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Sunday, 31 May 2015

Arsenal Football Club - FA Cup Winners 2015

Brilliant Arsenal - FA Cup Winners 2015
I've been looking forward to writing this. After the Cup Final last year I was so bewildered by what had happened that I didn't know where to start when writing the day after the game. I suppose I'm similarly bewildered this evening, albeit in a way that is in total contrast to what happened against Hull City. The performance of Arsenal yesterday was beyond any of our wildest dreams. Why were any of us nervous?! For once the players turned up on the Wembley occasion and they totally swatted Aston Villa aside. Every decision taken before the game by Arsene Wenger was proved right as his Arsenal team dominated an FA Cup Final like few before have managed. From the first minute to the last Arsenal were in total control of the game, the only frustration being that it looked like possibly becoming one of those days as chances came and went.
Regular readers will know that I am one of the strongest critics of Arsene Wenger, but nobody can argue with the fact that he has now won trophies in consecutive seasons. The good times have been brought back and Arsene is the man in charge. If nothing else there is a foundation there to genuinely challenge for the Premier League next season, and that has to be the aim. I thought these days of success under Arsene Wenger were gone, but I was wrong. Does he have my full backing? No, but that doesn't matter today. He has won the FA Cup on six occasions and that is an incredible achievement. The whole day yesterday was magnificent (apart from putting a dent in my car as I was leaving home) and it is once again a joy to be an Arsenal supporter. Lou Reed wrote a famous song that could have been attributed to yesterday's performance. It truly was a Perfect Day.

Wembley looking glorious pre-match 

The Gunners and our sea of yellow 
We went from Dover in three cars. It was great to be able to attend again with my family, including my eldest son for his second FA Cup Final. My Dad has seen every Arsenal final since 1968 and he felt it just as much yesterday as he always has. A comfortable journey had us at Wembley nice and early and gave us the chance to soak up the pre-match atmosphere. Some friendly Villa fans in the car-park were happy to tell us they don't like Sherwood and believe Benteke is little different from Adebayor. But they were hopeful of getting a result despite their final league position. At the end of the day you had to feel a little sorry for them, but it wasn't about Villa not turning up so much as Arsenal simply being too good for the whole 90 minutes.

The Arsenal fans with their scarves - a visual delight

The players line up before kick-off

I got in the ground not too long after the gates had opened and was able to enjoy the whole build-up. Abide With Me was brilliant and I did get choked up as usual singing the FA Cup Final hymn. Red Action had combined with the Club to provide a visual spectacle in the Arsenal end. There is something about Arsenal yellow that is stunning. The massive surfer flag and the free scarves from Arsenal were a masterstroke that must have inspired the players when they saw it. It certainly seemed to inspire the fans. As usual Arsenal fans seemed to be relatively late in to the ground, but when we were all in it was an amazing atmosphere, befitting of the show the players would put on in front of us. God Save The Queen was sung loud and proud at either end of the ground and the roars must have been deafening out in the middle of the pitch.

Image result for francis coquelin santi cazorla fa cup final
Arsenal playing the pressing game
In the first couple of minutes of the game there were two key incidents for me. The first was Aaron Ramsey winning a tackle around the half way line, putting us on the front foot, high up the pitch, right from the off. The second was Villa's first high ball towards the back-post for which Wojciech Szczesny was straight off his line to remove the threat of Benteke - it was ever thus until the final whistle. Szczesny repaid the faith Arsene Wenger had placed in him yesterday with a fine performance - yes, he didn't have a save to make, but he pretty much dominated his penalty area throughout the game, and that alone removed Villa's threat.
From then on it was all Arsenal. We looked dangerous whenever we went forward. Both full-backs were getting forward, but only when it was okay to do so, while Coquelin controlled the game from the base of the midfield. It was a superb display from Coquelin once again - if Villa dared to go near the Arsenal half he would appear on the scene to take the ball away and give it to Santi Cazorla or Aaron Ramsey.
We were pressing Villa when they had the ball in their own half, exactly as we did to them in the Premier League a few months ago. It was exactly how we dismantled Liverpool the other week. Winning the ball within 40 yards of goal had us in against their back four time and time again. Villa's tactics were simply to try and foul their way out of trouble and, for a while, Mr Moss looked like he was going to let them do it.
The chances started to arrive, two for Koscielny - one of which was saved incredibly by Shay Given, and another for Walcott that hit Richardson who had appeared from nowhere to get on the line and save his side. We were totally dominant and the only worry was that we weren't hitting the net. The longer it went on the more you thought that we would run out of ideas, or we would get hit with the sucker punch from a set-piece or something. I said to the man sitting next to me that it seemed to have Liverpool in Cardiff written all over it. But the players just kept plugging away.

Ozil's best game for Arsenal
Mesut Ozil was at the heart of everything good about Arsenal yesterday. I have given Ozil serious stick throughout the season. I have called him all sorts of things and generally been totally unimpressed for most of the games he has played in. Yesterday he showed what a £40m player does when he is at it. It was a virtuoso display from a World Class footballer. He was full of pace, effort, running, even tackling. He was taking people on and destroying Aston Villa. He really deserved a goal and, to me, he was the man of the match. I couldn't believe it when Wenger took him off, having watched him complete so many games where he's been totally ineffective, it seemed bizarre. If he'd stayed on I honestly think we might have scored six goals in the Final. I was more than happy to give him a deserved standing ovation when he was taken off. There was one pass he played in to the penalty area to Santi Cazorla, just before half-time, that made you gasp at its total brilliance. That summed up Ozil yesterday.
Theo was loving it yesterday
Back to the action and we finally got our goal following a tactical change. I guess we'll never know who called for Walcott and Alexis to swap positions. My Dad thought it was Szczesny who had run forward during a break in play to speak to Mertesacker. Whoever it was it was a masterstroke. I said to my Dad that it was a good idea as Alexis might just win us a header that Theo couldn't. Within a minute Theo picked up a great Ramsey pass and played a lovely weighted ball to the onrushing, and excellent, Nacho Monreal. The Spaniard put over a fine cross and our little Chilean genius climbed above everyone to nod it back across the goal. When it fell to Theo I held my breath and then it hit the net like a rocket down in front of us. Absolute mayhem! It was a stunning finish from Theo Walcott and one that many might not think he was capable of, especially on his weaker foot. He took off towards the fans and you could feel the frustration of the last year and a bit lifted from him in that moment. Having missed out totally last year he enjoyed the whole experience and he thoroughly deserved to be one of the true heroes of the day. It was a magnificent goal. A 1-0 lead at half-time wasn't reflective of our dominance, but scoring before the break was crucial really.

