Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Arsenal succumb to City sucker-punch

It's been a while since Arsenal fans have had to reflect on a loss, still less a home defeat – not since the 0-2 reverse against Liverpool back in August in fact – when, it is fair to say, Arsenal were a very different team. That in itself is a reflection of just how far the Gunners have come in a very short space of time.

Wenger's team selection was almost as predicted in light of the news that both Rosicky (thigh strain) and Diaby (hamstring) were unavailable for the game. His formation caused a few comments, however, as he elected to use Chamakh and Park as a front two – both given a chance to show that Arsenal do have striking options beyond Robin van Persie. Behind them the impressive duo Coquelin and Frimpong fought the good fight in midfield, while Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yossi Benayoun provided width and creativity. An unfamiliar back four lined up together for the first time this season – Iggy Miquel at left-back, Koscielny and Squillaci in the middle, and Djourou at right-back. Fabianski came in for his one-time understudy for both club and country Szczesny (now superseded in both respects thanks to Wojciech's impressive form).

The opposition line-up was far from the '11 young players, maybe 14 or 15 years old' that Mancini had suggested he might put out as a statement of defiance at the congested fixture list. In the event, Kolo Toure, Pablo Zabaleta, Nigel De Jong, Adam Johnson, Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri all started, while Kun Aguero was on the bench, highlighting the apparent disparity between the bloated Manchester City squad and our own rather leaner current crop of players.

Arsenal did the fans proud, however. The Gunners were by far the better team for most of the game, and nine of the players in red-and-white performed superbly. Only the front two were disappointing, as Park was largely shackled by Toure throughout, while Chamakh, although he held the ball up well with his back to goal, showed precious little in the way of predatory instinct. Adam Johnson did cause Miquel a few problems down the left-hand side (the young Spaniard was effectively playing out of position, after all), while the introduction of Aguero for the injured Kolarov midway through the first half caused a few warning bells to sound, despite minimal impact initially. The Argentine's pace meant the Gunners would be susceptible to the counter, which is ultimately what cost us the match. The late goal, which sprung from an Arsenal corner, was both unjust and disappointing – since at that stage we were on top, and a goal the other way felt more likely – but, as Wenger commented after the match, it can be put down to naiveté and a bit of inexperience.

The positives to take from the game were the determination and spirit that was shown throughout, in conjunction with some fine individual performances. Frimpong was outstanding, as was Coquelin, and their fight and tenacity outshone De Jong and Hargreaves, both of whom were largely anonymous. Koscielny again showed his importance to the team, and given the quality of his recent performances, there is an argument that he should – at least at the moment – be the first choice centre-back partner for Vermaelen over Per Mertesacker. Chamberlain again showed his considerable talent, turning Zabaleta inside out on numerous occasions. There was genuine anticipation every time he picked up the ball, and he undoubtedly deserves more playing time in the Premier League.

The Emirates faithful were again in fine voice, contrary to the reputation that Carling Cup fixtures seem to have. Nasri copped a stinging torrent of abuse throughout the match (Kolo, on the other hand, got a round of applause when City changed ends to defend the North Bank at half-time). The insults which were hurled at Nasri for the duration of the ninety minutes were hardly unexpected, but their intensity was a little surprising – I haven't seen the North Bank this angry since Cashley left. They ranged from a new twist on the old 'na na na na na' song (let's just say the word c**t was involved) and 'you're just a f*****g reserve!' to the inevitable 'went for the money, you only went for the money'.

Indeed, the City fans took some punishment too, to which they responded with, well, nothing. The last time I saw City they played in League One, but even when their team was crap they at least had a few songs. Now, stoic silence, until the 86th minute, anyway, when a few scarves were waved. Deeply unimpressive behaviour from fans who should do better – although admittedly they could hardly compete in the face of a packed Emirates (a very impressive crowd of 60,028) singing 'shit club, no history', 'where were you when you shit?', 'we forgot you were here', 'f**k off back down the Kippax' and a personal favourite, 'you're just the Spurs, the Spurs, you're just the Spurs of Man-ches-ter...'

The 86th minute winner was a bit of a sickener, but Arsenal had more than matched City up to that point, largely stifling an attack made up of players that have collectively cost nigh on £100 million (Dzeko £27m, Nasri £22m, Johnson £7m and Aguero £38m). The finish for the goal was clinical, as you would expect of Aguero, and the build-up was fast and effective, but not enough to redeem what was still a poor performance by all four of these players, in which they were held at bay by an Arsenal back-line without recognised full-backs on either flank.

Arsenal drew on an impressive fighting spirit – the sort of stuff on which all good teams are built – and the predominantly young side showed resilience and character, but relying on these rather insubstantial resources rather than a more experienced squad is neither reliable nor a guarantee of sustained success. The fact remain that in January Wenger could pick up a second striker with enough quality at even a fraction of the transfer fees quoted above to provide our own cutting edge. More than anything, that was what was missing in this game for the Gunners.

Still, the Carling Cup was hardly the priority for the season. Let City fight it out with Liverpool, Cardiff and (probably) United Crystal Palace (come on!) for the three-handled jug, while we strive to claw our way back into the top four and march on in Europe. At least City won't be in that competition – they seem almost certainly destined for the Europa League. It still seems incredible that they were considered among the favourites even when the CL group stages were drawn. The City fans' cocky self-assurance certainly suffered last week, their draw against Liverpool won't have done much to inspire confidence, and neither will a lucky 1-0 over a second string Arsenal side. I for one would enjoy it hugely if we beat them when we visit the Etihad in a couple of weeks' time. And as the Gooners sang last night; 'Champions League? You're having a laugh'...

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Fulham analysis and City preview...

Seen in the cold light of day, Saturday's game was, I suppose, two points dropped. If it hadn't been for Vermaelen's late goal it could have been much worse, though, and salvaging a point against a committed Fulham side – in what was the Gunners' third match in a week – felt only vaguely disappointing. Arsenal remain in sight of the top four, and although they are obviously reliant on the teams above them dropping points, it's not even Christmas yet. All is not lost.

