29th February 2016: Walcott needs to man up or move on

Welcome back. I spoke about Aaron Ramsey yesterday because his unsuitability to playing as a central midfielder in our style is the primary reason Arsenal have been functioning poorly as a team for the last few months in my opinion, but today I want to discuss a few of our other players.

I’ll start with Theo Walcott, because he has rightly been derided for going AWOL in our loss to Manchester United yesterday and similar to Ramsey, is a player who divides opinion. Capable of match-winning contributions occasionally, what we get more often than not from Theo is a player with poor control, minimal involvement in the team’s build-up play and an infuriating lack of will to impose himself on the action.

I’ve long thought it to be a mental issue with the player; he has the necessary ability to play for us at the highest level but if one player’s on-pitch personality reflects that of every Arsenal team, funnily enough, since Theo arrived back in January 2006, it’s him. Timid, overly nice with an ‘after you’ demeanour towards team-mates and opponents alike, and the opposite of tenacious, whatever the right word for that is – that’s Theo.

As fans, whether we’re watching from the stands or tuning in on TV, I think I speak for the majority when I say we can take being outplayed. We can take us having a bad day. But what’s unacceptable is players shying away from trying, for whatever reason.

I wouldn’t say it’s laziness at all on Theo’s part though, I think as Amy Lawrence suggests here, and in fairness, similar to what I’ve said in the past, it’s fear. In colloquial terms, if I’m being blunt, he’s a wuss, who lacks faith in his own ability.

He has the mentality of a child who thinks he’s playing against big, bad grown-ups and if I’m honest, it’s a little embarrassing, aside from being detrimental to Arsenal’s quest for success. Amy hits the nail on the head when she says it’s a fear of failure.

Walcott comes across as an articulate young man off the pitch and always says the right things but he’s on autopilot – spewing straight-batted, press office-fed, image-conscience words with little or no real meaning. It’s the way of the world but unlike most professional footballers, Theo plays like he speaks.

I’ve been Theo’s biggest fan since he arrived at the club and have defended him, insisting his qualities are under-estimated – and I still maintain they are. He’s still outstandingly quick, has brilliant movement off the shoulders of defenders, (usually) great finishing technique (despite the odd comical miscue), and a knack for scoring at vital times.

Years ago I confidently told a mate that Theo ‘will explode soon, just you watch’. I knew at the time he needed to mature in his outlook to the physical challenges of the game but not for a second did I think that would still be the case when he was 26.

If you compare Theo to Michael Owen, Owen was more fearless at 17, in what was a tougher, meaner Premier League in those days, than Walcott is now. Perhaps it’s all down to varying upbringings and club environments.

I mean, whereas Owen had the likes of the no-nonsense Paul Ince as a captain in a squad of battle-hardened, old-school British pros, Walcott’s not been toughened up in training, as Thierry Henry for instance, often fondly remembers he was by the likes of Tony Adams and Martin Keown when he joined Arsenal.

And perhaps more than the player then, that’s on the manager. Some players, like Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck, are naturally aggressive and have ‘fire in their bellies’, others need one started for them. In our 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge in 2011, for example, Theo scored a great goal moments after being fouled by Ashley Cole for about the 17th time in ten minutes.

It was obvious that for a few seconds after being upended, Theo got angry. What followed was him showing the kind of determination we need from him all the time. On that occasion, he was felled, sprung to his feet as if to say ‘fuck this, I’ll show you you fouling, money-grabbing, turncoat, and proceeded to score a great solo goal.

Maybe what we need is to make Theo more angry more often. Tell him he’s crap at football, someone’s keyed his new car, nicked his shin-pads – whatever makes him lose his sh*t. Perhaps we should sign Joey Barton and Lee Cattermole for the sole purpose of fouling him in training. Not to injure him mind, just to annoy him into anger. The bottom line to my mind though, is Walcott needs to man up, or in his and our best interests, move onto to a club where he’ll be forced to.

At the start I said I wanted to talk about a few players but Theo’s taken up all my time in the end so Gabriel and Alexis Sanchez will have to wait. But I will say this, I maintain Ramsey being unsuitable to cover for Santi Cazorla is by far the side’s biggest problem at the moment, not Theo’s lack of contribution, or defensive lapses in concentration or Alexis being out of form.

Theo may have gone missing at Old Trafford, but if you’re singling him out as the reason for our loss, you’re missing the point. The point’s Ramsey.

Until tomorrow.

28th February: Misfiring Arsenal outgunned by Man United’s reserves

Arsenal today completed a week to forget by losing 3-2 against a Manchester United side largely made up of reserves and academy players in what was for me, the most disappointing result of the season so far.

Our title hopes suffered a massive setback, when instead they were widely expected to be raised, and both our players and manager will now rightly come under increased scrutiny as we enter the final straight of a season of which so much was expected, but is increasingly looking like concluding with all-too-familiar failings.