We started the second-half where we'd left off. And then Alexis Sanchez picked up the ball 35 yards from goal. Another great run from Monreal took the defenders away and Alexis moved inside on to his right foot. What followed was an absolute rocket of a shot that arced, swerved and dipped over Given, off the cross-bar and in to the back of the net. From the other end of the stadium it looked amazing. The celebrations in that Arsenal end were incredible. Alexis disappeared behind and underneath a mob of his fellow Arsenal players. It was surely one of the most amazing goals ever scored in an FA Cup Final. The little man has been our star player all season and he knocked everything out of Villa with such a spectacular goal. As my nephew said, "That is what £32m buys you" - you're not wrong Freddie! Arsene is giving him a rest after the Copa America and it has to happen, but we will miss him so much at the very start of the season. Santi might have made it three within a few seconds as Given produced another fine save to deny the little Spanish magician.

The BFG was a real Captain yesterday
When Per Mertesacker nodded home the third shortly afterwards we knew we had it won. From the other end of the ground it looked a towering thump of a header. On TV I see that he almost missed it and it went in off his shoulder! My son had been on all day that he hadn't scored since Hull in the third round, and you were right Liam - he was due a goal. Obviously it was awful marking but you still have to take advantage. Incidentally, had he missed it I hope Mr Moss was going to award us a penalty for the most obvious case of shirt pulling I think anyone has ever seen - Koscielny literally had his shirt pulled over his head by Vlaar as the ball came over, with Mr Moss looking straight at it.
As I said, we were on easy street after that. Maybe our level dropped a little, but the chances still came and went, Theo almost finishing off in the grand manner but sadly picking out a bloke in row 10 behind the goal with his last touch of the ball. Villa had one or two fairly half-hearted attacks but their race was run. Mr Moss missed a clear foul by Coquelin just outside the box when Agbonlahor had gone on a good run, and I suppose he might have given a penalty when Bellerin tangled with Grealish (who must have been delighted to get out of the young Spaniard's pocket) but the ball had gone out of play (right in line with my seat) and the linesman had missed it. Grealish and Bellerin were also both outside the pitch at the time so I'm not sure what the laws are for that one. There was one moment, though, where Laurent Koscielny stepped in front of Benteke, took the ball on his chest, and took off towards the Villa midfield in total control of the game. It summed up the brilliance of Koscielny, not just yesterday, but over the last couple of seasons.
Jack Wilshere had come on and his running at the Villa players was something they couldn't handle. He should have gone himself when faced up by Vlaar late on but inexplicably passed the ball wide towards a totally knackered Aaron Ramsey (another one to play really well in midfield yesterday). The only thing missing was an appearance from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and maybe a fourth deserved Arsenal goal.

The Ox and Olivier celebrate their combination
The Ox was was another who missed out last year through injury. It was great to see him come on for the final five minutes, although a little harsh on Mathieu Flamini who had spent the whole second-half warming up (and was wound up by Wilshere and Giroud at one point who had sent him back towards the bench only for him to realise he hadn't been called, leaving Jack and Olivier wetting themselves). Deep in the last throes of injury-time Alex got himself down the right and received the ball in space on the edge of the penalty area. Giroud appeared from behind the defence to glide towards the perfect cross to the near-post where he applied his now trademark flick past Shay Given. It was a fitting finish to the game for Arsenal and a thoroughly deserved scoreline that reflected better the dominance of our players.
When the final whistle went a few seconds later the Arsenal end erupted in a cacophony of noise and an ocean of yellow scarves and shirts (TOFFS must have made a fortune in recent weeks on Charlie George number 11 shirts from the 1971 Cup Final). Those are the moments you live for as a football supporter. For once we weren't given heart failure by an Arsenal team in a Wembley final. The tears were flowing, I don't mind admitting, because we'd won another trophy and I was there to see it with my family. My son had been waving his flag furiously from the moment Giroud scored and the look on his little face told me that, even more than last year, he gets it just like the rest of us do. I think my Dad was pretty proud to be surrounded by his three boys and two of his grandsons some 60-odd years after he first went to Wembley for a schoolboy international game.

All of us together at full-time
We had a great view of the Royal Box to see Per insist on allowing Mikel Arteta to lift the FA Cup with him. I heard an interview with Arteta late last night where he said he felt it was Per's day, but it shows the respect they have for him that Mikel was given his share of the glory. It was class from Mertesacker, befitting of The Arsenal in every way.
The celebrations in the Arsenal end were long and loud, though the "FA Family" seats revealed themselves in the shape of empty red seats over the far side not long after the trophy had been lifted - they're not fans and shouldn't be there in the first place. The players "podium" area was set up right beneath us so we had a great view of that from the front row of the upper tier. It was wonderful to see all the squad there together in celebration, putting to bed this apparent nonsense about Danny Welbeck having walked out. Tomas Rosicky had a smile as wide as anyone as he posed with the trophy and that showed me what a proper Arsenal Man he has become over the years, despite basically being the 19th man yesterday. I would have like to have heard Good Old Arsenal being played for us to sing along to, but the Giroud and Santi songs were loud and proud. When we left the stadium there was Arsenal everywhere, obviously, with the Villa fans having long left the area it seemed. The kids got their photo taken with Alan Davies and we were serenaded as we walked to the car by the Piebury Corner open top bus as they headed back towards Holloway.
Driving back down the Holloway Road there were fewer people about than I expected, though still a good number, out celebrating. There was horn blowing and scarf waving and it was a great way to finish a magnificent day.
Yes, it was different to the nerve shredding of last year. The emotions, as a result, were slightly different. Last year it was basically a relief to have won, having been 2-0 behind, and to end the trophy drought. Yesterday was all about an Arsene Wenger team playing at its very best on the big occasion. Give me that kind of calm second-half to a Cup Final any time, thanks very much. It was a great experience, as it always is when you win the FA Cup. Quite simply we were class. I've managed to mention every player in this piece and that is totally fitting of their performance - they were brilliant to a man. 
The Arsenal.
The squad celebrates

