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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Mid-season review - a huge chance

Please keep proving me wrong
When Arsenal lost to Aston Villa on the first day of this season there was a tide of change about to sweep through the Club. Arsene Wenger had finally  been turned upon by a majority of match going fans. There was a resultant atmosphere so nasty that the vitriol spilled from the stands when Villa made it 3-1. We'd spent an entire Summer watching the Arsenal business people embarrass themselves with failed attempts to sign Gonzalo Higuain and Luis Suarez. Once Antony Taylor had ensured an abysmal performance ended in a humiliating defeat to a poor side the fans had finally seen enough (it's worth noting that we've not been subjected to Taylor since which is surely an admission from the FA that he was an utter joke that day). It was clear that the Club was going nowhere and the Manager was on his last legs. A tricky draw in the Champions League qualifiers meant things were possibly only going to get worse. What has happened since then is simply incredible.
The win at Fenerbahce was a huge result. Okay, they turned out to be not quite as good as we had feared they'd be, but nobody was writing them off before we played them. The players went out there and did the business. Aaron Ramsey served notice of things to come and the team started to look like one with a good squad spirit, perhaps forged on the hopelessly choreographed tour of Asia in July. All the while the lack of investment hung over Arsenal and continued to cast a huge shadow. We all knew that, however results went in the short term, we'd be short of anything resembling a challenge all the while the obvious flaws weren't addressed. Even the win over Tottenham (whose year this is/was supposed to be for the twentieth consecutive time) was not enough to erase the doubts. Mathieu Flamini had come in on a free, and been superb as a sub against Spurs, but a free transfer for a bloke who hadn't been good enough five years ago was not really inspiring the fans (even those of us who saw the absolute value in bringing him back as a squad utility player).
Then it happened. Arsenal spent money. Big money. On a World Class player. I don't for one minute believe that the signing of Mesut Ozil was long planned. Only a few days earlier we'd been trying to buy Yohann Cabaye. If we'd got him then we'd never have gone after Ozil. We didn't actually need a player in that role. But if you bring in the best player in the World in his position then that makes a difference. As a statement of ambition it was huge. Arsenal had spent more than £40m on one player and it felt unbelievable. Opportunist it may have been, but Arsene clearly saw the stars aligning with Bale going to Real Madrid and he snuck in to surprise us all. Yes, we still needed (and still do need) a centre-forward but the bringing in of one of the best players in World football provided an amazing buzz around Arsenal. The bounce effect has been felt right up until now, even without Ozil perhaps dominating in the way he should for a player of his ability. Back in 2007 Alexander Hleb got a last minute winner in the first game of the season at home to Fulham. The effect of that carried us all the way to Birmingham in February when Eduardo's broken leg and Mike Dean's first act of bias against Arsenal changed our season once and for all. Ozil's arrival, if added to in the very near future, could take us even further in to the campaign this year.
It's amazing to think that I'm writing this piece on New Years Eve with Arsenal at the top of the Premier League, given how low things were at the Club following that Villa game. We've seen some superb football at times, and some incredible backs to the wall displays. Jack Wilshere's goal against Norwich is quite simply the most amazing team goal I've ever seen. It is so far removed from what we expect in English football that it must, whatever individual brilliance the likes of Suarez might produce, be the goal of the season. The win at Dortmund restored faith and confidence in a squad that was starting to be labelled (and still is in fairness) as a group of players who can't beat top sides. There have also been some poor displays, most notably at Old Trafford (yet again) and at Napoli.
The player of Arsenal's season to this point is indisputably Aaron Ramsey and I hope he can go on to show that it is not just a golden three months but the shape of things to come in his career. If he does keep it up then we can only hope it's a career that is largely spent in Arsenal's midfield and not somebody else's. Another player I want to single out is Per Mertesacker who has become Captain of this Arsenal team in all but official title. The BFG organises and cajoles this Arsenal team. It is no coincidence that he wasn't there in that game at Manchester United. Yes, he lacks pace and will occasionally be caught out, but you don't get 90-odd caps in the Germany defence if you can't play a bit.
For Arsene Wenger is has been a huge turnaround thus far. The "Wenger Out" calls have been largely silenced for the moment. Even for me, who was/is very much in that camp, this can only be a good thing. If people aren't on Wenger's back then that means we're winning football matches. Ultimately that's what we all want from Arsenal. If the team is winning then we're all happy. If that means Arsene Wenger is proving wrong people like me then I'm more than happy. I take far more pleasure from being made to eat my words than I do from seeing Arsenal get beaten. I want Arsene Wenger to complete the job and force me to apologise come the end of this season. Nothing would give me greater pleasure right now.
I mentioned 2007-08 earlier and how we fell apart in February. That season we all knew what was missing from the squad, regardless of Eduardo getting his leg smashed to pieces. Arsene refused to spend in January and within two weeks it had come back to haunt us. We are in a similar position this year. As we sit top of the table we know that a signing or two might just complete the pieces of the jigsaw an take us over the line. In the Invincibles season we went and got Jose Antonio Reyes and he provided the required boost to get us there. I implore Arsene Wenger to open the cheque book again in the next week or two. I'd rather we signed someone and ended up falling short than not signing someone and wondering what difference a new face or two might have made.
As we approach the closing hours of 2013 I wish you all a Happy New Year and I hope that Arsenal give us what we want in 2014. The chance is there to end the trophy drought. Arsene Wenger must do what it takes to grasp that opportunity. See you next year.

