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Friday, 29 November 2013

Ramsey returns home - Cardiff City (a)

Back to Cardiff

The last time we played at Cardiff City was in the FA Cup a few years ago. Arsenal scraped a draw down in Wales and Eduardo did for the opposition in the replay on his first appearance since having his leg smashed. Before the game at Ninian Park that day most of the focus was on a very young teenager by the name of Aaron Ramsey who had left his hometown club the summer before for the bright lights of Arsenal. It would be fair to say that the occasion seemed to get to him at that time. Certainly he turned in a poor display in comparison to what we had seen from him on his previous fleeting first-team appearances. Tomorrow he goes back to Cardiff again, to a different stadium, a completely different player.
A lot has happened to Aaron Ramsey in the intervening years. Just as he was finding his feet at the top level he was cut down by Shawcross and missed virtually two years. As part of his journey to recovery he was loaned out to Nottingham Forest and back to Cardiff City again. I won't go over the long road he travelled with his form at Arsenal as I've said plenty on it over the last two years, most of it negative at times (though I am more than happy to have been proved wrong by Ramsey and I hope to be proved wrong about many other things at Arsenal by May). When he takes the field for Arsenal tomorrow he will not be the same callow youth that stepped out all those years ago. At the moment he is the top player in the Premier League, dominating from midfield and scoring more than his share of goals. The occasion will again be a big one but if anyone can handle the mental aspects of that then it is a lad who has gone through what Aaron Ramsey has. One more thing to note is that he got a mixed reception when he last played there for Arsenal. I suspect it will be much different tomorrow and the boy who became a man and was Captain of Wales will be welcomed back.
The game itself is a tough one for Arsenal. I would be reasonably pleased with a draw if someone offered it to me now. Cardiff and their intimidating supporters have turned their home into something of a fortress in the Premier League, despite the nonsense that pervades the Club in the boardroom. Man City left there empty handed while Man Utd could only draw last weekend, and would certainly have lost had Wayne Rooney been sent-off as he should have (if truth be told he should have been suspended for the game last Sunday as he also escaped a red card against Arsenal).
If there is one thing this Arsenal team has shown themselves able to do since February it is battle for everything. With the likes of Bellamy knocking about you know that battling will be very much required tomorrow. I would be happy enough to see Flamini keep his place ahead of Arteta (preferably with a proper sleeve) and Rosicky to stay in ahead of Cazorla. I can see Arsene Wenger playing both Flamini and Arteta but that is not something I want to happen. The aforementioned Aaron Ramsey is twice the player when left to play through the middle. Jack Wilshere has been doing just fine out on the right (even though I don't like players out of position) and I would keep him there tomorrow with Theo Walcott on the bench again.
Arsene said after the game on Tuesday that he will be looking to rotate a few players before we play Napoli. If that is going to happen then I hope it isn't tomorrow. I'm not a fan of "rotation" at any time, but if he's going to do it then Hull at home on Wednesday is a more obvious place to start. The players that do play need to be on their mettle and be prepared for a proper fight in a bear-pit of an atmosphere. If you bear in mind also that our next two games are being refereed by Lee Mason and Andre Marriner then you know we'll have our work cut out.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Wilshere class and Flamini shame - Arsenal 2 - 0 Marseille


