3rd May 2016: Leicester are champions + Wenger on striker selection

Welcome back. So Leicester City are Premier League champions after Sp*rs drew 2-2 at Chelsea last night despite leading 2-0 at half-time.

I would revel more in Tottenham’s tragic failure to keep the title race alive but given we’ve been out of contention for a while now and lie below our neighbours in the standings, I’m left with little choice but to reign in the ridicule.

So I’ll limit myself to: “Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahahaha” and,”have you ever seen Tottenham win the league? HAVE YOU F*CK”, as well as, #61NEVERAGAIN.

Meanwhile, the Foxes’ fairytale campaign is complete, they’re champions of England for the first time in their history and have done it at a time when the relative riches of the country’s elite few clubs, and decades-long domination of the Premier League crown, makes Leicester achievement all-the-more astounding.

So I hope everyone associated with Leicester makes the most of their Black Swan season and enjoys every second of their status as champions for the next year or so, because unless they’re taken over by billionaire benefactors like Chelsea or Manchester City, they won’t be repeating this year’s feat for a very, very long time, if ever.

As much as Claudio Ranieri and his squad deserve boundless praise for their achievement, they were aided and abetted by a perfect storm of big-club implosions and transition phases. Except by Arsenal of course, because we were just typically championship-allergic as we have been for 12 years now. Still, what a story. Well done Leicester City.

But back to Arsenal and Arsene Wenger has revealed the reasoning behind his decision to reinstate Olivier Giroud as his starting striker in the last couple of games in place of Danny Welbeck, despite the latter having played very well on the whole since his return from long-term injury. He said:

Welbeck came in and played very well [on his comeback], like the players who have been out for nine months always do. You have to trust me on that, I know that well – after they come in they are super sharp and then after, against Crystal Palace, he had a very average game and looked a bit for one or two games that he paid for the physical energy he had given. So you let them rest one or two games and you bring them back in. [Against Norwich], when he came on, you could see he is a different animal again.

Arsene also discussed the form of Giroud, with the striker currently enduring the worst goal-less spell of his Arsenal career:

A striker wants to score goals and when he doesn’t, is it pure confidence or is it just to think, ‘How can I score again? They need goals. But he responds, he’s a guy who is mentally strong. Today he gave an assist, I put that in the same category as a goal.

Given the above, I’ll be shocked if Welbeck doesn’t start ahead of Giroud against Manchester City on Sunday but with a good few days until the game, there’s plenty of time to look at how we might line-up for the match at Etihad stadium in the days to come.

Back on Wednesday.

14th February 2016: Subs Walcott and Welbeck shoot down Foxes

Arsenal’s substitutes stole the show at Emirates stadium earlier today, as Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck stepped off the bench to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win against 10-man league leaders Leicester City.

After Jamie Vardy had channeled his inner Wayne Rooney by cheating to win a penalty against the Gunners, before taking it himself and finding the net on the stroke of half-time, the visitors had Danny Simpson sent off early in the second half for two bookable offences and conceded an equaliser with 20 minutes to play.

Olivier Giroud, who was ferociously industrious all game, provided a second headed assist in as many weeks by cleverly nodding the ball into the path of Walcott inside the crowded Leicester penalty area. And Theo, who looked really determined and had proven a livewire on the right flank from the moment he entered the action on the hour mark, remained cool and composed as he met the awkwardly bouncing ball with a side-footed first-time finish.

It was the type of chance you often see players spurn by mis-timing the connection but Walcott utilised the same nerves of steel and text-book finishing technique he produced at Wembley last May when he gave us the lead in the FA Cup Final. After that, and as it had been from the 54th minute when Simpson saw red, it was one-way traffic as Leicester defended deep and in numbers whilst Arsenal racked their brains and ramped up the pressure in search of a winner.

By the time the fourth official held up his board to signal four minutes of added time at the end of the match, Welbeck had been sent on in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to make his first appearance since last April.

The stage was set for the former Manchester United man with seconds to go when Leicester gave away a freekick on our right. Mesut Ozil puffed out his cheeks, collected his thoughts, uttered a little prayer and proceeded to drift a divine ball into the box which Welbeck glanced into the corner to win the match and reduce the gap to the top of the table to just two points for the Gunners.

As Welbeck wheeled away to celebrate in and amongst the fans in the corner, almost all of his team-mates sprinted to join him as the stadium erupted in the kind of feverish manner only a last-gasp winner in a big match can evoke. It was fairytale stuff for Welbz after his near year-long battle with a knee problem as he marked his return in the best possible way.

In truth, the contest had been fairly even in the opening period so the fact Ozil was blatantly fouled in the build-up to Leicester’s penalty award compounded our sense of injustice when Vardy conned the referee by running into Nacho Monreal’s leg to ‘win’ his side a spot-kick, resulting in the visitors carrying a lead into the interval.