Friday, 29 May 2015

Arsenal v Aston Villa - 2015 FA Cup Final preview

 The FA Cup Final programme 2015

As I start to write this at 5:15pm we are still more than 24 hours away from the actual kick-off. It still seems, and actually is, totally ridiculous that the FA Cup Final will not begin at 3pm. Anyone who watched the BBC Road to Wembley shows this week will have seen the most arrogant, out of touch interview yet recorded with Greg Dyke. Basically football is not about the fans or tradition is the message you can take from it, just so long as TV are happy. In all fairness to the BBC, aside from the late kick-off, they are making a good effort this year to bring the FA Cup Final back to the day of national importance that most of us grew up with.
We go in to this Final as strong favourites, just as last year. In theory there is no contest between two sides that finished at opposite ends of the Premier League. We won 3-0 at Villa Park last Autumn, and 5-0 at home to them in the depths of Winter. But for all that Villa are a team made of the same players, more or less, they are a different and more dangerous group as a whole. This is a one-off game, the FA Cup, and anything can happen on the day. Make no mistake, Aston Villa are not going to Wembley in order to make up the numbers tomorrow. They possess more than enough threat to comfortably beat an Arsenal side that is yet to show they genuinely have the character to perform at their best on the big occasions at Wembley (forget the Charity Shield mauling of  Man City's reserve back-four).
Villa have been given the blueprint for how to beat Arsenal in recent weeks by our games against Swansea and Sunderland. If you can defend properly and remain organised then you can hit Arsenal hard on the break. And make no mistake, if they can keep things tight at the back then Villa have the players to very much threaten Arsenal with pace. I would be amazed if Sherwood didn't line up his side with Delph and Cleverley sitting in the midfield, with N'Zogbia and Grealish wide and Agbonlahor and Benteke up front. Playing against two strikers is another thing Arsenal struggle badly with. Just think of the pace that front four has, with the likes of Scott Sinclair also available, and you will realise why Arsenal need to play so very well to win tomorrow.
The final factor that will help Aston Villa is, surprisingly you might think, Tim Sherwood. The man has been a figure of fun for Arsenal fans since he took over at Spurs last season. We have given him so much stick that it is really due to bite us hard on the backsides at some point. The FA Cup is the perfect place for redemption and Tiny Tim has every chance of making us look stupid at Wembley. Add the other possible FA Cup romance of Shay Given, beaten by Arsenal in his first Final some 17 years ago, finally getting his hands on the trophy and you have the perfect recipe for an upset. Never underestimate the big stories behind the FA Cup - no competition has more of them.
If you want one more thing to be wary of, then it is the referee. Mr Moss is up their with the very worst of them right now and I fear his influence as much as Benteke and co.

We want yellow ribbons on the Cup tomorrow evening

So that's how Villa might beat Arsenal, but what about ourselves? As I said at the top we are the favourites. Frankly, if we play well we should win. As I said in a post the other day Arsene Wenger has choices to make after Theo and Jack's successful comeback games last Sunday. What does he do up front? For me he should probably go with Giroud as that is the tried and tested. Up against the likes of Ron Vlaar (whose World Cup performances point to a man who performs on the big stage) Giroud will give us more of a physical threat. Also, when defending set-pieces he adds crucial height and aerial ability to the team. Yes, he misses chances, but so does Theo. What he gives us is a player who can hold the ball with his back to goal (when it suits him to be in the mood) and bring the midfield in to the game high up the pitch. We need him to work hard tomorrow, running down defenders as Alexis does. And the same goes for all the players. If we close down the way we can, and the way we have in some important games this season, we will win the ball in dangerous areas - just look at what happened against Liverpool at our place not so long ago.
Another choice comes at left-back. Nacho Monreal has had an outstanding season, but recent mistakes cost us goals in a couple of games and Kieran Gibbs has played the final two league matches. For me I would play Gibbs, no matter that Nacho has played well until recently. Kieran is quicker and can get up and down the line better. Against that possible pacy Villa attack Gibbo's speed could be crucial, as could Hector Bellerin's on the other side of the defence.
In midfield I don't see any change from the Cazorla/Coquelin axis, with the decision in Wenger's mind being who plays wide right. I suspect we'll see Ramsey out there again with Ozil and Alexis the other two. I fear that Coquelin is seriously overdue for a bad game. There is no doubt he has been the main reason for our stronger showings since Christmas, and I hope he has just one more barnstorming display left in him this season.
The final place of much contention comes in goal. If Arsene Wenger stays true to what he has said about "cup keepers" then Wojciech Szczesny will play. Certainly he did so with Fabianski last year, meaning Szczesny missed out. That said, in 2002 David Seaman was brought in for the Final in place of Richard Wright who had played in the other rounds. I suppose it comes down to how he rates the difference between his goalkeepers. Last year there really wasn't anything to choose between the two Pole's. Is there much between Szczesny and Ospina? Until last week there had been no contest, with the defence seemingly much more assured by the Colombian's presence, and Szczesny having made a terrible error against Reading in the semi-final. But against West Brom Ospina looked decidedly shaky. He was clearly at fault for their goal, where his lack of height was alarmingly taken advantage of at a set-piece, and then saw a speculative shot from distance go straight through his hands. It certainly didn't inspire confidence ahead of Wembley - that lack of height could also be crucial in a penalty shootout. I would certainly expect Villa to try and take advantage of it at corners and free-kicks. So Arsene is in a quandary. Either of them could prove to be the right choice, or equally so the wrong choice. Of course it's up to the ten outfield players to ensure it doesn't matter who plays in goal.
If I was picking the Arsenal side tomorrow it would be this:

Ospina - Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs - Coquelin, Cazorla - Walcott, Ramsey, Alexis - Giroud.