The match was nevertheless something of a wasted opportunity, but the more troubling aspect of the ninety minutes was that none of the fringe players who were introduced were able to impact sufficiently. This emphasised the relative paucity of the squad, and the fact that we simply cannot rely on the same eleven players week in, week out. It also highlighted the huge gulf in resources between the Gunners and the teams they are chasing – such as Manchester City, where even Samir Nasri, instrumental in his last season at the Emirates, is currently only a bit-part player.

Wenger must have been tempted to rest RvP against the Cottagers. But given that we are still playing catch-up in the league, he plainly thought that he couldn't afford to. Indeed, both previous attempts to rest the Dutchman had nearly backfired, namely in the Stoke game after the Champions League tie against Marseille, and in the return against the French side at the Emirates, a mere three days after the frenetic 5-3 at Stamford Bridge.

In those matches Chamakh played at the Britannia, and Park played against Marseille. The Moroccan was largely ineffectual and was duly replaced by RvP midway through the second half, who then won the game for us. Against Marseille Wenger persevered with Park, who was unable to score. We only managed to get a point. Both games ultimately suggested that without van Persie the Gunners are, at the moment, basically toothless – while RvP is a razor-sharp incisor, our other strikers seem to have about as much bite as a pensioner without her dentures in. Most Gooners still seem bewildered by the change in Chamakh, in particular. What has happened to him since he first arrived in North London?

Against Fulham, however, even van Persie was unable to make the difference – although he had numerous chances and was admittedly unlucky not to score at least once. This can perhaps be put down to fatigue; three games inside a week is a big ask, no matter how rich your current vein of form is. Indeed, the whole team looked a bit leg-weary, and although the difference was not overtly noticeable in the first half, it told in the second. If we had been able to get an early goal that might have given us enough impetus to hold out for the three points, but Fulham fought well and soaked up considerable pressure. Thereafter they grew in confidence and evidently believed they could take at least a point, while conversely Walcott, Arteta and Ramsey in particular all seemed to be feelings the effects of the sheer volume of football they have played recently. The Cottagers of course had effectively had a week off, since their next Europa League fixture isn't until Thursday.

As such it was a little surprising that the team sheet didn't show more changes; only two initially as Arshavin replaced Gervinho and Djourou came in for Koscielny at right-back. That, however, reflects the limited options available to Wenger at present, as well as the manager's reluctance to gamble at this stage of the season, given our current situation (as the manager put it, we have come from 'a deep position', i.e. from 15th place in the table!). Our squad is still conspicuously thin, though, and at some point we are simply going to have to rely on other squad players if the starting eleven are not to simply burn out.

In such situations you look to players on the fringes, like Andrey Arshavin, who was disappointing on Saturday. It is difficult to come in and do a job but nevertheless he looks increasingly disinterested and did not impress. It's a pity that Rosicky wasn't fit; the Czech has actually played very well when he had been called upon so far this season, but again niggling little injuries have limited his ability to help out the team.

Tonight in the Carling Cup Wenger will surely rotate; this competition is of course the lowest priority at the moment but nevertheless most fans would hate to see us roll over against City – particularly if Nasri plays, which is entirely possible. A sprinkling of regulars as well as youth and fringe players will probably take to the pitch; hopefully the performance will assuage my doubts as to how far the seam of genuine quality runs through the squad. With City's chances of progression in Europe out of their own hands, they'll undoubtedly want to grab as much glory as possible in the domestic cups; fortunately Arsenal are at least guaranteed another round of Champions League action. As such Gooners can loftily talk about bigger concerns, but even so, the game isn't a foregone conclusion. With home advantage the Arsenal could still stage an upset tonight, despite a team sheet that will, on paper, be outshone by the opposition.

Gary Speed – thoughts and condolences

Like many football fans, I was shocked and upset to learn of Gary Speed's untimely death. I was however proud to hear that Aaron Ramsey led the flurry of tributes with an eloquent and heartfelt statement:
“To say I am devastated is an understatement … My thoughts and prayers go out to Gary’s family and friends. Today the world has lost a great football manager but even more sadly a great man. He will be missed by all.”

Gary Speed was of course the man responsible for handing Aaron Ramsey the Wales captaincy; a brave decision that indicated he was a forward-thinking manager with faith in the abilities of young players in his squad even at the highest level.

In the short time he was manager of the national side Speed was already starting to make a real difference. The Welsh players – who have always been a proud bunch, you only need to look to ex-Gunner John Hartson for evidence of that – sensed genuine opportunities to play for a side on the up, and seemed, almost without exception, eager to get involved in internationals again. As Mark Lawrenson pointed out on MOTD, the suspect ‘groin strain’ that had commonly been cited as an excuse not to join up with Wales suddenly became a thing of the past. As a result the national side began taking steps in the right direction after a difficult period under John Toshack; indeed, when Speed took over Wales were placed 117th in the FIFA world rankings system, they subsequently climbed to an impressive 45th.

That stat alone is testament to Gary Speed’s evident managerial abilities at this level, regardless of his illustrious achievements as a player. And he was a great player, one who helped to define the Premier League in long stints at Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton. The old cliché was that if there was ever a pub quiz question about the Premier League, the answer was always Gary Speed – the man’s longevity and ability to stick around at the top level of English football was incredible. Part of this was his talent – he had a cracking left foot, for one – but it was also attributable to his great industry (he was, perhaps, the archetypal ‘midfield engine’), and his selfless team play.

It does not do to speculate on the circumstances of his death. It is clear, however, that modern footballers, accustomed to intense media scrutiny, are practised at hiding inner thoughts, conflicts and problems – and Arsenal know that better than most clubs, given the battles with demons faced by ex-players like the addictions of Highbury heroes Paul Merson and Tony Adams. Their frank autobiographies Rock Bottom and Addicted, respectively, offer revealing insights into the ways that both managed to function as players on the pitch for many seasons whilst their lives off the pitch gradually descended into chaos.

