13th January 2016: Premier League Preview – Litmus test at Liverpool

Evening all. We face a big test of our title credentials tonight when we play Liverpool at Anfield, aiming to secure our 79th win over the Merseysiders in the all-time record.

They haven’t beaten us since that 5-1 drubbing at their place back in February 2014, when Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez ran riot, and Mesut Ozil, still fairly new to English football at the time, was bullied into invisibility.

How times have changed though. Sturridge is perma-crocked, Sterling and Suarez are long gone, whilst Mesut’s now the stand-out player in the division, orchestrating both our play, and our rise to the top of the standings.

Both teams go into the game with lengthy injury lists, with the hosts missing the likes of Martin Skrtel, Dejan Lovren and Philippe Coutinho in addition to Sturridge, and Arsenal of course deprived of the services of Santi Cazorla, Francis Coquelin, Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere.

Ahead of the game, Arsene Wenger spoke to Arsenal Player about the fixture, labeling the match ‘important’, but pointing out it’s not decisive in terms of the title race. He said:

If it is not a decisive moment in the league, it is a very important moment in the league. I think all the confidence we have gathered and the tactical knowledge we have can be brought out in these types of games. Let’s take one at a time and focus on the Liverpool game because that is a big one. We are prepared and we are focused and I believe that it is down to us to go there and play to our full belief that we have at the moment. There is a desire to do well and to do it together. Sometimes the desire to do well is individual and not always shared with everybody. We feel as a unit we want to do well therefore we have to show that in every single game.

To underline Arsene’s point about the ‘desire’ and ‘confidence’ of his squad to win our first Premier League crown since 2004, two of our players have been speaking about just that as we build up to tonight’s game. First up it’s Ozil, who says victories against the bigger sides has heightened self-belief in the squad:

When you win against big teams – and win convincingly – it gives the whole team confidence. But when you look at this season, we’re on a good path. The self-belief is there, we have developed ourselves and this year we can really achieve a lot. The team know that. We believe in ourselves and you sense that on the pitch. We know we can beat Liverpool and we also know that they will give their best against us, with Jurgen Klopp who will prepare them perfectly. But our aim is to play our game and get the three points – that’s why we’re travelling there.

Whilst his team-mate Kieran Gibbs explained why he thinks tonight’s contest will be close, as well as also highlighting the confidence coursing through Arsenal players’ veins at the moment. He said:

They are a team that likes to keep possession and so are we. The game is going to be won on who can dominate and we need to dominate every match we play. I think it is going to be a tight game and [because] every game is so tight it is hard to predict the results because it is so up and down. There are not many teams who can beat us. Liverpool is a great club and their fans and stadium are great. It is going to be a hard game – they have a new manager who has come in and improved their team. He is quite young and a modern-day manager and has given Liverpool a lift this season. But we are on a run of some big results and the team is really confident at the moment. Hopefully we can show that.

Although Gibbs is quite right in saying we like to keep the ball, it’s also accurate to suggest we’re not so good at dominating possession with Mathieu Flamini and Aaron Ramsey in the middle of the park, compared to when we field Cazorla and Coquelin.

Yet against Jurgen Klopp’s high-intensity, perma-pressing style, perhaps having the superior stamina of Ramsey and Flamini, as opposed to the greater control and quality of distribution of Cazorla and Coquelin, will actually suit us.

Although Sanchez is a huge miss, we’ve shown we still have goals in us, whereas I think Liverpool without the firepower of Sturridge and the creativity of Coutinho, look a lot less potent and that’s one big reason I’m more confident of our chances of winning tonight than I would be normally ahead of a game at Anfield.

The other major advantage, on paper at least, is that we’ll be at full strength in terms of our back four, whereas Liverpool will be without their standout defender in Skrtel, who of course grabbed a last-minute equaliser for them in a 2-2 draw the last time the two sides met at Anfield, back in December 2014.

On that occasion, Coutinho gave them the lead just before half-time but Mathieu Debuchy scored with a header seconds later. Olivier Giroud then put us ahead mid-way through the second-half before Skrtel’s leveler, which, having just checked, came in the seventh minute of stoppage time at the end of the game.

