Arsene has given up on keeping Theo

I’m convinced the game is up with Walcott.  Asked about the dangers of keeping Theo in January, Arsene said:

“There’s a risk that we lose him for free – but it is a risk we are ready to take.  A successful season is more important than this week; which is only a financial risk anyway … I believe that we started the season with this squad and we want to finish it with this squad.”

These are not the words of a man who expects news of a contract imminently.  He didn’t even bother trotting out his “I always said I want to keep him” line – the same line reserved for Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie.  Contained with the above quote is a tacit admission that December deadline will come and go without any progress on a new deal for Theo.

Theo has responded with the line about the fact that his last contract took “six or seven months” to sort out, so there’s no need to panic.  It’s a line that would have more weight and relevance if his current negotiations hadn’t dragged on for more than 18 months.  If you believe this story, Theo is already preparing to up sticks and go.

There is a distinction in class, however, between Theo and that trio.  Football is a game governed by short memories.  After the opening game of the season, the venerable Arseblogger said this of the young winger:

“Theo Walcott, however, stank the place out. His first touch of the game came early on, a pass was sprayed out wide to him on the right hand side and he clobbered it out for a Sunderland throw. It was a taste of things to come and knowing how much of his game is negated when teams sit deep I was staggered it took so long for him to be replaced.”

A few days later, when news of the possibility of his departure before the end of the window surfaced, he said:

“It has been very interesting to read the reaction online to the possibility of Walcott’s departure. For the most part, and I realise this is as unscientific as it gets, people seem pretty much ok with it, even if there is frustration at the timing of events … While not ignoring Walcott’s blinding pace, something every team needs, a player at this level needs more than that.”

The reason I cite these in particular is because here is a valued, respected commentator – someone who so often captures the sentiments of the fans – expressing how we felt at the time.  That is a matter of weeks ago.  Since then, Theo Walcott has started a further five games.  That is the extent of his contribution since those opinions were valid: five full appearances.  And yet suddenly the mood has transformed, and losing him would be widely perceived as a disaster.  Worth bearing in mind before you curse all of the Gods about Theo’s more than likely departure.

Arsenal face a must-win game against Montpellier tonight, and must do so without the injured Walcott.  It is something we should prepare to get used to.

Montpellier 1 – 2 Arsenal: Resilient Arsenal keep Montpellier at bay

Montpellier 1 – 2 Arsenal (Belhanda (pen) 9, Podolski 16, Gervinho 18)
Match Report | Highlights | Steve Bould’s reaction

There was less rotation than we anticipated…
I suspect there a few major factors in Arsene’s mind. First of all, the injury to Wojciech Szcesny meant that changing more of the backline any more could have resulted in real unfamiliarity. The central partnership of Mertesacker and Vermaelen has been excellent thus far, and disrupting that would be unhelpful at this stage. Lastly, I think he saw the value of getting off to a good start in the group stage, and wasn’t prepared to do anything to jeopardise that.

Arsenal were a bit impetuous early on…
Abou Diaby got himself booked after just twenty-one seconds, and their was an edginess about us in the early part of the game. It came from a good place; from wanting to get the game won as soon as possible. However, it almost cost us the match, with Thomas Vermaelen giving away that penalty after only nine minutes.

The penalty decision was 100% correct…
I find it slightly tiresome Arsenal fans contesting every decision that goes against them. This was a nailed on penalty: Vermaelen failed to get the ball, took down the man, inside the box. Simple. Our complaints are made all the more silly by the fact that many other referees would have punished us with the award of a second penalty right at the end of the game after Abou Diaby hung a leg out in our own box. As for Vermaelen, this was a little sign of his immaturity as a defender: he will learn that the conservative option of shepherding his man is often safer then diving in to a well-intentioned tackle.

Going behind was a test…
We had not been in that position thus far, and I wondered about the psychological ramifications. Our response, however, was fantastic.

Podolski is an unerring finisher…
Speaking after the game, Steve Bould said:

“Podolski has made a real impact. I have to say, I’ve not seen many finishers as good as him – ever.”

Big words from a man who played alongside the likes of Ian Wright. On the early evidence, however, it’s easy to understand why Bould was impressed. Last night, he was calm enough to take a tough, dummy the keeper, and slot home. What I thought last night was this: it is hard to think of a presentable chance he has missed. Long may that continue.

