Not so euphoric with a touch of historic

Tim Stillman Column

Last week, this column rather took on the personality of a stranger hugging, gurning young gadabout; imploring all fellow dance floor dwellers to “let the beat take you higher, man.” With two rather lukewarm results since that mini era of jaw flapping euphoria, it’s fair to say this week has been something of a comedown. Not quite a faint wave of nausea coupled with a crushing sense of worthlessness. More a day of pyjamas, peanut-butter on toast, shit telly and questionable flatulence.

The Fulham and Manchester City results were disappointing without being alarming. The team has earned enough kudos with supporters over the last 6-8 weeks that these slight setbacks weren’t greeted with a grinding of teeth comparable to that seen in underground car parks at 5am on a Sunday. The draw with Fulham was, I think, a direct consequence of a hard fought victory over Borussia Dortmund last week.

I wrote last week that the next segment of the season would see our squad players called upon to prove their worth. Though the manful performance against City shows promise from some areas of the roster, I think I maintain concerns about one or two of those a bit nearer the fringes. Andrey Arshavin for instance has gone all Austin Powers on us in the last 18 months and just done lost his mojo. There could be any number of reasons for this.

Arshavin is, by all accounts, something of a moonchild. For all his cheek pinching, hair ruffling, diminutive charm, he strikes me as a very insular and reflective character. In interviews, he is usually full of self deprecating honesty. It could be that Arshavin is a personality that becomes paralysed by self doubt in these periods of ennui and that manifests itself on the pitch. By nature he is a player that takes risks, that tries the tricky through ball or the shot from a tight angle. If your self belief tank is running on empty, that can translate into sloppy execution.

But aside from the speculative, cod psychoanalysis, it’s also been put to me that Arshavin is simply a very talented player that made his move to the Premier League too late. He arrived on these shores at the age of 28, fresh from a Zenit side catered to his strengths in the less demanding Russian league. It could be that that he arrived at an age where he’s found it difficult to adapt to no longer being the main man.

Meanwhile, the City game showed us what we’ve probably all suspected for some time. With January fast approaching, I certainly think there’s a deficit in the “in case of emergency break glass” striker role. Marouane Chamakh’s play outside of the penalty area is actually decent. I think he works hard; he holds the ball up well and brings others into play. (Park’s close range miss on Tuesday came about as a result of a fine piece of hold up play by Chamakh).

But anything inside the penalty area and he looks about as much use as an inflatable dartboard. It’s not unfair to expect more from Arsenal’s number 2 centre forward and his slump in form has lasted longer than the extended Director’s Cut of Apocalypse Now. Conversely, the African Nations Cup in January might do him some good if it means he can string some games together and perhaps grab a goal or two.

The difference in the City game hinged on a piece of quality from City’s £65m cartel upfront. Whilst I wouldn’t venture we should expect deputies of that quality or price, we do need to go some way to servicing the gap. Many I know were prepared to write the City match off. I can understand this; we were probably all expecting defeat. I take no issue with the team selection or the fact that the League Cup is very much 4th on the list of priorities or the performance. But I don’t think that precludes it from being any sort of priority whatsoever.

Realistically, with the petrodollar king in England and with the Spanish duopoly benefitting from uneven fiscal opportunities, the League Cup and the F.A. Cup are the only two trophies which Arsenal are in with a strong chance of winning. In retrospect, my disappointment at tumbling out of the League Cup is more pronounced now that Chelsea and, more surprisingly, Manchester United have been knocked out. I don’t tend to view the cup competitions as disposable as I used to when Arsenal were guaranteed to be tied up in a title race every year.

Cup competitions can sometimes open up for you and this one looks to have been blown wide open for City now. I know we felt we were in a similar position last year and it wasn’t quite to be. But painful Cup Final defeats are an occupational hazard when you compete in a lot of them. Nevertheless, however offended you are by the phraseology, the truth in the modern game is that finishing in the top 4; whilst not a trophy in the literal sense; is a greater priority.

Moving on and it was interesting to see some typically effusive comments from Wojciech Szczesny this week. The Pole in the goal spoke about changes in the approach to defence in training. Whilst I’m sure a freshening of approach was probably necessary and certainly appears to have paid some dividends, there might be some other, simpler explanations for the current back four not quite making you want to fill your M & S Y’s every time the opposition cross the half way line.

Better players for one. Vermaelen was injured for the whole of last season. Koscielny has a full season under his belt and we are seeing the fruits of his flowering confidence. We’ve also signed a big fucking German. One with 80 caps for his country. I realise the BFG has had a few Silvestre moments, but the value of competition can never be underestimated.

Koscielny for instance is in the form of his life right now. But he knows if that form arrests for one or two games, the lanky spectre of Mertesacker looms over him. We also have a better goalkeeper. Lest we forget, this time last year, Szczesny had yet to make his Premier League debut. His influence has gradually been able to take a hold of the back line, with his cockney-Pole burr ringing in the ears of his troops. Greater maturity in the team helps as well- with the likes of Arteta, Benayoun and Rosicky imbuing younger charges with that work ethic required to defend as a unit.

As blogs mentioned this morning, 1st December marks Arsenal’s 125th birthday. Some historians attribute the date of our formation to Christmas Day, 1886. But records show the munitions workers of Dial Square had already played their first game on December 11th, 1886, a 6-0 victory over Eastern Wanderers. (I wonder if the Eastern Wanderers fans were bombarded with telegraph spam containing a collection of shit puns on the number six).