Clearly that won't be the team as there is no Mesut Ozil in that side for a start. There is no doubt that Ozil will play and we have to hope that he will rise to the occasion, and perform how a £40m signing is supposed to on the big stage. Despite reports to the contrary he has actually done very little of late and he owes the Manager for his continued faith, as well as the fans who continue to back him. Alexis, I hope, will remain the trump card for tomorrow. He hasn't played brilliantly lately either, but his work is crucial to us, and he is maybe due for a goal or two. Let's hope so.

Wembley Stadium

Wembley is the best place in the World to win, and the worst place in the World to lose. We've been fortunate to visit there more than most over the years, and we've had our share of success as well as failure. Say your prayers and hope that tomorrow is one of those successful days for The Arsenal. Let's turn it yellow and support the players all the way, hopefully, to a 12th FA Cup win for Arsenal Football Club.

As promised, here are the links to the posts from the 2005 and 2014 FA Cup Final matches. There will be no post here tomorrow, win or lose, and I will not be doing anything until Sunday evening when I get home from work. Keep those fingers crossed and ask yourself this:

What did she wear...?

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Don't gamble for sentiment Arsene

Neither of these players is "fit" for Wembley

I didn't get to write anything yesterday after all. We took the kids to Southend for the day (highly recommended for a family day out) and didn't get home until nearly 10:30pm, absolutely shattered - for people who live with fresh sea air every day it was amazing what it took out of us really.
Not writing meant I couldn't react properly to Arsenal's press conference (I clearly missed my invitation to another media event that saw certain bloggers in attendance) and the pre-match team news. That being the case, I will give my reaction to it now.
It was not a surprise, but no less a disappointment, to hear that Danny Welbeck won't make it for Saturday. Welbeck said a few months ago that the FA Cup was the omission from his medal collection, and how he wanted to put that right this year. It's really sad news for the lad but, if we can get the win, he will surely get his medal albeit not in the way he would have liked. His pace might have been crucial on the big Wembley pitch, especially if introduced against a tiring opponent. His height is also important to Arsenal at either end of the pitch. Of course he has been without much match practice since our last visit to Wembley, and that leads me nicely on to the point I want to make this evening.
I read with interest that Arsene Wenger states Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Debuchy are fit and available, though lacking a little physically. This should hardly be a surprise. We've seen Debuchy just once since the Stoke City game when he played the whole of the semi-final and looked totally off the pace. Arteta has been out for even longer, appearing briefly for the under-21 side on a couple of occasions - I was at the stadium for his last appearance in that team (also against Stoke) and he looked overweight and about two yards slow. That was something like six weeks ago now and he hasn't exactly "featured" in the training photographs on the official website since then. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be viewed similarly, of course, but his 20 minutes last week at least give him some match time in a proper game, and I'm certain he won't start in any case. At the same time, having proved he can do at least 20 minutes he could be a crucial influence from the bench in a tight game. Arteta and Debuchy are simply not fit and shouldn't be in the 18 on Saturday. If they were on the bench they would simply be taking the place of someone else who would be more likely to make an impact, simply because they've played some football. Arteta is the Arsenal Captain and Debuchy, in my opinion, is the best right-back in the squad when he is fit, but this is no time for sentiment. Unfortunately business is business, and our business this weekend is giving ourselves the best chance to win the Cup.
Arsene Wenger worries me with his substitute selections. He has a very long history of picking his replacements based on their seniority, regardless of position on the pitch, or the opponents we play against. Take the Sunderland game a couple of weeks back where we went in to a home game with four defensive players on the bench. Why else can you see a reason for Coquelin, Flamini, Gabriel AND Monreal to be on the bench? Surely at home to relegation fodder an extra striker like Chuba Akpom wouldn't have gone amiss if you were struggling to break them down? It has gone on for years, often at the cost of not putting a younger player in the squad that, at worst, would give them experience of being around the first-team. When he starts talking about Arteta and Debuchy being "available" for the FA Cup Final I can see at least one of them getting a place among the subs and, for me, that is not the right thing to do.
As we're now only two weeks away, and I promised to link to my previous FA Cup Final posts before the weekend, here are the links to 1998, 2002 and 2003 which were originally posted in May of last year. I hope you enjoy them (again). The 2005 and 2014 posts will be linked from here tomorrow when I publish the FA Cup Final 2015 preview. I already have that sick, nervous feeling in my stomach.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Wenger has a dilemma now

