9th February 2016: Campbell bigs up Bellerin, Rosicky raves about Ozil

Evening all. There’s very little going on Arsenal-wise, so this post will be as short as the time Andrei Arshavin leaves between meals.

Speaking of our portly former playmaker, after spending two years with Zenit St Petersburg following his release from Arsenal in June 2013, he signed for Kuban Krasnodar in Russia last summer.

But his contract was terminated by mutual consent earlier this month and he’s now being linked with a club in Macedonia. Good luck to a true Gunners’ cult hero I say – the awesome foursome at Anfield and that long-range thunderbolt at Old Trafford will live long in the memory.

Yep. That’s how quiet it is. I’m resorting to talking about former players’ career paths. Anyway, Andrei is also said to be contemplating retirement which, considering he’s still just 34, is a bit of shame.

He lit up Euro 2008 with Russia and despite being a bit of a lazy bast*rd, was undoubtedly a very gifted footballer when he could be bothered to turn it on. Perhaps seeing as Chinese football is on the mother of all spending sprees right now, he might be able to secure himself one last payday in the far east if the Macedonian move doesn’t happen.

Moving on, the only half-interesting Arsenal stories today are about two of our players each praising one of their team-mates. First we have Joel Campbell, who reckons Hector Bellerin has it in him to become of the best right-backs on the planet. He told Arsemal Player:

We speak the same language, so it is much easier to communicate with each other. We enjoy a very good relationship on and off the pitch. That helps us a lot when we are playing, by speaking with each other, helping each other and giving indications to give our best to the team. He is enjoying a very high level, but I think he can give even more. He has the potential to be one of the best in the world. He is showing that now, but he is still very young and he has a long way ahead. So I think the best of Hector is yet to come, we haven’t seen it yet.

Personally I think only Philip Lahm and Dani Alves come close to comparing with our Cockney Catalan but then I’m as biased towards Bellerin as Mike Dean is against Arsenal.

Next up, and finally for today, Tomas Rosicky has been speaking about what he thinks sets Mesut Ozil apart as a top perfomer – declining to play passes that aren’t on. He said:

Mesut was always a special talent and you could see that when he arrived here. He was out for some time last season so he couldn’t find his rhythm, but now, after playing since the start of the season, everyone here can see [how big a talent he is]. Him and Alexis are the game changers. Both of them have the strength to win games, so it’s vital for the team’s title chances that they perform well. The best thing that I like about Mesut is that he’s not forcing the final passes. We all know he has a great final ball but you can see that he only plays it when the game gives him that opportunity. If it’s not there then he’s not forcing it and he’s combining with other team-mates instead. That’s the thing I like most about him.

It’s a good point. For me there are few things more annoying when watching a team trying to play good (pass and move) football than a player trying to play a pass that simply isn’t on.

It’s lazy and unimaginative. The very best players – and Ozil’s clearly one of them – rarely if ever, take a punt with a pass so I’m glad Rosicky’s highlighted this small but significant nuance of the game.

See you on Wednesday.

8th February 2016: Arsenal look to Leicester

Welcome back. Although there’s still nearly a week to go before we welcome league leaders Leicester City to Emirates stadium on Sunday, Arsene Wenger, Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin had a few words to offer on the Foxes when they spoke to the media after yesterday’s win at Bournemouth.

First up it’s the boss, who insisted Claudio Ranieri’s side will go into the game as favourites, but is backing home advantage and the support of the Arsenal fans to help his side come out on top. He said:

[Beating Bournemouth] is very good for the future as we now have a very big game at home against Leicester who are now the favourites for the Premier League,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. [A win] can maybe prepare you in a better condition for the next game. We have a week to prepare for that and I have to think about it. Leicester is a strong side but we are also a strong side. At home with our fans and support, we can do it.

Next to laud Leicester is Ramsey, who’s hoping Arsenal can take the momentum gained from beating Bournemouth into the game against the Premier League’s surprise leaders:

What they (Leicester) have done this season is quite remarkable but we will need to be right on it to get there points. Hopefully the momentum we have we can take into that game and come away with a big victory there as well.

And finally we have our Cockney Catalan, Bellerin, who though admitting the Leicester game is important in the sense that both teams are involved in the title race, also pointed out that every game is crucial in our quest to rack up as many points as possible. He said:

I think for us, every single game is crucial. We need to think game by game, it does not matter [who you play] and you need to get the three points. Obviously it is going to be one of the most important ones but you need to keep playing like that in every game.

It may be a cliche but Sunday’s fixture really is a six-pointer. Win and we reduce the gap to just two, but lose and Leicester restore the eight-point advantage over us they were no doubt celebrating last Saturday night.

I’ve been saying all season Leicester’s form wouldn’t last but as we all know, it has. Not only that, they’re playing like a title-winning team. I watched them win at Manchester City last weekend and it wasn’t just the individual brilliance of players like Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante that stood out, it was how impressive they looked structurally and tactically as a team. They didn’t sneak a win against the country’s most expensively-assembled squad, they bullied them, out-played them and rendered them almost riposte-less.

