The script was written by every pundit that was waiting for us to fall. We can’t beat the big sides, our defence won’t stand up to their threat, we don’t have the firepower up front to challenge the toughest of defences and our lack of squad depth means our legs will go. That was the message.

Well, those ‘analysts’ will be smiling today. Our worst display of the season (coming a few days after our previous worst) against a team that you cannot afford to gift wrap goals to led to a pasting that will sting the squad to the core. Yes, we scored three, and yes, we could have scored more were it not for some quite appalling offside decisions (and a denied penalty), but ultimately we went up to Manchester and presented them with a string of freebies that you can’t recover from. Every time we scored and raised hope again, they went up the other end and snuffed us out. They could have scored more.

When you play the top sides, particularly away from home, you cannot afford to play that carelessly, plain and simple. We worked our socks off and kept fighting from two goals down, desperate to get back into the game, and the players should be praised for that after a tough week, physically and mentally. But equally, it was a big occasion and they pressed the self destruct button again.

Having said all of that, and this will come as no surprise to people who have read my views before and know that I’m someone who tends to see the sunny side of things where possible, I do strongly disagree with the simplistic conclusions that are being drawn from the game. Let’s break them down.

City put down a marker and will now start to steamroller the league, smashing us and everyone else out of their way

City have been doing this to teams all season at the Etihad. They hammered United, put six past Spurs, and seven past Norwich. They’ve won all eight league fixtures they’ve played there. To put it another way, this isn’t the first ‘marker’ they’ve put down.

They are likely to end the season as top scorers (their tally of 47 is already 13 more than anyone else’s total), but their problem is at the other end. Even after yesterday, we have a better defensive record than them, and despite having only a knackered striker up front, we scored three and should have had more. That weakness tends to get exposed away from home, and they haven’t found it easy to follow up their ‘markers’ with wins on the road. After putting seven past Norwich, they lost at Chelsea. After hammering United, they drew at Stoke. After trouncing Spurs, they lost at Sunderland.

Like I said in a previous post, winning the big games means little if you follow up those wins by dropping points against the lesser lights. After beating us, United picked up two points from their next four games and disappeared off the radar. Of course it helps to win these big ones, but consistency is more important. So far, City have lacked that.

I had to laugh at one pundit’s assertion that if City replicate their home form away from Manchester, they will win the league. Well, duh. That’s like saying ‘if team X wins all the games they aren’t currently winning, they’ll do well’. These people are paid for that kind of stunning analysis.

Arsenal will now lose to Chelsea and collapse

What I am about to say is not with the benefit of hindsight, because it is something I and many others were saying before yesterday’s game. We were always more likely to get a result from Chelsea than from City. We’re at home, Chelsea are not as good as City (I know Chelsea are ahead in the league, but they won’t be by the end of the season), but more importantly than either of those, we’ll be rested. If the pundits are right about one thing, it is that in certain areas (either end of the pitch), we’re short on numbers, which means we can’t play Everton, Napoli and City in six days without it having a tangible effect. Yesterday, it felt like our defensive aberrations were borne of mental tiredness in particular, and given our excellent prior record at the back, there is reason to believe it was an anomaly.

As for the predicted tailspin, it is worth noting that this Arsenal side is not as prone to wallowing in a bad result as they have previously. We haven’t lost back to back domestic games in nearly two years – you have to go all the way back to January 2012, and defeats to Swansea and Man United for the last time it happened. It is a commonly peddled (and outdated) myth that this team collapses after losing and loses again. Sorry to back my argument up with facts, pundits, but it hasn’t happened in a long time.

As for our domestic defeats this season, we’ve come back hard each time. After losing to Villa, we went on a seven match winning streak. Defeat to Chelsea in the Capital One Cup was followed with a neutering of Suarez and Lewandowski as we beat Liverpool and then Dortmund. Defeat to United was followed with four victories on the spin, all clean sheets. This team is made of sterner stuff than many think.