Neither is Gary Speed the only figure in the football world to have (as has been reported) taken his own life in recent years. Many will remember the death in November 2009 of German goalkeeper Robert Enke; an internationally capped Bundesliga star who battled with long-term and periodically debilitating bouts of depression. Again, Ronald Reng’s excellent book A Life Too Short is a poignant read that gives a real insight into the intense high-pressure world of modern football.

That the game can be responsible for tragedies like this is a sad indictment of its power and influence; it brings joy to millions, but it also has a destructive side, and, more than that, the notion of football as spectacle often detracts from the fact that those who play and run it are only human, with human emotions, worries, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses.

RIP Gary Speed.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Gunners secure top spot with creditable win over Dortmund

UEFA Champions League: Group F tablePWDLFAGDPts
1. Arsenal532063311
2. Marseille52124227
3. Olympiacos52035506
4. Borussia Dortmund511349-54

The Group F table now looks very satisfying indeed, all the more so given Olympiacos' unexpected 1-0 win over Marseille at the Stade Velodrome tonight. Arsenal did the job, and in addition the Greek victory guarantees the Gunners top spot in the group – a huge bonus that means we cannot now be caught, which will in turn give Arsene Wenger a valuable opportunity to rest key players in the dead rubber in Piraeus on December 6.

Such a relatively comfortable progression is all the more impressive in comparison to the heavy weather that both Manchester clubs are making of their qualification campaigns. City will be very fortunate to get through Group A after their defeat to Napoli last night, while Manchester United will be reliant on a win over Basel to qualify from Group C. Chelsea, meanwhile, went down 2-1 in Germany against Bayer Leverkusen, which also means that Group E is finely poised, and the Blues now need a result in their home tie against Valencia (who walloped Genk 7-0 tonight). At this stage, then, the Gunners have been the best performers of all the English clubs in Europe this season – and a group featuring both the Ligue 1 runners-up and the German champions cannot be dismissed as 'easy'. The consistency that the manager has talked about, in terms of 14 consecutive seasons of Champions League football, certainly seems to have stood us in good stead so far in this year's competition. It's the sort of experience, perhaps, that a club like Manchester City simply does not have, despite the multi-millions at their disposal. Simply buying a squad of players with CL experience is not quite the same thing...

Arsenal can also draw positives from the performance at the Emirates, which was generally composed, and the Gunners stayed in control for most of the game. Admittedly, it should have been a 2-0 victory, but for a sloppy goal conceded in stoppage time – for which, it has to be said, the substitute Djourou was primarily culpable. However, the starting back four of Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Santos played well, and save for a couple of nervy moments in the first half and right at the start of the second, they were pretty solid. In front of them Alex Song played what is still known in Islington as 'an absolute blinder', and it was his good work that saved Arsenal on a couple of occasions and also set up van Persie's first goal. The Dutchman deserved the highest praise too – he was again unplayable, and both goals were superbly taken. His movement throughout the ninety minutes was supreme, as he dropped deep, made intelligent diagonal runs from both flanks, darted into the box between the centre-halves, and consistently found space for himself.

A word also for Abou Diaby, who spent most of the second half warming up on the touchlines, while being incessantly applauded by the watching Gooners. In response he bounced around and did lots of star-jumps, presumably in an attempt to show off his rock-solid ankles. He was rewarded with a brief second-half cameo, and most fans were still clapping as he trotted onto the pitch when van Persie glanced in our second goal on 86 minutes, from an Arteta corner and a Vermaelen flick. Abou might struggle to break into a midfield that seems to be working very well – again the Song-Arteta-Ramsey axis was impressive – particularly with Wilshere's anticipated return in the New Year, but nevertheless it is great to have him fit again. This is a player, after all, who was once heralded as the 'new Vieira'.

In fact, there was not a player in the starting line-up tonight who disappointed. Walcott and Gervinho were both full of endeavour and kept the Dortmund full-backs occupied, and Szczesny was again a safe pair of hands – and he was clearly annoyed not to have managed a clean sheet. The underused Yossi Benayoun was again introduced as a substitute, and put in a good stint. Only Johan Djourou perhaps let himself down – but coming on as a defender late in a game is always a difficult task.

The fact that we were able to contain Dortmund so easily was partly attributable to the fact that coach Jurgen Klopp was forced to make two first-half changes – including the loss of the prodigiously talented Mario Gotze, who departed, presumably injured, although he walked off, after about half an hour. Rumours abound that Arsenal are interested in bringing him to the club, and although we didn't get to see much of him tonight (probably for the best, given his reputation) his creativity and playmaking ability, as well as his goals, would undoubtedly be a good foil for our mercurial RvP, and would also alleviate some of the pressure that the Dutchman is under. The worrying part of his sparkling form is that without him, there is an increasing suspicion that Arsenal would be in big trouble – the difference he made tonight, compared to Park's industrious but ineffective performance against Marseille, for example, is striking (no pun intended).

Onwards and upwards then; Champions League qualification is in the bag, so now let's keep our fingers crossed for a good draw in the next stage, and focus once again on the Premier League, where our position - although dramatically improved from a few weeks ago - is not quite so secure. We are counting on others to drop points in domestic terms, but if we can do our bit, then hopefully - as we've seen in Group F - the rest will take care of itself.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Borussia Dortmund and their fans

I didn’t see much point in doing a comprehensive Arsenal v Borussia Dortmund preview, given that it would essentially consist of the usual worries about Arsenal's defensive frailty, our occasional inability to win Champions League groups (a bad habit that started in 2007/08), and concerns that Borussia Dortmund in fact represent the future of football (a result of reading an excellent article on their recent history, as featured in issue number two of The Blizzard).

Suffice it to say that the opportunity to secure qualification with a game to spare and also to put ourselves in a good position to progress as Group F winners surely dictates that Wenger will play a strong line-up. Therefore, although he could rotate I suspect he probably won’t, and the team that runs out tonight will be the same one that beat Norwich – with the possible substitution of Arshavin for Gervinho (just a hunch).

Other news is that Abou Diaby is available, but he will surely not appear given that he hasn't played competitive football since May 22nd. Unfortunately Tomas Rosicky again misses out against his old club due to a thigh strain, while Laurent Koscielny is once more likely to step into the breach at right-back.