The game undeniably swung in our favour once they had a man dismissed but having been on the wrong end of awful refereeing in the first 45, it was about time we got the rub of the green from dubious officiating. Although both of Simpson’s cards were deserved by the letter of the law, it still felt a bit harsh on the Foxes. But f*ck ’em – obviously.

To be honest, I’m still too pumped up by our victory to be writing this coherently but I want to share a few thoughts on individual performances today. I’ll only highlight positive ones though (so no mention of Aaron Ramsey or Alexis Sanchez) and where better to start than Arsene Wenger, who threw on Theo and Danny to turn a match in a manner very reminiscent of when he would often introduce Sylvain Wiltord and Kanu from the bench way back when.

Petr Cech was flawless again, with one save and gather from a Vardy header in the first-half showcasing ridiculously swift reactions. Giroud was tireless up front and played very well, capping his performance with another assist. And Calum Chambers, a half-time sub for Laurent Koscielny after the Frenchman sustained a dead leg, barely put a foot wrong at the back.

Elsewhere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was threatening on the right before playing some nice passes after moving into the middle following Walcott’s introduction, and despite being successfully shackled by N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater for long periods of the game, Ozil kept going, grew into the match and grabbed another high-quality assist to help us win it at the death

Despite the euphoria of the game’s finale and the importance of the result against a direct rival, there were still some worrying aspects about our play in my opinion but there’s no way I’m dampening the joy of today’s win by discussing them now. That can wait until tomorrow at least because for the time being it’s time to enjoy the Arsenal love-in on this fine, fine Valentine’s Day.

Back tomorrow.

13th February 2016: Premier League Preview – Arsenal prepare for Fox hunt

Saturday greetings. Today’s Premier League fixtures felt very much like the aperitif before tomorrow’s top-four feast, when Manchester City host Tottenham and we welcome league leaders Leicester to Emirates stadium.

I mean, it was still as hilarious to see Manchester United lose at Sunderland as it is annoying watching Chelsea take an early three-goal lead against hapless Newcastle as I write this, but these games, along with the rest today, are already pretty much insignificant in terms of the title race. All rather mid-table meek, or pre-crucial survival stuff.

You can be sure there’ll be no love lost in either fixture on Valentine’s Day however, as each of the four clubs strive to cement their title credentials at the expense of one of their direct rivals for the crown. We play first of course, kicking off at noon and hoping to reduce the gap to the top of the table to just two points, having seen ourselves fall eight adrift of the summit this time last week.

Defeat, even with 12 games still to play after tomorrow, doesn’t bear thinking about but for all of Leicester’s surreal success so far this season, in my opinion we’re by far the better team both on paper and the pitch, providing we play to our potential.

Yet as Claudio Ranieri’s men showed last weekend by containing and countering to win convincingly at City, they are a far more intelligent outfit right now than even earlier this season, when they often conceded first before coming storming back, but of course also reversed that trend in late September, when they struck first against us at their place only to eventually lose 5-2.

Their Italian manager has clearly seen his ideas and instructions seep into his side gradually over the course of the season and they now resemble a top side from their boss’ home country – defensively organised and hard to break down in a compact shape, but rapidly efficient in breaking forward and unerringly cut-throat when they get there.

It’s an evolution in Leicester’s playing style Arsene Wenger revealed he’s very aware of having studied the statistics, but as well as trying to stifle Leicester’s game-plan, the boss maintains Arsenal must play to their own strengths and that means dominating possession. He said:

I told my defence after the game [in September], ‘I’m not happy with your performance’ because they created goal chances. We created many as well. It could have been, 5-2 or 8-4. I was already impressed by their offensive potential. But it was a very open game. I watched our game again because I wanted to watch how this team moved since then. There is an evolution in their game. They are more cautious at the moment. They play a lot in their final third and come out very quickly. Look at the number of direct balls from their half to the opponents’ half. They are higher than anyone else because they have Vardy on his way straight away when they win the ball – they do it very well. They suck you in and go very quickly in the opponents’ half. At the time they were a bit more all going. Today they are a bit more ‘let’s sit here and use our strengths’ in a very efficient way, which is what they did remarkably well against Manchester City. We will try of course to stop their counter-attacking. But at home you have to express your strengths and our strength is to have the ball. We have to try to express our strengths and as well try to stop them from hitting us on the break.

In terms of how we’ll line up, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, my guess would be that we’ll see one change from last weekend’s starting line-up against Bournemouth, with Francis Coquelin replacing Mathieu Flamini as our defensive midfielder.