Jenkinson is improving fast…
I’ve long banged the drum about how Carl Jenkinson is the club’s best crosser, and his assist for Gervinho won’t have me putting my drum down anytime soon. His all-round play continues to improve, and his fitness levels are astonishing. His dad was a distance runner, and I’m told that he’s possibly the best stamina athlete at the club too. I thought Arsene might field Coquelin in Sagna’s absence, but his decision to go with Jenkinson has thus far been hugely vindicated.

Giroud was better than lazy pundits would have you believe…
As Giroud was subbed off for Aaron Ramsey after 75 minutes, Alan Smith called it “a night to forget” for the Frenchman. I’m not sure I agree: he was involved in the moves both for goals, provided an assist for Podolski, and worked hard throughout the game. We will need him this season; he gives us shape and a focal point. Playing with a guy like Gervinho at number nine is all very well when you control possession, but sometimes we’ll need to deploy a player who can win it in the air and hold the ball up. Giroud is that man.

The second half was all Montpellier…
Their manager has since admitted that their second half display was the best form they have shown this season. Finally, we saw why they were French champions last year. They played with real tempo and verve, whilst we looked leggy. I found it hard to understand why we didn’t make more changes earlier, but perhaps Steve Bould was loathe to make subs without Arsene’s say-so.

All in all, this was a good night…
The performance wasn’t at the same level as Southampton and Liverpool, but the result is very good indeed. There are no new injuries and our confidence is unharmed. Now the players need to rest up before a massive test on Sunday.

Montpellier Preview: Arsenal led Bould-ly in to group stages

Arsenal travelled to France yesterday ahead of tonight’s match with Montpellier.  The headline news was that Wojciech Szczesny failed to get the flight – not because he forgot his passport or had a Final Destination-style premonition that the plane would crash – but because he has an ankle injury.

It’s an intriguing situation.  During the second half of Saturday’s game with Southampton, in which Szczesny dropped an already infamous clanger, Vito Mannone was sent out to warm up.  At the time I wondered if Arsene was trying to keep the Pole on his toes by reminding him of the competition.  Now it seems more likely there was already concern over Wojciech’s fitness – with some suggesting he may have landed badly on his ankle just as he dropped the ball and allowed Fox to score.

When quizzed after the game as to whether Szczesny was fully fit, Arsene dead-panned back, “That’s what I am told”.  He seemed to be harbouring an irritation – perhaps with Szczesny, who irked by the threat of Mannone and eager to put the horrors of EURO 2012 behind him, may have come back before he was entirely ready.  With a huge game at Man City on Sunday, no risks will be taken at this tage, and Mannone will start tonight, with youngster James Shea on the bench.

The only other change to the 18 man squad is that Abou Diaby has returned and takes the place of Andrey Arshavin.  It’s telling that in Saturday’s game, Arshavin was not even ushered from the bench to warm up.  It’s clear he is way down Arsene’s current pecking order.

The same fate could befall Theo Walcott if he fails to sign a new contract.  Since the breakdown of talks with him at the back end of the transfer window, he hasn’t started a game, and the longer those talks go on without conclusion the further away from the first-team he’ll find himself.  When asked if the situation had an effect on team selection, Arsene said:

“It can, but at the moment, I still hope to extend his contract so, at the moment, it doesn’t effect me. Of course at some stage … if, in April, it’s not done, you can think it will be difficult to do.”

There’s due to be some rotation tonight, so perhaps Theo will benefit.   I’m not so sure myself.  Aside from Mannone, I think Laurent Koscielny is the one man guaranteed to come in.  I also anticipate starts for Andre Santos and Olivier Giroud.  Abou Diaby would not have travelled if Arsene wasn’t giving serious consideration to playing him, and whilst there’s an outside chance of Aaron Ramsey replacing Santi Cazorla, the Spaniard is already so integral to our game that I simply can’t see him being left out.

If Giroud does start, he’ll be immediately under the spotlight once again.  It’s funny – Arsene said he left him out of the Southampton game to reduce pressure.  Perhaps it would’ve been smarter to play him against the Saints and then leave him out of what’s sure to be an emotional night against his former club.  Giroud, however, will be desperate to play – and I think we need him to.  I think Arsene needs to take another look at him before deciding between him and Gervinho for the centre-forward role at Man City – the two have such different styles and the manager will want to be making an informed choice.

