Arsenal 0 – 1 Blackburn: The Middle Of The End

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Arsenal 0 – 1 Blackburn
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction 

In this game, Arsenal played with such soporific slovenliness that it was as if they were trying to lull us in to such a stupour that the inevitable sucker punch wouldn’t sting quite so much.

To be fair, it worked. When Colin Kazim-Richards ran untracked through the midfield to fire home after Wojciech Szczesny’s feeble parry, I wasn’t surprised. There was a grim inevitability about the whole scene.

When Jack Wilshere fell in a crumpled heap at the final whistle, I felt for him. But any angst on my part was tempered by familiarity. His anguish was fresh, but mine has been dulled by duplication: I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen Cesc Fabregas similarly felled, and Robin van Persie too; great players, folding under the strain of swimming against a tide of mediocrity.

After Bradford and Blackburn, Arsenal now face a cup clash with Bayern Munich. One hardly imagines the Germans are quaking in their boots. A bad result at the Emirates on Tuesday night could all but guarantee us an eighth consecutive campaign without a trophy.

Things could be worse, I know. Whenever he comes under scrutiny, Arsene Wenger is quick to point out that Arsenal are not in a relegation battle. However, I’m afraid that just doesn’t cut it.

It’s about expectation. Reading are very much in a relegation battle, but that doesn’t mean Brian McDermott is under-performing. Equally, Arsenal might be well clear of 18th place, but they are falling below the standards expected of the club.

Those who criticise the manager are often characterized as pessimists, but it strikes me that there is an optimistic slant to their discontent. They see the potential of the club to be in a far better position than it currently is.

Replacing the manager doesn’t provide an absolute guarantee of positive change. However, an ever-increasing wealth of evidence suggests that keeping the manager absolutely guarantees more of the same.

I’m often asked when I’ll finally join the “Wenger Out!” brigade. Well, the answer is that I almost certainly never will. I’ve no time for brigades, or any other tactical military formations for that matter. Similarly, bandwagons have always struck me as an outmoded form of transport. I’ll make up my own mind on where I stand. I refuse to buy in to the dichotomy that has been imposed on the Arsenal supporter base, splitting us in to “AKB”s and “Doomers”. The reality, and my own position, is far more complex.

I will never chant for the removal of a man who has given me some of my greatest memories. However, I do believe there are certain fundamental issues with the management of the team that will only be resolved by a change of manager. Whether this summer would be the optimum time to do that, I don’t know: it depends on the availability of alternatives.

It’s moot, anyway. Arsene Wenger is no closer to leaving Arsenal today than he was on Friday. Negative results do not edge him closer to the door; only time and the running down of his contract do that. His current deal runs till 2014, and I find it impossible to foresee him leaving before that date. He may even be handed a renewal.

The extrication of Arsene Wenger from Arsenal will be a long and painful process, for both sides. I’d argue it’s a process that is already underway. It began when Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri abandoned Arsene’s project, and will end the day whatever contract he is bound to is allowed to expire.

Ivan Gazidis will not push him. Arsene will not jump. In the meantime, here we are: stuck in the middle of the end.

Something Must Be Done. Nothing Will Be.

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For a long time now, Arsenal’s fan base has been horribly split. In the bars and pubs surrounding the Emirates, there were some whose pint glass was perennially half full. And then there were another, angrier sort, served up exactly the same stuff week on week, who regarded their glass as half empty, and could really have done with a refill. After Tuesday night’s defeat to Bradford City, I think we’re all agreed that we’re in desperate need of a drink.

In the last few weeks my perspective on the club, team, and manager has shifted considerably, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Recent events have felt significant. After a few wobbly weeks, we reached our nadir at Valley Parade. To lose to a side 64 league places below you is humiliating for everyone associated with the club.

It’s worrying that off the top of my head I can think of several other humiliations in the last few years. It’s a string of traumatic memories that begins with a calamitous Carling Cup Final defeat to Birmingham, encompasses an 8-2 hammering at Old Trafford, and takes in a lifeless 4-0 thumping in the San Siro. In his blog yesterday arseblogger called this current Arsenal side ‘punch drunk’. There’s an argument that ever since Obafemi Martins delivered that knockout blow in February 2011, they’ve been reeling and staggering, occasionally throwing Spurs a decent hook but essentially vulnerable, and heading for the canvas.

Bradford seems to have tipped the scales. I think the fans sensed the opportunity of a trophy. They knew that winning a cup could buy the club credibility, and the manager time. A quarter-final against a League Two team seemed an easy passage. We were three games from Wembley, and four from a modicum of glory. And we let it slip.