We also managed one of our lowest percentages of possession (if not the lowest) of the Premier League era with just 36.5%. Our central midfield that day was comprised of Cazorla, Flamini and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, if any conclusions can be drawn about their balance as a midfield trio. Hopefully with Ramsey, Flamini and Ozil in the engine room tonight, we’ll see more of the ball and take home more points than on our last visit to Anfield.

Back tomorrow.


9th November 2015: Gibbs on goals + Mertesacker on mentality

Welcome back. So international football is upon us again and as much as I usually hate the interruption of the club game, this particular break is very timely indeed for Arsenal, in that it allows some of our injured players time to recover before we next play.

As yesterday’s draw with Tottenham highlighted, our squad was stretched to it’s limit in certain areas recently, and our available players running on empty, after playing every three days for the last three weeks.

But when we travel to West Brom a week on Saturday for our next game, we could have the likes of Hector Bellerin, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fit and available again, which means not only should our starting XI be strengthened but we’ll also have a far stronger bench for Arsene Wenger to utilise if a game needs changing.

Speaking of substitutes, the man who unexpectedly picked up Olivier Giroud’s goal-scoring slack to secure us a valuable point yesterday, Kieran Gibbs, spoke to the press after the game about his goalscoring, the squad’s disappointment in not capitalizing on dropped points by Manchester City, our recent injury worries and more. He said:

The last time I scored was against Anderlecht away last season but in the Premier League it was a few years ago. We are disappointed obviously, with Manchester City dropping points we had a good oppourunity. It was important not to lose this game but now the international break, we can recover for a few players and they can come back fit and we can push on after. It has been difficult for the boss with options so in the last few games I have been coming on and I knew, looking across the bench that, probably, even though I’m a defender I’m one of the more offensive players on the bench. I was happy to come on in a big game like that and get a goal. The boss has been struggling with options especially in midfield and up front, so I think a few of the boys were tired having played last weekend, midweek and today. It was a chance for me to bring on some fresh legs and do everything I can to try and help the boys. In these types of games you can’t give up when you know what it means to everyone in the club and the fans. I think they were great for us today and spurred us on. You have to come on in those games and give everything you can to try and get the boys going. It feels like we are not disappointed because we didn’t lose, even though Manchester City dropped points so it was a good opportunity for us to get ahead of them. But we are going away in the international break and will come back raring to go again as we have a long way to go.

Of course, the concern whenever our players disperse from London Colney to link up with their respective national sides is that they return in good shape and ready to play but all we can do on that front is hope and pray they come back unscathed.

One man who won’t be going away on international duty is Per Mertesacker of course, who retired after winning the World Cup last year and the big German has been speaking about Arsenal’s title challenge, the draw with Spurs and our squad’s mental maturity, saying:

We want to be involved throughout the season, competing at the top until the last second. We promised ourselves to do better than last season, not to drop a lot of points too early. It’s an interesting position but we still have room for improvement. When you look at the first half we need to manage to play a lot better. We lost our creativity and our way to play a bit, but how we came back shows that we have got a good mentality and level of character in the squad. That’s important for the Christmas period coming up. Santi felt unwell in the first half and that was a bit of a disappointment for us, that he couldn’t continue, but what Mathieu and Kieran gave us when they came on is what we need. It’s really important that, even if we suffer sometimes, we can come back. We showed mental strength. The energy and creativity those players who come on give sets the tone and gives us goals. That’s massively important. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we’ll get more energy because it’s important while having injured players.

It must be said Mertesacker hasn’t been quite at the top of his game recently and in my opinion he was poor in the away games against Sheffield Wednesday and Bayern Munich in particular.

But maybe that’s down to mental and physical fatigue so a fortnight without competitive action might be just what he needs to get back to his best.

Til Tuesday.

8th November 2015: Gibbs’ goal salvages point to keep us level with Man City at the top

Evening all. It’s not often I’m happy with a draw, but after watching an injury-ravaged and understandably fatigued Arsenal side come from a goal down to salvage a draw against Spurs earlier, today is one such occasion.