I told you Jack was getting back to form after Saturday. His first goal last night was the sort of thing he did regularly in the Reserves and Youths at Arsenal. A few years ago, when Setanta was available on Sky in the UK, Arsenal had their own TV channel. One of the few highlights on the station was the extended highlights of the Youth sides and the live Reserves games. One player stood out above any other and that was Jack Wilshere.
I couldn't believe Arsene Wenger's claim the other week that Wilshere is not a goalscorer. Surely the Manager had watched Wilshere as a youngster? The class of that first goal was no fluke. It was the mark of the player that Jack has the potential to be. He has had a tough two years or so with injury. If this is the start of the rest of his career then we are in for a treat. Despite playing out of position on the right he showed that he is hungry to play in the Arsenal team. The contrast with another disappointing display from our star man, Ozil, was marked.
In truth Arsenal were very comfortable last night. I felt we were lacklustre at times with far too much willingness to play the ball back to the centre-halves, or back towards the defensive part of the midfield. That said, we created more chances than in recent games though Marseille's decision to play an almost complete second-string didn't harm our prospects. We could (probably should) have won by at least five goals. The chances that went begging from Ramsey, Ozil (three times if you count his diabolical penalty), Cazorla and Walcott were all very disappointing. It is very rare for me to leave any game we've won feeling frustrated. Perhaps it's a sign of how much they've improved this calendar year.
The second goal finally came with Ozil at last making some kind of positive contribution. Jack succeeded where Ramsey had failed by slotting home a simple tap-in. It was just reward for Wilshere.
The win puts us with one foot in the next round. Going to Naples knowing that anything other than a defeat by 3 goals will see us through means that it would take a collapse of Tottenham proportions to go out. Games like the one at Bradford last year should be cited to the players in terms of the need to not be complacent. I wasn't happy with Arsene Wenger implying that he will need to rest players in the next fortnight in order to be ready for Napoli - the Premier League must be the priority above anything else for this team. To have 12 points and not be certain of going through is a big surprise, but if we lose by those 3 goals in a couple of weeks from now we will not deserve to through in any case.
The other main talking point to come out of last night was Mathieu Flamini's decision to once again ignore the traditions of Arsenal Football Club. Taking a pair of scissors to his Arsenal shirt is a disgrace. It is well known that Arsenal's players wear whatever length of sleeve the Captain decides upon. It was unacceptable when it happened at Old Trafford (I went in to one over it on here the day after that, while the press only caught up a week later for some reason). To do it again showed a deliberate, flagrant disregard for Arsenal and the supporters.
I was delighted to see that Arsene Wenger has said it will not happen again. Clearly the Manager feels that Flamini has broken the Club rules. Flamini himself has said that he prefers to wear short sleeves and that he has done so in his ten years as a professional. I beg to differ. I have numerous Arsenal DVD's from Flamini's first spell at Arsenal and in none of the games where the players are in long sleeved shirts has he cut his off. The Captain's of the Club in that time were Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, with Dennis Bergkamp and Gilberto filling in when they were absent. What Flamini has done in his last two games is show disrespect to Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker. What exactly is wrong with just rolling up the sleeves as Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud do? Lee Dixon, to his credit, has Tweeted about that very thing today and he was one who also used to roll up the sleeves, while all the while accepting the decision of Tony Adams/Paul Davis/Steve Bould (and calling "long-sleeves" himself in his spell as vice-captain) that he should wear the same as everyone else.
A lot of fans on Twitter have surprised me by not being bothered about Flamini's shirt. The reason I'm surprised is that many of these supporters regularly cite Arsenal's class and how we are a cut above because of it. One of those classy things is, for me, the way the players all dress the same on the pitch. It sets our team apart from everyone else. Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I find it an odd stance. For me the players should do as the Captain tells them. If you look the part, you might just play with the necessary pride. I look forward to Saturday and seeing what Flamini does, and whether Arsene Wenger instills the necessary discipline.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Jack is back and Giroud dominates - Arsenal 2 - 0 Southampton

Both outstanding against Southampton

I'm writing this at just past 1am on the Sunday morning after the win over Southampton. The reasons for this are many. First of all I got back from the game and spent some time with the family. Secondly I watched Match Of The Day while listening to the boxing. Thirdly I won't get a chance to write anything else before we play Marseille. And finally because I'm watching the cricket as I write and England have decided that November 2013 is the time to take people of my age back to our formative years in the 90s when tours to Australia, and everywhere else for that matter, were unutterably crap.
Another three points are safely in the bank this evening. Arsenal were far from their fluent best, with a few players under performing. At times Southampton were on top in terms of possession, and looked threatening on occasion. Wojciech Szczesny had a very good game again and made saves when necessary, as well as coming for one or two crosses and making good decisions on the catch/punch front. Overall the back four were pretty good, with both full-backs shining yet again. It was the midfield that largely disappointed, with the notable exception of Jack Wilshere, more of which below.
Mikel Arteta had his worst game for some time in my view. He seemed unable to keep pace as Southampton came forward. Schneiderlin had too much for him on more than one occasion. The injury he went off with looked a recurrence of the calf problems he has suffered with for the last six months (he seemed to hurt himself making a sliding tackle on Wanyama for which he lucky not to be booked). We could be in trouble without Arteta as Flamini is no stranger to injury either. Elsewhere in midfield Aaron Ramsey had a fairly average game, save for one moment of genius when he was so unlucky to see his back-flick come off the post. Santi Cazorla was finally getting in to the game just as he was hauled off and replaced by Walcott, though he worked much harder today. Mesut Ozil was the real disappointment again. He was maybe unlucky to be flagged offside when scoring brilliantly just after half-time (I haven't seen a replay) but other than that he was uninterested and lacked bottle. His play is lacklustre and generally unacceptable at the moment. I was glad when he was finally substituted. I have plenty of faith that a player of his class will soon adjust and get going again, but a little bit of effort wouldn't go amiss. His jumping out of challenges and avoiding physical contact is becoming tiresome. You can have all the ability in the World to go with your £45m price tag, but you need heart as well. Perhaps he could do with a Keown on the training ground to toughen him up - Thierry Henry is on record as saying that's what happened to him and he was grateful for it.
We were saved today, apart from Boruc thinking he was Johann Cruyff, by the play of Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud. Like Ramsey, Jack was very unlucky to see a sublime effort hit the post in the first-half. Considering he was playing off the right wing I thought he was excellent. In the second-half Arsene Wenger swapped him with Ozil and Jack simply began to dominate the game. We had been under the cosh in the ten minutes after half-time, but after Jack switched to the centre we were well on top. Wilshere looked fitter than he has in a long time, and there was no sign of him collapsing in a heap clutching his ankle every time he was tackled. He is tough as well. He was taken out by a Wanyama body-check/forearm in the face in the first-half (the Kenyan makes a lot of Alex Song style fouls, but seems to avoid the Alex Song style yellow cards for them) but got up and got on with it - he didn't even get awarded the free-kick on that occasion, nor plenty of others. It was by far the best display Jack has put on this season. I don't want to see him out wide, especially with Walcott, Gnabry and Rosicky sitting on the bench, but I do want to see him playing like that more and more.
Giroud perhaps put in his best shift yet. I said to my Dad at half-time that he really was playing up front on his own, such was the lack of support he was getting from Ozil. His strength, aerial ability, and touch on the ball was a joy to behold on the day. Southampton's centre-backs had no answer to any part of his game. He thoroughly deserved his two goals, however they may have come about. He should also have been awarded another penalty, earlier in the second-half, when he was put in some sort of half-nelson trying to turn a Sagna cross in to the net with his head. Such a display can make you think that we don't need anyone else to play up front. However, it can also make you realise that we can not afford to lose him to injury without signing someone else of quality. Sadly Nicklas Bendtner's attitude, and the perception many fans have of him, means he is inadequate cover for Giroud. Bendtner, whether by lack of effort, or lack of the same sort of ability (I actually think Bendtner has at least as much ability as a footballer as Giroud) could not do what the Frenchman is doing week in, week out in this Arsenal team. Arsene simply must bring in another striker early in January to cover Giroud, and to give him a rest on occasion.
Tuesday brings another big challenge in the shape of Marseille. I think that a lot of people have written this one off as being in the bag. It most certainly isn't. Anything less than a win and we are in danger of playing Thursday night football. The win today (yesterday) has meant that the Man Utd result is history. The players can go in to the game against Marseille with renewed confidence. If Giroud can be as physically dominant as he was against Southampton, and get some support from our star player, then we can win comfortably. Hard work all across the pitch is a must.
One final thing for today is to mention that I met Robert Pires before the game as you can see below (I'm the one on the right). If Ozil wants an example of someone who got to grips with the pace and physicality of the Premier League after an initial struggle then he could do far worse than speak to the Great Man.


