Reading 5 – 7 Arsenal: The game that nearly broke me

The first half was abject, then apocalyptic, then embarrassing. The second half was acceptable, then alluring, then astounding. Extra-time was just plain bonkers.

This was a match that defies analysis.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain quite how bad Arsenal were in the first half, nor what inspired the change that formed the basis of that incredible turnaround.  In that first 45, every time Reading went forward they looked like scoring.  We simply could not deal with their crosses.  Ignasi Miquel and Carl Jenkinson looked exposed and awkward at full-back, whilst Koscielny and Djourou looked anything but international class defenders in the centre.

First Jason Roberts outwitted Koscielny to dart to the back post and prod home.  Then, just minutes later, Koscielny’s nightmare half continued as his outstretched leg diverted the ball past Martinez and in to his own net.  The Argentine keeper wasn’t helping affairs; his inexperience was clear to see as he flapped at cross after cross.  It was his criminal error which led to the third goal. Mikele Leigertwood fired a fairly simple shot at goal;   Martinez could probably have caught it where he stood, but instead threw himself up and back in an acrobatic arc, playing for the cameras.  How humiliating then that his palm only pushed the ball lamely up in to the air, allowing it to drop in to the net behind him.  Twenty minutes gone; three nil to Reading.

Incredibly, it got worse.  Another cross drifted in, from the right this time, and Noel Hunt climbed highest to power home.  Arsenal were dreadful all over the pitch.  In the build up to the game the manager had made it very public just where this competition lies in his list of priorities.  Unfortunately, it seems the players took that as their cue to put in an entirely listless display.  We were second to every ball, and for the most part you felt glad that the majority of these players are nowhere near the first team.

And then, just before half-time, Arsenal were handed a glimmer of hope.  Andrey Arshavin split the defence with a cute through ball which Theo Walcott raced on to before clipping delightfully over the advancing Adam Federici.  Ah, Federici: with him, you always have a chance.

From the interviews with the players after the match, we can gleam that Arsene’s half-time team talk pulled no punches: this wasn’t good enough.  This was not Arsenal.  In the first half, the fans had been chanting “we want our Arsenal back”.  In the second, they got it.

The game hinged on the double substitution in the 62nd minute.  Olivier Giroud and Thomas Eisfeld were introduced for Gnabry and Frimpong, and suddenly Arsenal came to life.  Within two minutes of coming on to the field of play, Giroud had got on to the end of a Walcott corner and thumped a brilliant header beyond Federici.  Arsenal fans dared to hope.

There then followed a succession of near-misses which I couldn’t help but feel we needed to score to have any chance.  If we could get a third before the 80th minute, I reasoned, then we could have a real go at grabbing an equaliser.  But the clock ticked on, and no goal came.

Fair play to Arsenal; they kept going.  And, in the 89th minute, another Walcott corner found Koscielny, who’s eventful night continued with his second goal of the season.

The board went up, and the situation crystallised: Arsenal had four minutes to score an equaliser.  Reading did everything right.  They kept the ball in the corners, far away up the other end of the pitch.  The four minutes expired.  And yet, the whistle didn’t come.  Arsenal suddenly found themselves with one last tantalising chance. Eisfeld thumped the ball fifty yards in to the area.  Giroud did incredibly well to nod it down towards Theo Walcott, and he stabbed an effort towards goal.  And then, panic.  Replays showed the ball had crossed the line, but the referee didn’t spot it, instead not blowing his whistle until Carl Jenkinson of all people popped up to make sure and hammer the ball back in to the net.  Whoever scored, it didn’t matter.  Arsenal had done it: 4-4, in the 96th minute.

Some players thought their work for the night was done.  Olivier Giroud and Francis Coquelin threw their shirts in to the crowd, only to hurriedly retrieve them when they discovered they had to play extra-time.  Arsenal had the momentum now, and goal their fifth successive goal to put them ahead when Chamakh played a neat one-two with Giroud and fired low in to the corner from outside the box.  I wasn’t sure he had it in him, to be honest.

That, of course, should have been that.  This, however, was no ordinary game, and with just four minutes remaining on the clock a deflect cross found it’s way to Pavel Pogrebnyak,who levelled things up at 5-5.

With Martinez in such worrying form, Arsenal didn’t fancy penalties, but time was and tiring legs were against them.  That’s why I was so shocked when it was a 120th minute forty yard sprint from Andrey Arshavin that proved the difference.  He scooted in to the box and ignored options in the middle to slip the ball under the keeper.  This time, Reading did manage to get the ball off the line, but only as far as Walcott, who smashed it in to give us the crucial lead.  Alongside Walcott was Laurent Koscielny, who had won the ball at the back and sprinted the length of the pitch in the search for the winner.

