17th April 2016: Poor Arsenal punished by Palace

Sunday greetings. So a poor game played in front of a near-silent home support ended in a 1-1 draw as a lackluster Arsenal were pegged back from a goal ahead by a Crystal Palace side who only ventured out of their own half in the final ten minutes or so.

Arsene Wenger restored Petr Cech between the posts in the only change to our starting line-up from last week’s draw at West Ham, and having been criticized for leaving him out against the Hammers, the former Chelsea stopper was arguably at fault for Palace’s goal today, as he let Yannick Bolasie’s low, long-range effort beat him at his near post with nine minutes of normal time to play.

We had taken the lead late in the first half after Danny Welbeck’s brilliant chipped pass was headed home from close-range by Alexis Sanchez, but despite dominating possession in the opening period, we failed to fashion many clear-cut chances against a visiting team intent on doing nothing but defend.

I won’t go into individual performances because there’s little to say other than collectively, we looked like a team knew the title was realistically beyond reach and now just want this depressingly familiar season to end – much like me if I’m honest.

After the game, Arsene said:

They defended well. We put a lot of effort in but came out with a frustrating result. It is hard to accept but the competition goes on and we focus on the next one. I don’t know how it works mathematically but we are too disappointed to think about the league. We have to think about the Champions League and fight to be in the Champions League. We have another home game on Thursday and have to prepare for that.

And that’s the point – we now need to focus on securing a top four finish because having started the weekend in third, we end it a place lower, trailing Manchester City on goal difference and with our lead over Manchester United in fifth cut to just four points.

There has been much speculation in recent weeks that the likes of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs may be moved on this summer and frankly, if the rest of the squad joined them in an unprecedented fire-sale to make way for 25 new faces, I’m not sure I’d be that bothered. It won’t happen of course because this isn’t fantasy, it’s football, but that’s the way this Arsenal team makes me feel sometimes. *Sigh*

So the countdown to Thursday night’s clash with West Brom begins. I can’t wait …

See you next week.

16th April 2016: Wenger still hopeful and determined to tighten defence

Welcome back. It seems like just the other day Mesut Ozil was crossing for Olivier Giroud to acrobatically volley us ahead at Selhurst Park, Francis Coquelin was riding his luck on a yellow card, and Alexis Sanchez was forcing a winner through sheer will by seeing his header deflect in off Damian Delaney, but that was as long ago as mid-August, in what was only our second game of the season.

Tomorrow, we welcome the south Londoners to Emirates stadium looking to secure the win that would send us back up to third in the standings after Manchester City walked to a win at Chelsea earlier today, thanks to a Sergio Aguero treble.

And whilst talk of an Arsenal title challenge is pretty futile at this stage in most observers’ opinion, Arsene Wenger isn’t giving the ghost just yet, suggesting at his press conference yesterday that West Ham can get something from their game at Leicester tomorrow, whilst his own side must go on a ‘strong run’ at home. He said:

West Ham have beaten many big teams at home and I feel we were not happy with the result [last weekend] because we conceded three goals when we were 2-0 up. On the other hand, we have shown resilience to come back to 3-3 when we were in a desperate position. For everybody it is tight, and we have to look behind us because everybody is chasing. There can still be twists and turns until the end and everyone is fighting to put teams in front of us under pressure. We need a strong run at home now and I think that is what we want to do. It is perceived that the championship is over but I don’t think that completely even if Leicester are in a strong position. I think we have to continue to fight until the last minute of the season. Crystal Palace should now be completely safe but they still might need one or two points. I think they have nearly got out of their relegation problems. They have a lot of potential offensively with individuals like Bolasie, Zaha, and Adebayor. They have a big offensive force. We need to rectify the fact we conceded goals at West Ham and come back strong defensively.

