the gunners

20 Nov

 

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Arsenal 5 – 2 Tottenham  Highlights | Arsene’s reaction  Yesterday, Arsenal came from behind to thump Tottenham Hotspur 5-2.  History, it Read more 

 
Anyone who saw Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance against France will confirm that to him, such a challenge is merely a Read more 

 
For the reflective among you, here’s a little look at 2011/12, as it happened on the blog.  I thought Read more 

 
I thought I had better squeeze these in before May is out, otherwise they’ll begin to feel outdated and Read more 

 
Arsenal 3 – 0 Wolves Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction This was a perfectly satisfactory night for Arsenal… Three goals, Read more 

Arsenal’s scorers against Spurs | Image via @ShahrizanDB10

Arsenal 5 – 2 Tottenham 
Highlights  | Arsene’s reaction  

Yesterday, Arsenal came from behind to thump Tottenham Hotspur 5-2.  History, it seems, repeats itself.  At the heart of matters was the controversial figure of Emmanuel Adebayor, who scored a significant goal only to become the perpetrator of a violent and crude act that will grab the headlines.  History, again, repeating.

Some say that Adebayor was a little unfortunate to be sent off, and that his fate (a sending off for a thigh-high lunge at Santi Cazorla) could have befallen any player on the field.  That would be easier to believe if we hadn’t seen it all before.  Adebayor’s previous conviction was, you’ll remember, whilst playing for Manchester City.  On that occasion, a goal against his former club fuelled him with such a rush of adrenaline that he stamped on an Arsenal player’s face and celebrated distastefully in front of our fans.  On that occasion, punishment was belated, requiring an FA disciplinary panel.  Yesterday, retribution was swift and immediate.  Howard Webb pulled out the red card, and the game was turned.

Spurs had started so well.  They fielded an ambitious 4-4-2, and looked sturdy at the back, confident in possession, and threatening on the break.  Their goal typified their direct style, borne of a lofted ball down the left that exposed our defence as horribly muddled.  Per Mertesacker stepped up while the rest of the back four remained in position, Jermain Defoe raced in to the chasmic gap, and his shot was only palmed in to Adebayor’s path for the simplest of tap-ins.

It would be a slight untruth to say the game hinged entirely on Adebayor’s moment of madness.  There was another incident, just a couple of minutes before, that was almost as significant.  A lightening Tottenham break led by Gareth Bale ended with Aaron Lennon receiving the ball just inside our penalty area.  He fizzed a shot across goal, and it escaped the far post by a matter of inches.  Had that gone in, Arsenal would have been two down, and the whole shape of the game may have changed.

As it was, Lennon missed, and Adebayor followed up with an even greater aberration.  Immediately, Arsenal came to life.  Santi Cazorla suddenly found the space he’d hitherto lacked, and the game turned in our favour.  We were helped, too, by Andre Villas Boas’ selection of the inexperienced Karl Naughton at left-back.  He struggled against Theo Walcott all day long, and it was Theo’s perfectly clipped cross that found Per Mertesacker.  The big German leapt and planted a beautiful header in to the far corner for his first Arsenal goal.  It was a goal that had all the game-changing thump of Bacary Sagna’s in this fixture last season, and Per’s celebration showed just how much it meant to him.

Suddenly, Arsenal were flying.  In the two minutes before half-time they all but put the game beyond Tottenham.  First Lukas Podolski capped a hard-working display by squiring a deflected shot past the otherwise impressive Hugo Lloris, before Olivier Giroud put the icing on the cake.  He was helped in no small part by Santi Cazorla, who in one dribble overcame both a foul and a tackle from one of his own team-mates to get to the byline and square for the Frenchman to fire home.

At this stage, the half-time whistle brought welcome relief for Tottenham.  I turned to a friend and said that with our defence, I wouldn’t be confident until we got a fourth.  Fortunately, soon after the restart I got my wish.  The goal was possibly my favourite of the day, as it involved all four of our attackers.  Olivier Giroud nodded a goal-kick to Theo Walcott, who in turn played in Lukas Podolski.  The ruthlessly efficient German squared for Cazorla to slide home a well-deserved goal, and with that the game was pretty much done.

Spurs did put a few jitters up us when Gareth Bale fired home from the edge of the area with twenty minutes to go.  I have to say, I don’t get many opportunities to watch the Welshman up close, but he’s clearly some player.  Fortunately, he’s also far too good for Spurs, so I can’t imagine we’ll have to worry about him there for more than a season or too.

With only ten men, Tottenham weren’t ever able to put us under serious pressure.  All that was left was for us to replicate last season’s scoreline, which we did in added time.  Theo Walcott had been given a four minute cameo in the central role he craves, and he used the opportunity ably to grab a goal, sidefooting home after an impressive burst from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  It is genuinely frustrating to watch Walcott in such a rich vein of form, knowing all the time that we are creeping closer to his likely departure.  At the moment, however, pragmatism dictates that we must continue to play him.  He is simply too valuable to the team to relegate to the bench.