This fixture last year left me frustrated, disappointed and a bit annoyed despite the end result being identical, but today’s 1-1 result has me feeling proud more than anything else. Proud and encouraged. Proud that we found the resources to haul ourselves back into a game we were being dominated in, and encouraged because in years gone by, we’d have folded in similar circumstances.

With half our squad side-lined through injury, and in our seventh game in just 21 days, we were forced to rely on the same set of players we’ve used for most of the season, against a young, energetic opponent who came into the game undefeated in the league since the opening weekend of the campaign.

Yet after Arsenal fan Harry Kane had capitalized on Laurent Koscielny’s poor decision to step up and catch him offside by giving them the lead, and after they’d bossed a first half in which we, in effect, played with ten men, we somehow managed to keep the game alive, conjured an equaliser through the most unlikely of sources in substitute Kieran Gibbs and created enough chances for Olivier Giroud to be ruing not scoring a hat-trick by full-time.

Gary Neville, commentating on Sky, said Santi Cazorla was being ‘harassed’ by the Tottenham midfield which was why, in his opinion, the Spaniard was performing so badly in the first half. Yet any observers who don’t have a fetish for Nemanja Matic’s height and build, would have told you Cazorla was either carrying an injury or feeling unwell, because his participation in the opening period amounted to him being present on the pitch.

Other than that he was a spectator and not, contrary to what Neville said, because he was being dominated by Dele Alli (the new Jermaine Jenas, not the new Lionel Messi, so calm down Graeme Souness). As it turns out, Santi was feeling dizzy and subsequently removed at half-time to be replaced by Mathieu Flamini.

But it was another substitute who scored our equaliser, from yet another assist by Mesut Ozil. The German produced a pin-point pass from the right to the far post, where Gibbs gleefully bundled the ball past Hugo Lloris.

Afterwards, Arsene Wenger gave his take on the game:

It was a very intense game with complete commitment from both sides. We suffered in the first half because Cazorla was at 30 per cent of his potential, he was dizzy. I was sitting there thinking do I take him off or not? You never know, maybe it will get better. At half-time I took him off, and in the second half we had a bit better balance. The team have shown great mental resources, we refused to give up. Tottenham had a good moment at 1-0 in the second half, where they had one or two good chances in the game. In the end, it is a fair point for both sides.

A ‘fair point’ perhaps, especially when you consider Spurs’ superiority in the first half, but if Giroud didn’t produce a horror show in terms of his finishing, we would actually have won this match by a distance.

Our passing game, particularly once our distributor-in-chief, Cazorla, had been removed, was never going to be at it’s best and so we went more direct, sending in crosses, free-kicks and corners which Tottenham struggled to deal with. As a result, Giroud was presented with at least a couple of glorious openings but fluffed his lines like it was Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League all over again.

The thing is though, were he not in the side, we don’t really have anyone else, even with everybody fit, who can cause anywhere near the same panic in opposition defences as Giroud does through his frame and physicality, and nobody who’d be in those positions to miss in the first place.

So he’s still a great option if we want to be more direct in my opinion, it’s just he’s prone to having days like today when he can’t finish to save his life and it’s unbelievably frustrating.

Here’s what the boss said of his striker after the match:

He (Giroud) is very angry. When you see players happy to miss chances you can worry. He is a real goalscorer, he did try. In the last two games, against Bayern and today he worked extremely hard and maybe he wanted too much to score in the end, and especially the opportunity he had in the six-yard box, but that can happen.

None of which you can argue with really. Anyway, we now have two weeks without a game, after which hopefully we’ll see some of injured players return to give us fresh impetus as we build up to the hectic Christmas period.

Of course there are important players like Francis Coquelin and Per Mertesacker who won’t be going away with their national sides so they should get a well-deserved and much-needed breather.

Back Monday.

