Taking it a game at a time

Well, that was much more like it. Borussia Dortmund might be struggling in the Bundesliga, but they remain a team packed with individual quality. A 2-0 win is undoubtedly something to celebrate.

A lot was made of the difference between our performance against United and Dortmund. In reality, I think the biggest differentiator was the opening goal. Had we not scored in the first couple of minutes, there’s nothing to say we wouldn’t have gone on to attack with the reckless abandon we did against United. Had we gone behind… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Nevertheless, it’s still good to focus on the positives, of which there were many. Arsenal’s main stars were the understudies: Emi Martinez and Yaya Sanogo shone in the absence of Wojciech Szczesny, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck. Sanogo’s goal does not thrust him in to regular first-team contention, but it does get both a monkey and the fans off his back.

Arsenal being Arsenal, the elation didn’t last long. Within minutes of the full-time whistle, Arsene Wenger had confirmed injuries to both Sanogo and Mikel Arteta. The following day, news broke that Jack Wilshere had undergone surgery that will see him miss the next 3 months.

It’s hard to feel surprised by a prolonged Wilshere lay-off anymore. It’s like death, taxes or Robbie Savage saying something stupid: it just happens and there appears to be little anyone can do about it. It was a poor challenge from McNair, and few would have survived it unscathed. However, I do wonder if Wilshere’s tendency to hold on to the ball too long invites such clatterings. His bravery on the ball is admirable, but costly. Something for him to contemplate during his lay-off, perhaps.

The Wilshere news rather pulled the rug of positivity out from under our feet. I suspect that’s a feeling we may have to get used to this season.

Personally, I’m just taking it a game at a time. With the Premier League title beyond us, it’s already tempting to view this as season as a write-off. That’s a horribly depressing outlook. I find the only way to avoid that is to embrace the present and try to enjoy the ride. Go from game to game, savour the wins, and keep your eyes on the immediate foreground rather than the horizon. There may not be anything for us in May, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to deliver some memorable moments along the way.

Next up, West Brom.

Dortmund 2-0 Arsenal: An apocalyptic performance, but not the end of the world

Arsenal were dreadful against Dortmund. Watching this felt like looking at a cruelly-drawn caricature of a bad Arsenal display. Jurgen Klopp’s team were outstanding, and had us on the back-foot for 90 minutes.

That said, I feel like I’m a little more positive than most in the wake of this match. I think it’s because I saw encouraging signs against City that I’m not prepared to write off on the back of one horrendous night. There’s a certain novelty about our squad. We’ve got some shiny new toys to play with, and until they’re settled in I’m refraining from definitive judgement.

I can understand the frustration and anger that envelops the Arsenal fanbase this morning. Arsene Wenger might have loosened the purse strings, but he doesn’t seem to know how to tighten the defence.

It’s the repetitive nature of these defeats that’s so infuriating. Wenger’s team make the same errors time after time, marching lemming-like towards high-profile defeat after high-profile defeat. It’s tempting to wheel out the same blog as I do after each of those loses, citing a lack of defensive discipline and the absence of a powerful holding midfielder. To be honest, talk of missed signings feels like a bit of a red herring. The problem is as much to do with tactics as transfers.

Still, I’m optimistic. We haven’t yet hit form this season, but oddly I find that reassuring. I feel like there’s a good XI in our current squad, but Arsene is yet to achieve the alchemic balance to see that translate on to the pitch. It must be true that the best is yet to come.

It’s a dirty word but we’re a team in transition. We’ve had that label in the past when coping with the loss of a major star. That wasn’t transition — that was recovery. This time, the change has been instigated deliberately, not forced upon us. In signing Alexis and Welbeck, Wenger has indicated an intended shift in style. He wants us to a play a more intense pressing game. He wants us to use our speed to win the ball high up the pitch, long before it reaches that dreaded defensive midfield area, and punish opponents with rapier counter-attacks. In short, he wants us to be more like Dortmund.

That kind of strategic shift takes time to implement. We lack fluidity and we lack balance. Both will come with time.

We can’t wait forever. Transition is only bearable if it arrives at a decent destination — none of us want to watch much more of this purgatorial pish. Call me crazy, but I think someone will be on the end of a hiding when this team eventually clicks in to gear. Let’s hope it’s Villa this weekend.

Further Reading:

Borussia Dortmund vs. Arsenal – Player Ratings | ESPN

Why Arsenal may have to wait for Welbeck | ESPN

A. Song For Europe

Robin van Persie celebrates opening the scoring against Dortmund

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

When the Champions League draw was made, a lot of hullabaloo was made about the perceived difficulty of Manchester City’s group.  So much so that our treacherous passage passed almost without mention, which was even surprising considering that, lest we forget, we were a club ‘in crisis’.

As United and Chelsea geared up for predictable processions, a shaken Arsenal side were set to face the Champions of both Germany and Greece.  City’s ‘group of death’, it should be noticed, does not contain a single domestic Champion.

