however, the away side sprung into decisive action. Podolski found Cazorla, dropping into a pocket of space in front of Skrtel and Agger, and the Spaniard waited for the right moment to release the ball back to the German, sprinting ahead of Glen Johnson. The finish was dispatched low and hard past Reina and Arsenal had scored the kind of breakaway goal that has become far too rare since the days of Henry and Vieira.

Second half, the Gunners stood strong under some pressure, then made the game safe as the same two players exchanged passes again, and this time Cazorla applied the finish, his low shot squirming under Reina.

If new number 2 Steve Bould is having an effect on the back four, it's a great sign. Arsenal have been too easy to score against for far too long. It's an obvious thing to say, but keeping more clean sheets takes the pressure off your forward players, and Giroud for one looks like he needs help in that regard.

He had an unfortunate reprise of his poor effort against Sunderland, and it was worrying to see his head in his hands after. He showed the same reaction at the final whistle of the opening game, which suggests that he's expecting too much of himself, too early. So far, he hasn't looked like that much of an upgrade on Bendtner or Chamakh, let alone an adequate replacement for Van Persie. But we only need think of Thierry Henry to recall how patience can pay off with a striker who initially has trouble finding his finishing boots.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

You Can't Win With a Team that Changes Every Summer

I had become optimistic.

Arsenal have spent a substantial amount this summer on players, in Podolski, Giroud, and especially Cazorla, who can improve the squad.

The departure of Robin Van Persie, who we now know is on his way to Manchester United, was always expected. And the fee of a reported 23million pounds in itself recoups much of the cost of the three new Arsenal players.

But it looks like it won't stop there.

If you look back on the goals Arsenal scored last season, three players are involved on a very regular basis.

Van Persie, of course, but also Alex Song, who blossomed into the team's most incisive passer, and Theo Walcott, often breaking beyond the opposition defence to tee up the Dutchman.

Will any of these players remain at Arsenal in three weeks' time?

Song's progress was slow at first, and he is still prone to lapses in consistency, but his mooted move to Barcelona represents another symbol of Arsenal's status as a less than great club where young players come to play under a developmental manager who, once they have developed, is happy to move them on at a massive profit.

Then there is Walcott. I am far from his biggest fan. He is clearly not a natural footballer. But then again, I can't argue that he's never effective. Statistically, he had a good 2011/12. He's another player who has improved. But his contract situation means he is also quite likely to be making his way towards the ever-revolving doors of the Emirates Stadium.

The positive thing about this summer is that Arsenal got good business done early, thus avoiding the kind of last minute scramble that marred preparations for, and the first few games of, last season.

But I had hoped the new players were being signed to augment the talent we already had, as well as soften the expected blow of losing Van Persie. I thought the emphasis was finally on spending money to improve our chances on the field, not on taking in more money than goes out.

It seems quite likely now that these are not signings to augment the squad but to replace some of its most effective players. Preemptive rebuilding.

Sahin, or M'villa, or indeed some player nobody has mentioned who Wenger will pluck from obscurity, any of them may come in and end up doing a good job. Maybe, eventually, an even better job than Alex Song was doing.

And few would doubt that Cazorla, and possibly Podolski too, are better footballers than Theo Walcott.

But the issue for me is that a constantly unsettled, dismantled and rebuilt team will never achieve the stability to win big. You can admire Wenger's ceaseless ability to absorb the blow of these losses and keep the team in the top four. But at the same time, it illustrates the very reason why Van Persie would be stupid to hang around. Why spend your final few years at the top with a club that perennially defers the opportunity to compete for the big prizes?

Taking Van Persie out of the equation, Arsenal may yet gain more than they lose this summer in terms of pure quality. But pure quality alone is not all that matters. Partnerships and stability matter too. Song and Van Persie. Song and Walcott. Walcott and Van Persie. Song and Arteta. These had become productive partnerships and yet now it seems very possible that Arsenal will have to wait for another set of players to gel again.

It used to be that Arsenal's best player would be heavily linked with a move away every summer. Now, it seems, we've reached a stage where Arsenal will sell their best two players every summer.

If it keeps happening, the only outcome I can see is endless transition.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Some More Thoughts on RVP

If Robin Van Persie leaves for Manchester City or, worse, Manchester United, it is not he who should draw the ire of the Arsenal fans.

It is the Arsenal board and the Arsenal manager.

If Van Persie is being disloyal to the fans and the club, then there is a strong argument that they are being disloyal too.

