Highbury Library Logo

Highbury Library Logo

Friday, 28 February 2014

Stoke hoodoo must be ended tomorrow

Our last winner at Stoke

The game in 2010 is always remembered for Shawcross crippling Aaron Ramsey. What is less recalled is the fact that it was Arsenal's last win at Stoke City. I suppose it's ironic that the day on which Pulis' horrendous tactics had their most horrific conclusion was also the day that an Arsenal side rose the challenge and came out on top. On that night Sol Campbell and Thomas Vermaelen were inspirational, alongside Cesc Fabregas, as The Gunners scored twice late on to come home with three crucial points. Ultimately those points were important in securing a Champions League spot a few months later. Tomorrow the three points could be scarcely more important as we enter a phase of fixtures that could break our season completely.
The talk seems to be that Thomas Vermaelen could be back in the side tomorrow. I don't really buy that he's been injured in recent weeks, but the possible lack of left-backs in the squad has meant his return has been forced upon Arsene Wenger. It's fair to say that Vermaelen has been Captain of Arsenal in name only this season. That's a real shame for a man who was the only real candidate to replace Van Persie in the role at the start of the last campaign. The thought of him coming in at left-back does not fill me with confidence, especially against a side that likes to get it wide. I would prefer Flamini to fill in for either Gibbs or Monreal (though he looked out of position when playing there throughout the second half last weekend) but he is more needed in central midfield tomorrow. With the likes of Charlie Adam kicking their way through the game then Flamini's bottle and no nonsense attitude will be essential at the Britannia. I would be playing both Flamini and Arteta tomorrow and leaving out Jack Wilshere.
Mesut Ozil is also going to return at Stoke. I couldn't believe he was left out of the team last Saturday. I felt certain that Wenger would make a point of playing him and telling him to go out and show how good he is. Against a weak opponent, with one eye on Wembley, it would have been an ideal chance to build his confidence. He could then have been taken out of the firing line tomorrow and given a place on the bench for a bit of a rest. If there was one place I wouldn't be keen for Ozil to be playing then it's at Stoke. For a player who has seemed so afraid of any kind of physical contact in his time in the Premier League so far it will be one hell of a test. If Ozil steps up tomorrow and dominates then we will perhaps be seeing the start of his Arsenal career. With Robert Huth possibly back for Stoke, and Shawcross in full Frankenstein mode, he will need to have his wits about him. To be honest, we could do worse than put both Sanogo and Giroud in the side to match things up physically. That won't happen.
As I alluded to at the top of this post tomorrow is the start of a run of fixtures that could break us. Normally Stoke City wouldn't bear comparison with Bayern Munich, Man City, Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham but such is our record at Stoke that they are an issue for us. A win tomorrow, ahead of this dark month or so ahead, would set us up well. A failure to get the three points has Arsenal on the back foot in the Title race before we've even got started on the run-in. Tomorrow is massive. Arsenal must show the fight and the character to go to Stoke and win. I don't care how. March has been unkind to us in recent years. Much like getting a win at Stoke, it's time to change the record.

Turning a new page

I've decided to change the way in which the blog is used via Facebook. Until now it's been accessed via a group to which people had to apply to join. Of course, this limited the scope for members. As from today there is now a new "page" on Facebook which you simply have to "like" in order to join in. The new page is found at it's own web address: www.facebook.com/ItsMYArsenalOpinion for easier access.
The posts from here will be linked to the new page from now on and the old Facebook group will be closed down in the next day or two. This may or may not reach out further and bring new readers to the site. I hope that more people will find it easier to find the site via Facebook and, perhaps, get involved with some discussion and opinion. I'm fully aware that leaving comments via this website can be onerous and is not always straightfoward. By opening up a new Facebook page I hope I'm also opening up a new way to contribute. If it doesn't make any difference then that's fine, but nothing ventured.
My Twitter feed is also still dedicated to the blog and can be found at @ARSENALDvbrisG. Again, if you're on Twitter then come and get involved.
This isn't the most inspiring post I've ever published, but there should be a preview of some sort for the Stoke City game later today. It's always an enjoyable one as it usually brings at least one of their neanderthals out to play in the comments section. In the meantime, come and visit on Facebook.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Putting on a show for Dennis