Friday, 22 November 2013

That couldn't have gone better, Southampton (h) preview

Looking the part

I haven't written a post in ten days. Such is the way with the international break where nothing emerges from Arsenal that is worthy of comment. I only write when I think I have something to say. I think the content of the blogs that operate on a daily basis over the past two weeks tells you all you need to know about that, though it's an art in itself to provide something mildly entertaining with no subject matter to work from.
Before I get in to the detail of Arsenal's international players you will have noticed that I've posted Arsenal's publicity shot of the players in their new suits at the top of this piece. It really is great to see Arsenal's players looking as smart as they should do when representing the Club. I was dismayed to see, following the suits "debut" at home to Liverpool, that the players turned up for the game in Dortmund wearing tracksuits and headphones again. Now that the Club has gone properly public with the sponsorship deal for the suits I hope we see them at every game. One thing that has annoyed me over the last couple of days is the way other blogs and groups are trying to claim some credit for themselves on this. I read a post on another site last night who claimed that they "revealed" Arsenal's players would be wearing suits, and there was a "rumour" that Thomas Vermaelen was behind it, before rubbishing that notion and claiming that Nike may have blocked the wearing of a suit - an idea that is shown to be nonsense by Manchester United's players wearing their Club blazers). As far as the "rumour" about Vermaelen wanting the suits, I wonder where they got that from? Hmm. Almost as bad was a Tweet from a particular supporters group that Arsenal had "listened to the fans" regarding the suits. Let's get a couple of things straight. The news of Arsenal's players wearing suits, and the absolute fact that Thomas Vermaelen demanded it, was revealed exclusively on this site over a year ago. In October this year this site told you, again exclusively, that the Arsenal players would be wearing them by the end of November. Anyone else claiming to have revealed it, or claiming credit for the return of the suit, is talking absolute nonsense.
The international break was rare indeed for Arsenal in that nobody appears to have come back crocked. Not just that but nobody will be fatigued to any great degree either. The only player to be involved in all of both games in the past week was Thomas Vermaelen and, given that he has not played too much this season, that can only have been a good thing. The over worked Olivier Giroud was dropped by France on Tuesday evening, playing only the final ten minutes or so. Bacary Sagna was also a late sub so is very well rested (I met Sagna when he was coming back to England late on Wednesday afternoon and he wasn't overly talkative - I missed out on his autograph as I didn't have any scraps of paper on me). Laurent Koscielny might possible have made it to the second France game (though he might have paid the price for giving away yet another penalty) but his red card ensured he also got the week off. The Germans sparingly used Ozil and Mertesacker (the BFG had already had a two week break before his match winning display at Wembley). Santi Cazorla did plenty of travelling with Spain, but his game time was kept to a reasonable minimum, while Nacho Monreal got a whole game under his belt. For England Jack Wilshere still looks far from fit, despite the protestations of Arsene Wenger, while Kieran Gibbs also got a half-hour run against the Germans. Aaron Ramsey was ill or injured for Wales so he has also had a very welcome rest over the past fortnight. If Arsenal fail to win on Saturday then fatigue would be a very poor excuse.
It might have been preferable to have played again quickly after Manchester United the other week, but the internationals meant that couldn't happen. That being the case, the fact that the players didn't get flogged by some fairly sensible international management is a very welcome bonus. It's fairly rare for us to get out of an international fortnight without moaning and groaning about one or more of our players coming back broken, so this one has been pretty good. The fact that France turned things around against Ukraine can only be good for Arsenal as well. None of our three French squad players is guaranteed their place in the side ahead of the World Cup so they will all be putting in plenty of effort for the rest of this season. If Sagna, Koscielny and Giroud all do well between now and May then Arsenal will also do well.