That of course means Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would retain his place on the right of our attack and after he returned to form with a well-taken goal against the Cherries, I think it would be the right call by the boss.

And speaking of the Ox, Arsene says his recent good form – emphasised by a goal and an assist in his last two starts – has hopefully provided the boost in confidence the England man needed to kick-start his season:

He got an assist, then he scored and that sometimes opens a light. I’m convinced that in every career, you have moments where you think ‘I can do that’ and transform your potential into reality. I’m convinced that that will give him appetite to score more, to give more assists and to go more in the final third, where he can be deadly. You cannot imagine when you look at Alex that he will not score goals. He has power, pace, technique, finishing. I believe that only he maybe did not believe enough that he can score. That will convince him and hopefully it’s the start of many more.

I have to say the Ox’s struggles for form this season have baffled me at times. In pre-season, he was our stand-out player as far as I was concerned, and I thought it was a sign he would make his mark on this campaign like never before.

Clearly it hasn’t turned out that way and he’s actually found himself falling further down the pecking order with the emergence of Joel Campbell as a bone fide first-teamer, rather than bulldozing his way up it like I, and I’m sure many others, expected.

But if I’m right about him retaining his place against the Foxes, the Ox has a chance to shine in a huge game tomorrow, perhaps even be a match-winner, and prove that he deserves to start week in week out.

I’m really up for this one. It’s a six-pointer no question, probably pivotal in terms of our title hopes and also has a bit of an ‘us versus the rest of the country’ vibe to it. Leicester are the nation’s darlings right now – it’s up to us to ruin the romance of their surprise rise on Valentine’s Day, and reignite our own charge for the title.

Back post-match.

COME on Arsenal …

12th February 2016: Wenger on Leciester

Happy Friday folks. Arsene Wenger held his pre-Leicester press conference this morning and aside from reiterating the latest injury news he gave to the official site yesterday, the boss insisted Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash against the Foxes is one Arsenal are very much looking forward to.

Arsene also spoke about the importance of building momentum following last weekend’s win at Bournemouth, the significance of this fixture in terms of the title race, and the inevitable anxiety that accompanies being league leaders. Here’s what he said:

What is important is to find the momentum back and that means that you win a few games. After, let’s not count too much on the weakness of Leicester because they have not shown too many. We want to find a consistency in our results until the end of the season, because we have big game after big game now. What I believe is that you do not have to be a super mathematician to analyse that it is a very important game, maybe not a decisive one for the Premier League but it is not far away from that. The pressure is on us as well, of course. I don’t deny that but I take that in a very positive way and as an opportunity to show how strong we are. I think the biggest pressure in our job is to play games without pressure. This is the kind of game we want – the kind of game we relish. When you play at Arsenal Football Club, that’s what you want. [Leicester] are still in a position where they think they have nothing to lose. But once you are top of the league, you can also think about losing what you have. That is where the nerves come in a little bit. I do not know how they will respond to that.

The boss went on to lavish priase on Claudio Ranieri’s side, pointing out that even the most sceptical of football followers are now convinced of Leicester’s title credentials and also discussed the first meeting between the two sides this season, our 5-2 win at their place back at the end of September. He said:

It is very romantic and I understand the whole country [being behind them]. That is human. I think as well that [the story] is good for football, and it goes against the usual practice in our game, which is spend and buy big stars. It is important to know that with quality work, quality scouting and quality management you can have great results. Leicester today are in a strong position and they have certainly silenced all the doubters since the start of the season because at Christmas people were saying they would not be there and now we are at Easter and they are still there. In the last week they showed they have solid potential to win the league, with two positive results against Liverpool and Manchester City away. Everybody now thinks they are on the same level as everybody else to win it and they have a mathematical advantage of five points. They are certainly more convinced of their quality now,” he said. “When we played them last, they were top of the table so that has not changed but their belief has been strengthened. The first game we played against them at Leicester was a very open game and it is true that their strength is to be very quick in transition from defence to offence. But we have to nullify their pace and attacking potential – we want to dominate the game, have the ball and be dangerous.

Although we’ll typically look to take the initiative in terms of possession as Arsene suggests above, it’s also pretty obvious that Leicester won’t mind us having most of the ball one iota. In fact they’d prefer it.

Their game-plan this season, on a very basic level, revolves around containing and then countering using the pace, poise and pizzazz of players like Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. So it was interesting that Arsene hinted he’ll continue with the pacier Gabriel at the back alongside Laurent Koscielny, when discussing why Per Mertesacker didn’t start our last game:

It’s difficult for me to go into any individual assessment. I think he has played many games. Sometimes I use a different formula. Per Mertesacker is a great leader, a very respected one in our dressing room, but I have three entire backs and I adapt a little bit to their level of form, to the number of games they’ve played and to the opponents we play against. What are their strengths and where can they hurt us?