I think we’ll go with:

Mannone – Jenkinson, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Santos – Arteta, Diaby, Cazorla – Gervinho,

Giroud, Podolski

It’s a strong side and one that should be capable of getting a positive result against an out-of-sorts Montpellier.  Arsene Wenger is banned from the touchline, so Arsenal will be under the command of Steve Bould – something I have a growing suspicion and hope we might see more of in the future. Come On You Gunners.

Latest on M’Vila + Thoughts on Champions League

Apologies for a bit of radio silence. I’ve been on the continent, scouting, sunbathing and trying to get my head around the craziest season since the Premier League’s inception.  I need a bit more time before putting a lid on it once and for all, so here are some little bits of news in the mean-time.

I’ll start with Yann M’Vila.  There were reports a few weeks back that this deal was done and dusted.  I’ve urged caution all along, and that was confirmed to me on Friday from a source very close to the deal.  Contrary what you may have read elsewhere, this transfer is a long way from being imminent.  This won’t be news to any of you that follow me on Twitter, but for those who don’t, here is the situation as it stands:

1) Arsenal have a long-standing interest in the player, and bid last summer.

2) The player would obviously like to join Arsenal.  We are a massive step up from Rennes.  The presence of Arsene Wenger is also a huge factor.

3) Arsenal need a player like M’Vila: a strong, disciplined defensive midfielder as a foil for Alex Song.

4) In spite of the above, there has been no formal contact since last summer.  The player does not expect his future to be resolved until after EURO 2012.

You may have read a story last week suggesting that M’Vila would be announcing his destination last night.  This was a misinterpretation: he meant after the end of the season – ie. at some unspecified point in the summer.  The idea that he was going to walk off the pitch and say, “Yes, it’s Arsenal, surprise!” was never realistic.  Especially considering how far away any potential deal clearly is.

I’m not saying it won’t happen at a later date.  Nor am I criticising those journalists whose sources say a deal is close.  I’m just saying my sources say different.

Personally, I’d like it to happen.  On paper it looks like a great signing.  We know there’s long-standing interest, so we may just have to be a bit more patient than we would like.  International camps are kicking off all over the place, and signing any player involved in this summer’s Championships is going to be difficult.

Also while I was away, many were forced to witness the apocalyptic vision of John Terry with the Champions League trophy.  All I can say is thank God for Jose Bosingwa, whose celebratory antics obscured the sight of Terry actually lifting the trophy.  Chelsea rode their luck, and as Gary Neville insisted, their victory seemed to be “written in the stars”.  It’s painful for Arsenal fans.  I think we all harboured an ambition to be the first London side to bring home the European Cup, and having some so close in 2006, it’s galling to see our rivals manage it.  That said, I don’t think it’s the disaster that it’s been made out to be.

I think it’s important to remember that despite Chelsea’s status as underdogs in the final, Roman Abramovich has thrown hundreds of millions of pounds at them to get them to the point where they’re even competing on that stage.  Much like Man City winning the league, the amount of money involved meant victory was eventually inevitable.  Truth be told, only bits of bad luck (a ‘Ghost goal’, or missed penalty) have stopped this from happening long before now.

It’s also worth pointing out that it doesn’t change all that much.  It’s a cup competition, not a barometer of greatness.  Nottingham Forest have got one.  Arsenal can and will do it in time, and hopefully when we do it will be on secure, billionaire-less foundations.  Imagine what that will be worth.

Some Arsenal players, like Jack Wilshere, took a lot of stick for congratulating Chelsea on their victory.  I think that’s unfair: you have to realise that these guys are professionals and see it differently to us fans.  Wilshere has friends in that Chelsea team, and is happy for them.  He knows what it means to an athlete to reach that pinnacle.  And it’s worth noting that he followed up his praise by saying, “Arsenal fans how good would it be of we won something next year?”.  If Chelsea’s victory acts as a spur to drive Arsenal on to bigger and better things, then so be it.  And speaking of Spurs, let’s not forget that as a little consolation, Chelsea’s victory puts them back where they belong: Thursday nights, Channel 5ive.

I draw inspiration for the future form last night’s enthralling climax to the French Ligue 1 season, where Oil-rich PSG were beaten to the title by little Montpellier.  One of PSG’s goals on the night was scored by €45m Argentine superstar Javier Pastore; both of Montpellier’s were scored by John Utaka, released from Championship Portsmouth.  At the start of the season, Montpellier were 80/1 to win the league.  It is an extraordinary tale.  Football is a game with a financial handicap, but it can be overcome.  Take note, Arsenal.