——

I’m not going to deny that yesterday was painful. Of course it was. We defended poorly, and saw our lead eroded such that a loss to Chelsea will see us slip off the top spot for Christmas. After everything we’ve achieved already this season, that would hurt. But if Liverpool are being talked up as title candidates because they are ‘up there’, then we have to be taken seriously too.

Bring on Chelsea. We’ll be ready.

 

With every passing week, every Arsenal win, every dropped point by a rival strengthening our position at the top of the league, it becomes more curious that the North London title challenge is considered unworthy, temporary and liable to fall apart at any moment. Inconsistency, a poor defence, a friendly fixture list – these arguments have been crushed by impressive results in the most testing period of the season thus far – so instead the focus is placed on the fact we are yet to face our two most likely rivals – Chelsea and Manchester City.

It is a fair point – we haven’t played either team. But how much stock should really be put on the order of the fixture list, when we are only a handful of games from the halfway mark and the point at which everyone has played everyone else? Will the league really be determined by these clashes? It is one of a few myths laid forward by television coverage, which makes sense since they stand to gain the most from the belief that such matches are the ultimate deciders.

Time for a deconstruction.

Myth 1 – The ‘Top 4′ mini league is the deciding factor

In the 2008/09 season, the top four was the (at the time traditional) ‘Big Four’ – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. At the end of the season, their mini-league looked like this:

0809

Well, at least Liverpool have won *a* league in the last 20 years

Liverpool had an exceptional season, and we did pretty well too (except for our defensive record – we lost 4-1 at home to Chelsea and drew 4-4 with Liverpool that year). But who won the league? United, at a canter. Not only that, but they finished a mammoth 18 points ahead of us.

In case you think this is a statistical anomaly, and in that season United lost only against those rivals, think again. They dropped points to Everton, Villa and Spurs (5th, 6th and 8th), and lost to Fulham (7th). West Ham, in ninth, were the top team they did the double over.

So how on earth did they win the league? Simple. Their record against the top eight was appalling, but their record against the bottom twelve was nothing short of extraordinary. After drawing at (eventually relegated) Newcastle on the opening day, they went on to win all 23 of their remaining games against teams who finished 9th-20th. Against the bottom twelve, they picked up an ridiculous 70 points from 72.

I wonder if the pundits were writing off their chances that year, based on their inability to produce the goods in The Big Games™? If they did, they ended up with egg on their faces as United’s tally of 90 points hasn’t been matched since.

Consistency is the key. It doesn’t matter if your rivals beat you, if they drop points in matches you win. United and Arsenal are again the perfect example. Only a couple of weeks ago, United won at Old Trafford to close the gap from eight points to five. Fast forward two games, and both teams have played Cardiff and another team in the top half. Arsenal won both, United drew both and the gap is now an even wider nine points. Their victory is a hollow one, as the advantage gained has been eroded almost instantly. That is the most striking thing about United this season – in previous years they would ruthlessly dispatch the lesser lights, but now those teams don’t fear them, stand up to them, and take points from them.

Their malaise brings me neatly to the second myth…

Myth 2 – It is all about the unbeaten runs

You know what really kills title challenges? Too many draws.

I think most people would agree that United are struggling, but did you know that they are on a seven match league unbeaten run? Given our defeat to them just a few short weeks ago, we know that we cannot boast the same, yet our form is more effective because we are not drawing matches.

This was best highlighted a couple of years ago, during our annual “give Spurs a big lead, wait until they are sure it is Their Season™ and start to gloat, before watching them fold like diarrhetic origami as we surge past” trick. The sides played back to back on a Sunday afternoon, and Sky opened their analysis by looking at the form of the pair. The way they did it still sticks in my craw today. Richard Keys (yes, he was still there), said:

“Arsenal have lost three of their last seven, while Spurs are unbeaten in that time.”

I remember that sentence to this day. The implication was clear – their form was a lot better than ours, a conclusion that would be backed up with one look at the respective results. Right?

Wrong.