Hopefully plenty of this celebration to come

Who would have thought that Arsenal v Southampton would be a top of the table clash when the season started? Here we are in deepest, darkest November and Arsenal are not the only side who have surprised people. Saints have been fantastic ever since Pochettino took over from Nigel Adkins. I was amazed when Adkins was sacked. It seemed even worse when he was replaced by a fairly unknown foreign boss with a very moderate record in his career to date. Without making wholesale changes to the playing staff he has turned Southampton in to a fairly formidable opponent. There are no stars, as such, in their team but they have a decent mix that suits the way they play the game. Tomorrow will be a very tough assignment for Arsenal.
There had been hopes that the two weeks off would see the injured players magically come back this Saturday. I always find that an odd way of thinking. Do people think that the medical people only deal with the injuries when there's no games to be played? Why should an international break make any difference whatsoever to the recovery of an injured player? I digress, but the sad fact is that only Theo Walcott is ready to return, and that is only a qualified statement in that he has had no football whatsoever in two months. Lukas Podolski is out for at least three more weeks according to Arsene Wenger, while Oxlade-Chamberlain is not likely to return before Christmas at the earliest. As for Yaya Sanogo...
The return of Walcott is a big boost. In his, and Chamberlain's, absence there is a lack of proper pace in the side at times. The very threat of that pace is enough to have defenders worried, and opposition managers setting up to combat it. This often leads to Theo being faced up by two or three players, opening space elsewhere. With the likes of Ozil, Cazorla and Ramsey already in the side you can see where someone is going to benefit from others being double-teamed.
I've given Ozil some stick in recent weeks as he has become pretty ineffective at times. However, the return of Theo could bring the German to life. The only time they had the chance to link up was on Ozil's debut at Sunderland. Walcott should have had a hat-trick that day, and every chance was created by an Ozil pass. If there is one thing Ozil needs it is someone to create for. Theo Walcott could be that person. Something that needs to be made clear to Theo, however, is the need to be making runs in behind. It's no good to Arsenal if he is standing still with his arms out wide demanding the ball, as he so often does when Sagna looks up to see him standing in his way. Whenever the ball is played towards Olivier Giroud, or is at the feet of Mesut Ozil, I want to see Theo looking to get beyond the last man. He is the player with the pace to support Giroud properly, and he is also the player to get on the end of Ozil's creativity. If his presence also opens some space for Santi Cazorla to exploit then Arsenal's attacking players will have too much for most defences in the Premier League.
Of course it's pretty unlikely that Walcott will start the game tomorrow afternoon. What I don't want to see is Flamini and Arteta playing together again, with Ramsey pushed out to the wing. My preference would be for a side like this:
Szczeszny - Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs - Arteta, Ramsey - Gnabry, Ozil, Cazorla - Giroud.
The direct running of Gnabry is important as he is willing to take on his man and make something happen. He has already influenced the results at Swansea and Crystal Palace. The young German is an exciting prospect and I want to see him involved more and more. There is no point whatsoever in wasting Aaron Ramsey out wide when you have a lad who can genuinely play there. Gnabry is also willing to work hard for the team and his defending has been a feature of his game. He is physically strong and has helped out his full-back well on occasion. In the absence of Theo he maybe should have been seen more than he has. The other problem with Flamini and Arteta playing together is that it makes us a little defensive, especially against some of the lower quality opposition. It is also an unnecessarily negative move against almost anyone when we're playing at home.
I had a dream the other night that we will lose 3-1 on Saturday. A defeat would be disastrous, as it happens. As well as Southampton have done this season it is a game you must be looking to win if you're genuine Title contenders. It's also important to bounce back from the Man Utd defeat in a very positive manner. We have the busy part of the season just a few weeks away now. Get past Christmas and New Year ahead of everyone else and you have a real chance. Three points tomorrow are a must.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

We're set up well despite Sunday

Anybody see where he was hiding on Sunday?