There was time for one more. A glacé cherry on this delicious cake of a game. Arsene Wenger was still admonishing Martinez for failing to run down the clock when Walcott launched a long ball forward. Chamakh chased it down and lobbed over the keeper (again from outside the box) to set the seal on the game and make it 7-5.

Yes, 7-5.  I’m going for another lie down.

Arsenal 1 – 0 QPR: Accentuating the positives

Arsenal 1 – 0 QPR (Arteta 84)
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsenal got the result they desperately needed…
After the drudgery of the last two games, I didn’t expect a flowing feast of football.  This was about securing three vital points – points that would leave us just seven adrift of league leaders Chelsea by the end of the weekend.

Mark Hughes was unhappy…
…and that is always a good thing.  I can’t stand Hughes, who seems to me to be one of the most over-rated managers in the country.  The way the media bleated about his thoroughly deserved sacking at City was pathetic, and I am enjoying seeing his expensively-assembled QPR side struggle too.  He was right to be annoyed: Mikel Arteta’s scrambled winner was plainly offside.  If I were Hughes, however, I’d be directing my ire at one of my own players: Stephane Mbia. Until he got himself sent off, QPR looked relatively comfortable.  Once they were down to ten men, however, the tide turned – although keeper Julio Cesar did his best to hold us at bay with a string of extraordinary saves.  Cesar looks like a very smart signing.  Mbia, it seems, may not be the brightest.

Jack Wilshere was every bit as good as I expected him to be…
I’d love to sit here and say, “I’d forgotten how good he was”, or “I did’t expect him to be quite so good quite so quickly”.  I’d be lying.  I did.

Jack Wilshere is very special.  Arsenal have lots of promising young players.  Wilshere is on a different level to all of those.  Arsene gets it right when he says:

“He is special. People who understand football understand that he is a good player. He has that typical thing where he can turn and take the ball forward, which is very difficult for a midfielder. He still lacks a little bit of ability to get away from people, but he will get that.”

Seeing him on the pitch gave everyone a huge lift, and it’s clear from watching Jack’s post-match interview just how much it meant to him.  The next few weeks will be crucial; he’ll be hoping to continue to play progressively longer whilst avoiding any set backs.  He’ll sit out the midweek Capital One Cup tie with Reading, but after such an impressive return surely he’ll have to start at Old Trafford?

Bacary Sagna is the best right-back in England…
There was a lot of talk about how it was “harsh” to leave out Carl Jenkinson.  I can’t help but feel that’s informed in part by sentimentality and our love for Carl as one of our own.  Don’t get me wrong: his improvement has been dramatic.  Bacary Sagna, however, is probably the best right-back in England, and one of the best in Europe.  As good as Carl has been, I’m staggered that I’ve read some fans saying that we might consider letting Sagna leave now we have Jenkinson in place.  With respect, that’s the sort of talk that leads to replacing Robin van Persie with Gervinho.  Sagna is one of the few truly top class performers we have.  Treasure him, and welcome him back.  Carl will still have plenty of opportunities over the course of the season.

Andrey Arshavin made the telling contribution…
When substitute Gervinho was stretchered off, Andrey Arshavin was hurriedly called in to action without even being given a chance to properly stretch.  No matter: the Russian made a crucial contribution.  It was his dribble and cross that resulted in Olivier Giroud’s header at goal, eventually leading to Arteta nudging home the winner.  It showed Arshavin can still offer the odd match-winning moment.  Perhaps next time, at least, Arsene will send him out to warm up…

Bac says, Arshavin stays, & Arsene prays

Hello all.  That is, if there’s anyone out there, and you haven’t all turned away from football entirely during the dark times that constitute any international break.  Unusually, there is actually some Arsenal news to report, although not all of it is good.

Gooners will have been slightly alarmed to read the comments of Bacary Sagna yesterday.  He told L’Equipe:

“I expected Robin’s departure, but Alex, that was a surprise. He’s 24 and had three years on his contract.  When you see your two best players from last season leave, you ask yourself questions.

In the street, supporters sometimes come to see me. I can understand that they’re annoyed. I’m like them – I don’t understand everything.”

In some ways it’s reassuring to see that the players share our sentiments.  However, it’s not ideal for the club to see those thoughts emerge in print, especially when it calls the decisions of the manager and the board in to question.  It’s surprising these words have come from Sagna, though – a guy whose brilliance on the pitch is underlined by a stoic professionalism off it.  If anything, that lends the words more gravitas.  The departure of Song in particular will have hurt him as the pair were close off the pitch.   However, I’m confident that once Bac is back and playing his concerns will fade.  What I do hope, however, is that Arsenal don’t let the mistake of allowing Sagna’s contract to run too far down.  We won’t find a better full-back.