One obvious way to improve at the back would be reinstalling Petr Cech in goal and though David Ospina has performed pretty well in recent weeks, I think the boss will do just that. Per Mertersacker for Gabriel seems another good bet but otherwise I think we’ll be unchanged. And Arsene also discussed the importance of communication in defending, saying:

We try to work a lot on that. I think maybe it was a bit more obvious before because maybe in training everybody had the same culture before. People come from different countries [and] it’s sometimes a bit more difficult to communicate. I would say the communication in England was always at a higher level than in any other country. I noticed that when I came with Monaco. We made a tour here in 1988 and I looked at some training sessions and was always surprised by how loud the communication was in the English teams compared to my team. Monaco were much quieter. The communication is very important, especially at the back. Sometimes just to tell your guys around you to come closer or drop off. That can save a goal. It’s a vital part of the defensive efficiency.

So six games to go with four at home starting with Palace tomorrow. If we can somehow take 18 points we’ll definitely secure third and a place in next year’s Champions League and who knows, perhaps more. There’s no harm in hope.

Back post-match.


16th August 2015: Acrobatic Giroud and forceful Sanchez secure win over Palace

That was certainly much more like it from Arsenal. A 2-1 win over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park this afternoon, secured thanks to a stunning strike by Olivier Giroud and an own-goal forced by Alexis Sanchez, sees us shoot up this embryonic Premier League table to 11th.

Arsene Wenger thankfully opted to correct last week’s bizarre decision to move Santi Cazorla from central midfield to the left flank, and the Spaniard returned to partner Francis Coquelin in front of the defence today.

Alexis Sanchez came into the starting 11 at the expense of a benched Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, to play from his usual left-sided role, with Aaron Ramsey moving to the right. At the back, Hector Bellerin replaced Mathieu Debuchy at right fullback.

On what was a newly-laid Selhurst Park pitch, and by the look of it, a widened one too, we immediately appeared a far more composed, cohesive, and hence creative, attacking unit than against West Ham on the opening day. It’s hard to pick out an individual for praise in that opening spell because they were all outstanding and the hosts were left chasing shadows for the most part.

But at the heart of it all was Cazorla, who regulated our passing from deep and proved no less a defensive asset, taking up great positions on several occasions through sheer intelligence and game-reading, to halt Palace attacks.

For me, and I said this after our pre-season win over Everton last month, Cazorla is critical for our functioning as a side and must be played where he was today. If that means the likes of Ramsey and Jack Wilshere have to play in roles they wouldn’t consider their first choice then tough luck I’m afraid, because they simply cannot replicate what Cazorla produces in that position.

And with all the talk of a new striker need amongst fans and pundits alike, Giroud showed he has plenty to offer at the tip of the attack by acrobatically volleying home Mesut Ozil’s considered left wing cross to put us one nil up after 16 minutes.

It was undoubtedly a world class finish by a player who may not be in the very top bracket of strikers, and even today showed signs of frustrating more refined team-mates (especially Ozil) with his, shall we say, less than nimble footwork, but who can be a potent poacher against a lot of defences in this league. It really was some effort to kickstart our goals scored column for the new campaign.

Inevitably though, we didn’t maintain our hypnotising opening spell of football for the whole of the first half, and Palace punished some rare bad defending by Laurent Koscielny to restore parity through Joel Ward’s skidding long-range strike after 28 minutes.

In truth, it was a criminal lack of closing down by our otherwise impeccable number six and all the more baffling as it smacked a little of complacency – something the manager said was partly to blame for our defeat seven days ago. It was almost as if the Frenchman did’t think that player would trouble Petr Cech from that range. Unfortunately for us, Ward produced a great strike and Cech could do nothing to stop it arrowing into the bottom corner to his right.

Cue a social media maelstrom of ‘Mesut’s sh*t’, ‘we’re all f*cked’ and ‘Wenger’s a wally’ until that is, we regained the lead courtesy of a Bellerin cross to the back post, which was met by the whirlwind that is Sanchez, whose header may well have been en route to the inside of the far post, but was instead diverted into his own net by Damien Delaney ten minutes into the second half.

The impressive Coquelin, who was cautioned in the first half and clearly targeted by the home support and players as a man they could help to get sent off, was removed from the action and replaced by the Ox just after the hour mark, with Ramsey moving into the centre alongside Cazorla.