The performance at Manchester United on Sunday was a real disappointment. The Manager has said that the players were "nervous" in the first-half. It's not the first time I've heard him say something like that in the last couple of years. As I've said in the past, if the players are nervous then that's a failing of the Manager as he sets the players up for any game. There is certainly no doubt that the attitude was wrong. Our players were too timid right from the off and failed to stamp their authority on a poor Man Utd team. Take out Rooney and Van Persie and this is a less than average group at Old Trafford. We should have been straight on top of them in midfield, showing our superiority.
I don't think the team selection did us any favours. Regardless of the sickness bug that went through some of the players I am certain that Flamini (more on him below) and Arteta would have started. This particular selection does us no favours in a game we should be looking to dominate as it means Aaron Ramsey moves out of the centre. When you've got someone playing as well as Ramsey is I don't understand why you'd stunt his impact by playing him out of position.
The change at the back, with Vermaelen coming in for Mertesacker, was actually fairly seamless. I thought Vermaelen played well. However, I was really disappointed at the way he and Koscielny allowed themselves to be bullied by Rooney and Van Persie before half-time. We all know that both of those players can be wound up by a bit of cynical play, especially Van Persie. Vermaelen should have been showing his hard-man credentials by leaving Van Persie on the ground in the 50-50 tackles. To let him get the ball down and play at times was a sign of how shy our players seemed to be on the day. As for Rooney, he might have been made man of the match on Sky, but only Michael Oliver knows how he stayed on the pitch. He should have been at least booked for a heinous late foul on Vermaelen. The incident, according to Martyn Tyler on Sky, showed Rooney's "tremendous attitude". I'm sure it's wonderful that England's most talented footballer is lauded for running 50 yards, totally out of control, with the sole intention of mowing down an opposition defender. Make no mistake, if that happens in Brazil next year England will be a man down.
In the second-half we started to get hold of the ball a lot more and had two opportunities to create very early on. On both occasions Mesut Ozil was put in to the box, on the run, with things opening up for a shot at goal. For some reason he played square, first-time passes, rather than take responsibility. Ozil was nothing short of a disgrace on Sunday as he hid pretty much throughout the game. The way he ducked under Aaron Ramsey's inch-perfect chip over the top later on was the absolute end. All it needed was for Ozil to stick his head on the ball and we would have been level. I have no doubt we'd have gone on to win from there. I've seen the usual carping about Nicklas Bendtner failing to get on the end of one of a series of excellent Sagna crosses, but that's all far too easy. Why do I see people constantly wanting to blame a limited player who had just ten minutes on the pitch, while failing to address the elephant in the room of a £45m signing going through the motions? Ozil will come good, of course. But that doesn't excuse his displays in the last couple of weeks.
One other element, and no small one, to the defeat on Sunday was once again the referee. I mentioned the fact that Rooney should have been sent-off, but the rest of the game saw Mr Oliver being as one-eyed as it's possible to be. Every pull, nudge and tug by a Man Utd player was ignored. Non-existent fouls were given against Arsenal players, even in the final minute of injury-time when Koscielny was adjudged to have fouled Rooney despite taking the ball away cleanly. The injury-time itself was a disgrace. Three minutes was, at best, only half of what should have been played. Will there be an investigation in to the performance of Michael Oliver? No. Should there be one? Of course.
One final word from Sunday and it concerns the way Mathieu Flamini was wearing his Arsenal shirt. Thomas Vermaelen, as Captain on the day, decides what length sleeves the players will wear. After a few minutes my 8 year-old observed that Flamini was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. I wasn't sure if he was and wondered if he had just rolled them up in the same way that Theo Walcott does. I was disgusted to see, when we got a close-up of Flamini, that he had actually had the long sleeves cut away from his shirt. This is unacceptable. The Captain called long-sleeves, so everyone should be wearing them. If you want to roll them up, fine. But don't ever question the authority of the skipper in this way. This is Arsenal, not some tin-pot rubbish like Spurs. Flamini should be fined a weeks wages as far as I'm concerned. I never want to see that again.
Of course it was a chance missed on Sunday. The other results gave us a huge opportunity to get some daylight between us and the pack. We also missed the chance to put Man Utd away once and for all this season. An 11 point gap over a side already with the press questioning the new regime would surely have been too much. Having said that, Sunday also showed me that Arsenal have nothing to fear. This Man Utd team ran away with the Premier League last season. They beat us on Sunday simply because we played badly. I get the feeling that they were pretty much at full throttle. Of course I stand to be made to look stupid, but United looked a busted flush to me. As I said above, take out their two World Class forwards and what else do they have?
As with last season it is a Premier League lacking in genuine quality. This is not a particularly good Arsenal team. But at the moment they are the best side in England. The results since January tell you that they know how to win games, not always with flair. They've battled and scrapped their way to 1-0 wins, just like last week in Dortmund. At other times they've turned on the skill. Sunday might have been a knock, but the players now have to prove it was nothing to concern them when Southampton visit at the end of next week. We're unlikely to get a better chance to win the Premier League than this season. Arsene must instill that belief that was lacking on Sunday. I never want to hear him tell us that the players were "nervous" before any big game ever again.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Arsenal leave Shearer crying in to the creosote with his mate Stewart Robson