One player who isn’t leaving is Andrey Arshavin.  The Russian transfer window slammed shut last night, with the player still firmly on English soil.  Both Dinamo Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg claimed to have reached agreement with Arsenal to take Arshavin on a free transfer, but in both instances he turned them down.  His motivation, as far as I understand, is simple: he doesn’t want to leave London.  When he joined Zenit on loan last year, his family remained behind.  His kids are in school and he’s hopeful of getting them citizenship.  I have to say, I’m a little bit glad he’s stayed.  We saw glimpses in EURO 2012 of what he’s capable of, and he’s not a bad squad player to have around.  I’d still choose Arshavin over Gervinho in most circumstances.  The little Russian’s desire to stay for off-field reasons is clear; now he has to earn it on the pitch.

Tonight sees a host of international games kicking off, and Arsene will be anxiously watching on, hoping his players return intact.  No-one will cause more concern than Abou Diaby, who is set to be involved for France in their game against Finland.  Ahead of the game, Diaby has been talking to Le Parisien about his injury nightmare:

“I have revenge to take over the time I lost but I want to prove to myself that I can go higher.

All I wanted was to play again. I am born with a strong temper. I never give up. Maybe some people would have given up in my position but it was out of the question for me.  It was my destiny, it was written [to come back].”

There’s some lovely translation in there, that makes Diaby sound like the revenging swordsman from The Princess Bridge.

“My name is Vassiriki Abou Diaby.  You broke my ankle.  Prepare to die.”

In seriousness though, it’s great to see him back, but I think we should sound a note of caution.  The chances of him being able to play every game this season – even if he avoids injury – are slim.  After that long out his body will need rest and recuperation, and hopefully the return of Jack Wilshere will allow Arsene to lighten the load on both injury-prone midfielders.

It’s been interesting to note that our start to the season has seen our title odds significantly shorten. I don’t think we’re candidates – I envisage a familiar fourth-placed finish. What can’t be denied is this: the bookies and online casinos such as www.bellerockentertainment.comobviously recognise the potential of Arsene Wenger’s new-look team.

Till next time…

Thoughts On Possible Transfer Activity Between Now And 11pm Friday

Not long now, is there? Not long for Arsenal to replace Alex Song, sell Theo Walcott, and do all those other things the newspapers have insisted they’re going to do. And yet it is very, very quiet. The day before the big day, I thought I might have a little look at what I expect to happen in the coming hours.

OUTS

All the talk yesterday was of Theo Walcott being on the verge of quitting Arsenal. Since then, there’s been a fair bit of backtracking from both sides, and Arsenal are now actively briefing that regardless of his contract situation, Walcott will stay. This reportedly follows on from talks between Theo and Arsene yesterday, during which the winger expressed a desire to find an agreement on a new deal.

Perhaps Arsenal were looking to flush out Theo’s true intentions by leaking the story of a possible sale to the press. Whatever the case, it now seems unlikely he’ll go. A bid from Liverpool would certainly test our resolve, but it seems we’ve decided to gamble that we’ll be able to find an agreement with the player before January. I suspect Walcott’s advisers are smart enough to know he’s on to a good thing with Arsenal, and a compromise will be reached in the coming weeks.

However, there will be others on the move. The list of possible departures reads: Sebastien Squillaci, Andrey Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner, Ju Young-Park, and finally, at a push, Marouane Chamakh.

The one I consider most likely to move on is Bendtner. Both he and Arsenal admit that the relationship between the Dane and the club is broken beyond repair, and I suspect a solution will be found on the final day. Last year we waited all summer for someone to pay a fee, and when that failed to materialise agreed a hastily arranged loan deal with Sunderland. This summer we’ve hung on in the hope of receiving a few quid, but at this stage it wouldn’t surprise me if Bendtner makes another temporary move. All considered, I’d be hugely surprised to ever see him play for Arsenal again.

I’ve barely seen Ju Young-Park play for Arsenal at all, and having had his squad number pinched by Lukas Podolski, the chances of seeing him do so again seem slim-to-none. His biggest problem is going to be finding a club willing to take a chance on a player who has barely played in the last twelve months. It’s such an odd situation: his international record continues to suggest he’s a player with significant ability, yet he is plainly not part of Arsene’s plans. There was rumoured interest from Celta Vigo in Spain, but that’s now gone quiet. Should that fall through, I suspect he’ll get himself a move to the Middle East, or perhaps back to Ligue 1. For his sake, and for the good of his career, I hope he gets out.

