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.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Eight Years: Arsenal 0-1 Blackburn

That's eight years without a trophy.

Forget about the Champions League. Forget it.

Arsenal produced close to their worst against Blackburn and were dumped out of the FA Cup.

Even if they produce their very best against Bayern, they are absolute underdogs.

Whatever happens over those two legs, the season is another write off as far as silverware is concerned.

Fourth place is still of paramount importance, but Arsenal's inability since the Birmingham League Cup final debacle two seasons back to even come close to competing for honours is a huge embarrassment to the club.

This season, they have exited both domestic cup competitions to lower league opposition; if they lose as expected to Bayern and fail to reel Tottenham in in the league, it will indisputably rank as Wenger's worst season.

Anger rises again in the stands, on phone in shows, on message boards, from the die hards and from the blowhards.

When the gleaming Emirates was opened for business seven years ago, this is not what they envisaged.

And selling the future is no longer a viable excuse. Suddenly the future looks quite murky. With the climate at the club as it is, it seems unlikely that Wenger will last beyond the end of his current deal. Who will come in? How long before "future captain" Jack Wilshere's head is turned? And if Arsenal fall out of the Champions League positions this season, will it prove the monumental kick up the backside that most people now feel the club needs? Or will it be just the beginning of the real decline?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Comeback Draw, Jammy Win, Backs to the Wall Victory... it the stuff that decisive runs are made from?

Arsenal came perilously close to losing at home to Liverpool, to drawing at home to Stoke, and to drawing away to Sunderland; but seven points from nine has kept alive genuine hopes of another top four finish.

The first hour or so in the Liverpool game was very depressing. Not only were Arsenal second-best, but the  defence was in full-blown self-parody mode.

The goal from Suarez that opened the scoring came from a Sagna slip, a trademark botched clearance from Vermaelen, and some vintage penalty area ping pong. As well as a deflection on the striker's finish.

When Henderson profited from more madcap defending to slip the ball into an empty net, it looked like that was that, but Arsenal responded in rousing fashion.

First,Wilshere's inswinging free kick from the right was headed down and past Reina by Giroud. Game on.

Then, before Liverpool could catch breath, Cazorla slid a pass into Giroud, the Frenchman laid it off nicely to Walcott to his right, and Walcott confounded Reina by bulleting an early shot low into the far corner.

Both sides had chances to win it, but in the end a draw seemed fair.

Against Stoke, a draw might have been terminal to Arsenal's Champions League hopes. The Potters, typically, defended very well, and typically, too, were not averse to rough house tactics.

Arsenal needed a large slice of luck to secure the three points, with Podolski's late free kick deflecting heavily on its way into the net.

Against Sunderland, Arsenal hit their stride in the first half, but squandered opportunities to build an unassailable lead.

Leading at half time was a nice change in itself, and the lead was secured by a fine goal that saw Wilshere scoot forward in trademark fashion, then play a pass into the box for Walcott. The winger, who is showing sporadic improvements in his appreciation of team mates' positioning, laid the ball back for Cazorla, and the Spaniard angled a low, left-footed effort past the keeper in a flash.

While Arsenal should really have won comfortably, the ultimate nature of the win may prove more useful, morale-boosting even.

Koscielny had broken down in the warm up, and Wenger opted to move Sagna to centre half, and bring Jenkinson in at right back. With new boy Monreal playing on the left side of the defence, it was an unfamiliar backline, and one that Martin O'Neill's side would have expected to score against.

That they didn't should be viewed as encouraging, especially after Jenkinson was dismissed for a second yellow card and Ramsey was moved back to full back.

Sagna, who is a brilliant all-round defender,produced his best display of the season, as did Szczesny, making some vital saves.

Arsenal will want to be more ruthless in future, but a resilient defensive display was long overdue.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Glimmer of Hope for Silver Remains

Brighton 2-3 Arsenal

Unsurprisingly unconvincing, but job done.

The reward: a home tie in the 5th round against Blackburn.

Liverpool went out to Oldham. Spurs went out to Leeds. Chelsea were taken to a replay by Brighton.

It looks like four of the eight quarter-finalists will be Arsenal, Man City, Man Utd and Chelsea.

So let's not get too excited just yet.