So there we have it: 5-2 again.  Same result; different sensation.  Because of the sending off, I feel like this game won’t have the same seismic impact on either of these teams’ seasons as the previous 5-2.  Last time, Spurs’ collapse came from a greater position of dominance, and was more complete in its cataclysmic hilarity.  This time, they have mitigating circumstances.  They can blame Adebayor’s stupidity rather than their own inadequacy.  I expect their wheels to wobble, rather than come off entirely.

For Arsenal, however, there are still plenty of positives.  Arsenal’s front six were excellent.  In midfield Arteta was solid, whilst Jack Wilshere had arguably his best game since returning from a seventeen month lay-off.  Santi Cazorla recaptured his spectacular early-season form, admittedly helped by the holes in midfield left vacant by a fast-tiring Tottenham side.

I was particularly taken with the performances of our attacking trio.  Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski could both feel justified in laying claim to a centre-forward role, but both put in real shifts on the flank and reaped the rewards with a goal apiece.  Olivier Giroud’s adaptation continues apace – whilst he occasionally lacks pace, his aerial ability and movement generally make up for that.  It was notable how many crosses Arsenal put in yesterday – as long as Giroud is in the side, we have a genuine plan B to our conventional ‘tippy-tappy’ style.

The truth is that the long term repercussions don’t really matter.  In the immediate term, the here and now, we thumped Tottenham 5-2. Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?  Just, you could say, like last time.  Let’s make this an annual thing.  Enjoy your Sunday.

Hello folks.  It’s derby weekend, and so I’ve invited my Spurs-supporting pal (contradiction in terms, I grant you) Adam Nathan  along to have a quick chat.

If you’re still not satiated after reading through this, them head over to arseblog  and listen to today’s arsecast, on which I join a couple of other more eloquent bloggers to discuss derbies, defending, and other delights.

SELECTION HEADACHES

GS: Arsene has been spared a major headache with the admittedly worrying news that Kieran Gibbs is not available.  That means he’ll be able to field all three of his first-choice centre-backs, with Thomas Vermaelen again being shunted out on to the left.  There have been some suggestions in the media that Arsene could switch to 3-5-2 imminently, but I’m dubious about that story.  Even if he was contemplating a switch, I doubt he’d make it ahead of such an important game.  Aside from that, the team picks itself.  If Wojciech Szczesny is fit he simply has to displace Vito Mannone, whilst Bacary Sagna ought to continue at right-back, despite a touch of fatigue.  Jack Wilshere will return from suspension to join Arteta and Cazorla in midfield, whilst the front three of Podolski, Giroud and Walcott should continue after a relatively impressive showing against Reading.

Adam: Sadly, the selection headaches all Spurs fans will have wished upon Boas have been eradicated by a lengthy injury list for Saturday’s game. In addition to long term absentees like Ekotto, Parker and Kaboul,  Dembele’s chronic hip injury could not have come at a worse time for us, with our form seriously suffering since the Belgian’s injury flared up again in the last international break.

In terms of the decisions AVB will have to make, I would expect him to again, wrongly, go with Brad Friedel in goal in place of Hugo Lloris, whilst Huddlestone, Carroll, Livermore, Dempsey and Sigurdsson will fight it out for the two centre midfield spots along side the Brazilian Sandro, who has probably been our most consistent player this season. Up front, whilst some will call for a strike partnership of Adebayor and Defoe, I would expect us to again go into the game with one striker. After an impressive full league debut in Manchester last weekend, most Spurs fans will hope that Adebayor is given a chance to line-up against his old team once again.

RECENT FORM

GS: I don’t want to talk about it.  Ok, fine… after a positive start familiar frailties have been exposed.  The clean sheets with which we started the season now appear anomalous rather than indicative of any kind of improvement.  Arsenal seem stuck in their painful annual cycle.  Traditionally, November is when the wheels come off.  So far, it’s brought us the comprehensive defeat by United, and the surrendering of two two-goal leads against Schalke and Fulham.

Adam: Quite frankly, we have been pretty poor all season. Aside from a good 90 minutes at Reading and decent halves at Old Trafford and St. Mary’s, we have looked like a very average side thus far under our new management regime. Naturally it will take time for Boas to impress his ideas on a squad that not only suffered a terrible end to last season but has since been dismantled and put poorly back together by Daniel Levy, but in order for our season to end with any degree of success, we will really need to buck our ideas up, hopefully starting on Saturday.

HEAD TO HEAD

GS: My impression of Spurs is that Sandro and Huddlestone aren’t the most mobile of defensive midfielders, so I’m hoping the fleet-of-foot provided by Cazorla and Wilshere could be the difference.  Moussa Dembele will be a big miss for Spurs.

In recent weeks, we’ve looked very vulnerable on our left flank, and Spurs have the players to exploit that.  They tend to line up with Kyle Walker and Aaron Lennon, but they also have the option of switching Gareth Bale to give  Thomas Vermaelen a different kind of problem to tackle.  Or attempt to, at any rate.