It’s a must win game for Dortmund, who are a good side in good form (having beaten Bayern Munich 1-0 at the weekend), and therefore the Gunners will need to go all out to get the vital three points. We got a bit lucky last time round at the gargantuan Signal Iduna Arena, and will need to play much better than we did that night. But recently we have been, so fingers crossed. Arsene Wenger certainly seems confident, anyway. Oh, and if Perišić lines up another shot in or around the 88th minute, then let's close him down.

And that’s it. Such brevity might be because I’ve recently developed a bit of a soft spot for the German side, who seem to share Arsenal’s philosophy when it comes to the way the beautiful game should be played. They've got great players such as Götze, Lewandowski, Kagawa and home-grown hero Kevin Großkreutz. Hopefully it will be a cracking match to watch – and I’ll probably get to experience their famously mental fans at close-range, since I’ve got a seat in the Clock End.

Incidentally, here’s an observation on their fans, in the form of a slightly rambling anecdote…

I suppose I should set the scene. Well, I had my lunch in St. James' Park yesterday. The Thames-side one that is, next to Westminster Abbey, not the Tyneside one that's now known as 'The Stottie Cake Sports Direct Arena'. Actually the link here is strangely apposite, since in aforesaid park I was working my way simultaneously through a sandwich and Harry Pearson's excellent book The Far Corner, but already I digress.

Now, the Borough of Westminster isn't somewhere I spend too much time, and it was nice to be out of the office for once, so naturally I took an interest in the surrounding environs. As I surveyed the scene from the vantage point of a park bench, I spied two rather unusual-looking herren among the assorted tourists feeding the ducks, runners setting their lunch-hour PB's and politicians dumping confidential reports in litter bins. One was dressed head-to-toe in yellow and black stripes, while the other, along with the obligatory scarf, sported a yellow-and-black pointy jester's hat, of the sort that have invaded football grounds in the last half-decade. "Ah, Dortmund fans", I thought to myself. They ambled past and subsequently asked a park attendant for directions, very politely and in impeccable English, which he duly gave them, albeit with a bemused stare at their costume (not a football fan, evidently). They wandered off happily, presumably to absorb a bit more of the sights and sounds of London before heading back to the hotel to apply Borussia Dortmund face-paint ready for the big match.

The German football fan is evidently a strange animal, but you can't begrudge his devotion to the cause. Getting dressed up a full 24 hours before the game is pretty impressive, particularly when your team colours have the visual appeal of a hazard warning sign.

Managing expectations? Wenger's L'Equipe interview

News on the back pages today (apart from glowing reports of Ade*****'s brace for Sp*rs, which we'll ignore) is that Arsene Wenger has confirmed his commitment to Arsenal after the weekend's shenanigans. For anyone who missed it, the win over Norwich was somewhat overshadowed by increasingly hysterical media speculation about his future, thanks to a recent interview the manager gave with renowned French sporting gazette L'Equipe. In reality the interview itself was thoughtful, articulate and wide-ranging, covering many different aspects of Wenger's 15-year tenure at the club, but somewhat predictably the English papers seized upon a couple of short remarks in particular, in which the gaffer seemed to insinuate that his time with the Gunners was coming to a close:

L’Equipe: ...Will you embark on another long spell?

Wenger: No, as far as I am concerned, we are now talking pretty short term, that’s obvious. But whether it is with me or someone else, that changes nothing. The person that comes in after me will need foundations on which he can obtain success.

L’Equipe: Will you still be here in 15 years?

Wenger: No.

L’Equipe: And next season?

Wenger: We’ll look at things at the end of this one. I still have two years to run on my contract.
Admittedly, when taken out of context these comments do seem to hint that Wenger considers a chapter to be closing. At the same time, the few sentences above came from a 2,148-word piece which was itself written up from a lengthy one-and-a-half-hour interview. Nevertheless they sparked a flurry of pieces highlighting Wenger's apparent 'self-doubt' and 'soul-searching' at the start of the season, from papers including The Mirror and The Guardian. To quell such talk Wenger has reiterated today that he will stay for 'a few more years' and indeed, according to The Sun, 'as long as he can walk'.

The whole of the interview, which was conducted at London Colney two days after the Chelsea game, and published in France on Saturday, has been translated into English by @mattspiro for Arseblog news, so thanks are due to all involved. As most fans will know, Arseblog is probably the most popular Arsenal blog on the web, and rightly so, since it features a broad range of contributions from fans of all different sorts, while Matt Spiro is a great commentator on the game from a Gallic viewpoint (commentator in the analytical sense, rather than in the sense of chap-with-microphone-in-sheepskin-coat...)

You can read the piece here, and I would urge all Arsenal fans to do so. It gives a real insight into the manager, who comes across very well indeed. Perhaps liberated by the fact that he was speaking to L'Equipe, rather than to the more fanatical elements of the English media (who nevertheless did their best to spin a story anyway), Wenger reveals a very different side to the somewhat myopic persona ('I didn't see the incident') that he typically assumes in front of the MOTD camera, for example– or even when dealing with the Club's official organs like Arsenal Magazine.

His openness and honesty regarding such subjects as the loss of Cesc and Samir are disarming in their candour. Similarly, he talks frankly about the disappointments of last season, his own culpability in the way 2010/11 played out, and his expectations for this season and this team – which he admits must be considered the start of a 'new cycle'.

Neither does he deny the central role that he played in the 'long-term project' initiated after the Invincibles season, i.e. the construction of Emirates and the investment in a young team, but he is willing to admit that it has not produced the results that he – and all connected with the club – hoped for. Wenger remains fiercely defensive, however, about the merits of the club's self-sustaining ethos, which he again asserts is a 'viable model' that will let Arsenal 'sleep in peace'. Given that Manchester City are currently top of the Premier League table but have also just posted a record £194.9 million operating loss, this is clearly a salient point. Neither Arsene nor the Arsenal board will subscribe to the philosophy of 'success at any price', although for those who would accuse him of prioritising (fiscal) security over silverware, he states that he still dreams of winning the Champions League, and that he is still hugely driven – 'I remain addicted to the next match, like a drug'.