The Greatest

Arsenal made it a great day all round yesterday with that 4-1 win over Sunderland. A nice couple of confidence boosting goals for Giroud were accompanied by a magnificent team goal finished by Rosicky and a towering Koscielny header. We conceded to a great strike by Giaccherini, though I don't know why Szczesny punched a ball away when it was a simple chest high catch. Of course there were a couple of knocks to Monreal and Koscielny during the game, but Arsene assures us they'll be fit for Stoke next weekend. I'm not going to comment on Wenger's claim that Mesut Ozil was out with a "bruised thigh" as it's frankly an embarrassing lie. There's no need to put a dampener on what was a superb first-half from Arsenal and I'm sure the guest of honour will have thoroughly enjoyed it. So let's write about him instead.
I didn't get there in time for the actual unveiling of the statue but from what I've heard there were so many gathered for it that you couldn't see much unless you were at the front. I'll try to watch the Arsenal Player stuff from the ceremony at some point today. 
No player in Arsenal's history is more deserving of the honour of a statue than Dennis Bergkamp. He changed Arsenal when he signed for us. His arrival in the Premier League changed English football. Three years ago I wrote this piece  about Dennis. He is quite simply the greatest player in the history of our Club. No foreign player (and certainly no English player) comes close to him in the Premier League era. Bergkamp was that good (or should that be God?)
At half-time yesterday he walked out on to the pitch to a wonderful ovation. It was maybe fitting that the opponents were a Club against whom he scored one of his finest goals. It was an honour to have been in the stadium to witness his return, as it was to watch him play for Arsenal over eleven glorious years. The interview he gave was incredible. I have never known such reverence in a stadium. Every person in there was hanging on every single word Bergkamp had to say and stood in respectful silence to listen to him.
When you listen to Dennis it is clear that he loves Arsenal and he loves England. As he said, his children grew up here, and he had many successes at Arsenal. Bergkamp and his family are not flash in any way. They enjoyed the near anonymity that being here gave them. Henrita Bergkamp and her children (and Dennis' parents) used to walk around outside Highbury on a match day, eating burgers from the street sellers and buying t-shirts with his name and image on them, safe in the knowledge that nobody was going to go bothering them. We serenaded the family in an M4 traffic jam on the way to the 2005 Cup Final with Dennis' song. Their cars were decked out in red and white ribbons and Mrs Bergkamp wound down the window to hear us lauding her husband. It was no surprise, given their feeling for the Club, to hear him say quite clearly that he wants to take up a coaching role at Arsenal in the future. He wants to come home. I suspect he might have to wait until after Arsene Wenger has disappeared as I feel the two men, while having utmost respect for one another, do not particularly get on well. I just hope that Arsene could hear the roar that greeted Dennis' statement of wishing to return and realises what a difference it could make to have a genius on the staff. I'll never get to see my favourite ever footballer play for Arsenal again. That being the case I can't wait to see him back here in a coaching role. In the meantime I'll make do with going to see his statue at every game.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