It was a timely intervention by Arsene as Coquelin had been warned one more foul would result in his dismissal. We then made further changes to shore up our defence as Palace chased an equaliser, bringing on Mikel Arteta and Kieran Gibbs for Sanchez and Ozil to help close out the game as we did against Chelsea in the Community Shield at Wembley a fortnight ago.

Overall, we produced the necessary result against an improved Palace outfit who will no doubt make life difficult for all the top teams when they visit south London this season. Our first three points of the season safely on the board and a return to a more fluent formation before we entertain Liverpool a week tomorrow – the best possible response to last week’s defeat.

Meanwhile up in Manchester, Jose Mourinho hooked his captain after 45 minutes and saw his reigning champions get handed a lesson in expansive, expensively-assembled attacking play, as Chelsea hilariously lost 3-0 to ensure zero wins from their opening two games for the first time since the 1998-99 season.

So almost the perfect Sunday, and I say almost, because although it’s always a pleasure to see Mourinho and Chelsea get beat, the best result from an Arsenal title challenge perspective, would surely have been a draw between last year’s top two – especially considering the commanding manner in which City have started their season.

Back tomorrow with post-match reaction etc.

Until then.

15th August 2015: Who will play against Palace?

Welcome back. As is the norm after a defeat like last Sunday’s against West Ham, it’s been a looooong week. We’ve had six days of introspection and castigation but at Selhurst Park tomorrow afternoon, we have an opportunity to put our false start behind us and secure our first Premier League points of the new season.

Of course, it won’t be easy. This is a stronger Palace than the one we did the league double over last year and we’re coming off the back of a wretched display. In terms of team selection, I’m tempted to suggest we should be unchanged personnel-wise, and look perhaps at finessing our formation by playing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from the left, Aaron Ramsey on the right and shifting Santi Cazorla back in alongside Francis Coquelin.

I think Palace’s pace down their right flank would be too much for Santi if for instance Wilfried Zaha or Yannick Bolasie are played and more importantly, we miss his passing in the middle when he’s deployed wide.

Speaking of flanks, although Alexis Sanchez has been declared fit and available by Arsene Wenger, judging by how off the pace our Chilean magician looked against the Hammers, I’d be surprised if he was in peak condition just seven days on. Barring that cameo, he’s had no match practice since his summer break after all.

Here’s what Arsene’s had to say yesterday on Sanchez’ fitness and what he expects from the former Barcelona man this season:

He came back reasonably fit. He practised for two weeks before he came back. He did not start from zero. In training now, he looks alright. I knew before the start that, once he was here, he would be difficult to stop. So I gave him a long enough break. He had four weeks off, which is quite reasonable. He finished on July 3 and he came back on August 3. He works extremely hard in every single training session to show that he is ready. I think what he does is, for me, normal. It is what everybody should do. You wonder if he has created a beach at home, and runs along the living room! He is a hyperactive guy. He needs that to be happy. He played 52 or 53 games last season, plus the Copa America. That means somewhere he has an instinct that shows how far he can go. It is difficult. In March, April, May, you could see he was a bit jaded. But he is still a guy who can make a decision in a game. And once he is out there he gives 100 per cent. This season, he knows what is expected from him, and he will do better than last year.

Alexis will no doubt be chomping a the bit to be involved from the start because that’s just the irrepressible nature of the man, but If there’s any doubt he’s not completely ready, I’d give him another place on the bench and expect not to have to introduce him out of desperation like last week.

Up front, with goals on consecutive visits to Palace and the physical nature of the hosts’ game, I can’t imagine Olivier Giroud won’t start. On a similar note, on our last visit, Calum Chambers was picked ahead of Hector Bellerin, presumablly for his added height more than anything else, so it will be interesting to see if Arsene adjusts his defensive lineup at all.

I mean, we have more than one position now where the first-choice is far from certain so we could, contrary to most of the above, actually see a number of changes. One or more of Gabriel, Bellerin, Mikel Arteta, and Theo Walcott could all conceivably start the match.