For all those reiterations of commitment, the interview ends on a valedictory note, as Wenger looks back on 15 season in charge – years which, he says, have gone by 'at the speed of light'. He considers the time he's had to have been a great luxury – not one that many managers are afforded, and given that is he now 62, not something he is likely to experience again in football, with Arsenal or any other club. He is rightly proud of what he has achieved with the Gunners, and whether fans lean to one or the other side of the AKB/AMG divide, no-one can deny that since he came from Japan as a relatively unknown Frenchman, way back in 1996, his personal investment in the club has been immense.

It seems inconceivable that Wenger will leave before the end of his contract, and he surely will not go of his own volition. It is equally unlikely that he will be forced out given the hegemony in the boardroom and the unstinting support for the boss from Ivan Gazidis and Stan Kroenke. Regardless of what happens between now and 2014 then, his legacy is secure, although as things start to look a little brighter for the side in the light of recent results, we can hope that his reputation is polished rather than tarnished by the new and current crop of players.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Another away win sees Gunners tied on 22...

Yesterday's win at Norwich was a good performance and another obstacle safely negotiated. Arsenal are now level on 22 points with Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool, and although Spurs have two games in hand, upcoming fixtures – which see Liverpool play leaders Man City next Sunday and Chelsea play high-flying Newcastle the week after that – could have very interesting implications on who ultimately breaks into the top four.

Against the Canaries Arsenal started brightly and purposefully, keeping good possession for long spells and winning the ball very quickly when it broke free. This pressure forced Norwich into nervy and hurried clearances, not least from keeper Ruddy. Van Persie had two early half-chances while only a remarkable goal-line clearance from Russell Martin stopped Walcott from making it 1-0 on twelve minutes, when the Canaries' defender somehow kept out Theo's well-directed shot.

Arsenal's strong start therefore made Norwich's goal on the quarter-hour mark seem fairly fortuitous. It was certainly against the run of play, although the warning signs were perhaps there. In general the back-four marshalled the Norwich attack adequately in the early period, but they also exhibited a worrying tendency to step up at every opportunity. This high line was vulnerable to the ball over the top, and predictably that's exactly what happened – Tierney hit an unsophisticated route 1 punt and Steve Morison duly barrelled after it. Mertesacker, although caught flat-footed and with the glare of the early afternoon sun in his eyes, initially looked to have recovered by managing to get between player and ball. Alas, the uncompromising Morison then merte-suckered the unfortunate German by muscling him out of the way before finishing past Szczesny. An unflattering goal, but perhaps a valuable lesson in English football for our new centre-half.

Morison would expose the Gunners at the back again, as he sat on the shoulder of Mertesacker (or, given the height difference, on his elbow) and looked to make runs into space. The Norwich midfield had precious little of the possession though, and so the bullet-headed Welshman was subsequently reduced to holding up the ball as it was played to him from deep. With his back largely to the Arsenal goal, and without much forward support from his team-mates he was unable to capitalise further. Arsenal, meanwhile, continued to apply pressure of their own, and created a fistful of chances – Gervinho spurning two or three before RvP once again came to the rescue with a close-range finish from a low Walcott ball across the box. That is swiftly becoming a trademark Arsenal goal and the duo have formed a very good understanding indeed.

At 1-1 Arsenal reasserted their dominance and looked by far the better team – and the most likely to score a second. Both Norwich full-backs suffered at the hands of Walcott on the right and the effective overlaps of Gervinho and Andre Santos on the left. However, although the Brazilian's eagerness to get forward undoubtedly adds an extra dimension to Arsenal's forward play, it also leaves the team vulnerable to the counter-attack, and the Gunners did get lucky once or twice in this regard. Fortunately, Van Persie was once again pretty much unplayable, and almost single-handedly he could have kept the Canaries on the back foot, even without Gervinho, Walcott and Ramsey weighing in with their own attacking threat. Arteta and Song were similarly composed in the middle, and watching them at work is starting to become very satisfying, as their snappy tackling, excellent distribution and good ability to switch the play provided a solid platform for the Gunners to build from.

It was evens at the break, but Arsenal were well on top. They came out for the second 45 with more of the same, and it seemed to be working despite a slight change in shape from Norwich as Paul Lambert brought on Elliot Bennett for David Fox, attempting to push further up the right-hand side of the pitch. Santos, marshalled by the left-sided centre-half Vermaelen, was just about equal to the challenge, despite showing that his defensive abilities seem largely to consist of diving in as soon as a player picks up the ball. It could have proved costly, but then that man Van Persie did his bit to secure the game with a second goal. Ramsey made a good challenge to win the ball inside the centre-circle, but went to ground in the process. Alex Song quickly took over and broke forward, shaping to play in the advancing Gervinho on the left before electing to supply RvP to his right. The Dutchman deftly dinked an accomplished and distinctly Bergkamp-esque chip over Ruddy as the Norwich 'keeper went to ground, thereby recording his 31st goal in 29 games – an incredible strike rate. Right-foot, as well… Gooners are quickly running out of superlatives to describe our mercurial captain. With 13 goals already this season, he looks certain to get to a personal tally of 125 in Arsenal's 125th year – and probably not too far into 2012, on current form.

Arsenal managed to see out the game without major drama, and although there were a couple of nervy moments in the final half-hour they alleviated opposition pressure through good ball retention. The Gunners probably should have notched another goal at least, but nevertheless the win was fully deserved. Frustratingly, they did concede a cheap free-kick in the closing seconds, but managed to maintain enough concentration to close the game out and so record the second domestic away win of the season.

Plaudits must of course go to RvP, who is arguably the best player in the league at the moment, and an admittedly very open Norwich defence were unable to deal with his movement, as he dragged both centre-halves all over the pitch. Walcott was also a constant menace whilst simultaneously working hard to provide some cover down the right-hand flank for Koscielny, who was playing in an unfamiliar right-back position. A word also on the Ramsey-Arteta-Song axis, which is becoming a very efficient unit. Alex Song has stepped up his performances this season; but in addition Arteta is making him look even better by helping him out of trouble in typically unfussy but assured fashion. Undoubtedly a calming presence, Arteta's tireless work rate and willingness to help out defensively has also given Ramsey more licence to get forward. At this rate Wenger will have a real selection dilemma when Jack Wilshere finally makes his much-anticipated return in January.