The major worry is the horrible habit players have of scoring against their former club.  It’s not hard to imagine either William Gallas or Emmanuel Adebayor returning to haunt us.

Adam: In terms of where we can actually hurt Arsenal, I can’t see past our one true match winner, Gareth Bale; if we are to leave the Emirates with three points, it’s fairly safe to say that he will play a crucial role for us, with his well publicised pace, power and finesse. On the other side of the pitch, Aaron Lennon has had a decent season so far, although continues to deliver the goals and assists that would see him classed as a top player. That said, Arsenal have seemed to struggle at left back this season, so perhaps the England winger will be able to put in a big performance on Saturday afternoon.

With regard to where we can be hurt, the centre midfield area looks like a worrying proposition for Spurs fans. In all likelihood, we will continue with a three of Sandro, Huddlestone and Dempsey, the latter two who have in truth had terrible seasons thus far. If Arsenal are able to press us high up the pitch and maintain possession in the centre of the park, I worry that we will get overrun and ultimately punished by Arsenal’s attacking flair, which doesn’t seem to have been the reason for your dropping of points thus far.

PREDICTED TEAM

GS: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Arteta, Wilshere, Cazorla, Walcott, Giroud, Podolski

Adam: Friedel, Walker, Caulker, Gallas, Vertonghen, Sandro, Huddlestone, Dempsey, Lennon, Bale, Adebayor.

PREDICTED SCORE

GS: Arsenal 2 – 1 Spurs – I can’t see Spurs not scoring.  In fact, I think they may even take the lead.  However, this game is so big for Arsenal that I believe we’ll pull a result out of the bag.  The likes of Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla have the chance to make themselves a hero.  My money’s on the Frenchman to do just that.

Adam: Arsenal 3 – 1 Spurs – Ultimately, we have not played well for a month now, and seem to have too many injuries to stand a serious chance of taking anything away from the game this weekend. Whilst many have pointed out the frailties in Arsenal’s team, your players always seem to raise it more than ours do on games like this, with last season being a great example, and as a result I expect you to come through fairly unchallenged. That said, we live in eternal hope!

A little over 24 hours till game-time now.  Come On Arsenal.

It’s a great week to be Carl Jenkinson. Not only has he been handed his first call-up to the England squad, forsaking Finland in the process, but he’s agreed a new five-year contract with Arsenal worth more than £30,000 p/ week. It’s just reward for a player whose career has not so much taken strides forward as giant leaps and bounds. Little more than two years ago he was on loan in the non-league; now he’s on the verge of his international debut. It shows, too, just how quietly and quickly a deal can be agreed when both parties are willing to come to an agreement.

In the meantime, several other players continue to run their contracts towards conclusion with worryingly little news on potential agreements. I’ve made plain my stated belief that Theo Walcott will not sign a new deal, and I expect the club will make every effort to move him on at a reduced price in January rather than lose him for nothing. Theo, who has picked up a glute muscle strain, has been replaced in the England squad by Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha. It would not surprise me too greatly to see the same substitution occur in the Arsenal squad after Christmas.

Whilst I’ve pretty much come to terms with the likelihood of Theo’s departure, I am a little alarmed at the lack of news regarding an extension to Bacary Sagna’s contract. The Frenchman was pretty vocal about the fact he hadn’t yet been approached by Arsenal in the summer. Time has worn on and whilst his youthful deputy has been handed a new deal, Sagna waits for progress. Come next summer, he’ll have just twelve months remaining on his current deal, and we all know that story ends. For me, keeping Sagna is imperative. Jenkinson has been impressive this season, but the Frenchman is one of the best right-backs in the world. If he became available, some of the biggest clubs in football would be queuing up his signature: the likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan or even Manchester United. I’d argue he’s one of our few remaining world class talents. Worryingly, that also makes him one of our few remaining saleable assets.

However much Jenkinson improves in the coming months, Arsenal should not contemplate losing an experienced performer like Sagna. Similarly you could argue that Zaha for Walcott would be swapping inexperience and risk for relative consistency – unfortunately in the case of Theo it seems the battle to keep him is already lost. What terrifies me about the Sagna situation is that it seems to stem from our own complacency. There is a willingness to see him enter the last 18 months of his contract, which shows a staggering failure to learn lessons from previous experience.

The talent drain will continue, and no player is immune. Jack Wilshere might profess his loyalty now, but unless Arsenal improve enough to match his ambition then that commitment will be tested by the pounds and prizes on offer elsewhere. Arsenal are unmatched in their ability to lose their best players. Look at Everton: a club with far greater financial restrictions. In recent years, they’ve held on to Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Marouane Fellaini and others, despite interest from some of the country’s biggest clubs. Arsenal themselves were rebuffed in a bid for Jagielka. We did, of course, succeed in prizing away Mikel Arteta, but Everton got a very good fee for a player entering his thirties with a dodgy knee. They’ve also balanced the books by selling Jack Rodwell, receiving £15m for a player who didn’t even regularly make their first team. In the same period of time, Arsenal have lost Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie and Song. Once upon a time, Arsenal sold their stars when their powers were on the wane. Now they lose players as they enter their peak.

