25th March 2016: Barca want Ozil says report + Rami rates Elneny

Happy Good Friday. It’s still very quiet at the moment in terms of Arsenal news and I was considering not posting gain until after the internationals but that would be as lazy as Andrei Arshavin, so here I am.

I’ll start with a report in Spanish newspaper AS which says Barcelona are “keeping tabs” on Mesut Ozil and that the player himself is “crazy” about a return to Spanish football and would jump at the chance to join the Catalans where he could supply assists for the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

There could be something in the story, or it could be completely fabricated, like Chelsea’s history. Who knows, and with the summer transfer window still a good few months away, who cares?

What I would say is that with the more and more clubs awash with big money and the number of players of Ozil’s class extremely limited, demand for his services will undoubtedly be fierce. So I suppose his longevity at Arsenal will be dependent on whether a) we pay him enough to stay and b) he wants to remain a Gunner and feels he can achieve his trophy-winning goals with Arsenal.

Moving on and our former goalkeeper Rami Shabaan, who was an international for Sweden but has an Egyptian father, has been speaking about Mohamed Elneny’s move to Arsenal and reckons the midfielder has the potential to become a star for the Gunners. He said:

Looking at Egyptian players historically, there have been some amazing talents, but only a few have been able to take that step. I think that Mohamed Elneny will be one of them. I think he’s going to fit the club perfectly, and listening to what the boss says about him as well only makes me more convinced. Football is like a religion for Egyptians, especially with the tough times in Egypt at the moment. I remember when I went to Egypt. It was like a superstar had arrived at the airport. For me it was a shock. You can’t compare that with Sweden. In Egypt, they really praise their stars. He [Elneny] has really adapted and I hope he gets more and more time. But it will take time. I hope he can make that step to be a regular and become something really big at Arsenal.

Lets hope so and he’s certainly made a very encouraging start to life as an Arsenal player. With Santi Cazorla scheduled to return from injury in the near future, it will be interesting to see who the boss selects in central midfield because neither of the current incumbents, in Elneny and Francis Coquelin, have done much wrong in the last few games when we’ve really started to look like a fluently-functioning team at long last.

Time will tell I guess.

Back tomorrow.

16th March 2016: Arsenal brave, but Barcelona were half-bothered

Welcome back. So in a huge shock this evening, Arsenal lost 3-1 at Barcelona to exit the Champions League at the last 16 stage.

In seriousness though, despite Arsene Wenger deciding to pull an actual surprise and play Alex Iwobi and Mathieu Flamini from the start at Camp Nou, his side produced a commendable performance in defeat, creating a number of goal-scoring opportunities against the best club side in football.

But whilst we had near-misses and were ruing what ifs at half-time, the hosts had extended the lead they brought into the game from the first leg three weeks ago, with Neymar calmly stroking the ball past David Ospina after 18 minutes. The goal came about when Laurent Koscielny tried to carry the ball out from defence but was crowded out of possession and Luis Suarez sent Neymar through one-on-one with Ospina.

Just before half-time, Flamini pulled up seemingly clutching his hamstring and the rested Francis Coquelin came on his place for the last minute or two of the first-half, before spending the interval warming up properly. That was a relief because when he came on, such is our luck with injuries, my first thought wasn’t ‘how will he play?’, but ‘has he warmed up well enough and what if he gets injured and misses Everton?’.

Anyway, Coquelin fears allayed, we began the second well, with Barcelona playing like they could barely be bothered and knew they were all but through. Yet we gave them a genuine cause to reassess their creeping complacency just six minutes into the second period. Alexis Sanchez cut the ball back to the edge of the box from the right and Mohamed Elneny was there to strike it first-time using his right in-step, bending the ball around a Barcelona defender and into the top of the net at the near post giving their keeper no chance.

And it might have got better for us just moments later when Danny Welbeck nicked the ball high up the pack, cut inside Javier Mascherano onto his left foot and got a shot away, only to see it deflected wide by a a recovery challenge from the Argentine. In hindsight, Welbeck should have taken another touch as Mascherano had committed early to the slide and would have been helpless if Welbeck had decided to dummy his shot, but it wasn’t to be.