Monday, 30 December 2013

Gunners on verge of near perfect Christmas

Giroud celebrates massive goal at Newcastle

I hope you've all had a wonderful Christmas. I haven't written since Christmas Eve and since then Arsenal have leapt back to the top of the Premier League. If you didn't realise how tight it is then it's worth noting that Liverpool were top at Christmas and will be fifth at New Year. The value of Arsenal's two superb away wins this week is underlined in that very statistic. Defeats in those matches would not only have seen us slipping away from the top, but we would have been back within two points of Manchester United and Tottenham. The need to keep winning is there for all to see.
The victory at West Ham was significant and was the result of a very good performance. Olivier Giroud again missed chances in the match that might have been costly, but Santi Cazorla turned on last seasons form to dominate the game, and Lukas Podolski provided the spark that the attack required. I know Theo's first goal was a horrendous goalkeeping error, but if you don't shoot you won't score. His second goal was a superb header showing a real willingness to attack the ball. In recent weeks we've seen Theo win a few good headers, including the assist for Ozil's goal against Everton. If it's something else that Walcott is adding to his game then it can only be a good thing for Arsenal.
Podolski had been an unused substitute in the Chelsea game on Monday last week. Very few of us could see why he hadn't come on in a game where we were on top but unthreatening. With the gale behind our backs in the second-half a Podolski exocet from the edge of the box might have made the difference. When the ball dropped to him at West Ham he showed what a sweet striker of the ball he is. Regular readers will know I'm a huge Podolski fan and I have never understood the notion (largely created by the anti-Arsenal jokers in the media) that he has been some kind of flop. A look at his goals and assists stats, per games played, tell you how effective he is. He is also an incredibly popular member of this squad with the other players. He seems to be the joker in the dressing room and is always smiling. Podolski is an Eboue with ability, if you like. His presence could be huge in the second half of this season.
Yesterday was a completely different performance and was, in some ways, even more satisfying. Tiote clearly wanted to turn midfield in to a battleground and made at least four bookable fouls in the first-half alone (though only one of them was deemed worthy of a free-kick by the referee). Williamson should also have been looking nervously over his shoulder for a terrible over the top foul on Olivier Giroud. With it being that sort of game it's fair to say that the midfield selection helped Arsenal. A trio of Flamini, Wilshere and Rosicky was unlikely to take a step back in a battle, while Per Mertesacker was fairly imperious at the back (I feel sorry for Thomas Vermaelen who might well have kept his place ahead of Koscielny but for illness).
I thought Tomas Rosicky was immense at Newcastle. For all that Ozil might pick a pass from Heaven every now and again he does not give the hard work and energy that Rosicky provided yesterday. He was a genuine help to the tireless Giroud up front, constantly backing up the Frenchman in the chasing down stakes and that set the tone. Arsenal defended from the front thanks to Rosicky. When he got the ball he was running at people and making things happen. Mesut Ozil is more than capable of all these things but he is seemingly yet to realise that he needs to put in that effort if he's going to dominate in this country. When Ozil went nose to nose with Ivanovic last Monday he showed that he has the bottle to go with his skill. I hope he took note of how Tomas Rosicky played yesterday and realises he must do the same. While I'm on this subject I think the fact that Tomas was preferred to Santi Cazorla as the direct replacement for Ozil shows that Santi is moving down the pecking order. I fully expect Cazorla to not be at Arsenal next season.
The winning goal at Newcastle was not only huge for Arsenal, but also for the goalscorer himself. I read that Giroud had not scored in 11 games before yesterday. That is poor for any striker. He has not been without chances in those games (and he missed another sitter yesterday shortly after we scored) but his header yesterday was perfect, as was the delivery from Theo Walcott. People have said recently that Giroud was suddenly lacking confidence in front of goal. If that is the case then any goal he gets is only going to restore that confidence.
If Arsenal can beat Cardiff on Wednesday then we will have taken ten points from four games in just nine days over Christmas. That would represent an exceptional festive period given that we would have played Chelsea and two tricky away fixtures in that time. Following the City game if someone told you that we might be in that position I think we'd have taken it. Of course beating Cardiff is still a big "if". It's one of those games which last seasons Arsenal really struggled in. Every time they were expected to beat someone comfortably they invariably failed to do so. Cardiff are in such disarray that they must be there for the taking. What the players must not do is take them for granted. The Manager must ensure that doesn't happen. I fully expect some rotation in the team, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be up for the win. Podolski or Bendtner may well come in for Giroud, while Walcott, Mertesacker or Sagna could also get a rest. Whatever team Arsenal put out it ought to have enough to beat Cardiff. They just need to come out and make themselves worthy of the win.
I'll be writing the annual mid-season review tomorrow and it should be posted at some point in the afternoon or early evening.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A year to be looked upon - Merry Christmas

