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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Santi and Alexis lead the way to a reasonable European tour

Stars of the show against Besiktas

It wouldn't be accurate to say that I enjoyed the game yesterday. I definitely enjoyed the result and, in that case, I've had all the entertainment I require. It should have been a lot easier than it was in the end, regardless of the scandalous red card for Debuchy as Arsenal missed a number of chances. Jack Wilshere missed when one on one with the goalkeeper, then Santi Cazorla missed the goal with the keeper 25 yards off his line. In between times we had a huge let off when the referee failed to give a penalty to Besiktas for Jack Wilshere's foul just as their player was about to break the back of the net. When we did score it was a bit scrappy as Jack miscontrolled the ball in to the path of Alexis. What the goal means could be an important part in the entire history of Arsenal.
When Alexis got the goal he puffed out his cheeks and raised his arms in the exact same way Dennis Bergkamp did after his classic volley to get off the mark. The way he played when they came out for the second half it was as though a weight had been lifted from him, just as it was with Dennis that day against Southampton. There was a freedom in the way he went about his business after half-time. I noted there was an occasion just before he scored where he had the ball and passed it square despite having the opportunity to beat a defender and be in on goal. When he was at Barcelona he would have taken that chance to go at his man. In the second half that was exactly what he started doing and we seemed to be looking at the sort of player you pay the big money for. The way Alexis put himself about for the team last night was incredible. He is tiny and yet he was too strong for men much bigger than himself. He was winning headers towards the end of the game that he had no right to get to. It was sheer desire and will to win from a player who looked like he suddenly felt at home. The crowd reacted to him and so did the rest of the Arsenal players. If Sanchez last night gave us a sign of things to come from him then we will certainly never be faulting him for a lack of effort. As I say, it could be a big moment in our history if he can replicate even half of what Dennis achieved. I could, of course, go in to one at this point about the contrast with Mesut Ozil, but I've said it all before about him.
The other player who truly stood out for me last night (aside from the back four - Nacho Monreal had his best game in an Arsenal shirt) was Santi Cazorla. There are often times when Santi flits in and out, or is almost totally invisible. Last night he was everywhere. I've never seen him putting in tackles like he did against Besiktas. When he got the ball he looked dangerous and got us on the front foot straight away. In its own way it was probably his best performance since he joined Arsenal. I wonder if Santi has sensed an opportunity here with Ozil stuffed out on the left. Suddenly Wenger is trusting Cazorla with the important role and he certainly went to it. I can't speak highly enough of what I saw from Santi Cazorla in that game and it was crucial to us qualifying for the Champions League. I thought throughout last season that Cazorla would be gone by now - he is now looking to make himself the key player.
As with the chance to criticise Ozil I could now launch an attack on Arsene Wenger for his comments about new players after the game but you've heard it all before. And it will keep until next week when the transfer window closes and we know whether or not he has been too tight to launch a challenge for the Premier League this season.

The draw, as I'm sure you've seen, has been made already for the Champions League. I would say I'm not too upset with it, though it could obviously have been a bit easier. Borussia Dortmund are drawn with us for the third year in succession and this is probably the weakest side they've had in that time. Losing Lewandowski was huge for them (though you can be fairly certain that Reus won't be joining us before Monday now that we've drawn Dortmund again). That's not to say it's going to be easy - they are clearly the main threat to Arsenal in the group once again. Starting our campaign at the Westfalenstadion is not good at all, but nor is the prospect of going to Galatasaray for game six and needing to get a result to qualify. That being the case you would have to think the four games in between must garner maximum points if we are to make it through this time.
The draw against Galatasaray had to happen at some point I suppose. Having been in Copenhagen fourteen years ago their supporters are people I had hoped never to encounter again. Sadly we now have them to face in a competitive fixture. I suspect a lot of "veterans" will be in and around North London when we play them, and probably a few from Leeds will join them. In truth, it is the violence of their support that makes them even remotely a worry on the pitch. This is a team for whom Emmanuel Eboue is a key player. Say no more about their quality. It beggars belief that their fans are still allowed to get away with the "welcome to hell" nonsense, but that's UEFA and their failings all over. Hopefully the players are able to concentrate simply on doing the business on the pitch, and nothing would give me more pleasure in this group than to destroy Galatasaray - anyone who was at that UEFA Cup Final in 2000 would no doubt agree.
The tie I'm most looking forward to is Anderlecht. They are a famous adversary from Arsenal's past after what became the Double team beat them in the Fairs Cup Final 2nd leg at Highbury in 1970. People who were there that night tell you that Highbury was never better than for that game. Us youngsters probably go for 1998 as our best memory (certainly it's mine) but for the previous generation Anderlecht is a name synonymous with their favourite time at the old place. With the fixtures announced there is only one game that I am working for in the group stage, and that is Anderlecht away. However, it's been a while since I went away in Europe, and Belgium is no distance from here so I am booking a day off and going to that one. It's the third group game so there will be plenty riding on it. I'm looking forward to it already.
The best thing about the European draw for Arsenal is the relative lack of travelling. Dennis Bergkamp would have played in two of the three away games, for God's sake. That's good for the players and it's good for the fans who will once again follow over land and sea (and Leicester on Sunday) in their thousands - though maybe not quite so many will go to Istanbul. The important bit from last night is that we're in a position to even think about these matches, and we can thank Alexis for that.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Besiktas (h) preview - going out would mean disaster

Can we make it again?