But the FA Cup looks ever more important as chances of January reinforcements continue to recede.

Can Arsenal really expect a top four finish with this bunch of players??

One positive from Brighton, other than the victory itself, was the continued good form of Giroud. Two good, different goals.

The first came when Rosicky zoomed forward on the right, and passed inside to Podolski. The German looked to be running into trouble, turned and laid the ball off to Giroud. The Frenchman took a touch and curled a confident shot into the top corner from just outside the box.

Second half, with the score at 1-1, Giroud took down Diaby's pass over the top, held off a challenge and lunged to blast a shot high past the oncoming keeper.

Again, Arsenal succumbed to a headed goal to make the score 2-2. There have been plenty of occasions this season when I've wondered if Vermaelen would still be in the team if not for his status as club captain. But if this game was to be seen as an audition for Koscielny and Mertesacker, they flunked it. Arsenal's defensive woes just drag on and on.

This time, the story had a happy, if fortuitous ending. When a set piece was weakly punched clear, substitute Walcott was lurking on the edge of the area. He produced a tentative side-footed volley that looped nastily off a defender and into the net.

Job done, but it's safe to say Arsenal won't win the FA Cup by fielding a half-reserve side every round.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

W-L-W... Consistently Inconsistent

Arsenal 1-0 Swansea (FA Cup)
Chelsea 2-1 Arsenal
Arsenal 5-1 West Ham

The Man City game at the Emirates suggested a tendency to start slowly, very slowly, and then wake up at half time. Three games since have confirmed that tendency, and the result is that against good teams, Arsenal are giving themselves too much to do, while against less good teams, one good half is usually enough.

In the Swansea replay, it was bitty, lethargic, low-tempo stuff in a first half during which ex-Gunner Kyle Bartley came closest to scoring. A wicked inswinging free kick gave him a free, close range header, but his effort, as in the first tie, hit the crossbar. As in the rather chastening league game between the sides in North London, Swansea at times looked more Arsenal than Arsenal themselves, very assured in possession, and threatening despite Michu only occupying a place on the bench.

It was all change after the break. Jack Wilshere produced the kind of display that justifies his status as England's latest great white hope. He was all drive, subtle of touch and with a bewitching ability to just glide past opponents in midfield with a quick change of pace.

Arsenal battered Swansea, but Walcott was wasteful on at least three occasions, enduring one of his less efficient days in front of goal. A couple of goalmouth scrambles in which the ball stubbornly refused to cross the line made you wonder if this was to be one of those strange,unlucky matches, but with an unwelcome extra half hour looming Cazorla fired a pass to Giroud on the edge of the area, he produced a deft first time lay-off inside, and Wilshere advanced to whack the ball confidently past the keeper and in.

The goal and the passionate celebration were both quite Gerrardesque, but in my opinion, Arsenal have a player of more substance than the overhyped Liverpool captain.

The big game at Chelsea, like the big game against Manchester City, brought out the worst in Arsenal again. Another slow start punished, another second half improvement, but another mountain that proved just too high. The way things are going, the mountain analogy will soon apply to the battle for fourth aswell.

Arsenal actually crafted the first clear chance, but it proved to be their only flash of quality in an utterly abysmal first half display. Cazorla zipped a low, cross field ball to Walcott, who fashioned an uncharacteristically incisive through ball to Giroud. The angle seemed to favour the Frenchman but, on his stronger left foot, he drove disappointingly wide of Cech's far post. At moments like that, in tight games, Giroud suffers badly from the unavoidable comparisons with Van Persie. Nobody expects him to match possibly the world's foremost frontman, but the almost-ex-Arsenal player he most often reminds me of is in fact Bendtner! I think Giroud is a better player, but he lacks the Dane's much maligned self-belief, and against good teams, his lack of a clinical touch in front of goal is costing Arsenal.

Punishment was not long in waiting after his miss. It was a typical concession, infuriatingly soft, but not without a sizable dose of misfortune. Coquelin was caught painfully on the ankle in midfield by Ramires, but as the ball broke and the referee missed the foul, Chelsea launched a counter of devastating efficiency. The right back whose name I can't be bothered to try to write raked a long diagonal to Mata, racing in behind Sagna- who has, since I wrote in his praise on New Year's Day, continued to endure his worst run of form since coming to England. The Spaniard killed the pass immaculately and lifted a shot past Szczesny and high into the net.