A very Happy Christmas to you all

This is the fourth time I've written the annual Christmas Eve post. I find that hard to believe in some ways. I always tend to write it in the early evening having returned from the traditional Christmas Eve gathering in the pubs of Dover, always attended by a few of the Dover Gooners. As such I am always writing it slightly (only slightly) inebriated. If it sounds a bit like I'm rambling you now know why.
When I wrote this time last year the website had received just over 600,000 hits and that had doubled it's number of visits from the previous year. In 2013 we sit at just over 800,000 meaning that there have been "just" 200,000 hits this calendar year. The difference is that there have been around 50 less posts across the last twelve months than there were in 2012. In terms of raw statistics this explains the less hits. What it doesn't explain is why less has been written. I suppose I should endeavour to do so.
It would be fair to say that part of the "problem" with regards the fewer posts is the better form of the team. When I first penned this piece on Christmas Eve 2010 I made mention that I started the site as a means to let out my frustrations. By writing about Arsenal I had less reason to punch walls. The longest posts usually follow a defeat where there is plenty of anger that needs to be let out in one way or another. There is less to say after a win, simply because there's less to be upset about. That can only be a good thing. As long as Arsenal are winning games you will hear less from me. As virtuous circles go that's a pretty good one to be in from a readers point of view, I'm sure. From the point of view of the author I'd far rather Arsenal are winning and leaving idiots like me with nothing to write about.
The other reasons for a lower output on the site revolve, of course, around work and family. I work shifts, which is the main reason I can't attend as many games as I would like to (though my absence gives my eldest son and my nephew the chance to get to games they wouldn't otherwise be able to). Before a change to the way my job worked it wasn't a problem but, with things being the way they have been in the UK, we've all had to cut our cloth. In ensuring I have been relatively okay in my employment, going to Arsenal has had to take less of a priority. My wife also works shifts which can affect the output on the site. If I'm looking after the kids I generally don't have so much time for blogging about all things Arsenal. Life isn't always as straightforward as any of us would like, and I suppose that's why many of us keep buying lottery tickets.
So here we are at Christmas again. I won't go in to one about how the season has gone to date as that will follow in the mid-season review at some point in this week. What I will do is pick out my highlights from the year. There are three that I will go for, but there is also one low point.
To start with the negative I'd have to pick out the defeat to Blackburn in the FA Cup. I had thought that things couldn't get much darker after the Bradford game in December 2012. For the players to then repeat their lacklustre arrogance less than a month later was shocking and one of the lowest points of the last twenty years.
The first highlight has to be the win at Bayern Munich. If one game could be said to have sparked off the run that has seen us in second place on Christmas Eve it has to be that victory over the best team in World football. We'd been largely outclassed at home, only to go out to Germany and play like heroes. I'm not having it that Bayern took it easy that night because they didn't. They went at Arsenal but Lukasz Fabianski and his defence were brilliant. We stole two goals and proved that we had what it took to really mix it with the best in the business. In the end we went out on away goals, with Munich's third goal at our place being a complete mis-kick that looped over Sagna and in to the net. Such was the margin against the team that would carry all before them in every competition they played in 2013.
The second high point of the year has to be the signing of Mesut Ozil. He may not have hit the heights in the last two months or so but what a lift he gave us all. It had been yet another depressing Summer for Arsenal and the supporters. No signings of note had been brought in to the obviously weak squad. We were trying to sign Yohann Cabaye just a week earlier, remember. Then it happened. Arsenal spent £40m+ on one player. Was he a player that played in a position in which we were weak? No. Was he better than what we had in the squad? Yes. We were signing a World Class footballer and paying top dollar for him. It was amazing and unbelievable. We've been riding the wave since that moment.
My final big moment was the home win over Napoli. It's been a few years since an Arsenal team has produced such a wonderfully complete performance. To do it against a quality opponent like the Italians was special. At the heart of it was our star signing Ozil. He scored a magnificent goal himself, then laid one on for Giroud. The first-half that night announced the arrival of this Arsenal side. The second-half saw them more comfortable taking care of a lead than they have been in many a long year. You could feel the buzz in the stadium that night. It was so good that it heralded the return of the Clock End/East Stand/North Bank songs. Genuinely the Emirates (there, I've called it that) felt like home at last.
I will also pick a player of 2013, if I may. I'm sure plenty will expect Aaron Ramsey to be the man, but not for me. My player of 2013 is Per Mertesacker. Here was a guy written off for no other particular reason than a lack of pace. However, that was to ignore his reading of the game and his organisation and leadership skills. To me he is the real Captain of this Arsenal team. I used to tell people that Mertersacker was a better player than cretins like the Match Of The Day panel would give him credit for. You don't win so many caps for Germany if you can't play. I love the BFG and his enthusiasm for The Arsenal. He has shone this year, and our improved defence is due in no small part to his presence. Long may it continue.
So that's it for this Christmas Eve special. It remains a pleasure to write about The Arsenal. I would implore you, as ever, to register on the website to add your comments, or join us on Facebook (search for "It's MY Arsenal Opinion") or follow me on Twitter (@ARSENALDvbrisG) and get involved in some debate. The website remains, and always will remain, MY view on Arsenal. My opinion matters little. You don't have to agree with it, you don't have to like it. Ultimately all that matters is that we love Arsenal and we want them to win. May God help us to do that in 2014. I will write again at some point between the games at West Ham and Newcastle.
In the meantime I would like to thank you for humbling me by taking the time to read my drivel and, more importantly, I would like to wish you a very Happy Christmas. Here's to The Arsenal.

Nothing like a spectacle

Yes, he's been watching Mourinho's teams as well

On reflection a draw is okay from last night. It puts us level on points with Liverpool and trailing only on goal difference at Christmas. Had anyone offered us that after the Aston Villa game we'd have been more than happy. What is annoying is that we could have had the three points with better finishing and, yes, better refereeing (it's the most infuriatingly recurring theme for me at the moment).
I'm going to keep this brief as I need to get ready to go out for the annual Christmas Eve gathering which includes a number of Dover Gooners. That being the case, let's cut to it quickly, shall we? Olivier Giroud is just short of being the top level striker that can win the Premier League for his team. Too often he misses the golden opportunity in the big matches. When you're playing in tight margins like last night you need a bloke who can put away that one chance. Giroud misses too many of them. He did it at Chelsea last season, he did it at Man City last week. When the ball fell on his left foot last night following one of only two or three moves we put together you sort of knew he probably wasn't going to score. To miss the target completely was criminal. I love Giroud's effort and his ability with his back to goal (though he allowed Terry to beat him in the air time and again last night) but he's ultimately paid to put the ball in the net. The lack of a top goalscorer is the difference between being clear at the top and second on goal difference this morning.
It wasn't a great performance, maybe not helped by the weather. The passing was less than poor from Arsenal's players who seemed to fail to grasp that balls over the top were not likely to stay in play on such a wet pitch. There were so many times when our players (Ramsey and Arteta were particularly culpable) just hit the ball straight in to touch. On the plus side I thought Arsenal defended very well during the game. Chelsea didn't show much ambition but the back four did okay on the night, as did Szczesny whose handling was exceptional in those conditions. I also particularly enjoyed Ozil's reaction to Ivanovic nearly kicking him in the face - more of that aggression please!
For all that we played badly with the ball we were undone yet again by a referee who has what you might call "form" where Arsenal are concerned. Leaving aside the two red cards that should have been wielded at Mikel and Ramires I just can not fathom why we weren't awarded a penalty. Mike Dean had a clear view of the foul, so he should be asked why he didn't give the penalty. Why are these very highly paid individuals not answerable for their errors? Managers and players have to come out after matches and speak, so why shouldn't a referee or linesman? It was a disgraceful decision that cost Arsenal a win at the end of the day.
Finally let's touch on Mourinho's tactics. I must say I haven't a problem with a side parking the bus. It's perfectly legitimate and it's up to you to be able to break them down. However, what I don't understand is how a supposedly top side can go in to a Premier League game against any opposition and play like that. Ferguson and Wenger would never have set up teams to "not lose" in a game where the value of a win is so huge. To play with no striker in the last ten minutes was embarrassing. And yet the press hang on the cretins every word. He has managed to deflect attention away from the terrible fouls and his inherent negativity by throwing insults at Arsenal players. There is no way a top Manager should be let off by the media after ruining what should have been the spectacle of two of the top sides in England playing football against each other. He did the same at Old Trafford at the start of the season. Like I say, it's a perfectly legitimate way of playing, but that doesn't make it something that should be praised - especially at a side who've spent so much money.
There will be a further blog post this evening, you lucky people, giving the annual Chistmas Eve round-up. I hope you can check back at some point tonight.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Wind, rain and Chelsea at home

Got an early 3 points in that sleigh?