In all the years that we've had to go through the qualifying stages I can only think of one occasion where we've come under any real pressure, and that was against Udinese as few seasons back. Apart from that tie it's always been fairly plain sailing thanks to excellent away results in the first leg (against Udinese we played at home in the first game). A 0-0 draw in Turkey last week leaves Arsenal in a very precarious position going in to the match this evening. If Besiktas get a goal then we need to find two to go through, such is the importance of scoring away goals in a two leg European encounter.
On paper, regardless of who is injured and suspended, Arsenal should walk all over a team like Besiktas. With players like Wilshere, Ozil, Alexis, Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain we should have no trouble. I expect that neutrals see it that way. But when it's your team you don't see that. All I see is a team that will have neither of the players it usually relies on to provide the goals. Aaron Ramsey getting sent off last Tuesday could be the moment at which our long run of Champions League appearances was dealt a mortal blow. It really is time for Jack Wilshere to step up tonight and replace Ramsey, and shut the press up once and for all. I hope to be proved wrong, but I can't really see Yaya Sanogo being the man tonight - it would be the most pleasant surprise if he was the hero. Certainly Sanogo is due a goal, isn't he?
What I'd love to see is for Arsenal to start the game the way they did against Napoli and Bayern Munich at home last season. Such a blistering opening would blow the Turkish side away in the first twenty minutes. It would mean playing with pace, and getting people running in behind to provide Ozil with the targets he needs for his particular brand of through ball. A performance akin to the first-half at Wembley the other week would be just what the doctor ordered as well. What I expect, on the other hand, is a tight game with the tension of the occasion gripping the players. That will certainly suit Besiktas more than Arsenal - all the pressure is on us tonight and the players have to show us that they can respond.
I'm worried about tonight. I'm worried about what not going through will mean. The hole it would put in the confidence of the players would be huge. It would almost certainly mean not signing the new players we need to challenge in the Premier League (assuming there is any intention to do so in the first place). It would also mean having to play a knackering schedule of Thursday night matches (which would likely be included as season ticket fixtures) against teams from some of the darkest outposts of Europe, and then seeing all the league games played on Sunday's as a result. Nobody wants Channel 5 or ITV 4. Nobody wants to play the Latvian Cup winners, away, in December. Arsenal have to win tonight, if nothing else than to stop us from having a horrible season ahead in the UEFA Cup. It's time to go out and be The Arsenal.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Giroud's injury is bad luck - the result is not

How very Arsenal

So Lukas Podolski has been given a stay of execution as an Arsenal player. Arsene Wenger can make claims about Podolski being in his plans and all that sort of rubbish but the fact is that he was on his way out of Arsenal until yesterday afternoon when they realised that Giroud was properly crocked. For tomorrow night it means that Poldi is "in the squad" and that could yet be very important for Arsenal's Champions League participation this season. I'll write a preview of the Besiktas game before I leave for the match tomorrow.
The way Olivier Giroud got injured was typical of Arsenal's poor fortune. There really was nothing in it, was there? It was just one of those freak things that could see the same incident a million times and no such injury would be suffered. Having just scored a fine goal to salvage a point it must come as a massive blow to Giroud. It's certainly a massive blow to Arsenal. However you rate Giroud we have to accept that he is currently our best centre-forward and the most likely player (perhaps aside from Ramsey) to score us a goal or two. And I suppose that's the biggest problem. 
We all know that when push comes to shove Olivier Giroud is a good player, but he's not a top player. He is a 20 goals a season man, but if you're going to win the Premier League you need someone who is really the next level up these days. We've known this since Giroud made his debut and missed a sitter against Sunderland. He continues to miss the one chance that is likely to come his way in the big matches. Every striker misses chances, of course, but when it matters the best centre-forwards are the ones that make the difference against the other top sides. Giroud has consistently been found wanting in this regard. 
I like Giroud a lot, and having him as the bloke on the bench and playing some games against the lower opposition would be ideal. So, for all that we are extremely unlucky that Giroud is injured, he should never have been anything other than the back-up option in the first place. As I say, we've known this about him from the off. Last year Wenger went after Higuain and Luis Suarez. He showed by trying to sign one of them that he also knows Giroud isn't the man. So why are we still waiting over twelve months later? Why are we in a position where Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is being forced to sit in front of the press and extol the virtues of a player who has never scored a goal in a proper fixture? Why are we in a position where Wenger is having to eat humble pie and bring back a player in Podolski whom he had ostracised less than a week ago? Why are we in a position where we are going in to a crucial Champions League qualifying tie without the two main goal scorers in the squad, and not a single person who could be considered as adequate to replace them?
At the end of last season we knew we needed a new goalkeeper, a new right-back, a replacement for Thomas Vermaelen, a strong and powerful (not necessarily the much fabled defensive) midfield player, and a World Class centre-forward. As I write we have got the new goalkeeper, the new right-back and a kid who is filling in at centre-half. At the same time we've brought in a very exciting attacking player (not a centre-forward) and ignored the chance to sign one of the best midfield players in the World at a knock down price. One man is responsible for presiding over this shambles. It's no coincidence that when Wenger was away in Brazil we got business done. Either side of his time at the World Cup he's pulled the plug on a deal for Jackson Martinez over wages, and who knows what other deals he's destroyed because of his obsession with parsimony. Today he dismissed talk of doing transfer business because of the game tomorrow. Liverpool signed a bloke yesterday two hours before a match for the simple reason that for their transfer business, once a player has been identified, the Manager has nothing to do with the deal. That is not the case at Arsenal and it continues to hamper our progress after all these years. That is why our situation going in to tomorrow has little to do with luck.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Losing Podolski might cost Arsenal very dearly on Wednesday night