With another three points the Gunners have now put themselves in a good position, and if they can continue to create as many chances as they did against Norwich whilst shoring up an improving but still susceptible defence, then the chase will really be on.

In other news, Yaya Touré has reportedly suggested that Manchester City could emulate the Invincibles and go the whole season unbeaten. Rather premature, methinks – we're only twelve games in, after all. Admittedly, at present Arsenal fans have more immediate concerns than defending the honour of our greatest ever Premier League side, and it is still the case that for the time being we have to look a little further down the table to find the Gunners – but not much further. Let's continue to keep the pressure on, and come 18 December we might see whether City really have the quality to compare with the class of '03/04.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Norwich v Arsenal – Preview

Another international break over, and the Gunners return to action with a trip to Carrow Road. Arsenal have got the lunchtime kick-off today, and hopefully they can start the Premier League's weekend fixtures with a bang. With Chelsea playing Liverpool tomorrow and Spurs facing Villa on Monday (albeit at the Lane) it is entirely possible that any one of the teams immediately above us could drop points – let's hope we can capitalise.

At the same time, however, we shouldn't underestimate Norwich. It's entirely possible that they'll prove to be the bright yellow stumbling block in our headlong charge back into the top four. They are arguably the best of the three teams that achieved promotion last season, which is currently reflected in the fact that they lie ninth in the table – just ahead of both Swansea and QPR. Paul Lambert has built a good team and either one of the tough, predatory strikers Steve Morison or Grant Holt could cause the Arsenal defence problems. The Gunners will also need to stifle the endeavour and creativity of key midfield players Wes Hoolahan, Leon Barnett and especially Anthony Pilkington, who has been a revelation for the Canaries this season.

Still, we have the quality to negate these threats as well as causing some of our own, and the fact that Norwich have yet to keep a clean sheet this season, combined with RvP's stellar form, suggests that there should be goals today.

Unfortunately we will be without both Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson – the left-back's stomach strain, which he picked up a couple of weeks ago, turned out to have been caused by a hernia, which has now been operated on. In all likelihood he'll therefore be laid up for four or five weeks as he recuperates. Meanwhile, our nineteen-year-old right-back has picked up a very middle-aged injury indeed – yep, he's 'done his back in'. In all seriousness though, the reports of a stress fracture sound a bit ominous – although in a pre-match press conference Wenger assured us that the specialists have picked this up early and that therefore all he'll need is some rest. The much-heralded new medical centre at London Colney is already filling up with customers then.

On the plus side, Abou Diaby, who apparently used to play in our midfield, is once again fit and healthy after an inordinate lay-off. The Frenchman has now 'resumed full training', although given that he has been out for around five months he'll need plenty of time to recover his fitness - so we probably won't see him on the pitch for a while yet. Jack Wilshere's also been spotted hovering around the Colney outpatients' area sans crutches, which is good news, and he might be back by January. And finally, Marouane Chamakh, who missed the West Brom game with a minor knee injury, is now once again fit to, er, take his place on the bench.

One of either Johan Djourou or Laurent Koscielny – who apparently did his work experience started his career as a right-back – will deputise for Jenkinson today. The Swiss defender did a decent job there when called upon recently, but Koscielny has also been playing well, and therefore this situation might give Wenger the opportunity to play Koscielny-Mertesacker-Vermaelen-Santos for the first time.

Elsewhere the team will probably be unchanged from that which strolled to victory against the Baggies way back on 5 November. That game was a comfortable win in which Arsenal showed both composure and fluidity – hopefully they'll be able to pick up where they left off. The international break was an unwelcome disruption in that sense, but the players involved in matches for their respective countries at least came through unscathed, while I'm sure Mikel Arteta spoke for other members of the squad – particularly the new faces – when he said that the break was a good chance to pause and reflect on a rollercoaster start to the season.

Away from home today's match will be a tougher task than the West Brom game. But the Gunners broke their unenviable away record in emphatic style against Chelsea, and Carrow Road has hardly been a fortress this season. We should therefore be more than capable of taking three points back to North London, thereby keeping the pressure on the likes of Spurs and Liverpool.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Arsenal stroll to victory against the Baggies

It was a crisp but sunny afternoon in North London yesterday, and Arsenal will at least have got plenty of fresh air - because that one was the proverbial walk in the park.

The players on the pitch visibly enjoyed themselves against a lacklustre West Brom side, and they are looking increasingly comfortable in front of the Emirates faithful too as the stadium begins to feel more and more like home. The new player banners adorning the upper stand (particular favourites: 'The Verminator' and 'We don't need Batman, we've got Robin') undoubtedly added to this impression - alright, they don't have the amateurish paint-splattered old-bed-sheet charm of some of the old banners that were faithfully hung at Highbury, but they are still a welcome addition.

The only slightly taxing periods of the game were the ten minutes that opened and closed the match. Arsenal did have to be patient initially, as they darted and probed, looking for a way to unlock the West Brom defence. Typical of a Roy Hodgson side, the Baggies set themselves out tidily and were well-organised, but without Shane Long or Peter Odemwingie they offered little attacking threat. Accordingly, the Gunners soon asserted their dominance, and although on a couple of occasions individual players were guilty of sloppy passing - which looked, if anything, to be a result of overconfidence rather than of opposition pressure - these errors soon melted away, the play got more and more assured and the first goal duly looked to be on its way.