Thirty-five years ago today Arsenal did this to Spurs at White Hart Lane. Twelve years ago today Arsenal did this to Liverpool at Anfield. Seven years ago today Arsenal beat Blackburn 6-2 at home with Cesc Fabregas doing this to Robbie Savage (sorry for the poor quality video). Tonight Chelsea are the latest team to play us two days before Christmas. I hope they get what the others have got.
The weather will have a huge bearing on this evening. It's already had a huge bearing on me as I've chosen not to travel to London for the game in these conditions. Unfortunately the gale force winds and torrential rain are likely to wreck any spectacle the game might have produced in terms of quality football which will be far more to Arsenal's detriment than to Mourinho's Chelsea. I'm very surprised The Met haven't told the Clubs that the game is not going ahead in the circumstances. With this kind of storm affecting London and it's road/rail network I'm sure the Law have more important things to be doing two days before Christmas than marshalling 60,000 tired and emotional football fans at a London derby.
The team news for us sees Lukas Podolski likely to make a return to the squad following his very long lay-off. We're going to need Podolski and his goals in a big way over the next few months. To have a player of his quality back in the fold ahead of the busiest of busy periods can only be a good thing for Arsenal. Laurent Koscielny appears likely to miss out tonight with his badly cut knee so Thomas Vermaelen will lead the side in the Premier League for a rare occasion. I certainly believe this makes us weaker as Koscielny's pace is a big part of our defensive game. I only hope that Vermaelen allows Mertesacker to order him around throughout the game. Whether it's Torres, or Ba, or whoever up front for Chelsea they provide our centre-backs with a formidable test. Torres is unfairly targeted by the press for a perceived lack of form and goals. Make no mistake, class is permanent. Torres is a player for the big occasion and he has an exceptional record against Arsenal.
Kieran Gibbs must surely come back in to the side tonight, as must Santi Cazorla. Much of the reason we got done at City last week was our weakness on our left hand side. Monreal simply doesn't have the pace to be effective against top Premier League wingers (and even some average ones). Sagna, meanwhile, will have his work cut out if Hazard plays for Chelsea. Arsene may well decide to play Arteta and Flamini together, but I'm not a fan of that in general as it moves Aaron Ramsey out of position. We can't afford to lose Rambo from the centre and we certainly shouldn't be going in to the game without Theo Walcott in the side. Mourinho's decision to leave out Ashley Cole says a lot about how Cashley's career is beginning to taper off, but I certainly feel Chelsea are weaker without him. Theo must exploit that, and with Ozil's help he might well be able to. Up front Giroud must put in his best physical display of the season and really take on John Terry.
Normally it would promise to be a potential classic tonight, but big games involving a Mourinho side rarely are as they are generally sent out to contain on such occasions and rely on Lampard or somebody nicking a goal or two. The weather, as I said at the top of this piece, will be a huge problem as well.
If tonight isn't a "must win" for Arsenal it is certainly a "must not lose". To be beaten by City and then Chelsea in consecutive games would be a huge blow. It would mean one point out of nine. It would also mean being fourth at Christmas, having been top on Saturday morning. League Titles are not won at Christmas, but can certainly be lost. The confidence in this side has been huge since they won in Munich. That confidence could be eroded completely with another defeat tonight. To be top at Christmas is a psychological boost and it means you're really in the thick of things. Ahead of four games in nine days we must not get off to a bad start. The crunch is starting. Arsenal must embrace it.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Arsenal pay the price while the supporters just count the costs

A bit cheaper in those days

Arsenal's chickens came home to roost once again yesterday in the Champions League draw. The terrible second-half performance at Napoli meant finishing only second in the group which meant an inevitable draw against top quality in the last 16. We ended up not only drawing quality, but drawing the best in the competition. Of course, if you want to win the thing then you have to beat top teams at some point, but the later you play them the better. Over two games in February/March we have little chance to beat Bayern Munich. This is not just because of the quality they possess, but the nature of Arsenal's fixture list is unbelievably hard. It could be a very miserable time for us Gooners if things start to go against us on the pitch.
I know we went out only on away goals to Bayern last season but there is no doubt they are streets ahead of us. On our day we can get a result and beat anyone. Have a slightly off day against a side like them, however, and they might destroy you. Can you imagine the fun Ribery and Robben might have if they came up against a defence missing Sagna or Gibbs? Personally I would far rather have been coming up against the likes of Olympiacos or Zenit St Petersburg than the reigning European Champions. We have to hope for the sort of results we gained against the likes of Real Madrid in 2006, but we don't quite have Thierry Henry up front these days.
I haven't had a chance to write about the price increase announced by Arsenal last week as I was busy lamenting the defeat at Manchester City. Now it's quiet for a day or two I have the opportunity to have my say.
The first thing to say is that it is an outrageous liberty to put prices up by 3% when a new TV deal is bringing in something in the region of an extra £30m. It simply can not be justified. To claim that it's in line with inflation is also an outrage. Depending on which way you look at measuring it then inflation can be seen around that figure, but that is to ignore the fact that the average punter is not receiving year-on-year salary increases of more than 1%. Yet again the cost of watching Arsenal has become more prohibitive to the man in the street.
I have never known Arsenal to announce prices at this time of the year. I have to say I think the announcement being made on Friday was nothing but a horribly cynical move from Gazidis and co. They obviously decided some time ago that they were going to raise prices. Having done so they had to think carefully about when to announce it. That being the case they knew they couldn't do it until progress was secured in the European Cup. They also looked at the upcoming fixtures and knew that it might not get much better than a five point lead at the top of the Premier League. They used the qualification in Europe and the position in the league to limit the criticism they would receive from fans for putting up the cost of going to Arsenal.
What exactly are we paying for? We were told that Mesut Ozil was paid for through existing resources, so it's not that they require the extra cash to pay for a star signing. The debt on the stadium is also being managed through a carefully selected financial package, so it's not that they're trying to get it paid off quicker. The other thing we're not yet paying for is the chance to watch a successful side on the pitch. This is not (yet) a winning team. There are no trophies to celebrate. I am at a loss as to why my season ticket is going up by 3% other than to line the pockets of the Kroenke family in the longer term.
The cost was already prohibitive for many (my seat for Grade A fixtures is £80, albeit offset by a cost of less than £30 for Grade C games) and will be so for even more Gooners once we get to next season. I have two children and the cost of bringing them to Arsenal is about to spiral out of control. Perhaps it's just as well that I work shifts that prevent me from going to every game, otherwise my boys might never get to go to Arsenal.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Bad finishing, terrible defending, scandalous officiating - you can't beat 14 men with no defence