And yet this morning, Arsenal are the only English side qualified for the knockout phase.  Not only that, but we can play our final group game away to Olympiacos safe in the knowledge that whatever happens, we will win the group, thus avoiding the likes of Bayern, Inter, Madrid and Barca in the last 16.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling tremendously proud, which is something that was difficult to envisage in the dark days of August.  So much credit is due to Arsene Wenger and the team for the way in which they’ve turned things around.  Hopefully reaching this milestone will provide a significant confidence boost as we chase our goals for the rest of the season: principally, making sure we’re back in the competition next season.

Dortmund started brightly, but their plans were disrupted by two injuries in quick succession.  First, Sven Bender launched a tackle at Thomas Vermaelen.  Against a mere human, Bender would doubtless have walked away unscathed.  After tangling with The Verminator, however, he found himself with a jaw that was broken in two places.  Ouch.

Moments later, Mario Götze came off worse in a clash with the imposing Alex Song, and limped off.  The playmaker had started brightly, and was naturally a big loss to a Dortmund side whose work ethic and incisive passing had made them a real threat early on.

Arsenal didn’t manage to carve out any clear-cut chances in the first-half, but within four minutes of the second they were ahead.  Alex Song seemed possessed by the spirit of Thierry Henry, who was looking on from the upper tier, as he picked up the ball on the left-hand side and waltzed past four defenders before looping a wonderful cross to the back post.  Predictably, the man there to meet it was Robin van Persie, who planted a firm header beyond the goalkeeper.

It was a fantastic piece of individual play by Song, and a telling contribution towards his man of the match performance.  It’s somewhat ironic, however, that his most memorable moment was a piece of attacking play, because it was on the defensive side that he really excelled.  He played deeper than usual, and did some superb work covering the forward forays of Andre Santos.  It’s no coincidence that on a night where Song patrolled in front of the back-line so effectively, Santos had his best game in an Arsenal shirt.

The same should have been sealed shortly after.  Aaron Ramsey, inventive and industrious in midfield, played in Gervinho.  However, the Ivorian is clearly yet to find the shooting boots he mislaid so spectacularly at Carrow Road, and he rounded the keeper only to hesitate and allow the chance to go by.  His finishing simply has to improve: at some point, misses like this will cost us.

Not last night, however – thanks again to that man, Robin van Persie.  I had pleaded in my preview for someone else to step up to the goalscoring mantle, but it wasn’t to be.  The Dutchman just cannot stop scoring.  The goal that clinched the game typified the groove he is in – stepping away from his marker early to reach a Thomas Vermaelen near-post flick on and tap in to an unguarded net.  He now has more than four times as many goals as our next highest scorer.  And, at last, we’ve managed to score from a corner.

There was a late consolation for Dortmund, with Kagawa side-footing home after some slack defending from substitute Johan Djourou.  Hearteningly, Thomas Vermaelen was furious and berated his team-mates.  We’re beginning to take pride in the game’s less glamorous elements.  Their fans deserved to see a goal.  They were superb throughout the ninety minutes, even managing a chorus of “You only sing when you’re winning” in perfect English.

In recognition, Arsenal fans concurred “we only sing when we’re winning”.  But last night, we had plenty to sing about.  And, after all, we only needed One Song.

Click to get your Song t-shirt at special sale price

Dortmund Preview: It would be nice if someone else scored

It will be a cold, crisp night at the Emirates as Arsenal play host to Borussia Dortmund. The Champions of Germany are in terrific form, and it promises to be the sort of evening that makes this competition so alluring. The objective for Arsenal is simple: win, and achieve qualification. Failure to do so could leave us needing a result in Greece when we face Olympiacos: hardly a reassuring prospect. After the ill-fortune of drawing Barca last season, our focus should be not just on qualification, but on topping the group to ensure an easier passage in the next round.

Dortmund have plenty to play for too. Defeat could put them out of the competition; victory would leave them facing what would effectively be a play-off against Marseille. Like us, they had a slow start to the season but have recently found an impressive level of consistency, culminating with a 1-0 win away to rivals Bayern Munich at the weekend.

As a consequence of our own good form, I don’t expect Arsene to make any changes to the team that beat Norwich at the weekend. In the interim period, we have lost Tomas Rosicky to injury, but that bad news is tempered by the surprise inclusion of Abou Diaby in a matchday squad for the first time this season. I had genuinely begun to forget that he even played for us, so having him back as an option is a pleasant surprise.

Naming the same team will mean that Per Mertesacker will come up against a familiar foe. Arsene has yet again moved to defend his summer signing, saying:

“When Per came here he was not completely fit. But now he is getting stronger and stronger. I felt on Saturday he had not recovered from Germany’s game with Holland and looked tired. He has recovered now and will play tomorrow.