Everyone seems to be moving on to the same page now. If there’s one positive to come out of this, it’s that it’s healing some of the rifts between groups of Arsenal fans. What worries me, however, is that the supporters are united in unrest. The atmosphere at the Emirates will become more delicate than ever.

We all seem to be agreed: something must be done. Very few Arsenal fans are happy with where we are right now. There is a yearning for change. Whatever we’re doing right now does not feel satisfactory. It does not feel good. It does not feel healthy.

But here’s the problem. I’m loath to say it out loud, because I feel like it renders all comment and speculation on the subject slightly pointless, but here goes: I don’t think anything will change. Not really. Not for a while.

I love Arsene Wenger. He’s been a great man – let alone manager – for Arsenal. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the fact that the team seems to be going irreparably stale under his supervision. However, I can assure you now, even if we lose to Reading on Monday by six, seven or eight goals: the manager isn’t going anywhere. Not anytime soon. He has never broken a contract in his life, and he has a deal until 2014. The board have neither the will nor the footballing expertise to go about replacing him, and he himself will not want to leave Arsenal on a low point. He will keep pursuing redemption.

The key figures on the board aren’t going to change either. A few unsavoury chants won’t make Ivan Gazidis think about chucking in his exorbitant salary.

The only hope, the only plausible option, is that there is a change of the club’s transfer policy. You’d think that’d make sense, seeing as the policy over the last few years seems to have consisted of selling off the major talent without adequately replacing them, effectively overseeing a gradual decline in the quality of the squad and our chances of challenging for any major trophies. There is money sitting in the bank, and a forthcoming chance to go and spend it – a transfer window of opportunity. Arsenal could make a statement, and buy players of the kind of calibre to ensure that even if we do lose someone like Theo Walcott, the playing side is protected by a depth and wealth of quality talent.

I don’t see it happening. Both board and manager are wedded to our existing philosophy. They’re knotted together, each guilty of leading us in this purgatorial fourth-place pursuit.

I’d love to be proved wrong about that, just as I’d love to be proved wrong about my growing suspicion that the decline of Arsene’s Arsenal is terminal. I’ve waited for so long to see him lift a trophy again, and now I don’t believe I ever will. I want so badly for this club to top up my drink, and make it seem half-full again rather than half-empty. I want something to change, and I’m scared it won’t. Stagnation, it’s worth remembering, leads to rot.

Arsenal 0 – 2 Swansea: Arsene’s Swan-song?

Arsenal 0 – 2 Swansea (Michu 88, 90)
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction | Audioblog

Arsenal fans are often berated by the media for their supposed impatience.  The truth is that at any club other than Arsenal, the pressure on Arsene Wenger would be approaching unbearable.

From 15 league games – almost half a season – we have won only five.  We’ve lost four; as many as 17th place Sunderland.  We’re 15 points behind the league leaders Manchester United.  Distressingly, we’re now as close to United as we are to rock-bottom QPR.  We’re just one league place ahead of Liverpool; a club whose mid-table mediocrity we are in serious danger of emulating.

Before the game I talked about us entering a series of very winnable matches.  We’ve kicked that sequence off with a resounding defeat.  Arsenal are falling well below the standards that even the most measured and reasonable of fans expects.

I don’t want to take anything away from Swansea, who were fantastic yesterday.  They played the sort of football Arsenal aspire to play themselves: intelligent, consistent pressing coupled with incisive, intricate passing.  They are quick, direct, and relatively ruthless.  I was seriously impressed.  Don’t let the late timing of Michu’s goals fool you in to thinking this was any sort of sucker-punch.  Arsenal’s best player on the day was probably Wojciech Szczesny, who kept the Swans at bay by saving brilliantly from three one-on-one opportunities.

On the day, they were the better side.  I accept that much.  But on paper, even the most vehement of Swansea fans would accept that they’re an inferior team.  Try to build a composite side out of the two squads, and in all probability only Michu would survive from the Swans.  Possibly marauding right-back Angel Rangel.  It’s hard to contest the fact that Arsenal’s XI, however flawed, is comfortably superior to that of the Welsh side.  I’m not for a second suggestig our team is perfect – if I never saw Gervinho in an Arsenal shirt again I’d be delighted – but we’re packed with internationals and multi-million pound players.  They, on the other hand, are a relatively rag-tag bunch of Championship graduates and bargain Spaniards.

You wouldn’t have known it yesterday.  Nor is it suggested by the league table: Swansea’s win moved them above us, where they now sit in a group that includes Stoke City, West Ham, and West Brom.  It does not make for pleasant reading.