Cazorla forced a decent save from Cech with a fine long distance try but Coquelin and Diaby were chasing shadows, confounded by Chelsea's enviable trio of attacking midfielders. Arsenal were so passive, apparently unwilling to put Chelsea's possession under any pressure; it all just looked so easy for the home side.

Abou Diaby's apologists most often suggest in his favour that, if and when he becomes fully fit, he will provide a dynamism that Arsenal's midfield otherwise lacks. The irony is that his playing style is in fact so languid and at times downright lazy- he is far more likely to dawdle on the ball than drive his team on. So it was in the build up to Chelsea's second. He was robbed in his own half, he couldn't really be arsed to chase back with conviction, Chelsea outnumbered Arsenal, the ball was worked to Ramires in acres inside the area. He stepped inside the onrushing Szczesny, then flopped to the ground. Spot kick, keeper booked (could have been red!), Lampard reliable as always, 2-0.

Replays were disturbing on a couple of levels. Firstly, there was again an element of misfortune, as Szczesny actually barely made any contact with Ramires. It was a top drawer piece of "simulation"- so good the Arsenal netminder didn't even bother complaining after the penalty was awarded. More worryingly, one angle on the replay showed the incredible fact that when the ball was passed to Ramires, more than one Arsenal player went from a jog to a stroll- walking back towards their own goal. If that's the level of commitment the team exhibits in what was, table standings considered, the biggest game of the season, Arsene Wenger has even more serious problems on his hands than I'd previously thought.

Arsenal continued in abject fashion until the break. If Ba and not Torres had started as Chelsea's striker, the scoreline would probably have been more decisive at half time. As it was, Arsenal still had a chance, especially because Chelsea had, in midweek, thrown away a two goal lead at home to Southampton.

This undoubtedly played a part in the home side's tentative play after the interval, but I was also led to ponder the highly hypothetical question of how the game would have progressed if Chelsea had no manager at all. Rafa Benitez is an absolute control freak who seems to derive no enjoyment from open, attacking football even if his own team are producing it. It would have seemed natural to most that Oscar, Mata and Hazard should simply continue as they had started but it was clear from the outset of the second half that the Blues had containment on their minds. That worked in favour of a Gunners team who had benefited no doubt from some choice words from their manager.

There was energy, purpose, pressure applied to Chelsea players. Why it didn't happen from the start, nobody knows. Arsenal threatened for a long spell to score and finally did when Cazorla slid a delicious through ball to Walcott, and the wingstriker floated a side foot over Cech's dive and into the corner. This definitely set Chelsea nerves a-janglin' and Arsenal found a sudden sense of swagger; a thrilling counter attack instigated by Cazorla ended with Walcott stepping inside onto his usually useless left peg and dribbling an anti-climatic shot hopelessly wide.

Benitez reacted shrewdly enough, though why he waited until Arsenal finally found the net I'm not quite sure. Bertrand came on for Oscar, shoring up Chelsea's midfield, denying Arsenal the space they had enjoyed going forward since the break. Arsenal, on the other hand, had no hands to play, no change from the bench to change matters on the pitch. The fact that Arshavin, overweight and unwanted, was sent on to try and produce something from distant memory rather summed up the ludicrous situation with Arsenal's lack of further signings both in the summer and in the past few weeks.

In the closing stages Arsenal had pressure but only half chances, while Chelsea occasionally broke explosively but failed to make the game safe. At one point, Torres produced a jet-heeled burst that evoked the Torres of old, to leave Vermaelen trailing in his slipstream, but then produced a touch that was very much the Torres of today, sending the ball harmlessly rolling into Szczesny's arms. Ba came on soon after and won his own battle with the Arsenal keeper, dancing around him on the edge of the area, but Vermaelen had sprinted back and managed to block the striker's ensuing effort.

In the end, a damaging defeat, a dispiriting day.

This left Arsenal seven points behind Spurs, and with the game in hand on the horizon against West Ham, truly a must-win game. Things didn't start too well here either, as Collinson smashed home from a corner kick that Giroud had weakly cleared. Soon after, Podolski conjured some much-needed inspiration, collecting Wilshere's cute dink infield and dispatching a thriker past Jaaskelainen, the ball arrowing into the corner of the net from fully 25 yards.