No chance with nine men

Flamini articulating the views of many

For 30 minutes last night Arsenal went toe-to-toe with Bayern Munich, the best team in the World, and our boys were at least the equal of the Germans. Up to that point we'd been effectively playing with ten men. When Wojciech Szczesny was sent-off we were basically down to nine. I'm sure plenty of readers will say I'm talking nonsense (not for the first time) but Mesut Ozil was so not in the game it was unreal.
Starting with Arsenal's great opening to the game it was a joy to watch. The atmosphere was incredible inside the ground, especially when we all realised that the players had the ability to put Bayern on the back foot. The Germans had no answer to the pace and direct running of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sanogo. Wilshere and Cazorla were also getting forward and, out of possession, I've never seen little Santi working so hard. With Flamini directing the midfield we were well worth an early goal. We might have got one from open play but for a great save from Neuer to deny Sanogo. Then we had our golden opportunity. I can't have been the only one who didn't fancy Ozil taking the penalty. His miss against Marseille was abject. To see him lining up to try the same thing again was ridiculous. Neuer knew he just had to stand tall for as long as he could. It was another terrible penalty from Ozil. It's typical that we should have the only German without the nerve to take a decent spot-kick. At that moment the level of the players and the crowd dropped a bit. It reminded me a lot of the semi-final 2nd leg against Man Utd a few years ago.
The penalty miss brought Bayern in to the game, but they weren't especially threatening. What was noticeable, however, was that only nine of Arsenal's outfield players were genuinely working hard to disrupt Bayern's play. On numerous occasions Ozil was nothing more than a spectator when Munich had the ball. When we got it and passed it to him he was weak and uninterested in retaining possession. Sanogo would close down Dante only to see Ozil not backing him up by getting in on Boateng or Martinez. This would drag Wilshere out of the defensive midfield area, or force Cazorla to come across from the left. Every time this happened there was extra space for Bayern to get Kroos, Robben or Lahm on the ball. Maybe this didn't come across on TV but it was obvious to just about everyone in the stadium.
The red card was clearly the key moment. It was a penalty, but I would contend whether or not it was a "clear goal scoring opportunity" as the ball had been pushed wide of the goal by Robben and away from danger. Given that we were already effectively a ten man team there was no way Arsenal would be anything other than a defensive sitting duck when reduced in number. This is where Arsene Wenger once again got things badly wrong. There was an audible groan when Cazorla's number went up to be replaced by Fabianski. It simply had to be Ozil that was going off. I've said for months that I don't think Cazorla will be at Arsenal next season and I fear last night might just have been his "Robert Pires" moment - the point at which he knows Wenger doesn't value him highly enough any more.
There's no point in analysing the rest of the match. Arsenal (most of them, that is) defended brilliantly against the World's best football team. Kroos scored a magnificent goal (a carbon copy of his goal against us last year) and eventually a second goal came late on. I felt that 0-1 would have been an excellent effort and given us a real opportunity in Munich. Sadly 0-2 might just be a bridge too far.
Ozil has been the focus of the media after the game. Clearly the ugly part of the game is not something he is keen on. I keep reading that he covered the third most distance on the pitch last night, apparently negating my contention that he looked lazy and disinterested. The fact is that anyone can run. It's no good running to come second with no intention of getting involved. How about his stats for attempted tackles? There certainly weren't any successful tackles. He is the master of dangling a leg and feigning to make an effort at stopping an opponent. In possession (on the rare occasions we got the ball) he was weak and not willing to take a hit in order to retain it. Yes, he was closed down in numbers, but no effort was made to draw a foul. At one point he passed a ball to Arsene Wenger in order to avoid being tackled. Ozil has become a £42m luxury this team can't afford. Nobody is questioning his quality. You'd have to be an idiot to not recognise how good he is. The problem is that he is Arshavin reincarnated at the moment. I can forgive almost anything if there is great effort from a player. Ozil does not give great effort. His earful from Flamini was as overdue as it was welcome. He will probably play on Saturday. I hope he comes out with a point to prove. He's done nothing for about four months now. It's time to live up to the price-tag.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Great game, awful ref

His best moment in an Arsenal shirt?