And yet, to continue my point, we have a stronger team than all of those sides.  We have a stronger team too than Aston Villa, Sunderland, Norwich and Fulham, but it didn’t help us beat them.  Arsene talks with conviction about how we’ve come through some of our toughest fixtures already this season, yet our achilles heel remains picking up sides against teams we should be able to beat.  Our problems are not ‘on paper’ – one look at the balance book confirms that.  They’re on grass.

The only possible conclusion is that the team are not performing to their potential.  And then the only possible question is ‘Why?’.  Assuming the problem is not personnel, it has to be one of two things: tactics and motivation.  Both, I’m afraid, directly implicate the manager: Arsene Wenger.

The question of tactics is an interesting one.  It’s long been said that Arsene is no tactical chess-player.  He just makes sure he has the most powerful pieces in play, and secures victory that way.  Sadly in Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, he’s lost his Rook, Bishop and Queen.  The power-players are gone, and Arsenal’s collective unit seems to require a greater degree of organisation to make up for the lost ability.

Motivation, however, is an even bigger concern.  Yesterday, watching a pedestrian Arsenal stroll to defeat, I couldn’t help but feel that this is a side that isn’t playing for their manager anymore.  You’ve seen it other clubs: group of players who clearly have ability, hiding on the pitch and glumly accepting defeat.  At these ‘other clubs’, it’s what gets managers sacked.  That won’t happen at Arsenal, and I suspect the players know it, which reduces the stakes even further.  Even if they lose, things will still stay as they are.  We’re locked in stasis, and it’s going stale fast.

Although the team aren’t playing up to standard, I won’t pretend there aren’t issues with the quality of the squad.  The lack of depth and options means that our best players are being over-used, and subsequently fading fast.

Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta were unusual signings for Arsene Wenger.  Both in their late twenties upon arrival, they were educated elsewhere and hired in to add experience and quality to a youthful squad.  There are some members of his squad of whom Arsene Wenger is hugely protective – these are typically youthful academy types like Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  Cazorla and Arteta do not tend to fall in to this category.  Both have the potential to be Rolls Royce players; at the moment Arsene is using them like second-hand bangers that he doesn’t mind getting scratched and bumped.  With Arteta in particular it feels like he’s concluded, “this guy is old, his knee is screwed anyway – I may aswell run him in to the ground”.  Rarely have I seen a player so desperately in need of a rest denied it.

Olivier Giroud was given a sixty minute reprieve after starting on the bench – presumably he had moved beyond Arsene’s precarious “red zone” in to something approaching a purpley-black.  However, that meant that the trio of Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Lukas Podolski was asked to fill the gap, with the latter two rotating in the central berth.  None of them convinced, and despite the desire of the entire trio to play more centrally, I’d have no hesitation in saying that Podolski and Walcott are best suited to the wings, and Gervinho to the reserves.  I don’t want to go overboard about Giroud’s ability – I still think he’s a significant step down on Arsenal centre-forwards of the past, but at the moment his presence is absolutely crucial to the team, because we simply don’t have an adequate alternative.  Resting Giroud is not in itself a crime; failing to have a single player capable of deputising for the Frenchman, however, is.

With every dropped point, pressure increases on Arsene to amend the situation in January – and not just with the stingy solution of a 34-year old striker on loan for six weeks from the MLS.  I’m sure he will endeavour to add a couple of players to the squad.  The difficult truth is that the lack of quality is probably the easiest problem to solve.  We’re fast approaching the point when any signing, whether it’s Henry, Falcao or anyone you may care to mention may prove to be just a sticking plaster.

Arsene Wenger has never lost faith in his players.  The signs are there, however, that they may be beginning to lose faith in him.

Arsenal 0 – 2 Schalke: More of the same

This would have been a difficult game even if we were in good form
As it was, off the back of that dire display against Norwich, I fancied Schalke from the off. The German side have some very good players, and came in to the game off the back of a morale-boosting victory over Dortmund: a side good enough to beat Real Madrid last night.

I make that 180 mins without creating a decent chance
Last night, our first shot on target came in the 93rd minute courtesy of 17-year old substitute Serge Gnabry. By my count, that makes for one shot on target mustered in each of the last two games, neither of which you would even stretch to calling a ‘half-chance’. The defensive frailties are nothing new, but this lack of attacking threat is unfamiliar and alarming. The last time I can remember an Arsenal side looking this impotent was just before the January transfer window in which Arsene pulled his finger out to sign Andrey Arshavin.

Andre Santos had a stinker.
If you head down to Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning, you will occasionally catch sight of me taking to the field as a leaded-footed, positionally naive left-back. Alternatively, you could just watch reruns of Andre Santos’ performance last night, as he huffed, puffed, and struggled his way though a truly torrid 90 minutes. I was alarmed to see that he repeated his trick of standing several yards behind the defensive line, allowing Huntelaar to be played onside just as Grant Holt was on Saturday. In the first half, Per Mertesacker kept us in it, but eventually the weaknesses of those around him were exposed.