On his way out of Arsenal

I've been away on holiday for a week so I've seen only the extended the highlights from Arsenal's matches so far. I was delighted with the late win at home to Palace and the point gained at Everton - you'd almost always take a draw from Goodison Park. As a result of all that I'm really looking forward to getting back to Arsenal on Wednesday night for the Besiktas second leg. Or at least I was...
With Sanogo injured (and who shouldn't be near the Arsenal first team in any case) the fact that Lukas Podolski wasn't even on the bench at Everton tells you that the German is about to leave. Poldi was actually in Cologne on Saturday, and his social media output regarding Arsenal has become just about non-existent, telling me for certain that Arsene Wenger has told him his time with us is up. After all, who needs a player that can score goals? Wenger told us last season how Podolski is the best finisher in the Club (okay, there's not a lot of competition on that front, but even so) but then proceeded to not use him as a strike partner for Giroud when we were trailing at Wembley. The fact is that Wenger never seems to have truly rated Podolski. That is something that utterly sickens me as an Arsenal supporter. Now, just when it seems we need Podolski more than ever, he looks set to go to Juventus on loan (I'll deal with that below).
On Wednesday night we are playing a game that is crucial to our season. Not being in the Champions League will cut off the money that should be available to the Manager - without the guarantee of the TV money Arsenal will ring-fence the available cash pending another failure to get there next season, I am sure. More to the point we are going in to Wednesday needing to score two goals (one will not be enough with our defence) and we have an injured Giroud (forget Sanogo). Saturday should have proved to anyone that the idea of playing Alexis as the lone striker is ridiculous - Wenger says the Chilean lacks confidence, but that's not really any wonder when you're putting him up against two giant centre-backs on his own! In fairness, when Podolski has been the lone striker it hasn't been overly successful for the most part. However, in the absence of the others and the fact that Wenger doesn't seem to really rate Joel Campbell - who played as a lone striker throughout the World Cup - Podolski should be the man playing on Wednesday. Instead of that he won't even be in the country by the look of it. If Arsenal don't have a fit goal scorer on Wednesday night, and we go out of the Champions League, then Arsene Wenger should be utterly ashamed that he has failed to make use of a World Class finisher in the shape of Lukas Podolski.
At the moment it looks like Podolski will be going on loan, as I said above. What exactly is the point in that? If he is going to go then he should be sold so that we can make back the transfer fee we paid. If Juventus, or anyone else, aren't willing to part with the cash that would buy Poldi then he should remain at Arsenal and be used properly by the Manager for the first time since he arrived at the Club. If he does go, then a new striker has to be brought in (we needed one in any case - a genuinely World Class, 30 goals a season centre-forward). The time is running out to sign players, and not winning on Wednesday would leave us with another very long nine months ahead.

Friday, 15 August 2014

It all begins again for Arsenal wtih new signings, A new initiative for this site

More of this please boys

Crystal Palace have caused the big story of the first weekend of the Premier League season, regardless of what happens tomorrow. The business of Pulis leaving certainly seemed to come out of nowhere. I watched Match Of The Day on Sunday night and he seemed dead keen to be getting on with things and very much looking forward to what he described as the "honour" of playing away at Arsenal on the opening day. I know a couple of Palace fans from work and they are utterly shocked at losing Pulis and wondering where this leaves their team. None of us know what has really gone wrong, and you'd have to think Pulis might have been given a blank cheque after what he achieved last season. The only thing to counter that is a stat I read last night which showed Stoke City, in his final three years there, had a net spend of £90m which put them behind only Man City, Chelsea and Man Utd in terms of transfer fees paid. Maybe Steve Parish wasn't willing to go along with that sort of thing and is looking after his club and its long term future. I like Palace and I hope this doesn't have them heading through the Premier League trap door come May.
For Arsenal the goings on at Selhurst Park could either be a bonus that allows us a comfortable win, or the sort of mayhem that sees players putting it in on behalf of the former manager. We go in to it with the confidence of being the side that has the FA Cup on the sideboard (the trophy will not be paraded tomorrow as it might have been in the old days as the FA have taken it to some non-league outpost for the launch of the extra preliminary round - sod the fans of the team that actually won it!) We also have the confidence of stuffing the Champions at Wembley last weekend. And then there are the new arrivals who will have the crowd right up for it before kick-off. Alexis Sanchez will no doubt get the biggest cheer and it would be great if he could get off to the ideal start and grab a goal or two in his first proper home game.
I remain concerned at the fact we remain short in certain areas, as I wrote yesterday. For tomorrow we have Laurent Koscielny in the side, but I worry he is playing half-fit with an achilles knock that could end up troubling him for months. Not having signed a centre-back to replace Thomas Vermaelen, when you've admitted that you knew he was going to leave before last season even finished, is indicative of the negligence we've seen become prevalent in recent years. It's great bringing in World Class attackers like Alexis that get the crowd going, but one or two more decent squad men are equally valuable when it comes to getting over the line come May. The decision to "protect" the German players (Mertesacker and Podolski needed a rest about as much as I did) might now backfire if it means Koscielny is being put at risk, as he surely is.
Mikel Arteta is now the official Captain of Arsenal. I was hoping we'd be bringing in someone to ease Arteta back in to the ranks this season but it looks unlikely with this appointment. What has disappointed me, however, is what seems to be a targeting of Arteta as the new boo-boy for the squad, at least from what I've seen written on the internet - the sort of stuff that has a habit of transmitting to the terraces for some reason. If there is one man who should never be a target for the fans (and nobody in an Arsenal shirt should ever be getting stick from their own on a match day) it is the Captain. Arteta is the leader and he deserves the support of the fans.
Sadly I won't be there tomorrow. This was the first time I'd ever wanted us to be away from home for the first game of the season as I am going on holiday in the morning. My first proper match this season will be the Champions League qualifier at home to Besiktas. I'll not be in a position to write anything for at least 9 days from here, and my main task tomorrow (assuming I've arrived at my destination in time) and for the away game in Turkey, will be to find a French TV channel showing Arsenal. 

As regulars might know I already have a Twitter account for this website (@ARSENALDvbrisG) and there is a Facebook page you can "like" by looking up "It's MY Arsenal Opinion". The only thing missing from my social media empire is an Instagram account. Well not any more! The site is now on Instagram as well and can be followed @arsenaldvbrisg where I will be posting Arsenal photographs, often from the games themselves. Hopefully it will be another fun way to keep up with The Arsenal and for anyone interested to comment on anything and everything.

Nine months of Arsenal starts tomorrow. Come May I want us to be celebrating the Title. Until then it simply remains to say:


Thursday, 14 August 2014

Premier League Season Preview 2014-2015

Looks great in Arsenal ribbons

The World Cup has spanned the gap between seasons very nicely. Three months without the Premier League has passed quickly thanks to the excellent entertainment from Brazil. But now it’s back to business and the start of another season of English football. This is the traditional Premier League season preview where I have a bit of fun assessing the prospects for all our opponents as well as Arsenal.