Spurs’ unbeaten run consisted of two wins and five draws (11 points), while our three losses were offset by four wins (12 points). We had a better points tally for the exact period Sky were talking about. Aside from the rather obvious slant on reality, it was a clear example of pundits not knowing (or not caring) about what actually matters.

It is all about the wins, wins, wins. Ahead of a pair of tough fixtures, I often hear fans declare that they would settle for a pair of draws. I wouldn’t. I’d much rather we won one and lost one, and took the extra point on offer for doing so. Occasional losses are perfectly acceptable when they merely punctuate a winning streak.

The only team that ever won the Premiership with a high number of draws was the Invincibles. Fun fact – eight of the nine winners since actually won more matches – Arsenal’s tally of 26 wins that season is a couple short of what it usually takes. Of course, that is a statistical anomaly because our draws replaced the losses of others, but you have to wonder if that squad could have set record tallies had they taken a few more risks, winning a few more games at the cost of also losing a few. However, had they done so, they wouldn’t have a remarkable and unprecedented (in the modern era) achievement, so it would be a bit churlish to complain.

I'm an optimist. What of it?

I’m an optimist. What of it?

So what are the keys?

  • Don’t settle for a draw – risk losing to give yourself the best chance of winning. Like him or loathe him, Alex Ferguson knew this better than most, and United would rarely settle for draws under him. A point a game saves you from relegation, a draw every other game makes you Everton. This point is why I think Man City are a bigger threat than Chelsea – City attack with abandon and won’t draw many games as a result.
  • Win your home games. I know I’ve mentioned United a lot in this post, but they feature in the perfect example of this. Three seasons ago, they won only five of their nineteen away games, a pretty pathetic record that Blackpool, who finished 19th that season and went down, matched. But they made up for it with a 18-1-0 record at home and won the league by nine points.
  • Keep concentrated at the back. Saturday was the perfect example of a game that could have ended in a disappointing draw, but Szczesny pulled off a remarkable save at 1-0, preserving our lead, and giving us the platform to finish off the game. Chelsea did the same thing under Mourinho (in his first spell) to the extent that teams lost the belief they could ever score. It is a handy trick to have.

Are Arsenal on course?

I’m not going to sit here and say that we are going to win the league. But I am going to say that we can. We aren’t drawing matches (just the one so far), we’ve won ten games already (two more than anyone else), and since that opening day false start against Villa we have an unblemished home record. We have the joint best defensive record and have just gone through an extremely testing month conceding only a single goal, and that from a set piece.

The puzzle is coming together. If the others continue to slip on every banana skin they come across, it won’t matter what they do when they play us. Those matches, like the opinions of Hansen, Shearer and the other bilge merchants out there, will have become an irrelevance.

 

This isn’t quite going to the script, is it?

There was a moment yesterday that left me open-mouthed. Listening to the game on Five Live (a preferable option to most Sky commentators), with around ten minutes to go, our 1-0 lead over Spurs was being described as the ‘surprise of the season’, as if we were some plucky club leading a Premiership giant in the cup, hanging on by the tips of our fingernails. If that doesn’t speak of a narrative, I’m not sure what does.

Reality does not always sit in line with the populist story. In this case, Spurs were supposedly going to rampage through the league with their battery of new signings, putting in a serious title challenge while leaving Arsenal in their wake (stop me when you’ve heard this before). At the same time, a club that has finished above them for 16 successive years despite many such tales and premonitions, and put ten goals past them in the preceding two equivalent fixtures, had absolutely no chance of winning a home game.

The script was pre-written, just as it was against Fenerbahce, a tie some were almost willing us to lose so that they could fill their boots with juicy attacks and conclusions of dire failure and incompetence. This time, it was all about the fabled power shift, and how the transfer tactics of the two clubs (opposites as they have been so far this summer) fell completely and utterly in the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ bracket. In fairness, Wenger did set himself up for a fall a little in his press conference on Friday, when he spoke of how only the actions on the pitch really mattered. Had we lost the game, those words may have come back to haunt him.

