14th March 2016: Backing Benitez + Looking to Barcelona

Welcome to a brand new week on TremendArse. I suppose the first thing to say with an hour or so until kickoff between Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United and league leaders Leicester City is: COME ON YOU GEORDIES!

Before Rafa’s appointment, most football followers would quite understandably have given the Magpies next to no chance of getting anything from tonight’s game at the King Power stadium – and they might still feel the same way now.

But Newcastle’s new boss is undoubtedly a brilliant tactician, whatever your overall views on him as a manager are, so personally I’m clinging to the hope he can hit the ground running, benefit from the fabled ‘new manager bounce’, and do Arsenal a huge favour by at least taking a point off the Foxes.

Throw in the fact that Newcastle, and their Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum in particular, have played well in front of live cameras so far this season, the case for the Magpies getting something from the game is strengthened. Orrrrrrrrrrrr, maybe I’m clutching at straws because THAT’S WHAT ARSENAL’S FORM HAS DONE TO ME …

Speaking of the mis-firing Gunners, thoughts now begin to turn away from yesterday FA Cup defeat and towards Wednesday’s Champions League defeat game. We play Barcelona, in Barcelona, trying to overturn a two-nil first-leg defeat, missing key players in Petr Cech and Santi Cazorla, and looking to pull off what would be the biggest surprise result in recent footballing history. By recent, mean entire. Because the Catalans are pretty much footballing perfection personified, whilst on current form, we’re a bit, well, sh*t.

Thank God then, that Per Mertesacker has the answer for how we beat Barcelona! Also discussing our loss to Watford, he said:

You have to give us credit because we kept going against Watford and created chance after chance. But at the moment we lack that killer instinct. We need to work on that if we want to be successful in the Premier League and the Champions League. We were not relaxed against Watford. Even in the box we played and always found good positions, with the man in the right position but we lacked that relaxation even to hit the target. We did not do that sometimes. We missed it too often. We cannot afford to concede against Barcelona. We have to go there and try to attack, no matter what, that is the only possibility we have. We can be fortunate to have such big game in front of us. They are the ultimate team at the minute, so we are straight away under pressure and we have to go away from home. I think the confidence is there, we are just missing something. The season is not over. We play in a confident way, we maybe lack that bit at the end. The desire to play together and to be good as a team is there, you can feel that.

Although Per’s completely right about us needing to up our game in terms of scoring goals, some would point out that if he’d defended the throw-in that led to Watford’s opener a little better (or at all), we might still be in the Cup.

Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger also spoke about our upcoming Champions League clash and highlighted the tough schedule we’re in the middle of, with Everton away to come on Saturday, so soon after our midweek game in Spain. The boss told Arsenal Player:

We want to now focus on the Champions League and then we go to Everton and that schedule is very tight. It is very difficult playing on Sunday afternoon, Wednesday night and then Saturday morning. It is important that we respond very quickly. We play a big game and players want to play in the big games. When you have a big game in front of you, you want to prepare well and show how good you are. I think that is natural.

He’s quite right of course, we have a daunting few days coming up, away in two grounds we’ve struggled at in recent times, but it’s Arsene’s job to manage his squad and get us winning again and he’ll be judged on how well he does it.

Even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans out there will no doubt be fearing the worst on Wednesday but we quite simply have to win at Goodison Park, if not for the sake of an increasingly unlikely title challenge, then at least to arrest our dismal form and avoid a three defeats in a row.

Back tomorrow.

13th March 2016: Arsenal crash out of FA Cup to impressive Watford

Welcome back. So Arsenal’s hopes of winning a third successive FA Cup went up in flames earlier today when they lost 2-1 at home to a Watford side I thought were deserved winners and simply out-played us on the day.

The Hornets were organised, compact, pressed us ferociously in packs and in the right areas, and carried a constant threat on the counter-attack, mainly through the impressive partnership of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo up front. But bar the last few minutes of the game, we were poor, looking impotent in attack and an accident waiting to happen at the back.

Arsene Wenger went with a very strong starting line-up (which suggests he’s as resigned to Champions League elimination as the rest of us, despite what he says in public) with both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil selected, but even with our two big guns on the pitch, we still lacked firepower.

The former’s struggles for form continued, whilst the latter was probably our best player on the day. Yet both were involved in creating our goal. Sanchez found substitute Danny Welbeck and he played a brilliant one-two with Ozil before firmly side-footing the ball into the far side-netting to give us a glimmer of hope in the 88th minute.