Giroud - based on form he should be out
You could tell I wasn't at Arsenal Sunday when we were 3-0 up inside twenty minutes. I watched the entire game on an internet stream from Brazil instead and, despite being unable to be there in person, it made for an enjoyable afternoon to finish off the Premier League season. Having sat through some dross in recent games it was about time Wenger made a few changes and those different players certainly made an impact ahead of the FA Cup Final. As a result the Manager now has some decisions to make regarding selection, especially up front.
I wrote not too long ago how Olivier Giroud had not exactly been stung in to action by Thierry Henry's criticism of him. Far from showing a desire to prove his credentials to Henry he has gone totally in to his shell and done nothing. In the absence of Danny Welbeck he seemed to feel that his place was assured in the starting line-up and was playing like a man deep in the comfort zone. Well Sunday he was finally dropped in favour of Theo Walcott and now is under serious pressure for his place at Wembley. They said on Match Of The Day that Giroud hadn't scored in eight games - I haven't bothered to check but, if that's right, then it is simply not good enough from a centre-forward. Theo, on the other hand, had impressed from the bench in the two previous Arsenal matches and has certainly taken his chance to impress after Sunday. You can't argue with a man coming in and scoring a hat-trick.
Of course Theo Walcott is not a like-for-like replacement for Giroud. We have to play a slightly different kind of game with the pace of Theo up top instead of the bulk of Giroud. Both methods have their advantages, and both have their negatives. There is no doubt that Theo's pace threatens lumbering centre-halves, and a seemingly new found ability to beat a defender in tight areas adds a new dimension to his play. On the other hand he can be easily out-muscled by big defenders which can leave us with nothing to aim for up front. Giroud is exceptional at holding up the ball and bringing his midfield in to play, particularly benefiting Aaron Ramsey's style. Often though this leads to Giroud not getting in to proper goal scoring positions often enough as he constantly moves to link play rather than be on the end of it. So Arsene Wenger has now been presented with a headache before we play Aston Villa, and it affects the make-up of the midfield too.
As I said above, Giroud is very important to Aaron Ramsey, as long as Ramsey himself is playing through the centre. When Giroud is missing it is noticeable how little influence Ramsey can have on the play as his running from deep becomes ineffective without a battering ram to hold the ball up and occupy defenders, thus creating the space for him to exploit around the penalty area. Leaving aside the fact that we don't want or need Ramsey on the right wing, he absolutely needs Giroud in this Arsenal team. Jack Wilshere, on the other hand, is more of a ball player than Ramsey. He could play with either Giroud or Walcott, but is less likely to support Giroud inside the penalty area. As with Ramsey he shouldn't be playing off the right-wing either and is far more effective from the centre of the field. His direct approach, however, sees him commit defenders and create space for others and Walcott is ideal to exploit that with his pace - Tomas Rosicky is exactly the same but Wenger seemingly refuses to use the little Czech these days unless it's an emergency. For me it seems obvious that, whichever man we play up front, either Wilshere or Ramsey needs to be in the side playing through the centre. That being the case it would be Ozil that would miss out every time as far as I'm concerned as he has been totally ineffective. Obviously that isn't going to happen though.
Of course Giroud and Walcott could play in the same team at Wembley with Ramsey and Wilshere both sitting on the bench. It seems unlikely that Santi Cazorla would miss out in favour of either of them alongside Coquelin, and he played much better himself on Sunday following some poor displays. Walcott from the wing would be favourable to me ahead of either Ramsey or Wilshere, but often he doesn't have enough effect when starting games in that position. That said, his pace could be crucial against Villa's defence, regardless of the position he's played in. Even better, they could play as a central pair of strikers with Walcott ensuring that Giroud has someone to help him. I've always considered them to be a decent match if only they were paired together - Giroud wouldn't have up to three men marking him and opponents would have to drop off slightly to try and nullify the threat of Theo's speed in behind.
Having scored a hat-trick Theo might rightly expect to start at Wembley on Saturday. It seems hard to believe that any side could leave out a man who has scored three goals in a game so close to the Cup Final. It all comes down to how Wenger wants to play - stick with the tried and tested, but often fruitless, way with Giroud, or go with pace and look to blitz Villa as we did West Brom. Wenger has form for ignoring a special individual display and Theo would do well to take note of the case of Jermaine Pennant. You might remember Pennant scoring a hat-trick against Southampton in 2003, but then not even making the bench for a depleted Arsenal side at Cardiff less than two weeks later - in fact he was only a substitute for the dead rubber at Sunderland the weekend before Cardiff. I really don't know what the right answer is for Arsenal at the moment, but it's nice to have a choice to make and some competition among the strikers.
The plan for the week ahead is different from last year. Ahead of Wembley last May I wrote some personal accounts of the winning Cup Final's I've attended. Obviously there's no point in writing those pieces again. I'll attempt to write some kind of post every day between now and Wembley, though tomorrow will be tight for time. I'll link to last year's pieces from each post this week to whet the appetite, starting with this one from 1993 - not long to go now until we descend on Wembley Way!

Friday, 22 May 2015

Arsenal in the FA Cup Final? - you wouldn't know it

Did I see my last of him in Arsenal red?

I would have liked to get this written last night when I got home from watching England v New Zealand at Lord's, but the traffic on the way home made it a late finish for me and I was too knackered to sit down and write. That being the case I've had to save my Arsenal moans until this afternoon.
Wednesday night was my last home game of the season. I can't go on Sunday because of work but I'm actually not that bothered after the season I've sat through. I had mistakenly thought my last home win came before Christmas because I had thought the lamentable display against Leicester had finished in a draw. Upon checking the results I realise that we actually won that game! However, having missed out on the really good football we played to dispatch the likes of Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Stoke and Liverpool it has dawned on me that, with the fact we were so awful before Christmas (when I missed just one or two games at home), I have not actually seen Arsenal play well all season in the flesh. Sitting there on Wednesday I could quite easily have been watching the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas last August as the performance was every bit as pedestrian and uninspiring, and was notable mainly for the missed chances of our opponents.
Having written earlier this week about the empty words of the players it was now Wenger's turn with talk of "no more accidents" ringing in my ears before the game. And yet we saw a virtual carbon-copy of the Swansea game, but lacking in the creativity that at least saw us make chances and the opposition, this time, failing to score a winner. It really was utter dross from Arsenal, with Cazorla and Ozil particularly bad and Giroud particularly disinterested for the most part. Only when Theo Walcott came on did we look like we might do something and he very nearly did it all on his own, taking on and beating defenders and getting a shot or two away. I noted how he went to the stands after the game and I think I've probably seen my last home game involving Theo Walcott as an Arsenal player. Basically Theo, with half the ability, did everything Cazorla and Ozil had failed to even try doing. For me there was only him, Gibbs, Koscielny and Ospina that could take any credit from the match. We were dire and Sunderland had four clear chances to win the game in the second-half. I'll go in to it in more detail next week, but Swansea and Sunderland have provided the blueprint for Aston Villa on how a lesser team goes about beating Arsenal.
The performance of so many of the players the other night is disturbing ahead of the FA Cup Final. Too many seem to feel in the comfort zone. In the absence of Danny Welbeck our centre-forward clearly is in that arena right now. You'd think the criticism Giroud's been getting from Thierry Henry (not all of it totally warranted, but much of it uncalled for from an Arsenal legend) might have stung him in to action in recent games but he seems to have gone the other way. Cazorla is now worryingly out of form. And it seems that when Santi is playing badly then Arsenal play badly too. As for Ozil, well I'm on record for a long time now saying what I think about the lazy waste of space. How can an apparently World Class attacking player so often deliberately control the ball away from the opposition goal, thus taking away any chance that he might beat a player or have a shot at goal? If he was sold this Summer I'd be delighted.
We have a week now for Arsene Wenger to get these players focussed properly and back in to form for Wembley. We haven't actually scored a goal (you can't claim Sunday's goal as having been "scored" by Arsenal) in three matches. If that isn't worrying you ahead of next Saturday then I don't know what would.