Yes we’ve lost to Sheffield Wednesday this term, been routed by Bayern Munich and Southampton, had the double done over us by a half-arsed Chelsea, lost at home to West Ham, thrown leads away late on in games, but today’s defeat is by far the hardest to swallow for me, for a few reasons.

First and foremost, a quick glance at the United team-sheet prior to kickoff will have had even the most in-the-know anoraks Googling their match-day squad. They were missing their first-choice right-back, left-back, centre-half, striker and captain, and most expensive-ever buy, not to mention a host of other household names.

They were fielding an inexperienced 22-year-old right-back, an 18 year-old striker making his Premier League debut and just his second-ever start in professional football, a veteran midfielder – the Per-paced Michael Carrick – out of position at centre-half, and two wingers who probably wouldn’t start with everyone available.

We on the other hand, were missing just Santi Cazorla from being able to put out what would be a first-choice eleven. And yet we still went two nil down in the first half, produced a pitiful collective performance for a team with title-winning pretensions, and eventually lost 3-2 with oles ringing around Old Trafford as the hosts comfortably saw out what for them was a rare home win this season.

Opinion drives football debate and here’s mine – we’re not functioning as a team and we have a couple of options. We either approach every game between now and the end of the season as we did against Barcelona, that’s to say sit back, cede possession, defend in numbers and play as directly as we can on the counter, whether we’re playing Swansea at home, Hull away in the Cup, or Barcelona at the Nou Camp, or, we find somebody who can distribute the ball from the middle of the park to give our team it’s tempo back. We lack cohesion – that buzzword from early season – and in my mind it’s because one vital cog is missing in front of our defence, adversely affecting our whole style of play.

The only player who has shown signs that he has the speed of thought, weight of pass and all-round ability to cover the absence of Santi Cazorla and, to a lesser extent, Jack Wilshere, is Mohamed Elneny. But what we can’t do, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, is persist with Aaron Ramsey in there. Play him on the right. Or drop him to the bench. It’s not that important a role in our set-up, relatively speaking.

But the primary distributor from the middle of the park is crucial. He needs vision and to be able to pass but Ramsey, for all his strengths, such as stamina, and a knack for popping up with goals, is not that man, even if his stats suggest the Welshman’s better than Pirlo, Alonso and Cesc combined. You could have Neymar, Messi, Suarez or Superman himself up front, if you replace Busquets or Rakitic or Iniesta with Ramsey, it’d disrupt even Barcelona’s rhythm big-style. He’s laborious, clumsy and erratic bless him, and those traits have no place at the heart of our team, or at the heart of any team trying to build from the back.

The lack of control and reliability in midfield effects the shape of the side, players roam from their positions with greater frequency in search of the ball to make things happen spontaneously, fluency is lost altogether, and even our defending is afflicted by the chaos ahead of it.

You may read this and think, ‘boll*cks’, and that’s fine. You might point to games lost with Cazorla playing in the middle and that’s a fair point, but since the Cazorla-Coquelin partnership emerged just over a year ago, we’ve been winning consistently when it’s been used, controlling games and showing title-winning form far more often than not. In my mind, that partnership has been the bed-rock on which we built our brilliant form over the calendar year of 2015 and though there were the odd hiccups, we nearly always looked like a well-functioning side.

These last few months, when we’ve been deprived of that midfield platform, we’ve flattered to deceive when winning, or just gone to pieces like we did this afternoon, against what on paper, was the weakest United team in decades.

I realise I haven’t touched on other talking points from today’s game; like Gabriel’s defending, Walcott’s whereabouts, Sanchez’s struggles, Arsene’s choices, the impact of sunlight, the fearlessness of youth, Louis van Gaal’s, admittedly brilliant, touchline amateur dramatics on a day the Oscars are handed out, but I wanted instead to talk about what I feel is the main issue behind our poor form at the moment.

Ramsey’s had a rough ride from me this week so I’ll reiterate that I do like him as a player and don’t mean to sound overly critical. He can be an effective footballer, but he’s poorly positioned at the moment and like a lot of our squad, horribly out of form. I’d like to see him back playing from the right, where his energy is an asset rather than a liability, he can drift without the unsuitable task of running the game for us, and can time runs into the box and get on the end of things.

Back tomorrow.

27th February 2016: Premier League Preview – Can we end United hoodoo?

Evening all. In all the time I’ve been following football, I can’t think of a more vulnerable Manchester United team than the one we’re likely to face tomorrow afternoon, as we try to reduce the gap to league leaders Leicester back to two points after the Foxes scored a last-minute winner against Norwich earlier today.

Having conceded at the death against us a fortnight ago to lose the game, I suppose some will view Leicester’s late victory today as karmic consequence, but I’m going to put it down to the fact Claudio Ranieri’s side are a genuinely quality outfit who have their first-ever Premier League title in sight.