I've been toying with how to write this piece. I considered a title along the lines of "thieving and whingeing - a scouse way of life" but I don't want to concentrate on that too much. Obviously there's plenty to say on the major incidents in the game but, contrary to the popular reaction fed by the media, there was more than one stick-on penalty waved away by Howard Webb yesterday, and two red cards that should both have gone to Liverpool players. More of that below, though hopefully not too much. Instead of that I want to praise a supreme effort from a weakened Arsenal team, with big credit given to some unlikely heroes yesterday.
Let's start by saying it was a great game. There were two good sides on the pitch yesterday playing really good football. Liverpool going forward, especially when they get Suarez on the ball, are very much like Manchester City. They have pace across the front line and superb movement. In Suarez they have a player with supreme ability from whom it is almost impossible to get the ball once he has it under his spell. Their issue is that they don't have a defence to speak of. They also have a declining Gerrard whose main contribution yesterday was his persistent fouling. Obviously he can still pick a pass when given the space to do so, but his lack of pace these days is very noticeable. That ITV managed just seven minutes of highlights from the game says plenty about the way they run their production.
Arsenal might be considered fortunate that we weren't 2-0 down inside five minutes again. That movement I mentioned above saw Sturridge get in behind our defence far too easily on two occasions and he really should have put at least one of them in the net. It was a relief that we then settled down and got on the ball a bit more. I had been surprised and disappointed by the team selection from Wenger. I was annoyed at the choice of full-backs and I didn't see the point in leaving out Bendtner to allow an untried teenager to play the lone striker role. An indication that Arsene might be right came in the very first minute when the ball was played up to Yaya Sanogo who was immediately barged by Skrtel. Seeing the Liverpool man bounce off Sanogo was a sign of how strong this young man is. He went on to impress me throughout the game with his strength and physicality. Nicklas Bendtner could not have played like Sanogo did. Throughout the second-half he was fouled by Agger every time he went near the ball, yet Mr Webb and his linesman chose to ignore each one until about ten minutes from the end. By the time we went ahead, Sanogo's dominance of the Liverpool centre-backs had got us on the front foot as far as I was concerned.
When we did score it came from a fine piece of play from Sanogo whose shot was blocked by Gerrard. Oxlade-Chamberlain's finish was superb in a crowded penalty area and was just one moment of class in a superb display from The Ox. His pace and strength was too much for Liverpool down Arsenal's right wing and his willingness to run beyond Sanogo gave support to the big man, as well as bringing Mesut Ozil's biggest qualities to the fore, as we saw for the second goal.
Most of the rest of the first-half passed off without too much goalmouth action, apart from a fine save from Fabianski as Suarez got a shot off from a tight angle. Most of the incident was involving fouls and yellow cards. Gerrard got one for his second bookable offence (Webb's failure to punish his first one meant that Lukas Podolski had to be let off just a few seconds after), while Sterling should have been sent-off on half-time for putting his hands on the referee. I imagine every Sunday League ref in the country was cursing Webb for not producing a red card. I bet they can't wait to be shoved in the chest by someone this weekend.
After half-time Liverpool got in behind again straight away with Suarez bringing another wonderful save after yet more Messi-esque skill. It was a crucial intervention from the big Pole as we went right up the other end and scored a wonderful goal. As I said, Ozil's magnificent eye for a pass was brought to the fore yesterday by having a player who was willing to run in behind the opposition. The searing pace of Oxlade-Chamberlain saw him give his full-back a two yard start, yet still blow him away as he got in down the right. His pull back for a charging Lukas Podolski was perfect and Poldi's first-time finish with his right foot was as sweet as it was surprising. Great football from great players.
It was at this point that the scousers in the Clock End came in to their own. It seems they will steal anything, even the match ball when they're 2-0 down. I found it incredible that the other fans in there weren't going mental at whoever had stolen the ball as it was their own time that they were wasting. The singing through a requested minutes silence was also ridiculous, however well intentioned it might appear to have been. When they got their goal there were smoke bombs being let off in their section as well. No set of supporters are angels, far from it, but there is a reason why most match going fans don't like the scousers.
Liverpool got their goal from a clear penalty.No argument. Yes, it may have been soft, and maybe Suarez could have kept his feet, but it was a foul and it was a penalty. A few minutes later they wanted another one. Having seen it on TV it seems a clear penalty. At the time, 100 yards away, it looked a dive by Suarez. The contact, at that distance, wasn't obvious. However, the ridiculous reaction from Suarez was very noticeable. Obviously Howard Webb was right next to it and he clearly saw the contact, as he did when Suarez was fouled by Eto'o a few weeks back at Chelsea. I strongly suspect that, apart from Webb being utterly useless, it was the dying fish bit from Suarez that cost him the decision this time. Brendan Rodgers says Suarez has a reputation that costs Liverpool. Yes, he does. But it's a self-earned reputation. Does that make it fair? No. But if Liverpool had put Suarez under the hammer when they should have done then maybe a reputation wouldn't be there. Having said that, Robert Pires dived once, against Portsmouth, and played with that "reputation" for the remainder of his career. He didn't do it again.
For all the Liverpool supporters blaming Webb they also need to look at Sturridge. He went through on goal yet again not long after and Lukas Fabianski came off his line to make a Bob Wilson style save diving at the feet of the striker. For me it was the most impressive moment in a stop-start Arsenal career for Fabianski. He was the star for us yesterday and would go on to deny Suarez on a couple more occasions with good positioning facing shots from range. He probably deserved to get away with his one error in the last couple of minutes when Agger should have scored.
At the other end Mr Webb was upsetting the Arsenal fans. The already booked Gerrard lunged in from distance on The Ox, with no real attempt to play the ball, yet Webb let him get away with it. It was ridiculous from Webb and that ought to make the scousers realise they weren't the only ones getting bad decisions from him. He also then turned down Arsenal's stonewall penalty appeal as Cazorla was taken out by Skrtel while trying a shot from 16 yards. The TV highlights neglected to show it for some reason but I've seen a replay on the internet and it's a clear foul and a definite penalty. We were both hard done by on the day, but I reckon Arsenal got the worst of it as it happens. If Webb had sent-off Sterling when he should have done then Liverpool's high-speed attacking would have been severely affected. Cazorla also missed a golden chance to put the game to bed when he miscued one over the bar shortly after coming on.
All in all I was delighted with Arsenal's effort yesterday. The atmosphere in the last 30 minutes was as good as it's been since we moved to the new ground. The players giving their all was the catalyst for the wall of noise in the stands. They gave it everything for us on the pitch yesterday and we responded. It just goes to show that if the players show they're willing to play for the shirt then the fans will respond to them. It was a privilege to be there yesterday and a it was a huge win for Arsenal after a tough week. I hope it has restored confidence, but Wednesday will be even tougher. At least there will be some fresh legs coming back in for that one.
One final thing to remember for Liverpool supporters feeling that they were robbed by the referee yesterday, as has been mentioned elsewhere, is the 2001 FA Cup Final and a certain Stephane Henchoz. You want to talk about being robbed by a cheating referee? I give you Steve Dunn.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Eight days, three games, two trophies