Given Arsene’s meritocratic selection policy which is heavily weighted in his players’ last performance, I’d say it’s very likely we’ll see just one change from the Bournemouth game and that will be Francis Coquelin returning in place of Mathieu Flamini to partner Aaron Ramsey in the middle of the park.

Some may expect Joel Campbell to regain his place on the right at the expense of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain but after scoring a sumptuous goal last week and producing arguably his best performance of the season, my money’s on the Ox retaining his starting spot.

Back with a preview tomorrow.

8th February 2016: Arsenal look to Leicester

Welcome back. Although there’s still nearly a week to go before we welcome league leaders Leicester City to Emirates stadium on Sunday, Arsene Wenger, Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin had a few words to offer on the Foxes when they spoke to the media after yesterday’s win at Bournemouth.

First up it’s the boss, who insisted Claudio Ranieri’s side will go into the game as favourites, but is backing home advantage and the support of the Arsenal fans to help his side come out on top. He said:

[Beating Bournemouth] is very good for the future as we now have a very big game at home against Leicester who are now the favourites for the Premier League,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. [A win] can maybe prepare you in a better condition for the next game. We have a week to prepare for that and I have to think about it. Leicester is a strong side but we are also a strong side. At home with our fans and support, we can do it.

Next to laud Leicester is Ramsey, who’s hoping Arsenal can take the momentum gained from beating Bournemouth into the game against the Premier League’s surprise leaders:

What they (Leicester) have done this season is quite remarkable but we will need to be right on it to get there points. Hopefully the momentum we have we can take into that game and come away with a big victory there as well.

And finally we have our Cockney Catalan, Bellerin, who though admitting the Leicester game is important in the sense that both teams are involved in the title race, also pointed out that every game is crucial in our quest to rack up as many points as possible. He said:

I think for us, every single game is crucial. We need to think game by game, it does not matter [who you play] and you need to get the three points. Obviously it is going to be one of the most important ones but you need to keep playing like that in every game.

It may be a cliche but Sunday’s fixture really is a six-pointer. Win and we reduce the gap to just two, but lose and Leicester restore the eight-point advantage over us they were no doubt celebrating last Saturday night.

I’ve been saying all season Leicester’s form wouldn’t last but as we all know, it has. Not only that, they’re playing like a title-winning team. I watched them win at Manchester City last weekend and it wasn’t just the individual brilliance of players like Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante that stood out, it was how impressive they looked structurally and tactically as a team. They didn’t sneak a win against the country’s most expensively-assembled squad, they bullied them, out-played them and rendered them almost riposte-less.

If we talk in terms of spines, then Leicester’s shows no signs of any cracks. Kasper Schmeichel is doing a great job of impersonating his father at his best in goal, Robert Huth, whilst far from the most cultured of centre-halves, looks like the two-time Premier League winner he is, and his partner at the back, Wes Morgan, for me is Sol Campbell-esque in the way he reads danger and defends generally.

Then there’s Kante in midfield, who combines the relentless chasing and harrying of Lassana Diarra, with the front-foot effervescence of Blaise Matuidi, providing the Foxes with an answer for our very own Francis Coqulein in defensive midfield. And of course in Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, they have two of the very best attackers in the league this season.

But despite the indisputable quality of many of their players, Leicester’s team is playing far better than it should be on paper given it’s constituent parts, and that’s down to Ranieri, who I think hasn’t enjoyed nearly the level of praise he deserves.

I mean, just imagine Harry Redknapp or even Jose Mourinho – the press pet that he is – taking an unfashionable club with relatively modest resources and who narrowly avoided relegation last year with largely the same set of players, to the top of the Premier League as we near mid-February.

They’d be knighting Harry or plastering Jose’s face over every front and back cover they could find with a headline like: ‘The most special Specialist in Success that ever lived’.

So I’d just like to take this opportunity to say I think Claudio comes across as a genuinely lovely man, he’ clearly a very experienced and talented manager and I think his Tinkerman tag should now be replaced by something more befitting of his astonishing achievement so far this season.

All that said, it goes without saying I hope we put six past them on Sunday and that they finish runners-up to Arsenal come the end of the campaign.

Back tomorrow.

3rd February 2016: Covering the absence of ‘Clockwork Cazorla’ needs urgent re-thinking

Arsenal have a big, little problem. Santi Cazorla is injured, isn’t due back until late March and there isn’t a single player in our squad equipped to come anywhere near replacing the passing, vision and above all, intelligence, the diminutive Spaniard brings to the centre of our midfield.