When you then study the respective run-ins of the two sides, ignoring the two other title hopefuls in Manchester City and Sp*rs, it becomes pretty obvious Arsenal can’t fall any further behind, making victory Old Trafford all the more important.

It’s something Arsene Wenger is obviously very aware of and assessing our upcoming run of fixtures, which start against United tomorrow and include hosting Swansea next midweek before the north London derby at White Hart Lane a week today, the boss called it a ‘key period’ when he spoke at his pre-match press conference yesterday. He said:

It is the key period. We work the whole season for this period and that’s where you’re really tested but it’s where you have an opportunity to show your quality as well. On that front, that is the most interesting period of the season. You can show quality, nerves and desire as well. We need to focus on the Premier League where we have a big part to play. Everybody drops points and it is unpredictable. We have rebuilt a good run in the Premier League and we need to continue that. How many points that will be needed [to win the title]? We don’t know. Let’s not set any limit on the number of points we can get. We have put ourselves in a strong position again. We want to take advantage of that and continue our good run in the Premier League.

In terms of team news, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky remain long-term absentees and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has joined them on the side-lines but Gabriel, who played in the reverse fixture in October, is expected to be fit and available after his own recent lay-off.

When you throw in Danny Welbeck’s availability, Olivier Giroud’s lack of goals recently and a newly vacated starting berth on the right of the attack, playing Arsenal Manager and guessing our likely selection for tomorrow becomes a lot more difficult.

I’m tempted to say we’ll see a change at centre-half because if not, this will be a third game in eight days for Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny. On the other hand, which one do you rest and is Gabriel match-fit even if he’s no longer injured?

As for up front, is Theo Walcott worth a go in place of Olivier Giroud? Or were his two assists in the two recent games against Leicester and Bournemouth proof that the Frenchman’s contributing enough even if he’s not scoring himself?

Is Danny Welbeck now able to start and finish a vital game having played bit-parts in just three games in ten months? Then, whoever leads the line, what do we do on the right? Joel Campbell? Theo? Danny? Aaron Ramsey, with one of Mohamed Elneny or Mathieu Flamini playing in the middle alongside Francis Coquelin? Who knows? Only Arsene …

Personally, I would be inclined to play Elneny in midfield, move Ramsey to the right and pick either Welbeck or Walcott up top if this wasn’t quite such a vital fixture, but seeing as it is, I’d make as few changes as possible to Tuesday’s team, despite us losing. So if pushed, I’d say keep the same starting line-up, with the one enforced change being Welbeck starting in place of the Ox on the right.

Whoever plays though, we’ll have to buck a trend that has seen us go win-less in our last eight Premier League games at Old Trafford, losing six of them. But as I suggested at the start of this post, we should be more confident of victory than at any time in recent history. Time to turn that confidence into concrete points and stay firmly on the Foxes’ tails.

Back post-match.


26th February 2016: Wenger on Manchester United

Happy Friday. Following two consecutive disappointing results in cup competitions, we return to Premier League action on Sunday against Manchester United in a fixture Arsene Wenger today labelled ‘special’.

Not ‘special’ in the sense that the game will be a Portuguese, loudmouthed, bus-parking, hypocritical bellend, but special because it’s a meeting of two teams with a rich mutual history, and who shared a fierce rivalry as they dominated English football for the first decade or so of Arsene’s tenure at Arsenal.

Speaking at his pre-match press conference this morning, the boss said:

Yes [it still has an aura] because Manchester United are a big club, Old Trafford is a special place and I believe for every club it remains a special fixture. Against Arsenal, the United fans and players will be up for it. In one week all has changed. I didn’t believe that they would lose against Shrewsbury and Midtjylland. Old Trafford is always a difficult place to go and even if they had lost against Midtjylland, I would have said that it is a difficult game.

All of the above accepted, this has to be the first time, certainly in my living memory at least, of us going to Old Trafford and being widely expected to take all three points. I mean, we may have failed to win our last two games without scoring a goal and we may have a dysfunctional central midfield, but Manchester United are a relative shambles at the moment, regardless of their big win in Europe on Thursday.

If I was to go through the United squad and try to pick their best players, David de Gea, Chris Smalling, Luke Shaw, Wayne Rooney and Anthony Martial would certainly be on the list, but all five are either already ruled out, or serious doubts, to face us on Sunday. Which means a squad that’s been struggling all season and currently has various other players on the sidelines, is stretched to the point of having to blood a bunch of untested academy hopefuls.

