Feb 172013

It is difficult to know where to begin with a defeat like that. I’m going to avoid a blow by blow account of the game – by now you know and are probably sick of the details. We had a ton of possession, a stackload of corners, but came up against an excellent keeper, an organised defence, and got sucker punched at the other end.

None of those facts are rare in cup competition – they are the recipe for most upsets. But for a decade and a half, Wenger’s Arsenal have avoided defeat in such circumstances, always finding enough to earn at least of replay on those danger days, enabling us to chuckle at the Liverpools and Spurs of this world, regularly dumped out by lower league opposition. None of us are laughing tonight.

The post match reaction has been understandably hostile. I do feel that some of the anger is misplaced, particularly at the decision to rotate a few players. I’ve seen many comments that we were ‘prioritising Bayern over Blackburn‘ which isn’t something I buy into. The facts are simple – we are playing the Bundesliga giants three days after a Championship side, and if we were looking to win both matches (as we should be), we should logically play the strongest possible team against the Germans and rotate against Blackburn, in the knowledge that a team of eleven internationals should have it within them to defeat a side who until recently have been the laughing stock of football.

Today’s problem was not that we rotated – we still fielded a team that would be expected to win – but that the eleven that started the game did not do what was expected of them, did not perform at the level required of them. Football is a squad game and the notion that we should play our strongest eleven in every game is a foolish one. We won’t beat Bayern without Wilshere, Cazorla and Walcott – we can and should still defeat any Championship side at home in those circumstances. That isn’t complacency, that isn’t believing we just have to turn up to win, that is just the opinion that if the eleven that began the game had played to the standard we demand from them, and that they are capable of, we’d still be in the cup. They didn’t, and we aren’t.

A big problem with this Arsenal side is the inability to learn from past mistakes. I don’t believe that players don’t try, but performances vary too wildly in intensity, which has a similar visual effect. I’ve lost count of the number of times that players and staff have come out after games admitting that opponents had been underestimated, which is disappointing the first time and inexcusable on every subsequent occasion. I sincerely hope that the club has more sense than to allow such quotes to appear this week but you never know with our PR team. They did, after all, create a poll asking if fans would prefer fourth place or a trophy. Who are we, Spurs? Come on.

Where do we go from here? Well, to Bayern on Tuesday. I’m not saying for a moment we brush this under the carpet, but no players or staff will change before the summer, so any speculation on significant changes are moot at this point, and emotions are running too high to even have a rational discussion in those areas without getting lost in a sea of shouting. We must deal with what we have until then – a Champions League campaign that may or may not be short lived and a battle for fourth. Is that ideal? Not in the slightest – it is actually faintly depressing to type – but we are where we are and no amount of complaining will change it. The season needs rescuing in the meantime.

One of my biggest fears is that when he finally leaves, Wenger’s reign as Arsenal boss will be remembered for days like this, rather than the glorious and unprecedented success he has also brought. I hope it never gets that bad. For some, it already has. I doubt I could ever get to that stage – there have been too many good times.

Some more fun times wouldn’t hurt. Tuesday would be a good place to start.

Jan 012013

Firstly, Happy New Year to one and all. You are seeing one of my resolutions in action by reading this – having not posted anything on here since mid November (and a thumping 5-2 win over Spurs) I’m starting 2013 by making an attempt to return to writing. It is, however, something of a rant-driven return. A little spleen venting never hurt anyone, right?

I have to confess to feeling extremely frustrated whenever I turn on sports channels these days. I don’t just mean Sky Sports News, but everyone. Without wishing to hark back to ‘the good old days’, I remember a time where the whole week built up to a match, you’d watch the game, and then possibly catch the highlights later, with a bit of analysis thrown in. Then, you’d flick through the papers as you built up to the next one. It was simple, it was easy, it was fun.

Maybe I had a different perspective at the time, being considerably younger, but it certainly seemed that there was less ‘fluff around the edges’ in the analysis. By that I mean that the likes of Match of the Day would show the game, chat about the incidents and move on. Interviewers would ask about the performance and perhaps the wider context of the league. Thrilling games were enjoyed.

These days, it seems no analysis is complete without sowing the seeds of a story that can be talked about for the rest of the week. It makes sense in a way – when broadcasters only had to worry about a single highlights package, they did exactly that. But with 24 hours news coverage, they need something to talk about in between, so the focus shifts to the controversial, to the debatable, and often to the banal. Witness the aftermath of the victory over Newcastle on Saturday evening. We had just been treated to a remarkable 7-3 victory, one of the ridiculous scorelines becoming associated with us these days, and despite limited time to talk about it, and ten goals to get through, the main focus was Theo Walcott’s contract.