This is real Captaincy

I'm sure the neutrals enjoyed the game yesterday. Sod the neutrals. I know that by the end of this piece any of those neutrals (or City fans) picking it up will be button-holing me as a bitter Arsenal supporter. Again, sod the neutrals. I know the stuff I'm going to write about the match officials will sound like sour grapes, and maybe that's what it is. Do I care? No.
Let's start with Arsenal's deficiencies and these were pretty much all over the pitch. Nacho Monreal is not an alternative to Kieran Gibbs. Monreal is a back-up. He's a squad player, and that's fine as he's perfectly adequate as that. What he can't do is come in to the side for a big game and take over while Gibbs is given a break. There are times when rotation is necessary. There are times when rotation is welcome. Your biggest Premier League game of the season is not one of them. We don't play for 9 days after the game yesterday. You do not rest players in games like that. Monreal was so far out of his depth and so far off the pace at times that he looked like he was playing in a different match. The lack of pace in the Spaniard is a massive handicap against decent opposition.
Monreal wasn't helped by the fact that his centre-backs chose yesterday to play their worst game of the season. The first goal saw everybody standing still, but none moreso than Laurent Koscielny. The lack of concentration was unforgivable. It wasn't as though Aguero had to make a decent run to get past him (though the corner should never have been given as I will write about below). Mertesacker was equally culpable for David Silva's goal. He must have seen the Spaniard a yard in front of him, but he made no move to get closer. With Vermaelen doing his usual walkabout at the near post it meant Silva was all alone once Monreal had been beaten too easily again. It says plenty about our play that Szczesny let in six goals without being at fault for any of them.
The defence, if I'm being fair, had so little cover in front of them. I felt that Aaron Ramsey was basically playing all alone in there for most of the game. Only Ramsey and Theo Walcott come out of yesterday with credit as far as I'm concerned. There was no running, no tackling, no spirit in the midfield. Jack Wilshere was an absolute passenger pretty much throughout and the way he gave the ball away at times was criminal. To react to the crowd like he did showed a terrible immaturity that will now see him banned thanks to the media coverage (Alan Shearer couldn't hide his delight at highlighting it on Match Of The Day last night - perhaps Jack should tell the FA he won't go to the World Cup if they ban him as such behaviour has been enough to allow BBC pundits to play in FA Cup Finals in the past, hasn't it Alan?) The worst culprit, however, was Ozil. Setting up Theo's first goal was his only contribution of the day. Sadly he also set up Man City's third goal with one of the most careless passes I've ever seen. I've seen people saying Flamini should have cut the ball out. Nonsense. The pass from Ozil was woeful and Flamini couldn't quite rescue the situation. A £45m player should not be going missing in big matches. I read people on Twitter giving abuse to those criticising Ozil and saying that anyone having a go "doesn't understand what sort of player he is". I understand fully that, at the moment, he's a player that doesn't earn his money in the way he should for someone with such ability. I read a stat earlier that David Silva had as many tackles, interceptions and headers as Ozil yesterday (zero) but saw more of the ball so influenced the play more. The reason Silva saw more of the ball than Ozil was that he worked a thousand times harder to make sure he could get on the ball. I was so pleased to see Mertesacker absolutely fuming with his good friend at the final whistle over his disrespect of the travelling Gooners. That's what I want from my Arsenal Captain, and definitely not what I want from my star player. Ozil needs to step it up and I hope the rocket he got from the BFG is enough to make him come out against Chelsea and show us all just how great a player he is.
The last player to get the sharp end of my tongue today is Olivier Giroud. I've said all season that he has been outstanding. His improvement has been immeasurable. However, if there is a fault in his game it is that his finishing ability is sub-standard. We saw it last week against Everton, and yesterday was an embarrassment. In five minutes after we went 3-1 down Giroud missed three open goals. I can just imagine the hatred that would have been pouring forth had Nicklas Bendtner been falling over his feet when faced with a ball six yards from goal and a choice of scoring or laying one on a plate for Theo Walcott. Ultimately, as important as Giroud is to the way Arsenal play, he is not the centre-forward that can win games on his own. The very best sides have a goalscorer who can win matches with their ability to put the ball in the net (I've just watched Suarez score another cracking goal for Liverpool). Giroud sadly misses too many chances at the moment. We saw it in the game at Stamford Bridge last season. We saw it again yesterday. In the big games, with the fine margins, you have to take your chances. Man City scored with six of their seven shots on target. As I've already said, Szczesny didn't stand a chance with any of them. Giroud, meanwhile, missed the target completely every time.
So now the other stuff. I have been beating a drum over corruption in football in this country for a long time now. The events of the past couple of weeks have shown that English football is most definitely bent. It stands to reason that the Premier League, where the big money is, is the most likely to be the most corrupt. What I witnessed yesterday was the biggest clue to things being not quite right since we lost at Old Trafford to end the 49 games unbeaten in 2003. As bad as Arsenal were on the day they created plenty. They were done for by the officials.
In the first half the two linesmen laid down their markers. For City's first goal there should never have been a corner in the first place. Koscielny had to play the ball because a City player was standing behind him. That player was offside. Had he not been there then Koscielny would have been able to let the ball go. Just because the City player didn't touch it doesn't mean he wasn't offside in that situation. The pass was clearly intended for him. The defender only played the ball because he was aware of the run being made behind him. Meanwhile, at the other end, we twice saw Arsenal pulled back for offside when they weren't even particularly close. Things would only get worse.
In the second-half Martin Atkinson, a serial offender of incompetence (or something more sinister?) allowed Yaya Toure (the best player on the pitch) to get away with a studs up, near knee-high, foul on Giroud. He gave the free-kick which would indicate he saw the incident. Why, then, was Toure not sent-off? He then chose to ignore a clear handball by Zabaleta which prevented Theo Walcott from being one-on-one with Pantilimon. It was a penalty. There is no doubt that it was a penalty. Why, then, was it not given?
Let's get on to the two goals Arsenal had disallowed, shall we? Neither of them were offside. Given what we'd seen from that particular linesman for City's goal earlier on I would have to wonder what was different with our players, who weren't infringing. The one good thing Giroud did pretty much all game was score a fine strike on the turn, only to see the flag up when he knew absolutely that he wasn't offside. Nicklas Bendtner buried a good header and suffered the same injustice. Who knows, that goal could have been a turning point for Bendtner as it might have seen Arsenal come back and get a result. As it is he has nothing to show for scoring a fine goal.
If I was a journalist I'd be investigating the officials in the Premier League. As a fan I fail to see that such things can be simply mistakes when it always seems to be certain teams getting the benefit of them. It just so happens that those teams are the ones with massive resources. It doesn't help that the FA chooses to bury its head in the belief that the officials are completely beyond reproach. They also constantly fail to deal with poor performance from the officials. Even if you accept that the bad decisions yesterday were nothing but honest errors there will be no punishment for those responsible. There is so much at stake here that there should be penalties (pardon the pun). If I made such horrendous, obvious, and regular errors in my job I would be unemployed by now. Steve Clarke has seen his West Brom team not given numerous decisions in recent weeks, and he is the one who has been sacked. The likes of Marriner, Atkinson, Dowd etc simply move on to the next pay cheque. The only question for me is who is paying it?