I don’t see the sense in dropping Giroud.
I know he hasn’t set the world alight, but I really don’t think there’s any point in persisting with Gervinho as a lone striker. Last nights horror show showed that ‘Goalvinho’ is not a viable long-term option. Why not play Giroud and at least allow himself a chance bed in? Rotating him in and out of the side simply harms his confidence, and right now we haven’t got a better option than the Frenchman.

Gervinho is not consistent enough to play for Arsenal
Every so often he will do something fantastic. More often than not, he will run in to blind alleys, away from his team-mates, and give the ball away. Gervinho is a maverick. He is not capable of cohesive team play. His head goes down, and one has the impression that he himself barely knows what he is going to do with the play. Players like him have their place in the game, but it is generally in mid-table. Sides who see little of the game, and require a game-breaker to do the unexpected. Arsenal are an intelligent, possession side. That is not Gervinho’s game.

Arsenal desperately need to sign a striker.
See previous two points. I’m not sure this requires much expansion. In a world in which Demba Ba is available for just £7m, there is no excuse for Arsene not bringing in a reliable front man in January.

The AGM will be a feisty affair.
Already last night there were chants of “6%; you’re having a laugh” and “Ivan Gazidis: What do you do?” (albeit with inferior punctuation). One can understand why, especially when you face the unavoidable question: Did we really sell Robin van Persie to play Gervinho up front? I don’t think it’s all bad. There were signs just a few weeks ago that this squad has plenty of ability. Arsenal don’t have the familiar excuse of inexperience to trot out; this is a mature side that should know better. Get back to where we were on Saturday and the picture won’t look quite so ugly.

Norwich 1 – 0 Arsenal: No Fluency, No Excuses, No Points

Norwich 1 – 0 Arsenal (Holt 19)
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction 

Arsenal were inexcusably poor.
People will talk about the significance of the international break, but it didn’t seem to trouble Chelsea, United or City.  This was comfortably our worst performance of the season.  Vito Mannone’s poor parry and Andre Santos’ bizarre positioning (single-handedly playing Holt onside) put us behind in the game, but at that stage there was still plenty of time to play ourselves back in to contention.  Sadly, we completely failed to do that.

It’s rare that you watch an Arsenal side and can say that they failed to create a single clear-cut chance.  Yesterday, however, our attacking play was as bad as I can remember.  We looked entirely devoid of ideas, and Norwich won’t have been able to believe their luck.  Around the 84th minute we finally managed to build some semblance of pressure, though an equaliser would have been far more than we deserved.

There’s a temptation to write this off as a ‘one-off’.
The performance was anomalous in its awfulness.  Even in the dreary 0-0 with Sunderland, we created a couple of chances that one could describe as decent.  Arsene’s relatively relaxed demeanour throughout suggested a man who had decided relatively early on that this was just ‘one of those days’.  I hope, for all our sakes, that he’s right.

Yesterday’s shambles was made even more painful by events at White Hart Lane.
Earlier in the afternoon I watched a Chelsea side play with all the flair and fluency that Arsene aspires to.  Their attacking play was superb: mobile, intelligent, and truly collective.  At the present time, the two sides are miles apart.

The weekend could have been a lot worse.
Yes: City, United and Chelsea all won.  That will happen a lot this season.  It doesn’t surprise me, and nor am I sure it’ll be particularly relevant to us for much longer.  We’re already ten points behind the leaders, and I find it hard to envisage this squad sustaining a title challenge.  The good news for Arsenal is that Spurs and Newcastle both failed to win.  At the present time, Everton are down to ten men and drawing with QPR.  I’d suggest that as the season wears on it will become clear that these are the teams we’re competing with, and the top three may pull away leaving us to fight it out to be ‘best of the rest’ and secure the final Champions League spot.

Spare a thought for young Serge Gnabry.
It wasn’t an ideal situation in which to make your debut, but desperation can occasionally be the father of opportunity.  With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain joining Theo Walcott on the sidelines, Gnabry is likely to be involved with the first-team again next week.  He didn’t get much of a chance to show it yesterday, but he’s an enormous talent, and one we’ll see more of as the campaign goes on.

Arsenal face a real challenge to get things back on track in midweek.
Their opponents, Schalke, come in to the tie off the back of a 2-1 win away to Dortmund.  The Dutch pair of Affelay and Huntelaar are a real threat, and this promises to be far trickier than our usual group stage stroll.