19th March 2016: Fluent first-half enough to see off Everton as Iwobi impresses

Saturday greetings. Whenever he decides to hang up his stop-watch, if there’s one thing I’ll miss about Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, it’s that unique excitement and feeling of pride that’s generated by the flourishing of a new young talent.

Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Cesc Fabregas – the list goes on – and now, Alex Iwobi. Of course, we already knew quite a bit about the Nigerian teenager heading into today’s game against Everton at Goodison Park, given he’s enjoyed a fair bit of first-team football in what has been his break-through campaign, not least his surprise start against Barcelona in midweek, but his performance today felt like a coming of age game. Like Anelka against Manchester United in that 3-2 win at Highbury during our 1997-98 title-winning season, or Fabregas against Juventus in 2006.

With much older and experienced team-mates like Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and, to a lesser extent, Joel Campbell, left on the bench in favour of Iwobi today, the youngster showed just why his manager has no qualms about starting him in crucial games by producing a brilliant team-minded display and rounding it off by scoring his first goal in professional football to put us two-nil up after 42 minutes.

Having played an important part in helping to win back possession a few yards outside our own box, Iwobi sprinted into space on the right and was found with a great ball over the top by Hector Bellerin. Despite having support to his left, Iwobi showed confidence and composure in abundance by closing in on goal and slipping his shot through the keeper’s legs.

Moments later he combined brilliantly with Danny Welbeck, as the two forwards exchanged intricate back-flicks to bamboozle Everton, but on this occasion Iwobi took the wrong option, choosing to go alone and skewing his shot just wide of the near post when he should have played it back to Welbeck to his left.

Iwobi appears to have developed a promising relationship with Welbeck, and it was the latter who had put us ahead in the seventh minute when he provided a clinical finale to an exquisite team goal. An initial attacking move created a chance for Iwobi following an Ozil cross from the right but the youngster was forced to turn away from goal and restart the move by laying the ball off to Nacho Monreal near the left by-line.

We then worked it across to the opposite side of the pitch and Alexis Sanchez played a sharp one-two with Ozil before the Chilean produced an inch perfect through ball for Welbeck, who needed just two touches to round their keeper and find the back of the net. The run and finish from the striker was Thierry Henry-esque and the least we deserved for a quick, slick start to the match.

We then nearly doubled our lead moments later when Sanchez won the ball high up the pitch and found the on-rushing Iwobi who saw his first-time, side-footed effort saved by their keeper. Something clicked in that opening period for Arsenal as an attacking force and the fact we had had 11 starters who are all very comfortable in possession and quick-witted enough to play a pass-and-move game was undoubtedly the main reason.

There were no Girouds, Ramseys or Walcotts on show to disrupt the rhythm of our passing and even though those three players have their own considerable individual strengths and can be valuable assets in certain circumstances, I think I much prefer today’s cohesion to the more chaotic characteristics that trio bring to the side. That said, Everton were very poor today so perhaps we shouldn’t get too excited just yet.

The second half was a more disjointed affair with David Ospina taking a heavy impact to his side after bravely diving at the feet of Romelu Lukaku, before Kieran Gibbs, Giroud and Calum Chambers came on for Iwobi, Welbeck and Ozil, with the latter worryingly nursing a knock to his left ankle after being caught late by one of Everton’s players.

So all in all a great performance first-half, intelligent game-management in the second, and would you believe it, three whole Premier League points won for what feels like the first time in about three years. Sadly, Leicester show no signs of cracking just yet and ground out another one-nil win today, this time at Crystal Palace, to restore their 11 point lead over us. They have seven to play to our eight, so it’s still possible to catch them but we need the Foxes to start stumbling, and fast.

Spurs host Bournemouth and the Manchester clubs face each other tomorrow, so hopefully results will go in our favour and we can look back at this weekend as one in which we made up some ground ahead of us, whilst also putting some distance between the teams hot on our trail. Otherwise, it”ll be another round of fixtures down without progress points-wise, even if our own performance was very praiseworthy indeed.

See you on Sunday.

18th March 2016: Wenger on title race and team news

Happy Friday. It’s Everton away in the early kick-off tomorrow and nothing bar victory will suffice for Arsenal as we try to keep alive our faint hopes of ending the season as Premier League champions.

Many have already written us off and called a two-horse race between Tottenham and leaders Leicester but that, as things stand at least, is premature. If we win tomorrow we could end the day three points behind second placed Sp*rs and eight behind the Foxes with a game in hand – if Claudio Ranieri’s men slip up at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace.

So when Arsene Wenger spoke at his pre-match press conference earlier today and suggested there’s still likely to be twists and turns and the title race was far from a foregone conclusion, you could see where he’s coming from.