Aston Villa
The Villans have had a pretty quiet time this Summer. Benteke being injured has meant that they haven’t had to worry about people sniffing around their squad. Their signings, on the other hand, have been less than inspiring. At a time when the owner is trying to sell the club it’s not really a surprise that no money is really available. Bringing in the likes of Kieran Richardson and Joe Cole is odd, while Philippe Senderos is no doubt gutted that his move to Villa has been accompanied by Drogba’s return to Chelsea. I think it might be another long season at Villa Park and it will only be a matter of time before Roy Keane does something. Bottom half.

Back in the Premier League after a stellar season last year I’m pleased they haven’t gone mad with the cash. Sean Dyche will hopefully be given the chance to build his club, regardless of whether the results in the Premier League are positive. They’ve managed to bring in a good few players with Premier League experience, but the legs may well have gone. In a team that is likely to struggle anyway it will remain to be seen how that works out for them. It’s hard to see anything other than relegation, with 17th being like a European Cup win.

Whoever is in charge of negotiating player sales at Chelsea needs a pay rise. They’ve secured their FFP obligations, to their credit, and are now spending a few quid. Of course they have our Cesc Fabregas and that scares me, but I’m not convinced by Diego Costa – his record before last season was not especially impressive. Drogba brings with him his reputation and a bit of a sign over Arsenal, but hopefully he and Mourinho can get some belated punishment from our boys this season. I still think they are lacking all the time John Terry continues to be first-choice, and Mourinho is as reprehensible a figure as there is anywhere in football. Sadly our media love “Jose” so we’ll have to keep putting up with his nonsense for the foreseeable future. Obviously they’re going to be up there challenging, but there are no excuses for Mourinho if they don’t win this year – he’s spent his money and brought in his own players. The pressure is on. Top three, possibly Champions.

Crystal Palace
I predicted bottom place for the Eagles this time last year and said Holloway was the problem. They were going to finish bottom until the point that they sacked the idiot and brought in Pulis. As appointments as Manager go that was pretty inspired. Pulis brought the best out of people like Chamakh and showed what is possible if only you can organise your defence properly. In Julian Speroni they had a fine goalkeeper playing at his absolute peak all season, and they should be held in great affection simply for stopping the scousers winning the Title. I’m not sure about the signings they’ve made so far as they are not really Premier League quality performers, but there will doubtless be more to come before September. You’d be crazy to bet against Pulis keeping them up again this season, so I won’t – lower reaches, but safety for Palace.
LATE EDIT: And right before publishing Pulis is causing a re-write with the reports that he might be about to walk out on Palace! It’s the sort of confusion that nobody needs in any club. Take away Pulis and I would fear for Palace after all.

Did they rob a bank? After years of signing nobody, and selling almost everybody, Everton have splashed nearly £30m on Romelu Lukaku. They’ve held on to everyone important too, including Gareth Barry who has signed a permanent deal at Goodison. If they can continue their form for most of last season (they fell apart a bit after thrashing Arsenal to go in to nose bleed territory) then a UEFA Cup spot is well within their reach. Having spent that money I’d want a decent tilt at a cup run if I was a Toffees fan and they’re my tip for the League Cup, assuming Martinez takes it seriously. Top seven in Premier League.

Hull City
Hull have spent £20m in transfer fees, and recouped none. I’m not sure where that has come from as being runners-up in the FA Cup doesn’t bring in much prize money (nor does being winners in fairness). The players they have signed do not convince me that Hull have bought well. They over achieved for a long time last season, and the FA Cup run masked a dismal last few months. The only thing that could keep them up this year is the other Premier League dross. I think they’ll really struggle this season and be in a relegation battle (and I’d love to see Arsenal go and get Curtis Davies as our third centre-back).

Leicester City
They ran away with the Championship last season to mark their return to the top table for the first time in ten years. Only one new player has cost them a fee, but Ulloa has never played at this level. Their other signings are largely young unknowns, but they’ve added the experience of Matthew Upson in defence and Marc Albrighton will have plenty to prove after being frozen out at Villa. As with many others a 17th place finish should be seen as success.

There have been few finer sights in football than the scousers blowing it last season. The media had already presented them with the Title because, apparently, everyone wanted to see Steven Gerrard get a winners medal. That’s obviously why everyone found his prat fall against Chelsea so funny. Many are actually still laughing now. The sale of Suarez has dominated the transfer market but, after what he did at the World Cup, Liverpool knew they had to get rid, though it probably cost them £20m in terms of his value. Maybe they shouldn’t have always backed him so vehemently in the past. Liverpool have now spent a lot of money, but I don’t know if they’ve got value for it. Lovren and Lallana from Southampton have cost £45m between them, and I am far from convinced by Lallana. He was seriously found out at the World Cup and I fear he might be another Kingsley Black who will struggle badly now he’s at the sharp end. Rickie Lambert has got a dream move to his boyhood club, but in playing terms I don’t see it working out. However, in Divock Origi Liverpool have signed one of the most exciting players from Brazil 2014, a man who out shone Lukaku in the impressive Belgian squad – that being the case I don’t see the point in loaning him out to Lille. It will be tough for Liverpool to emulate last season without Suarez. I see them outside the top four.

Manchester City
The Champions won’t be concerned by their Wembley hammering on Sunday. They lost to Arsenal in a similar way in pre-season last year and it didn’t harm them too much. They continue to show scant regard for the FFP rules and it remains to be seen whether UEFA really have any teeth. I’ve seen it said that City might open the door to others in the Premier League by throwing everything at the European Cup. With their squad they should be able to have a proper go at both so that’s nonsense to me. Mangala should provide a decent partner to Kompany at the back so that ought to make them less easy to get at. I don’t now see where Sagna gets a regular game, but that’s his own fault. You’d have to say that finishing above City ought to just about make you Champions come May.