If we talk in terms of spines, then Leicester’s shows no signs of any cracks. Kasper Schmeichel is doing a great job of impersonating his father at his best in goal, Robert Huth, whilst far from the most cultured of centre-halves, looks like the two-time Premier League winner he is, and his partner at the back, Wes Morgan, for me is Sol Campbell-esque in the way he reads danger and defends generally.

Then there’s Kante in midfield, who combines the relentless chasing and harrying of Lassana Diarra, with the front-foot effervescence of Blaise Matuidi, providing the Foxes with an answer for our very own Francis Coqulein in defensive midfield. And of course in Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, they have two of the very best attackers in the league this season.

But despite the indisputable quality of many of their players, Leicester’s team is playing far better than it should be on paper given it’s constituent parts, and that’s down to Ranieri, who I think hasn’t enjoyed nearly the level of praise he deserves.

I mean, just imagine Harry Redknapp or even Jose Mourinho – the press pet that he is – taking an unfashionable club with relatively modest resources and who narrowly avoided relegation last year with largely the same set of players, to the top of the Premier League as we near mid-February.

They’d be knighting Harry or plastering Jose’s face over every front and back cover they could find with a headline like: ‘The most special Specialist in Success that ever lived’.

So I’d just like to take this opportunity to say I think Claudio comes across as a genuinely lovely man, he’ clearly a very experienced and talented manager and I think his Tinkerman tag should now be replaced by something more befitting of his astonishing achievement so far this season.

All that said, it goes without saying I hope we put six past them on Sunday and that they finish runners-up to Arsenal come the end of the campaign.

Back tomorrow.

7th February 2016: Quick-fire double sends Gunners joint-second

That’s much more like it. Despite still not being nearly as fluent in our overall play as we were earlier in the season, two goals in two minutes midway through the first half gave Arsenal a 2-0 win at Bournemouth this afternoon, to see us leapfrog Manchester City in the Premier League table and join second-placed Sp*rs on 48 points.

Our first arrived after 23 minutes when Aaron Ramsey’s lofted ball into the box was won in the air by Giroud, who nodded it down for the on-rushing Mesut Ozil to rifle home first-time on the half-volley using his weaker right foot.

Then just 88 seconds later Arsenal broke forward again, Ramsey toed the ball wide to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right of the hosts’ penalty area and the winger took a touch before finding the net via the far post with an unerring low strike.

After three league games without a goal and four without a win, it was a relief to see us score twice in quick succession and settle any nerves we may have had in what was a crucial fixture given our recent poor form and the emergence of an eight-point gap to leaders Leicester City.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one slightly surprised that Arsene Wenger opted to make just one change to his starting line-up from last Tuesday’s draw with Southampton – the Ox replacing Joel Campbell – but he again went with Mathieu Flamini ahead of Francis Coquelin to partner Ramsey in midfield and the former was involved in the first major talking point of the game.

With eight minutes on the clock Flamini went into a challenge two-footed and despite winning the ball, was lucky to escape with just a caution, because on another day with another referee and against an opponent who didn’t half pull out as the Bornemouth player did today, we’d undoubtedly have been down to ten men and facing a much more difficult task.

It was reckless to say the least and also very unnecessary so hopefully Flamini will watch that incident again and try his best not to be so brainless in future. Aggression is fine and indeed very welcome but today he was just plain stupid and we’re lucky we’re not sitting here ruing a defeat because of an early dismissal like we were after the Chelsea game a couple of weeks ago.

As a spectacle, the game was pretty forgettable and but for our two goals, clear-cut chances were few and far between for both sides. Alexis Sanchez had a pretty poor game by his standards in my opinion, yet still created a coupe of moments of danger with one run to the byline and cross across goal deserving better reactions from his team-mates. Considering the Chilean’s still working his way back to peak match sharpness after a two-month injury lay-off, it’s not surprising he looked a bit below-par and I’m sure he’ll be back to his sizzling best soon enough.

On the opposite flank I felt the Ox had probably his best performance of the season and not just because of his expertly-taken goal. I thought he was far more involved and despite giving the ball away a few times, he drifted infield to great effect at times so should gain a lot of confidence from his display today moving forward.

As I mentioned a the start of this post, we didn’t function smoothly as an attacking unit and I think we still have an issue with circulating the ball from the middle of the park. Ozil dropped deeper with greater frequency to spray the ball around than he has to when Cazorla’s playing but that then obviously limits his presence in the final third.

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else suggest this but maybe we ought to consider playing Ozil alongside Coquelin in a two instead of Ramsey. I think it could work if we then restore the Welshman to wide-right and maybe give Campbell or Alex iwobi the central attacking midfield berth. Innovative and perhaps some would say, stupid, but hey, how many of you would have envisaged Santi deeper before Arsene played him there? I think it could work a treat, especially now that Mesut’s muscled-up since first arriving in England and is clearly more than capable of holding his own in this physically-demanding Premier League.