It's that boyo again

It's a fairly well known story that Alan Shearer celebrated his one career trophy with Blackburn Rovers by creosoting the fence. Since he retired his elbows from competitive action he's spent most of the time on the BBC creosoting Match Of The Day with some of the worst punditry you'll ever witness. During these barren Arsenal years Shearer has delighted in our failings. This season, with us playing well and getting results, he has been adamant that our team isn't up to it. He may still be proved right. However, he is quickly running out of reasons to write off The Arsenal as no-hopers. His smug grin would be at the top of the list to be wiped off should this side go and win the Premier League. When we lost to Villa we were gone. Having had our exceptional run Shearer has continually written us off as we "haven't beaten a top side yet". This was becoming one of those things that, simply because the media say or write about it a lot, was becoming a statement of fact. Even after we played Liverpool off the field on Saturday we still hadn't beaten a top side, apparently. I wonder what Shearer has to say after last night. I bet he's out there now, paintbrush in hand, creosoting for all he's worth with the tears of humiliation beginning to well up. Keep writing us off Shearer, you cretin.
And then there's Stewart Robson. My God he's been quiet of late, hasn't he? Younger readers might not know that Stewart Robson was a very good player for Arsenal in the early to mid 1980's in a very poor team. Robson came through the ranks at Arsenal to be a real first team player. Then George Graham made him one of the first out of the door in 1986. Ever since then he seems to have had a burning anger where Arsenal are concerned. This didn't, of course, stop him from accepting an Arsenal paid wage when he became a pundit and "analyst". However, his constant carping about the Arsenal team and, more particularly, the Manager saw him inevitably removed from his job at Arsenal. This made the vitriol in Robson's public comments even worse. When it comes to hating Theo Walcott he makes Chris Waddle seem like someone who actually rates him. Robson wouldn't let a week go past in Spring this year without being on Sky, or in the newspapers, having a pop at Arsene Wenger or Theo Walcott and generally slagging us off as a bad team. Where is he now? Well, you'll occasionally catch him commentating on the J-League on Eurosport, or some obscure international game on the same channel. The rest of the time he's sat in the convalescence home for bitter ex-players who can't get a voice because their only assessment is one of criticism. Lovely.
Right, enough having a pop at those who slag us off for a living. Let's get to the business of last night and one of THE great nights in Europe. My wife spotted my Dad on TV in the front row of the away end shortly before kick-off last night. For him and my brother I'm sure it is an "I was there" sort of night. Make no mistake, we went to one of the best sides in Europe, the top team in the top league in Europe, and we beat them. It wasn't that we outplayed them (at least not until the last 30 minutes) but we played with a spirit, a tenacity and a will to win that is starting to become a hallmark of a squad of players who seem to want to play for each other, and who want to play for The Arsenal.
In the first-half our performance was pretty woeful. We couldn't hold the ball for more than two passes and it kept coming back at us. The midfield couldn't get to grips with things at all. The shining lights were Rosicky, Mertesacker and Koscielny. Those three held us together to half-time with Mertesacker utterly imperious in defence. It almost doesn't matter that he's slow because he reads the game so well. The man is a leader and a communicator. Last night he was actually attacking the ball in the air and jumping his considerable height. What a difference it makes. If I have a criticism of the BFG it is that he still has a tendency to turn his back on shots and that is really not on. But that's a small gripe after a display like last night. King Koscielny shone alongside him. Tomas Rosicky, meanwhile, seemed the only player in front of the defence who was capable of putting in a decent tackle and also of holding the ball long enough to relieve any pressure. He rolled back the years again last night.
For the first 15 minutes of the second half we were getting battered. It really did seem a matter of time as the midfield was completely overrun, Kieran Gibbs was struggling to handle things down his side (though he had no support from Cazorla) and Wojciech Szczesny made two brilliant saves. The offside trap, however, worked for the first time since Tony Adams was running things and we got through it.
When we got the goal it should have been no surprise that Giroud and Ramsey combined to provide it. You can't overstate how good Giroud's header down was, under pressure, to allow Ramsey to fling himself goalwards. It looked like pandemonium in the away end. Ramsey goes from strength to strength and a goalscoring midfielder is absolute gold dust.
After we scored we were really in control until the final whistle. Ramsey could, maybe should, have made it two after more great work from Giroud. Mertesacker was a hair away from heading in as he flung himself at a Cazorla cross, before heading narrowly over with a delicate flick after another good delivery from Santi (I didn't agree with him being taken off just as he was starting to run the game, and neither did he judging by the look on his face - this is something to keep an eye on in the next few months). We should also have had a penalty when Weidenfeller morphed in to Harald Schumacher to take out Koscielny. As for Sky's claims that Dortmund should have had a penalty after another Lewandowski dive it really summed them up as a TV company (the foul on Koscielny was not mentioned in the post-game analysis - they would never have done that had it been Man Utd or Chelsea winning such a game. That cretin Stelling couldn't hide his disappointment at Arsenal's historic win. To his credit Gary Neville seemed embarrassed by the whole thing.
Something that struck me, as it did at our place, was that we couldn't deal with Dortmund's pressing game in the first hour or so. They play very much like Barcelona do (or did) when they don't have the ball. However, much like the way we did against Barcelona on more than one occasion, having got through that hour in touch with the opposition Arsenal took over the game. The fact is that the high energy pressing all over the pitch is brilliant and highly effective. However, it can't be sustained physically for 90 minutes. If you haven't got the game sewn up before the 60-70 minute mark you had better be ready to get run off the pitch in the last half-hour or so. By being resolute at the back the Arsenal team earned itself the right to play their own game. The goal meant Dortmund had to risk their shape a little and try and be a bit more expansive with the ball. They couldn't do it. It was a sign of just how good this Arsenal team is becoming right now.
There is still a long, long way to go. However, there is a growing feeling that this Arsenal team has "something" about it. I wrote a month or so ago about the feeling you get as a match going fan that you can't really describe, that tells you something different is happening. It might not end in a trophy, but it's going to be a lot of fun finding out. If we go to Old Trafford and come away with a result (I'd still take a draw) we will surely be written off and ignored no longer. That will bring about a different problem for the players as the expectation level will change. They will have to deal with that. For now they have the incentive of knowing that a win at Manchester United will just about put them out of the Premier League race this season, as well as sending out a stunning message that The Arsenal definitely mean business. That would be huge.