Manchester United
All hail Louis Van Gaal. Sky Sports has been unbearable since the World Cup. They’re desperation to see their beloved Manchester United get back to the top is utterly sickening. Listening to them you’d swear Van Gaal was Shankly, Ferguson, Clough and Wenger rolled in to one. Believe it or not he hasn’t always had success everywhere he’s been. He also has a particularly poor relationship with the media in a lot of places, so it will be interesting to see how long the brown nosing will go on for. Clearly he’s a better bet than Moyes, and he immediately showed who was boss by sending away the new £30m full-back to get fit. He has the task of bedding in a new defence and that will not be easy. A mediocre start to the season and the new boss will be under pressure, while keeping Ryan Giggs on the staff may also turn out to be a mistake – he was behind the dressing room revolt against David Moyes last year. I’d expect Man Utd to come back towards the top four, but nothing more than that. The FA Cup may provide Van Gaal with the silverware he requires. As for the idea that his 3-5-2 formation represents some kind of football revolution, well that probably tells you all you need to know about the English game.

Newcastle United
Following the nonsense of this time last year when Joe Kinnear failed to sign anyone at all they’ve gone signings mad at St James’ Park, though splashing £7m on two promising players from Forest and then loaning them straight back seems an odd one to me. If I was a barcode I’d be more excited than I have for a while as the only genuine first-choice player they seem to have lost is Debuchy. Having said that they were awful from Christmas onwards and their biggest problem is Alan Pardew. He is a cretin of the highest order and only the ridiculously long contract he is on has kept him at Newcastle. They might need a good start like last year if they’re to avoid a battle at the bottom this season.

Queens Park Rangers
Redknapp and Hoddle? Relegation.

You have to feel very sorry for Saints fans. It was such a wonderful campaign last season and now that squad has been decimated. I can’t believe Ronald Koeman knew what was about to happen when he was persuaded to take the job. In fairness to him he has bought a couple of good players in over the last couple of weeks, but losing a lot of the goals from last seasons team could cost them badly. You’d have to think that this season is going to be one hell of a struggle for Southampton and the only thing keeping them up might be the poor standard of others.

Stoke City
I remember when Bojan was the youngster that the whole World was going to take note of in the Barcelona team. And now he’s at Stoke City. This tells me two things: 1. The value of Mark Hughes as manager is that he played for top clubs and is recognised across Europe as a result; 2. Players have no idea about the clubs they’re signing for or the area those clubs are in. Stoke surprised me last season as I thought they might fall apart without Pulis. I’m not having it that they played a lot of good football as Mark Hughes’ teams are not famed for their subtlety – they certainly reverted to the old ways against Arsenal when kicking us off their cabbage patch. I can’t see anything other than another comfortable season in mid-table, with the odd upset along the way again.

A great escape last season. When we hammered them in March they were down.  There was no way back and they looked like a team with no future. Then Conor Wickham realised his potential and Poyet bringing him in from the wilderness proved a master stroke. At the same time it should be pointed out that Vito Mannone had a stellar season (a deserved fans player of the year at Sunderland last year) and proved that he can be a genuine Premier League goalkeeper when given a decent run, and a bit of confidence. Jack Rodwell can be a big player still if he can actually be fit enough to play, but I think they might struggle again. Bottom half, unless they make a good start.

Swansea City
Garry Monk surprised me last season. I thought when Laudrup was sacked, and Monk took on the job, that it might be game over for them. They actually got back in the groove and played some good stuff. I’m not sure if Fabianski is an improvement on Vorm in goal, but I certainly wish our man well. Bringing Sigurdsson back from Spurs might be good business, but Marvin Emnes is no replacement for Michu by any stretch of the imagination. They need a fit and firing Wilfried Bony or it could be a very long season in Wales. Relegation battle looks likely.

Tottenham Hotspur
This year. Definitely.

West Bromwich Albion
Their board of directors seems hell bent on destruction. I don’t understand the appointment of Alan Irvine, and he certainly wasn’t the first choice as new boss. They’ve signed a lot of players, and I wouldn’t have minded Arsenal bringing in Joleon Lescott on a free, but as for the rest I’ve not heard of many of them. At the same time they’ve not lost too many from last year, though that’s not saying much in the circumstances. They seem to be almost starting from scratch this season, and a bad start might well put them in a position they can’t get out of. Sadly I can see the Baggies in the bottom three, certainly battling it out with the likes of QPR, Burnley and Leicester to avoid it.

West Ham
I was sorely disappointed that Arsenal allowed Carl Jenkinson to go to West Ham. I hope he really does the business for them and comes back to us next season as a proven Premier League player. Their other signings are typical Allardyce with some lower division workers and some obscure foreign players. I was surprised to see Mauro Zarate willing to give the Premier League another go after a very mixed spell at Birmingham City. The fans want better football at Upton Park, safe as they will be in mid-table (possibly top half this time). I would also like to think Allardyce might be put under some pressure from above to play a proper side in the cups this season.

We only really care about ourselves, so what are Arsenal’s prospects? It’s fair to say I’m more excited than I have been for a long time. The signing of Alexis Sanchez is really thrilling and I can’t wait to see how he goes. Debuchy looks a decent replacement for Sagna but time will tell if he is better than Bacary. Calum Chambers represents an expensive gamble from whom the early signs are promising, but so they were with many others in the recent past, none of whom cost us £16m. David Ospina should give real competition to Szczesny, though how a thigh strain suffered over a month ago can still have him three weeks away from training only the Arsenal medical team can know.
For all the excitement I feel we are still short of up to three key players. We need a replacement for Thomas Vermaelen. We need a quality defensive midfield player (I’ve now written that three years in a row in this preview piece) and we need a 25+ goals per season centre-forward. Easier said than done? Yes. But we’ve had all Summer to fill those three positions which we knew were our weakness long ago. Incidentally, the lack of centre-half cover, and the Manager talking about bringing in someone versatile, makes the release of Jenkinson even more of a joke.
We certainly seem to have a stronger squad than last season. A good start can set us up for a great season, but we haven’t yet qualified for the Champions League, and I hope the delay in the return of the German players doesn’t come back to haunt us. Make another couple of big signings  and we have a team absolutely capable of winning the Premier League. We just have to pray that Wenger breaks the habit of a lifetime – the money (our money) is there, now please go and spend it for God’s sake!