West Ham could have led at half time. Again, after the break, huge improvement. Arsenal blew them away in a whirlwind spell,four goals in about ten minutes. Walcott found Giroud with a near post corner, and the Frenchman volleyed home for 2-1. It looked suspiciously like a rehearsed routine from the training ground, with Mertesacker making a run to create the space for Giroud. That's right- an innovative set piece! From Wenger's Arsenal! Against an Allardyce team!

The flurry that followed was more classically Wenger's Arsenal. A lovely move ended with Giroud flipping a first time pass throught to Podolski, who squared to Cazorla, who sent a cheekly back flick rolling over the line. Then Arsenal broke at pace, Podolski tore down the left and slid a great cross to Walcott at the back stick for 4-1. Then Arsenal broke at pace again, Wilshere sent Podolski racing down the left again, and again he found the right pass, this time low to the near post, where Giroud notched his second and Arsenal's fifth.

Arsenal remain unable to control a match, so they will need more productive flurries like this to stay in touch with the top four. And they still need signings too. But we have learned not to hold our breath waiting for that.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ah! Mid-Season Crisis, Come In. I've Been Expecting You

Arsenal 0-2 Manchester City

It has long been a habit of Arsenal's to start games very slowly at the Emirates. Often, it leads to games in which the Gunners struggle to break negative opposition down.

But sometimes the visitors are a little braver. Manchester City, even without Yaya Toure and Aguero, have the resources to be brave and they ripped into a sluggish Arsenal from the start here.

The match's first red card came early and was a big moment. But even before that, City had started with a purpose that Arsenal clearly lacked. The home midfield was Arteta-less and we know now that an Arsenal midfield without Arteta does not function well. He is not a spectacular or dynamic player these days, but one of those whose value is most evident in his absence. In the first half, in particular, he was sorely missed.

About Koscielny's dismissal, there can be no complaints. Dzeko had turned the centre back and the challenge was clumsy and stupid. He should have allowed his goalkeeper the opportunity to bail him out.

Which is what Szczesny did from the resultant penalty, which Dzeko struck down the middle. The ball hit the keeper's foot, then the post, then bounced along the line where he gratefully grabbed it.

These moments are usually greeted with a great sense of euphoria, but that was dulled somewhat by the knowledge that Arsenal had to play the remainder with ten men due to Koscielny's stupidity. Still, he can't take all the blame. It is possible to produce an effective performance after losing a player, but you need to be solid, and that as we know is not what Arsenal are. I always had the feeling that the reprieve would be only temporary but when the goals came they were unforgivably soft.

From a City perspective, the opener from Milner was a belter of a goal, a clinical finish at the end of a well-worked move. But Arsenal just made it so easy, captain Vermaelen culpable as he so often is in big games. To be caught out by a quick free kick in that situation was unacceptable.

Had Arsenal reacted well to the sending off? No. While there is more experience in this particular side than in previous versions, there still seems a terminal lack of character, leadership, and on-pitch organisation. Things only really picked up after half time, after the manager had been able to speak to them. But in the immediate aftermath of the incident, while the obvious change was made with Mertesacker sent on in place of the unlucky Chamberlain, there was no sense of a shifted emphasis in recognition of the desperate situation. Arsenal made it too easy for City.

The second goal had the phrase "damage limitation" flashing to mind, as City looked rampant. Sloppiness was evident again, Gibbs the guilty party this time, losing possession to Zabaleta. Szczesny parried the first effort from Tevez but for Dzeko, there was an open goal and that was game, set and match.

There was a big improvement from Arsenal in the second half, and they certainly didn't just give up. But one would feel entitled to ask why they hadn't started the game in the same manner. The best hope of a comeback went when Giroud miscued his header from a Cazorla free kick. Although Kompany was somewhat harshly sent off for a slightly reckless tackle on Wilshere, there was never any sense of alarm for City and they ran out comfortable winners.

All in all, a depressing day. Probably the most disappointing aspect of it is my own lack of surprise, and lack of expectation beforehand.

Slow starts, stupid mistakes, soft goals conceded; it's too familiar to be surprising at this point.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Replay. Of Course.