How things should look when you go to Wembley

It's not just the players that seem to be disinterested ahead of Wembley next week. Regulars might recall I was annoyed this time last year with the lack of merchandise and souvenirs on sale at Arsenal for the trip to the FA Cup Final. Well this year is equally bad, if not worse. There is virtually no sign at Arsenal that we are in a Final next weekend. Where are the hats, the scarves, the flags, the t-shirts, the badges etc? I went in to both shops at the stadium on Wednesday night to get my away shirt printed with the FA Cup Final badge the players will wear at Wembley. Shockingly, but sadly not surprisingly, I was told that they had "sold out" of the badge printing. This is a recurring theme with Arsenal's merchandise outlets where anything popular sells out and isn't replaced. The simple laws of supply and demand seem to have bypassed Arsenal's business empire and it has ever been thus. I thought this would be one thing the American owners would get right, but alas no.
Most football fans lament the fact that the Football Association has allowed the FA Cup to be devalued in recent years, and the media have been equally culpable. But now the clubs are just as bad. Arsenal can't complain about the FA Cup being less important when they are treating the showpiece occasion with the same apathy. When I was a youngster going to Wembley was massive for Arsenal and, believe it or not, to us fans it still is.
It's not just the Club itself, however. Even the street sellers have no stuff for sale apart from the obligatory half-and-half scarves. Coming away from the game on Wendesday there was one bloke selling Wembley flags, but even they were red and white when we're playing in yellow and blue! Thank God for The Gooner fanzine which has once again produced Cup Final rosettes for the big day. I'll have mine on, that's for sure.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Too much talk and not enough action from Arsenal's players

Theo finally makes a contribution (sort of)

I'll say at the start of this piece that I've only actually seen the final twenty minutes from yesterdays game at Old Trafford. However, from everything I've heard, and everything I've read, it seems clear that the players spent the majority of the game playing with the wrong attitude again. A lack of application from kick-off left us in a position of weakness that, once we started to play, showed we were a better side than the opposition but left us with not enough time to beat them. Frankly, failing to beat this awful Manchester United side in the league this season is a very poor return - their defence is the weakest I've ever seen from a United team, regardless of the results that David De Gea has managed to get them across the whole campaign.
I regret that I wasn't able to get anything written following the home debacle against Swansea last Monday. But the problem with the performance there was exactly the same. If you only start playing properly after 65 minutes then you lessen your chances to win the game. Throw in our customary poor finishing, unwillingness to shoot, and the absolute fact that the opposition will ALWAYS get one chance to score a goal, then you have a recipe for a 1-0 defeat to a team with half your ability. Since the dismantling of Liverpool the Arsenal players have not applied themselves properly from the start of games. The only exception was Burnley away where we scored early through applying pressure high up the pitch, but then spent the last 80 minutes messing about. At Hull City, the only good performance since Liverpool, it took us until the half-hour mark to realise that we had to play properly to win.
I find this whole phenomenon disturbing. Here is a team that went on a great run, primarily because they pressurised opponents within forty yards of their own goal. By doing so we obtained possession of the football high up the pitch and were able to create chances as a result. It isn't rocket science. Work hard and you'll largely get the rewards for it. Home hammerings of Stoke City and Aston Villa, as well as Liverpool, are all the evidence you need.
Despite naming an unchanged side for the last six games (quite incredibly the first time this has happened under Wenger) this downturn in performance has coincided with Aaron Ramsey playing on the right. I've said before that this doesn't work. We lack pace and Ramsey doesn't do the dirty side of the job by helping his full-back out. At the same time Cazorla has been playing well enough to not warrant Ramsey playing in midfield. Again, he doesn't do enough of the hard yards to assist Coquelin properly in that position. But yesterday, when Cazorla was having a terrible game, Ramsey got shifted and took over the game from what I saw. Could it be that being shunted out wide has given him a kick in the backside? Some of his passing was out of the top drawer, with the ball to Theo Walcott that ended up with our goal being an absolute highlight. Cazorla, in truth, has not played at his best for a few weeks. With the FA Cup Final two weeks away this isn't the time to be carrying passengers in midfield. Perhaps Santi is playing himself out of the Wembley starting eleven.
All of that has drifted away from the main point I wanted to make this morning. Something that has really annoyed me over a long period of time is the habit our players have of talking about what they are going to do, and then doing the opposite. This week it has been Bellerin and Mertesacker promising to "make up for Swansea" and saying "we know the importance of finishing third instead of fourth". All very noble comments, and obviously there is space to fill for Arsenal's media arm. But don't run your mouth with this rubbish and then go out and play like it's some kind of training ground exercise. If you really want to make up for a defeat, or ensure you're not going to need a play-off in August, then go out and do it! Don't tell us what you think, because quite clearly it doesn't translate to the pitch. And it happens far too often. Do your talking on the pitch. I'm fed up of the empty statements.
Of course, thanks to some long overdue good fortune at Old Trafford, we have virtually secured that third place. But we should have now been in a position to be putting out League Cup strength sides in the last two games and protecting everyone else from injury (or, more importantly from the referees) ahead of Wembley. Had we played to a proper level from the off against Swansea and/or Manchester United we could have been relaxing and not needing to get some kind of result against a Sunderland side scrapping for Premier League survival.  

Friday, 8 May 2015

Get "Good Old Arsenal" in to the UK charts for Willow Foundation

Riders Of The Night

No blog post as such today. This is purely to advertise the new unofficial Arsenal FA Cup Final song by The Riders Of The Night (and friends) in aid of Bob Wilson's Willow Foundation. The song is a cover of "Good Old Arsenal" and costs just 79p, available on iTunes. Willow is a worthy cause, supported every year by the Dover Gooners, and the aim is to raise as much money as possible by getting the song in to the UK charts top 40. While you're there you could get yourself the other Riders Of The Night classics like "Eyes Right" and "B'Jesus Said Paddy". Go on, you know it makes sense.