3rd November 2015: Bellerin blow ahead of Bayern test

Hello and welcome back. We’ve suffered yet another injury ahead of tomorrow evening’s Champions League game at Bayern Munich, after Arsene Wenger revealed Hector Bellerin has sustained a groin strain.

I suppose if there is one department we can cope with losing a player in at the moment, it’s defence, but the Bellerin news is still a blow considering how well he’s been performing at both ends of the pitch recently. Thankfully, the boss thinks the right-back only has a ‘small problem’ so hopefully, he’ll be back zooming up and down our right flank in no time at all.

Arsene confirmed Mathieu Debuchy will replace Bellerin for the game at the Allianz Arena, and says he’s confident his fellow Frenchman has the necessary match-fitness to come into the side, having played in the Capital One Cup a week ago. Speaking at his pre-match press conference earlier this evening, he said:

Debuchy will play and I’m confident. I trust Debuchy, he is a 100 per cent educated player in the box and in training. Fortunately he played a full game against Sheffield Wednesday and physically he should be well.

I’m not quite sure what Arsene means by saying ‘educated player in the box’ there, but I’m assuming he means Debuchy knows how to defend, which at times last season, especially during a couple of stints at centre-back, he showed he can be very good at.

Unfortunately for the former Newcastle man, injuries ruined his first campaign with Arsenal and he’s had to sit back upon his return and watch Bellerin play like a cross between Lillian Thuram, Roberto Carlos and Pele.

It can’t be easy as a seasoned, international pro, to watch a player as young and previously inexperienced as Bellerin keep you out of the team, but now he has a chance to come in for a huge game and if he plays well enough, perhaps stay in.

To win back his place longer term however, he’d probably have to help us keep a clean sheet, make five assists and score a hat-trick, because Bellerin has been quite simply sensational. But Debuchy must at least show desire and determination to give Arsene something to think about when he and Bellerin are next both fit.

I mention ‘desire’ and ‘determination’ because on the rare occasions Debuchy has played this season, he hasn’t seemed completely committed, shall we say. A bit sulky even, at the fact he’s now considered a back-up. Perhaps that’s harsh and he was just rusty given his lack of game-time. We’ll see.

So Debuchy will form one part of our back four and Arsene says we’ll need to be disciplined in our defending against the German champions, ensuring we don’t commit too many fouls. He said:

Defensively discipline will be vital tomorrow, of course, but I think we have players with experience at the back and what is important for us is that we show that discipline. We don’t want to get stupid yellow cards and we don’t want to commit undue fouls. We need to manage a good balance between being committed and not giving fouls away.

If there were any doubts as to how tomorrow’s game will play out, Arsene addresses them here. Bayern will dominate possession and no doubt create numerous chances. We’ll defend deep and in numbers and look to make the most of any attacking forays we can muster.

As in the game between the sides at Emirates stadium a couple of weeks ago, we’ll need a little luck and a lot of endeavour to get another positive result against Pep Guardiola’s side, but when you have players of the calibre of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in your team, you always have a chance of creating chances and and scoring goals, against any opposition and at any ground.

Of course we’ve won at the Allianz Arena in the recent past, which is something Arsene highlighted when discussing his side’s ‘togetherness’ and how Arsenal will approach the game:

We are in a period where we are doing well and that should convince the players that they’re doing something right. We have a good togetherness and I believe we really are a team who stick together when things don’t go well. We will certainly have some uncomfortable moments during the game tomorrow night but that will be a good opportunity to show our togetherness. In good periods of the game, we want to attack. What we want is to play to win. When you’re Arsenal and have won everywhere in Europe, even here, it means we will try to win the game. Are Bayern a great team? Yes, but it’s a good challenge for us as well to show that we have the quality to compete with them.

To be fair, we’ve already shown we can do more than simply ‘compete’ with Bayern, by beating them a coupe of weeks ago but I know what Arsene means.

It’s a shame we’re deprived of the options of players like Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the game, because their pace is obviously ideally suited to the counter attacking game-plan we’ll adopt. That said, Sanchez and Joel Campbell are pretty quick themselves.