In England, when you’re in front of the striker you have not won the battle. In many countries you have. But they fight till the last second here.

Of course he is under pressure and scrutiny. Yet you don’t feel sorry for a situation like that because it’s what happens at a big club.

However he is intelligent and he will adapt quickly. He is very responsible as well. He didn’t complain about a possible free-kick [on the Morison goal] because he was pulled down. He just said he should have cleared it earlier.”

I have to say I think that, for the most part, Mertesacker has done very well.  The Morison incident was undoubtedly a major error but all defenders are prone to that kind of nightmare once in a blue moon.  In fact, I don’t think Arsene would be wise to carry on talking about the German’s ‘critics’ – it is reinforcing the idea of him as a dubious signing and potentially damaging the player’s confidence.

However you evaluate the acquisition of Mertesacker, it seems Arsene has his heart set on doing some more shopping in the Bundesliga.  After Raphael Honigstein reported earlier this week that Arsenal had not yet abandoned their pursuit of Mario Götze, Arsene indicated to the German press yesterday that he might hold an interest in the Dortmund playmaker.  I don’t expect any movement in January, but I can envisage us lining up an unusually high-profile attacking signing for next summer, to replace Fabregas and Nasri and allay the fears of Robin van Persie.  Götze or Lille’s Eden Hazard would certainly fit the bill.

What both players would potentially add is goals from a source other than our skipper.  Whilst it has been enthralling to watch him hammer the ball in to the net at such an alarming rate, it does slightly mask a dearth of goals from other attacking players in the team.  RVP currently has 15, and our next highest goalscorer is Theo Walcott with 4.  Gervinho, the third striker in our line-up, has just two – although he should have at least doubled that tally on Saturday alone.  If we are to win tonight, it would be nice to share the goalscoring responsibility around somewhat.

That said, any win will do.  Come on you Gunners.

Dortmund await new-look Arsenal

If Swansea was the start of a new era, then (with due respect to the Welsh side) this is our first test.  Victory on Saturday was essential, but also expected.  The outcome of tonight’s game is much harder to call.

Dortmund are the Champions of Germany, and a fine footballing side.  Arsene paid them the compliment of saying they have a “similar style” to his own team, and the talents of Kagawa, Goetze and Lewandowski make them a very real attacking threat.  They can defend too – Neven Subotic, a one-time Arsenal target, is the key figure in a back-line that conceded a meagre 22 league goals last season.

Dortmund’s impressive coach Jurgen Klopp is excited about a clash between two attacking teams:

“I think it is good for us that Arsenal play attacking football. The problem is that they have so much quality that we have to be very careful. But we are prepared. We are capable of defending against this kind of team and have to work to make space and impose our own game.”

He even sounds rather like our own manager there.  Rather than being a reactive tactician, he imposes a philosophy on to his team and asks them to abide by it in every game – no matter who the opposition.

It promises to be an exciting encounter, and a betting man would predict goals – at least at one end.  Arsenal haven’t kept a clean-sheet away from home in the Champions League since the victory over AC Milan in the San Siro.  That was in 2008, three years and 16 games ago.

Those games, of course, were without Per Mertesacker.  The giant centre-half returns to his native Germany today to face former domestic rivals, and will hopefully be able to pass on his knowledge of our opposition to messrs Szczesny, Koscielny, Sagna and Gibbs.

In midfield we’re without the injured Rosicky and Ramsey, so Alex Song and Emmanuel Frimpong will most likely be charged with shacking Goetze and Kagawa, with Mikel Arteta pulling the strings ahead of them.  After an eight year absence the Spaniard returns to the Champions League, and the competition and occasion ought to suit his fluid passing game.

Gervinho returns to flank skipper Van Persie, with one of Theo Walcott or Andrey Arshavin on the other side.  Ordinarily you’d expect Walcott to start, but I wonder if Arshavin’s early withdrawal on Saturday was partly with tonight in mind.

We go in to the game as something of an unknown quantity.  As well as the clutch of new signings, the likes of Gibbs and Frimpong barely figured last season.  Even Szczesny emerged quite late in the campaign.  Arsene says:

“For us, it’s a new start because we are a new squad. What is at stake during the Group Stages is for us to show that we can go through.”

Victory tonight would be a huge step in that direction.

In other news, Henri Lansbury has extended his existing Arsenal deal.  It’s great news, as he has started the season in fine form, scoring goals for both the England U-21s and loan club West Ham.  An impressive campaign in the Championship could see him finally afforded the chance in the first-team I believe he richly deserves.  Perhaps, after all, Arsene does still see him as an Arsenal player of the future.

Back to the present.  Dortmund fans made the following video to ‘welcome’ Arsenal fans to the intimidating Westfalenstadion.

So that, it seems, is what Dortmund are about.

It’s time for this new-look Arsenal to show them, and indeed us, just what they’re about.

Come On You Gunners.