Monday, 4 November 2013

One down, Suits you sirs

Outstanding against Liverpool

Arsenal's "big test" has started well with a superb display against Liverpool. It is noticeable that, as Arsenal won the game in some style, Liverpool have now been dismissed by the media as nothing more than fodder. It's strange how Spurs were going to be a test up until we beat them, and the same can be said of Fenerbahce, Marseille, and now the scousers too. I dare say a 3-0 win in Dortmund would also be discounted because the Germans had a poor night, or something. And if we went to Old Trafford and beat them easily it would be down to Moyes and their "transition" rather than our own quality. I've learnt to take the media and their comments as nothing more than anti-Arsenal bile, but the lack of credit our players receive can be infuriating. The papers and the TV pundits are quick to put us down when we don't win, but never forthcoming with the praise when we do. It is always qualified in some way by commenting on the opponents perceived weakness. Even Arsenal's Invincibles never got the praise they deserved. Having said all that, I am happy for us to be continually written off as incapable of winning the Title. The longer the media ignores our credentials, the longer we can stay under the radar. Hopefully, by the time they realise Arsenal might be a serious challenger, we can still be flying high. Clearly there can be no proper judgements on this Arsenal team until at least Sunday evening, post Man Utd, but a bit of credit for the performance on Saturday would be richly deserved.
There were outstanding displays all across the pitch against Liverpool. I thought we started a bit slowly again, but once we got hold of the ball they simply couldn't get near us. Laurent Koscielny was getting most of the plaudits on the Sky commentary, but for me it was Mertesacker who was the boss in the Arsenal defence. For once he was attacking the ball in the air and winning everything. Considering how Sturridge and Suarez were supposed to give us so many problems ahead of the game I would say it was notable that their only opportunities of note came from Szczesny and Mertesacker lapses in concentration. It was a shame that the pair should make those errors late on in the game as they had both been superb to that point. Szczesny was dominating his penalty area, but he was so lucky to get away with his return to being too cocky. I don't want to see that again. It's so unnecessary for a goalkeeper to get in to that situation and it could have cost us.
In midfield I thought Mikel Arteta ran the show. There was one moment early on where he allowed Henderson to run in to the penalty area unchallenged, but aside from that he gave a master class. You'd be hard pushed to have known Steven Gerrard was even on the pitch - I'm not sure he moved off the halfway line throughout the game. Alongside the brilliant Arteta was Aaron Ramsey who was excellent again and capped it all with that superb goal to wrap up the three points. The pair of them set the tone, while Rosicky was pretty much at his energetic best, with Cazorla more involved than he had been in any previous game since his return. Cazorla's finish was that of a man with real quality as many players would have skied that volley on the run.
If there was a disappointment to be had then it was that Mesut Ozil was largely on the fringes again. Having said that he created the space and provided the pass to allow Ramsey to score, and could have had one or two of his own when we went forward late in the game. The work Giroud does in front of Ozil should see him getting more involved, for me, but I'm not going to get too concerned about him just now. I think it would be wrong to criticise, as such, any player from Saturday. The fact is that Arsenal were excellent and thoroughly deserved the win. Hopefully they can go to Dortmund with the confidence required to get a result out there. After a quiet performance at our place against his countrymen I am sure that Ozil will go out with something to prove in Dortmund.