After drawing 0-0 at home to Southampton last night, many will point to ‘chances created’ and ‘saves made by Fraser Forster’ stats, to suggest our main issues were poor finishing and fine opposition goalkeeping, but I think that would be highlighting temporary symptoms and failing to acknowledge the underlying cause of our recent malaise – we’re Santi-less.

Here’s what I wrote about Cazorla back in July, following a pre-season win over Everton in the Barclays Premier League Trophy in Asia:

As for Cazorla’s chipped assist from inside the centre circle, well, the vision and execution using his ‘weaker’ left foot was as majestic as his all-round display. We’ll have a real problem replacing Santi’s outstanding skillset when he does eventually depart, because for me there isn’t another player in our squad right now who can replicate his talents in the middle of the park – a velcroed virtuosity that has become vital to our performance and overall pattern of play this past year or so.

Before adding:

… Ozil fed Cazorla on the right following a short corner and having weighed up his options, the Spaniard decided to go it alone, twisting and turning to bamboozle the defending James McCarthy on the edge of the area before drilling home at the near post leaving the ‘keeper motionless. And Cazorla was at it again just four minutes later, exchanging passes with Mesut Ozil to allow the German to sidefoot emphatically into the net for three nil, making it two assists and a goal for Arsenal’s captain on the day. I would tie him to as long a deal as possible as he shows no sign of being debilitated by age.

If Petr Cech permeates a sense of calm from between the sticks that has a positive effect on our defenders in front of him, then Cazorla’ s coolness under pressure, quick-thinking and precise circulation of the ball gives the team fluency, helps us to maintain better shape and regulates the team’s rhythm, more so than any other player, in any other position in the side. More so than Mesut, even.

That cock-sure conviction of Cazorla’s spreads throughout the team in my opinion, and crucially, to our forwards when presented with a goal-scoring chance, because the build-up play often sets the tone and temperament of the move’s finale.

Our finishing last night, exactly like the rest of our play from the back four to up front, was erratic and rushed, rather than cold and calculated like clockwork, as it has been ever since Santi was re-stationed to the middle just over a year ago and he produced that phenomenal individual performance at Etihad stadium as we beat Manchester City 2-0 in January 2015.

Theo Walcott seems to be the go-to-guy to vent frustration at for the stalemate with Southampton and on the one hand hand, I understand completely why. His contribution from the bench after replacing Joel Campbell was far too peripheral and he fluffed probably our best chance of the game in all-too-typical Feo-style.

On the other hand though, he provided a decent cross from which Alexis Sanchez headed goal-wards, and also found Ozil with a low pass across the edge of Saints’ penalty area before the German’s one-two with Sanchez nearly led to a goal. Overall though, I agree whole-heartedly with those that say Theo’s all-round game just isn’t good enough for him to function to the requisite standard on the flanks, so he either plays as the striker or not at all.

But the player whose display makes me want to scream in frustration and bewilderment isn’t Walcott, or even the past-it Mathieu Flamini, who kind of tempers his dreadful on-the-ball ability by making one or two important tackles, interceptions or clearances a game.

No, it’s Aaron Ramsey, who in my opinion, cannot pass the ball anywhere near well enough to be playing centrally for us if we want to be a team that controls possession. If we decide to sit back and adopt a contain and counter stlye-of-play, it might suit the Welshman more, but not in the current set-up.

I much prefer him playing from the right when he isn’t tasked with dictating our play and can instead provide energy going both ways on the flank and drift infield to provide a goal-threat. That way, he’s much less a passer and gets afforded the time he needs to bring the ball under control and decide what to do with it because he too, like Walcott, needs longer than quicker-witted and more naturally gifted footballers, like Cazorla.

So what do we do moving forward? Your guess is as good as mine but it’s Arsene Wenger’s job to find a solution. As far as I’m concerned, we either reconfigure our style or try something new like playing Ozil alongside Coquelin in the deeper midfield role or even throwing Alex Iwobi into Premier League action because I’m struggling to find more reliable passers in our squad, in the continued absences of Cazorla and Jack Wilshere. Maybe Mohamed Elneny is the best available man for the job, but judging by his debut, he needs time to acclimatize to the pace of the English game and build confidence.

All that said however, we can of course still get good results without Cazorla, as we showed with four straight wins in all competitions following his injury at Norwich at the end of November, it’s just that we’re not as consistent in our play and that’s reflected in our more recent run of form. Also, the up-coming Barcelona double-header really worries me without Santi playing, because of just how important the rare phases of possession against the Catalans can be if we’re to have a chance against them.

As it stands domestically though, we’re down to fourth in the table but as I’ve said all season, just two shy of my tip for the crown in Man City, which means we remain firmly in contention. Leicester are a further three ahead and that makes our situation look worse obviously, as they continue to play well and win their games. But surely the most most surprising story in Premier League history, in terms of a title challenge, will find a more expected conclusion and they’ll drop away from the top a little. Won’t they?