The midfield trio of Arteta-Ramsey-Song is gelling into an effective unit. They spent most of the early period playing neat little triangles before spraying balls out to Gervinho on the left and Walcott and the overlapping Jenkinson on the right, thereby bypassing a congested midfield. This largely negated the impact of the five West Brom midfielders strung along the pitch, and in addition Van Persie began to drop deeper, offering an extra option for whichever Arsenal midfielder was on the ball - the Nike Seitiro, apparently; a neon yellow orb which has now been introduced as winter approaches in the Premier League. The ball's high-vis appearance only highlighted how little time any of the West Brom midfield spent with it - neither Chris Brunt, Graham Dorrans, Zoltan Gera, James Morrison nor Jerome Thomas seemed to have more than a few touches before a man in red-and-white deftly nicked it away like one of the bigger boys in the school playground. Ultimately it was the purposeful running of alternating players in Arsenal's midfield three, allied with Walcott's pace, that ensured an opening goal. Ramsey and Walcott combined well to set up an excellent chance, but Foster initially looked to have parried Theo's low driven effort before a certain flying Dutchman arrived to sweep home the rebound from about four yards out.

With the majority of the possession, the Gunners looked both comfortable and composed as they continued to forge ahead in search of a second goal. Pleasingly, however, they were also pretty solid at the back. Koscielny and Vermaelen were finally given the chance to resume a partnership that was prematurely cut short last season by Thomas' injury setbacks. The absent Mertesacker might be disappointed to have missed out, but he probably deserved a rest having been repeatedly dunked in at the deep end ever since his last-minute summer transfer move. Given his 6' 6" stature you can hardly say he has been out of his depth, and he has done a creditable job despite sniping from critics, but nevertheless the last few weeks must have been bewildering at times. Besides which, Laurent Koscielny has done extremely well in recent weeks, playing his part in Arsenal's resurgence, and as such deserved another chance of first-team action after missing out against Marseille.

Vermaelen, however, showed that he remains a class apart from whoever partners him at centre-back. His ability to seamlessly slot back into the team is almost incredible, and he underlined an excellent performance with a series of superb covering tackles whilst also scoring an emphatic goal. Welcome back Thomas - we've missed you. As long as his troublesome tendons remain in working order, he must surely be one of the first names on the team sheet.

So, going in with a 2-0 lead at the break, Arsenal were secure. They simply needed to maintain control and perhaps consolidate with a third goal to seal the game. Well, the Gunners rarely do things the easy way but for once they did just that, taking up where they had left off and also varying the tempo well to keep West Brom on the back foot. Hodgson introduced Mulumbu and Tchoyi to try and inject some more muscle and guile up front, but without much of the ball they had little impact. Wenger's substitutions - Rosicky for Ramsey, Benayoun for Gervinho and, five minutes later, Arshavin for Walcott - were more pragmatic. Benayoun probably made the biggest impact of the three, although Rosicky was involved in the set-up for the third goal, when sixteen minutes from time Van Persie played an intelligent and unselfish ball to Mikel Arteta, who finished confidently to notch his second Arsenal goal.

With the game more or less won, Arsenal did ease off in the remaining minutes, and for almost the first time in the match West Brom fashioned a couple of chances. Fortunately, Szczesny sprung into action when called upon, dealing with Steven Reid’s header and James Morrison’s drive calmly and unfussily. The young 'keeper demonstrated commendable composure and focus, aspects of his game that have been questioned, as he helped the Gunners to a second consecutive clean-sheet.

Both full-backs deserve a mention, too. Their approaches are very different - one is evidently striving to be a crowd-pleaser, while the other, conversely, seems to be rapidly winning over the fans almost unconsciously. Andre Santos is quintessentially Brazilian in his approach to football - cavalier in defence but flamboyant on the ball. Over the course of the ninety minutes he produced some dazzling examples of skill, including two 360-degree pirouettes that drew appreciative cheers from sections of the Emirates, and grudging acknowledgement from others (who still bemoan his frequently wayward positional sense). On the other flank, Carl Jenkinson continues to come on in leaps and bounds. He was always available in the final third to whip in consistently excellent crosses - all of which begged to be touched into the net. Alas, there was rarely anyone in the box to oblige. Nevertheless, at this rate, Jenks will have achieved cult hero status in no time - remarkable when you consider that last season he was on loan at Eastbourne Borough. Frankly, I don't care where he came from - the boy can cross. Note to Arsene - give him corner-taking duties too...

So, with the 3-2 defeat in the same fixture last year duly avenged, the Gunners are now level on points with Liverpool, who again stuttered against Swansea at Anfield. Moreover, Arsenal are now also a mere three points off fourth place. The team now seems firmly ensconced in a very comfortable groove. In that sense, the looming international break could not be appearing on the horizon at a worse time - but hopefully Arsenal will resume where they have now left off when they travel to Carrow Road in two weeks' time.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

No goals, one point – too soon?

After the high drama of the Chelsea game, last night's tie felt rather flat. Having confidently predicted that Arsenal would dominate from the outset, the initial ten minutes were a little nervy. Marseille showed that they are a far better team than was evident from their previous meeting with the Gunners, and seized the initiative. Arsenal, conversely, started slowly. Wenger played a relatively unchanged team, although Vermaelen replaced Koscielny in defence and Jenkinson slotted in at right back, while most notably Park started in favour of RvP, who certainly merited a rest - presumably the reasoning behind his omission.

Unfortunately, we missed our mercurial number ten, and although Park was industrious throughout, covering lots of ground and attempting to play in the channels - indeed, he ran, ahem, all over the park - he didn't have any real chances on goal. The chances did fall to others, however, and both Ramsey and Gervinho had opportunities to open the scoring. Walcott also fizzed a shot across Steve Mandanda's goal midway through the first half, which the Marseille 'keeper just managed to turn past the post.

Although the game stayed goalless, it was far from cagey and not - despite what others would have you believe - dull. With both teams attempting to play quick attacking football and possession roughly evening out after early dominance from, surprisingly, the away side, there was more interest than is usual for these Champions League group games, and equally more than the nil-nil scoreline would suggest. Considering that most of the team had a mere 72 hours' R&R after the frantic pace of the Stamford Bridge game, it was perhaps inevitable that this tie would be a little underwhelming.