In fact, more so than Van Persie, one could say that the only thing they are loyal to is the money.

Arsenal can still take charge of this mess in one simple, but effective way. They can take a stand and say they will not do business with other Premier League clubs.

They can wait for an acceptable offer from Juventus, and let the captain go to Turin.

Letting Van Persie go to Manchester further compromises Arsenal's competitiveness in their domestic league.

It hammers home the point that Arsenal cannot compete at the top of the Premiership table.

The realistic and the disillusioned already know this to be true, but losing Van Persie to Manchester United would be particularly galling evidence of it.

At least if Arsenal sell to City, they have the reasonable excuse that they are essentially being cheated by a club that doesn't play by the rules, a club that never truly earned its place at the summit of English football.

But if United win out, it underlines Van Persie's ambition not to play for the most money, but to play for the biggest club. A club that Wenger's Arsenal were once able to compete with, but now can only view from below.

Something of a counterargument to the above would point to Wenger's obvious and repeated loyalty to his players, whether they remain at Arsenal or are on the way out. He has never been one to stand in the way of an individual's desires and maybe we are seeing it again with Van Persie.

Maybe Wenger wants the Dutchman to go, wherever the Dutchman wants to go.

And the only important thing for Arsenal football club is to make the greatest possible profit from the deal.

We are talking about a sport that has become defined by money and the power it confers; in the face of all this, Arsene Wenger has held onto his ideals better than most.

Whatever his public pronouncements, he knows that Arsenal cannot win the Premiership in the coming season.

But maybe every time he milks a deal for all that it's worth, maybe every time that happens we are actually building towards something.

Maybe not the ultimate decline of the club- maybe, in fact, a day when the team can compete again.


Monday, July 23, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Why So Serious?

Christopher Nolan's Batman franchise ends with a good film, not a great film, the weakest of the trilogy.

Nolan's films in general are not known for their humour, and it works both for and against them.

He made Batman great again by banishing the camp frolics of Joel Schumacher's films. Restoring straight faces and a sense of darkness.

But The Dark Knight Rises lurches to the opposite extreme. It is relentlessly, exhaustingly portentous. There is barely any respite from the constant aural and visual reminders that THIS IS AN IMPORTANT AND SERIOUS FILM. 

Over two hours and forty minutes, the weight is a little much. 

The Dark Knight struck a much better balance, mainly because of Heath Ledger's Joker, who provided laughs and charisma.

In The Dark Knight Rises, we have Bane, a formidable foe for the Batman no doubt, but not a particularly interesting or charismatic character in comparison to the previous film's villain.

It remains a very good film, a worthy end to a fantastic trilogy. But I get the feeling that Christopher Nolan would be an even better director if he could practice a little restraint. His recent films are unashamedly BIG and that is part of the attraction, but in The Dark Knight Rises, the bigness crosses the line into bloat.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Meet the new Blog, same as the old Blog

Groundhog Summer.

 For Fabregas last year, read Van Persie this.

 I think the indignant response from many Arsenal fans to Van Persie's statement is unwarranted.

 Football is now, undeniably, equal parts sport and business. How else can we explain UEFA's insistence on changing the European Championships from a competitive, 16-team tournament to an unwieldy, 24-team one? Money matters, and what goes for UEFA, and the big clubs, goes for the best players too.

 Football generates obscene amounts of cash. The great players are at the root of that. They generate the excitement and the interest. Robin Van Persie is one of the best around at the moment and he has a right, at his age, to prioritise making as much money as possible. Sadly, as we all know, that can't happen at Arsenal.

 But, what's sadder still is that he hasn't a hope of achieving his sporting objectives at Arsenal either.

 People have reacted angrily to his reference to a meeting with Wenger and Gazidis, in which he was not convinced of the club's ability to compete in the coming years.

 It may have been arrogant of the player to question his own manager's project, when that project has arguably been responsible for his development as a player. It is undeniable that Arsene Wenger has made Arsenal what they are today, a big club with a big stadium and the potential to grow into a footballing superpower.

 But while austerity measures are still in place at Arsenal, can anyone realistically argue that it is the best place for Robin Van Persie- soon to turn 29? It may be that, when Arsenal's stadium-related debts are paid, and as the club finds new ways to raise money for the purchase of players, Arsene Wenger will be able to bring in players who are at Van Persie's level. Clearly, during that meeting, the Dutchman saw that that time has not yet arrived. By the time it does, his best days will be behind him.

