Wigan Athletic 2-2 Arsenal: Feels like a loss

Two points have gone missing, and many Arsenal supporters will hold the referee accountable. In this case, I believe that accusation to be false - I believe that instead of Lee Probert in the penalty area with the swallowed whistle, the real crime was Arsene Wenger in the visiting manager's office with the starting teamsheet.

Coming off the momentum-changing victory over Chelsea two short days ago, it's understandable that Wenger would face a selection quandary for a follow-up like Wigan away. You want to maintain some amount of consistency while also keeping in mind that the games are coming thick and fast over the holiday period. A degree of rotation was inevitable and even welcomed, but making eight changes from the side that conquered one ghost in the last match (with another needing expulsion today) was not only arrogant, it was borderline idiotic as well.

Some of the changes made sense - the hideously off-form Gael Clichy was benched for Emmanuel Eboue, Abou Diaby was installed in central midfield in an attempt to get some match fitness, and Nicklas Bendtner was finally given a game. On the other hand, the mistakes were legion - Bendtner was shuffled off to the wing yet again (this one is just inexplicable to me), Johan Djourou was rewarded for keeping Didier Drogba in his pocket with a return ticket to the bench in favor of Sebastian Squillaci (FUCKING WHY, ARSENE?), and Denilson was placed in the role of...err...whatever it is he's supposed to do, which is mystifying given that he's the softest, most lightweight member of the squad playing in a fixture we traditionally have trouble with against a physical side.

The opportunity was there to pile pressure on Manchester United, fresh off of their latest instance of two dropped points against Birmingham City. The opportunity was there to further demoralize Chelsea by putting more distance between us, and to remind the upstarts of Manchester City (never mind our nearest and dearest from the other end of the Seven Sisters Road) that it's not just the Manks they have to compete with. With all of that in mind, that was the lineup that Arsene Wenger put out.

I can't explain it, either.

I didn't get to the pub until the 15' mark or so, but I'm told I missed absolutely nothing. The Eurosport MBM (since the Guardian couldn't be bothered, apparently) reckoned that Wigan should have scored off a free header, and that Laurent Koscielny had to make a brilliant saving tackle to prevent another chance. Way to tear into the 18th-place team from the off, lads! Anyway, seconds after I arrived, Koscielny was desperately unlucky to concede a penalty kick. He was a half-second late closing down Charles N'Zogbia in the penalty area, but he skillfully withdrew his trailing leg just as the Wigan man was stumbling by. Frankly, I can't blame N'Zogbia for diving in that situation given how precariously close they are to the First Division trap-door. Also, I can't blame Probert for pointing to the spot there, either. In real time, I thought that was an absolute nailed-on penalty. There wasn't much Koscielny could have done about it either, short of perhaps making it more clear with his body language that he was getting out of the way. Ben Watson summarily smashed the penalty high into the top corner, and the home side were ahead 1-0.

If I'm being honest, I thought Arsenal were going to immediately go to pieces following that setback. In a sense, they almost did. Some miscommunication between Koscielny and Lukasz Fabianski allowed Hugo Rolladega to make a serious play for the loose ball. Koscielny brilliantly toe-poked the ball away at the last, but Fabianski did follow through and take the Wigan man's legs out. Had the ball been anywhere near the play, that would have been a stonewall penalty and possibly a straight red for our keeper. Luckily, Koscielny's intervention allowed Probert to keep his whistle tucked in his pocket on that one. Still, it was a worrying portent and was not miles away from the possibility of going down 2-0 away from home inside of 20 minutes.

The disaster was averted there, but Arsenal still couldn't make any inroads through the Wigan rearguard. In particular, the midfield trio of Tomas Rosicky, Denilson and Diaby had the penetrating power of a marshmallow willy. Seriously, that is about as soft of a midfield three as you'll find in this or any other major league. Things did improve somewhat with the now-inevitable injury to Diaby, who limped off in favor of the much more combative Jack Wilshere. Just before that though, in fairness to Rosicky, he did force a smart save out of Omani keeper Ali Al-Habsi with a low drive.

It looked as if Arsenal were going to head into the interval down a goal, but six mad minutes later, they instead went to their tea with a 2-1 lead. An uncharacteristic long ball over the top was met by Bendtner, who had cut in from the wing. Al-Habsi was equal to his shot, and the ball looped out to the far edge of the penalty area. Andrei Arshavin, so anonymous in previous matches, reminded us all of the magic he's capable of with a stunning acrobatic volley. Al-Habsi was just getting to his feet and moving the other way, leaving him no chance to get anything on the shot. What a brilliant strike from the little Russian, and a much-needed tonic to the rest of the side as well.

The men in blue were somewhat out of sorts after conceding, and Arsenal again showed a bit more of a killer instinct than usual to take the lead. Arshavin's square ball just outside the area to Bendtner was in truth not all that good, and should have been dealt with by either Antonin Alcaraz or Gary Caldwell. Instead, Bendtner took the ball, easily brushed through the two center-halves as if they were made of papier-mache, and dinked the ball past Al-Habsi to make it 2-1 to the Arsenal.

Now, momentum was firmly with the men in red and white, and we'd kick on and really smash these northern monkeys, right? Instead, the Gunners came out ominously flat in the first ten minutes of the second half, allowing Wigan to regain some measure of self-belief. All it would take for this Arsenal team to leave a pile of broken, battered teams in their wake would be a semi-consistent run of 90-minute efforts. Whether this club will ever again be capable of that under this manager is another story, though. I have wondered about that for some time.

Despite that, Arsenal still had some chances to kill it off. Chamakh spiked a header a few inches the wrong side of the post, and Arshavin had a glorious chance to kill it off that was spurned with a weak shot. I don't want to take away from Al-Habsi's save there - the keeper was easily their MOTM - but you would expect someone of Andrei's caliber to put that away 8 times out of 10. Once again, the Gunners would pay dearly for their profligacy.

What makes it worse though is the fact that Wigan were down to ten men after the 78th minute. Wilshere fouled N'Zogbia in the middle of the park, which was rightly called by Probert. The Wigan man decided to make a meal out of it though, perhaps in a quest to get our Jack booked. Wilshere gave him some verbals, probably calling him the diving, cheating cunt that he is. Nothing wrong with that, it happens on both sides in every match at every level of the game. The red mist descended on N'Zogbia though, and his subsequent Glasgow kiss to Wilshere eventually resulted in a deserved set of marching orders (that said, the fourth official had to rescue Probert and his linesmen there, as none of them seemed to see it - while he can't be blamed entirely for the two lost points, please believe me when I say that he and his team were COMPLETELY out of their depth and should be working a First Division match at best on the weekend).

So, of course, Wigan were level three minutes later.

A standard-issue corner kick, which Arsenal had been starting to defend a little better lately, resulted in the goal. Had Djourou been playing, I am 95% sure that this too would have been harmlessly cleared out to safety, and we'd have won the game. Instead, Rodallega won the first flick-on header at the far post. It came back out to the center, where Caldwell was waiting. With Fabianski nowhere (he can't really be blamed for the goal, but his footwork and positioning were shoddy on that one - a better keeper may have had a shot), Squillaci found himself the wrong side of goal to his man. His desperate header meant that he got a deserved own-goal instead of the Wigan man being able to claim it for himself. It's bad enough that we conceded against ten men, BUT HOW THE SHITTING MOTHERFUCKING FUCK IS A PROFESSIONAL CENTER-HALF NOT GOAL-SIDE ON HIS MAN ON A FUCKING SET PIECE IN A 2-1 GAME THAT WAS AN ABSOLUTE MUST-FUCKING WIN? MOTHERFUCKING GODDAMIT.

I hate to digress slightly at this point, but I'm going to do it anyway. This column at Soccernet endeavored to name the worst performer for each Premier League club so far this season. Strangely, the author named Koscielny as his pick for Arsenal. While he's made the odd mistake and gotten sent off on two occasions, he's actually largely been solid and a decent physical presence. When I was reading it, I thought to myself "surely, it has to be Clichy or Squillaci?". Let's face it, kids. Sebastien Squillaci is not all that good. As a matter of fact, he kind of sucks. It's worse because the idea of Squillaci was quite a good one. He was the right age, came from a decent club with Sevilla, has international and Champions' League experience and won a bunch of titles with Olympique Lyonnais. However, his play this season has been iffy at best, abysmal at worst. Sadly, it's been a lot more of the latter than the former. Our best center-half pairing (excluding the seemingly endlessly-injured Thomas Vermaelen) is Koscielny and Djourou, so why Squillaci was playing when clearly deemed not good enough to face Chelsea is fucking baffling to me. GODDAMMIT, WENGER.