Financial Fair Play has long been touted as the antidote to Arsenal’s ailment. However, the fact that Chelsea were able to demonstrate a profit last week is yet another puncture in that once hopeful prospect. Arsenal have held on waiting to reap the rewards of parsimony. In the meantime Chelsea have speculated to accumulate, overtaken us footballistically, and are fast catching up financially. This interlull feels gloomier than most.

Match Report  | Highlights  | Arsene’s reaction 

This game should have been all about Olivier Giroud.
I said before the game I fancied the Frenchman to score – I should have put some money on it.  He scored two fantastic headers, taking his tally to six goals from his last seven starts.  It’s worth remembering that this performance came against the titanic Brede Hangeland.  Giroud competed with the Norwegian tirelessly and this ought to have been the day that he announced himself to the Premier League with a brace in a vital Arsenal win.  Of course, as it was, the defence had other ideas and Giroud is relegated from the headlines.

Some will say he spurned a final chance to make it his day by not volunteering to take the stoppage-time penalty.  It was interesting to note his body language – as soon as the kick was awarded, he started doing a ‘calm down’ gesture with his hands.  Perhaps he sensed the game was far from won.  Having missed his last kick, perhaps he also felt the added pressure of a possible hatrick meant he wasn’t best placed to take it.  After all, he’d looked far more lethal in the air than with his feet, and he couldn’t exactly head a penalty.  Anyhow, Mikel Arteta seemed pretty keen, taking the ball of Santi Cazorla – the only man to initially volunteer.

Was this Mikel Arteta’s first bad game for Arsenal?
After the Spaniard conceded the penalty, I pondered whether that was the first major mistake he’d made in an Arsenal shirt.  He was obviously keen to amend matters with the spot-kick, but unfortunately didn’t manage it.  When you look at Arteta’s performances since signing for the club, it’s hard to hold him too responsible.  This wasn’t his best game, but you can never question his commitment.

The missed penalty is a red herring.
Like Jack Wilshere’s sending off last week, or indeed Santi Cazorla’s goal, the penalty miss should not detract from the true story of the game: that Arsenal squandered a 2-0 lead for the second time in five days.  Scoring three goals at home should be enough to win any game – especially one in which you’ve led by two clear goals.  As it was, we allowed Fulham time to play, and they duly punished us.

Dimitar Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz were excellent.
Clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, and indeed Arsenal should be asking themselves how this pair managed to end up at Fulham.  I don’t mean any disrespect to the Cottagers, but both plainly have the talent to be playing at a much higher level.

Our midfield were a mess.
Forgive me, but I don’t understand why a holding midfielder, Francis Coquelin, frequently found himself in a more advanced position than the more creative Mikel Arteta.   Also, I am conscious this may be heresy, but I’m not sure about the validity of keeping Santi Cazorla in the central three.  He drops in to wide areas to look for space, which means that the two left behind occasionally look a little isolated.  In the unlikely instance that everyone is fit and available, I’d like to see Arteta, Diaby and Wilshere in the middle with Cazorla drifting in from one of the wide positions.

The ‘Steve Bould effect’ myth has been destroyed.
After Arsenal kept a clean sheet in the first three games of the season, I said this:

“I’d like to go on record and say I think our defensive excellence has been somewhat overstated in the early part of this season.  Just as us conceding ten in the first three games of last season was anomalous, the three clean sheets could be a similar statistical oddity.  It will take a longer run of consistency before I declare that Steve Bould has replaced the current back four with clones of our well-drilled mid-90s heroes.”

I wish I had been wrong.   After today’s game, Arsenal no longer hold the statistic title of meanest defence in the league, and it’s easy to see why.

The “Steve Bould has fixed everything” narrative was a myth created by people who wanted to use it as stick to beat Arsene Wenger with.  And as for the ‘zonal marking’ on the corner from which Berbatov scored, I have to confess I simply can’t see the logic in leaving opposition players to make untracked, unmarked runs and attack the ball.

With Spurs at City tomorrow, this weekend ought to have been a time to put us in a powerful position ahead of next week’s North London derby.  Instead, that game is looking very crunchy indeed.

I expect Arsenal to make only one change today…
…and that will be an enforced one.  Jack Wilshere is suspended so will drop out of the side, with Francis Coquelin the man most likely to replace him.  Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are back in the squad , but having just recovered from injury are unlikely to be rushed straight back in to the side.  Other than that, I expect Thomas Vermaelen to continue at full-back and Theo Walcott to keep his place on the wing.

