Sunday 26 February 2012

The standard is set in a brilliant derby win

Arsenal 5 Spurs 2

I’m glad I don’t bet on Arsenal. When you expect them to step up against Milan they shrink away and collapse. When you think there will be a reaction to that horror show they produce an insipid performance and slip out of the cup. And when you fear things will only go from bad to worse against an in-form Spurs… they produce their best display of the season and steam-roller their way to victory.

Oh, how Spurs must have thought the points were in the bag at 2-0. Our defence had produced heart-in-the -mouth moments whenever it was called into action and, although we’d looked threatening going forwards, it seemed to be because we were committing all 11 players over the half-way line judging by how vulnerable we looked on the counter.

No-one would have been surprised if we’d completely collapsed at that stage but instead the pace went up higher, the effort pushed further and Spurs (justifiably the third best team in the land, remember) couldn’t cope. Sagna’s header was the least we deserved and Robin’s equaliser capped a mini-comeback with pure class.

So often in these situations it is us on the receiving end of a turnaround score and switches in personnel that exploit our weaknesses further. But half-time brought changes by Redknapp to flood the midfield which rather than stemming the tide just handed even more of the initiative to us.

Any fear the break would disrupt our rhythm were groundless and we picked up where we left off, Rosicky’s goal just rewards for a brilliant performance. Cue Theo. In some ways he typifies the scizophrenic nature of this team. At times he looked truly awful – at one stage he seemed to sub-consciously accept his pass would inevitably land where it shouldn’t so he just saved everyone the effort and kicked it a yard to a group of three Spurs players.

And yet then he comes up with a cool and calm finish for the fourth – even managing to recover his own mis-control in the same movement – and capped another slick counter attack with his second and our fifth.

When I saw the starting line up I was surprised to see Theo start rather than the Ox or Gervinho and in his post-match comments Wenger acknowledged the grief Walcott was getting from the crowd. But credit to the manager for sticking with him and Theo himself for rising above the criticism to deliver the goods when it mattered most.

More of the same, please...
Overall this was far better than I hoped for even in my most optimistic daydreams. The poor early defending aside (let’s be generous and put that down to Koscielny finding his feet after injury and Vermaelen re-adjusting to his normal position), we were tenacious and determined, the movement in attack was far greater than we’ve come to expect and we closed the game down well. A three-goal cushion helps in that regard but we’ve let bigger winning margins slip before.

Despite my glee at the result, part of me can’t help but wonder why this level of performance is the exception rather than the rule. You can’t put it down to rising to the occasion considering we’ve floundered on big stages already this year. Wenger supposedly threw his nut at the training ground before last weekend’s loss so it wasn’t a response to that and it certainly isn’t because we’re in confident mood. Maybe it was just the sunshine and the lush playing surface.

Whatever, we’ve now got 12 league games remaining and need to use this performance as the benchmark for what this team can produce when it puts its mind to it. Let’s try to leave the questions about the fundamental flaws of the squad and set-up until the end of the season when we can really do something about it. Now we just need to repeat the level of commitment, effort and will-to-win shown today until the final whistle blows on the campaign. Doing that will earn us a Champions League position.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Farewell, Arshavin, the idol that never was

So Andrei Arshavin has left after all. The quirky (horrible word, but it sums him up) little chubster who should have stepped into the shoes of Freddie Ljungberg to become our next cult hero but whose time at Arsenal turned into a case of what might have been.

Wenger’s role in killing off his Arsenal career through one of his strangest selection choices should not be overlooked.

The FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea in 2009 was our biggest game of the season at that stage. Arshavin was a player on form who had come in January and helped to kickstart our flagging season. But he was left on the bench, we lost the game and the chance to make it clear he was a key part of our team was lost. Yes, days later Arshavin scored four at Anfield so it might not appear to have been such a big deal but the real impact was long-term – the message it gave was Wenger didn’t trust him on the bigger stage.