Believe it or not, Arsenal still had a chance to win. After the substitutions came (far too fucking late, frankly...another black mark against the manager today), the Gunners won a dangerous free kick just outside the Wigan penalty area thanks to some decent work from Bendtner. Samir Nasri stood up to take it, and at first glance it seemed to harmlessly hit the wall and go out for a corner kick. However, on the replay, it showed that Wigan substitute James McArthur so clearly handballed on it, Helen Keller could have seen it. Seriously, it looked like something out of a volleyball game. Of course, despite the fact that Cesc Fabregas conceded a penalty for the same kind of play earlier in the season, Probert and his band of clowns all failed to see the obvious infraction. While the penalty (especially with Al-Habsi on form) wouldn't 100% have been the winning goal, you still would have liked our chances and there is an argument that it cost us two points despite Wenger's failings today. It was ridiculously-poor refereeing, end of discussion.

The game fizzled out from there, and we never looked like getting the winning goal. No urgency, no plan other than witless Liverpool-esque long balls up the field, no drive, no determination. Two points wasted, and make no mistake, a huge blow to Arsenal's title ambitions. You have to give some credit to the Latics for fighting all the way, but the truth is that they are a side that a team with title pretensions like Arsenal should be skull-raping on a regular basis. You can't help but think that if Nasri or Walcott were in along with Djourou, this is a comfortable win and we'd be heading to Birmingham on Saturday with the wind at our backs.

I don't have much else to say, other than now we have to go win at a stadium where the current leaders couldn't manage all three points. Following that is a home date with a much-improved Manchester City, and a potentially-tricky away match against a West Ham side that is slowly beginning to believe that they can stay up. Momentum was thrown away today, for no fucking good reason. Yet again, our manager has cost us points, and yet again, questions have to be asked as to his suitability to lead this team to silverware. As wonderful as the win against the dirty Rent Boys was on Monday, it won't mean shit if the squad can't get their act together and consistently put three points on the board against hopeless fucking triers like Wigan Athletic.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Fabianski 6, Eboue 6, Koscielny 7, Squillaci 5, Sagna 7, Arshavin 7 (Nasri N/A), Diaby 6 (Wilshere 6 [Walcott N/A]), Denilson 6, Rosicky 7, Bendtner 7, Chamakh 6

Arsenal 3-1 Chelsea: England Belongs to Us

At least for today, at least right now at 6:47 PM on the Monday after Christmas, England belongs to us. As frustrating as United 1-0 Arsenal was, there is a home appointment with them on April 30...hopefully after a League Cup win and definitely off of the back of one hex-ending victory over a major rival.

I'm not normally one to embed a million videos, but I can't resist this one either:

I don't have the capacity for deep analysis at the moment, but I'll do my best. Arsene Wenger rung in the changes, with the highest profile being Andrei Arshavin demoted to the bench in favor of Theo Walcott and Marouane Chamakh rested in favor of Robin van Persie. Johan Djourou was rightfully installed at center-half in place of the out-of-form Sebastian Squillaci, while Lukasz Fabianski passed a fitness test and reclaimed his place in goal. The Chavs fielded a full-strength side, though in fairness some of the usual suspects (Lampard, Essien) are working their way back to full fitness. That said, the same could be said of our captain, who did start today as well.

Unexpectedly, Arsenal tore into their opponents from the opening whistle. I honestly don't know if Chelsea were ready for that kind of onslaught...it's obvious they intended to sit back and then attack on the counter, but the Gunners played with far more desperation and attacking intent than anyone could have anticipated. Within the first 5 minutes, a fabulous cross from Samir Nasri was left with no one attacking it on the far post...then the rusty Van Persie spurned a glorious chance from Alex Song's high ball over the static Chelsea back line.

Think about that for a second - when was the last time you saw the words "static Chelsea back line" in a sentence?

The bombardment from Arsenal continued, as the wide players were finding joy on both flanks. Van Persie is not much of a target striker though, and perhaps Chamakh or Nicklas Bendtner may have gotten something onto one or two of them. Anyway, it wasn't all going our way, though. Didier Drogba - the boogeyman that is told in horror stories to Arsenal academy defenders - was shown too much of the ball by Djourou and fizzed a rasping shot inches wide of the far post. How different this game may have been if that one went in, eh?

Still, that's football. The match at their place earlier this season was a fine team performance from the men in red, but they snatched their chances and Arsenal didn't. Well, today was the other way around. We finally, FINALLY got some rub of the green ourselves. It wasn't just luck, though. The Arsenal defense were largely magnificent today, dealing with all of the long balls to Drogba and set pieces that Chelsea could throw at them. Djourou in particular was a rock back there, although Song and Koscielny contributed much to the cause as well.

The first half looked like it would end with a creditable 0-0 scoreline (I'd have bitten your hand off for that score at 45 minutes if you offered it to me before the game...shit, I'd have done it for 0-0 at 90 minutes), but Arsenal had other ideas. The first warning shot came off the boot of Nasri, whose chipped effort from just outside the area would have beaten most goalkeepers in the league. Sadly, Cech read it expertly and was able to backpedal in time to tip it to safety. That didn't stop the Gunners, though. They came right back, and took the lead from an unlikely source. Song's pass to Wilshere got tangled up in the legs of Fabregas, but Wilshere had the presence of mind to get it back to Song on the side of the penalty area. It was an acute angle, but Cech was off-balance and could only fall towards the near post, allowing Song to go against the grain and tuck it low into the opposite corner to send Gooners everywhere into nirvana.

Holy fuck, we're actually beating Chelsea at halftime!

Now, I won't lie. We've bottled games like this before, and I was afraid we'd do it again. However, the Gunners did not rest on their laurels - if anything, they recognized that Chelsea were in the mire a bit and went directly for the jugular. Within 10 minutes of the restart, the home side had tripled their lead.

John Terry lost the ball in midfield, as he had been doing with many of his marauding runs up the center of the pitch. Michael Essien tried to backpass it to Cech, but Walcott was alert and ran onto the end of it. Cech was stranded, and could only try to dive at Theo's feet. To his credit, he got a piece of Walcott's slide-rule pass across the penalty area to the onrushing Fabregas, but could only knock it right into Cesc's path. The captain was left with the easiest of finishes into the empty net, giving Arsenal some much needed room to maneuver.

If the second gave Arsenal some more room, the third was like being upgraded free to first-class. Walcott again was the man in the middle of everything, nicking the ball off of the hideously-poor Florent Malouda in midfield. He took it the whole way himself, turning on the afterburners to leave his markers in his tiny, tiny wake. Again, Cech came out...and again, Cech could only watch helplessly was it was fired into the corner of his net. A peach of a goal, that one...and Gunners and Gooners alike were in dreamland.

Of course, that is never entirely a good thing when Chelsea are the opposition. The defense switched off mentally a bit, and allowed the Blues back into the game by conceding just minutes after going up by three. A grudgingly-have-to-admit-gorgeous free kick from Drogba was met by Branislav Ivonovic, who torched Koscielny to head into the empty net. Fabianski was caught in two minds and came a step or two off his line, but in fairness to him the ball was put right into the middle of the corridor of uncertainty - that's a bloody tough one for the keeper. Kos should have dealt with it, end of.

That said, this would be the time in previous games where Arsenal would go completely to pieces at the first sign of resistance. However, the steel came back into the spine of the team immediately, and Chelsea never got another serious attempt at the Arsenal goal. Sure, there were some individual mistakes that led to half-chances (Gael Clichy woefully falling over while in possession of the ball being one glaring example), but the defense held firm. Koscielny made up for his error with some thunderous sliding tackles, Djourou was the very picture of solidity behind him, and Song was all over the place breaking up attacks and blocking shots. I personally though Djourou was MOTM, but I wouldn't argue if you said it was Song (or Jack, or Theo, or Cesc, or Sagna...who was a holy terror down his wing all game, and was brilliant defensively as well).

Another change from previous games is that the team was much smarter about killing off the last 30 minutes than they have been previously. They didn't overstretch themselves going for a 4th goal - and Wenger's substitutions were a critical part of this as well. Abou Diaby made his return to the first team in place of the tiring Walcott, and Chamakh came on for Van Persie. Diaby was understandably off the pace a bit and gave the ball away a few times, but just his height and presence alone took away some of the longball-to-Drogba options. Chamakh, for his part, continued his excellent hold-up play and allowed us to keep possession after the Chelsea goal...which took much of the sting out of their comeback. Later, Tomas Rosicky came on for the captain, who took a bit of a knock (but nothing serious).

For their part, Chelsea looked like a dying empire. Drogba was a threat, but one that was fairly easily contained. Also, he took a fair few of their corners, which is odd given that he is normally the one that should be on the end of them. I was kind of crapping myself a bit when he had a close-in free kick towards the end, but he skied his effort over. Lampard was nowhere to be seen, Salomon Kalou was pulled off after 55 minutes or so, Cashley Cole was in Sagna's pocket (and pinned back by Nasri's threat), and Essien was at fault for our second. I don't want to say that they are entirely a spent force, but they are not what they were. They're beatable, and I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that they'll continue to drop points along the way.

As for us, this can go one of two ways. Either we kick on from here and start murdering people playing this kind of football, or they'll assume the job is done and then go out and lose to Wigan. It's up to these guys. How bad do they want it? How bad do they want to fight for a title that only Manchester United seems to want to win besides us? How bad do they want to stick it to the detractors, myself included at times?