Sandwiched between league games against Manchester City and Chelsea. Of course.

At least Arsenal retain some hope of having a silver pot to piss in by season's end.

Swansea 2-2 Arsenal was a showcase of the good, the bad and the ugly. It's hard to watch any Arsenal game, especially during the January transfer window, and not think of the overall context of how the club is being run, how the squad seems so thin.

While Giroud, Arsenal's only real centre forward, snatched at every opportunity that came his way, Swansea had the luxury of sending on their main man, the freescoring Michu, in the second half. With Arsenal having dominated the ten minutes after the interval, they were promptly sucker punched, as the sub lobbed the ball over Mertesacker, glided away from Arsenal's square back line, and imperiously stroked the ball past Szczesny.

So Arsenal resumed banging at the Swansea door, which held firm until the final ten minutes. First, a corner was half cleared before Koscielny bobbled the ball back into the area, and Podolski swiveled to thrash a first  time shot into the corner. Soon after, Arsenal scored a reprise of Podolski's belter against Montpellier, this time with a different, less likely scorer. Gibbs, on the edge of the Swansea area, slipped the ball inside to Giroud and continued his run. The Frenchman lofted a first-time return pass over the Swansea defence, and Gibbs watched the ball drop and then leathered an unstoppable volley into the roof of the net at the near post. Cue raucous celebrations with the travelling Gooners and then, something very Arsenal.

Having completely dominated the second half except for Michu's goal, Arsenal proved unable to see the game out. Swansea were immediately back on the offensive, Arsenal were palpably nervous at the back. They held out for all of two or three minutes before Podolski inadverently flicked on Ki's corner and it eventually was shuffled on to Graham at the back stick, and he lashed the ball high past Szczesny to make it 2-2.

It's clear, especially after the league game at the Emirates, that the replay is not going to be easy for Arsenal.

It's clear, too, as ever, that reinforcements are needed.

What a Difference Eight Years Makes

May, 2005. Cardiff.

Patrick Vieira steps up for what will prove to be his final kick as an Arsenal player.

He shoots high to Roy Carroll's right, into the corner of the net. Arsenal have won.

Vieira himself, Fabregas, and Gilberto Silva have been outplayed by Roy Keane and company. Comprehensively outplayed. Only a year after Arsenal ended a league season unbeaten, they have been hammered by the worst United team in memory.

Hammered, that is, in all but scoreline.

Luck, United profligacy, and a towering performance by Jens Lehmann have contrived to turn what could have been a mullering into an incredibly goalless draw. And having had one shot on target in one hundred and twenty minutes of football before the shootout, Arsenal have scored five out of five from twelve yards.

Lehmann's save from Scholes is decisive and Arsenal have won the FA Cup.


That should have been a moment of euphoria, but I remember feeling slightly underwhelmed. Arsenal had finished ahead of United in the league (and well behind Mourinho's Chelsea). But they'd lost both of the league encounters with Ferguson's team, both memorably.

At Old Trafford, there was The Ending of the Unbeaten Run, The Diving of the Rooney, The Chucking of the Post-Match Pizza.

At Highbury, there was The Showdown in the Tunnel, The Madness of The Almunia, The Losing of One Of The Great Matches of the Premier League era.

So it was fair to say Arsenal had a point to prove in Cardiff. What we actually saw was that the team had declined very fast, that perhaps some of the old hunger was lacking, and that Wenger wasn't much of the tactician, as his choice of Dennis Bergkamp in the lone striker role helped shape the game in United's favour.

Back then, Arsenal were routinely winning trophies, and doing it in tremendous style, so to see them fluke their way past a United side we all hated and who weren't very good themselves was a bit of a comedown. We could afford to be picky then.

Now, though, what would we give for another lucky FA Cup victory?

Friday, January 4, 2013

How Can He Be So Obtuse

"It is very difficult because the level of expectation is very high- people want to see Lionel Messi come in, they don't want to see a promising guy"

In January, during a season that has Arsenal fans more worried than hopeful, this is not what they want to hear.

It's patronising, it's unwelcome, it's unsubtle.

Exaggeration can be a useful tool when deployed at the right time- a bit like Theo Walcott.

But this is not the right time.