So here we go then. Nine months of the best feeling, the worst feeling and the most frustrating feeling in the World are upon us. There are a number of exciting World Cup players coming to the Premier League this season. If I was a supporter of a lower league club I’d be loving my Sky Sports subscription for the year. Let’s all just hope that, come May, we are the ones celebrating again.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Nice silverware to get us going - how about a signing?

Mikel gets his moment as the Arsenal Captain

I wasn't at Wembley yesterday. My job requires me to work a certain number of weekend hours in any year and I wasn't prepared to give up any more of them at this stage of the annual cycle in order to go to another pre-season game. In hindsight, following a 3-0 spanking of Manchester City, I wish I'd gone now. As it was my eldest had a great time and saw Arsenal win at Wembley for the third time in a few months.
I've seen the extended highlights and talked to the family who were there and it seems Arsenal were outstanding in the first-half, and dug in to do enough in the second-half. Given that the half-time substitutions saw two full-backs paired in the middle of our defence I think we can all be quite happy with that. To see Arsenal countering with pace as they did is extremely encouraging and I hope it is a sign of how we are going to look to play our football this season. The second Arsenal goal was a case in point and it showed how Alexis can be key in turning defence to attack in the blink of an eye. I really hope he will be bringing out the best in Mesut Ozil, something we've really seen very little of.
The Charity Shield (it will always be that to me) is nice to win, but not overly important if you lose. It should be remembered that, until Sky got their grubby mitts on the live coverage in 1993, the Shield was shared in the event of a draw. The introduction of penalties meant that Sky were suddenly telling us it was a "major trophy" which it so obviously is not. In fairness Arsenal now also list it as a competitive fixture rather than a friendly and I feel that's not right. Having said all of that I would far rather see the Arsenal players cavorting about with a trophy in their hands than trudging off the pitch at Wembley looking down in the mouth before we've even begun. Any silverware is nice silverware, and the sort you win at Wembley is not really to be sniffed at. What I am not having is that Man City's team was so weak as for Arsenal's win to be dismissed completely. Let's not forget that Arsenal were without three World Cup winning players and Theo Walcott yesterday. City were no worse off than Arsenal - their boss chose to not to play the likes of Sagna and co, and we keep being told how strong their squad is, do we not? Perhaps they're not quite as strong in some areas as the media would have you believe.
For all that it was only a friendly (and Arsene's use of substitutes at half-time showed that was how he viewed it) I think we learnt one or two things from yesterday. Firstly it is clear that Arsene Wenger is willing to go with Calum Chambers as a centre-back for the time being, and the lad seems to have done pretty well yesterday. We also learnt that Mikel Arteta is now the Arsenal Captain. While congratulating Arteta on his appointment (and it was great for him to have his Wembley moment after passing the lifting of the FA Cup to Thomas Vermaelen back in May) it disturbs me that this looks to mean like a top midfielder will not be coming in. We all know Arteta is a hard working player who has adapted well to the position he has been playing, but when it comes to those big powerful midfielders we come up against in the top games he is found wanting in front of the defence. The final thing I learnt from yesterday is that, despite words to the contrary, it looks like Arsene Wenger doesn't truly rate or want Joel Campbell. To bring him on for four minutes was a bit of an insult really. What did Wenger learn from Tomas Rosicky getting a bigger run out at Wembley? That being the case I would not now be surprised if Joel did leave Arsenal after all, and that would make me a bit sad. I've seen a photo of Campbell looking a bit forlorn, stood on his own with his medal at Wembley. The boy deserves a proper go at Arsenal and it will be a real shame if he is passed over while people like Sanogo, and veterans like Rosicky, are getting more game time than him.
So over all it's been a very short pre-season in terms of games played. The German players are only just back in training and won't be playing for a week or two. I would imagine that the hard work will be wound back on the training ground this week ahead of a busy couple of weeks of matches for the side. Come Saturday I don't expect to see a vastly different team to that which started yesterday (though I'm worried by the news of an achilles injury to Laurent Koscielny - that is something that could de-rail our season before we've even got started as there's no such thing as a minor injury in that area). I suppose it just makes the need to sign a very good centre-half all the more urgent.

I'll be writing the annual Premier League season preview piece over the next couple of days and will upload it to the site on either Wednesday or Thursday evening. I'll then follow that on Friday night with a preview of the Crystal Palace game. There will also be news of a new dimension to the site on social media. Check back for all of that in the week.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Arsenal do good business, Tough Champions League draw made harder by Wenger

TV5: Thanks and good luck

The first time I saw Thomas Vermaelen play for Arsenal was at Barnet and I wasn't overly impressed. He spent the afternoon failing to win headers in the centre of the Arsenal defence and I noted that he lacked the height we might associate with a top centre-half. When he made his official debut at Everton a few weeks later he got on the score sheet in a thumping away win, making himself an instant crowd favourite. Plenty of goals would follow, most notably a cracker from outside the box against Wigan. When we were putting in a corner or a free-kick Thomas was flying in and attacking the ball. This was great. By the end of the season he'd been injured and had stopped attacking set-pieces. What the goals had masked, of course, was the fact that Vermaelen was merely okay as a defender. It was something that would become more and more apparent as his knack for scoring dried up.
I don't want to sound like I'm wise after the event, or even that I don't rate Thomas Vermaelen. I do rate him highly. When fit and firing Vermaelen had the drive and the effort to take on the best of them. The problem is that he wanted to wander off in to midfield far too often, leaving the rest of the defence exposed. He had a habit of diving in when he'd got the wrong side of his man - a trait that cost us two goals against Chelsea a couple of seasons back. I wrote a post early last year saying how he could have saved us a fortune by being moved in to the defensive midfield role occupied by Mikel Arteta. We'd have been making the most of Vermaelen's outstanding ability on the ball, while not worrying about him leaving a forward with a clear run on goal. I've been told that he was earmarked for the role at one point last season, only to get injured again before the game in question. That will always remain a shame.
It's been a tough couple of years for Vermaelen since taking over the captaincy. He was really the only man to replace Van Persie when he left and he was clearly a proud Arsenal Captain. It was Vermaelen who insisted on a club suit, something which made a welcome return last season, and he also re-introduced the practise of the team walking to the centre-spot and saluting all four sides of whichever ground they played on (though my brother also claims credit for that one). However, virtually since he took over the armband he hasn't been an automatic choice. Mertesacker and Koscielny very much cemented their partnership at Vermaelen's expense, and his injury record didn't help him. When he came in last season he didn't let us down, and the other players were keen to point out that he was a real skipper off the pitch. Mikel Arteta allowing Vermaelen to lift the FA Cup alone in May shows the respect he had from the squad.
Given that Vermaelen has played very little for Arsenal since early in 2013 I would say that £15m from Barcelona represents good business by Arsenal. Keeping a player from joining a rival by refusing a straight sale to Manchester United also shows that there are maybe a few more teeth at the top of Arsenal's off the field team. I wish Thomas Vermaelen all the very best at Barcelona. He always gave his best and wore his heart on his sleeve for the Arsenal cause. If I was picking a favourite Verminator moment it would be his last minute winner against Newcastle a few years back, running the length of the pitch to slam the ball in at the far post - that was the Vermaelen I'll always remember.