If Bendtner and Park both move on, I think it’s highly unlikely we’ll allow Marouane Chamakh to go too, despite interest from Besiktas. If, as at Stoke, we field both Olivier Giroud and Lukas Podolski, then Chamakh is (rather worryingly) our first reserve centre-forward. I consider it impossible to let him go without signing a new striker – but more on that later.

Sebastien Squillaci, too, seems likely to stay. Arsenal had hoped to move him on earlier in the summer, but Bastia were unable to get close to the salary he currently earns in London. Since then Arsenal have sold Kyle Bartley, who had been promoted to the first-team squad, and seem set to retain the Frenchman as fifth-choice centre-half. Whilst he certainly has his failings, he was only called upon to make six appearances last season, so retaining him in the squad wouldn’t be a disaster. You never know: his experience could even prove useful away from the pitch.

The case of Andrey Arshavin is a tricky one to unpick. His Arsenal career seemed to be over when he joined Zenit on loan in February, only for Arsene to mention the possibility of a reprieve after an impressive Euro 2012. After being involved in the opening game with Sunderland, he then didn’t make the bench for Stoke, amid reports of a ‘business trip’ to St. Petersburg. Personally, I think he’ll still be at Arsenal come Saturday morning – but we can’t read too much in to that. The Russian transfer window runs for another week, so Arshavin’s future will still be up in the air until after the international break.

INS

I’m afraid this section is going to be rather shorter.

It’s not that Arsenal don’t need players. Hypothetically, we could strengthen all over the field. There are back-up goalkeepers who would fill me with more confidence than either Lukasz Fabianski or Vito Mannone. An experienced right-back would allow Bacary Sagna to recover at leisure and relieve the pressure on young Carl Jenkinson. Alex Song is yet to be replaced as the club’s primary holding midfielder, whilst the patchy form of Gervinho and Walcott means we could do with another option out wide. Finally, the worryingly high position of the goal-shy Marouane Chamakh in our attacking pecking order suggests a striker should be on any shortlist.

However, at this late stage, and judging from the whispers I’m (not) hearing, I don’t expect any major activity. Arsene will hold a press conference this morning, in which he will say something like:

“At the moment we are not close to anything. We are working until the last minute. If we find a special player at a good price, we will do it.”

It’s a different situation to last summer, when we desperately needed bodies. Arsene is searching within a very specific set of parameters, and I find it hard to see us turning up what he wants at this late stage.

It’s not that were not bothering.  We are making enquiries across Europe. Earlier this week, when Theo Walcott’s situation looked a little more precarious, Dick Law spoke to a club in Portugal about the logistics of signing a wide player. That interest, perhaps due to progress on the Theo front, has now been formally ended.

If we sign anyone at this late stage, I suspect it’ll be a forward. Arsene seems very confident in his midfield options, and despite the rumoured interest in Yann M’vila I can tell you with conviction we have made absolutely no contact with Rennes all summer. It’s interesting too that so many papers said we’d look to replace Alex Song with Victor Wanyama – a story that has died completely since Song’s departure. It’s almost as if it wasn’t true in the first place.

To put things in perspective, at this stage last summer we knew of an agreed fee for Andrey Santos, Park Chu-Young had completed a medical, and I’d let you know (albeit in code) about Per Mertesacker’s imminent arrival. We’d also been linked by a credible BBC journalist with Yossi Benayoun. This time round? Nothing. Granted, we still had the surprise signing of Mikel Arteta to follow, and Arsenal do like to do things on the quiet, but I think it’s too quiet for there to be any flurry of activity.

I could be wrong – we’ll get a clearer idea when Arsene meets the media this afternoon. I don’t think failing to add to the squad would be a disaster – we’ve bought well in Cazorla, Giroud and Podolski. But I do think there’s clear room for improvement, and I’d be delighted if we could add a defensive midfielder and a striker. I just don’t hold out much hope.

Predicted Outs: Bendtner, Park
Predicted Ins: None

Arshavin leaves memories, misgivings, & mystification

arshavinwide

Those sneaky Russians.  Just when we thought transfer activity for the season was done and dusted, Andrey Arshavin and Zenit St Petersburg have colluded to smuggle the diminutive attacker back to his hometown club on loan.  As the Russian transfer window slammed shut, Arshavin rolled Indiana Jones-style through the ever-decreasing gap.  If he’d been a foot taller, he might not have made it.

At the time I’m writing this, full details of the move have not emerged, but it seems Zenit will pay a £1m fee as well as taking over Arshavin’s £80,000 p/week pay packet. Presumably they’ll also have first refusal when Andrey makes his exit permanent in the summer.