I can’t help but feel today could be a big day for Olivier Giroud…
The Frenchman is quietly getting in to gear.  Since breaking his duck against Coventry, he has started six games.  In that period of time, he has amassed four goals.  It means that despite all the criticism, he currently has more goals this season than, say, a certain Wayne Rooney.  The blight on his record is that only one of those goals has come in the Premier League – a competition in which he has appeared in every game.  A goal today would help give him some real momentum going in to the North London Derby.

It sounds like Theo Walcott is on the way out…
When asked about his contract situation this week, Arsene said :

“‘I don’t want to go into any details but you can believe me [that] we do the maximum we can to keep our best players.”

It’s a familiar refrain.  It’s the same thing he said previously about Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, and Robin van Persie.  The deadline for Theo to sign a new deal is fast approaching.  For footballing and financial reasons, I’d like to see him sign a new deal.  However, I’m afraid it looks to be too late for that.

Lukas Podolski is not entirely to blame for his own downturn in form…
Arsene Wenger puts it down to culture shock .  I’d suggest it’s simply down to a lack of chances.  The German has not scored for more than a month, but in that period of time I can’t think of a significant chance he’s missed.  In fact, I can barely think of a single chance he’s missed in his time as an Arsenal player.  He’s lethal in front of goal – the team just need to work harder to get him there.

It’s great to see Tomas Rosicky back in training…
I had almost forgotten that he was still an Arsenal player.   It’s easy to forget how fantastic he was in the second half of last season, and he will add some much needed zip and verve to our midfield when he returns.  It will also enable us to give Santi Cazorla some much-needed rest – the Spaniard has looked jaded in recent weeks.

Schalke 2 – 2 Arsenal (Walcott 18, Giroud 26, Huntelaar 45, Farfan 67)
Match Report | Highlights  | Arsene’s reaction  

We would all have taken a draw beforehand…
On paper, it’s a creditable result.  However, losing a 2-0 lead is never a good thing, and the best sides tend to maintain that kind of advantage.

I’m not sure it’s a game we would have deserved to win…
If Theo Walcott had snatched a late winner, it would have been mightily harsh on Schalke.  Our opening two-goal salvo was hugely against the run of play, and whilst it understandable knocked the wind out of the German sails, they dominated for large periods of the game.

Theo got Giroud out of jail on the first goal…
Put clear on goal, the Frenchman should have scored.  Fortunately, when he trundled in to the keeper, Walcott was on hand to pick up the pieces and tap the ball in to an empty net – yet another example that he doesn’t need to play through the middle to score a ‘striker’s goal’.  It was telling that when the Frenchman did find the net just a few minutes later, it was with an instinctive headed finish – one that didn’t give him time to think.  He owes a lot to another fantastic cross from Lukas Podolski.

Vermaelen at left-back was the right call…
Koscielny looked more comfortable at centre-back than he has for most of the season, and Vermaelen was steady if a little positionally naive at full-back.  He has helped by an injury to Schalke’s marauding full-back Uchida, who looked a major threat in the opening period of the game.  On first viewing it appeared he might have been at fault for the equalising goal; in fact it was Podolski who ought to have followed Farfan to the far post.

Blaming the referee is a little bit rich…
Whilst there were a couple of decisions that plainly went against us, we were also lucky beneficiaries of the officiating on a couple of occasions.  There are plenty of referees who would’ve given a penalty for the (albeit accidental) handball by Per Mertesacker, and by my understanding of the increasingly laughable offside rule Olivier Giroud should have been flagged on the first goal.

The green shoots of recovery were there…
Arsenal scored a couple of half-decent goals and briefly looked like their confidence had been restored to them.  Had they managed to make it to half-time at 2-0, I suspect it might have been a rather different game.  As it was, Huntelaar got the crucial goal and Schalke attacked the second half with real vigour and ultimately outplayed us.  Even so, in the 20 minute period after Arsenal went ahead, I saw enough to remind me of why people were talking about this team in such positive terms at the start of the season.  Now we just need to see that across the 90.

 

The scoreline was entirely misleading…
If you missed the game and saw only the score, you might think that this was a close affair.  In fact, as an Arsenal supporter, you’d most probably be quietly relieved at the small disparity between the two teams – it’s a hell of an improvement upon 8-2, for one thing.  In reality, however, the gulf looked as wide as it ever has.  United missed a penalty and mustered a further seven shots on target.  Arsenal managed just three, all of which came during stoppage time at the end of a dead rubber of a second half.

There was a poignant sadness about Fergie…
Although Alex Ferguson was quick to state  that his side “should have scored fix or six or maybe even more”, he didn’t seem to take too much pleasure in it.  In an interview with the BBC,  he added:

“It was a strange game, nothing like the Arsenal – United games of the past.  It didn’t live up to his billing.”