Style and class, The Arsenal Way

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the Arsenal players were dressed in new club suits before the game against Liverpool. Regular readers might remember that I told you this was going to happen in December last year, and again last month. I have to say I thought the new suits looked the dogs proverbials on the Arsenal players. It's been too long since we've seen it, with the ultimate low point being the 2011 Carling Cup Final when Arsenal arrived at a Wembley occasion in tracksuits. The idea for returning to a proper Arsenal look was that of Thomas Vermaelen and the skipper deserves immense credit for this. Hopefully we won't see dodgy training gear, paired with stupid earphones, ever again when players arrive to represent The Arsenal. I particularly love the Arsenal crest lapel badges - understated and classy. Very Arsenal.

Friday, 1 November 2013

We'll know in ten days

It's been a while since we were both on top
The next ten days will see Arsenal fans finding out whether or not we are genuinely in the hunt this season. We play Liverpool at home, and then Dortmund and Manchester United away. Given the chance right now I would take draws from all three fixtures. Defeats in all of them is a fate that doesn't bear thinking about. You just know that the media is longing for us to fail over the next week so that they can trot out their usual anti-Arsenal nonsense. It's up to a group of players who've done brilliantly so far to stand up and show that they might have what it takes.
The loss to Chelsea in midweek was almost a replica of the Dortmund game a week before. Our ability to make stupid individual errors in defence once again haunted us. At no level of the game can you afford to gift a 1-0 lead to quality and experienced opposition. Chelsea actually only had two efforts on target in the game, but we really only had one of any note, and we were 2-0 down by that stage (failing to test a 41 year-old goalkeeper who has hardly played in six months was criminal from Arsenal). Plenty of anger has been directed at Nicklas Bendtner, and people in attendance have told me he really let himself down with a complete lack of effort. Watching the game on a mobile phone I can only say that I saw a player getting no service from wide, such was the lack of desire to play a cross in to the box. At the same time we should consider that Bendtner has hardly set foot on a pitch in the last 18 months. Is he up to the required standard? Almost certainly not. However, in the absence of anyone else in the squad he is the only back-up to Olivier Giroud. We are almost certainly going to be reliant on Bendtner in a game or two before January. The constant cat-calling during his time on the pitch and general apathy towards him from the stands on Tuesday night is something we can all do without. In fairness I don't think he gets that bad a ride from the regulars, but those who go once in a blue moon, and watch Sky and Match Of The Day, are the ones who give him dogs abuse. I didn't see anyone getting on at Carl Jenkinson who was at fault for both goals, or Santi Cazorla who once again did next to nothing in his 90 minutes on the pitch. I also didn't hear anyone moaning that, at 2-0 down, we brought on the lesser spotted Ju Young Park and played him on the left wing, rather than go with two through the middle - the lack of tactics reared its head in defeat once again.
On to tomorrow and it's been a long time since Arsenal played Liverpool in a genuine top of the table clash. I stand to be corrected but the last time I remember us being this close together at the top of the table before a game was in March 1991 when David Seaman produced, for me, his greatest ever display before Paul Merson gave us a 1-0 win at Anfield. The home game that season ended in a 3-0 win for Arsenal so we'd all like a repeat of that.
Clearly a lot of focus will be on Luis Suarez tomorrow following the way things went in the transfer window. He's been in unbelievable form since he came back in to the Liverpool side so we have to hope he's due another meltdown. Suarez is simply an incredible player, probably the best in the Premier League. He carried Liverpool for most of last season, but the introduction of Daniel Sturridge has relieved some of that pressure. I've been surprised by Sturridge, but you can't argue with his record since January, and the goal he scored last week was top class. I mentioned how our individual errors at the back were costing us, and we have let in a lot of goals in spite of an apparent improvement in our back four. Tomorrow there is no room for any of these cock-ups. Concentration is the key, and the work of Arteta and Ramsey in front of the defence is crucial. If ever we needed Mathieu Flamini then tomorrow would have been it.
From Arsenal's point of view I want to see more from Mesut Ozil. As much as he has influenced the play, and the mood of the Club as a whole, since he arrived I can't help thinking he's been keeping things a little too simple. I don't mean that I want to see flashy flicks and stupid back-heels a la Arshavin. But I do want him to have a run at people every now and again. Ozil has the pace and the skill to take people on and cause them a different kind of problem. Obviously he is still feeling his way in to the Premier League but I think he can give us more. In the absence of the pace of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (losing them both at the same time has handicapped our attacking game badly) we need our star player to step up to the plate and dominate games. Without that pace out wide we need something special through the centre. Ozil is that something special and I want him to start proving it. Big players influence big games. We saw him do it against Napoli. Now he has to do it against Liverpool, Dortmund and Manchester United.