Come on, you Gunners. It's there for you if you want it. I know I do.

The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:

Fabianski 6, Clichy 6, Koscielny 7, Djourou 9 (MOTM), Sagna 8, Fabregas 9 (Rosicky N/A), Song 9, Wilshere 8, Walcott 8 (Diaby 6), Nasri 7, Van Persie 6 (Chamakh 6)

Showdown with Chelsea in the Snow, and I'm on the Move

Good afternoon from a fookin' freezin' New York City today. I feel bad that we've not had a post up since last Friday, although with the postponement of the Stoke match on Saturday there hasn't been much to speak of, football-wise.

Nevertheless, despite the enforced Interlull, we're back with a mostly full squad on Monday to take on Chelsea for the first time in long time. Cesc and Robin should be fully fit, Kieran Gibbs should be okay as well (although very unlikely to start), as is Bendtner, leaving us with the injured Tom Vermaelen and the out-of-favor Manuel Almunia as the only ones definitely out. While we're certainly lacking at the back with TV5's continual absence, and it would be nice to have him on Drogba, we're otherwise very much stronger than the first time we met the blues at Stamford Bridge. With Fabregas back in the side they'll be less able to place 2 men on Nasri at all times, and the availability of RVP is very encouraging; in my opinion, he's our most effective weapon against Chelsea. The everpresent Chamakh will likely get the start, but if I were making the decision I'd be very, very tempted to put Robin in the central striker's role.

What concerns me is less our attacking play but our defending, particularly from midfield. Since that first Chelsea match this season, Alex Song has spent more and more time going forward (at the behest of the manager, to be fair) than he has in his proper holding role, and our defense has suffered because of it. His forward wandering has another unfortunate result, being that more natural creative midfielders (Wilshere, Cesc, etc.) are forced to play deeper to cover his empty space. He had a nightmare match at Old Trafford and not coincidentally was our most forward midfielder, having all but abandoned any defensive responsibility. If we are to have any chance of defeating Chelsea on our home ground, Alex Song has got to refocus himself and try to channel more of Claude Makelele than of Jean-Pierre Papin. Without this, our back line and our attack will suffer in equal measure, and we cannot overcome that.

Chelsea still have quite a few issues despite the return of Terry and the impending return of Lampard. They've been rather light at the back and have not been nearly as commanding in midfield, although with such time off, don't think that Ancelotti won't have noticed and worked on this very hard. Having seen United beat us with a very direct approach and a loaded midfield, the Italian would be rather foolish not to at least emulate those tactics. It's up to Wenger to match us up better with what Chelsea will throw out. If he does start Arshavin on the left, as expected, he'll have to account for Chelsea trying to exploit Clichy at left fullback since Andrei isn't going to spontanaeously start tracking back. These are tactical concerns, and Arsene isn't so much a tactical mastermind so much as an amazing man-manager. We'll have to hope he has something up his sleeve for this one, as we've been missing that magic in big matches of late.

With Fabianski fit again, he's almost certain to return between the sticks. He's done well this season (amazing at times), but I find it's almost a shame that he's fit. Wojciech Sczcesny really looks the part and to me is a consummate goalkeeper: composed, supremely confident, athletic and BIG. And since he proved he could handle Old Trafford, I don't think there's a crowd in the world that would get in his head. Still, Fabianski can do the job, and it's not as though you could really fault him for either of Chelsea's goals last time around (both were, in fairness, sublime). What I worry about from Fabianski and see as a strength in Chesny is his bossing of his defenders. Wojciech is exceptional at this, reading the game and helping his defenders better position themselves. Fabianski is much too mild for my taste in this area, and it's hurt us in the past. I know he's got more match experience than Chesny, but there was a time when Fabianski was untested as well. You don't gain experience by sitting on the bench. This is football, not FIFA 07.

Hopefully we won't have any further weather disruptions (as Tom Watt said, "If this is what a Winter Break is like, I don't think it will come off in the UK."), but we should all monitor Arsenal.com for updates regardless. I don't think I'll be getting out of work to watch this one at the Blind Pig (my apologies to my NYC Arsenal compatriots), and since I fly to London (weather permitting, knock wood) on the night of the 28th, this will be my last post for a while, but don't fret; I'll have lots to discuss upon returning, as I have tickets to both Wigan and Birmingham City away and Man City at home courtesy of our own N5 correspondent Gareth. Until next time then my red-and-white lovelies, Keep the Faith, and Up the Arsenal.

And lest I forget, have a Merry Christmas and I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

Once More Into The Breach, Once More Empty-Handed

So here we are, another match with a title rival come and gone, and another loss for Arsenal. It finished 1-0, and the scoreline didn't lie. Man U were far from great, but we did what we usually do, stoop below to underperform even an underperforming United side. We didn't defend particularly well (nothing new there), but we troubled the United backline not at all.

Partly of course, this was tactical: Ferguson loaded up the middle of the pitch and pressed us to allow Arsenal zero space. Quite often we saw our fullbacks with the ball and two United players on them, forced to either give the ball up, put it out into touch or pass it back to the debutant Szczesny (again and again). United defended the way that Arsenal need to but never do, and respect to them for it.

We did see some horrendous personal performances on the Arsenal side. Arshavin once again went missing and did very little at either end. Rafael had him in control all match long, and the Russian once again left Gael Clichy completely abandoned to deal with Nani on his own. Clichy didn't exactly cover himself in glory, although Nani could hardly claim to have dominated. Clichy made a few well-timed challenges, but gave a number of them right back, and was caught out of position more than a couple of times. To be sure, Clichy was victimized by the lack of effort from Arshavin. I think the issue many fans have with Clichy (and it's a legitimate claim) is that he once was the best left-back in England, but he's no longer the same player. Whether that is down to injuries, lack of confidence or a combination of factors, he's no longer the best left back at Arsenal. Sean wrote in his last post that Gael is the worst left-back in the Premier League; I think that's the essence of hyperbole, but can we expect better? I think so.

To me however, the biggest glaring hole for Arsenal was Alex Song. It's no longer a secret that Arsene is the one having Song bombing forward in attack, that he's not merely "gone rogue." What we have is a quite good holding midfielder who has not just been given license to act as an attacking midfielder (where he's no good at all) but has been encouraged to do so. Not only that, while he's rightly left unmarked, he also leaves players better suited to attack to pick up the defensive side of things, and when he loses the ball (as normally occurs), our already weak back line are left completely exposed. It's as well that United couldn't capitalize, but on another day and against a better team, we cna and likely will be victimized by this sort of thing. I don't know what the manager is playing at here, I really don't.

The truly depressing thing is that this was a very beatable United side, Howard "Man U 4 Life" Webb notwithstanding. And what happened? We flubbed another one. Not only that, but the cunt Evra is proven right to a degree, which really stings. Were there things Wenger could have changed that might have influenced the outcome? Perhaps. I don't think I'm the only one wondering what Rosicky was doing in the lineup with Theo and van Persie on the bench, and Nasri thrust out wide where he barely touched the ball. But tactics in one match belie more serious fundamental issues, and I think our league position is papering over some of those cracks. For one thing, we have completely abandoned the press and counter-attack ways that the 49ers were so devestatingly good at. We don't press at all (which unfortunately is necessary for success in the 4-3-3, a la Barcelona), and when we do win the ball, it turns into the same pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-pass-lose ball-win ball-pass-pass-passpszzzzzzzzzzzzz. Teams once feared to attack us too much that we would win the ball and storm down and jam a goal down their throats. Teams are much more daring now, and with greater success.

The main problem we have is not low-lying or secret. Our defense is not good enough. I'm not referring to the personnel; if you look at our 4 centre-half players, they stack up well against those of United, Chelsea or whoever else. Vermaelen's injury throws a wrench into things, but it's the lack of organization, the continuous and often disastrous attempts to play the ball out of the back instead of clearing the damned thing, that rankle me. It's a flaw in the mindset of the club, and that comes from the manager and filters down the staff to the players. If we don't start stressing the importance of defending as a fundamental necessity in football, then I fear we'll win nothing under this manager again. I won't call for his head, he's earned more respect from us than that, but for his own sake I do hope he can adjust.

We have Stoke on the weekend, and once again, the bespectacled middle-aged dick in a baseball cap who calls himself their manager has been talking up his side's disciplinary record in relation to ours. Okay, we've had a few more cards. But several have been for dissent a few more cards on blown calls by the ref. The only really bad tackle from our side has been Wilshere on Zigic, and he was rightly sent off for it. So while the record is in Stoke's favor, they still play like a bunch of shitkicking dirty cheating fucks, and refs don't like us much (nothing new their, either). It doesn't change the fact that Ryan Shawcross, who in Pulis' zeal to make him a martyr for the cause of dirty cheating fuckstains has made him Stoke CAPTAIN, is a mindless cunt who throws his body around with no regard for the safety of his fellow professionals. He is a golem, a frankenstein's monster, a lump of humanity without a brain to captain that ship. A pneumatic leg-breaking machine.