Let me repeat – we had just witnessed a game that finished 7-3, and they were talking about (in fact, idly speculating on) a player’s potential contract decisions. Nothing had changed, no more information had been gleaned, both club and player were continuing their stance, and it wasn’t even the first hattrick he had scored this season.

There are times where such discussion is appropriate – if the player says something controversial, if the manager suggests a change in the player’s future, or perhaps simply if the match ended as a 0-0 snoozefest and there is nothing else to speak of. But surely not here.

Yet talk they do, and talk many do. It saps the life and fun out of the ninety minutes on offer to spend the rest of the week worried about the peripherals – after Saturday’s game I read plenty of fans speaking about Walcott’s hattrick without enjoyment, as if it had been scored for someone else. No, it was for us, and it won us the match. Why can’t we just find the positives in that for a change, rather than worrying about how many more times it will happen?

We are in the midst of perhaps the best fortnight of any season – the Christmas period is always packed with matches (and usually goals, for some reason), games come in a constant stream, and just as you feel January coming on and the thrill dissipating, along comes the third round of the FA Cup, which remains my favourite day of the entire campaign. It is a fabulous time to be a football fan.

But ask yourself this – what was your first football-related thought today? Was it the opening of the transfer window, or the fact we’ve got a match in a few hours against a Southampton side playing better than their results suggest? I hope the latter, but the news coverage is very much focused the other way. Sky, and their infernal ‘transfer ticker’, drive me nuts with a stream of stories that will mostly end up being agent plants, and the press write in the same way. Is this really the most important thing going on?

Who cares if we win today, when there is the much more enticing prospect of a big name signing this month? The same sort of big name signing that is often planted to raise excitement levels, only for the player to sign an improved deal days later. Or perhaps we should analyse the body language of Theo Walcott again, and how much he claps the fans, rather than sitting back and enjoying the actual game?

I don’t get it. At heart we are all football fans, and it is on the field where the best experiences are had. Every wonderful memory is driven by the men in red and white (and variety of increasingly ugly away kits) doing something special on the grass, not by the men in suits negotiating with clubs, agents, players and families. So why is the majority of our time spent speculating and worrying about that? We choose to read uninformed talk of invisible action instead of discussing what is right in front of our eyes, and the very thing that made us so passionate about the game in the first place.

(There is an exception – reading the analysis of those who bring up points you haven’t thought of based on information you don’t have is interesting – but rare. We know who those people are, and theirs are fascinating pieces to read).

I realise I sound like a grumpy old man, and I realise that there are only so many ways you can analyse a game before running out of things to say, but perhaps that is the inherent flaw in 24 hour coverage – you have to fill in the gaps with ‘our sources tell us’, ‘we understand that’ and stories that are so fanciful that they just make you laugh.

So here’s the thing. If we sign someone this month, I’ll talk about it. If we sell someone this month, I’ll analyse it. If Theo signs a new contract, it’ll get a mention. I might even throw in some transfer window thoughts when the blasted thing finally shuts and Jim White can crawl back into his hole. But until then, I’m going to enjoy the games. Fancy joining me?

Nov 192012

The moment when Walcott scored the fifth and final goal in a 5-2 come-from-behind thumping of our nearest neighbours, who would finish the game with ten men having claimed beforehand that they had ‘closed the gap’, elicited a strange feeling – a repetitious one, an echo of a previous experience. Strangely familiar, if you will.

Of course, some experiences are worth repeating, which is why we all watched the game, and followed it up by chuckling in front of the highlights, particularly at the Spurs fans who cheered so joyously when they took an early lead, in the belief that the pre-game bravado was going to be followed up by a victory to wipe out the memory of the humiliation they received back in February. Instead, they suffered a replica caning, and left long before the end once more, with the taunts of the brilliant home crowd ringing in their ears.

Arsenal fans have a reputation for being a little bipolar, both for swinging between raucous support and despair on matchday and for the contrast in volume between the home and away fans. I’ve always found that to be a baffling accusation, particularly given that a lot of the home and away fans are in fact the same people, and I find it highly unlikely that they sing their hearts out at Carrow Road and then sit rigidly in their seats at the Grove. There is a difference in atmosphere, but I think that is borne more from the corporate feel of our stunning amphitheatre rather than the actions of the individuals within. Still, when the place is rocking, it is something to behold, and yesterday’s game was played out to the backdrop of a united fanbase driving the team on with inspirational force. It was a beautiful thing to see and hear.