If the Foxes win their next two at City and against us at Emirates stadium, I might change my tune but I think Leicester’s is a bubble long-overdue a bursting. As for that lot down the Seven Sisters Road, they might be flying high and getting giddy at edging us on goal difference right now, but let’s see how they fare when Europa League football returns and it’s ‘spiral’ time. Their new Jermaine Jenas – Dele Alli – may be on fire but always remember one thing: Tottenham are sh*t.

Until tomorrow.

19th December 2015: This crazy campaign continues …

Welcome back. So we witnessed another interesting set of Premier League results today to say the least, as this crazy 2015-16 campaign continues to amaze and amuse in equal measure.

Leicester City maintained their scarcely believable form this season by winning 3-2 at Everton, to extend their lead at the top of the table to five points. Manchester United lost 2-1 at home to Norwich, and Chelsea’s players, having finally rid themselves of Jose Mourinho’s ghastly leadership, returned to winning ways by beating Sunderland 3-1 at Stamford Bridge.

First, a word on the Foxes and that word is ‘when’. When are they going to stop playing like champions-elect and more like the mid-table/bottom half side they should be? It’s getting silly now. They’re clear at the top and will now definitely be top on Christmas Day, which is often used as some kind of symbolic yardstick as to whether they’ll emerge champions come May.

I still think they’ll drop off because they’re Leicester ffs their squad isn’t good enough to compensate for any absences for the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy for instance, but the longer they continue their run, the more you’re forced to wonder whether we’re witnessing what would be one of the biggest sporting shocks of all time.

I mean, it’s Leicester! They don’t have a super-wealthy benefactor who bought a star-studded squad last summer. They have Robert Huth, who makes Per Mertesacker seem like Usain Bolt, at centre half, and with one game shy of half the season played, they’re top with a five point cushion.

Meanwhile, let’s spare a thought for Untied, who are now nine points off top spot. In fact, not a thought, a good old LOL. All that money wasted away on players like the past-it Bastian Schweinsteiger, the bang-average trio of Marouane Fellaini, Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay, and in terms of wages, on the scandalously over-paid, over-rated and over-fed Wayne Rooney.

Thank God Arsenal have a manager who’s not just a brilliant, trophy-winning, player-developing, talent-spotting master, but also a supreme economist. Louis van Gaal’s days appear to be numbered, I just hope Bobby Charlton’s stance remains steadfast when it comes to the possibility of hiring Mourinho and they don’t offer the Sacked One a quick return to the Premier League.

And so onto to Chelsea who raced into a two-nil lead against the Black Cats today and reportedly played like reigning champions are expected to, not the disinterested, impotent, porous shambles they’ve been so far this season. No surprise there really, given Mourinho’s long gone and they can now start trying to win games again.

But even after his departure, the ruinous after-effects of the Portuguese’s tenure were evident at the game today. Large sections of their support sang Mourinho’s name, but booed the names of Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa as they were announced before kick-off. And there was even at least one placard on show in the stands labeling Fabregas, Costa and Eden Hazard as ‘rats’. In truth, the biggest rodent at the club was removed last Thursday. Time will help them see that, no doubt.

Oh, and Chelsea’s fans also serenaded their players with a chorus of ‘where were you when we were shit?’ after they raced into an early 2-0 lead. Hilarious. Although the players may well throw that question right back at their ‘supporters’, given the lack of atmosphere at Stamford Bridge so far this season, which, ironically, was something Mourinho himself complained about during his latest spell at the club. Long may the civil war continue, not that they’re a threat for the title this term anyway.

What today’s results mean for us though, is that a win over City on Monday would close the gap to Leicester to two points, stretch our lead over City to four, and leave us seven clear of fourth spot. A draw or even a defeat would be far from disastrous but what a boost three points would bring, both psychologically over our likeliest competitors for the crown in City, as well as for the rest of the festive fixtures and the season beyond.

Til tomorrow.

18th December 2015: Wenger on Leicester and Barcelona

Happy Friday. We have an Arsenal-free weekend to ‘look forward’ to given we don’t play until Monday night when we entertain Manchester City, and I for one, find that pretty annoying.

To make matters worse, there’s no early kick-off tomorrow, the late one’s Newcastle v Aston Villa and the Sunday games live on TV are Watford v Liverpool and Swansea v West Ham. Exciting stuff. It’s like having three starters of freshly-projected sick, before the mouth-watering main of Arsenal v City on Monday. Still, given the feast of football on the horizon over the next festive fortnight or so, it would be churlish to complain. So I won’t.