Twin targets this season

I keep reading and hearing that the next eleven days will shape Arsenal's season for good or for bad. I fully understand that. However, for me the next eight days are the important ones. I can disregard the Bayern Munich game on the grounds that I don't believe we are likely to win over two legs against the best side in the World. That's not to say that Arsenal can't or won't beat Bayern, but I just think the European Cup may be an unrealistic target when we hope to go for other things closer to home. For me, I would always rather win the FA Cup than the European Cup because it means more to me. I grew up with the FA Cup. I didn't grow up with Europe as English clubs were banned from when I was aged six. Give me a win over Liverpool a week on Sunday, and a trophy at Wembley in May ahead of one in Lisbon, thanks very much (though you wouldn't hear me moaning if we won the Champions League!)
So, as far as I'm concerned, two matches against Liverpool and one against Manchester United will go a long way to deciding if we have a chance this season to end the famous trophy drought. A draw at Anfield tomorrow would be perfectly acceptable at the moment, as long as it is followed by a win against a decidedly average Manchester United. The FA Cup match must be taken seriously by Arsene Wenger, regardless of the proximity to the Bayern match (his line-up in the previous round at home to Coventry indicates that Le Boss won't be "sacrificing" things this season). At the end of the day the FA Cup still represents our most likely chance of winning something. With Chelsea and Man City drawing one another there is even less quality to be beaten in what follows. Whoever does win our tie with Liverpool will have to fancy their chances to go all the way.
If Arsenal were to lose the next two Premier League games then I dread to think what effect it could have on the remainder of the campaign. It would certainly add massive pressure to the FA Cup tie the following Sunday. Putting the various scenarios together it's obvious just how crucial the next week is going to be. We can't win anything over the next eight days, but we can certainly lose just about everything.
If we are to be getting results in the next three fixtures then one or two things must change from recent displays. There has to be more pace in our game and there has to be more conviction and effort. Since Christmas there has been a lazy nature to the way Arsenal have gone about their business on the pitch. With the exception of the Spurs game in the FA Cup there has been little to inspire in the performances from Arsenal. My hope is that the players have been pacing themselves, conserving energy in the knowledge that massive tests lie ahead. These massive tests begin tomorrow at Liverpool where things will have to be stepped up. If we can put in a performance like the one against Tottenham then we will beat Liverpool again tomorrow. This is an opponent that still fields Kolo Toure, aged 48, at centre-half. My hope is that Tomas Rosicky is selected to play with Ozil moved wide in front of Sagna. I believe the pressure that Rosicky creates high up the pitch with the way he backs up Olivier Giroud is crucial in big games. The same will apply on Wednesday against Man Utd. 
So much is at stake over the next eight days. We won't "know" what the end of the season will hold by next Sunday, but we will maybe have a much clearer idea. I would be able to accept (I think) finishing a close second to Man City or Chelsea, but winning the FA Cup (or European Cup) as a very good season for a team that was finished after the first game against Aston Villa. I will enjoy the next eight days, provided we get the results we need. After all, I don't watch Arsenal to be entertained. I watch Arsenal to see them win. If they do that then I've had all the entertainment I require from a football match.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The invisible Premier League leaders