Monday, 9 December 2013

Missed chances cost Arsenal in "fair result"

We missed three of these yesterday

As well as Everton might have played in the first-half yesterday they didn't trouble our goalkeeper at any time. They reminded me a lot of recent Arsenal teams in the way they kept the ball from back to front, but didn't actually threaten to score a goal. As a result Arsenal should have been at least 2-0 up when the half-time whistle was blown. I've said before that Olivier Giroud, with all his redoubtable qualities in just about every aspect of his game, is not a World Class finisher. We saw it again yesterday with one-on-ones being missed, and a complete air shot in front of the open goal (thank God Ozil was standing behind him to put it in the net, but just imagine the stick Nicklas Bendtner would be getting had he done it), before hitting a 25 yard screamer that beat everything except the goalpost. Aaron Ramsey, who had an absolute stinker of a game, also missed when clean through on Tim Howard. On such golden opportunities are points won and squandered.
I imagine the Everton fans are starting to think that Moyes had them conned over the last twelve years or so. They've been pretty much there and thereabouts in recent times, but have only the odd European appearance and one Cup Final to remember in all that time. The football being played was functional at best. What they have now is a side playing with pace, movement and attacking flair. There is, however, a nod to the Moyes era of midfield kickers in the shape of Gareth Barry. I consider Barry to be the Mark Thatcher of Premier League football. He's a man who seems able to get away with all sorts of misdemeanour, up to the point where he gets a stern ticking off (or a yellow card) whereupon he goes quiet for the remainder of the game. I resolved to count how many fouls it took for Howard Webb to deal with Barry yesterday and was pleasantly surprised to see there were only three of them before a card came out. However, all three of those fouls were yellow card offences. The Mark Thatcher analogy remains appropriate.
I thought Arsene Wenger got a few things wrong yesterday in the way we were set up. I was surprised that Arteta was preferred to Flamini in a game where a good physical presence was needed against the impressive Ross Barkley (King Koscielny and Per Mertesacker were outstanding in their marshalling of Lukaku). If you watch Everton in any game you will see that their full-backs are vital to their attacking threat. That being the case it surely called for a winger to be deployed and get those full-backs afraid of crossing the halfway line. Instead of Walcott being out there from the start we had Wilshere and Cazorla who not only offered no threat in attack, but summarily failed to assist their own defenders in wide areas. Finally, this Everton side has only really been hammered defensively when they played Liverpool the other week and came up against the pace and running of Suarez and Sturridge. This was another reason why Walcott should have started, and the running ability of Rosicky (as well as his combative tackling) would also have been welcome. It's no coincidence that we had our best spell after the substitutions saw those two come on with Flamini adding energy in the centre.
Our goal was odd in that we tossed a ball in to the air to the far-post. Our new target-man Theo Walcott (he won three headers after coming on) laid off a lovely headed pass across goal that saw the ball end up in the net. I thought Theo was brilliant when he came on and showed good touch and good composure on the ball. It was a shame we didn't get the ball out to him a lot more as he was also delivering some excellent crosses, only to find that Giroud had absented himself from the penalty area at times.
I've watched quite a bit of Everton in recent weeks and Deulofeu has missed chance after chance. Against Liverpool alone he wasted three one-on-one opportunities. He missed a couple at Old Trafford in the week. I said to a bloke at work yesterday morning that I fully expected him to score against us, because that's how things seem to work. I wasn't surprised when he did, and what a superb finish it was. Wojciech Szczesny has been so good this season and he had no chance with that goal. The midfield were the ones who should have snuffed out the danger. I'm always telling my 8-year-old when he plays that he mustn't dive in to the tackle and allow the attacker to just breeze past him having sold himself too early. Flamini and Arteta did just that as Everton came forward and both missed the opportunity to hold up Barkley. Once he'd got past them we were in trouble, though Mr Webb might have penalised Lukaku for dangerous play had Everton been playing Manchester United.
After the goal we still had a chance to win the game. Giroud, as I've said, had that incredible effort crash back off the bar. It put me in mind of the goal Neil Mellor scored against us years ago for Liverpool. The other genuine opportunity fell to Mathieu Flamini who miskicked when he should have put his head on it. However, having flunked his shot Flamini was then clearly fouled by Jagielka. I couldn't believe that only Flamini himself appealed for the penalty. I've watched it back on Match Of The Day 2 this evening and it is clear that Jagielka deliberately throws his body in the way of our midfielder to stop him keeping the ball in play. If that wasn't a foul then we might as well give up. Again, nobody has made anything of it, but it's clear as day to me. We should have had a penalty. Put together with Giroud's shot off the bar and our luck certainly wasn't in.
All in all it was a superb game of football between two excellent passing teams. I don't buy in to it being a "fair result" for the reasons given above. We had the chances, we hit the bar, and we should have had a penalty. Everton played very well, certainly as good as any side we've played this season (including Dortmund). It's a measure of how far we've come, I suppose, that the likes of me are lamenting being "only" five points clear after fifteen matches. Onwards and upwards.
A quick postscript on another subject. I see that a load more players have been arrested in connection with on-field corruption. Regular readers will know I've been banging a drum on this for a long time. I firmly believe that aspects of English football are bent. It is only a matter of time before Premier League clubs, players or officials are implicated. The history of English football is waiting to be re-written, and Arsenal could be huge beneficiaries.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Opportunity knocks - Arsenal must take it