All Mr. Wenger's statement does is set fans wondering just how many footballers they have seen recently who are nowhere near as good as Lionel Messi, and yet much, much better than, say, Gervinho.

The time to talk proudly of "promising guys" has surely passed.

For young players, Arsenal Football Club probably represents the promise of development, but not of ultimate success.

Fans have seen over and over that if a promising player develops at Arsenal into the player he wants to be, then he will soon want to leave for trophies, or money, or both.

If a player doesn't quite develop as he would like, he might well stick around, or get loaned out, or be glued to the treatment table, sucking wages out of the club all the while.

So while fans do still, to some extent, appreciate promise, they don't want it to be prioritised over the club's success. 

I do realise that, in a sense, Arsenal are suffering from their own success. Not just the silverware won in the first half of Wenger's reign, but the continued success of Champions League qualification.

We have to accept that that has been the target since about 2008, and to continue to hit that target has been a fine achievement.

But this sort of success has become monontonous to a lot of supporters, because in all sport the highest measure of success is in trophies won. Arsenal have been qualifying for the Champions League, but since 2006, they haven't been within an ass's roar of winning it. We all appreciate that it helps sustain the club financially, but that mantra has grown tiresome as no signs emerge of that financial stability actually leading anywhere new. It is not an end of itself.

Of course we should always take His public utterances with a pinch of salt. There must surely be a recognition that the squad is in need of surgery. And the focus on signing players of potential has happily lessened somewhat. Arsenal's most vital additions last season were probably Arteta and Mertesacker, experienced players who steadied a rocking boat, and the big signings of last summer were Podolski and Cazorla.

Spending more money is not always the answer, but if Arsenal wish to continue the monotonous habit of relative success, then it might prove to be the only answer.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Striker Envy

On a day when Arsenal, not for the first time this season, barely troubled the opposition goal, a brace each for Van Persie and Hernandez blew Wigan away.

It was bad enough for Arsenal fans to see RVP move to Old Trafford. It is sad to witness their bitterness at his clearly understandable decision. And the discrepancy between the forward options at the two clubs is a tragedy to behold.

United allowed Dimitar Berbatov to leave in the summer, but they still boast Rooney and Welbeck, as well as the aforementioned pair, among their ranks.

Van Persie and Rooney are, of course, two of the best strikers in the world.

But any of United's four frontmen would be well worth a place in the Arsenal starting line-up.

It is little short of staggering that United are thought to be considering a move for Lewandowski, when their midfield is so clearly in need of a top class addition.

Surprising, too, that Arsene Wenger can sniff at the notion of getting Demba Ba for a knockdown price, due to his conviction that Olivier Giroud will soon develop into a similar force.

Ferguson did not back off from his pursuit of Van Persie on the basis that Rooney is a roughly similar player. And now United are reaping the handsome reward of that successful pursuit. It looks like it will win them the title. I myself had hoped that Van Persie and Rooney would step on each other's toes; that hasn't transpired and it serves as a timely reminder that if great players have the right attitude, you can't have too many of them.

We saw again today that United have variety as well as quantity up front. Van Persie can score in almost any way; Hernandez again showed his rather more specific value. He has an almost magical ability to be in the right place to gobble up ricochets and mishit shots. He's a pinball wizard.

United have Van Persie, Rooney, Hernandez, Welbeck.
City have Aguero, Tevez, Dzeko, Balotelli.
Arsenal have Giroud and some out of position wingers.

And the gulf in goalscoring options is reflected in the the Premier League table.

On the basis of that...

...this is the year

A flattering point... against Southampton.

The Saints, without playing particularly well themselves, would have been worthy winners. A contentiously disallowed goal saved Arsenal's blushes somewhat, but nothing should save the players from the ire if their manager or indeed of fans who were served another unwelcome reminder of how far the club's quality has fallen.

Arsenal scored seven at home to Newcastle on Saturday, but they have been plagued by a recurring toothlessness on away days this season, and today they didn't even manage seven shots on goal.

Theo Walcott showed anybody who has anything like a ninety minute attention span why he is nothing like a ninety minute centre forward. He was almost completely anonymous.