Back to Arsene Wenger’s press conference from yesterday and the boss was asked for his opinion on Leicester City’s quite remarkable achievement of leading the Premier League with 16 games played, and said:

Not only (is Leicester’s league position good) for English football, it’s good for everybody in football all over the world to see that teams who are not on the biggest budget at the start can compete as well. There’s always a way to be successful when you’re intelligent and competent. Of course that’s very positive and they’ve shown another fantastic performance on Monday night [against Chelsea]. I always took them seriously but when we won 5-2 over there, nobody took our performance seriously. They just thought it was normal that we won at Leicester, but ever since you have been able to see that it was a great result and a great performance on the day.

There isn’t much to add about the Foxes’ form this season other than to say it was completely unexpected, but has been very refreshing for a league usually as predictable in terms of which teams finish in the top positions, as any other around Europe.

Sure, isolated results often surprise in the Premier League from week to week but by and large, the top two or three positioned teams are usually pretty easy to guess, or at least can be narrowed down to a handful of candidates, before the season starts. So to see a team who battled against relegation last year, fight for the title this, is amazing really.

And let’s not forget the opposite is also true this term. The reigning champions are so fearful of being relegated as we near the half-way mark of the season, they’ve just fired their manager. Anyway , as far as Leicester are concerned, I hope they continue their fine form because they’ll be worthy runners-up when we collect the Premier League trophy in May …

Moving on and Arsene was also asked about last Monday’s Champions League draw which of course paired us with the reigning European champions Barcelona. Here’s what he said:

We are more mature (than we were when we played the Catalans the last couple of times). We played against Barcelona with top teams, but very inexperienced and very young. Barcelona were in full power but we still managed to beat them and it was always very tight. We have never been beaten [comprehensively] and we were sometimes unlucky as well. That is in our minds. That is deep in my body as well. I do not forget that. We have a chance, an opportunity to put things right, and we’ll focus on that. We are playing against a team that have the trophy and are the best team in Europe and I think we have a good chance to go through. It is a difficult challenge but an exciting one as well.

To be fair, I’d say when they beat us 4-1 at Camp Nou in April 2010, with Lionel Messi scoring all four, it was a pretty comprehensive. But then, we did have Mikael Silvestre and Thomas Vermaelen at centre-half, Manuel Almunia in goal and Nicklas Bendtner up front, so we were kind of asking to get battered really.

I remember Arsene being asked if he thought Messi was the best player in the world in his post-match interview that night and he said simply, “by a distance”. ‘Take that, Ronaldo’, I thought at the time, agreeing completely with the boss’ sentiments. I mean, Cristiano’s a great player, but Messi, as Thierry Henry put it this week, ‘is a freak’.

Right, I’m waffling now. Time to leave it there.

Back tomorrow.

27th September 2015: Nearly a fifth of the season done

When you stop and consider we’re now just shy of having already played 20 percent of this season’s Premier League campaign, not only is it f*cking frightening how fast time flies, it’s not as early in the season as, to me at least, it feels.

So it was perhaps a little overdue that we clicked into gear and oh my did we do that in an attacking sense at the King Power stadium yesterday.

Alexis Sanchez finally appears to have overcome his lack of a proper pre-season and Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud have found their shooting boots, looking increasingly like the perfect duo to share the striker’s role this season (at least until Danny Welbeck returns at Christmas and we sign Robert Lewandowski in a shock January transfer that is). Pace, power, aerial ability, hold-up play and now clinical finishing – between them, we suddenly seem to have plenty of talent at the tip of our attack to cater for any opposition.

At the other end of the pitch, Petr Cech, after a nightmare performance on the opening day against West Ham, is playing much more like the imposing, world class, shot repelling Galactico Goalie we all thought we were getting when he signed in the summer. Speaking to Arsenal Player after yesterday’s game, Arsene Wenger called the win our best performance of the season ‘going forward’ and hailed his goalscorers on the day. He said:

Certainly it was the most convincing [display of the season] going forward, yes. It was a tricky game because Leicester hadn’t lost, and I was a bit concerned because we did not want to lose ground on the other teams – so it was a big win for us. I am pleased with [the strikers’] games. Giroud is sharp in training and in the matches as well, I think he played well at Tottenham. Walcott is improving game after game, he holds the ball better up front, his movement is great and both of them scored, which is what you want. I believe [Alexis] wasn’t back to his best after the Copa America, it took him a while to get his competitive edge and now he has played well again and he is back to his level.

The top of the table is tight, and after Man City’s start to the season suggested they may run away with it, consecutive defeats leaves the title race wide open. Leaders United are up next at the Emirates where a win would leave us level on points with them, Chelsea continue their flirtation with the relegation zone, Liverpool’s hopes of a first championship in decades is reliant on multiple implosions elsewhere and realistically nobody else has a hope in hell of being crowned champions, no matter how impressive their start (sorry West Ham).