People will say Arshavin never showed enough effort or work ethic to overcome whatever obstacles Wenger put in his path. He never looked willing to get his weight down enough to pull off a shirt twirling goal celebration and was indulged too much. But he played as a central striker at times without complaint and has he ever not been carrying too much timber in his career? We knew what we were getting when we signed him – we didn’t handle him well enough to make him reach the heights he should have. Think back to his performances at Euro 2008 and, although there might have been a touch of ‘one tournament wonder’, ask why we couldn’t get him to reproduce the same form.

As Arseblog sums up neatly today, it’s another odd piece of transfer business by the club coming at a very odd moment in our season. I say transfer business but, of course, it isn’t – it’s loan business. Which is increasingly becoming our favoured, perhaps only, route of shifting out players who no longer fit into Wenger’s plans. Following in the footsteps of Bendtner, Denilson and Vela this season, Arshavin is now plying his trade with another club while we have no money to show for it beyond, presumably, the saving of wages. He may go in the summer and that would be the first time we could use the income anyway but why can’t we convince people to buy our players?

Then again, perhaps it’s part of a cunning ploy – maybe they’ll be returning in the summer while Wenger is exiting.

Friday 24 February 2012

Tell us the plan, Stan / derby depression

With a board meeting held yesterday, I was hoping we’d hear something direct from the owner. But no, Silent Stan has so far lived up to his moniker and stayed in the shadows despite a timely trip to London.

I can’t imagine anything worse than having Arsenal represented by a self-publicist like Mohammed Al Fayed and wholeheartedly agree that staying out of the limelight is the best approach for directors.

But when you’ve heard nothing of substance from the man who controls the majority of the club since he took control, it leads to inevitable questions about what the grand plan is.

We’re currently going through another period of scrutiny and criticism that is becoming more and more regular as we struggle to regain the form of Wenger’s pre-Ashburton years.

The crisis of confidence shown by the players during these slumps is reflected in supporters. We don’t know what we’re aiming for or how we’re going to get there. Is the way we’re doing business at the moment – which seems to involve selling our best players every summer and paying grand sums to a lot of mediocre squad players – going to continue? Is that what the club now takes as success if it means we remain financially self-sufficient?

Whether it is from Kroenke’s mouth or Ivan Gazidis’, now would be the perfect opportunity to set out the ‘vision’. It could come at the end of season but we need clarity, or at least a reason to think brighter days are ahead, now. The announcement yesterday on season ticket prices being frozen is welcome enough but the masses need more than that to keep (or regain) the faith. We should be aiming at being the best club in England, Europe, the world. We have the potential but who knows if that’s even the ambition.

Derby depression
I can’t remember going into a North London derby with less confidence than Sunday’s match. It’s bizarre to think children getting into football now will find it surprising that Spurs have finished behind us for the last, erm, million years.

Following the misery in Milan, last week’s defeat at Sunderland was typical of our usually inability to thrive in adversity and use a big loss or psychological blow as inspiration. Even Arsene supposedly trying his own version of the hairdryer at the training ground failed to do the trick.

A spanking at the weekend to Spurs may be a signal that our dip will only get deeper and we won’t be able to recover until fourth spot is out of sight. The performances of each team so far this season suggest there is only one winner. My main source of hope is that Spurs start believing the hype and think the game is won before it’s even kicked off.

If it gets embarrassing, it’s probably best Stan stays silent and tries to slip away unnoticed.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Do you trust this board more than Wenger?

Milan 4 Arsenal 0

Wow, I wasn’t expecting that. Having described Milan as ‘very beatable’ in my post yesterday afternoon, our dismal performance proved me totally wrong.

Judging by verdicts passed by supporters and media after the game, I was in a minority and quite a few people were not surprised by the defeat. They saw it as the very definition of chickens coming home to roost after years of continually selling players and picking inferior replacements.

I agree it turned out to be a match that, had it been played on a computer, you would have paused and pressed restart.