Buy it now!

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Selfish "Football Family" and Exter City - Aston Villa fans need to see this too!

No shortage in the Football League

If you were an Arsenal fan on Twitter last night then you'd surely have struggled to avoid the criticism being (quite rightly) directed at Exeter City Football Club. Via their website Exeter were offering "half" of their FA Cup Final allocation to members of their supporters trust - enter a ballot and they can win the "right" to buy tickets for Wembley on 30th May. Half of their allocation, incidentally, is eight pairs of tickets - half at the Arsenal end and half at the Villa end. So Exeter City actually have 32 tickets available to them for the FA Cup Final!!!
Is it any wonder that the two clubs actually involved in the game have such a limited allocation when quite so many are being given to individual clubs in the Premier League and Football League? You can be certain that the bigger clubs in the higher divisions are getting even more than the likes of Exeter. I realise that I'm going over old ground here to a certain extent, but I admit that I never realised just how many tickets were given to clubs. I'd always assumed it was a minimal number per club, which would still be a minimal number too many, but 32 tickets?! Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that the other 90 league clubs all get just those 32, then they alone account for 2880 seats that should be split between the competing sides - we can safely assume it's at least 4000 (and the rest!) in reality. Given that each year the two sides who make it complain about the allocations provided to them wouldn't it be nice if the professional clubs all stuck together and made tickets available to genuine supporters? Or would that mean a few of their sponsors and the Chairman's wife not getting a good day out in London Town?
Exeter were very quick to issue a statement last night in an attempt (and I use that word advisedly) to justify their allocation and how they decide to use it. Exeter claim that, if they returned their tickets to the Football Association, they would simply be redistributed to another part of the "football family". I don't know whether that's true so I have to take them at their word. What they don't address, of course, is why they aren't giving 16 pairs of tickets straight back to Arsenal and Aston Villa to give to fans who follow them all season. Exeter City go on to state that a number of the people eligible to apply for their ballot are regulars at both St James' Park and Emirates Stadium. Again, I don't know how true that is, but there is nothing in the qualification criteria for their ballot that states you have to reveal yourself as an Arsenal supporter before applying. As weak arguments for doing the wrong thing go this is really right up there.
The simple fact is that Exeter City and any other club, referees association, local league, corporate partner or any other organisation that is not Arsenal or Aston Villa Football Clubs have no right to those tickets, and they are a disgrace for not offering them straight back to the two clubs. I can say this as someone who already has my Cup Final ticket, but I know many people who genuinely deserve to be there and have the right to be there, but who are relying on being lucky in the ballot at Arsenal tomorrow. It's simply not on.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

MY team of the season

The real footballer of the year

Having seen the PFA manage to totally mess up their so called player and team of the year awards, and in the absence of much Arsenal guff worth talking about, I thought I'd present my own view on the Premier League team of the year. I know I'm biased but, as you can see from the photograph above, Alexis is my player of the year. Anyone that thinks it's Eden Hazard needs their head reading as far as I'm concerned.
Goalkeeper - David de Gea
I considered giving Thibaut Courtois this position in the side and he would have been absolutely deserving of it, playing a key role in his side winning the Premier League at his first attempt. However, when you consider the defence that Manchester United have been fielding since the season started then the performance of de Gea is truly outstanding. He has won points for his side virtually single-handed and has been the dominant goalkeeper in the league, for me. I don't see him being at Old Trafford next season as it seems certain that Real Madrid will come calling very soon.
Right-Back - Cesar Azpilicueta
Pablo Zabaleta has been good enough to keep Bacary Sagna out of the Manchester City side, but to me he hasn't been able to get ahead of Chelsea's right-back this season. Azpilicueta stands head and shoulders above every other full-back in the Premier League and has got better and better since joining Chelsea. He also plays equally well on both sides of the defence.
Left-Back - Nacho Monreal
I make no apologies for Arsenal bias in this decision, but there can be few more improved performers than Nacho this season. He started the season having to carry Per Mertesacker at centre-half, in the absence of King Koscielny, and it seems to have been the making of him. His positional play is better, he looks a yard quicker, he rarely misses a tackle, and he has been really good going forward too. Kieran Gibbs is excellent, but Nacho is rightly keeping him out at the moment.
Centre-Back - John Terry
Yes, it's painful to make this selection. But you have to admit that the old racist has been at his best throughout the season for Chelsea. I felt that he was finished a couple of years back, but he has got back to being the best English centre-back around at the moment. Horrible man though.
Centre-Back - Jose Fonte
The PFA quite ridiculously picked Gary Cahill in this position. Fonte, meanwhile, has lead Southampton through a fantastic season in which he has dominated the defence. Fonte has surprised me with his quality at the top level and he has been one of the quiet stars of this season. It's about time Southampton players got some recognition.
Central Midfield - Morgan Schneiderlin
Another Southampton player who has shone during this campaign. It seemed certain that he was off last Summer amid the great south-coast exodus, and he seemed to be actively forcing a move. Ronald Koeman put his foot down and Southampton have reaped the benefits as Schneiderlin has got his head down and dominated many an opposition midfield. Will he be at Saints next season? I hear the Emirates is a popular place for quality midfield players...
Central Midfield - Esteban Cambiasso
You weren't expecting that, were you? For me he has been truly exceptional at Leicester City, even before they went on their recent winning run. In a side that was struggling Cambiasso emerged as the class of the field and stood out in a mediocre group. When they played at our place earlier this year he dominated the game and he has gone on doing that throughout the season. I'm amazed that his fellow pros have overlooked the contribution of a top class player that could yet rescue his team from the drop.
"Number Ten" - Cesc Fabregas
Another painful selection, but Chelsea won this Title before Christmas when Fabregas was the best midfield player in the league. He created so much for Diego Costa that they were able to build up the lead they needed long before they started to bore the backsides off all of us. How anyone can consider Hazard to be more important to Chelsea than Cesc Fabregas is totally beyond me.
Striker - Harry Kane
I think the boil has been well and truly gone off in recent weeks for Kane, and he may yet turn out to be a total flash in the pan. Certainly his past points to a glorious six months that may be pretty quickly forgotten. Next season we will quickly find out, but you have to admit he deserves his place in a team of the season. If he does do the same next season then it will be the last he plays for Tottenham.
Striker - Sergio Aguero
The best goal scorer in the Premier League, the one attacking player in the Premier League that I would really like to see signing for Arsenal. I think the Argentinian is a wonderful player, unstoppable at his best, and he'd fit in so well in our team. Without him City would be in Spurs or Liverpool territory.
Striker - Alexis
The signing of the season. The player of the season. What an impact he's made at Arsenal. Yes, he sometimes holds on to the ball too much, but he has been truly wonderful for Arsenal. I have rarely seen a player with such ability be prepared to work so hard for his team. For a little man he is incredibly powerful, good in the air, and afraid of nothing. Without a doubt he is my favourite current player at Arsenal.
Manager - Ronald Koeman
Did anyone think Southampton would recover from selling almost all of their best players last Summer? Koeman has showed what a different perspective a top foreign coach can bring, and how their connections in some of the less well known leagues of Europe can see quality players come in for very little money. Okay, Saints won't win a trophy, and may yet miss out on Europe, but what a start he has made. He has surely put himself in the frame as a possible replacement for Arsene Wenger as it stands, and I've been mightily impressed by him.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Arsenal play properly again, Jimmy Greaves