Can they take their chance this year?
I wrote in the season preview that there was a chance for someone to maybe take advantage of the flux that was about to affect Man Utd, Man City and Chelsea. Never before had the previous years top three come in to a new campaign with new bosses in place. For Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs this surely represented an opportunity. So far Arsenal have been the team that has pushed forward with the signing of Mesut Ozil providing the absolute X Factor around the Club as a whole.
Despite the carping from the pundits Arsenal have passed just about every test so far. You'd have to think, given what has happened since, that the side wouldn't have lost at Old Trafford had flu not been sweeping the squad. If Arsenal win tomorrow they will go 15 points clear of the Champions. I'm going to stick my neck out and say that, if they're not already out of it, then United would be put away for good with a Gunners victory against Everton. But it's not just Man Utd that can't pick up the "easy" points. Today we've seen Chelsea lose and Man City drop two more points away from home. Liverpool may have two comfortable home wins in the last four days, but they lost at Hull last week and we swept them aside at our place a month or so ago.
With the way the results have gone again this weekend there is a massive chance for Arsenal to put distance between themselves and everyone else. In a way there is even more pressure on the game tomorrow because of the opportunity it represents. I said on Thursday that we would know by Christmas if we are serious contenders. The fact is now that if we get results in our next three games the Premier League would be Arsenal's to throw away. If someone offered me a win and two draws from our next three games I would bite their arm off. Not losing to City or Chelsea is crucial as it means neither of them will have got any closer to us in the table.
It's quite difficult to not get too carried away at the moment. The truth is that I don't want to start believing yet. At the same time that might be affecting my enjoyment a little bit. Sadly we've been up there a couple of times since we last won the Title and then blown it when it was ours to win. I listened to Alan Davies on the excellent The Tuesday Club podcast this week and he said he wished it was May now so that at least he would know how it turns out. He also pointed out that, with our record, it's too early to get excited. Apart from anything else I couldn't handle six months without sleep because the thought of Arsenal winning the Premier League is filling your mind all the time. Davies also mentioned that in 2008 we were 8 points clear in February but fell apart spectacularly. December is definitely too soon to start getting excited.
Having said all of that there are some major differences to 2008. Hear are a few: We don't have Almunia keeping his place ahead of Lehmann; we don't have Gael Clichy at left-back; we don't have a knackered Kolo Toure coming in to the side and breaking up an excellent Senderos/Gallas partnership; we don't have a Captain so unsuited to the role as Gallas; we don't have Greedybayor not passing to Nicklas Bendtner to guarantee three points at Birmingham just because he didn't like him; we don't (yet) have our goal poaching striker laying in hospital with his ankle completely shattered. This team simply "feels" different. At the same time we are lacking anyone who knows what it's like to go the distance in the Premier League and win the Title. However, there is an aura about some of the Arsenal players at the moment. They play the game for each other with the requisite fight needed to get over the line. To borrow a line from Arsene Wenger they seem to have "exceptional spirit" in this squad of players, not least in the way the German internationals seem to be leading the squad, and who seem to love being at Arsenal.
As usual I have to sound a note of caution in that we have been pretty exceptional in terms of results since February this year. At some point there is going to be a blip. We will undoubtedly go through a phase where results falter. If that phase is over the next four weeks then we are in trouble. If it comes in the four weeks after that then, while unwelcome, it wouldn't be such an issue. With Podolski, Walcott and Chamberlain all hopefully returning to full fitness, and Jack Wilshere being handled very sensibly (largely thanks to the fact that Aaron Ramsey has been so good) there is no case of tired legs. At the same time there is still the need to bring in some genuine back-up to Giroud in January - it would be criminal to throw away a Title through not having someone who can play a run of games if required (Bendtner probably could, in fairness, but he wouldn't get given the time by many in the home crowd to "enjoy" a run in the side). There is one more person knocking about who could be a huge figure in the run-in. If Arsenal can get to March still up there challenging then Abou Diaby, if he could just stay fit for seven or eight games, might just provide the midfield spark that could carry us over the line. Diaby has the ability to have a massive impact and that could be Kevin Campbell-esque if we can get there. That's a long way off, of course, and a win over Everton is what matters most at this very moment.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Wenger's big surprise works out well

Well done big man

As I wrote yesterday Arsene Wenger was always planning to "rotate" one or two of his players for the game against Hull. I didn't think there would be as many as five changes and I certainly didn't expect to see Nicklas Bendtner in the starting line-up. The Dane wasn't even in the 18 at Cardiff on Saturday so it was definitely a shock to see him come in for Olivier Giroud. With Walcott back and Podolski on his way I thought that maybe Bendtner had finally made his last Arsenal appearance. As it was he managed to do his job well.
I don't agree with this resting of key men from the starting XI as it doesn't often pay off. Last night Arsene got it right, however, with Bendtner taking less than two minutes to repay the Manager's faith. I said in the preview piece that Carl Jenkinson is capable of putting in some good crosses and he certainly proved me right with that delivery for Bendtner's early goal. It was a really good move down Arsenal's right, and the movement off the ball created the space for a first time cross from The Corporal. Bendtner had made a perfectly timed run and could hardly miss having got on the end of it. It was a really superb goal. I've now seen Bendtner get three goals this season (he scored twice for Denmark against Italy) and each of them has been from a good cross that he's been able to attack. If there has ever been a defence for Bendtner's play in an Arsenal team then it has to be that we haven't played to his strengths often enough. If you could just get him to stay in the middle and then put a decent cross in he will invariably get on the end of it.
It was a fairly dominant display from there on. The second goal, right after half-time, was a killer for Hull. Again it was a magnificent Arsenal goal. Aaron Ramsey clearly saw Mesut Ozil's pass to Flamini on Saturday and felt that he fancied a piece of that action. It was a wonderful ball he played behind the defence for Ozil to easily pass the ball in to the bottom corner. It was simple yet utterly brilliant. My brother tells me that the people sitting next to him arrived late for both halves of the game and missed both Arsenal's goals. Serves them right.
You could argue that Arsenal should have won by more goals such was the dominant way they held the game last night. On a lot of occasions I would be inclined to agree. However, when you consider we play Everton, Napoli and Man City (two of those away from home) in six days next week then the conservation of some energy is welcome. The scheduling by Sky/BT Sport of those two Premier League games is a scandal for which the FA should be ashamed to have allowed to happen. As it is, we've ticked off another win and earned another three points. City and Chelsea keep winning, but so do Arsenal at the moment. Another loss for Man Utd has put them out of the race it would seem. Liverpool are still hanging around, reliant on Luis Suarez. Spurs' comeback win at Fulham could see them start to pick things up now. As long as Arsenal keep grinding out the results it doesn't much matter what anyone else does. Get to Christmas without being reeled in by City or Chelsea and it is very much there for us to go and win. These next three Premier League games are huge. By December 25th we'll know if we are genuine contenders.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Tigers are coming to tea