Yet the boss maintains his side will need to produce a ‘special’ performance against Louis van Gaal’s men, and cited the 3-0 spanking we gave them at Emirates stadium in October as a kind of blueprint for Sunday. He said:

If you look all the titles of Manchester United, to beat them at Old Trafford it needs to always be special. They have never won many more games than us away from home in their whole history. There are a lot of ingredients [for success] in there. We had a good performance against them in October. I think we took them a little bit by surprise and we played at a high pace from the start and closed down well early on. We need to play at that pace again because our game is based on pace and speed, and if we don’t have that I don’t see how we can win there. We have to raise our level at the right moment. You want to raise your level and after, individually, the players will benefit from that. When we attack well, Alexis will be very dangerous so we have to focus on attacking well together. After that it’s important to remember that we worked very hard to be in this position. At half time against Leicester, we were eight points behind Leicester. Today we are two points behind. We have to take advantage of that.

Meanwhile, Per Mertesacker has also been remembering our emphatic win over United earlier this season, highlighting our game-plan that day and suggesting what will be needed to secure another win over them this weekend. The defender told Arsenal Player:

I think we came out really strong, trusted in ourselves, nicked balls from them in their final third and then broke them down. It was remarkable how we played and how we reacted. We were really active from the start, pressed them high and tried to get the ball as quickly as possible. It completely worked out. It will be a different game this time but I want to see the same effort from our side. That was our plan, to get the ball early, so the distance between where we got the ball and the goal was short. We are dangerous when we win the ball early. I think that’s something we need to emphasise. I would say we are more comfortable going there, or away from home in general, and performing well and to our best [than before]. We need a good performance in Manchester, there’s no doubt about it.

Obviously United’s generally poor form and performances this season are offset a little by our own recent struggles and in particular, the absence of Santi Cazorla, who was outstanding when the two sides last met.

Regular readers will know just how highly I rate our little Spaniard and how much I think he’s missed in the middle of the park right now, but his performance in that 3-0 win encapsulated his brilliance for me.

In the build up to our first goal, eventually flicked home at the near post with aplomb by Alexis, Cazorla picked up possession from one of our centre-halves and toyed with Bastian Schweinsteiger, rolling his foot over the ball and teasing his opponent before drawing him in and releasing it to a team-mate to set us on the attack. And for our second, Cazorla’s control, elusiveness and vision in releasing the ball to Alexis under pressure from Rooney was as brilliant as it was effortlessly efficient.

But aside from those two bits of play, Cazorla ran the game for us alongside Francis Coquelin and played a pivotal role in us dominating the ball and producing fluent football, particularly in that devastating opening 20 minutes in which we scored all three of our goals. We won’t have that level of control on proceedings on Sunday in his absence in my opinion, because the under-rated, over-worked and misunderstood Aaron Ramsey will play in his place, but perhaps we can find another way to be just as effective. I hope so.

Back tomorrow with a preview.

25th February 2016: Early team news and Mertesacker on United

Evening all. It’s time to put Barcelona behind us and refocus on the title race. That means a trip to Manchester United on Sunday of course, when we’ll be looking to secure our first Premier League win at Old Trafford in a decade.

It doesn’t feel that long ago because I remember the game so well, but Emmanuel Adebayor’s toe-poked, first-time finish after a great assist by Cesc Fabregas for the only goal of the game in September 2006, gave us our last league win at their place.

It’s remarkable really but there’s no time like the present to put that record right and as we build up to the game, Arsene Wenger has provided the latest team news via the official site, saying:

He (Gabriel) is coming back into the squad tomorrow, so we will see how he responds to that, but the signs are positive. He might be available for Sunday. He (Oxlade-Chamberlain) has a scan today, he will not be available for Sunday. He (Wilshere) is not back in full training yet. Everyone else is the same as before, so there’s no Rosicky, Cazorla, Wilshere.

Nothing too surprising above but there have been some reports today saying that the Ox may have sustained ligament damage to both his knee and ankle during that collision with Javier Mascherano on Tuesday night, so fingers crossed it’s not as bad as that. As always, we’ll have to wait and see.

Although it’s been so long without a league win at United, we did beat them in the FA Cup at Old Trafford last season of course and Per Mertesacker says that win can help us take all three points on Sunday. He said:

We will go to Manchester United and we are in a good position – we don’t want to give that up. We have a great chance to focus back on the Premier League and forget what happened in the last 20 minutes [against Barcelona]. Leicester City was a good game to make us believe we are still in it. You need to have little successes on the road. We go step by step, nothing else. We have a great chance on Sunday to do that again and show that we can compete for the title. It helps we beat United last year in the cup. I think that was a great experience for us and it is still in our heads sometime when you think about big games and Old Trafford. It is going to be an interesting game so let’s not forget the positives from Barcelona and go there and give our best with the same effort.

And speaking of the Cup, Arsenal have confirmed our fifth-round replay at Hull City will take place on Tuesday, March 8th, a few days after the north London derby at White Hart Lane and a few days before the Cup quarter finals, should we beat the Tigers obviously.