Alexis and Coquelin celebrate

It took the best part of half-an-hour but Arsenal finally got back to form last night. Okay, we haven't lost in any of the games since hammering Liverpool but we certainly haven't played well. The closing down high up the pitch has been absent since the moment Ramsey scored the early winner at Burnley. When it returned last night, with Ozil and Alexis pressuring Huddlestone in to showing his lack of quality, Arsenal were 1-0 up less than a minute later. It's no coincidence that putting pressure on in the final third of the pitch presented us with opportunities to play our football, and we went on to play some of the best we've seen all season at times.
Not for the first time we were starting slowly last night, without really coming under a tremendous threat from our opposition. I must remember one of these days to count how many times one of our attacking midfield players passes the ball back to Per Mertesacker or Laurent Koscielny. There is no more certain sign that we aren't playing properly than the sight of Mertesacker with the ball at his feet every few seconds. It amazes me that the talented attacking footballers we have feel the need to play the ball to their centre-back with quite such regularity. For me there are few things more soul destroying than seeing Mesut Ozil, with all that ability, receive a pass around the halfway line and then look up and decide to pass it ten yards back to the BFG. I don't know what causes us to be like that when it's so obvious that we play so much better once we start to work on harassing opposition players in their own half and/or playing the ball forward and creating some space by attacking people. As Jack Wilshere showed when he came on, and he was looking super sharp, by running at a defender you create openings.
We had some luck with the deflections for the first two goals (I did wonder if Lampard had suddenly joined us) but that showed that actually going for goal might end up with you scoring once or twice. In the second-half there wasn't enough of that and that's one of the reasons we didn't add more goals to the tally. For Aaron Ramsey's goal the finish may have been slightly fortuitous in the way it looped in to the corner (though Alan Parry somehow missed the deflections for both of the first two goals on commentary) but the pass from Cazorla was superb. The control, though, of Ramsey was even better. As first touches go it was truly exceptional and I though he had a much better game last night coming off the right. He then decided to outdo Cazorla with his pass for the third goal that was expertly put away by the wonderful Alexis Sanchez. I would have no argument if Ramsey was to come back to form in the next few weeks ahead of the FA Cup Final, though I'm still very unsure of him on the right of midfield - if The Ox was fit I'd have him back in there straight away, while Ramsey can't play ahead of Cazorla or Ozil in their positions.
At 3-0 up at half-time I wanted us to come out and humiliate Hull in the second-half, hopefully sending out some kind of warning for Aston Villa. However, Wenger's sides all too rarely push on when comfortably in front early in a game and last night was no different. Hull got themselves a goal thanks to Mr Mason somehow missing something approaching a red card tackle that took King Koscielny out of the game momentarily. After that we were never really threatened as such. We could and should have had more goals. Ozil and Cazorla and Wilshere all refused to shoot at times, while Jack was denied two clear penalties by Mason again. Alexis might have passed to Theo in the last minute but chose (rightly, in my view) to try and get his hat-trick. Ultimately it was a nice win, with one of the absolute highlights being an amazing flicked volley by Ozil to send Alexis away down the left in the second-half. When we're like that in a game then we are great to watch.
I just want to say a few words on Jimmy Greaves who has suffered a severe stroke. People of my age grew up with Greavesie on the TV, whether as a co-commentator or studio guest on ITV or on the magnificent Saint & Greavesie show. Jimmy was a real character who oozed a fun personality. He was far removed from the all too serious coverage and punditry of modern TV football. One of ITV's biggest errors when they had the rights to the Premier League was to not bring Saint & Greavesie back - instead of them we had Gabby Logan and Barry Venison on a Saturday lunchtime.
As a player he was most famous for his time at Chelsea and at Tottenham. He was the exceptional goalscorer of his generation and, despite missing the World Cup Final in 1966, a legendary England striker. He would go on to suffer with alcoholism but, unlike certain other former footballers, he worked to fight it and recover from it. Maybe that's why he was able to be so irreverent in his view of football when he was on the TV screen. What a breath of fresh air he'd be now when Roy Keane or Jamie Carragher are bemoaning people having fun.
His autobiography is one of the finest I've ever read with his honesty jumping off the page when he describes his personal problems and the effects of his actions on his family. It takes some kind of person to do that in the public arena.
Jimmy Greaves is also famous for a quote he made about Arsenal whereby he talked of the class of our Club. Even when he was at Spurs, he said, he knew Arsenal was class. Well, Greavesie, as a kid who grew up with you on my TV screen I always felt you were class, and I wish you a full and speedy recovery.