But we did not lose the game, nor did we deserve to. The final moments may have been gritty, determined and tight, but the first seventy saw us in complete control. The game could have been over by half time and 1-0 flattered Spurs at the break, Giroud’s neat finish after a fine team move showing the value of having players on the same wavelength, with an understanding that only continuity can bring. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not using the game as evidence that signings should not have been made by now, but as Wenger himself said, throwing a collection of fresh signings straight into a team does not always make for a cohesive display.

Once again, Giroud led the line magnificently, and the midfield were terrific, including Flamini, who hustled, harried and most importantly led once he came on for his second club debut. Wenger again referenced the fact that players are too often judged based solely on their price after the game, joking that he wished Flamini has cost £25m to satisfy some quarters.

A fair point indeed – Flamini may not have been the most inspiring signing at first glance, but a 29 year old player with a big heart in a position we needed more numbers in is a bit of a no brainer, particularly when you can capture him on a free. For me, the discontent was never really about Flamini in any case, but the fear that his signing meant that the chequebook was closed, and the squad gaps would be filled only with stopgap solutions. A welcome signing if it supports others, less so if it the only business conducted.

Today, of course, we will see what the summer leaves us with, as the transfer window finally closes. I’m not going to speculate on the action we may do, I don’t have any insider knowledge of any kind and doubt I would share it anyway if I did, but it is likely to be busy for a lot of clubs and worth keeping an eye on. Some staggering names have been mentioned but the nature of the beast means I’m not getting excited until official announcements are made. That is the plan, anyway.

But, as Wenger said, the most important thing is what happens on the pitch, and since the Villa aberration, the players have responded magnificently, with four impressive and deserved wins moving us into September in pretty good shape. Of course, it was always reasonable to think we would start the season well, despite what large sections of the press told us. This is, after all, the same crop of players that ended last season so strongly, and with no major departures in the summer, there was no reason to think we wouldn’t hit the ground running once again. The worry has always been what happens in November when we’re short of 5-6 players through injury, a concern that could still do with being alleviated today. We shall see.

But yesterday was not about transfers (except to laugh at the mediocrity of some of that shower’s recruits). It was about showing our neighbours that they can’t just expect to waltz past us because they’ve been flashing their knickers around Europe all summer like Jodie Marsh on holiday. Our belts might be tighter and our lips more sealed, but class will out.

North London is red. As always.

 

It has been nearly six months since I last wrote in here. Back in February, the combination of a busy job, a blossoming side project, and becoming a parent for the third time meant that something had to take a back seat. Sadly I missed out on writing about another entertaining Spurs collapse, but feel free to read back to pretty much any other March-May period in recent years and you’ll get a similar gist.

Once the season ended, and the summer rolled around, I took a more deliberate step away. You see, I just can’t get involved in the summer madness anymore – I used to, but back then there were short news bulletins, and it seemed that you could trust what you were reading and hearing a lot more than you can now. I hesitate to say that misinformation (or bullshit, depending on your point of view) has become an artform, but it is certainly more prevalent than at any other time I am aware of. Sky Sports News, and their collection of slimy used car dealers masquerading as transfer ‘experts’, is not for me.

Put simply, I didn’t want to get involved in it. I have no interest in judging our squad in June, or in commenting on a transfer rumour that is likely planted by agents, embellished by journalists struggling to fill columns, and developed by all of us, scratching around for the crumbs of another potential arrival. That isn’t to say all people should switch off – I just know it would drive me potty if I didn’t.

But we are now only around 24 hours away from our opening match, so judging the action (or inaction) of the summer is a lot fairer. I know the transfer window has a couple of weeks left to run, but we’ve got tough (and key) games between now and then, and we should be going into those games with a squad full of confidence and promise.

So are we?