We have a big problem with passing through midfield at the moment which is the main reason we’re struggling attacking-wise in my opinion and I can’t see Ramsey suddenly learning to pass it like Pirlo. Aaron’s got a great engine and many admirable attributes etc etc etc but I thought he looked a much better player once he moved to the right after the introduction from the bench of Coquelin in place of the Ox today.

Sky Sports gave him their man-of-the-match award and I’ve already seen some stats suggesting Ramsey had a high pass completion rate but that’s where stats can be completely deceiving. I mean, if Ramsey plays a pass out to Nacho Monreal for instance and the full-back gains possession, it goes down as a successful pass.

But he may have played it behind him, or to feet, when a far better pass would have been to play it into his path ahead of him to set us on the attack. That kind of scenario is exactly what I’m talking about when I use the word fluency – a completed pass can still be an infuriatingly move-hampering one.

Still, it’s job very well done for today at least and now we can start looking ahead to next weekend’s visit of leaders Leicester.

See you next week.

6th February 2016: Premier League Preview – Arsenal to face familiar A-foe-be

Good evening. Arsenal face south-coast opposition for the second time inside a week when we travel to Bournemouth tomorrow afternoon, looking to secure our first Premier League win in five fixtures.

With Leicester City’s dream season continuing unabated as they beat Manchester City 3-1 at Etihad stadium earlier today to remain clear at the top of the table, we’re now eight points behind the Foxes, so the pressure on us to get back to winning ways in the Premier League has obviously been amplified.

But beat Bournemouth tomorrow and we have an opportunity to close that gap to just two points as early as next weekend, when we host Claudio Ranieri’s league leaders on Valentine’s Day and attempt to take some of the romance out of their surreal success story so far this season, along with the three points.

Standing in our way first though are the Cherries, who themselves have exceeded most people’s pre-season expectations and currently sit relatively comfortably in 15th place in the standings, five points above the relegation zone and with a game in hand over the teams below them.

One of their most in-form players at the moment is striker Benik Afobe, who of course came through the Arsenal youth ranks having joined our academy at just six years of age, before we eventually let him leave for Wolverhampton Wanderers in a reported £2 million transfer in January last year.

I remember Arsene Wenger describing Afobe as a ‘deadly finisher’, or something along those lines when he was still an Arsenal player, and after struggling for goals in several loan spells earlier in his career, he managed 19 from 30 appearances in a temporary spell at then League One side MK Dons in the first half of last season, leading to his switch to Wolves, where he continued his prolific form a division higher scoring 23 times in 48 appearances.

So it was unsurprising to see him back at a Premier League club so soon and he’s already managed three goals from his first four top-flight games for his new side since arriving last month, to suggest he’s more than capable of finding the net consistently at the highest level of the English game.

Some have recently criticized Arsene, saying he boobed big-time in letting Afobe leave without giving him a chance in the Arsenal first-team but I think that’s harsh and probably stems from being a little under-informed, given Afobe’s progress at the club was severely hampered by injury.

Also, as has been shown countless times in the past, timing, in terms of competition for places, often plays a big role in whether a young player gets a prolonged first-team chance at Arsenal or has to leave in search of regular football elsewhere. That’s something Arsene touched on when discussing his former player at yesterday’s press conference, when he said:

He (Afobe) was very young, he had big competition in front of him with Robin van Persie, and players like that, so I gave him authorisation to go somewhere and play, which he did. You educate people to influence their lives and give them success, that is what we do. When they do not manage to play for us, if they do it somewhere else we are of course very happy for them. Benik has done extremely well, even beyond the expectations of many people and that’s great, that’s down to him and congratulations to him. I think the best way to stop (him) being dangerous is for us to have the ball and dominate the game and being aware that Benik is quick, strong and has good movement in the box. We are used to facing these kind of strikers in the Premier League because in every single club there are top-quality strikers. That’s the same with Bournemouth.

I must admit I haven’t seen Afobe play much other than the odd highlight clip so can’t really comment on his best attributes with too much authority, but his goalscoring record speaks for itself and we’ll obviously need to keep him on a tight leash given his form. Especially when you throw the ‘ex factor’ into the equation, which will no doubt spur him on to try that little bit harder against the club that let him leave.

As far as our line-up  is concerned, I do wonder if Arsene might make a change or two seeing as we’ve failed to score in our last three league games. It may be a match to give Theo Walcott a return to the striker’s role for instance, with Olivier Giroud dropping to the bench. I mean, Theo’s clearly been out of form playing on the flanks in recent weeks but then Giroud’s hardly been banging them in for fun. A rest for the big Frenchman, and at the same time, a show of faith with a return to his favoured position for Walcott, could prove beneficial for both players in the long-run.