Still, I expect us to give Stoke the business. We handled them well enough the last 2 times we've had them at home. While they will be physical and try to muscle us out, work long throw-ins with maximum time-wasting, and generally be the practicioners of anti-football we know them to be, we should have more than enough skill to pick them apart. Pulis, as much as he is an idiot, will likely do just what other teams have since Fulham and put 2 men on Nasri as soon as he touches the ball, but we ought to have Cesc back in the fold too, which should open things up a bit. I think it's time our home form went back to being something we were proud of, and no time to start like right now. We've got a mostly healthy squad, we're at home and with home fans baying for Shawcross' blood (regardless of the type of player he is), it's time for a win and a rousing one at that. COME ON YOU REDS!

Before I part, yes, we did draw Barca in the next round of the Champions League. They're not unbeatable, but they won't be easy of course. I'm not terribly confident (many of the reasons why being spelled out clearly earlier in this commentary), but it's a funny old game. And anyway, it's nothing we need concern ourselves with until February. All we can do is Keep The Faith, whether or not you enjoy 1980's Billy Joel.

Manchester United 1-0 Arsenal: Question Time with The Modern Gooner

It is the one refuge of the defeated to find a degree of solace in small things that ultimately don't affect the greater truths of the event. For long stretches at a time, Arsenal were not comprehensively played off the Old Trafford pitch today - a drastic difference from previous excursions to Lancashire. There was a fair amount of urgency from most of our defense, with some committed tackles flying in at their attackers. However, the slightly less painful nature of the journey doesn't change the fact that the destination was once again the same - Arsenal offered nothing going forward, never tested the 40-year old Edwin van der Sar in the United goal, and ended up with no points to bring back to London after being ruthlessly punished yet again for a brief moment of incredible defensive stupidity. And, oh look, here it is! Thanks, Gael!

At the beginning of the day, this team traveled to Manchester for a highly-winnable game against the worst United team in years, in a season where no one has grasped the nettle of the league summit, and after having been called out like punks by the odious Patrice Evra in the run-up to the match on top of it all. At the end of the day, no matter the state of the pitch or the idiot with the whistle, all they accomplished was further proof that Evra might be on to something.

As I've stated before, I'm not throwing toys out of the pram because Arsenal lost the match. When you go to Old Trafford, that will happen more often than not. The teams of the recent past didn't always defeat the Red Devils, but the distinction is that they always fought to the death. If they were going to beat us, they had to stretch themselves to the limit of their ability to do so...and they would not come away unscathed in the process. This lot managed one scuffled shot that Van der Sar palmed away when he should have caught, and were unable to make him pay for it on the rebound. That's it...that's what they managed. Minute 86 was played with the same minimal sense of urgency as minute 1, leaving an average United outfit to a more comfortable afternoon than they had a right to have.

With that in mind, in lieu of a blow-by-blow of what happened, I present to you instead:

Question Time with The Modern Gooner!

Question 1: "It is well known that Samir Nasri has been doing incredible things in the center of the park for Arsenal over the last few games. Surely, my right honorable friend Mr. Wenger would agree that it was a terrible mistake to play him out on the wing, marginalizing him and ensuring that we had to rely on out-of-form players for our offensive spark?"

Frankly, our formation and tactics were (excusez-moi mon francais) a fucking disaster today. As mentioned, Nasri was shunted out on the right, with the anonymous Andrei Arshavin on the left. The middle was patrolled by Jack Wilshere, Alex Song and Tomas Rosicky. Now, there are quite a few problems here, the most important of which probably deserves its own question.

Question 2: "Madame Speaker, it's hard to believe that my right honorable friend has the best interests of his constituents at heart when he continues to play Tomas Rosicky and/or Denilson in the center of the park. I demand to know when are the Arsenal people going to receive an explanation as to what they do, why they're here or what purpose they serve?"

Right, so to accommodate the many contributions of Rosicky in the middle (Did I say "many"? I meant "zero"), Nasri was moved out to the wing where his opposite number - Ji-Sung Park - could reasonably be expected to perform his defensive duties. You could argue that he was deployed there to prevent Evra from bombing forward, but why sacrifice your entire offensive thrust to neutralize the guy who is, at best, their third-best weapon on the pitch? If he had to be on a wing, why not take advantage of Nani's incessant runs forward (and the fact that Rafael Da Silva is behind him) and put him out on the left where he'd have some space to exploit?

Meanwhile, Alex Song continues to be asked to play high up the pitch, despite ostensibly being the holding midfielder. When asked about it, Wenger explained that it's part of our high-risk system. If you're going to play with no shield in front of the back four, that's fine. But, if that is the way you choose to play, why is the guy who is an A- stopper and a D- offensive player chosen to play that position? Combine this with the fact that Nasri was marooned on the right wing, and we had a situation where Wilshere was trying to break up attacks (not his skill set), and Song was the one trying to thread killer through-balls past the United rearguard (DEFINITELY not his skill set). Is it any wonder that the Gunners couldn't get much going today?

Compounding the problem, the fact that we kept losing possession meant that United had more of the ball than we'd have liked...meaning that we were penned further back in our half. Because of this, Marouane Chamakh found himself dropping deeper and deeper in order to have any hope of touching the ball. His link-up play continues to be the linchpin of our attack, but what bloody good does it do when he's flicking on high balls not too far outside of our penalty area? Who's going to get on the end of them? Inevitably, the opposition will win it back in those cases 50-60% of the time...but instead of winning it back in their area or just outside it, they're right back to penning us in our half.

Speaking of inevitably, this happened right before halftime.

I think this leads me to another question.

Question 3: "I must ask how many times must we see the same result before we start to call it insanity? I don't mean to refer to my right honorable friend as insane, but you must now agree that Gael Clichy is, on current form, the worst left-back in the Premiership?"

I don't have time this evening to look up all the old match reports to see exactly how many goals Clichy has either directly or partially cost us this season, but believe me, I was tempted. At this moment, I would rather see either Emmanuel Eboue or Bacary Sagna play there out of position rather than watch this poor guy flop in the wind like the fish at the end of Faith No More's video for "Epic". He has never been a defensive wizard, but in seasons past he has made up for it with a serious attacking threat from the left flank. This season, he has offered precious little going forward. So, why must we suffer his woeful defensive lapses over and over? I understand that Kieran Gibbs is made out of porcelain, but do we have so little competition for places that we only have two options? We can't give Eboue a go out there?

Look, I'm not saying that Eboue would be the magical answer to all of our LB problems. But, the more you run this guy out there and run this guy out there, the more he becomes comfortable in the fact that no matter what he does (you know, like waaaaay over-commit to showing Nani onto his off foot, allowing himself to get completely flambeed by one simple feint), he will never lose his place in the side. He has shown a lack of positional sense and no aptitude for when to close down an attacker and when to not. I may be *slightly* exaggerating by calling him the worst in the Premiership, but surely he is the absolute nadir among any club in the world with pretensions of being a "big side"?

And, here's the thing. When you have a weak link in a defense, it throws everything else out of whack. Now, the left-sided central defender has to try and cover his man AND whoever it is that has blown past Clichy this time. Now, the right-sided central defender is a bit unsure as to what to do, and isn't helped by the fact that there's no shield in front of them, because Song is ordered to go box-to-box and play through-balls directly to the opposition. That's exactly what happened - Park was Song's man, Song didn't get back in time, and Squillaci couldn't be expected to get there once he realized the danger (to his credit, he made a great effort at it). That is what separated Arsenal from at least a point.

Now in Question Time, the PM does of course have the opportunity to retort. In his post-match comments, Le Boss talked some bollocks about the state of the pitch because, well, he's shown in the past that he's not going to slate his team in public. And, he's not going to say what he really thinks of the clown with the whistle, despite the blatant homerism shown towards United on the day.

What else is new, right? Chamakh and Arshavin get booked for their first fouls, while Evra can dissent to his heart's content and gets nothing. Even worse, Darren Fletcher had some bad tackles in there, and laid his hands on Webb's chest and made a pushing motion, with no booking. I'm beyond words at that one. Remember when Emmanuel Petit walked because that ginger muff-hair Paul Durkin wasn't looking where he was going and bumped into him? This was like that, only deliberate on Fletcher's part and much more malicious. Shit, there's a referee who does my Sunday league games (I humbly submit that he's better than Webb) who normally does NCAA matches. A guy on a team we were playing charged at him in a threatening manner, and he was red-carded and banned from the league for life. I talked to the ref in the bar afterwards and he said: "If I don't stand up for myself there, I'm not just letting myself down...I'm letting down the guy who has to work the game next week also." It's so true. For all the wittering about Respect the Game, Get On with the Ref, whatever...here's a guy who PHYSICALLY MADE CONTACT with him and he didn't even get a caution. I know it's United at Old Trafford, but that is spectacularly gutless.