Unsurprisingly, with us back in the tie as well as the game at this point, Barcelona upped their game and found the goal that put them back in front on the night, 4-1 up on aggregate, and effectively killed the tie. Dani Alves crossed from the right and Suarez shinned a volley into the far top corner. It was fortuitous to say the least and not Barcelona’s only piece of luck on the night.

Iwobi was tripped, probably inadvertently, by Mascherano in the Barca box in the first half but despite seeing the incident described as ‘the worst dive of all time’ by some, it was a penalty as far as I’m concerned. There were numerous other decisions that were very harsh on Arsenal and generous to the hosts but then that’s always the case for any side playing Barcelona – home or away.

Our only complaints with the final meaningful action of the game however, were directed at our own defending as we failed to clear the ball in the 88th minute and Lionel Messi decided to get in on the goal-scoring act and scoop the ball past Ospina to make it 3-1.

Overall then, despite another defeat, I thought it was a good performance by us under the circumstances but we should factor in that Barcelona played well within themselves. Yet given our recent form, I’ll take that performance and hopefully the confidence some of the players, like Elneny, will have gained, as we now prepare to play in the only competition we can still win this season.

Given how few Premier League games remain and the fact leaders Leicester lie 11 points ahead of us at the moment, only a win at Everton on Saturday will suffice. Our preparation should already have started.

See you tomorrow.

15th March 2016: Wenger and Vermaelen on Arsenal’s hopes

Evening all. So Newcastle couldn’t do us a favour after all last night, and we’re now 11 points behind Premier League leaders Leicester City, albeit with a game in hand. Boll*cks.

But there’s plenty of time to talk about the domestic title race, and whether we’re still part of it, later in the week. For now it’s all thoughts on Barcelona and wondering whether we can at the very least produce a decent performance, even if getting a result that carries us through will need the most exceptional of circumstances on the night. Like the entire Barcelona starting selection injuring themselves in the warm-up, for instance.

One man who thinks the tie isn’t over just yet though, is our former captain and current Barcelona bit-player Thomas Vermaelen, who says the Catalans will find it tough against ‘dangerous’ Arsenal:

Of course we will be the favourites but I know Arsenal, and I know it’s not going to be easy. I think they gave us a tough time in London. When I was there, we played a couple of times against Bayern Munich and we lost at home, but then we went to Bayern Munich, we had very good results and we were close to going through. You can never say they are out because they will always come back. The second leg is not going to be easy. They want to play football on the floor, they want to keep the ball on the ground and that’s what both teams want. They’d rather not play with long balls because that’s not the type of their play. They have pace and are physical. They have very quick players on the wing and are very energetic. That’s what makes them dangerous.

Awwww. That’s nice of Tommy V to say. But that’s all he’s doing, the same as most players would about a former club having moved onto a bigger, better one. In private, I’m sure he’s expecting Barcelona to beat us again just like everybody else. They’re just a far, far superior team.

Anyway, unsurprisingly, Arsene Wenger was also sounding pretty bullish at his pre-match press conference earlier this evening, suggesting the objective for his team is clear-cut and that he’ll instruct his side to attack. He said:

We are in a position where we need to score two or three goals. That demands a very [clear charge]. We know that we need to attack and take the game to them. I felt that our approach [in the first leg] was not so bad. We lost our balance a bit just after half-time. We got caught on the counter-attack at a moment where we looked to be on top of the game, so we are in a position where I don’t think we have to think too much.

Now you might read that and think it’s a little confused from Arsene because on the one hand he says our approach was on the right track in the first leg when we certainly did anything but take the game to Barcelona, yet on the other he suggest we’ll be adventurous tomorrow because we have to. But I think I know what he means.

We played the first 70 minutes of the first leg well and having arrived at a stage of the game when we’d be most likely to score (based on the previous two meetings between the sides at Emirates stadium in recent years), we conceded two goals that could easily have been avoided, even against such brilliant opponents.

Right, brief and abrupt, but that’s it from me for tonight.

Back either pre or post-game tomorrow. I haven’t decided yet.

Brace yourselves.

 

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.

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.

COME ON ARSENAL …

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.