Right, just a miniature post today because I have sh*t to do and there’s plenty of time to talk more in-depth about the United game etc tomorrow and on Saturday.


24th February 2016: Thoughts on Barcelona loss and Ramsey’s role

Welcome back. So as expected, we lost to Barcelona last night. What was more of a surprise and makes the defeat annoying, is that for all of the visitors’ attacking brilliance, the result owed as much to us making mistakes as it did to the quality of messrs Messi, Neymar and Suarez.

It was pretty obvious beforehand that our best game-plan would be to contain and counter and for 70 minutes or so, we did that pretty faultlessly. The contain part anyway. I’d spoken about the fact that all four of our goals against Barca the two previous times we’ve played them at Emirates stadium had arrived around, or after, the 70 minute mark, with the inference being we were the better conditioned of the two teams to last the pace for the full ninety.

Yet instead of winning the game in the last 20 minutes, we contrived to gift-wrap two goals for the best team in club football. Their first arrived when we were on the attack. Hector Bellerin’s cross was headed clear by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta stretched out a leg to toe it on the volley to Neymar. He played a one-two with Suarez, who had drifted to the left byline, and when he received the return pass, the Brazilian found himself in acres in the middle and hurtling towards our goal.

Bellerin was the only one of our players to give chase with any hope of catching him, Nacho Monreal was drawn across from left-back, which left Messi all alone on the right. Neymar squared it and Messi took two touches in finishing like the best footballer on the planet that he is. It was a typically efficient and brilliant counter-attack by the Catalans but one we could have done a lot more to halt.

Mertesacker could have resisted pushing up so high and wide knowing that he’s as slow as he is, Monreal could have left Bellerin to contain Neymar and stuck with marking Messi, and Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey could have tracked Neymar’s run when he played it left to Suarez. There was no one player at fault really, rather it was collectively poor decision-making and defending. We lost our defensive shape in the search for a goal ourselves and as Arsene said after the game, it was reminiscent of Monaco last year.

I think Coquelin’s inertia explains why he was then removed and replaced by Mathieu Flamini, which I felt was understandable at the time given the former’s not long been back from long-term injury and is yet to find full match-fitness. Unfortunately, his replacement’s first act was to swipe sluggishly at the ball in our own penalty area only to kick Messi, who had got there first, and concede a penalty. Forget game, that was tie all but over right there. Flamini was obviously at fault but Mertesacker’s decision to cushion the ball down rather than just smash it clear up-field was the root cause.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should have buried a first-half sitter but miscued his connection. Apart from that though, I didn’t think we looked close to breaching their defence. Alexis Sanchez was quiet and clearly still struggling to regain his best form since returning from injury but the main reason for us lacking fluency and quality as an attacking unit as far as I’m concerned, is Ramsey playing in central midfield.

I’m sure his stats show he completed the most passes and ran the furthest and ‘was everywhere’ but that’s not really what we need. We need a Santi Cazorla – a player who’s comfortable in possession, spatially aware, intelligent with his passes (not just accurate), skillful enough to beat a man, drop a shoulder, play it short and sharp, or long and precise, into a team-mates stride, rather than behind it, confident enough to put his foot on the ball, slow the game up or accelerate it’s tempo – basically all the things Ramsey is infuriatingly inept at.

In our current style of play, with the way our team is structured, he’s only playing there because we have no realistic alternative, at least until Jack Wilshere returns or Mohamed Elneny’s deemed physically robust enough. I do like Ramsey, but we’re asking him to play a role he’s simply not equipped to.

If I’m honest, when he’s not regularly getting goals, and he isn’t, ‘energy’ is all he contributes playing from there. Similar to Theo Walcott and the striker’s position, I think Aaron should play wide-right or not at all once we have alternatives. For now though, we’re forced to persist with him there but I’ll be blunt, I’m hating every second of Ramsey in central midfield.

This has turned into a Ramsey Rant but it’s been building for a long while. Either we change our footballing philosophy, or we find a player who can defend like Coquelin and pass like Cazorla to partner the Welshman. Otherwise, on the right, at least against the best teams, is where Ramsey should be restricted to playing from.

Then in the summer, we need to reassess the personnel we have and how suitable they are to the style we want to play because at the moment we’ve got some who could play for our opponents last night, and others who’d be a better fit in say, Chelsea circa 2003-present. That’s to say, good players, but pass and move’s not their strong suit.

Back tomorrow.

23rd February 2016: Memories of battles with Barcelona + pondering team selection

As we count down the hours to tonight’s glamorous game against the reigning European champions Barcelona, I’m engulfed by a mixture of emotions – part excitement, part sh*ting myself.

I guess I’ve always felt this way before facing them, ever since our first-ever meeting with the Catalans back in 1999, when I watched the game on TV at a friend’s house and saw Patrick Vieira try to do keepy-uppies on his own goal-line, only to succeed in gifting a goal to Luis Enrique, now Barcelona’s manager of course.