 To the people who say that Arsenal stood by him during multiple, injury-ravaged seasons, and that he owes the club the same loyalty, I ask: why? The club stood by Van Persie because they knew his colossal talent. If they decided to cut their losses, there would have been plenty of other big clubs willing to gamble on that colossal talent. He would not have somehow ended up in the footballing wilderness.

 What Van Persie has shown is not selfishness, but rational self-interest. It is clearly beneficial for him to move on. He had a great season personally, but the club had another poor one. Without him, who knows how poor it would have been. Why would he waste another season, when a shot at the big prizes, and greater financial rewards, await elsewhere?

 He is a professional, not a fan. I don't doubt his affection for the football club but he has to do what is best for him. Speaking of fans, I wonder how many would act differently if they were in his position. It is easy to take the moral high ground from a distance, but football is Van Persie's job, and if anyone is offered a better job, with a better chance of success, and better money to boot, what do they do?

 I say good luck to him.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Walcott Has a Good Day at Last...

...but still suffers in Oxlade Chamberlain comparison.

Arsenal 7-1 Blackburn

When Pederson's free kick arrowed into the top corner, you started to wonder. It seems like years since Pederson has done that. But then, Arsenal had somehow contrived to concede four to Blackburn last time out, and it it's never a surprise when a team scores against Arsenal with their first real effort.

Luckily, the match was tied up by half time. Walcott teed up Van Persie, as he had done in the second minute. The incisive pass came, as on many occasions this season, from Song.

Then Van Persie turned provider, firing a pass at Oxlade Chamberlain, who did well to control, waltzed around Paul Robinson, and netted his first Premiership goal.

Then Gael Givet got himself dismissed for a crazy two footed lunge at the ball that could have done Van Persie damage had the Dutchman not hurdled the challenge.

Against 10 men for the second half, you would have been disappointed if Arsenal didn't rack up the goals. Arteta fired through the crowd for number four. Then Walcott dribbled infield to tee up Oxlade Chamberlain, who Solskjeared a shot through the legs of the defender and in at the near post. Then Van Persie completed another hat trick, doing well to keep his right footed shot down from Coquelin's low cross.

In stoppage time, Henry and Van Persie linked up, and the late substitute scored the second goal of his second spell via a deflection.

Walcott's three assists represented a welcome return to form, but it is still impossible to avoid comparing him unfavourably with the youngster breaking into the team on the other flank. Oxlade Chamberlain has the main weapon in Walcott's armoury- raw pace- but he also has so much natural footballing ability.

He glides past challenges while dribbling. He already looks a decent finisher, and can shoot well from outside the box. He has the vision to play incisive passes while running at pace. He has greater physical strength than Walcott. He can play the kind of simple passes that keep possession, as well as attempting to provide cutting edge service up front. And he wants to play in central midfield.

Now that's a talent to get excited about. And he makes Walcott look like what he is- a sprinter who got into football late, a one-dimensional speed merchant with no footballing brain.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

What Was Once Unthinkable is Now Highly Probable

Bolton 0-0 Arsenal

As in the last round of Premiership games, 4th placed Chelsea dropped points, Arsenal played afterwards, and Arsenal failed to capitalise.

Having dropped to 7th, with the transfer window having slammed shut, and with Jack Wilshere not likely to enjoy much if any playing time this season, the time has come to admit it: in all likelihood, Arsenal will not qualify for the Champions League.

Chelsea are well ahead now and most clear-thinking critics would argue that they have more scope for improvement in the second half of the season than Arsenal do. And even if they continue to be inconsistent, the evidence suggests that Arsenal cannot take advantage.

As discontent grows, the most frightening question becomes, who would replace Arsene Wenger were he to leave? Many critics of Wenger suggest people like Roberto Martinez and Owen Coyle, solely on the basis that their teams try to play what we like to think of as good football. They have never been tasked with the stewardship of a large club and this kind of scenario could lead to further disaster, in my opinion.

Arsenal could attempt to lure a high-profile manager from the continent. Since Mourinho left London, Chelsea have had a succession of them. It has kept trophies coming in, but the price they have paid for that has been the staleness of the squad that Andre Villas-Boas inherited last summer. Mourinho himself, Scolari, Hiddink, Ancelotti: there was never a great sense that any of these men cared much where Chelsea would be in ten or twenty years time. It is amazing that Villas Boas has faced so much criticism for trying what noone else had the foresight to do: to freshen the Chelsea squad with younger blood and to instil a greater sense of identity.