The Corporal is reporting for duty

As I said yesterday I'm not surprised that Bacary Sagna isn't in the squad this evening. His thigh was heavily bandaged during the game at Cardiff on Saturday and, with Everton, Man City and Chelsea to face in the next three weeks, it's important that he can get some kind of rest. Given that Lukas Podolski has been out since time began with a hamstring injury Arsenal really can't risk Sagna any further. Given that Everton have the likes of Deolefeu (don't know if I've spelt that correctly) and Nasri to dribble at our full-backs in the not too distant future I would be far more confident if Bac was on the pitch.
Sagna's absence gives an opportunity for Carl Jenkinson to further his own claims. I have to say that The Corporal's recent displays have not filled me with confidence. Last season he appeared more than ready to step up whenever he was needed. Of late he's looked a little out of sorts. Having Per Mertesacker alongside him will undoubtedly help as the BFG will be pulling and pushing him in to position whenever he needs to. Jenkinson is very capable when going forward and has regularly shown decent crossing ability when he gets in to those forward areas. Any injury to Sagna this season represents a massive chance for Jenkinson to push himself towards an England spot for Brazil 2014. The fact is that Glenn Johnson appears injury prone, while Kyle Walker spends more time out of position than any full-back I've ever seen. I can't believe that either Jenkinson or Nathaniel Clyne aren't capable to forcing their way in ahead of Walker before next summer.
Hull City come to our place tonight a little more humble than when last they visited under Phil Brown. I'm sure Fabregas will be sitting at home in Barcelona wearing his puffa jacket and jeans just to annoy Brown. Having been relegated they have done exceptionally well to come back to the Premier League so quickly. Steve Bruce is equally as execrable as Brown at times, but at least he has had moderate success as a Manager on more than one occasion. Their win over Liverpool was fantastic at the weekend but hopefully it's taken plenty of wind from their sails ahead of tonight.
Among the players at Hull are a couple of ex-Spurs men. Tom Huddlestone will fill a huge hole in midfield and Ozil will have to be careful that he doesn't get eaten by him. I hope Arsenal aren't having to provide the post-match buffet for Hull's players as feeding Huddlestone could actually bankrupt some clubs. In all seriousness Huddlestone can pass the ball very well on his day. Arsenal mustn't stand off him when he gets the ball as pressure put on him would see him all at sea in the centre of the park.
For Arsenal there is more and more talk of rotation. There is a possibility that Kieran Gibbs will again be rested but with Sagna out I think that's one change too many in "rotation" terms in the back four. In midfield there are options of course. Flamini could come in, though I'd rather save his energy for getting around the pitch against Everton on Sunday. Gnabry, Rosicky and Walcott are all pushing for a start in other areas of the midfield, and Theo may well be used up front instead of Olivier Giroud. The big Frenchman has started to look a little weary late on in some games of late which is hardly surprising given the work he has been getting through. What worries me is that, without Giroud, we lose the fulcrum to our attack. There is no doubt that the goals scored from midfield this season owe a lot to his domination of centre-backs. Theo is not that player, and Nicklas Bendtner simply isn't a genuine option. For me Giroud has to play. I would rather we went out at our strongest, as we used to, got the game wrapped up and then rested players. It is far better to win a game early than to find youselves desperately chasing a goal late on. The team selection will be the most interesting part of the build up to this one.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Ozil back in the game

Came to the party at Cardiff

I know it was a few days ago but I can't let the superb display at Cardiff go by without writing a little about it. I would have been happy enough had the boys gone down there and come away with a hard-earned point. To go there and put on such a tremendous performance was testament to the way these players have been going about their business this season.
Aaron Ramsey was once again the star of the show in his home city. I said in the preview piece on Friday that he would be a different player from the youngster who played against Cardiff in his first season at Arsenal. The respect he showed to the fans of the team he supports was admirable (though he did celebrate Flamini's goal!) and he got similar respect in return. The applause that greeted his first goal was very similar to that which Eduardo received when scoring against Arsenal for Shakhtar Donetsk a couple of years ago. Football fans may be a fickle bunch, but we know a nice guy when we see one and that's why people like Ramsey and Eduardo are still loved even after they've moved on. Maybe the likes of Van Persie could have learned something there, rather than running their mouths off at those who had made them in to a World Class performer in the first place (claiming that Alex Ferguson was responsible for him being so good was the most disrespectful thing he could have said after the support he received from Arsene Wenger).
As much as Ramsey was the key man in scoring two tremendous goals - the header for his first was an outstanding finish - I want to single out Mesut Ozil for some praise. I've been very critical of the German and his ineffectual performances of late. On Saturday he was much more involved in the general play, with the extra space created by the running of Cazorla, Wilshere and Ramsey being something he could revel in. He provided the cross for that Ramsey header but the pass for Flamini's goal was the one thing in the game that took the breath away. If a better pass gets played this season then I can't wait to see it. It is a player of rare ability that can see the brilliant run from midfield and then thread the pass through two or three defenders, at the most perfect weight imaginable, to allow a first-time strike from Flamini who didn't have to break his stride. The finish itself was emphatic, but the pass was from another planet. That is the quality you pay £45m for and if it's a sign that Ozil is starting to settle then it can only be good for Arsenal.
The games now come thick and fast until the FA Cup 3rd round in January. Tomorrow we play a Hull side that will be buzzing after their win over Liverpool on Sunday. We will go in to the game without the rested/injured Bacary Sagna. He had a massive strapping on his thigh during the game at Cardiff so I'm not surprised he is out. I'll preview that game tomorrow morning in more detail.