I have to say, I’m disappointed to see him go. On a personal level, I had a lot of time for him as a player and a bloke, even as his form declined. But even I had accepted that his time at the club was hurtling towards its conclusion. What rankles more than his departure itself is the unusual timing.

Why are Arsenal voluntarily letting a squad member leave at a point in the season when it is impossible to replace them? I accept that we have Gervinho, Walcott, Benayoun and Oxlade-Chamberlain to fight for space on the wings, but with the exception of The Ox none of them are in particularly convincing form. Arshavin, for all his flaws, had shown an ability to come off the bench and make a difference – see his exceptional cross for Thierry Henry’s winner at Sunderland.

That was to be his last contribution to the first-team. He was an unused substitute at Milan and back at the Stadium of Light, before scoring two goals in a humbling outing for the Reserves. Arshavin saw his place in pecking order, and decided to bolt. He’s Russia’s captain for EURO 2012, and needs match practise ahead of what could be his final major tournament.

Of course, it could be argued that the departure of the Arshavin of 2012 is no great loss. He is a shadow of the man we signed, in every respect apart from his waistline. Back in February 2009, Arshavin’s signing was the most exciting since the arrival of Jose Reyes – possibly even Dennis Bergkamp. It’s easy to forget, but as the venerable Goonerholic pointed out on Twitter last night, at the time of his arrival Arshavin was a far more established name than either Mario Goetze or Eden Hazard are now. This was the man who had lit up Euro 2008 and inspired a resurgent Zenit to silverware. Arsenal were struggling and in danger of losing their Champions League spot – a now familiar scenario – and Arshavin was the man charged with saving our season.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that he did it. People talk about the four goal haul at Liverpool as if it was an isolated night of brilliance, but it wasn’t. For those few months between February and May, he was electrifying, playing with a roaming brief from the left of a 4-4-2. He scored one particularly remarkable goal against Blackburn, skipping along the byline before lifting the ball over Paul Robinson from the most acute of angels. The laziness that would later blight his game was still there; it was just tempered by the player’s sheer brilliance. He was a magician with motivation. Arshavin had made his big career move and it was paying dividends, for everyone.

At the start of the 2009/10 season, several seasoned pundits tipped Arshavin as a potential Footballer of the Year. Arsene Wenger, not one given to hyperbole over individuals, said of his star player:

“The Premier League needs a star like Arshavin now that Cristiano Ronaldo has gone. Arshavin stands for all that we love in football.

He is not only a great player but he has an honest, refreshing attitude. When there’s no penalty, he never complains. He’s not a drama queen. He’s fantastic for the Premier League.

Four or five years ago, the likes of Messi or Kaka would have come to England [rather than Spain] so it is important we have great players like Arshavin.”

However, after a bright start to the season, including a thirty yard thunderbolt at Old Trafford, Arshavin began to fade. He was played out of position as a lone striker for long period, and his form suffered. Then began the decline that would lead to him becoming more Carling Cup than Cristiano Ronaldo; more Michelin man than Messi.

Quite how and why it went wrong is hard to say. Certainly lack of application was a factor, but as stated before, even in his heyday at Zenit Arshavin was lazy. Strangely, the 4-3-3 that you would imagine to be so perfect for his talents never provided him with the same space as our more liberal 4-4-2. His roaming role evolved in to that of a conventional winger. And defending a full-back was never high on his list of priorities.

At times it was sad to watch him. He couldn’t trap a ball, let alone beat a man. Confidence was certainly an issue, and it often felt like he didn’t have the desire and drive required to come back. The talent was never, ever in question.

Even those dark days had their moments. Arshavin has provided more memories in three years than Tomas Rosicky has in six. Nothing, surely, topped this – that magical winner against Barcelona at the Emirates:

I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear as that goal went in. And I wasn’t alone. It was a remarkable night, one on which we beat the world’s greatest football team, and it was Arshavin’s goal that did it.

That moment felt like the start of something. Looking back at that goal now, it was more the end. Watch that goal – Cesc, to Nasri, to Arshavin. All three players have since departed, in the space of 12 months. Whilst we’ve made some good signings, I wouldn’t say any have the raw natural talent that trio possess. There is now a gaping creative void in the squad – something you never thought you’d say about an Arsene Wenger team.

There will be plenty who will say ‘Good riddance’ to Arshavin, and I understand why. I don’t feel that way myself. I loved his style, his character, his portly gait. I empathise with the aesthete in him – a fashion design graduate who loved a beautiful goal and loathed a jog around cones. A luxury player who was doomed to fail in a side that became less luxurious with every passing season.

Goodbye, Andrey. And thanks for the memories.