Of course, football fans only seem to think about the short term now. It remains the most obvious defence of Wenger. Without him, can anyone really predict where Arsenal will be in five years' time? His flaws have, in my opinion, become damaging to the club, but is the current situation ALL his fault? Who would choose his replacement if he did leave this summer? A board that is equally villified, and equally culpable for Arsenal's stagnant state.

Optimists may look at the way the season is shaping up and surmise that Arsenal need to hit bottom and that that will happen in May. But we don't really know where bottom is. How can we assume, if money was not spent to keep Arsenal in the Champions League, that money will be spent to get them back there? If Wenger has to be creative with what we assume will be, 'the Van Persie money', is he really capable of surprising us to the extent that he used to? And if he is not, who is?

I can't claim to offer any concrete answers. I have been one of Wenger's harshest critics, and I stand by most of what I've written here. But a future without him is potentially much bleaker than we perceive the present to be.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Comeback Win

Arsenal 3-2 Villa

Arsenal responded well to the United setback against Aston Villa in the FA Cup.

In the first half, they played with a decent tempo but got suckered in typical fashion to first, a clever set piece, and second, a clever counter attack. With Arsenal having dominated but failed to open up Villa's defence, it seemed that Alex McLeish had got his tactics spot on. The now familiar chorus of jeers greeted the half time whistle. Arsenal's hopes of silverware this season looked dead.

Having played well and not created chances, however, the Gunners started the second period by ripping into their opponents and creating a flurry of them. Mertesacker had a glancing header cleared off the line. Ramsey found space in the box but shot straight at Given. Finally, Song released the Welshman with a perceptive pass, Richard Dunne blundered into a needless challenge, and Arsenal had a penalty. It really was one of the most stupid tackles you could hope to see. Ramsey's first touch had clearly taken the ball too close to Given, who was picking the ball up as Dunne flattened Ramsey. So probably not a denial of a goalscoring opportunity, but certainly worthy of a yellow card, which would have been Dunne's second. The referee inexplicably let him off.

Van Persie tucked the spot kick away and it was game on. Arsenal were flying and Villa clearly needed to weather the storm. In the face of the Gunners' onslaught, they instead went to pieces. Warnock slid into a pointless challenge on Walcott, allowing the heretofore wretched winger to waltz into the box. Without an obvious option to cut the ball back to, he tried to smuggle the ball past the keeper at the near post. Given saved but Alan Hutton's attempted clearance hit Walcott and flew into the net. No more than that hideous cunt Hutton deserved- he is more adept at kicking people than footballs. Walcott launched into a stupid celebration but even that disturbing sight was not enough to halt Arsenal's charge.

Koscielny embarked on a rampaging run from his own half up the left wing and into the Villa area, where a third stupid tackle of the second half resulted in Arsenal's second penalty. Darren Bent had done the right thing in chasing back, but with Cuellar ready to block Koscielny's run the striker attempted an ambitious slide that took man and ball, in that order.

Van Persie stepped up again. Went for the opposite corner this time. Again, Given went the wrong way. Barely fifteen minutes into the second half, Arsenal were in front.

The rest of the game played out without much incident. Arsenal's troph hopes remain alive. The best moments of the remainder of the game were the respective returns of Arteta and Sagna. Both will add solidity to a team that had recently reverted back to its shoddy former shape.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Too Many Holes to Plug

Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United

Not an unexpected result: Arsenal's squad is once again stretched to breaking point. No full backs, no Arteta to help control the midfield area, and little by way of relief from the bench.

The first half was in its own way as scalding as the 8-2 reverse at Old Trafford. Ok, the score at half time was only 0-1, but United's dominance had been complete. And, lest we forget, this is a relatively poor United side who are suffering through their own injury crisis.

That Giggs and Carrick could win the midfield battle when outnumbered says much for the importance of Arteta. Song plays far better alongside the Spaniard, and he continued his poor recent run of form. Ramsey continues to be little more than a passenger- a player who needs a rest but can't be given one because Wilshere and Diaby and Coquelin are out of action. Rosicky, on the other hand, played with drive and spirit, not for the first time this season. He looked tired as the game wore on, but for the first hour or more he looked fresh and his sporadic runouts this season have left a good impression. He should be given more game time.