Kanu memorably equalized late on after (maybe before?) Gilles Grimandi was sent off to secure what felt at the time like a shock draw. A shock because that Barcelona team had two of the very best players in the world in their ranks at the time in Rivaldo and Luis Figo and I was anticipating a bit of a battering, despite us being reigning domestic Double holders.

So when they raced into a two-goal lead inside 15 minutes through a Rivaldo penalty and one from Enrique again in the reverse fixture at Wembley three weeks later, I wasn’t left wondering how we could manage a draw at their place only to unravel so quickly in London, I was expecting it. Dennis Bergkamp’s brilliant goal just before the interval gave us hope but second-half strikes by Figo and Phillip Cocu put them 4-1 up before Marc Overmars scored our second five minutes from time.

We then met them in the Champions League Final in 2006 and again I was expecting defeat because we had Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole just back from injury, Cesc Fabregas was still a teen and I was struggling to see how we’d contain the likes of Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o, even if we had our own world-beater in Thierry Henry in his prime and coming off the back of a hat-trick in his last game – Highbury stadium’s farewell fixture against Wigan.

Unless your’re too young, we all remember how that heart-breaking game panned out. We started the match looking like a team intent on blowing Barcelona away inside the first ten minutes with Henry testing Victor Valdes with a stinging long-range strike and nearly scoring again from close range before poor Jens Lehamnn was sent off.

Robert Pires was sadly sacrificed for Manuel Almunia but against the odds, we produced a heroic performance with ten men, taking the lead through Campbell’s header before it all went wrong in the last fifteen minutes and they scored twice to deny us our first-ever European Cup.

Then came the four most recent games and without going over the details, I was surprised to see us secure a draw and a win at home just as I had been back in 1999 at Camp Nou. But what I’ve reminded myself through this little trip down memory lane is that we have in it us to upset Barcelona.

Their players change, ours do too, but as always in football, in the end it comes down to the performance of both sets of players on the day, plus any unforeseen circumstances, like Jens’ dismissal. I feel like I’ve been overly defeatist in my expectation for tonight’s game, as many have, so it’s time to think positive with just a few hours remaining until kickoff.

In terms of how we’ll line-up, I guess the big call is who plays on the right. Our starting eleven against Hull at the weekend indicates it’ll be Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but I do wonder if we’ll see something unexpected from Arsene, because he has previous for springing a selection surprise in a big European game, such as Yaya Sanogo against Bayern Munich in the recent past.

Although he’s just back from injury and has only had ten minutes against Leicester and 70 or so against Hull of competitive football in ten months, perhaps there’s a slim chance Danny Welbeck might start, either wide right or more radically, behind Olivier Giroud with Mesut Ozil shifted to the right. Now before anyone starts, let me explain.

When Real Madrid came to Old Trafford a few years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson tried to neuter Xabi Alonso’s tempo-setting passing by assigning Welbz to shadow him, rush him and harass him into ineffectiveness.

It worked too, until Nani was sent off very harshly for a raised foot and Real started to dominate. Anyway, the prospect of us doing similar tonight with Welbeck on Sergio Busquets crossed my mind, particularly seeing as the former United man looks remarkably match-fit and sharp for a player who’s been injured for so long and who’s pace and athleticism would prove a potent weapon in turning defence into attack very swiftly.

It’s left-field and unlikely but hey, it’s the best I could come up with in terms of predicting an Arsene curve-ball. Of course there are several other candidates who could conceivably start like Theo Walcott, Mohamed Elneny and Joel Campbell for instance but I think the best indicator for our team tonight was probably the team-sheet against Hull. Not long left to find out now.

See you tomorrow.


22nd February 2016: Wenger and Giroud on Barcelona

Welcome to a brand new week on TremendArse. This isn’t any old semana of course, for tomorrow evening we welcome the footballing behemoths that are Barcelona to Emirates stadium for the third time in six years.

After a draw and a win on our last two encounters with the Catalans at home, completing a hat-trick of unbeaten contests is clearly the minimum requirement if we are to have any chance whatsoever of progressing to the next round of the Champions League at the Camp Nou in three weeks’ time.

As we build up to the game, Arsene Wenger explained how he thinks Barca’s style has evolved since the two sides last met. Speaking at his pre-match press conference he said:

They look like they have a little less possession than when we played them before because they had a player like Xavi in midfield who, in every single game, had over 100 passes and he allowed them always to have possession. At the moment they have a team who, at any moment, can score. Even when they are dominated, they are still very dangerous. That happened in the Champions League final last year against Juventus – when it was 1-1 they were a bit suffering, but in one moment they could take advantage of any weakness to score to make it 2-1. That is where they are dangerous. They are a bit less possession-based, but quicker in the transition. Certainly offensively they have top, top strikers at the moment. We have to use every moment in the game where we have the chance to score, and as I said after the Hull game, we had 70 per cent of the time the ball but we didn’t make a lot of it. Against Barcelona we will have the ball far less and we will have to make more of it.