After an opening 10 minutes that was steady at worst, Sagna played a pass to nobody, seemed to shrug at Walcott who was only barely nearby and then showed zero interest in recovering the situation.

It was a precursor to 80 more minutes where the effort was lacking throughout the side, the invention was non-existent and the will to win was nowhere. To make matters worse, there can be no excuse in missing key players – Wilshere apart, this was as strong as it gets.

But our form over the past month has been reasonable and didn’t offer any suggestion we would put such an abject display, so you can argue it was a freak result.

Plus, let’s remember we’ve done better than other favoured sides to reach this far in the competition. Compared to Man U, for example, we had a far stronger group to contend with and did the job required so our European campaign has not been a total disaster.

But it doesn’t escape the fact that, season by season, our team is declining and our targets get lower and lower.

What happens next?
Looking back on my posts from the end of last season my view was that Wenger should have been replaced given the years of repeated mistakes, his unwillingness to consider new ideas and that more players were getting worse than getting better under his guidance.

In some ways, ignoring my fury at the Blackburn debacle, my verdict has soothed somewhat this season despite everyone else’s ire increasing as results have barely improved.

Doubtless another collapse like last season’s March meltdown might re-strengthen my resolve that Wenger should go.

But what has changed is my view of the board. While in the past I thought their aspirations were being held back by the untouchable Wenger, now they appear just as clueless and unwilling to stop the rot.

I do look forward to the day Wenger is replaced. If nothing else, it will make supporting Arsenal a lot more interesting than the all-too predictable season we currently go through. But when there are no obvious candidates to fill his shoes, and when we have an American owner who remains silent in the shadows, removing him would lead to hope rather than expectation that we’d improve.

I don’t trust the board’s judgement more than I trust Wenger’s so who is to say they would pick a better manager than the one we already have?

Wednesday 15 February 2012

How to stop Arsene Wenger ever hiring you, by Dennis Bergkamp Esq / Milan thoughts

Oh, Dennis, what have you done?

My heart was trembling at the thought of you and Bouldie forming a mean, lean coaching double act if Pat Rice retires in the summer.

And then you go and say things like this to the Daily Telegraph:

“Sometimes you need more of a winning mentality than a passing mentality,” Bergkamp argues.

“I’m not sure Arsenal have enough of that in their players, when the attitude becomes more important than the ability just to pass the ball...

“…Sometimes I see their games and it’s always the same way of playing, a bit too predictable.”

Aaaargh!!! Yes, every sane supporter must agree with you what you’re saying but there is one man that runs the show round here and Arsene isn’t known for his love of dissenting voices.

Admittedly he also lauds the boss and the players as ‘fantastic’ but the headlines are out there now and I fear Dennis’ fate is sealed – we won’t be seeing him back at Ashburton Grove any time soon.

More’s the pity as he speaks real sense and we could do with some fresh thinking – the interview is heartily recommended.

Beware Milan’s jokers in the pack
I wish I had more time to preview tonight’s game. Having seen Milan’s last few games on TV they look very beatable.

But as any Milan fan would point out they have been missing half a team, including Kevin Prince Boateng and, for a match and a half after getting sent off, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Given Pato is not expected to return from injury and Robinho’s form is truly dreadful, these are the two that worry me. We could get sucked into a tedious stalemate only for one of them to come up with a touch of genius and make a difference.

Otherwise, let’s hope the boys believe in themselves. We’ve already helped knock out the German champions when no-one really expected us to – we can do the same to Italy’s finest.

Sunday 12 February 2012

A great response to a distasteful opener

Sunderland 1 Arsenal 2

The positive vibes continue to grow and a one-nil down, two-one up, injury time victory only makes things more encouraging. One team came to play football at the Stadium of Light yesterday and, while we couldn’t convert our domination of possession into clear-cut chances, Arsenal deserve real credit for not being thrown off course by conceding first.

Am I the only person to find Sunderland’s goal unsporting bordering on the shameful?