By that point were were two-nil down having conceded twice in 13 second-half minutes. First, Deeney glanced a throw-in to Ighalo who span Gabriel and fired past David Ospina from close range, before Deeney again played provider, brilliantly holding up the ball and laying it off for the on-rushing Adlene Guedioura to send a first-time thunderbolt past a helpless Ospina and into the roof of the net at the near post.

We can’t say we hadn’t been warned of Watford’s attacking abilities because there had been a few dangerous attacks by the visitors earlier in the game that narrowly failed due to mis-timed final passes.

Arsene left it five minutes before sending on three subs at the same time, introducing Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi for Olivier Giroud, Joel Campbell and Mohamed Elneny. Despite Walcott again contributing as much to proceedings as Jimmy Carr does to HMRC, Iwobi and Welbeck’s introduction almost instantly made us seem more likely to get a goal I felt.

In the end we managed one, Welbeck missed a sitter moments after scoring, Iwobi hit a post in the build-up to that miss, and we exited the Cup for the first time in three seasons. I would sum up our display today as reactive, when it needed to be proactive, and although I thought it was far from our worst performance in recent times (we did manage to produce a few slick moves over the course of the 90 minutes), some of our play was infuriatingly average.

Chambers’ crossing was sh*t, and both full-backs’ understanding with their team-mates ahead of them was non-existent. Sanchez tried hard as usual but was brilliantly shackled by Watford’s right-back I thought, eventually having to concede defeat in that duel and switch over to the right. Up top Giroud was easily contained and just looked so off the wavelength of team-mates it makes you feel he should be no more than a plan b or c, last resort, get-it-in-the-mixer option for a club with supposed aspirations of success like Arsenal.

At the back, Gabriel seems to have taken a lot of stick for his defending and although he was lucky to escape a red card for a two-footed tackle on Deeney in the first half, and then failed to stop Ighalo from scoring despite being tight to the striker, I actually thought Mertesacker was worse. His lack of aggression is astounding for a centre-half playing in English football and even if I can appreciate his coolness can be an asset at times, more often it’s a liability. Too often he appears to be hoping opponents will miss in the midst of action, rather than making sure they do miss by, er, defending. It’s weird. He’s a reluctant defender – yet he’s a defender.

To make matters worse, Sp*rs beat Aston Villa today to move six points and a mammoth 13 goals ahead of us in the Premier League standings – it’s been another baaaaaaaaaaaaad day to be a Gooner. Unfortunately, with Barcelona to face on Wednesday, things will probably get worse before they can get better.

I can see why Arsene wants to give it a go against the Catalans and select a strong team, because we have to basically, whatever the odds of us progressing, yet with Everton away so soon afterwards, ruining our hopes in all three competitions in the space of a week seems very, very likely right now.

See you next week.

12th March 2016: Watford stand in our way to Wembley

Saturday salutations. Two goals from Romelu Lukaku helped Everton to knock his former club Chelsea out of the FA Cup earlier today and in my opinion, also provide a boost to Arsenal’s chances of winning the competition for the third year running.

The Toffees are obviously a good side on their day and boast players, in Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones in particular, who are coveted by some of the biggest clubs around, but given our wretched record against Chelsea over the last decade or so, I’d rather face Roberto Martinez’s men given the choice.

So providing we beat Watford in our own last-eight tie tomorrow, the only teams that could deny us a rare Cup hat-trick are Everton, Crystal Palace and one of Manchester United or West Ham, who contest the last quarter-final at Old Trafford tomorrow. Frankly, we should be strong favourites now, even if United turned us over just a few weeks ago.

Of course, so late in the competition all the remaining teams will fancy their chances and that’s something Arsene Wenger touched on at his press conference yesterday, as well as rejecting the idea that clubs no longer hold the FA Cup in much esteem. He said:

We have always taken the FA Cup seriously and if you look at the record we have over the years, we try to do well. Everyone does. This story of the FA Cup not being taken seriously is not right – everyone wants to do well. In the [Premier League] we have not done as well because maybe some teams have done better than us in recent years. Is it fair or not [to say we are favourites for the FA Cup]? I don’t know. I look at the teams who are still in the competition and you could say the same to three or four as well. We have a chance like everyone else and we want to play as hard as we can to give ourselves a good chance to be successful. I haven’t given up on the Premier League at all and I’ve said that many times, nor the Champions League. We have to take care of the next minute and the next minute is an FA Cup game. Is it the best chance to win a trophy? It’s still far away. We must win the next game and prove that we can show consistency again. I don’t believe anyone in my side thinks about Barcelona at the moment, or Everton, they are completely focused on Watford.