At the back I think we’ll see Per Mertesacker return at the expense of Gabriel to partner Laurent Koscielny after the German missed the FA Cup clash with Burnley through suspension and watched the Southampton game from the bench. Francis Coquelin starting alongside Aaron Ramsey in central midfield in place of Mathieu Flamini, is another very likely change in my opinion providing the former is now deemed completely match-fit.

The rest of the line-up should be largely unchanged from the Southampton game though, with Petr Cech in goal, our two Spanish fullbacks, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez all starting. But a bit like up front, I’ve a feeling Arsene might want to freshen up the right hand side of the attack, where we could see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain come in for Joel Campbell for instance.

I wrote earlier this week that I don’t really like Ramsey in central midfield because of his unreliable distribution but given he’s hardly ever played in a two with Coquelin, the boss may want to give that combination a chance to prove it can work before trying something else, such as bringing in Mohamed Elneny or even handing Alex Iwobi a Premier League starting berth as a central midfielder.

By my recollection, Coquelin and Ramsey have only ever played as a partnership for 45 minutes this season – the first half of our opening-day defeat by West Ham – so even if many, myself included, aren’t convinced it can be effective, hopefully the doubters can be shown up as not knowing nearly as much as we think we do, and that duo will gel to form the midfield platform on which we go on to win things this season.

How I’d love to be proven wrong as Coquelin stealthily covers Ramsey’s goal-getting forward raids, Mesut picks up the Cazorla-less circulation slack and we function fluently as a team all the way to the Treble …

Whichever line-up Arsene opts for however, the objective is very simple: we need to win because a manageable gap could very quickly morph into an insurmountable one if we’re not careful.

Back post-match.


5th February 2016: Wenger on Rosicky and Welbeck

Hello and welcome back. Arsene Wenger held his pre-match press conference this morning and has revealed the latest team news ahead of Sunday’s trip to Bournemouth.

There was no update on Jack Wilshere or Santi Cazorla, who we already know won’t be back until March, but sadly, the boss did confirm Tomas Rosicky will be side-lined for another sustained period after suffering ‘a bad muscular injury’ against Burnley last weekend. He said:

It’s too early. The only thing we know is that it’s a bad muscular injury that will keep him (Rosicky) out for a long time. The good news is that he will apparently not need surgery as it is a partial rupture of his tendon but how long it takes, [whether] it is two months or three months, we don’t know. We are all shocked and he is the most shocked and we have to patient and hope that it is not his last game.

While an understandably emotional Rosicky himself spoke with Arsenal Player to express his shock at his latest injury set-back, praise the Arsenal fans for their support and defiantly vow that he won’t give up and will work hard to regain full fitness:

It (the reception from Arsenal fans) was unbelievable, something I didn’t expect. Since the moment I started to warm up on the sidelines it was exceptional. Honestly, I had tears in my eyes after such a long time being out. I started to warm up and the reception was unbelievable and I will never forget it. Obviously it is the worse thing (getting injured again) and the feeling I cannot give the fans anything back at the moment is frustrating. I was out for a long time so obviously the relationship with the fans after 10 years was always great and they always knew I played my heart out and they always appreciated me and I appreciated them. As I said it is heartbreaking I can’t give them anything back after the reception they prepared for me, but in life things will be thrown at you and you have to deal with it. You are defined by how you deal with these things and I will deal with it again and I will be back again.

It really is depressing and considering the the frequency and severity of the injuries he’s sustained over his Arsenal career, he joins Abou Diaby as somebody who had all the talent in the world but whose body simply would not let him showcase it to the world for any decent period of time.

I remember being very excited when Arsenal announced his signing back in 2006 as Robert Pires’ replacement after the Frenchman moved to Villarreal, because I’d seen him score a superb solo goal against us for Sparta Prague some years earlier at Highbury and had followed his progress closely as he moved to Germany with Borussia Dortmund and proved himself one of the Bundesliga’s best performers.

Then not long after he arrived at Arsenal, he produced that long-range stunner away to Hamburg, I think, in the Champions League and playing from the left of a midfield four also including Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Alexander Hleb, formed one of the best ‘footballing’ midfields I’ve ever seen at the club, which peaked during the 2007-2008 season when by my reckoning, we were the Premier League’s best team and would have won it but for, you guessed it, injuries.

With his contract up this coming summer, I think it’s safe to say we’ve seen the last of Tomas in an Arsenal shirt and a parting of the ways between club and player seems inevitable, just as with Diaby last summer. Hopefully he can get himself fit and enjoy at least a season or two at another club, perhaps back at Sparta, somewhere I think he’s spoken of wanting to return to in the past.

On a more positive note on the injury front, Danny Welbeck played for the under 21s earlier today as they beat Brighton, and speaking this morning before that game, Arsene revealed the striker ‘looks promising in training’:

He is playing today with the under-21s, for one half at least. I believe that he needs to play two or three games before thinking about coming back into the first team. We can organise games internally without being official games and I think in the next three weeks he should be available. He has not played for 10 months so we need to be patient with him. He has good basic fitness but after it is competitive decision-making and he needs to get used to that again. We are a bit relieved because with such an injury, you never know how a player will come back. But he looks promising in training.