Do they actually exist?

There are fourteen games to go in the Premier League season. We are virtually two thirds of the way through. Arsenal sit on top of the Premier League by two points from Manchester City and Chelsea. They do. Honestly. I just wanted to point it out as it's something that seems to be getting ignored by Sky and the BBC. For a team to be top so deep in to the season, and yet be completely ignored in terms of talk about the Title race, is surely unprecedented.
I watched the City v Chelsea match last night at the Manchester oil fields. Sky had been hyping the game all weekend, with their bubble only momentarily burst when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain rather gloriously asked who was playing when Sky's interviewer tried to deflect attention from his two goals on Sunday. Don't get me wrong here as I'm all for Arsenal staying under the radar and being the unfancied side going towards the final furlong (while on the horse-racing metaphors I can't believe the press have fallen for Mourinho's "little horse" nonsense from last night). However, the fact that we are being so wilfully ignored is a little bit grating after a while. You would have sworn, both before and after the game yesterday, that we were about to watch the Title decider between the only two contenders. Yet, I repeat, Arsenal are top of the Premier League.
The BBC, for their part, have had Hansen and Shearer writing Arsenal off all season. Arsenal are top of the Premier League after twenty-four games. Shearer keeps saying on Match Of The Day that Arsenal "can't" win the Title. I don't know whether this is because he believes them incapable or whether he's just saying it in the knowledge that, if they do, he'll be ridiculed forever more. The idea that we "can't" win it is utter nonsense. Shearer would be justified in an opinion that stated that Arsenal "won't" win the Premier League on the grounds that he believes City or Chelsea will be better over 38 games. To suggest, however, that a team that is top after twenty-four matches "can't" be Champions is ridiculous.
I'm sure the TV companies, especially Sky, would prefer for Arsenal not to be getting in the way. Sky have become obsessed with the oil clubs and the spending of money, as anyone who watched their coverage of the transfer deadline would tell you. There was actual celebration in the Sky Sports News studio when the total spent in January this year surpassed that of last year. Last night the pre-game build-up included a joyful matching up of the prices of the players on the pitch. This is, as with most of Sky's coverage of football, completely at odds with public feeling. The money is a blight on the sport, not something to be held up as some kind of badge of triumph for the beautiful game. Who needs the self-made Gunners getting in on the act and spoiling the fun for Sky, eh? Perhaps that's why the team who, as I may have mentioned, is top of the Premier League continues to be ignored. Maybe I'm imagining their existence. This sort of thing would make it even better if we could still be top after we play Norwich in game thirty-eight.