On the other hand, with Manchester City just a point behind us, West Ham a further two adrift and even Manchester United not yet out of the top-four picture entirely in sixth place, we need to be just as wary of those behind us in the standings, as we hopeful of catching the two teams ahead. Here’s what Arsene said:

I would say we have to go step by step. Let’s get back to winning habits first, that starts tomorrow… if we win tomorrow, we’ll see. That’s our target. But at the moment, the only way to achieve something special is first to be realistic and humble enough to deal first with Everton. Things will change until the end of the season, that’s for sure. We have to take care of our own destiny, and that’s by producing the performances we expect from ourselves. It’s very tight, but I believe the Premier League is far from over. We are in a position where we hope for the best. I agree that a negative result would be very bad for us, but we focus on a positive result. We know now is the time for us to produce the result we want. We also have to look behind us because things can change very quickly. We want to move forward, but I’m conscious that our position is not secure, even where we are.

In terms of team news, the boss revealed only Mathieu Flamini, who went off injured against Barcelona on Wednesday, is unavailable from our last match-day squad and will be replaced by Calum Chambers. As for our long-term casualties, he revealed:

Wilshere is showing good signs now of recovery, Santi is a bit slower. The players who will definitely be back from injury [after the international break] will be Ramsey, Cech and maybe Flamini. But I don’t think Cazorla or Wilshere will be straight after the international break.

So good news on most but a little sketchy on Santi, which is of course concerning and also a little confusing, because when Arsene spoke a week or two about the Spaniard suffering a fresh setback due to an Achilles problem, the player himself took to social media to express his surprise at the stories of a delayed comeback and insisted he was on schedule to return at the start of April. All a bit weird.

Now usually, I’d play Arsenal Manager right about now and have a guess at tomorrow’s starting line-up but today, I’m not really feeling it. I just hope whoever’s selected performs well, we keep 11 players on the pitch for the whole game and emerge victorious to breathe fresh life into a campaign that’s nearing a flat-line.

Back post-match.

COYG!

24th October 2015: Giroud and Koscielny goals send Arsenal top

Happy Saturday Gooners. The clocks may go back tonight but Arsenal continue to march forward in the title race.

Goals by Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny secured a 2-1 win over Everton at a rain-soaked Emirates stadium today, to make the Gunners league leaders for the first time in 20 months.

Of course, one of the two Manchester clubs could dislodge us from the top of the table as early as tomorrow, but for tonight at least, we can enjoy being in pole position in the Premier League.

After Tuesday night’s exertions against Bayern Munich, Arsene Wenger decided/was forced to freshen things up; he recalled Gabriel in place of Per Mertesacker, who was missing through illness, and as expected, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came into the side for the injured Aaron Ramsey. Giroud started up front at the expense of a benched Theo Walcott for the third and final change to our starting line-up from midweek.

And it was the Frenchman who gave us the lead after 36 minutes. Mesut Ozil drifted to the right and his precise, lofted ball into the centre was glanced home by Giroud. It was a superb assist from Ozil and typified another classy, hard-running performance by our German playmaker.

Two minutes later, we doubled our lead in similar circumstances. Alexis Sanchez was brought down on the left, Santi Cazorla took the resulting free-kick and produced a wicked, in-swinging ball for Koscielny to nod past Tim Howard.

To be fair, for both goals, the Everton defending was woeful, as our Gallic duo took it in turns to saunter into Howard’s six-yard box unchallenged, yet we did look a threat from set plays all game long and it seems being more productive from these situations is something the squad have discussed and worked on in training.

Then, just before half-time, Oxlade-Chamberlain picked up possession on the edge of the Everton box with Hector Bellerin unmarked and in space to his right, but chose to shoot rather than play in his team-mate on the overlap. His effort was blocked and the visitors launched a counter attack which resulted in them pulling a goal back. The lively, if a little divey, Gerard Deulofeu led the break and picked out Ross Barkley with a neat, cross-field pass.

Barkley strode forward and looked to have lost momentum but composed himself to fire a left-footed strike from just outside the area and saw his effort deflected past a helpless Petr Cech off an attempted block by Gabriel. It was unlucky on the Brazilian but meant we went from nearly being three up and having the game won by half-time, to facing another difficult 45 minutes after the interval.

Both sides had chances in the second half; Giroud saw an acrobatic attempt after a headed one-two with Oxlade-Chamberlain saved by Howard, before hitting the bar with another effort. Substitute Mathieu Flamini headed straight at their goalkeeper when he found himself on the end of a pin-point, right-wing cross by Sanchez, and Ozil hit the outside of a post after great individual work on the right.