Berlin looks a long way off at the moment

The Champions League qualifier draw has not been kind to us. Besiktas and Atletic Bilbao were the sides I wanted to avoid so it's no surprise that we've drawn the Turks. If there is a positive then it's that we're away from home in the first leg. What I don't understand, however, is why Arsene Wenger is handicapping his own side by giving the German players an extended break.
Per Mertesacker is the key man in the Arsenal defence (and likely the new Arsenal Captain if Wenger can bring in a defensive midfield player). Mesut Ozil, regardless of what I think of him, is the focal point of the Arsenal attack and is crucial to the way we play we our game. Lukas Podolski, for all the critics he has, is the explosive goalscorer that can make a difference, especially when he's coming off the bench around quicker players. There is simply no valid reason for them to not be at Arsenal before Monday. It's bad enough that they won't be at Wembley on Sunday, but to be missing the start of the Premier League and, most likely, the away leg in Turkey is utterly ridiculous.
Of the three of them only Ozil played a full part in the World Cup. Mertesacker was left out after a couple of games, and Podolski was largely the main cheer leader on the subs bench. Added to this is the fact that Podolski didn't even play much for Arsenal last season. I'm sure he would admit that he has not needed the four week holiday Arsene Wenger has insisted on. And are these men not paid tens of thousands of pounds every week to actually play football?
Given how tough the draw is Wenger is taking a risk with our Champions League qualification this season. We don't need to be taking gambles with millions of pounds and the attraction that is the Champions League at stake. These days I think most people could take or leave the group stages, but you have to be in them to get through to the glamour ties. I'd far rather be on the inside the peeing out of the tent than watching it enviously from Thursday nights on Channel Five. If the gamble pays off then so be it, but the risk is a seriously big one.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Pedestrian Arsenal follows fast Arsenal

"Another centre-back? No, Per, I can't see one either"

I certainly didn't see Arsenal coming out of yesterday without the Emirates Cup in tow. Having won 5-1 on Saturday it was inconceivable that they wouldn't win the trophy after the matches on Sunday. Of course, but for Martin Atkinson and his clown of a linesman Arsenal would probably have got the goal yesterday to have rescued the result. Ultimately it doesn't matter as it's only a pre-season knock about, but maybe losing yesterday might have done us all a favour in terms of what it might have showed Arsene Wenger. 
On Saturday Arsenal were all action and full of pace. I kept saying last season that we had no pace without Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. A lot of that could have been offset if we moved the ball quicker and went forward properly. On Saturday, with Flamini directing the midfield from the back and the ball going forward at pace - Chamberlain and Campbell out wide, Ramsey and Rosicky in midfield, and Sanogo up front there was intent to go forward. It pains me to point out that Mikel Arteta came on after an hour of the game and Arsenal slowed to a halt. Perhaps the fact that he started the game and we had Giroud up front yesterday is no coincidence - we were being slowed down and we were using a centre-forward who is usually at his most effective when facing his own goal. Without Ramsey in the side to get up with Giroud, and Arteta slowing down the move whenever the ball goes near him, it was seemingly much more akin to the stuff we saw between January and late April last season. But all of this is not my main concern today.
Yesterday we lined up with Calum Chambers next to Laurent Koscielny for the first-half. They are likely to be paired together at Wembley on Sunday against Manchester City. However, after the interval Nacho Monreal spent most of the second-half at centre-back, with Ignasi Miquel at left-back. We knew a long time ago that Wenger doesn't rate Miquel as an Arsenal first-team player, but we now are  faced with the fact that he is actively considering playing Monreal as a make-shift centre-half whenever he deems it necessary. That is utter madness. Monreal is bad enough in his own position, but to consider playing him in the centre of defence is something akin to suicide on a football pitch. If Chambers and/or Koscielny are injured by Sunday (and even if they're not we are going to struggle) then I dread to think what the combined attacking forces of Man City will do to Arsenal. 
Leaving aside the lack of centre-halves, we are still not looking likely to sign that top defensive midfield player. It's reasonably well acknowledged that Koscielny and the BFG are a very decent centre-back pairing (only Shearer and Hansen think otherwise) but they have little to protect them from in front. It says it all that my heart sinks whenever we play a decent side and Flamini isn't in the Arsenal team - and make no mistake, redoubtable energy aside, Flamini is nothing more than a decent back-up man. As I said in the post yesterday, we are still three major signings short of a Premier League winning side as far as I'm concerned - we need a centre-back, we need a top defensive midfield player, and we need a 25+ goals per season centre-forward.
For me, Mikel Arteta's performances at Wembley last season won us the FA Cup, but his race is run. The events of the weekend should have showed us once and for all that Arsenal must play at pace. Arteta does not lend himself to that game. The positivity and pace in the game on Saturday (until the hour mark when Arteta came on) was so good to watch, and so devastating for the opposition, that even Wenger must surely have noticed. There's much to be excited about, but money still needs to be spent if Arsenal are to step up this season.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