He was disappointed.   Not just at his own side’s lack of efficiency, but at the sheer lack of competition.  Fergie loves a fight, and Arsenal simply didn’t give him one.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the film Hook, but it is one of Hollywood’s great cinematic masterpieces.  It features an astonishing turn from Dustin Hoffman as Captain Hook.  He kidnaps the grown-up Peter Pan’s children, and uses them as bait to lure Pan to NeverNeverLand for one great last duel.   However, when Pan does show up, Hook realises he is now just a fat, flabby, middle-aged man.  He’s no longer the great warrior Hook loved to do battle with.  The war is over, and the eternally combative Hook is devastated.  That’s how Fergie looked in the post-game press conference: no smug self-satisfaction; just genuinely gutted that we can longer proffer a credible challenge.

In the film, encouraged by the Lost Boys and a preposterously named vagrant called ‘Rufio’, Pan rediscovers his former glories, learns to fly, fight and crow once more, and returns for one final titanic clash.  At the moment Arsenal look a long way from such a resurrection.  And Rufio is dead, so that’s out the window.

Not everything is Ivan Gazidis’ fault…
Last season Arsene Wenger took a lot of flak from supporters.  This season it seems to be Gazidis’ turn.  I do have a degree of understanding with some fans’ frustration at what they perceive as the poor running of the club.  But here’s the thing: an almost identical XI performed far better at the City of Manchester Stadium, in a game which finished 1-1 but in which Arsenal really ought to have won by a goal or two.  City and United are about as good as each other.  The disparity between those two Arsenal performances is nothing to do with Ivan Gazidis, and the responsibility for the downturn in form must be laid squarely at the door of the manager and the players.

Theo Walcott was never likely to start…
There are three reasons.  The first is that is contract situation has undoubtedly seen him slip down the pecking order.  The second is that he played 120 minutes in midweek.  The third is that Arsene was always likely to pick Aaron Ramsey on the right in the hope of replicating the aforementioned City performance.  Of those reasons, I genuinely believe that on this occasion the second and third were more influential than the first.  In future, however, I hope Arsene doesn’t cut off his nose to spite his face by leaving Theo out at a time when we plainly need him.

Thomas Vermaelen does not look like captain material…
When Robin van Persie took on the armband, he seemed to grow as a man and a player.  Since Thomas Vermaelen inherited it, he has shrivelled like a slug in a Bloody Mary.  His mistake for the opening goal was absolutely criminal, and it was an error which compounded several weeks of poor form.  Perhaps it’s unfortunate timing that this dip in his performances has coincided with becoming skipper, or perhaps the broadened responsibility has led his own game to suffer.  Either way, he needs to improve quickly.  At the moment the armband is the one thing keeping him in the team.

Give Santos a break…
You don’t have to know him to see that Andre Santos is a nice guy.  He’s always got a smile on his face, is clearly popular with the squad, and is basically a cheeky cuddly good sort of bloke.  Now, I will grant you this: he’s a bit slow, a bit positionally naive, and probably not good enough to be a long-term option for Arsenal at left-back.  He had a very poor game against QPR and quite a poor one against United.  And yes, he swapped shirts with Robin van Persie at half-time.  But none of that is enough to justify the abuse this guy is getting from his own ‘fans’ on twitter.

You may not know this, but pros swap shirts at half-time all the time.  It’s a regular thing.  It usually happens in the tunnel, rather than on the pitch, but it’s no biggie.  Especially between friends, and that’s what these players are.  Just like you might be friends with your former colleagues.  You all saw Van Persie hugging Arsene at half-time, just minutes after scoring the goal that separated the teams at that point, and yet Arsene seems to have escaped censure.

Santos is the latest in a long-line of scape goats.  The likes of Bendtner, Eboue and Arshavin have all been down that path before him, and it doesn’t end well.  Personally, I think it stinks, and I hate what I see a section of the fanbase dishing out to a guy who is still our player.  Get a grip, people.

We’re going backwards fast…
That’s the truth.  I’m not worried about shirt-swapping or referee decisions or anything else: I’m worried about this team.  The decline in recent weeks has been alarming.  Leaving aside that anomalous League Cup game, the first team have lost three of the last four.  On Tuesday night we face an intimidating trip to Schalke, and we’re only a couple of weeks away from a massive North London Derby.

We need to stop the rot.  At the moment we have slim trophy hopes and bleating fans.  We’re dangerously close to turning in to Liverpool.

The first half was abject, then apocalyptic, then embarrassing. The second half was acceptable, then alluring, then astounding. Extra-time was just plain bonkers.

This was a match that defies analysis.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain quite how bad Arsenal were in the first half, nor what inspired the change that formed the basis of that incredible turnaround.  In that first 45, every time Reading went forward they looked like scoring.  We simply could not deal with their crosses.  Ignasi Miquel and Carl Jenkinson looked exposed and awkward at full-back, whilst Koscielny and Djourou looked anything but international class defenders in the centre.