Even the introduction of van Persie failed to alter things in a fairly stale second half, although he had the golden chance to set the game alight. Alas his attempted lob over the goalkeeper was safely and gratefully clutched by Mandanda. Late on the Dutchman also sent in a decent cross that Vermaelen just failed to connect with after a rocket-powered diving header that saw him end up in the goal mouth.

The result was far from disastrous - as Wenger pointed out after the game, Arsenal have taken four points from their main rivals for top spot in Group F - but it was perhaps a missed opportunity and puts a little more pressure on the forthcoming Dortmund game.

Arsenal can still take positives from this match, however - most importantly, all the players came through unscathed, and the new signings continue to get better visibly with every game. For example, after looking out of his depth in his first couple of appearances Carl Jenkinson continues to improve fast. Moreover in their first ninety minutes together Vermaelen and Mertesacker showed signs that in time theirs could be an efficient centre-back pairing. Szczesny was a fairly safe pair of hands, and Santos - although probably the weakest defensive player in the team last night - still played his part in securing a clean sheet.

It was a shame that none of the Arsenal players managed to make that vital difference by getting on the score sheet, but equally no one can be accused of a poor display or a lack of effort; it just didn't happen on the night. If RvP had started he may well have nicked a goal, but gambling with his fitness by trying to play him all the time is risky and a van Persie burn-out would be disastrous at the moment. This salient point does highlight the fact that the Gunners are heavily reliant on a single striker, and we must have more confidence in the back-up forwards to produce the goods when called upon - although that is not an easy task, of course. After temporarily silencing his doubters with a fine strike against Bolton, Park will still be open to murmurs of criticism. I don't think, contrary to what some have been saying, that we have bought ourselves a dud - he holds the ball up well (I know, the traditional defence for a striker who doesn't score) but also shows signs that he will get goals once he becomes more familiar with his new team-mates. The Korean's club record at Monaco was pretty solid but not stellar, although his international record for South Korea is much better, but whether he will prove to be good enough in the two seasons he's got at Arsenal is at present debatable. Judging from recent performances it is doubtful whether Chamakh would have done any better had he been fit, although the fact that he wasn't makes that rather academic. The Moroccan still looks a far cry from the player who came straight into the team during a Robin van Persie injury lay-off and scored, I think, seven goals in his first fourteen appearances.

Somewhat ironically, in our current situation Champions League group games are fixtures for which players like Bendtner and Vela would have been ideal. Dearest Nicklas was clearly fed up and unwilling to remain a bit-part player at the club any longer, but whether sending young Carlos out on loan was the wisest thing to do given the fact that, like Steve Bould, the squad seems rather thin up top, is a question that is sure to be raised by many Gooners.

A point means that Arsenal retain their place at the summit of Group F, with further opportunities to secure qualification and a first place finish - although we must now ensure these opportunities (i.e. Borussia Dortmund at Emirates and the return against Olympiacos if necessary) are unequivocally taken. Nevertheless by keeping a clean sheet the team continues its unbeaten run. Time to focus on the league once again, with West Brom at home on Saturday, and dismiss this Champions League tie as a game that probably came just a bit too soon after the heroics against Chelsea.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Arsenal v Marseille – Preview

UEFA Champions League: Group F tablePWDLFAGDPts
1. Arsenal32104227
2. Marseille32014136
3. Olympiacos31024403
4. Borussia Dortmund301227-51

The Group F table makes for satisfying reading at present, and tonight the Gunners can ensure that Marseille do not leapfrog us at the top. Their form is perhaps in the ascendancy – since we last met Les Phocéens they have climbed to ninth in the French Championship, with two domestic wins on the trot against AJ Ajaccio and Dijon. Indeed, Marseille haven’t lost in their last six games in Ligue 1.

Our own even stronger run of form continues, however, and buoyed by the superb win over Chelsea the Gunners should be full of confidence. The added advantage of a home tie, with some hopefully voluble support to further get behind the team should only increase the chances of achieving another win to consolidate that uppermost position.

Away from home Marseille are likely to cede possession, relying on their strong defence and counter-attacking ability. Therefore Arsenal will still have to be wary of the threat posed by players such as André Ayew, Loïc Rémy and Mathieu Valbuena. The French side have no major injuries to players, other than influential midfielder Stephane Mbia, who broke his foot in August and is still out of action.

Wenger may be tempted to make some changes to his side for this one; Jenkinson will probably come into the team at the expense of Djourou while Vermaelen may also play – however, as Lee Dixon would tell us, the key to a solid defence is understanding between the back four, and as such I would be wary of breaking up the improving Koscielny-Mertesacker partnership.

The manager has already mentioned how conscious he is that van Persie is currently shouldering an enormous burden up front – but given his current form it is almost impossible to leave him out. Introducing him from the substitutes bench may be an option, however, and with Chamakh out due to a knee injury the obvious alternative is to start Ju Young Park. He put in a good stint against Bolton and scored a great goal. The ex-Monaco striker would undoubtedly relish the opportunity to play against Marseille.

However, although the Gunners are currently top of their Champions League group qualification is not yet secure, so given what is at stake Wenger may not be willing to gamble. Ideally we need to win the group to give ourselves the best chance of progressing further in subsequent rounds, which also makes the Borussia Dortmund home game on 23 November an important fixture. Arsène has hinted that he might field a largely unchanged side, commenting:

‘Sometimes if you take a team on a roll, there is no need to change it. When a team is on a positive experience, why not? That is what I have to decide. I did it away from home, at Donetsk, and got punished last season. But you could finish first and still play Barcelona.’

Still, Arshavin, Benayoun and Rosicky are all available, and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Frimpong and Ryo have all been named in the matchday squad – the latter at the expense of Coquelin, who does not figure. With the possible exception of the prodigiously talented but extremely youthful Ryo, any one of these players could slot into the team, and all will be keen to seize an opportunity to feature.

Elsewhere in Europe Olympiacos travel to Germany to play Dortmund, which will provide a further indication of the size of the task left for Arsenal come November 23rd. The recently vanquished Chelsea are also in action against Genk – Blues fans will undoubtedly be hoping that the rather accident-prone John Terry has changed his studs since Saturday…