Speaking of Webb and his other clowns, I don't know what his lino was thinking giving a penalty when Nani struck the ball at a prone Clichy, and it hit him on the arm. The rule states that the arm has to be in an "unnatural position". If down at his side is an unnatural position, then where the shitting fuck is his arm normally? Coming out of his head like a tentacle? Anyway, it led to perhaps the only bright spot of the day:

I mean, what else can you say about the granny-shagger skying his penalty risibly over the bar? Oh, wait, I got something.


Anyway, last question.

Question 4: "Surely, Madame Speaker will indulge my tiresome paeans to the teams of the recent past...but can my right honorable friend explain why we have gone from devastatingly-quick counter-attacks to a slow and plodding style that allows the other team plenty of time to get back into their defensive positions and pack 403,843,283,240 people behind the ball?"

Remember when the other lot's attack would break down, the defense would get it out to Pires or PV4 or Freddie, who would hit a streaking Henry or DB10 with a long, killer pass to get in behind the opposing backline? It was 3 or 4 passes, 8 or 9 seconds, and it was box-to-box with a world-class striker bearing in on the hapless keeper.

Now? Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Lose the ball. Get the ball back. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Lose the ball. Get the ball back. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass.

No matter the offensive skills of our players, it's a lot harder to beat two banks of four than it is to beat a team in transition.

To sum up some other loose points: Chesney was fantastic on his debut - were it not for him, this could have been 3-0. The central defense did OK given the circumstances. Sagna looked lively at times and it has to be said that he had a decent game. Chamakh had no support, and the subs were largely ephemeral.

The Modern Gooner Ratings:

Szczesny 8, Clichy 4, Koscielny 6, Squillaci 7, Sagna 7, Arshavin 5 (Walcott 6), Wilshere 6 (van Persie 6), Song 5, Rosicky 5 (Fabregas 6), Nasri 6, Chamakh 6

An open letter to Patrice Evra

Hi all.

Sorry for the lack of updates - I've had a bit of an interesting week that included an ER visit (I'm fine, just a precaution) and business at work. Suffice to say that the Fulham win was nice but highlighted the same old problems (lack of communication in the defense leading to a clash of heads, leading to a goal). Beating Partizan was the minimum requirement, but highlighted the same old problems (Song and Denilson not playing their fucking position, leaving Squillaci alone to die on their goal).

However, I saw this on the Guardian - Patrice Evra opening his stupid mouth again - and I had to write something.

Dear Patrice Evra:

Die in a fie, cunto.


Sean Swift

PS: No, really. Die in a fire.

Bring Me The Ankles of Patrice Evra

Apologies all, for my lack of activity of late. It's easy to get wrapped up in the holiday season and all of the drinking and inherent laziness that it entails, but I've popped out of hiding for a bit to say hello and spout on our favorite topic, the Arsenal. No time for pics at the moment, so you're stuck with dreary old text. Consider it a time machine to the internet of the late 1990's.

Last weekend we hosted Fulham, always a difficult prospect with the generally tight defensive play they present, and doubly so considering our home form being patchy this season, at best. Still we were the favorites going in and we all expected the full three points. We got that much, despite some typically horrific defending allowing Kamara an equalizer that made it level at the half and induced long stretches of poor play leading up to the break, and after starting so brightly and taking the lead through the indomitable Nasri.

It was Nasri who also brought the winning strike and gave us the points. To be honest, I've now seen both of his goals in this one about 40 times, and they never get old. I personally thought his first, taking the ball from the right, faking out two defenders as he slid into a more central spot in front of goal and then unleashing a cannon strike past Schwarzer, was the goal of the season. Then I saw his second. RvP's typically cool pass set Nasri dancing through the heart of the Cottagers' defence, round the keeper (how many times is that now?), and though his touch took him to the goal line, he miraculously pirhouetted and finished over a diving defender quite coolly. He is in rare form, the best of his career at Arsenal and likely his life, and it's something special to see such a player doing absolutely everything right. And he's got a killer song, as well.

That win took us top of the table for the first time this season, as Man U(re) were postponed at Blackpool. While the good feelings carried for us, they were threatened to be derailed as we needed a win in our final Champions League group match at home against lowly Partizan Belgrade. It was a nervy affair Wednesday (although when isn't it with this team, really), and while we saw Robin van Persie score his first goal of the season on a typically gorgeous penalty, our defenders conspired to make things more difficult than they needed. A wretched Partizan side went forward with little promise but were given a break as Koscielny abandoned Squillaci on a missed challenge, leaving his mate to cover both the ball and the run. While Squillaci positioned well enough to hold both, Cleo's shot deflected off of him and over Fabianski, who could have otherwise made the save.

With the introduction of Theo Walcott for the ineffective Arshavin, we looked a bit more positive, and in the 73rd minute, Theo bagged the eventual winner, capitalising on a failed clearance and calmly sticking the ball into the side netting. Later the cake was iced when a decent interplay between Bendtner and Song on the edge of the area found Nasri, who sidestepped a defender and slotted home the third with apparent ease. 3-1 the final, and while it was good to qualify (despite finishing second and setting up a second round tie with one of Barca, Madrid, Bayern or Schalke), we certainly won't strike fear into anyone being as apparently ready to concede as we are. Arsene has been cavalier about defending at all, his quotes paiting the picture of a man who views goals against as either a fluke or just an occupational hazard. Bigger clubs will be licking their chops.

Which brings us to Monday's clash at Old Trafford with United. There is no greater Premier League fixture, in my opinion. It's not like your local rivalries, and while derbies with the Sp*rs and Chavs have hotted up more in recent seasons with the emergence of those teams as contenders (or in Sp*rs' case, as not as awful as they have been), this is the one we've looked forward to each season. Wenger and Fergie. Paddy and Keano. Keown and Van Horsetlefaace. Henry and Barthez. Freddie and All Of Those Cunts.

Let me make this plain: I hate Tottenham, I hate Chelsea, but I absolutely fucking DESPISE Manchester United. I abhor Fergie's mind games and his spiderveined fucking nose, I am disgusted by Gary Neville's Phantom of the Opera face, I am made physically ill by that diving cheat Rooney, and while I get along quite well with some of their fans outside of football, some of them have made me angry enough to take the life of a fellow human being on more than one occasion.

Yet for the last few seasons, apart from one home result, I have amped myself up for no real reason, as we haven't looked like beating United over 90 minutes. Luckily, we haven't played all that poorly at Old Trafford, or at least, we've played less poorly there than at home. We lost there early last season and felt hard done by due to some poor officiating (Fletcher should have seen red first half for hacking down Arshavin in the box, Rooney diving over Almunia for a penalty on a ball he'd never have gotten to, an abundance of Arsenal yellow cards, the last minute equaliser that was inexplicably ruled out, Wenger forced to go into the stands among the cretins who'd been calling him a pedophile for 90 minutes) and Diaby's brainless own goal. We drew there two seasons back on the day they won the Premier League, and lost a tightly contested 1-0 Champions League semifinal there before being demolished in the home leg.

I want to be confident going into this one, I do. But there are several factors preventing me from feeling bullish about this fixture. For one, there's no guarantee that we will be with the services of Cesc Fabregas due to his continual hamstring problems. True, it's not been his best season, and some have said that his absence has allowed Nasri to flourish, but he is our captain and certainly one of our best players, and only a fool would want to go to visit London's only Manchester team without Cesc in the fold. Still, risking him unnecessarily would be foolish as well, considering the lingering nature of hamstring problems (See: Rosicky, Tomas), and it's still only halfway through a long season.

For another, United have the in-form Nani going against our fine but mistake prone left fullback, Gael Clichy. In the home fixture last season, Clichy was dominated by the overlapping movement of Rooney and Nani on our left flank, and each United goal began on that side. Gael needs to do better if we want to avoid a similar outcome.

But it's not all doom and gloom. We are certainly capable of scoring goals, and United are very good at conceding them (almost as good as us!). The manager is spoiled for choice with his attacking options, and I think that given more time together, Van Persie and Chamakh could form a solid partnership with Nasri (or if Samir's in midfield, with Arshavin or Theo or whoever's hot at that moment). We do have Djourou back, so if we're lucky we'll have the Swiss in defence over the increasingly unreliable Koscielny. And we have the very solid Bacary Sagna against presumably the 140 year old Ryan Giggs, who is apparently composed entirely of bones, skin, and sawdust. We have an in-form 'keeper in Fabianski (please don't punish me for praising you, Lukasz).

If nothing else, we have Martin Keown mocking Ruud van Horsetlefaace for missing a penalty, we have Wiltord scoring the title-clincher at Old Trafford, we have oodles of goals from Freddie past the 30 Man U(re) 'keepers from Schmeichel to Van Der Sex.

Anyway, kickoff is likely at 2:45 pm EST, so if you're in New York, come down to the Blind Pig. If you're a New York Gooner and you have to work, call in sick. If you're a New York Gooner who has no sick days left, schedule a vacation day immediately. If you're out of vacation days, quit your job. I'm serious, this is that important.