With Theo Walcott struggling for form and the team struggling for goals at the moment, Welbeck’s return obviously cannot come soon enough. With a bit of luck – and a couple more behind-closed-doors matches – the former Man United man will be back in time to give us a boost for what will hopefully still be a chase for both the the Premier League and Champions League crowns, rather than simply securing a top four finish.

For now though, we go with who we have available and that means either Theo or Olivier Giroud up front. Speaking of selection dilemmas, I’ll be back playing Arsenal Manager and trying to predict Sunday’s team in my Bournemouth preview post tomorrow.

Until then.

4th February 2016: Thoughts on Ramsey and Wilshere

Welcome back. It was only a few years ago that Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were being touted as Arsenal’s central midfield double-act of the future – British bedrocks on which we could build a new team following the departures of the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song in consecutive summers.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way, what with Jack being injured more often than not during that time, and Aaron, despite enjoying one superb season stationed centrally in 2013-2014, now looking more and more like a player better suited to playing further up the pitch.

In fact, despite England’s management preferring to deploy Wilshere as a deep playmaker, Arsene Wenger is on record as saying he views the midfielder’s best position as also being closer to the opposition goal, in what would be one of the three attacking roles behind the striker in our current system.

As much as I rate the pair of them, barring injuries, neither will dislodge Alexis Sanchez from the left or relieve Mesut Ozil from his no 10 duties any time soon, so in effect, Ramsey and Wilshere find themselves in competition with one another – and several others too – to be first-choice on the right.

Yet the former has been pretty open about preferring to play more centrally and highlighted what he thinks it takes to play that position in the modern game when he spoke to Arsenal Player:

It’s obviously a balance but if you do sense an opportunity to break away from your man to get into the box or to be free in the box, you have to take it because you can score a goal from it. But you have to get back in as quickly as possible and when you are, try to get a bit of a breather then. And then it all starts again. I prefer to get forward, to get on the end of things, to create things. But it’s important to defend and help the team out defensively as well. But it’s also nice when you win the ball in quite a deep position and then you can start an attack which leads to a goal. That’s quite rewarding as well. An all-round midfielder needs to have that, where you can defend, you can tackle, you can create goals, you can score goals. That’s the complete midfielder that I want to be. Your time on the ball is definitely a lot shorter now so you have to try and make your decisions and try and have options a lot quicker than before. It’s just the way the game is going. It’s becoming a lot quicker, a lot more physical, so you have to be able to make decisions a lot quicker and move the ball quicker as well. I feel really confident and comfortable in the middle. I back myself to put in performances every week. The game is always developing and the demands are always a bit more every season. Hopefully I can continue developing as a player. I think there’s definitely more to come.

Although he says you have to ‘move the ball quicker’, it’s making the right pass at the right time with accuracy, as well as speed, that is surely a key requirement for a central midfielder, because in a style such as ours, being an efficient and reliable distributor is arguably the most important skill-set to have. I mean, there’s no point being quick to release the ball if your’re clubbing it out for an opposition throw, or misplacing the simplest of five-yard passes.

Santi Cazorla is undoubtedly a cut or ten above, but although he’s a ferocious ball-winner, intelligent interceptor and great reader of opposition attacks first and foremost, Francis Coquelin is also better passer than Ramsey in my opinion. All of which is to say if Aaron wants to play in what he thinks is his best role in the middle, he needs to work on his passing big-time, as far as I’m concerned.

What would help is if he could improve his ball-control too, had better spatial awareness and had a picture of what he wanted to do with the ball before he received it, but I’m not sure those things can be developed on the training pitch. You either have them or not and unfortunately for the Welshman and us as fans, he doesn’t.

Meanwhile, Wilshere, who I think is better equipped to play centrally than Ramsey, due to being a much better passer and having far better close control and awareness, says he sees light at the end of the tunnel in his recovery from another long-term injury:

[My recovery is] going well. I’m back on the pitch and I’m just trying to build my fitness up because everyone knows how tough it is to play in the Premier League. I’m working on it and I’m slowly getting there. Sometimes it’s been difficult to stay positive, especially after the injuries that I’ve had which have been frustrating, but as the injury goes, you get closer to full fitness and you see the light at the end of the tunnel, then you start to think about coming back and getting involved in the team.

With Santi side-lined, what I’d give to have a fit and firing Wilshere right now. I think of all the alternatives to the Spaniard in our current squad, Wilshere is the one player who would compliment Coquelin in the middle and successfully take on the mantle of dictating our play from deep.

I can see why Arsene likes Wilshere further forward, and I think he could be equally good there seeing as he’s a genuinely good footballer. But perhaps, Wilshere and Coquelin, rather than Wilshere and Ramsey, or Ramsey and Coquelin, will prove our long-term partnership in front of the defence given the chance, seeing as Cazorla turns 32 in December.