The game itself turned on another moment of madness from the man who rarely endears himself to his existing employers, let alone his former ones, and when Adebayor recklessly planted his studs into Cazorla’s ankle, despite the Spaniard being a long way off the ground, there was only going to be one outcome. Howard Webb, who actually had an excellent game (something that isn’t said enough when a referee performs well) produced the red, and the excellent start made by the visitors evaporated. Mertesacker powered a header home, his first for the club, to level the scores, before Podolski and Giroud all but ended the game by the break, the latter after excellent work from Cazorla, fortunately unhurt by the earlier act.

At half time, my only wish for us was to push onwards. Never at our best when sitting back, it was clear that our best option was to keep attacking, and perhaps make this a humiliation that Spurs’ season would not recover from – they have plenty of recent history in that regard. Apart from a wobbly opening to the second half, and a few worried moments after Bale reduced the deficit, that was exactly what we got. We never settled for what we had, we kept trying to drive another nail in the beliefs of all of those that thought this would be The Season Spurs Finish Above Arsenal, a phenomenon many young fans have never seen.

Picking out individuals seems churlish after such a focused and impressive team performance, but the triumvirate of new signings were all excellent – Giroud, Cazorla and Podolski threatened throughout – and Walcott answered yet more critics with a barnstorming display down the right, capped off with a goal after he moved to the centre. But despite all our excellent attacking verve, one man at the back deserves special mention, and that is Laurent Koscielny, who covered superbly on at least three occasions in the first twenty minutes when Vermaelen found himself in the wrong position. The captain started in wobbly fashion, but to his credit grew after those early moments and was superb from there on, but without Koscielny’s alertness we could have been in big trouble in those opening moments.

Ultimately, North London superiority was re-established (or just re-emphasised, if you believe it was never really lost), and while there are those who still cling to the claim that Spurs have the better team or squad (the sight of Huddlestone lining up in midfield against Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla was entertaining on that particular front), I don’t believe they will be a challenger for a top four berth this season. Say what you like about Harry Redknapp (and after his embarrassing performance on Match of the Day last night, you or I are unlikely to say anything positive), but Spurs looked a better team under him than they do now, and I stick to my pre-match prediction that Everton will finish above them. I also fully expect St Totteringham’s Day to arrive in the customary months of March and April, rather than being delayed to the final day.

But all that is for another time. For now, we bask in the glow of another thumping victory over those who seek to overturn us. Monday morning looks brighter for all that face those on the other side of the fence, and a much needed feelgood factor is back.

I might go and watch those highlights again.

Nov 042012

That was painful.

On the face of it, a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford isn’t something to get you too bent out of shape – they win the vast majority of their home games and the scoreline suggests a tight match nicked by the odd goal. Sadly, the scoreline today bore no resemblance to the pattern of the match itself, in which the two United scored should have been a few more, and the one we mustered was with the last kick of the game, and barely celebrated.

The teamsheets made for worrying reading. Aside from the sideshow that always accompanies former players making their return, the thought of Santos trying to combat Valencia was not a prospect many were looking forward to, while Mannone’s continued presence in goal is an accident waiting to happen. Ironically, Mannone was good throughout, pulling off an excellent save from Rooney in the first half and van Persie in the second, and along with Mertesacker is the only player that can hold their head up and say they played well. Santos, on the other hand, was every bit the weak link United were hoping he would be.

Better full backs than the Brazilian will struggle with Valencia’s power, pace and trickery, but the winger found life embarrassingly easy at times today, and dominated the flank all day. Probably the only foot he put wrong was in the early moments of the second half, when he miskicked a tap in that would have put them two up long before they eventually put the game to bed. That stemmed from a bad mistake from Vermaelen, who will not look back fondly on this game, having started by presenting the returning van Persie with a golden chance that he was never likely to miss, in doing so casting aside our entire game plan. It would be fair to say that captaincy has not enhanced the Belgian as we hoped it would – instead he has been culpable on a number of occasions so far this season, and were it not for the armband his position in the starting eleven would surely be in question, an unthinkable suggestion a year ago.

Following the early goal, our response was disappointingly flat. United’s tactics were perfectly simple – they harried Arteta, denying him the space to pivot and supply his midfield colleagues, and as a result Cazorla dropped deeper to get involved, thus putting him in an area of the field from which it is more difficult to create. Then, when they won the ball back, the spread it wide to Valencia and charged into the box. None of that was unpredictable, or even a new approach in our recent meetings, but it worked worryingly easily.