So with mission ‘we need the mother of all miracles’ at Barcelona on Wednesday and a tricky trip to face the Toffees in the league next Saturday lunchtime definitely not on our minds or influencing selection for Watford at all, how are we likely to line-up tomorrow?

All three first-choice centre-halves appear to be available judging by today’s training pics but my guess would be that we’ll go again with Gabriel and Per Mertesacer from the start and keep Laurent Koscielny fresh for Lionel Messi and his show-boating amigos in midweek.

Similarly, I think Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs will play full-back with Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal rested for Camp Nou. That said, the Catalans have a huge pitch and Gibbs may be better equipped to cover what will no doubt be counter-attacking ground than Monreal, so we’ll see.

Further forward I think it gets a little more difficult. So far this season in the FA Cup, we’ve rested Mesut Ozil and gone with Alex Iwobi, but with all due respect to Hull, Burnley and even Sunderland, I think Watford will be our hardest test, and given our very slim hopes against Barca, perhaps we’ll see the German involved from the start this time.

Personally, I think I’d retain Iwobi, rest Ozil and go with the same team that started against Hull on Tuesday:

Ospina; Chambers, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Gibbs; Flamini, Elneny; Campbell, Iwobi, Walcott; Giroud. 

That would mean Bellerin, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Ozil, Sanchez and Welbeck – seven first-choice starters – would all be fresh for two very demanding away days to come, whilst still leaving us with what I think would be a good enough team to beat Watford at home.

More likely though in my opinion, is that we’ll see a side stronger than we played so far in the FA Cup this season, but still some way from full, available strength, which might mean a start for Ozil or Sanchez for instance. It’s certainly a tricky balancing act for the boss and we’ll only know how well he’s performed it this time next week.

Back post-match tomorrow.

COYG!

11th March 2016: Wenger on Elneny, Giroud and Watford forwards

Welcome back. Arsene Wenger’s pre-Watford press conference was streamed live on the official site this morning (a nice surprise and I hope this real-time relaying becomes the norm rather than remaining just for FA Cup games) and in it, the boss revealed Aaron Ramsey would be out for around four weeks with the thigh injury he picked up at Hull.

Given Arsene had labelled it a ‘small alert’ only yesterday, the Welshman’s prognosis is longer than anticipated, but with Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla penciled in for returns at the start of April, we should be far better stocked for options in the middle of the park pretty soon, so that’s some consolation I suppose.

For now though, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are the most likely partnership to be picked at the base of our midfield and when asked if the latter was ready to play regularly, and if he’d consider a change of formation to cope with our injury list, the boss said:

He looks like he is ready to play. I consider every formula that is possible to give us a balance. At the moment I think Elneny in central midfield can cope. We have Flamini, we have Coquelin who can cope as well. They have shown [that] already. The formula can change as well if needed but that depends on the games. Every game will be different now. In our job, you want to perform in the next game and the next game is an important one because we have fought hard to get there and that is our purpose. After that we deal with the next one. If you have a good run, you sometimes absorb them without any problems. If you have a bad result, of course there is no time to digest sometimes and to get the belief back in the squad. We want to do that and what is very important is to be in there and have a chance to show how good you are.

Arsene was also asked to assess the qualities of Sunday’s opponents Watford and highlighted the Hornets’ striker partnership as being particularly impressive, saying:

They have two strikers who are very efficient in Ighalo and Deeney and we worked very hard to control the game [last time we played them]. They have a very good understanding between their strikers and the quality between our two centre backs will be vital on Sunday. Watford have done extremely well. It looks like the Championship teams that come up now deal very well with the Premier League regime. The difficulty [for us] is that Watford have a team who are very solid defensively. They are also a team who are athletically very strong and the basis of their game is on efficiency and waiting for the right moment to be very dangerous.

Finally for today, the boss also had some words for his own strikers and revealed he expects Olivier Giroud to deliver more goals in the coming games having broken a 12-match drought by bagging a brace in our win at Hull earlier this week. He said:

Look, it is a weight on the shoulders when the players don’t score. So the fact that they score will of course take that weight off. Overall, I am pleased that [Giroud and Walcott] scored. But it is a bit cyclic always, especially for Giroud. Giroud has cycles so it was a weight off his shoulders. You know this season for example, he has had games where he has gone boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and after he had a little spell where he didn’t score. Now I hope he has a repetition of his former spell and starts to score again. Between what he says and what is real, even I don’t really know what is going in there. You know that if you don’t score and you are a striker, somewhere you are not happy.