A special day - not just for Sanogo

Sa - FOUR - goals

Today was a very special day for me. Forget, for a moment, that Arsenal won 5-1. Today I took my youngest son to his first ever Arsenal game. Was he particularly interested in the game? Not really. The highlight of his day was meeting Gunnersaurus. But the fact that he has been, and that he enjoyed the experience, is the most important thing. He wasn't overawed by the stadium, or the crowds of people, or the noise that such a crowd generates. Having his older brother (who knows just about everything there is to know about the Arsenal players) and his Mum there will no doubt have helped, but the look of wonder and the smile he had on his face at his first sight of the pitch and the stands is the thing you always want. It may well be that I don't take him again until next years Emirates Cup, but that doesn't matter - it will give him another year to really generate a proper interest in The Arsenal. And not many can say they started their watching career with a 5-1 win. It was indeed a great day.
I've had a deep and irrational dislike for Benfica ever since they beat us in the European Cup in 1991. It's been a long time coming, but seeing Arsenal absolutely thrash them today, pre-season or not, was brilliant to me. I hope, if we draw them in the Champions League (let's qualify for it first!) that we don't go taking it easy after today. Pre-season tells us nothing of importance, to be honest, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy hammering a European giant - lest we forget Benfica should have won the UEFA Cup last season, on top of their domestic treble.

Campbell lit the place up today

Some of the football Arsenal played today, right from the off, was tremendous. Joel Campbell's first involvement in an Arsenal shirt was to beat two defenders with a great piece of skill and then get fouled in the penalty area. The fact that that idiot Lee Mason waved play on meant that it took 100 seconds of the season for me to get irate at a cheating referee - surely a new record. Let's just deal with Mason quickly and point out that the two teams were playing to different sets of rules, it seemed at times, with Arsenal being refereed as though it was a Premier League game (he gave us nothing) and Benfica getting the "friendly" refereeing. I would also note that Mason is at least a stone (and probably more) overweight ahead of the new season and got in the way of the play on two or three different occasions - that is unacceptable from a supposedly top official. Joel Campbell continued to traumatise the Benfica defenders, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gradually got better and better on his return to action. 
From the midfield Aaron Ramsey was producing some great stuff and even a decent kicking from the opposition wasn't going to stop him. With Hector Bellerin looking superb going forward (a little weak, physically, in defence it should be said) Arsenal were all over the Portugese. Yaya Sanogo, meanwhile, looked like a stranger to a football and should have scored at least twice before he finally got his first goal in an Arsenal shirt after sublime Ramsey play. That wasn't before Benfica had hit the bar themselves after getting in down our left - Kieran Gibbs spent the entire first-half doing an impression of Kyle Walker as he was constantly out of position, which left Monreal doing the work of two men from centre-half and he did it pretty well it should be said. 
Before I get to the good bit I have to say a word or two on the defensive situation. Calum Chambers looked composed, strong and quick today, but the fact that we had two full-backs playing as our centre-halves showed the situation is chronic for us. Injury or suspension to Koscielny and/or Mertesacker and we are in serious trouble (forget Thomas Vermaelen). For all that we've seen a wonderful transfer window so far we are still lacking in three of the main positions we had to deal with last season - we need at least one new centre-back, we need a monster of a midfield player, and we need a genuine goal scoring centre-forward. It is not fair on Monreal to put him in that position, and the fact that he and Chambers were playing ahead of Ignasi Miquel today tells you the young Spaniard has no Arsenal future (if you didn't know that already).
Arsenal's second goal was also a thing of beauty. Campbell had missed one presentable chance after a lovely chip from Ramsey, but he made no mistake when volleying in an inch-perfect delivery from Bellerin. It was a lovely goal and a really good finish from the Costa Rican. He would miss another one shortly after, but I was delighted to see this evening that Arsene Wenger has said he is staying at Arsenal. Playing on either wing he was good today, and clearly wasn't bothered by getting a kick or two. He got a great reception from the crowd and it was well deserved. 
If someone had told me Yaya Sanogo would have a hat-trick before half-time I'd have laughed (and I did when he missed his second or third chance of the day, falling over the ball as he did so). Credit to Sanogo as he was in the right place to put the finishing touches to the moves we were putting together. Each of his goals might have been a tap-in, but you've got to be there to score them and he was on this occasion. After the first goal he actually seemed to gain in confidence and looked a little better on the ball at times. Having said that, he has a lot to do to prove to me that he is good enough to play for Arsenal. Is he really better than Chuba Akpom? Not on the evidence of today as Akpom came on again and looked strong, quick and good on the ball (his shoulders visibly slumped when he was pushed out to the wing and realised he wouldn't be getting his chance down the middle). Perhaps the thing that summed up Yaya Sanogo the most today, and could put him in some sort of Perry Groves area of cult status, was the way he fell over while trying to celebrate his fourth goal!

This bloke looks seriously good

I was worried at one stage that we wouldn't get to see Alexis Sanchez take to the field this afternoon. I was delighted that he did. The noise that greeted his arrival on the pitch was deafening and he showed so many good touches when he came on. I could take or leave the step-overs we saw, but the speed, the runs, the taking people on, the little lay-offs to Jack Wilshere, it was all very exciting to Arsenal supporters. He helped put together a wonderful move near the end which saw Francis Coquelin hit the post, and it would have been a fitting end to a brilliant Arsenal performance. Something I definitely don't want to see too often is the 5'7" Alexis playing as a lone centre-forward. In fairness to him he challenged well in the aerial duel on a couple of occasions but the likes of John Terry might actually hurt him if he gets put in that situation against them. I can't wait to see more of the Chilean, and it all bodes well for some top football to come.

I won't see the game tomorrow until late in the evening. It would take something approaching a mathematical miracle for Arsenal not to take their own trophy this season, so that will be a nice way to start. A few of the other senior players will get a run out tomorrow, including Giroud and Koscielny. Hopefully the crowd there for the Monaco game will get a similar treat to those of us there today. I'll try to write about it on Monday.