Mannone’s saves and United’s wastefulness were keeping us in it, none more so than on the stroke of half time, when Rooney put a gift of a penalty well wide. But while we improved after the break, they still created the bulk of the chances, and when their second eventually came, no-one could be surprised, even though Evra winning a free header six yards out tells a story of its own about our defending. The closest we came was when Giroud smacked an effort against the outside of the post, before Cazorla gave an already flattering scoreline a bit of gloss with a superb effort in the final moments.

Before then, we were down to ten men, when Jack Wilshere ignored the last chance saloon he was in and went in late on Evra, a red card decision that I don’t think anyone can question. I would argue that Cleverley should have seen red earlier – his challenge didn’t warrant the final warning he was given – but so one-sided was the match that it surely would have made no difference. The gulf between the sides was far greater than the 2-1 scoreline suggests, and United looked like they had plenty of gears to go through had the situation required it. It never did.

All in all, it was a very bad day at the office, and isn’t the first since the international break ended. There is, however, a danger of criticism going too far, as it certainly did on Twitter during and after the match. Every staff member at the club was vilified as a moron, every player dismissed as hopeless, even those who actually performed adequately. Suggestions were made that no-one cared, that it was all the fault of people not even in the stadium, and much more. I understand the frustration, I really do, but I wish the post-mortem didn’t include so much mud-slinging. It really helps no-one, and creates a poisonous atmosphere from which it is difficult to recover.

But, at the same time, these are worrying times, and Wenger has some serious issues to sort out, and quickly. November is packed with hurdles, and we need to stop tripping over them if those at the front are going to stay in sight.

Like I said, a painful day.

Oct 022012

I often find myself without the time to write regularly for this blog, to preview each match and review it afterwards, to analyse on a day-by-day basis and to react in a timely fashion to anything interesting going on. More often than not I find myself, as I do tonight, summing up a longer period of time, rather than an individual moment.

That can have its disadvantages – no-one really wants to read my take on the nuances of a game that happened a week ago, but it does also have the occasional benefit, such as the forcing of analysis over a longer period of time than ninety minutes.

The last ten days have been telling, both on and off the pitch. After the Man City game, an excellent performance in which we matched the champions stride for stride on their own turf, many believed us to be genuine title contenders. Fast forward a week to a home defeat against Chelsea, and the majority view was that we still have the same old problems and will challenge for nothing. But the ability and aptitude of the squad doesn’t change dramatically in seven days, so what gives?

The answer is simple – neither conclusion can be gleaned from a single match. Teams play badly and lose some weeks, yet raise their game on other occasions and pull out impressive victories. Both extremes are felt by every single team in the league, and neither sets the tone for the season or can be used as a barometer for overall success or failure. For the bigger picture, you have to look at a string of games to see whether the great or terrible performance was the oddity.

The defeat to Chelsea was only our first of the season, not that you necessarily would have known that from the reaction. Having already faced Man City, Liverpool, Stoke and Montpellier on our travels, that is actually quite impressive. Our ability to fight and come from behind has already been shown on a few occasions, while certain players, including new signings Podolski and Cazorla, have shone. There is also real evidence that from open play at least, our defensive stability is greatly improved.

On the flip side, our goalkeeping situation is still an issue, with the two incumbents being at fault for at least three goals already this campaign, and we haven’t yet found a way to effectively replace the goals of He Who Must Not Be Named. Giroud is taking the flak, which I think it unfair – if he manages fifteen goals this season then I think he has done his job, and it is also up to the likes of Gervinho, Walcott, Cazorla and Podolski to head towards double figures. Share the burden, and all that.

But overall, I think we’re doing okay. The ten days may only have gleaned one point, but there were the aforementioned excellent and poor performances, which could easily have resulted in a win and a loss, or two draws. Neither went or way. In between, we thumped Coventry in the Carling Capital One Cup. Add those mixed days to a start that has been highly encouraging and I don’t think we should be sounding the alarm just yet.

For me, our main issue is that we need to cut out the stupid goals. The only one we have conceded that didn’t feel daft was actually the consolation Coventry managed last week – every other one has either been the result of a goalkeeping howler or an avoidable free kick. That needs to improve, and that it can be identified so easily will hopefully lead to such improvement.

But in the immortal words of Douglas Adams, Don’t Panic. Losing at home to Chelsea is always painful, and it wasn’t a good performance, but it also doesn’t mean that your eyes were deceiving you on every other occasion this season. It is how we bounce back that counts.

Champions League tomorrow, and Sam Allardyce at the weekend. Time to focus on what is coming.