In our current situation, the Wilsh-Coq combo would go a long way in rectifying our recent Santi-less stuttering in my opinion, making it all the more galling the England man’s still some way from a return.

See you tomorrow.


3rd February 2016: Covering the absence of ‘Clockwork Cazorla’ needs urgent re-thinking

Arsenal have a big, little problem. Santi Cazorla is injured, isn’t due back until late March and there isn’t a single player in our squad equipped to come anywhere near replacing the passing, vision and above all, intelligence, the diminutive Spaniard brings to the centre of our midfield.

After drawing 0-0 at home to Southampton last night, many will point to ‘chances created’ and ‘saves made by Fraser Forster’ stats, to suggest our main issues were poor finishing and fine opposition goalkeeping, but I think that would be highlighting temporary symptoms and failing to acknowledge the underlying cause of our recent malaise – we’re Santi-less.

Here’s what I wrote about Cazorla back in July, following a pre-season win over Everton in the Barclays Premier League Trophy in Asia:

As for Cazorla’s chipped assist from inside the centre circle, well, the vision and execution using his ‘weaker’ left foot was as majestic as his all-round display. We’ll have a real problem replacing Santi’s outstanding skillset when he does eventually depart, because for me there isn’t another player in our squad right now who can replicate his talents in the middle of the park – a velcroed virtuosity that has become vital to our performance and overall pattern of play this past year or so.

Before adding:

… Ozil fed Cazorla on the right following a short corner and having weighed up his options, the Spaniard decided to go it alone, twisting and turning to bamboozle the defending James McCarthy on the edge of the area before drilling home at the near post leaving the ‘keeper motionless. And Cazorla was at it again just four minutes later, exchanging passes with Mesut Ozil to allow the German to sidefoot emphatically into the net for three nil, making it two assists and a goal for Arsenal’s captain on the day. I would tie him to as long a deal as possible as he shows no sign of being debilitated by age.

If Petr Cech permeates a sense of calm from between the sticks that has a positive effect on our defenders in front of him, then Cazorla’ s coolness under pressure, quick-thinking and precise circulation of the ball gives the team fluency, helps us to maintain better shape and regulates the team’s rhythm, more so than any other player, in any other position in the side. More so than Mesut, even.

That cock-sure conviction of Cazorla’s spreads throughout the team in my opinion, and crucially, to our forwards when presented with a goal-scoring chance, because the build-up play often sets the tone and temperament of the move’s finale.

Our finishing last night, exactly like the rest of our play from the back four to up front, was erratic and rushed, rather than cold and calculated like clockwork, as it has been ever since Santi was re-stationed to the middle just over a year ago and he produced that phenomenal individual performance at Etihad stadium as we beat Manchester City 2-0 in January 2015.

Theo Walcott seems to be the go-to-guy to vent frustration at for the stalemate with Southampton and on the one hand hand, I understand completely why. His contribution from the bench after replacing Joel Campbell was far too peripheral and he fluffed probably our best chance of the game in all-too-typical Feo-style.

On the other hand though, he provided a decent cross from which Alexis Sanchez headed goal-wards, and also found Ozil with a low pass across the edge of Saints’ penalty area before the German’s one-two with Sanchez nearly led to a goal. Overall though, I agree whole-heartedly with those that say Theo’s all-round game just isn’t good enough for him to function to the requisite standard on the flanks, so he either plays as the striker or not at all.

But the player whose display makes me want to scream in frustration and bewilderment isn’t Walcott, or even the past-it Mathieu Flamini, who kind of tempers his dreadful on-the-ball ability by making one or two important tackles, interceptions or clearances a game.

No, it’s Aaron Ramsey, who in my opinion, cannot pass the ball anywhere near well enough to be playing centrally for us if we want to be a team that controls possession. If we decide to sit back and adopt a contain and counter stlye-of-play, it might suit the Welshman more, but not in the current set-up.

I much prefer him playing from the right when he isn’t tasked with dictating our play and can instead provide energy going both ways on the flank and drift infield to provide a goal-threat. That way, he’s much less a passer and gets afforded the time he needs to bring the ball under control and decide what to do with it because he too, like Walcott, needs longer than quicker-witted and more naturally gifted footballers, like Cazorla.

So what do we do moving forward? Your guess is as good as mine but it’s Arsene Wenger’s job to find a solution. As far as I’m concerned, we either reconfigure our style or try something new like playing Ozil alongside Coquelin in the deeper midfield role or even throwing Alex Iwobi into Premier League action because I’m struggling to find more reliable passers in our squad, in the continued absences of Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. Maybe Mohamed Elneny is the best available man for the job, but judging by his debut, he needs time to acclimatize to the pace of the English game and build confidence.

All that said however, we can of course still get good results without Cazorla, as we showed with four straight wins in all competitions following his injury at Norwich at the end of November, it’s just that we’re not as consistent in our play and that’s reflected in our more recent run of form. Also, the up-coming Barcelona double-header really worries me without Santi playing, because of just how important the rare phases of possession against the Catalans can be if we’re to have a chance against them.