As for the title of this article, I'm sure you've seen Evra running his mouth about Arsenal, and as much as he irks me, I'm not going to address it. I'd like to see Nasri or Theo break the twat's ankles with a lovely move, but if someone should happen to actually break his ankle(s), I won't lose any sleep. Provided that player isn't sent off for it.

Roll on Monday. COME ON YOU GUNNERS!!!!

Catching up...

Hopefully, I'll be forgiven for the combination of the Thanksgiving holiday and a family emergency preventing me from getting a match report up for the Aston Villa game. I did catch that one though, unlike the mid-week fixture against Wigan. I just wanted to take a moment to quickly get us caught up here at TMG leading up into the accompanying fixture to our Holiday Social at the Blind Pig (Fulham, to be precise).

Away to Villa is always a tough fixture, but this one had the added pall of a hideous losing streak in our run-up to it. We don't need to talk about THAT derby again, and frankly we shouldn't spend too many words talking about the capitulation in Portugal, either. The beauty of football though is that there's always another game to look forward to - a fact augmented by the parity creeping into the Premier League these days. Whereas we'd already be far in Chelski or United's rear-view mirror by now, the former's own losing streak and the latter's run of draws sees us still somehow in the title race.

The performance was always going to be up to scrutiny after that hellish previous week, so it was heartening to see Arsenal nearly take the lead in the opening minute. Even better, it was Andrei Arshavin who looked to be shaking himself out of his recent torpor to create the chance. The little Russian pounced on a terrible backpass and threaded a beautiful through-ball to Marouane Chamakh. The Moroccan looked to have a great chance, but Brad Friedel was exceptionally quick off his line and brave in his block at Chamakh's feet. A great bit of goalkeeping that, and it prevented us from a shock early lead.

It didn't stop there, either. Villa were at sixes and sevens for the entire opening exchanges, and Arsenal to their credit looked to carve out openings. However, they couldn't get any of their several shots on the frame of goal, allowing the home side to creep back into the match as the minutes ticked on. Still, Chamakh had the next best chance of the match at the 14' mark, but his scuffed shot was never going to trouble the big American in goal for Villa.

After an Arshavin penalty shout was turned down a few minutes later (for the record, I thought Andrei made a meal of it and that it was never a spot-kick), Villa very nearly repeated the recent script - Arsenal gets all the early possession, the other team takes the lead. Stewart Downing's whipped-in cross found Ashley Young all alone on the back post. However, with no markers within four postal codes of him, he contrived to balloon his header far over the crossbar. It was an absolute sitter, he knew it, and luckily it didn't dent the fragile confidence of the men in yellow.

Unlike the recent script, Arsenal took back control of the game, as Villa's defending became increasingly desperate (highlighted by Richard Dunne nearly heading into his own net). Finally, the breakthrough came a few minutes before the interval from that man Arshavin. Two Villa defenders collided, conceding possession to Arsenal. Arshavin took it the whole way, beat Dunne one-on-one and fired low and hard past Friedel. Into the bottom corner it went, giving Arsenal a vital goal in a vital game.

It could so easily have been 2-0 just a minute later, as Arshavin again found Chamakh with a brilliant pass, only for the Moroccan to do the hard work of rounding Friedel before tamely firing wide of the post. It wasn't as shocking a miss as Young's before, but it certainly didn't help the cause. What did help the cause was Samir Nasri continuing to twist the knife into the home side's backline with a stunning finish to get us to that 2-0 mark heading into the interval. Would you believe it was off a set piece, too? The Frenchman stunningly volleyed off a corner to give us the dreaded two-goal lead.

Of course we were going to blow it, right? It's a damning indictment of this team (and a further reminder that I do not back off ONE IOTA from what I said in my previous post, despite the recent good results) that a 2-0 lead has us shitting ourselves, whereas with previous Arsenal squads it meant the fun was just beginning.

Anyway, a few minutes after the restart, a subdued Arsenal indeed found themselves pegged back a goal. You can sort of blame Sebastien Squillaci for a weak clearing header, but Gael Clichy's damn-near dereliction of defensive duty gave Ciaran Clark all the time and space he needed to lash an unstoppable shot past Lukasz Fabianski into the top corner of the net. The worst thing about it was that he saw the danger, looked RIGHT AT Clark, and inexplicably ran away to cover someone off to his left. Shocking, unforgiveable, a play that no one would make at any other big club and expect to start the next match. Even if Clark gets it out to the unmarked man on the left, that's no excuse for giving up an uncontested shot from a central area. Had the ball gone out to the left, Clichy could then track back to that man and allow Squillaci to press up from where he had made the poor clearing header.

The truth of the matter is that, right now, Clichy is a liability and should be nowhere near the first team. Kieran Gibbs should play every single game right now unless his leg is dangling off his torso by the thinnest of ligaments. Even then, he's still probably a better option. Squillaci gave him a right old talking-to after that goal, as well he should have. If I were Fabianski, I'd fucking shank him in the dressing room afterwards for that shit. Disgraceful.

That said, John Carew was CLEARLY blocking Fabianski's view, and it should absolutely have been called back for offside. How that is not interfering with play, I'll never know...but, then again, the offside rule is so labyrinthine and impossible to apply, I can't in good conscience rail at the lino for not calling that back.

The good news though is that the Gunners came back with almost an instant reply to make it 3-1. Another through-ball from outside the area (this time from the otherwise-anonymous Tomas Rosicky) found Chamakh again, and this time he was too quick and got a toe to it before Friedel could get out. It nestled snugly into the bottom corner, and the two-goal lead was restored.

A few more half-chances were created with no end product for the Gunners, but you always felt that the home side would get themselves back into it yet. Indeed they did, the first warning shot across the bow coming when Laurent Koscielny had to make a brilliant intervention to prevent Young from creating a chance. Clark then fired wide from long range before nabbing his second goal moments later to again halve the deficit. Luke Young's flick-on from a corner came to Clark, who somehow out-jumped his marker to send a looping header over Fabianski.

Wenger made two late substitutions afterwards that were highly frustrating at the time, but in retrospect made sense. Gibbs and Denilson came on to shore up the defense (well, Gibbs anyway...and why he came on for an attacker and not the horrid Clichy, I'll never know) and Villa didn't threaten overmuch from that point (though we were shitting ourselves every time they had the ball). Jack Wilshere added gloss to the scoreline with a neat diving header in injury time, allowing us all to breathe deeply.

Quick ratings for the Villa match: Fabianski 6, Clichy 4, Squillaci 5. Koscielny 7, Sagna 6, Rosicky 6 (Djourou 90 - N/A), Nasri 8 (Gibbs 85 - N/A), Song 5, Wilshere 7, Arshavin 9 (MOTM) (Denilson 85 - N/A), Chamakh 8

With that done, on to the Wigan match. I didn't see it, but the lads brushed aside Wigan Athletic 2-0 to advance to the semifinals of the League Cup. The first was an own-goal, the second a tap-in by Nicklas Bendtner on the far post. All good things, but apparently the enigmatic Carlos Vela could have had a hatful with the chances he was presented. He's never made much of an impact in the Premier League...but when he's not even scoring in this competition anymore? It may be time to do one, amigo.

The other results are where the real surprises came in - West Ham absolutely tonked Manchester United's reserves 4-0 to send them crashing out, while Ipswich Town eased past West Bromwich Albion 1-0 to join them in the hat. Rounding out the shockers was Birmingham City beating Villa 2-1 in a contentious derby - in a round that included the two finalists of last year's League Cup, the Blues are now the biggest hurdle left towards winning it.

Speaking of which, I posted this on the Arseblog forums yesterday:

It's depressing that it's come to this, but I badly BADLY want this cup. Who would have thought we'd be slumming it like this?

And, this is what I posted today:

Seriously...Ipswich, West Ham or Birmingham. Or, to rephrase, the biggest obstacle left is BIRMINGHAM FUCKING CITY.

If this team doesn't win the trophy now, forget dismantling...they want shooting.

That about sums up where I am at this point. It's sad to me that the same thing we made fun of our nearest and dearest neighbors for a few years back is exactly where we find ourselves today. We used to treat this competition with the disdain it deserves - now we're playing our first team and killing ourselves trying to win it. And, I don't know about you, Dear Reader, but I fucking want this one BAD. I suppose that when one has been lost at sea for a few years, you're not too particular if your first meal back on land isn't champagne and filet mignon.

As it turns out, we were drawn with Ipswich Town in the semifinal. Look, if we can't beat a fucking First Division team home and away at this stage of the competition, this team should (as mentioned above) be shot. I don't mean that in the figurative sense...I mean that in the sense of a Chinese execution where they invoice your family for the bullet afterwards.