Well, for me there is good news and bad news. The bad news is obvious – we haven’t signed anyone despite some pretty obvious deficiencies in the squad, exposed with painful clarity at times last season. Well, I say we haven’t signed anyone – we did pick up Yaya Sanogo, but despite the raw talent he has, he’ll do well to overcome the confidence shaker of being the poster boy for all that is wrong with our transfer policy. Fine as a supplementary ‘oh good, we’re still thinking long-term as well as short-term‘ signing, but not as an isolated arrival.

The good bit is that we haven’t lost a first team regular. Gervinho was the closest, but compared to recent seasons we have a settled squad, and any decent additions would be exactly that, rather than replacements for the stars on their way out. In the last ten years, we have only had a summer without a top name departure three times, and on both other occasions we went on to have excellent campaigns.

One of those was actually the summer of 2003, which led to the Invincibles season, and believe it or not, we were actually being written off before that campaign because we had ‘only’ signed one first team player (Lehmann). But the difference of that era is that we hadn’t sold major players in the preceding four summers either, so the squad was already loaded with players of the highest calibre.

We have a good set of talent in the present day, and some of them (Ramsey and Giroud in particular) go into the season in fine form. But all over the park, we are a single injury away from a panic. It isn’t that we would have to rely on someone substandard, but in some cases we would struggle to figure out who is even capable of playing in that position in the first place. Ultimately, we may start the season well, thanks to the form, experience and ability of the top players at the club, but injuries in the wrong place (an inevitability) could bring the house crashing down.

So how will we do?

I realise I’m sitting on the fence a little, so here is my prediction.

We will finish fourth. Exciting, huh?

Not the most thrilling or groundbreaking prediction, I grant you, but I can’t see any other outcome. City, United and Chelsea are likely to be vying for the title, and if, as I suspect, Spurs lose Bale, they won’t be half the team this time around – he single-handedly won them so many games at the end of last season and they won’t get that back. As for Liverpool, they are in their usual state of disarray.

I would not be surprised if there were ten points above us to third, and ten points below us to fifth. I can see the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ being further apart than ever, with us squarely in between them.

I’m loathed to predict a cup run, because I feel that is something you do when you realise the league isn’t going to go your way and you’re scrabbling around for an alternative hope to cling to, i.e. the sort of thing Spurs and Liverpool do. Maybe I’ll say we can surprise a few in the Champions League this season, although we have to get past a tricky (and tiring) qualifier first.

The great frustration is that it feels like we could join the elite trio and really challenge for honours if only we used the resources at our disposal to plug the gaps in the squad that are obvious to all. Although Wenger has signed his share of flops over the last few years, he has also made some fantastic value-for-money signings in key positions. Three more of those and I’d be really optimistic going into the new season. Of course, we may still do that before the end of August but I highly doubt we’ll get more than one more arrival.

I like to be optimistic going into a new season. Everyone starts again, players can step up, anything is possible. I think most fans feel the same way – there is a certain thrill of believing that this year could be a magical one. But while I’m excited to have Arsenal back, I’m not expecting us to be pulling up any trees. Three months have passed since our victory over Newcastle (still isn’t 1-1, by the way), and we’ve been maddeningly inactive. I won’t pretend to understand the complexities of transfers but it is the same for everyone, and most others seem to find a way to get it done.

Overall, this feels like a massive missed opportunity. We looked such a unit at the end of last season and we’ve lost no one of great note in the summer. A few arrivals and we’d be drooling at the prospect of what we could achieve. Instead, it all feels a bit flat. I suspect if results go against us early, that apathetic mood will quickly turn to ire in the stands, and it will not be pretty.

All we can hope is that we are surprised, and the ‘super quality’ within the squad steps up and backs the faith Wenger has so clearly loaded them with. For everyone’s sake.

 

The hours that have followed the Blackburn defeat have not been much fun. Recriminations have been fast and fierce, arguments have erupted all over the place and certain segments of the press corp are swirling like vultures around a wounded animal. Players are aware that they have let themselves and the club down, the manager is coming under fire and fans are turning on each other. We’ve had better times.