As it stands domestically though, we’re down to fourth in the table but as I’ve said all season, just two shy of my tip for the crown in Man City, which means we remain firmly in contention. Leicester are a further three ahead and that makes our situation look worse obviously, as they continue to play well and win their games. But surely the most most surprising story in Premier League history, in terms of a title challenge, will find a more expected conclusion and they’ll drop away from the top a little. Won’t they?

If the Foxes win their next two at City and against us at Emirates stadium, I might change my tune but I think Leicester’s is a bubble long-overdue a bursting. As for that lot down the Seven Sisters Road, they might be flying high and getting giddy at edging us on goal difference right now, but let’s see how they fare when Europa League football returns and it’s ‘spiral’ time. Their new Jermaine Jenas – Dele Alli – may be on fire but always remember one thing: Tottenham are sh*t.

Until tomorrow.

2nd February 2016: Premier League Preview – Southampton at home

Evening all. So we resume our chase for the Premier League title when we welcome Southampton to Emirates stadium in a couple of hours’ time and after a poor January points-wise, a win tonight has become all the more important.

We secured just five points from four league games last month; losing to Chelsea, drawing at Liverpool and Stoke, and managing only to take all three points from our home game against Newcastle.

And after playing the Saints, we travel to Bournemouth before hosting league-leaders Leicester City in our other two Premier League games in February – far from an easing-looking fixture-list, but one Arsene Wenger says he feels confident in tackling:

The [coming weeks] can be pivotal but not decisive. They will give a clear indication of the strength of the teams and who can cope with the importance of the games. At the end of the day somebody will win and the team who will win has to go through the important games with strong performances. It’s a big month for us. I am quite confident, having everybody available, that we can do very well. What is important now is for us to be capable of focusing and coping with that kind of expectation level. I don’t feel that we have really struggled recently because we had two difficult away games with Stoke and Liverpool and we didn’t lose. We had a bad result against Chelsea and of course, if you put the three results together, it looks like we’ve struggled but overall the Chelsea result is under special circumstances. If you take the history of our season, we started with a defeat against West Ham and the way we responded and where we are today shows that this team has the capability of responding under pressure. I’m sure that we will show that in February.

Hopefully starting tonight. We owe Southampton a beating after they won 4-0 the last time the two sides met on Boxing Day, but if I remember correctly, this fixture last season was a very close contest and it took us 88 minutes or so to score the only goal of the game through Alexis Sanchez.

To be honest, I’d be happy to win by a similarly slender score-line tonight and Arsene says his team are eager to put right that big loss at St Mary’s in December by producing a ‘strong performance’:

They gave us a tough game last time and we have to put that right. It is a very important time in the season as we go into big, big games and have 13 matches to go. They were dominant in the challenges and the duels. We just came out of a very tough game at Man City, and maybe didn’t have the urgency to cope with that. We were a bit unlucky with three goals on the decisions of the referee as well. The message [this time] is that we play at home and we want to put things right and put a strong performance in because the strength we show at home now in the remaining games can be decisive. The defeat against Chelsea was very unlucky, because our performance was right – it was not a Southampton performance. Our performance, our energy level, our commitment and the quality of what we did was very good. It is an encouragement. Sometimes you have to raise a little bit above the result and keep the positives. In that game there were a lot of positives.

Which is right. In the loss to Southampton we simply weren’t at the races and were soundly beaten by the better team on the day, whereas against Chelsea, the early dismissal of Per Mertesacker and our subsequent display with a man less shouldn’t have affected us confidence-wise.

In terms of the team tonight, I’m guessing Mertesacker will return in place of Gabriel having served his one-match ban for that red card against Chelsea, but at the same time wouldn’t be surprised to see Laurent Koscielny given a breather with the Brazilian starting alongside Per instead.

Further forward, Aaron Ramsey should partner Francis Coquelin in midfield, Mesut Ozil will surely start ahead of them, as will Sanchez on the left, but the right flank and up front remain a little more uncertain now that we have increased personnel options.

Personally I’d go with Joel Campbell on the right and Olivier Giroud up top but the boss could conceivably select Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott in those positions respectively. We’ll see.

Right, not long until kick-off now and the line-ups should be announced soon so I’ll leave it there.

Back on Wednesday.


1st February 2016: It’s dead on Deadline Day

Welcome to a brand new month on TremendArse. It’s Transfer Deadline Day today of course and as I write this at around 5.30pm, there have been no moves confirmed either in or out of the club as yet.

That’s not overly surprising, given we were always very unlikely to bring anybody in after signing Mohamed Elneny earlier in the window, but I was expecting Mathieu Debuchy and Serge Gnabry to have left in loan moves by now. There’s still time obviously, with the window closing at 11pm this evening, so we’ll see what happens.