Right. A bit brief this evening but that’s your lot. See you on Saturday for a Watford preview.

Laters.

10th March 2016: Positive injury update + Sanchez reveals restlessness

Welcome back. Some good news to begin with today after Arsene Wenger revealed both Gabriel and Per Mertesacker will be fit to face Watford in the FA Cup on Sunday and referred to Aaron Ramsey’s injury as ‘a small alert’.

Given widespread reports were ruling the Welshman out from anywhere between 6 weeks and 6 years following the knock he picked up as a substitute against Hull on Tuesday, Wenger’s words sound promising. Here’s what he had to say about his sidelined stars when he spoke to the official site:

We had a few injuries at Hull – Gabriel, Mertesacker and Ramsey. Mertesacker and Gabriel are very positive, there is nothing wrong there, they are both good. There is a small alert (about Ramsey), we don’t know how bad it is. He (Laurent Koscielny) is not far, he will have tests until Sunday, but it could come too soon. He has a little chance. They (Petr Cech, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla) are all progressing nicely, but this week and next week they have no chance.

Let’s hope that ‘small alert’ remains just that and doesn’t morph into a ‘deafening drill’ because despite not really rating Ramsey as a central midfielder myself, if he is ruled out for a sustained period, we’re currently one injury or suspension to Francis Coquelin or Mohamed Elneny away from having to play Mathieu Flamini or Mikel Arteta  – and that scares me.

Elsewhere, Alexis Sanchez, who has struggled for goals and form since recovering from a hamstring injury sustained late last year, has been telling the official site that he feels ‘guilty’ when he fails to score and suffers sleepless nights as a result. He said:

I think that I’ve adapted really well in terms of fitting into the club and it’s been very good. But at the same time I’m not the kind of person to become complacent or think, ‘That’s it’. I always want to improve and give my absolute all to the team. The truth is that I do enjoy [the responsibility]. When I don’t score goals I feel like I’ve failed the team and I feel guilty. I go home, can’t sleep and I just think I have to play better.

Hopefully his goal against Sp*rs last Saturday will have boosted his confidence and will kick-start a prolific last portion of the campaign for him because if the Chilean can rediscover his best form, I’d feel confident of beating any team in the Premier League.

He’s one of those all-too-rare match-winners who can fashion a goal from nowhere and given how we’ve been struggling for fluency in our overall play these last few months, having that kind of individualistic ability in the team can become even more of an asset to a side.

Finally, from one Arsenal attacker who’s recently ended a goal drought to another, and Olivier Giroud has revealed he nearly missed Tuesday’s win over Hull, in which he bagged a brace, after becoming a father again earlier in the day. Here’s what our Gallic goal-getter told Arsenal Player:

I could have missed the game actually, so I was glad that he arrived during the night. I could have a little rest [after he was born]. I travelled to Hull and I wanted to dedicate these two goals to him. I’m very happy to score. We scored four goals, so that’s a good efficiency up front and at the back, so we can be happy with our performance tonight. It’s always hard for a striker not to score but you have to keep the confidence as high as you can and work hard at training. I’m very pleased to get back on the scoresheet and to smell the first goal. After, it was a good assist from Theo [for the second]. I succeeded to put two in the net and it’s nice for the team. It’s nice for me obviously and now it’s Watford. If we go through, we go to Wembley.

So the big arch awaits Arsenal for what would be the fifth time in three seasons if we can secure a win over Watford. Make it happen lads…

The boss holds his pre-match press conference in the morning so we may find out the full extent of Ramsey’s injury and get a better idea of who will start on Sunday.

See you on Friday.

9th March 2016: Arsenal crush Hull to make FA Cup last eight

Evening all. A hat-trick of consecutive FA Cups is well and truly on for Arsenal after we breezed past Hull City last night, to confirm a quarter final at home with Watford on Sunday. Lovely.

A brace apiece from previously out-of-form forwards Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott secured a comfortable 4-0 win over Steve Bruce’s men but the celebrations were soured a little by injuries to Per Mertesacker, Gabriel and Aaron Ramsey.

The 7pm kick-off gave the game a sense of strangeness and the first half action only added to the surreal feel. Arsene Wenger picked a side very similar to the one I had guessed would play in yesterday’s post, with Kieran Gibbs’ inclusion at left-back instead of Nacho Monreal being the only difference.