He was far from alone in ignominy. Bacary Sagna endured another torrid afternoon, and played an inadvertent part in the home side's opener. It started with Podolski, pressured backwards on Arsenal's left, into a careless pass infield. Koscielny couldn't mop up, but a poor Southampton pass allowed Sagna to make an intervention. He inexplicably slashed his left-footed clearance right across the penalty area, and after some more scrambling the ball squirted back to Gaston Ramirez, who knocked the ball past Szczesny. It was one of the worst goals I've seen Arsenal concede, and you only need to think back a year or two to know that that really is saying something.

The Gunners had started the game fairly well, but their main threat was coming from crosses, and with Giroud on the bench crosses weren't actually much threat at all. At least they weren't until, not long before half time, Cazorla won a free kick in a dangerous area out left. Walcott whipped in a decent ball- his one meaningful contribution to the game- and Do Prado, perhaps sensing Koscielny lurking behind, could only turn the ball past Boruc and into his own net.

With the benefit of this barely earned reprieve, one might have expected Arsenal to kick on after the break and win the game. They were, after all, fresh from four wins on the bounce and, in theory at least, fitter for the fight after the Boxing Day postponement. But things scarcely improved, and while Giroud was eventually introduced to offer more presence down the middle, Arsenal's other reinforcements hardly set pulses racing. More cynical Gooners would have expected nothing from Gervinho and Ramsey and nothing is what they got.

It is still, of course, only the halfway point in the season, but judging from what we've seen so far, Tottenham are a better side than Arsenal. People were saying that through most of last season, and it wasn't reflected in the final league standings, but then Arsenal had Robin Van Persie. Now, there is nobody to dig them out on a day like today, nobody to rise up out of the mediocrity and produce a telling moment. The scoreline against Newcastle, which was only the result of a frantic late flurry, distracted somewhat from what was a far from complete performance. Today, there is no such distraction.

And now, what appeared to be Arsenal's easiest run of fixtures this season is over, and they remain outside the top four places.

In Praise of Bacary Sagna

Something very unusual happened against Newcastle on Saturday. Bacary Sagna had a poor game.

His foul on Obertan gave away the free kick that led to the first equaliser.

He was beaten by that same United reject whose cross set up Marveau for the second.

He allowed Marveau time and space to conjure a cross for the third.

Sometimes when Arsenal players make a lot of mistakes in one game it really pisses me off. But not this time. Not Sagna.

Sagna is a fucking legend.

On Arseblog yesterday morning, Sagna's goal against Spurs last season was rightly highlighted as one of the standout moments of Arsenal's 2012. As Arseblog aptly states, it was a "fuck you, I'm not losing this game" header. He butted the ball past Friedel, followed the ball into the net, and carried it back to the centre circle with one businesslike fist pump on the way. One of my favourite Arsenal goals.

Myles Palmer says that, if he leaves Arsenal in the summer, Sagna will go down as the best Arsenal right back never to win a medal.

Sadly, since Arsenal stopped winning trophies, they've also stopped rewarding service (I think these two facts may be related). Off the top of my head, the club's longest-serving players are Djourou, Rosicky, Walcott, and Diaby. With due respect to those players, their longevity, such as it is, does not go hand in hand with consistency of performance or with any kind of achievement.

For every potential superstar Arsenal have had to let go, there is one loyal servant whose loyalty has not been returned. With the money lost to the stadium project, Wenger made the decision to foster a reliance on youth, but his focus on youth was too extreme. It was often evident that the raw talent the squad possessed could have done with more experience alongside.

But it seemed to be the case that as soon as a player was past his technical best, he would be let go, regardless of less measurable qualities like character and winning mentality.

Money obviously played a part in all of this. Arsenal brought in a lot in transfer fees, and saved a lot in wages. But had Arsenal been more successful over the last number of years, greater success would have brought greater profits, too. And Arsenal would have had a greater chance of success if the squad had greater experience.

I don't mean to sound overly simplistic. But you can't argue with the fact that Arsenal have had a problem in recent years with a high turnover of playing staff. Wenger seems constantly to be building, dismantling, and building again. We are stuck in a state of transition.

As finance becomes, we hope, less of an issue, I hope that the club can regain some of the things it has lost of late. The ability to contend for the finest prizes, of course. But also, more fundamentally, a sense of identity on the field.