Everton also hit the woodwork, with Romelu Lukaku’s header caressing the top of the cross-bar for what was the closest they came to an equaliser. Cech once again proved his worth by racing off his line and closing down the angle for Deulofeu when the former Barcelona man had a clear sight of our goal, and Gabriel produced a crucial tackle in our box towards the end of the game before celebrating his intervention like he’d just scored our third.

Despite visibly dropping off physically in the second half, we managed to see out the win and I have to say we have gone from being castigated regularly for supposedly having a lack of ‘know-how’ in recent seasons, to a team brimful of brains. In attack Sanchez sets the hard-working tone, Francis Coquelin and Cazorla are efficient and industrious in the middle of the park and Cech’s presence in goal is huge in more than one sense.

There seems to be a shared vision and determination amongst the players and it’s exciting to see. We now travel to Sheffield Wednesday in the Capital One Cup on, er, Wednesday*, and I’m sure we’ll see wholesale changes to afford most of our first-choice selection a very well-deserved rest after what’s been a perfect week.

Back with more thoughts on the game and post-match reaction on Sunday.

Laters.

* Correction: we play The Owls on Tuesday.

23rd October 2015: Premier League Preview – Let’s stick it to The Toffees and go top

Welcome back. With the two Manchester clubs not playing until they face each other on Sunday, Arsenal can go top of the Premier League table for the first time this season if we beat Everton in the early evening kick-off tomorrow.

A win against Roberto Martinez’s ninth-placed side would be a landmark 100th against them in the all-time, head-to-head record, and we go into the match unbeaten in 21 home games against The Toffees in all competitions.

Yet despite the fact we can climb to the summit of the standings, Arsene Wenger says it’s too early to be getting carried away in terms of our title chances. Speaking at his pre-match press conference earlier today, he said:

It’s too early. It’s very early. We lost our first game at home against West Ham. After, we went to Crystal Palace and you think it could be a repetition of last year, where after 10 games we were basically out of the race. At a big club, that is always very difficult to handle. At least we are up there with a good number of points and we have made the ground up. Let’s show that we can be in the fight.

Of course, he’s right. We’re nearing the end of October and the fact we’re within touching distance of the leaders represents a big improvement from this time last year, but there’s still an awfully long way to go. It’s a bit of a cliche but we just need to take one game at a time, ensure our preparation and focus is spot on for every game and see where it takes us.

We used up a lot of energy on Tuesday night in beating Bayern Munich but will have had almost four full days to recover by the time we kick-off tomorrow and Arsene revealed fatigue doesn’t appear to be an issue. When he was asked if there was a new-found, feel-good factor around the club after the win over the Germans, he said:

We always have a feel-good factor in our club unless the results are not there. We have always a togetherness but not always the results that we want. Overall we are in a good run and that can help the level of confidence and belief going into the next game. We have a big game in front of us against Everton and we can extend our run. Our focus is on our next game. You know that if you want to play at the top of the Premier League you want to do well in the big games at home. Everton is another big game so the target is for us to take advantage of that. We play in front of everybody so let’s take advantage of it. You gain credibility through consistency and when people think this could be a game where people think we could slip a bit and you respond in a positive way. I believe that [at the] top level, you come out of a big game and show you can focus again and produce the same performance again.

In terms of team news, the boss says Mikel Arteta is out of contention for tomorrow’s game and joins Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey and David Ospina on the sidelines, but Gabriel in available again after missing out during the week.

So in terms of how we’ll line up tomorrow, I think we’ll see just one change from Tuesday night starting XI, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing the injured Ramsey. I suppose one or both of the fullbacks could be rotated, Gabriel might come in to give Per Mertesacker or Laurent Koscielny a breather and Olivier Giroud stands a chance of replacing Theo Walcott up top, but I can’t see Arsene making any changes unless he’s forced to.

The team are on a bit of a roll and we have Sheffield Wednesday in the Capital One Cup coming up on Wednesday, which would obviously be a far better time to rotate the squad and rest numerous first-choice players.

As for Everton, they’ll be looking to make amends for last Saturday’s home drubbing by Manchester United and have had a whole week to prepare so will no doubt be fresh. Our recent games against them at Emirates stadium have been tight affairs and I’m guessing tomorrow will be no different. That said, if we can get an early goal, who knows? It might be another Man United-style slaying.

If we hadn’t just played such a draining game in the Champions League I’d be very confident of getting the win tomorrow, as it is, I’m just confident. But any hangover from Tuesday should be tempered by the thought of becoming league leaders for the players so let’s hope that extra little incentive helps secure us the win.

Back post-match tomorrow.

COYG!