At moments like this you need a siege mentality, a closing of ranks and a middle finger up to the rest of the footballing fraternity, while the club staggers to its feet, punch drunk but swinging for the fences. Instead, we have more infighting than I can ever remember, focused on the future of the man who has been at the helm for the last sixteen years. People will have you believe that fans are firmly in two camps, and two camps only – those who refuse to criticise Wenger and are desperate for him to stay, and those that insist he should have gone long ago. Although there are probably a fair chunk of people whose opinions can accurately be described by one of those two polarisations, I suspect the majority are somewhere in the intermediate, between believing in him but carrying doubts, and suspecting his time is closing but hoping for a glorious finale. Nothing is ever as black and white as the picture painted in the monochrome of the red top.

I’m not here about to declare myself to be on one side or another – I’m sad that there are sides at all. Battle lines have long since been drawn, but now they are reinforced with sandbags of bile. We’re all guilty of it to an extent – you see a post or a comment that you think is unreasonable or antagonistic towards what you believe, and you can react. Human nature, perhaps, but the anger is misplaced. Ultimately, whether we think Wenger is the man to lead the club forward, whether we think a replacement is urgently needed, whether we believe in each player or not, we all have one thing in common – we want the best for Arsenal Football Club. We’re on the same side.

It doesn’t always seem that way. One thing I will always object to is the needless abuse that is being flung around with increasing abandon. By all means state whatever opinion you hold, and vociferously defend it, but when people start describing our players and our manager with the strongest possible abusive insults a line has to be drawn. Arsene Wenger is not a cunt, as was written in the comments of my last piece. When did we start thinking such descriptions were acceptable? Save those terms for the deserving. John Terry. El Hadji Diouf. James Blunt.

People with differing opinions are not the enemy. Spurs are the enemy. Chelsea are the enemy. Mike Dean is the enemy. Interesting debate is available with those holding a happier or darker perspective on the club’s situation, if you look for it. I follow plenty of people on Twitter whose outlook is radically different from mine – I read and engage with what they have to say because although I often disagree with their point of view, they express it in a thought provoking and intelligent way. Sometimes that debate gets a little spiky but if it ever developed into abuse I’d make sure we never crossed paths again (or at least I’d try to – Twitter has a habit of making even the blocked appear on one’s timeline – no matter how much I try to exclude anything written by Barton or Morgan, the two wastes of oxygen still invade).

Put another way – if you need to vent, pick an appropriate target. While people connected to our club might frustrate, they’re still ours. The rest of the packed (or recently slightly gappy) stadium are just more of us. Anger is being woefully misplaced.

All the more ironic, then, that some who fire anger in an unhelpful direction are critiquing Wenger for doing likewise in a press conference earlier today. Even the claim that his anger was as inaccurately targeted as a Gervinho shot is up for debate, as the bone of contention was an unfounded newspaper story about a prospective new contract, a piece that was planted with the clear and obvious aim of turning an unsettled fanbase outright hostile. But it all adds to the story that the press gleefully lap up.

Meltdown, they say. He’s losing it, they claim. Actually, if you watch the video you’ll see mild irritation at best, a bit of crankiness after sixteen years of banal questions and unhelpful spin. I don’t have a problem with that, and I suspect that few do. His tetchy demeanour isn’t the real story, and wouldn’t even get a mention if we were on better form.

But we’re not. As Arseblogger pointed out on Radio 5 this evening, people are quick to jump down his throat because of their overall frustration – at the state of the squad, at the two cup defeats to lower league opposition, at the league position, at the directionless feel of the football club as a whole.

That is the crux, and that frustration is shared between everyone connected to the club. The rest is fluff – don’t go believing that Wenger is losing it because he calls a journalist out on an fuse-lit plant of a story. Don’t dish out abuse to a man who, whatever you think of our (and his) malaise, deserves respect. We’re better than that. We’re Arsenal.

A sickly Arsenal, granted. But Arsenal nonetheless.