Here you go, Gooners.
This ought to have been a good weekend for Arsenal.
A fixture against relegated QPR presented an opportunity to stamp our authority on the race for Champions League qualification. It was a chance to comfortably secure three points, and perhaps even surpass Chelsea’s goal difference advantage.
Chelsea themselves were set to travel to Old Trafford. If they were to slip up in any of their remaining four league games, this was surely the one.
As it turned out, Arsenal scraped to an unconvincing 1-0 win at Loftus Road, turning in their worst performance in weeks. That in itself is no bad thing: at this stage of the season results are everything.
However, Chelsea’s unexpected triumph at Old Trafford darkened the mood and precipitated a flurry of finger-pointing. If Spurs were to win at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, it would be truly out of our hands.
Let me be clear: if Arsenal finish fifth, it will not be the fault of Manchester United for losing to Chelsea. It will not be the fault of Alex Ferguson for fielding a weakened team. It will not be the fault of Robin van Persie for failing to put them to the sword.
Nor will it be the fault of Bacary Sagna for his mistimed lunge on the Dutchman at the Emirates, or Olivier Giroud for missing several presentable opportunities in the home game against Everton.
This will not have been decided by one incident, or one game. If Arsenal falter in their final match against Newcastle, that will wrongly be remembered as the day Arsenal lost the Champions League spot.
The truth is it would have been lost long before, as a consequence of systematic summers of failure and a season of dreary disappointment.
The fact we’re even in the running for the top four is the consequence of an extraordinary and anomalous run, but that good form should not allow us to overlook everything that came before.
The final league standings will be the consequence of 38 games. Unfortunately for Arsenal, the first 28 of those games yielded just 13 wins.
I enjoy the race for fourth, because it provides the illusion of genuine competition. As a supporter, you crave contesting something until the last second of the season. The thrills and spills of that kind of topsy-turvy battle are what make being a fan such an enthralling experience. However, it’s not a real trophy. It’s a surrogate.
What’s more, the margins are so fine that I’m not sure they allow us to make any valuable judgements. I’m not sure that if Arsene Wenger finishes a single point ahead of Andre Villas Boas it makes his season that much more successful.
As it stands, all we can do is sit and wait. By the time we play our next game against Wigan we should have a much clearer idea of exactly what’s required. Wednesday night’s clash between Spurs and Chelsea will be critical.
You’ll have to forgive me for feeling a little ambivalent about the whole thing. I hope we make the top four, but fundamentally I am more interested in why we finish 20 points behind United than whether we finish two points ahead of Chelsea.
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…
Today’s game sees a team full of potential match-winners take on a side desperately out of form. The question is: which is which?
As poor as our form has been recently, QPR’s is worse. They haven’t won yet this season. Then again, neither had Norwich before they played us. For the Canaries, Grant Holt posed a fairly singular threat. QPR have a whole host of players who could cause us troubles. Adel Taraabt is showing signs of transferring his blistering Championship form to the top flight, Esteban Granero looks like a quality signing, and Djibril Cisse loves goals almost as much as he loves getting sent off and preposterous haircuts.
Then there’s Bobby Zamora. Whenever he comes up against Arsenal, and Thomas Vermaelen in particular, he gives us a torrid time. Whilst he’s far from the perfect striker, he does have a phenomenal ability to hold the ball with his back to goal. Vermaelen’s instinct is to nip ahead of the striker and win the ball early, but Zamora’s upper-body strength and neat first touch are like kryptonite on the Belgian.
Arsenal, of course, have players of their own who can do damage. In recent the games the team’s dour performances mean that individuals, like Podolski and Cazorla, have suffered. With that in mind, Arsene will be keen to freshen it up. Bacary Sagna could be in contention to oust a jaded Carl Jenkinson at full-back, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has a “60%” chance of inclusion. If he’s fit, I expect The Ox to start. Gervinho was out of sorts on Wednesday night, so replacing him with the direct running and brio of Chamberlain seems a natural choice.
I’d be slightly shocked if the Ivorian started at all – surely Olivier Giroud must be primed to reclaim his central spot. It’s time for the Frenchman to be bedded in now, and that means a regular run of games. Whatever your reservations, he is surely the best option we have for the time being.
The big question surrounds Jack Wilshere, and whether or not Arsene will see fit to throw him back in to the fray after 14 months on the sidelines. It would doubtless give the team and the crowd a lift, and the pre-game whispers are that Jack could be set to start. Imagine the ovation he’ll get if he does.
The first goal today will be crucial. Arsenal have picked up a nasty habit of falling behind in recent games. If we do so again, then we run the risk of another disastrous result. Go ahead, and things will look a lot sunnier.
Today could be the day when Jack relaunches his Arsenal career. Let’s hope it’s also the day that Arsenal relaunch their season.
Couple of quick notes for Any Other Business:
Arsenal fans seem as furious about this defeat as any other in this topsy-turvy season. Once again, the players are being branded as no-hopers and the manager as clueless. It’s almost as if one result has caused a seven-game winning streak to evaporate.
The fact is that if you allow your performance level to drop, any team in this division can beat you. Our performance on Saturday was not up to scratch – when we had the ball, we didn’t do enough with it, and when we didn’t have the ball we made simple defensive errors, with the normally reliable Thomas Vermaelen particularly culpable.
It’s a bad result, but we were going to lose eventually. The uproar and vitriol I’ve witnessed in the aftermath of this game suggests that, as with the long unbeaten run prior to Christmas, the winning streak has created a disproportionate degree of expectation considering the limitations of this team. A few months ago we were praying for fourth; now we’re furious that Spurs have closed in on third.
Just as many were too quick to write us off in the face for the Champions League back in September, so too were we too swiftly heralded as the Premier League’s ‘third-place elect’. The road until the end of the season is long and winding, and there will be several more bumps between now and May. Good: I for one find it exciting. And, remembering the disaster that was last summer, am very glad just to be in the mix.
I’ve been fairly consistent in saying that we’d finish fourth this year. Looking at the respective fixture lists of ourselves, Tottenham and Chelsea, I see no reason to revise my prediction. As I’ve said several times, considering the problems we’ve faced this season – many of which have been self-inflicted, I’ll admit – that would resemble some achievement. As much as I’m enjoying laughing at Liverpool, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to imagine that it could very easily have been us.
Of course, we should give it everything we have to finish third. It’s still very much in our hands, and if we want to do it we need to avoid the complacency we displayed in the game at Loftus Road. Some of the players seemed a little like they had begun to believe their own hype, whilst Robin van Persie is finally starting to look a little jaded – one can’t help but feel that earlier in the season he would have buried the one-on-one chance presented to him by Alex Song’s fine through-ball. I was also a little bemused by the selection of Aaron Ramsey wide on the left – it was a ploy that had limited success at Everton, and seemed to backfire in a game where the attacking onus was with Arsenal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has not started any of our last three games – a run I hope will end soon.
So it was a poor performance, and a poor result. But it’s not the end of the world – nor, crucially, the end of our season. Before the game I spoke of eight cup finals. We lost the first won, but win the next against Man City and it will soon be forgotten. Arsenal have plenty to play for, and I’m afraid slip-ups along the way are inevitable. Don’t be fooled by unbeaten runs: this team are not the Invincibles. They are, however, earning a reputation for being fairly unkillable: as soon as they’re written off, they find a way of coming back from the brink. It’s a trait I can’t help but admire.