After that, it should be a final against either West Ham (rooted to the bottom of the Premiership) or Birmingham City (a solid defensive outfit that is a far easier proposition away from St. Andrew's). It may be a second-rate tin pot, but this squad absolutely MUST MUST MUST win this trophy. It's about goddamned time that this club accomplished something when they got to the sharp end of a competition. It's about time that this club stopped the talk about winning something, and went out and did it. It's about time that this club's balls drop, to be all Rex Ryan about it.

I want to see killer instinct - I want to see these guys tear into Ipswich from the off and put them in their second-tier place. I want these guys to go to Wembley, show no fear, and rip the heads off of whichever mediocre band of triers they find themselves up against in the final. There's no excuse not to, and frankly failure to win this trophy at this point would just prove my point from last time even more.

Prove me wrong, Arsene. Prove me wrong, Arsenal. Win this fucking thing.

See you for the Fulham match report.

Time to Go

Two quotes from Sun Tzu's Art of War to begin today:

It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

It pains me to have to write this - the extent of which I can hardly explain to you. I have been an eternal optimist about this club for the entirety of the last 5 seasons. In each one, I would be one of the last Gooners standing before conceding that we could not win silverware that season. As long as we've been mathematically in the title race, I have believed because I believed in the manager. I cannot thank Arsene Wenger enough for the heights that he has carried this team to in his tenure as the Arsenal manager. Even beyond Herbert Chapman and George Graham, Arsene Wenger is clearly - far and fucking away - Arsenal's greatest-ever manager. He deserves our thanks, our praise and our respect.

With all of that said, it's time for him to go.

Please don't assume that this is said in haste, the flashover reaction from a few bad defeats on the trot. I assure you that it is not - as I said above, I am and will remain one of Arsene Wenger's biggest fans. For me though, the argument comes down to a few salient points:

  1. Should a club of our size and resources win trophies with at least a modicum of consistency?
  2. In any other line of work, would a manager at any level retain their job if the faults in their process or with their team of workers remain the same, unheeded, for five years?

I think we all know the answer to both of these questions. At this point, if you believe that Wenger is still the man for the job, then the burden of proof is on you at this point to explain how that belief can co-exist with these self-evident truths. That, or it is your belief that finishing 4th and making the knockout stages of the Champions League is a reasonable limit to the club's ambition. If you hold that view, that's fine...but I do not.

That said, there's another aspect that is even more important to me than results. Whenever a player pulls on an Arsenal shirt, I want him (or her, I won't leave out the ladies' team especially since Emma Byrne is my future ex-wife) to fight to the death to defend it. I want them to realize that they are part of a chain that goes back to Tony Adams, to Martin Keown, to Perry Groves, to Eddie Hapgood. I want that player to hurt when he loses...I want him to lose sleep over it. I want him to burn with rage at the prospect of some lot of no-fucking-hopers like Spurs coming into their home and embarrassing them. I want them to look with disdain on the TENTH-PLACE FUCKING TEAM IN A SHIT LEAGUE - not the arrogant disdain of someone who thinks they just have to turn up to win, I'm thinking more the disdain that Cao Cao had for opposing armies...the supreme confidence that there was nothing they could do to stop him.

I disagree with many people - I think Cesc Fabregas does have all of those qualities. I don't know if he's a vocal enough leader or has enough gravitas to be a captain, but I do believe that he is a winner that is hobbled by injury and the fact that this club has far too many passengers. But, we are at a point now where our erstwhile holding midfielder, Alex Song, is often up in the opponents' penalty area looking to score goals. We are at a point where our Maginot Line of a back four cannot defend attacks that wouldn't pass muster in a Sunday pub league. We are at a point where a guy like Denilson is continually abused by opposing offenses, be it through muscling him off the ball or taking advantage when he lazily jogs back after the attackers pass him...and there are never any consequences for it. Some of the blame for these things, no doubt, belongs to the players themselves.

At the end of the day, though, it is the manager who buys them, the manager who selects them, and the manager who disciplines them...or not.

If this were season 2 without a trophy, I would not be posting this right now. It would still be within a reasonable window of rebuilding the squad. Players that seem great on other squads can turn into a pumpkin when they put on your shirt...it happens. The rub of the green can go against you - posts can be hit, referees can make mystifying decisions, opposing keepers can turn into Peter Shilton for a night. It's happened to every top manager at one time or another, and what counts is their ability to recognize the problems, adapt to them, and make the necessary changes...hence the bit about knowing yourself as well as your enemy.

The problem is that Arsene doesn't know himself and he does not know his team any longer. You know, I think I get it with him. I really do. He believes so much in this group of players, he wants to win with this lot so badly, he is blinded to the fact that they perhaps have the talent but they do not have the ability. It's plausible, isn't it? He sees these kids in training a few years ago and falls in love with the occasional flashes of brilliance that they show. He sees the example of years back when Fergie's kids gelled into the Manchester United team that destroyed everything in its path once they got going, and could see the possibilities in his youngsters.

Here's the thing, though. When those kids were coming up, there were more of them than just the Nevilles, Beckham, Scholes and Giggs. Ferguson identified the ones that not only had the talent, but the indomitable hunger to win and to be the best. Some people have it, some don't...it can't be taught. Like I said, some of these guys do have it...Fabregas, Eboue (oddly enough), Walcott and Sagna come immediately to mind. I absolutely believe that they badly want to win every game. I believe Arshavin has it but has been beaten down by the lack of it from those around him.

The problem is, you have guys like Diaby, Denilson, Bendtner and Vela who just don't. Even worse, veterans such as Rosicky, Squillaci, Silvestre, Almunia, and others have been brought in who also lack that killer instinct, that fighting spirit. It's one thing when you have kids, where there's an element of not knowing what you have until they've been thrown into the fray. When you're buying a guy from the Bundesliga or Ligue 1 with Champions' League experience, you should have a much better idea of what the finished product is made of.

Now, there are definitely times where he has been right and all of us have been wrong. Despite his recent proclivities, the manager was right about Song. Increasingly, it's looking like he was right about Fabianski. Even here though, there's the counter argument that he could have been right about them while they were on loan to Hannover or St. Etienne or Osasuna, while experienced stopgaps were installed to ensure that we could fight for trophies in the meantime.

Here's the truth. For 5 years going on 6, this team has not been able to defend. Famously, Martin Keown was not retained as a coach because Wenger didn't like his style (that can only read as Keown actually disciplining them, surely?). No replacement that we know of has ever been named. For perhaps 3 or 4 of those years, this team has had a clown in goal. For 5 years going on 6, this team has shown a remarkable fragility in instances where strength of character matters...in Old Trafford, in Stamford Bridge, in holding a lead against the Middlesbroughs of the world. For 5 years going on 6, there has been costly personnel decisions - bringing on William Gallas and making him captain, giving significant playing time to the indescribably milquetoast Denilson, benching Jens Lehmann when he still had several good years left, letting Mathieu Flamini go just as he was coming into his own, letting Gilberto Silva leave when he's still good enough to play for the Selecao, on and on and on and on. Like I said, every manager makes mistakes, but I challenge you to come up with a list for Ferguson or Mourinho or Hiddink or Ancelotti or Guardiola that rivals this in length and scope.

I stress again - I love Arsene Wenger. I really, really do. I agree with him on many things, ranging from the shocking tackling at times in the English game to the desire to play attacking, attractive football. I also love the fact that we as Arsenal fans have largely been patient during this time, certain sections of the blog commentariat at places like Arseblog and Le Grove aside. But, I think we are in danger of letting our appreciation for this man mask the fact that he has not done a good enough job at knowing his team, he has lost his famous ruthlessness that saw him drop Keown and Adams and Bergkamp, that saw him sell Merson and Hartson and Wright and Seaman.

I hate to say it...it fucking KILLS me to say it. But I don't particularly like this Arsenal team. I will still watch them and support them because I am Arsenal through and through. This is my club, in good times and bad. But, I don't respect this lot's lack of hunger and fight. I think they are spoiled, cossetted children (either in age or in maturity, as with Bendtner) who can't understand why teams won't lay down and die for them because there's a cannon on their shirt. I cannot understand how they can hear and read the things said about them and not want to give the whole world the v-sign and prove them the motherfuck wrong. Look, I don't care if we win trophies every year. It's always nice and I wouldn't ever turn one down. But, I care infinitely more that maximum effort is given in every game that this team plays. Even last season when we went out to Barcelona, I wasn't that upset - I felt that on that one instance, the team did try their best...they were just standing on the tracks when the train came through. Sod it, it happens to the best of us. What I can't abide is the arrogant home displays where they turn up expecting a walkover, or the stark naked fear they show in matches against the other big clubs.

I don't know if Arsene Wenger is capable at this point of realizing that something is rotten in the core of this team. I don't know if he can adjust his methods enough to be able to motivate them to change, or to get rid of the hopeless Denilson cases. I don't know if he can adjust to the realities of the English Premier League, where even Arsenal needs a Lauren and a Patrick Vieira and a Tony Adams. I don't know if this squad can ever learn to win like Manchester United has.

I don't know if Arsene Wenger is the right man to lead this team anymore. It's sad and it hurts, but it's true.