There was a debate in midweek on Radio 5 about the most sporting gesture people had ever seen on a football pitch and I struggled to think of any recent examples. Coming on a day dominated by the escalating Evra-Suarez enmity, the reaction of James McLean in exploiting Mertesacker’s obvious injury was – without wishing to go all Daily Mail – another, albeit smaller, example of behaviour typical in a sport that no longer values sportsmanship. Though having said that, had the tables been turned and we’d scored that goal I expect there would have been an outcry.

All three substitutions by Wenger were good decisions but the one that stood out was picking Ramsey to replace the BFG. Although you might think it was natural to start chasing the game having just gone a goal down, I thought he may have been tempted, with still 20 minutes to go, to bring on Gibbs in anticipation of the home side finding inspiration from taking the lead.

Instead, boldness paid off. We continued to take the game to Sunderland and, thanks to the invaluable contributions of the two other subs Arshavin and Henry, grabbed a very satisfying win.

Small margins
We live in a fickle world, of course, and had Sunderland come out of their shells and scored again I would no doubt have been bemoaning Ramsey’s arrival. And had Henry not managed to pop up with his goal, I would have been lamenting not taking more than a point from a match we dominated. But these are the fine margins we operate in and currently things are going our way.

This was the first of eight or nine tricky fixtures and we’ve started in the best possible way. Fourth spot remains achievable if we continue to build our confidence and avoid the kind of brain-freezes that cost us points at Swansea. You can’t escape the feeling the spirit that pushed us to victory yesterday remains brittle and one ‘devastating’ defeat could quickly lead to two, three or four.

But for now we are on an upward trajectory and the Milan game on Wednesday is one we can look forward to.

Sunday 5 February 2012

A chance to bask in the positives

Arsenal 7 Blackburn Rovers 1

There haven’t been many opportunities this season to sit back and enjoy the show when watching the Arsenal. Yesterday provided one thanks to as comprehensive a win as we’ve managed in years. So let’s cast off the pessimism for at least a day and focus on the good stuff.

The biggest positive (again) was the performance of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

It’s dangerous to draw conclusions before he’s started even 10 games in an Arsenal shirt but he looks like a very special talent.

As well as his obvious pace and dribbling skill, it’s his awareness, decision-making and determination that have stood out.

His two finishes yesterday showed real maturity and at times, oddly, he reminded me of Wayne Rooney in his style – strong, well balanced and clever with the ball. Thankfully he doesn’t look to share the same personality.

I wasn’t in the mood to listen to Arsene when, after Substitutiongate, he reminded everyone that he was the one who signed the Ox.

But, since I’m feeling positive, now’s my chance to pay tribute to the boss’s willingness to invest heavily in youth when he thinks it’s worth it. If the Ox can reproduce the kind of performances he’s shown so far for months and seasons to come we’ll have quite a player on our hands.

Other positives yesterday included Coquelin who again impressed at right back, Van Persie (who won’t get overshadowed despite scoring a hat-trick very often) and Arteta who played at his Rolls Royce best. Even the goal we conceded wasn’t a bad one.

Rubbish bin bags
For no particular reason, but probably linked to the spurious stories about a bin bag protest and everyone’s continued anger at slipping to seventh in the league, over the last few days I’ve been feeling more sympathetic towards Wenger.

Things aren’t as bleak as our position in the table suggested. The comeback against Villa and decent performance against Bolton in midweek showed Wenger does have a talented squad which has a chance to make the top four if our best players stay fit and everyone shows the desire required.

Yesterday we demonstrated exactly what will be required. The movement off the ball was top class, the second and third goals were two of the best I can recall in recent seasons and we looked focused for the entire 90 minutes.

All of this comes with the huge caveat that it was against a Blackburn team that is rightly threatened by relegation, mired by boardroom weirdness and that played for 10 men for the majority of the match.

But the attitude we showed was refreshingly determined. Had Blackburn even tried to park the bus we would have just smashed in the windows, hacked out the handbrake and pushed it out of the way.