First Jason Roberts outwitted Koscielny to dart to the back post and prod home.  Then, just minutes later, Koscielny’s nightmare half continued as his outstretched leg diverted the ball past Martinez and in to his own net.  The Argentine keeper wasn’t helping affairs; his inexperience was clear to see as he flapped at cross after cross.  It was his criminal error which led to the third goal. Mikele Leigertwood fired a fairly simple shot at goal;   Martinez could probably have caught it where he stood, but instead threw himself up and back in an acrobatic arc, playing for the cameras.  How humiliating then that his palm only pushed the ball lamely up in to the air, allowing it to drop in to the net behind him.  Twenty minutes gone; three nil to Reading.

Incredibly, it got worse.  Another cross drifted in, from the right this time, and Noel Hunt climbed highest to power home.  Arsenal were dreadful all over the pitch.  In the build up to the game the manager had made it very public just where this competition lies in his list of priorities.  Unfortunately, it seems the players took that as their cue to put in an entirely listless display.  We were second to every ball, and for the most part you felt glad that the majority of these players are nowhere near the first team.

And then, just before half-time, Arsenal were handed a glimmer of hope.  Andrey Arshavin split the defence with a cute through ball which Theo Walcott raced on to before clipping delightfully over the advancing Adam Federici.  Ah, Federici: with him, you always have a chance.

From the interviews with the players after the match, we can gleam that Arsene’s half-time team talk pulled no punches: this wasn’t good enough.  This was not Arsenal.  In the first half, the fans had been chanting “we want our Arsenal back”.  In the second, they got it.

The game hinged on the double substitution in the 62nd minute.  Olivier Giroud and Thomas Eisfeld were introduced for Gnabry and Frimpong, and suddenly Arsenal came to life.  Within two minutes of coming on to the field of play, Giroud had got on to the end of a Walcott corner and thumped a brilliant header beyond Federici.  Arsenal fans dared to hope.

There then followed a succession of near-misses which I couldn’t help but feel we needed to score to have any chance.  If we could get a third before the 80th minute, I reasoned, then we could have a real go at grabbing an equaliser.  But the clock ticked on, and no goal came.

Fair play to Arsenal; they kept going.  And, in the 89th minute, another Walcott corner found Koscielny, who’s eventful night continued with his second goal of the season.

The board went up, and the situation crystallised: Arsenal had four minutes to score an equaliser.  Reading did everything right.  They kept the ball in the corners, far away up the other end of the pitch.  The four minutes expired.  And yet, the whistle didn’t come.  Arsenal suddenly found themselves with one last tantalising chance. Eisfeld thumped the ball fifty yards in to the area.  Giroud did incredibly well to nod it down towards Theo Walcott, and he stabbed an effort towards goal.  And then, panic.  Replays showed the ball had crossed the line, but the referee didn’t spot it, instead not blowing his whistle until Carl Jenkinson of all people popped up to make sure and hammer the ball back in to the net.  Whoever scored, it didn’t matter.  Arsenal had done it: 4-4, in the 96th minute.

Some players thought their work for the night was done.  Olivier Giroud and Francis Coquelin threw their shirts in to the crowd, only to hurriedly retrieve them when they discovered they had to play extra-time.  Arsenal had the momentum now, and goal their fifth successive goal to put them ahead when Chamakh played a neat one-two with Giroud and fired low in to the corner from outside the box.  I wasn’t sure he had it in him, to be honest.

That, of course, should have been that.  This, however, was no ordinary game, and with just four minutes remaining on the clock a deflect cross found it’s way to Pavel Pogrebnyak,who levelled things up at 5-5.

With Martinez in such worrying form, Arsenal didn’t fancy penalties, but time was and tiring legs were against them.  That’s why I was so shocked when it was a 120th minute forty yard sprint from Andrey Arshavin that proved the difference.  He scooted in to the box and ignored options in the middle to slip the ball under the keeper.  This time, Reading did manage to get the ball off the line, but only as far as Walcott, who smashed it in to give us the crucial lead.  Alongside Walcott was Laurent Koscielny, who had won the ball at the back and sprinted the length of the pitch in the search for the winner.

There was time for one more. A glacé cherry on this delicious cake of a game. Arsene Wenger was still admonishing Martinez for failing to run down the clock when Walcott launched a long ball forward. Chamakh chased it down and lobbed over the keeper (again from outside the box) to set the seal on the game and make it 7-5.

Yes, 7-5.  I’m going for another lie down.

Arsenal 1 – 0 QPR (Arteta 84)
Match Report  | Highlights  | Arsene’s reaction 

Arsenal got the result they desperately needed…
After the drudgery of the last two games, I didn’t expect a flowing feast of football.  This was about securing three vital points – points that would leave us just seven adrift of league leaders Chelsea by the end of the weekend.

Mark Hughes was unhappy…
…and that is always a good thing.  I can’t stand Hughes, who seems to me to be one of the most over-rated managers in the country.  The way the media bleated about his thoroughly deserved sacking at City was pathetic, and I am enjoying seeing his expensively-assembled QPR side struggle too.  He was right to be annoyed: Mikel Arteta’s scrambled winner was plainly offside.  If I were Hughes, however, I’d be directing my ire at one of my own players: Stephane Mbia. Until he got himself sent off, QPR looked relatively comfortable.  Once they were down to ten men, however, the tide turned – although keeper Julio Cesar did his best to hold us at bay with a string of extraordinary saves.  Cesar looks like a very smart signing.  Mbia, it seems, may not be the brightest .