Yet whether the latter will play has come under some doubt today. There have been reports that we may play Kieran Gibbs on the left of midfield, switch Sanchez to the right and ‘rest’ Campbell, which I don’t understand at all really.

I mean, Gibbs is quick but is he that much more so than Campbell? Plus Campbell has shown in his last two games just how defensively conscientious he is, something which as already discussed, will be vital tomorrow evening.

Back tomorrow with a preview before the big game.

See you then.

19th October 2015: Sanchez and Ozil to start against Bayern Munich + Injecting more ‘pace’ into the team

So we play our second game in a relentless run of seven in just 21 days when we entertain Bayern Munich tomorrow evening, and despite suggesting on Saturday that he may rest Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, Arsene Wenger has revealed both players will indeed be starting in what is realistically, a must-win match if we want to progress from our Champions League group.

Speaking at his pre-match press conference alongside Aaron Ramsey earlier today, the boss discussed team news, saying:

We have Gabriel back available, he is the only player back available. Everybody has recovered from our game on Saturday so it is nearly the same squad. (David) Ospina is out injured. He came back from Colombia with a shoulder problem and he is out. No (Ozil and Sanchez won’t be rested). You would be surprised if I told you that I would rest them tomorrow, so I can tell you certainly not. Normally they should play tomorrow.

That clears that up then. I did think it was a little strange Arsene would even consider leaving arguably our two best attacking players out of such a huge game, mainly because his name isn’t Brendan Rodgers and he’s not one to throw the towel in.

So I’m assuming what he said over the weekend about giving Ozil and Sanchez a breather was more ‘at some point’ than ‘right away’. We have Sheffield Wednesday coming up next midweek in the Capital One Cup and that would obviously be the time to do it.

Arsene was also asked if he thought Bayern were the ‘best team in the world’ and didn’t disagree, although he sort of smudged his answer, saying all the teams in the Champions League were the best in the world – which clearly isn’t the case. I mean, Chelsea are in the competition and they’re battling relegation domestically.

He was then asked how his team could overcome the Bavarians and pointed out that no side is without weakness, saying:

[But] there is no team without weaknesses. If you ask me to come out with them then I would not especially do that but there is no team without weaknesses. What we want is to win the game. We want to defend well, attack well and score the first goal – that is massively important in the big games. You can never promise you will score three goals in 20 minutes [like against Manchester United] because that would be absolutely crazy. What we can do is start in a strong way and that is what we will try to do. We know we play against a top side. We prepared well against Zagreb, we prepared well against Olympiacos but [that was] between two Premier League games where we had to give a lot. We won 5-2 at Leicester, three days later we played against Olympiacos. On top of that things went against us. But on Tuesday everyone will be highly focused.

Speaking of how we might overcome Pep Guardiola’s pass masters, Arsene mentioned after the win at Watford on Saturday that he ‘wants to put pace into this game’. The last time the two sides met at Emirates stadium, despite losing 2-0, we actually came flying out of the blocks, bullied Bayern in the opening exchanges and should have gone 1-0 up, only to see Ozil have a penalty saved and then Wojciech Szczesny sent off after a blatant dive by Grandpa Robben.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started that match and I can’t remember how he played in all honesty, but I do remember Kieran Gibbs performing like a man possessed down our left flank, before being forced off through injury after half an hour’s play. The left-back was crucial in our fast start so when Arsene talks pace, I wonder if he has Gibbs in mind to come in for Nacho Monreal.

Of course the Ox himself is a pacey option but I’m struggling to see who he’d leave out to accommodate him. He’s quicker than Ramsey but he’s been out of form and if he were to play, I’d actually prefer him to start more centrally and try to reproduce his man-of-the-match display from that position against AC Milan a few years back.

Of course Gabriel is quicker than Per Mertesacker (only kidding, but who isn’t) and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Brazilian start alongside Laurent Koscielny at the back. All that said though, my inclination would still strongly be to start the same team from Saturday, but Arsene’s got previous in pulling a few selection surprises for big European games (Yaya Sanogo) so I’m intrigued as to what line-up he’ll go with.

Back tomorrow with more pre-game.