Van Persie was an onlooker in the first half, and the main threat on United's goal was Oxelade Chamberlain. The contrast between his intelligent pace and Walcott's brainless pace was a damning one for the older youngster. The actual rookie already looks a better player than the perennial rookie. Walcott's defenders have stated in the past that he needed a run in the team as first choice and free of injury. He has had that and the verdict for now has to be that he will never be better than a useful squad player. That his wage demands suggest he believes in his own importance to the first team, without ever earning that kind of status, means that he should really be turfed out this summer.

Arsenl were lucky to be only one down at the interval. Valencia powered a header past Szczesny from Giggs' pinpoint cross. Both of Arsenal's stand in full backs were culpable. Djourou, who had a nightmare and was replaced at half time, gave Giggs all day to line up his delivery, and Vermaelen only reacted too late to Valencia's movement.

Second half, United lost their way, and Arsenal played with some spirit without ever really playing well. A mistake let in Rosicky, who teed up Van Persie, only for the striker to blaze wide. A sitter missed, but Arsenal seemed to gain belief. A scramble saw a Rosicky shot blocked, but at the other end Wellbeck was exploiting Mertesacker's lack of pace and a goal could have come at either end.

Arsenal broke, Koscielny tackling Rafael in the box, finding Rosicky who sent a crossfield pass to Chamberlain. The youngster capped a very bright performance by finding RVP with a clever reverse pass, and the Dutchman shot precisely, through the legs of Evans, across goal, and just out of reach of Lindegaard. A fine goal to banish the memory of his glaring miss.

Arsenal's momentum was stalled by a bizarre event. Jeers rang out as Chamberlain was replaced by Arshavin. Arsenal fans accused their own manager of not knowing what he was doing. Poor Arshavin, with his already tattered confidence, was probably hurt, but it did seem strange to take off Arsenal's best player on the day, especially when Walcott had turned in another anonymous performance.

Whatever, neither the manager's decision or the fans' reaction helped the team in any way. The outstanding Valencia cut through Arshavin, Song and Vermaelen- ALL culpable, not just the Russian- and set up Wellbeck to fire in a deserved United winner.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Half a Team, No Chance

Swansea 3-2 Arsenal

Arsenal were awful at Fulham and they were worse at Swansea.

A similar pattern emerged. A good start, an early goal. Then Arsenal lose their way. The hosts take control.

This time the deserved equaliser came a lot earlier than at the Cottage. Ramsey's dopey foul in the box set the tone for a wretched individual performance. Sinclair beat Szczesny from the spot.

If Ramsey had an awful game,he wasn't alone. Arshavin and Walcott were both disgracefully bad. Both provided a single moment of quality- Arshavin's through ball for Van Persie's opener, and Walcott's cool finish to level the game at 2-2- but were otherwise destructive to their own team's chances of controlling the game.

What did not help in this regard was the absence of Arteta. Some know-nothing blowhards have voiced the opinion that the Spaniard only offers conservative sideways passing. Today we saw just how vital that sideways passing is. With Ramsey flitting around and giving the ball away almost every time he saw it, Benayoun seemingly unsure of his exact role, and a lonely Song having an off day, Arsenal were essentially spineless.

The alarm bells were first set ringing early on, when Arsenal were still in front. A single pass from a Swansea defender- who had just collected the ball from his keeper- and the home side were running at the Arsenal back four. Arteta has done a great job helping make Arsenal a more solid unit. Without him, Wenger fielded Ramsey, Benayoun, Arshavin and Walcott. That is a powder puff team for an away game and it got a performance to match. All of those players had stinkers and it's not an unusual occurance for any of them this season (with the exception of Benayoun, who hasn't had much playing time).

And an inefficient midfield is a doubly big problem if said midfield is failing to protect an already iffy defence. Mertesacker has failed to shore up the backline as some had hoped. Miquel and Djourou toiled manfully in their thankless tasks on the flanks, playing out of position and having to deal with Swansea's speedy wingers. Koscielny was brilliant again,though caught out by Graham for the eventual winner.

Looking at the Arsenal team sheet, it is pretty medicore stuff. A team of sometimes capable, but utterly inconsistent footballers. I have talked about complacency a lot over the last few years but today it struck me that this Arsenal team really isn't much better than what we saw today.

They were outpassed for periods. Outfought for periods. By a promoted team. Credit to Swansea for the positive football they play. But there was a time when the thought of a lowly side "having a go" at Arsenal would have you licking your lips in anticipation of the gaps they would leave behind, and how Arsenal would exploit that.

