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.