In a very forgettable opening 45 minutes, Mertesacker and Nick Powell clashed heads when contesting the ball and with both players needing treatment, the game was stopped for a sustained period. After carrying on for a while, the German defender’s swelling eye caused him to be substituted for Monreal who slotted in as left-sided centre-back.

Then out of the blue, with the game as lively as a wake, on a pitch as smooth as sandpaper, one of Hull’s players decided he’s spare the stadium any more tedium and casually flicked the ball with outside of his left foot across his own six-yard box, where Giroud was waiting to gratefully strike home his first goal in about four years. It wasn’t so much a helping hand, as it was an aiding arm, but given the striker’s recent struggles in scoring, he dispatched the gift with the minimum of fuss.

I have to admit, and this is very, very rarely the case with me, even when we’re getting battered, but I was giving serious consideration to doing something else with my time at the break. Thankfully though, I resisted the urge and was rewarded by three further goals.

Before our second arrived, Ramsey replaced the injured Gabriel which meant Mathieu Flamini filled in at right-back for Calum Chambers, who shifted across to partner Monreal in the middle. Walcott got the assist this time, with a left-wing cross that deflected off a defender straight into Giroud’s path for a near-replica of his first goal.

I thought it was telling Gibbs immediately embraced Walcott, who for all his frustrating qualities as a footballer, is still human and therefore not immune from the considerable criticism he’s taken in recent weeks. And not just from fans either, becasue even if Arsene hasn’t taken Theo to task for his lack of form verbally, by dropping him to the bench for the last two games before last night’s he’s made clear Theo’s far from first-choice at the moment. Plus the fact that for 70 minutes or so again last night before claiming that assist, Walcott’s performance was pretty woeful.

Considering all that then, his last 20 minutes last night will hopefully provide the spark he needs to rediscover some sort of form and confidence beacuse he grabbed a brace of his own. First, Joel Campbell, who must be one of the most enthusiastic attackers I’ve ever seen in chasing back and helping out defensively, played what’s becoming a trade-mark reverse pass, having cut in from the right. His perfectly-threaded ball found Theo on the left and he took two touches in calmly passing it beyond the keeper.

With two minutes of normal time to play, Walcott completed the scoring, when his low strike from the right was deflected in at the near post. Scoring two heavily aided by deflections and one handed to us on a plate by Hull City, would indicate our luck was in last night, but in terms of injuries, karmic balance was redressed.

Thankfully Arsene revealed Mertesacker and Gabriel’s injuries are nothing serious but the news on Ramsey is not so good. I’m sure we’ll find out the extent soon enough but it looks like Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin will get more games to develop their partnership and hopefully, Campbell will continue on the right beacuse having dropped him once already this season when he’d barely put a foot wrong, I can’t see Arsene culling the Costa Rican when he’s so consistently impressive.

Back tomorrow.

8th March 2016: Arsenal head to Hull hoping to keep hat-trick hopes alive

After a couple of weeks of hell, tonight we head to Hull, looking to keep alive our hopes of winning the FA Cup for the third year in a row.

Victory would confirm a quarter final tie at home against Watford next weekend, so with all due respect to the Hornets, if we can tame the Tigers we’ll have Wembley firmly in our sights yet again.

For all our troubles in Europe and the Premier League recently, the Cup again provides us with a genuine opportunity to secure some silverware this season and even if fans are feeling a little ‘been there done that’ about the oldest cup competition in the world having tasted success twice in two seasons, completing a hat-trick of triumphs would still be a superb achievement and one no other club has managed for over 100 years.

And Arsene Wenger discussed the possibility of such a rare feat when he spoke at his pre-match press conference yesterday, saying:

If we were able to do it again, it would be absolutely fantastic. There’s no country where the national cup is bigger. In Spain and France, nobody neglects it: not Barcelona, not Madrid. Everybody plays for it 100 per cent, with a top team always. I personally rate highly the FA Cup. I think it’s a fantastic, prestigious competition. I believe it is treated like that because when I listen to people, should we lose a game in the FA Cup, it would be a disaster. You cannot say on one side it’s undervalued, and on the other side if we lose, it’s a disaster. We won the FA Cup twice in the last two years. We will try to do our best again in this competition.