On Christmas Day, 1886, Messrs Danskin, Humble, Watt, Beardsley, Pearce and Bates did meet to determine the team name, the home ground and to try and sort out some kit. Anyway, it’s a significant milestone and one can’t help wonder what those men would think if they could take a peak at the corporate behemoth they created in its current incarnation. If you want to read a bit more about how the club were formed and that cold December day in 1886 (I presume it was cold. It was December, it was England, I hardly think the Arsenal forefathers would have been scheming in an unseasonal heat wave), then I wrote this a couple of years back.

O.K. I think that’s enough jibber jabber from me for one week. I hope to see many of you over a hogshead of ale and a snifter of scotch at next Wednesday’s book launch at the Tollington. Until then, if you could continue to keep it as Goonerish as possible, I would be most obliged. LD.

Follow me on twitter @LittleDutchVA

125 not out as the madness begins again

Apparently, and I take this information from my Twitter feed (confident in the fact that Twitter has never, ever been wrong about anything), today is the 125th birthday of Arsenal Football Club.

Was it on this very day somebody said ‘Let’s make a football team and let’s call it Dial Square’ before somebody not too shortly afterwards said, ‘Dial Square is a terrible name for anything, let alone a football club. Let’s call ourselves Royal Arsenal instead!’?

I’m sure it was a lot less interesting than that really and probably a lot more Victorian and filthy and stuff. Imagine being physio back then?

‘Wilf can’t play today boss’

‘Why not?’

‘Consumption’

‘Pfff, he’d do anything to get out of a Wednesday trip to the North. Of London.’

I’m not much of a history buff, I have to say. Our man Stillman is though, having provided an historical piece for the book, no doubt this is something he’ll touch on in his column later on (is that the sound of frantic re-writing, I hear?), but 125 years is a landmark and a milestone for any organisation. If there’s a cake later on it’s going to need quite a lot of candles.

Anyway, as nice as being 125 is and all, it’s a bit weird wishing happy birthday to a thing rather than a person. Mrs Blogs, for example, always remembered the Arseblog basset hound’s birthday and gave him a cake or some kind of treat, but all we can say is here’s to the next 125 years of by the far the greatest football club the world has ever seen (based on our own extremely subjective definition of great and not one based on trophies won and all that. That’d be silly).

Moving on and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain caught the eye against Man City on Tuesday night. His attacking play had more verve than Richard Ashcroft hopped on goofballs and he says he’s happy with the way things are progressing for him at the club since his arrival in the summer:

I have already noticed there are some parts of my game which I have to change, and playing against good defenders like I was against City, you are going to learn. I am just going to keep taking my opportunities and learn, then push onto the next opportunity.

All I can do is try my best to impress when I have got my chance, I just have to keep working hard and improving

From an attacking point of view he must surely be weighing heavily in the manager’s thoughts now. Perhaps not as a starter but as a dynamic option from the bench he’s got to be close to being involved. If you need someone to come on, run at tired defenders, and shoot whenever he gets a sight of goal, then I don’t think there’s another player like him in the squad.

If the manager is concerned about his lack of defensive nous that’d be understandable but, and let’s be quite honest here, it wouldn’t set him apart from a particular pocket-sized Russian who is brought on to try and make an impact and rarely does that tracking back thing. That is clearly the next step for him, to improve that side of his game while continuing to develop as an attacking player, but I think now that’ll only come with games and being involved more.

There’s also the suggestion that The Ox’s obvious potential and stand-out performances have provided Theo Walcott with something to think about – thus improving his game. Competition for places and all that. It might well be true. I’ve long been of the opinion that even the most professional player can find themselves in something of a comfort zone without any pressure for their place in a side, but maybe it’s doing Theo a disservice, Zonal Marking’s analysis of Walcott for ESPN is certainly worth a read.

And perhaps it’s something that’s having an influence all over the team. Szczesny, although miles ahead of Fabianski for me, knows that he’s got the elder Pole waiting for him to slip up at domestic and international level. We have real competition at centre-half now – has that been a factor in Koscielny’s consistency and improvement?. Walcott and The Ox, Gervinho knows he’s got a Russian international waiting to take his place (I know, I know, but Arshavin is still, at least, a name). Our central midfielders know that Coquelin and Frimpong are chomping at the bit to get a game.

Does it make that much difference? It’s hard to quantify but if it adds 5% to a player’s performance – consciously or sub-consciously – then it’s no bad thing at all. As for the role of striker in the team, Robin van Persie can’t feel the slightest pressure for his place from either Chamakh or Park but he’s a player in the form of his life making up for the time he’s missed due to injury. I still think a striker is an absolute necessity in January though and I hope that’s something we’re working on.

As it’s now December I think we’ll find the transfer speculation beginning to mount, day by day stories will appear, and today the Mirror kick things off in good style with reports of a £30m bid for Dortmund’s Mario Götze. Of course it’s impossible to say how likely this is but I’d imagine much will depend on what happens in the final games of our Champions League group. Would the player leave his club if they have qualified for the knock-out stages? Seems unlikely to me. How interesting then that the German side need Arsenal to do them a favour in our last game against Olympiacos.

I say that knowing that there’s no way Arsene Wenger, or the players who are selected that night, will be doing anything other than trying to win the game, but it’s still one of those interesting situations that football throws up from time to time. I’d happily take Götze for his potential and quality as player and for the litany of mucky headlines his name provides to those who get it.

But with plenty of football in December and the transfer window looming ever closer, I think it’s going to be a busy, busy month. The deathly days of the Interlull long behind us.

Speaking of the book, by the way, here is is. It’s alive, it’s alive!

Right, that’s about that for this morning, back to tomorrow with an Arsecast and we can start looking ahead to Wigan on Saturday.