Whilst it’s true they do tend to be more direct more often these days, from what I’ve seen of them these last couple of seasons when Xavi’s barely played, their greatest strength is still monopolizing the ball.

They still pass and move all over the pitch better than any team I’ve ever seen but as Arsene rightly points out, whereas in the past they had David Villa and Pedro, in Neymar and Luis Suarez they have two more individuals in attack joining Lionel Messi in being able to conjure a goal from nowhere all by themselves. And Arsene was full of praise for Barca’s three attacking amigos when he spoke earlier, saying:

They are the most efficient. They are top, top class. Individually they have exceptional talent. The only way we can stop them is by being collectively resilient, having great solidarity and intelligence as well. Let’s not forget we have a good defensive record and a great goalkeeper as well. When you see the other day that Messi scored his 300th [La Liga] goal in less than 340 games, I’ve seen many strikers in my life, but I’ve never seen a record like that. I remember we played the Champions League final against Barcelona in 2006. He [Messi] was injured at the time and couldn’t play the final. That’s where he started already to have a reputation. That’s 10 years later, so it’s remarkable what he has achieved between 2006 and now.

And that’s just the front three covered!  Then there’s Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets in midfield, plus the two relentlessly overlapping fullbacks, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, to consider, not to mention their quality and experience at centre-back.

Yep, it’s going to take some performance by us to win this one and Olivier Giroud, who joined Arsene at his pre-conference earlier today, said Barca look ‘unstoppable’. Yet he remains confident we can emerge victorious providing we are confident, committed and determined. He said:

We would love to beat them because they look unstoppable. We need to play our best game all together and at 100 per cent. Otherwise we’re not going to play this game and we’re going to lose it. We are confident, we need to be confident and play the Arsenal way. We did well against Munich. We know that we can beat big teams but there is one thing for sure: we need to be at 100 per cent and be determined. We just need to focus and give 100 per cent all together with good team cohesion. After that we will put what we need into this game – a lot of commitment and determination. We managed that against Bayern and that will help us to win. We did very well against Olympiacos to qualify as it was very hard. We are looking forward to playing Barcelona who are maybe the best team in the world today. We are going to play our game.

Whatever happens, It’s nights like these that fans and players look forward to most in a season, when we can see how we match up against the very best the game has to offer.

Despite being under-dogs and expected to get blown away, there’s always a chance we could spring a surprise and produce another ARSHAVIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIN moment that leads to an unlikely win.

Back tomorrow with thoughts on how we might line-up in a preview post.

Until then.

21st February 2016: Watford at home if we beat Hull in Cup replay

Welcome back. So the draw for the quarter-finals of the FA Cup was made earlier this evening and we’ve landed another home tie, this time against Watford, providing we can beat Hull in our fifth-round replay.

So if we needed any extra incentive to turn over the Tigers at their place, here it is. Win and then beat the Hornets, and we’re in the semis and back at Wembley for the fifth time in three seasons.

Elsewhere in the draw, Everton drew Chelsea at home after the latter brushed aside Manchester City’s under 9s at Stamford Bridge earlier today, Manchester United or Shrewsbury will host West Ham, and Tottenham, oops, I mean Crystal Palace, will travel to Reading having eliminated Spurs this afternoon. All of which is to say we’re now surely favourites and a hat-trick of consecutive Cup wins really is on. Let’s DO this …

But back to yesterday’s game now and some reaction from a couple of the players. First up it’s Per Mertesacker, who says that though he’s happy with our defensive performance against Steve Bruce’s men, we’ll need to be more composed in front of goal versus Barcelona on Tuesday:

We had a couple of good chances and we couldn’t keep the pressure as high as we wanted, especially in the second half. We had enough chances to win, but we were unlucky at times. Overall it was disappointing, especially our finishing. We allowed [Hull goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic] to make some decent saves because we were not that decisive. It is down to us, we produced a good defensive performance but overall in the final third, that little final pass at the end, we always rushed ourselves at times to finish so we need to learn from that. Overall, we missed a bit of something today and we have to come back quickly in three days time. We have a very important game, the first leg against Barcelona, and we will see the fans again, it will be another buzzing night but it is up to us how we perform.

Which is pretty much spot on. Rushed and a little over-elaborate at times is how I’d sum up our attacking yesterday, that and a little unlucky. Hopefully fortune will favour us a lot more against the Catalans because there’s absolutely no doubt we’ll need a healthy dollop of it to beat them.