Arsene Wenger talks about identity a lot, but watching Arsenal over the past few years, it's been hard to swallow his rhetoric. Fans want to see players who care about the club and who have served it well. They don't want to see an ever-changing parade of mercenaries and men on the lookout for pastures new.

Since coming to the club in 2007, Bacary Sagna has been a pillar of consistency. He is the best right back in the Premiership. It's a pity that, too often, he has not had team mates who shared his character, commitment, and professionalism. But he is now the closest thing to a real servant that Arsenal have.

That's why I'm disillusioned at the prospect of his moving on. Carl Jenkinson has improved immensely in a short period of time, and Sagna has suffered two broken legs. It would be very Wenger to now allow the Frenchman to move on rather than working with the board to grant him the contract he deserves.

Gary Neville had to become an embarrassment before he was jettisoned at United. Giggs and Scholes still get games. This loyalty to club legends is part of what makes Manchester United the biggest club in the world. Because those guys can educate the youngsters, teach them the dedication that breeds success.

There was a time when a player could stay at Arsenal three times as long as Sagna has. That's a huge part of what forges a club's identity. Without it: endless transition.

Is This The Year?

There are two ways to read the question.

The pessimist wonders whether this is the year that Arsenal finally drop out of the top four, out of the Champions League.

The optimist wonders whether this is the year that Arsenal finally end the trophy drought.

Which outcome is more likely?

Realistically, Arsenal can only win the FA Cup. A league title was never a possibility, and success in Europe would require luck in even greater quantity than Chelsea enjoyed last term.

Sadly, fretting over silverware is a luxury we can't afford. If Arsene Wenger could choose between the FA Cup and 4th place, it would be no contest. Champions League qualification is paramount.

The further Arsenal get in the FA Cup, the more distraction from what is shaping up to be a fierce battle for 4th place. We have to admit that, at present, the Arsenal squad is not strong enough to carry a fight on multiple fronts.

We should be grateful for a glamour tie in the second round of the Champions League. Bayern Munich ought to be too strong for Arsenal, and it would be no tragedy to lose to them. Getting a lucky draw and beating inferior opposition would prove nothing. You would still expect Arsenal to get turned over by the first tough team they face.

A tie against Bayern can be viewed as a win-win. If Arsenal triumph over two legs, confidence will shoot up; the team will believe they can go far in the competition. If they go out, as I expect they will (hopefully not in humiliating fashion), legs will be fresher for the league run-in.

In hindsight, the agonising failure to overturn that 0-4 deficit against Milan at the same stage last season was probably a blessing in disguise.

As for the league and European qualification, we can no longer convince ourselves that it's all down to Arsenal. Last campaign, most people thought Spurs had a better team; while Arsenal did brilliantly to turn things around both after a dreadful start to the season and again from February onwards, we have to remember that Tottenham imploded and that even then, Arsenal enjoyed some good fortune on the last day after a mini-implosion of their own.

This time around, Spurs have so far recovered better from the departure of Modric than Arsenal have from the departure of Van Persie.

January, as ever, is viewed by anxious supporters as an opportunity to address the flaws that have emerged in the season so far. The team has looked toothless up front at times- some argue that Van Persie has not been replaced adequately, while others, myself included, would focus more on the team's lack of guile.

Obviously the Dutchman is missed. I would welcome the arrival of another prolific goalscorer. But the more pressing need is for greater creativity. Cazorla is a wonderful player but not the chance-making machine that Fabregas was for Arsenal. And when opposition sides manage to shackle Cazorla, Arsenal look seriously short of ideas.

Maybe the solution lies in giving Jack Wilshere more freedom to get forward and help make things happen. This leads me to the next important issue that, ideally, could be addressed this month. The current midfield trio of Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla looks great on paper but in practice seems imbalanced. Arteta and Wilshere are adept enough at reading the game to do a competent job as a midfield pairing, but Arsenal lost something with Song's departure, a bit of physicality perhaps. Song was never really a "holding" player as such, but for all his sporadic lack of discipline he was willing and able to disrupt the opposition's possession play. At the moment, it looks too easy for good teams to play through and around Arsenal's midfield.

That puts too much pressure on a defence that is still, despite some signs of improvement., flaky and unpredictable.

Arsenal can either take action now to strengthen the squad and the team, or soldier on and hope that Tottenham make more mistakes than they do.