There is scope for improvement this season. Once the defence is pieced back into something recognisable, Arsenal may begin to grind out results again. That is the best we can hope for this season. In truth, glorious football is now but a memory for Arsenal fans. Beneath all the lazy media stuff about Wenger's pure philosophy, the truth is that Arsenal haven't played anything approaching fantasy football in years. Certainly not with any regularity.

Now, they need Vermaelen, they need Wilshere, they need Arteta, and they need to get scrapping again. But 4th place is looking less and less likely. After 21 games, in which Villas-Boas's Chelsea side have encountered serious problems, they still have a four point lead over Arsenal. Spurs, despite their blip against Wolves, will soon disappear into the distance if they keep up their swashbuckling form.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Egomaniac Returns

Arsenal 1-0 Leeds

It was like he'd never been away. If there was a trademark Thierry Henry goal, that was it. And it was pretty close to a trademark Thierry Henry celebration, too- the bellowing, the chest-beating, and the refusal to allow team mates to share in his moment.

Thierry Henry is an Arsenal legend, no doubt. He will probably remain the club's record goalscorer for a long, long time and it's hard to think of many prolific goal getters in recent decades who have been as thrilling as the Frenchman.

But, although his goal against Leeds was an uncanny impression of his own younger self, the truth is that Henry is long past anything approaching his best, and the extent to which he can help Arsenal now is questionable.

Much will rely on his willingness to play second fiddle on a stage where he was once undisputed king. He has been careful to project humility in his remarks, but his showy celebration last night suggests that his egotistical side is still present.

The fact that Henry probably can still make a difference to this team is more an indictment of the squad than a tribute to his powers. Beyond Van Persie, there has been a painful lack of firepower. Marouane Chamakh's play has lost the conviction that initially made him look a shrewd signing. He never looked much of a finisher but his workrate, aggression and awareness of those around him have all regressed so that it is almost a relief he is departing for the African Nations Cup. The signing of Park Chu Young seems a disaster, as he is not considered worthy of any playing time.

Gervinho and Walcott are infuriating in different ways. The Ivorian in has a habit of looking the most dangerous player on the pitch until it comes to the rather important business of shooting for goal or playing a telling pass. Walcott can finish and can provide accuracy in the final third but when he is up against a good full back, he is too often shunted onto the periphery of the game, sometimes to the point that Arsenal may as well be playing with ten men.

In short, the fact that the return of Thierry Henry can be seen as some kind of solution only suggests the magnitude of Arsenal's problems up front. These are problems that will remain after Chamakh and Gervinho return and after Henry goes back to America. And the alarm bells will be deafening if Van Persie succumbs to injury at any point, which hardly seems impossible.

Henry's cameo against Leeds was brilliant, but the serious business between now and May is in the league, not the FA Cup. And Arsenal need more than an ageing legend to secure that top four spot.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Struggle Continues

The teams that Arsenal are fighting for 4th have been dropping points; Arsenal have followed suit.

Fulham 2-1 Arsenal
This game might well have turned on a classic goalmouth scramble soon after Koscielny's first half opener. Both Ramsey and Song were denied by desperate saves. Fulham stayed in the game and it remained 1-0 until half time.

Despite the harshness of Djourou's second yellow card, Fulham were well worth their victory. Wenger paid for long term and short term oversights. The lack of a viable alternative to Van Persie- and the absolute lack of faith in Chamackh, which can't be helping the man's confidence- is taking its toll. Van Persie already looked knackered against Wolves, and has played twice more in less than a week since that game.

The injury crisis at the back is plain unfortunate, but Wenger's handling of this game could have been better. Fulham had pinned Arsenal back for almost the entire second period. High balls into the box were causing havoc, as usual, and both Senderos and Dempsey should have equalised. Arsenal needed an outlet on the break but both Walcott and Gervinho were replaced. On came Benayoun and Rosicky and with that went any real attacking threat. The game became a siege on the Arsenal goal.

The equaliser was disappointing, but felt inevitable. Szczesny flapped at a corner, Senderos headed into the goalmouth and Sidwell found the net.

Fulham almost seemed to run out of steam. But there was a final twist as Squillaci, whose name has become a byword for calamity, inadvertently headed across goal for Zamora, who steered a brilliant first time volley inside the near post.

A late winner today for Chelsea. A late defeat for Arsenal. Neither side have any great sense of momentum at the halfway stage and the possibility remains that Liverpool will surge back into contention for a Champions League spot. Arsenal are running out of steam at a vital time and it may need more than the return of a once great marksman to restore order and consistency.