It’s no crown-topped Premier League trophy and it certainly doesn’t match up to it’s big-eared European cousin, but the FA Cup is still a competition to be celebrated as far as I’m concerned and I’d love us to win it again. Chelsea in the Final with Petr Cech heading home a last-minute winner to complete the third Double of Arsene’s tenure would be perfect, but given our league standing at the moment, I’d settle for just the first half of that sentence.

In terms of how we’ll line up, based on the teams we’ve selected so far in the competition this season, my guess is Mesut Ozil will be rested but may make the bench unlike in previous rounds, and Alex Iwobi, an FA Cup ever-present this term, will start in the German’s place.

David Ospina will no doubt be in goal and given Laurent Koscielny is still injured, I guess who we play at the back depends a little on whether the boss feels Hector Bellerin needs a rest. If he does, then we play Calum Chambers at right-back with Gabriel and Per Mertesacker in the middle, but if not, then one the latter two can get a breather and Chambers can play centrally. Left-back also has a question mark hanging over it because usually Kieran Gibbs would deputise for Nacho Monreal but the Spaniard was rested in our last game so who knows.

I think Aaron Ramsey will also be left out, along with Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck, and considering we’re pretty short of options at the base of midfield, I think we’ll line-up something like this:

Ospina; Chambers, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Monreal; Flamini, Elneny, Iwobi; Campbell, Giroud, Walcott.

As for our opposition, they’re flying high and sit in third place in the Championship but similar to the first game in this tie, are expected to rotate heavilly themselves.

It’ll be a tough game regardless, but it’s one we really ought win on paper and given how close we’d be to winning the competition again were we to triumph tonight, the players should need no extra motivation to make it happen. Let’s see.

Back tomorrow.

COME ON ARSENAL!

7th March 2016: Wenger on team news and growing pressure

Welcome back. Arsene Wenger held his pre-Hull press conference this morning, revealing the latest team news, as well as discussing the growing unrest among Arsenal supporters following a feeble run of form that has seen us fall eight points behind Premier League leaders Leicester City.

But first to availability for tomorrow’s FA Cup replay against the Tigers and the boss hinted at a strong selection for the game, whilst providing updates on the fitness of Laurent Koscielny and Petr Cech. He said:

We lose Coquelin from his bad tackle on Saturday and everyone else looks available. I have to see how everybody has recovered today but overall we should have the same squad that went to Tottenham plus Alex Iwobi will certainly be added to the squad. Petr’s scans were better than expected, but it will still be four weeks for him. So after the international break. Laurent will be short for Hull. he has a chance to be available for the weekend, but I think even for then he will be short.

Nothing surprising in all of that and considering the Cup now appears our most realistic opportunity to secure silverware this season, I suppose the game takes on added importance. But more on that in tomorrow’s post when I’ll be playing Arsenal Manager again and trying to guess our starting XI, so tune in.

On to the swirling sh*tstorm engulfing London Colney at the moment and particularly the manager’s office. There have been numerous stories over the last week or so about Arsene’s future, with one paper going as far as to say the boss will be asked to leave if we fail to beat Hull tomorrow.

Then there’s rumours of legendary ex-players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp all supposedly being lined up to step in if the club decide to make a change, ignoring the fact all three of them have zero experience of top-level management (New York City doesn’t count). Anyway, the boss was inevitably asked about his future and pressure from irate fans and here’s what he said:

I feel privileged to have the confidence of the club for such a long time. On the other hand, I work seven days a week with full commitment. I’m not part time and since I have been here I have given full commitment and that is all I can do. I always have the same pressure, which is the same pressure I apply to myself. After that, people talk and you have more people talking than 20 years ago and more opinions. That doesn’t change the pressure. The real pressure comes from your desire to win the next game and that is the only one that matters really. I do my job and one day someone will replace me. That is part of life and as long as you have done well and given your best [that is what matters]. That is what I try to do. I try to do my best and leave this club in the best shape so the guy coming after me will have good potential to work with.

I’m sure this isn’t the first time we’ve heard these words from Wenger and they probably won’t be the last. He’s in charge and he’ll make the call on when to call it a day – that much is pretty clear. Whether that’s healthy or not is up for debate but it is what it is and unless results continue to disappoint, nothing will change at least until the summer.

If I were to guess though, I’d say nothing will change at least until the end of Arsene’s current contract which expires in May 2017, at which point, we may have just won the treble. Unlikely of course but the point is that trying to guess what the world will look like so far down the line is a fool’s errand. Just look at Leicester.

A bit short but I’m afraid that’s where I’ll leave it.

Back pre-game tomorrow.

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.

Laters.

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.