One of the positives from the Hull draw I felt was Mohamed Elneny’s display. He’s still some way from being physically prepared to really stake a claim for a start ahead of say, Francis Coquelin, in our first-choice selection and was second best in one-on-one duels too often, but what I did like was his penchant for a first-time pass to the feet of team-mates. That suggests a quick and forward-thinking brain to me and that’s exactly what a pass-and-move style like ours needs from the centre of the pitch.

The Egyptian midfielder, and Alex Iwobi, certainly seem to have impressed the third member of our midfield yesterday, because Mathieu Flamini was full of praise for the pair when he spoke after the game. He said:

I think they both played very well. They were very good in their positions, very good technically and also in transition [both] defensively and offensively. It was a good partnership and I enjoyed it but we have to continue now. It was a very, very frustrating game. We had the opportunity a few times to close the game and win it. Unfortunately we didn’t so I think frustration is the main word of the game today. We were a bit lucky last weekend to score in the last second of the game against Leicester City, but it didn’t happen today. We had many opportunities and chances and this is not the first game that has been like that. Even against Southampton and Leicester it was like that and today we had plenty of opportunities. If you don’t finish it, it is not enough. Now we have to play away and win that game.

Every game that we endure where we create chances but fail to score does of course add weight to the opinion we need to buy an elite striker, but I don’t know if that’s true and if it is, who that player is. Suggestions welcome …

Right, a brief one tonight but that’s it from me. See you tomorrow, after Arsene’s held his pre-Barca presser.


20th February 2016: No Hull breach but at least we’re rested for Barcelona

Well, that was all a little familiar. Arsenal probed, probed and probed some more in the search for a winner against Steve Bruce’s defensively dogged Hull City side in the FA Cup at Emirates stadium today, but couldn’t find a goal and will now travel to the home of the Tigers for a fifth round replay.

Arsene Wenger’s team selection wasn’t far off what I guessed it would be in yesterday’s post, as he made nine changes from the Leicester game, retaining only Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker. A bit surprisingly, he chose to deploy Danny Welbeck on the left in Alexis Sanchez’s usual position and went with Theo Walcot to lead the line with Joel Campbell coming back into the side to play from the right.

The midfield three was as I envisaged; Mohamed Elneny was handed a second start in Arsenal colours and was joined by Mathieu Flamini and this season’s permanent fixture in our FA Cup starting line-ups, Alex Iwobi.

It was a game we dominated possession-wise, and did get shots off on and just wide of goal, but found ourselves facing yet another ‘keeper in inspired form and an opposition side intent on defending first-and-foremost and attacking as an afterthought. It’s nothing new as a tactic, we can’t complain at all, and with Barcelona up next on Tuesday, we’re very likely to be adopting a similar game-plan ourselves in a few days’ time.

Another fixture in an already crowded list is far from ideal but it could be worse, we could be out. As it is we remain in with a shout of winning our third Cup in as many years and considering we can play, barring injuries of course, the same side in the replay and rest the vast majority of our usual first-choice players, the extra game shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

What is a little alarming however, is our lack of goals and after the stalemate earlier, Arsene discussed the game and why we didn’t win, as well as stating Arsenal need to be ‘more efficient’ in our attacking. He said:

Because Hull defended well, because their ‘keeper played well, because our final ball was maybe not good enough and because when we could give the ball in the final third, we decided [to go for] an individual solution. The goalkeeper did well of course, but we had maybe 70 per cent possession and more than 20 shots on goal, and we didn’t score. We have to look at ourselves as well, even if you can give credit to their ‘keeper. The nightmare would have been to go out. The frustration is that we didn’t score and it’s not what we wanted, to have a replay, but between that and going out, we choose the replay. I am happy for the replay [as opposed to going out]. We need to be more efficient in the final third, because today we had more than 70 per cent possession and we will not have that on Tuesday night. That means we’ll have to be more efficient with much less of the ball.

All very true and as is often the case as far as Arsenal are concerned, it’s the finest of lines between frustration at a draw and a comprehensive victory. Walcott’s fierce strike in the first half, and Welbeck’s for that matter from a similar position on the right, might easily have found the gap between the keeper’s legs on another day. Iwobi’s left footed curler wasn’t far from caressing the far corner and there were countless other attempts at goal that were a split-second or a fraction wide away from providing us with a breakthrough.

You also have to credit Hull for great defending, throwing themselves at shots with reckless abandon as they did, much like I wish Per and Laurent had done at times earlier this season if I’m honest (Bayern Munich and Liverpool away for example). And of course, Mike Dickhead Dean officiating always meant we would be up against it, so when we were duly denied two big penalty shouts today, it was as surprising as seeing the sun rise.

After a disappointing day, we can at least console ourselves with the fact we’re still in the Cup, and we should have a fresh line-up ready to battle the footballing freaks that are Barcelona in midweek.

See you on Sunday.