But so far today, the biggest news has come away from Arsenal and indeed player trading, with Manchester City confirming Pep Guardiola will replace Manuel Pellegrini as their manager from the start of next season. Which is just brilliant – the Premier League’s wealthiest club has now secured the world’s best manager – outside of London Colney, that is. So the intrigue and excitement goes up a notch or two ahead of next season, even more so if some members of the press get granted their wish and a certain Portuguese manager takes over the reigns at Manchester United. 

Back to the current campaign though and as we prepare to welcome Southampton to Emirates stadium tomorrow evening, Arsene Wenger held his pre-match press conference this morning and was inevitably asked whether we’d be active in the market today. Here’s what he said:

At the moment it’s 99% no, but if Messi knocks on my door at ten to six I won’t tell him to go back to Barcelona!

Arsene also provided an injury update, including the latest on Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky, saying:

The team news is that we have all the players that played on Saturday available again. The only problem we have is that we lost Rosicky through injury. We have to assess one or two. Overall the situation looks quite good for everybody else. He (Rosicky) has a thigh problem – a muscular tendon problem, but we don’t know how bad it is. It happened three or four minutes after he came on and we have to assess him today. He’s not available for a while. We will know much more tonight. He (Wilshere) is looking good. I had a short chat with Roy Hodgson about him and reassured him that he is progressing well. I’m cautious but I will say four weeks [until he is back]. Danny has not played since April 2015 and will have to go through a game or two with the under-21s, where we can monitor him and leave him free to play at his level of commitment. That looks to be very soon, maybe this week.

So a mixed bag. Jack’s ‘looking good’ and Danny will be back playing football for the under 21s shortly but Rosicky’s now out for another sustained period of time. At this stage, as sad as it sounds, you have to wonder whether the Czech has played his last game in Arsenal colours.

Finally for today, the boss had a few words to offer on Mohamed Elneny, after the Egyptian midfielder made his debut against Burnley last weekend:

His first performance was very good in many aspects. He had plenty of passes, he made 84 passes and 98 per cent were completed. His movement was good, he had a high work-rate. He has to adapt to the toughness of the challenges and certainly gain a little bit in confidence to be more incisive in his passing, but overall for a first performance it was encouraging.

A quick check shows no  confirmation of Debuchy or Gnabry going anywhere, so if they do depart, I’l take at look at that tomorrow, when I’ll be back with a preview of the Saints game.

Until then.

31st January 2016: Arsenal handed home FA Cup tie against Hull

Sunday salutations. The draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup was made a little earlier and we’ve been handed another home tie, after being paired with Hull City for the third year running.

After beating them in the final in 2014, we faced them in last year’s third round and emerged 2-0 victors at Emirates stadium thanks to goals by Per Mertesacker and Alexis Sanchez, so perhaps Steve Bruce’s men can prove our lucky charm as we aim to make it a hat-trick of consecutive Cup wins.

Two of our young stars, Chuba Akpom and Isaac Hayden, are of course on-loan from Arsenal at the Tigers, so it will be interesting to see if we grant Hull permission to play them against us. Personally, I’d say hell no, because you know, I want them to have fewer personnel options against us and rule out a Lomana LuaLua scenario, where a player scores against his parent club. But that’s just me – Arsene Wenger may well feel very differently. We’ll see.

Speaking of the boss, he’s been praising Alex Iwobi, after the teenager put in another very impressive display as a central midfielder against Burnley yesterday. Arsene said:

I think he has shown everybody that he is a good player again. I personally find him very interesting because of his decision making, his awareness is very interesting. He is a boy who, two years ago, not many would have said he [will make it]. You see he develops very well because he’s very clever. I like his game, I like the timing of his decision making and the quality of his decision making. He always turns where you want him to turn and he plays the ball where you want him to play the ball. He’s very interesting. He can play on the left, he can play on the right, he can play behind the striker and he can even play as a No 9, because he scores goals in training.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been as impressed with Iwobi as the boss and every other Arsenal fan. Where I think he has an edge on the likes of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, especially the former, is that he’s more reliable in keeping possession and making the right pass at the right time, as the boss highlights above. He’s similar to Joel Campbell in that sense and also works as hard as the Costa Rican going both ways.

I think it was telling then, that the Ox was positioned on the right and Iwobi preferred in the middle against Burnley, because despite being a fan myself of the former Southampton man playing centrally in the past, the truth is he gives the ball away far too frequently when he has played there. So if Chamberlain would prefer to carve out an Arsenal career in the middle, that’s something he’ll have to improve significantly in my opinion, as will Aaron Ramsey if I’m honest.

As for Walcott, I think it’s pretty clear that he can be lethal up front, but looks pretty useless out wide more often than not. All of which is to say that if Iwobi can continue playing well when given an opportunity centrally, with Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere out injured, he has a great opportunity between now and the end of the season to prove himself as a genuine starting candidate in the middle moving forward.

Right, that was a very brief one today but it’s Sunday, the Milan derby kicks off soon and it won’t watch itself.

See you on Transfer Deadline Day.