Arsenal 2-3 Chicken-Shirts - Post-Mortem

First D.J.: Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties 'cause it's cooooold out there today.
Second D.J.: It's coooold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach?
First D.J.: Not hardly. And you know, you can expect hazardous travel later today with that, you know, that, uh, that blizzard thing.
Second D.J.: [mockingly] That blizzard - thing. That blizzard - thing. Oh, well, here's the report! The National Weather Service is calling for a "big blizzard thing!"
First D.J.: Yessss, they are. But you know, there's another reason why today is especially exciting.
Second D.J.: Especially cold!
First D.J.: Especially cold, okay, but the big question on everybody's lips...
Second D.J.: - On their chapped lips...
First D.J.: - On their chapped lips, right: Do ya think Phil is gonna come out and see his shadow?
Second D.J.: Punxsutawney Phil!
First D.J.: Thats right, woodchuck-chuckers - it's
[in unison]

The above is what Bill Murray's character woke up to every morning (which was the same morning), over and over until he gets his shit together and successfully wins Andie MacDowell. For our part, we wake up the morning after a match to consider how many times this club has to be burned by complacency, fear and the inability to defend simple set pieces before the lesson sinks in. What happened on Saturday morning could just as easily have happened at the end of the Everton match - the team gets out to a 2-0 lead, and decides that they don't have to play anymore. It's fucking disgraceful is what it is. Everything I said after the West Brom match holds true once again, right down to the lack of guts, fortitude and mental strength.

I honestly don't know at this point if it's the players, the manager or both. Something has to change, though.

It all started out brightly enough. For whatever reason, the scum came out of the blocks with trepidation, and the Arsenal tore into them with a ferocity rarely seen from this lot. Within 9 minutes, they had a deserved lead. A wonderful killer ball from Cesc Fabregas was initially mis-controlled by Samir Nasri. He still got it around the dive of Gomes though, but at the time I thought he had left himself with too much to do. However, he managed to dink it back towards goal from the most acute of angles, and it somehow dribbled over the line before Benoit Assou-Ekotto could get back (for his part, Gomes had shamefully given up on the play...he had an outside chance of getting back in time if he had hustled). As you'd imagine, we all went mental - you can't ask for a better start against the auld enemy than that.

As bad as Spurs were before the goal, they were infinitely worse after it. Arsenal had just about all of the ball, and they moved forward with venom in their veins on every attack. Of course, for the most part, it was undone by poor passing and indecision in the final third of the field. Still, there was a moment in the 19th where it looked like Arsenal would double their lead...Gomes at fault once again. A free kick from Fabregas was curled to the back post, and Gomes' wild flap caught nothing but a mixture of hydrogen, oxygen, and trace amounts of other gases. Unfortunately, the diabolical Marouane Chamakh (easily his worst performance in an Arsenal shirt) not only couldn't get on the end of it but was offside to boot. A few minutes later, Fabregas worked a one-two with Alex Song to get some space, but could only fire wide.

It didn't matter though, as the second goal came shortly thereafter. A rare sortie upfield by the scum was dealt with, and Arsenal counter-attacked quickly in a fashion not often seen since the glory days of Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp. Nasri's pass found Andrei Arshavin, whose low cross was deflected in by Chamakh. I know I said that Chamakh had a mare, and I stand by that. The goal was well-taken, but as we'll see later, that was his only worthwhile contribution to the match. Even his hold-up play was nowhere near his recent standard.

That took us to the break with a solid lead against demoralized opponents. With any other club that has title pretensions, that would usually signify the end of any serious resistance. They'll keep it tight early in the second half, deflect any token offense coming out of the halftime team talk, and then pounce when the other side starts to hang their heads. With Arsenal, that means our problems are just beginning.

Sure enough, the lead was halved just 5 minutes after the interval. The dreadful Laurent Koscielny - who was mystifyingly installed back into the starting XI in place of the on-form Johan Djourou - was beaten on a header by halftime substitute Jermain Defoe. It bounced to Rafael van der Vaart, who connected with the onrushing Gareth Bale. Bale's low finish left Lukasz Fabianski with no chance, and the momentum was now with the white half of London. The worst part about this goal is that it came off the counter from an Arsenal set piece...I forget if it was a corner or a free kick. The problem was that both center-halves came up, and were glacially slow getting back once Spurs broke out on the counter. With a 2-0 lead in a must-win match, why risk so much by having both defenders so far up the field? This is exactly the sort of tactical naivety that costs us game after game, season after season.

First D.J.: Thats right, woodchuck-chuckers - it's
[in unison]

With any other club that has title pretensions, this is where they would hold onto the ball for a bit, compose themselves, and then take advantage of the other side pressing more men up the field to carve out chances on the counter. With Arsenal, you have 10 dudes with their hearts in their throats all looking around at the others waiting for someone to take control of the game and get things back on track. However, sadly for us, Tony Adams is not walking through that door. Arsene Wenger can go on and on all he wants about how a team needs to have multiple leaders, but the fucking fact is that such an approach never works. Someone has to stand up and accept responsibility, and there is no one on this squad who is capable of it. I love Fabregas...L-O-V-E Fabregas, but he isn't that guy and never was.

Whereas most top clubs have an undisputed captain who can settle the team in these moments, Fabregas instead gifted the opposition with the penalty that tied the game at 2-2. While the foul that lead up to the initial free kick was soft as hell (and make no mistake, Phil Dowd is a blind, incompetent cunt of a ref), there was no excuse for Fabregas doing his goalkeeper impersonation in the wall that left Dowd with no choice but to point to the spot. If he wanted the No. 1 shirt that badly, he should have done it before Fabianski established himself in the position. The spot-kick saw van der Vaart send Fabianski the wrong way, and all of a sudden it was 2-2 with almost 30 minutes to go. Did anyone, anyone at all, not know what was going to happen here?

First D.J.: Thats right, woodchuck-chuckers - it's
[in unison]

Chamakh was replaced at this point by Robin van Persie, who unsurprisingly contributed nothing to the cause. Still, I'm not sure which was the worse evil at this point - the half-fit perma-injured Dutchman, or the Moroccan who, when put in alone on goal, fucked around in the area long enough to allow two defenders to come back and clear the danger. Chamakh has had a good goal-scoring record this season, and is a brilliant header of the ball. But, when it is at his feet, he is only capable of positive things when he doesn't have time to think. When he does, he seems to be another who cannot accept the responsibility to make a decision and to fucking GO FOR IT. Like too many others on this team, he at times is willing to be a passenger when drivers are required. It's always a pass, always the hope that the responsibility can be shifted to someone else.

Soon after, it looked like Arsenal had - against the run of play - re-taken the lead. Fabregas' free kick was looped into the area, and was side-footed home by Sebastien Squillaci. However, the Frenchman was roughly 23.1 astronomical units offside, rightly called by the linesman. I admit to being apoplectic in real time, but the replay was clear that the lino had made the right decision.

After another half-chance where Cesc blazed over the bar, two of the more indescribably baffling substitutions of the year followed. Nasri and Arshavin - who had provided most of our attacking impetus on the day - were replaced by Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky. While I had no problem with Theo coming on, I was amazed that the two best players on the field in red were the ones coming off. Also, if you need to save a game and Rosicky is the answer you come up with, then you're asking the wrong questions.

Despite that, the Gunners' best chances to win the match came right after the substitutions. A rasper from outside the area off the boot of Fabregas was brilliantly tipped away by Gomes. Off the resulting corner, Koscielny was completely unmarked, but his header looped over the bar. At the very least, he should have tested the goalkeeper...a dreadful, dreadful miss.

A few minutes later, the former Lorient man committed the foul that led to the winner. Off the free kick, Younes Kaboul out-jumped Fabregas and Koscielny and sent a fine header low into the bottom corner to Fabianski's right.

First D.J.: Thats right, woodchuck-chuckers - it's
[in unison]

You don't need me to tell you that Arsenal provided absolutely nothing (other than one shot blazed into the Van Allen Belt by Walcott) in response to this? Since we're on a Groundhog Day theme in this report, this is verbatim what I wrote in the West Brom post-mortem:
It says something though that, after five years of trophyless seasons, after countless articles and interviews where for all intents and purposes they've had their desire and even their manhood questioned, after being mentally and physically abused by the top teams, this lot still have the same old fragility. No fight, no drive, no determination, no defiance, no guts, no testicles, no resistance. George Graham is turning over in his grave, and he's not even dead yet.

Take that, multiply that by 1000 due to this being the derby, and apply it here. What the fuck else can you say? I'm tired of saying the same old things about the same players and the same manager season after season after season. As a matter of fact, I have wasted far too many words on this horseshit result, so on to the ratings before I burst a blood vessel.


Fabianski 6, Clichy 5, Squillaci 5, Koscielny 3, Sagna 6, Nasri 7 (Rosicky 5), Denilson 5, Fabregas 6, Song 6, Arshavin 7 (Walcott 5), Chamakh 5 (van Persie 5).