But whichever 11 are picked, they’ll need to be far more measured with their passing on what is a new, hopefully slick, pitch and far better organised all over the field than we were against West Ham.

Lets see.


11th August 2015: Arsenal undefeated for over 20 years

Evening people. Hopefully everyone’s starting to get over Sunday’s defeat because given our pre-season form leading up to the game, it was undoubtedly a seismic shock to the system. A bolt from the claret and blue. As shocking as Jose Mourinho’s treatment of his medical staff.

But with the club in no mood to talk, our fanbase evidently distraught and transfer news starting and ending with the Twitter-powered Karim Benzema saga, I thought I’d take this opportunity to look back on the club’s history against our next opponents.

Forget 49 games, Arsenal are undefeated in over 20 years to Crystal Palace in all competitions, having won the last five, all in the Premier League. Since their promotion back to the top flight for the 2013-2014 campaign, we’ve scored two goals in all four fixtures, winning the first 2-0 at Selhurst Park in October 2013 with goals from Mikel Arteta (pen) and Olivier Giroud.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain then settled the return fixture by grabbing both goals from a central midfield assignment in another 2-0 win in February 2014.

Last season, we opened our Premier League campaign by hosting the Eagles of course, and responded to Brede Hangeland’s opener for the visitors by scoring through Laurent Koscielny, before Aaron Ramsey grabbed a last-minute winner.

And our last trip to Selhurst Park in February earlier this year was settled by goals from Santi Cazorla (pen) and Giroud, with Glenn Murray tapping in a late consolation for the hosts, to induce heart palpitations in us all for a couple of minutes.

But before this recent quartet of clashes, we have to go all the way back to Valentine’s Day 2005 for the last meeting between the two sides, when a brace from Thierry Henry (one from a well-worked corner routine if memory serves) and a goal apiece from Dennis Bergkamp, Jose Antonio Reyes and Patrick Vieira secured us a handsome 5-1 win at Highbury. Andy Johnson got their solitary strike.

The first fixture that season was the last time Palace managed to stop us winning, with the Finn, Aki Riihilahti, quickly cancelling out Henry’s opener in the second half of the game at Selhurst Park in November 2004.

Arsene Wenger has faced the south London club on a further four occasions as Arsenal manager. His first two games both ended in 0-0 draws; a league game at Selhurst Park in October 1997, before an FA Cup clash in February 1998 at Highbury.

In fact, we played the Eagles three times in just ten days that month, with a 1-0 league win, secured courtesy of Gilles Grimandi’s solitary strike at Highbury, being sandwiched by our FA Cup replay, won thanks to an early goal by Nicolas Anelka and another later that half from Bergkamp, before Bruce Dyer pulled one back for the hosts.

Our overall record against Palace, stretching back to the first meeting in January 1934 – a 7-0 Arsenal win, including a brace by Cliff Bastin, third on our list of all-time top-scorers with 178 – reads played 37, won 24, drawn 10 and lost 3 in all comps.

What does all of the above indicate in terms of our next meeting? If you’re a sucker for sequences, I guess it depends on how far back you go. But I wouldn’t look further than 2013 because before that, the squads of both sides contained completely different personnel.

In which case we should score twice and win, Giroud will net the second and a Spaniard will score our first from the spot with Palace maybe getting on the score-sheet themselves. But I prefer to adhere to the mantra an old boss at work offered me in reference to the technical analysis of financial markets: ‘what the f*ck has the past got to do with the future?’.

Still, taking a little trip down memory lane provided me at least, with a welcome distraction from our humbling by the Hammers.

Actual news-wise, our third-choice goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez has joined Wolves on a season’s loan. Hopefully there’s a recall option in the event of an injury/suspension to Petr Cech or David Ospina because otherwise, we’re looking at one of the academy keepers to step up. Anyway, best of luck to the big Argentine and he joins former Arsenal youth and goal-scoring machine Benik Afobe at the Midlands club.

Back tomorrow.