Jack Wilshere was every bit as good as I expected him to be…
I’d love to sit here and say, “I’d forgotten how good he was”, or “I did’t expect him to be quite so good quite so quickly”.  I’d be lying.  I did.

Jack Wilshere is very special.  Arsenal have lots of promising young players.  Wilshere is on a different level to all of those.  Arsene gets it right when he says:

“He is special. People who understand football understand that he is a good player. He has that typical thing where he can turn and take the ball forward, which is very difficult for a midfielder. He still lacks a little bit of ability to get away from people, but he will get that.”

Seeing him on the pitch gave everyone a huge lift, and it’s clear from watching Jack’s post-match interviewjust how much it meant to him.  The next few weeks will be crucial; he’ll be hoping to continue to play progressively longer whilst avoiding any set backs.  He’ll sit out the midweek Capital One Cup tie with Reading, but after such an impressive return surely he’ll have to start at Old Trafford?

Bacary Sagna is the best right-back in England…
There was a lot of talk about how it was “harsh” to leave out Carl Jenkinson.  I can’t help but feel that’s informed in part by sentimentality and our love for Carl as one of our own.  Don’t get me wrong: his improvement has been dramatic.  Bacary Sagna, however, is probably the best right-back in England, and one of the best in Europe.  As good as Carl has been, I’m staggered that I’ve read some fans saying that we might consider letting Sagna leave now we have Jenkinson in place.  With respect, that’s the sort of talk that leads to replacing Robin van Persie with Gervinho.  Sagna is one of the few truly top class performers we have.  Treasure him, and welcome him back.  Carl will still have plenty of opportunities over the course of the season.

Andrey Arshavin made the telling contribution…
When substitute Gervinho was stretchered off, Andrey Arshavin was hurriedly called in to action without even being given a chance to properly stretch.  No matter: the Russian made a crucial contribution.  It was his dribble and cross that resulted in Olivier Giroud’s header at goal, eventually leading to Arteta nudging home the winner.  It showed Arshavin can still offer the odd match-winning moment.  Perhaps next time, at least, Arsene will send him out to warm up…

Today’s game sees a team full of potential match-winners take on a side desperately out of form.  The question is: which is which?

As poor as our form has been recently, QPR’s is worse.  They haven’t won yet this season.  Then again, neither had Norwich before they played us.  For the Canaries, Grant Holt posed a fairly singular threat.  QPR have a whole host of players who could cause us troubles.  Adel Taraabt is showing signs of transferring his blistering Championship form to the top flight, Esteban Granero looks like a quality signing, and Djibril Cisse loves goals almost as much as he loves getting sent off and preposterous haircuts.

Then there’s Bobby Zamora.  Whenever he comes up against Arsenal, and Thomas Vermaelen in particular, he gives us a torrid time.  Whilst he’s far from the perfect striker, he does have a phenomenal ability to hold the ball with his back to goal.  Vermaelen’s instinct is to nip ahead of the striker and win the ball early, but Zamora’s upper-body strength and neat first touch are like kryptonite on the Belgian.

Arsenal, of course, have players of their own who can do damage.  In recent the games the team’s dour performances mean that individuals, like Podolski and Cazorla, have suffered.  With that in mind, Arsene will be keen to freshen it up.  Bacary Sagna could be in contention to oust a jaded Carl Jenkinson at full-back, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has a “60%” chance of inclusion.  If he’s fit, I expect The Ox  to start.  Gervinho was out of sorts on Wednesday night, so replacing him with the direct running and brio of Chamberlain seems a natural choice.

I’d be slightly shocked if the Ivorian started at all – surely Olivier Giroud must be primed to reclaim his central spot.  It’s time for the Frenchman to be bedded in now, and that means a regular run of games.  Whatever your reservations, he is surely the best option we have for the time being.

The big question surrounds Jack Wilshere, and whether or not Arsene will see fit to throw him back in to the fray after 14 months on the sidelines.  It would doubtless give the team and the crowd a lift, and the pre-game whispers are that Jack could be set to start.  Imagine the ovation he’ll get if he does.

The first goal today will be crucial.  Arsenal have picked up a nasty habit of falling behind in recent games.  If we do so again, then we run the risk of another disastrous result.  Go ahead, and things will look a lot sunnier.

Today could be the day when Jack relaunches his Arsenal career.  Let’s hope it’s also the day that Arsenal relaunch their season.

Couple of quick notes for Any Other Business:

  • Yesterday I put together some thoughts on the AGM.  They’re probably far too moderate for the likes of you, but give them a glance if you get the chance.
  • On the day Jack Wilshere makes his return to the Premier League, I found six of these bad boys  and bunged them on sale.  Grab ‘em quick.
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