All that said however, as results all over the league have already shown this season, there will be few easy games, if any, between now and May and attacking performances like yesterday’s need to become the norm rather than the exception if we’re to win it.

Per Mertesacker played his first Premier League game in a month at Leicester following illness and admitted the team had some defensive worries during the match but thinks we deserved our win overall. Speaking to Arsenal Player, he said:

We tried our best and in the second half we had more possession. We expected it to be tense before the game and we tried to match them physically and we did that, especially in the second half. We struggled defensively but I’d say we got back to our striking force and more than four goals is something very special. At times we lacked defensive stability but that is normal at Leicester. It was good for me to get some game time. I still lack a bit of fitness but it was good today. I say we deserved that especially after the second half.

Meanwhile, Theo Walcott called his own performance yesterday his best since returning from a long-term knee injury and also praised team-mate Sanchez, tipping the Chilean to continue contributing goals on a regular basis now he has broken his duck for the season:

It will be up there since the knee injury and, before that, the Tottenham game. I have always said I want to play up front. When I get the opportunity I can improve and learn the position a little more. The manager has had faith in me and I just want to repay him. He (Sanchez) is a top-quality player and even when he is not scoring goals he works so hard for us. He tracks back and does a lot for the team. I am sure he going to flourish now with many, many more important goals.

It’s Olympiakos up next in the Champions League on Tuesday night of course and the need for a win has been heightened after losing to Dinamo Zagreb so it will be interesting to see whether, and to what degree, the boss shuffles his pack. With the United game not until Sunday, my early guess would be that he’ll pick an unchanged line-up during the week (Flamini aside) before we entertain United late on Sunday afternoon.

See you next week.

26th September 2015: Walcott classy and Sanchez sizzling at King Power stadium

So Alexis Sanchez is back. After six league games and two in the cups without finding the net, our Chilean magician produced a hat-trick at Leicester City this afternoon to help us to a 5-2 win and fourth place in the table.

The only real question mark over how we’d line-up before the game was which duo would be picked to play in the middle of the park, and in the end, Arsene Wenger went with my own pre-game preference and chose Mathieu Flamini to partner the returning Santi Cazorla. But a hamstring injury meant the Frenchman was replaced by Mikel Arteta after just 21 minutes of action, by which point the score already stood at 1-1.

I only really kind of watched the game as a dodgy stream and various distractions ensured my attention to the game was somewhat spurious, but it seemed as though we struggled defensively early on in what was an open, end-to-end start to the match.

Jamie Vardy had been highlighted as one for the Arsenal defence to keep a close eye on and he showed just why on 13 minutes, collecting a long ball forward out near the left touchline and zooming towards our back four. Nobody got close enough to him, Hector Bellerin was caught upfield, and Vardy coolly placed the ball past Petr Cech and into the far corner. A decent finish from a man in form but worryingly easy for the England international from our point of view.

It could have been worse a few minutes later as Vardy saw his header clip off the cross bar but that passage of play actually ended up in an equalizer for us – and what a move it was. Riyad Mahrez fluffed an attempted dummy as he took on one of our defenders in our box and the ball made it’s way to Cazorla nearby. He let the ball run across him with typical impudence before finding Mesut Ozil.

The German then held off a challenge and shifted the ball out wide to our left and Alexis Sanchez, who in turn fed Cazorla, and he produced the perfect through ball into Theo Walcott, who had held and timed his run brilliantly. Our new number one centre forward took a touch or two to take the ball away from the defender before finishing left-footed into the far corner off a post. It wasn’t the cleanest of strikes by any stretch of the imagination but it was clinical and that would be the story of our finishing all day.

We took the lead shortly after half-time as Sanchez tapped home a goal which was almost identical to his strike at the King Power last season, following a cross from the right from Bellerin. I’m sure there were other chances at both ends in the first half, but I can’t remember them, and we carried the one-goal lead into the interval.

Our third, and Sanchez’s second, was sumptuous and owed it’s origin to the left foot of Ozil. Earlier in the move, Walcott had begged for the ball and repeatedly re-timed his runs to stay onside but the ball eventually found Ozil on the edge of the box and he looked up, spotted Sanchez running at the heart of the host’s back-line and clipped a clever, lofted ball for Sanchez to attack and glance home past Kasper Schmeichel.

But if his first two goals were crafted by his team-mates, Sanchez’s third was all about him. He collected a throw-in, flicked the ball one side of his marker, ran around the other before unleashing a deadly accurate, low strike from some 25 yards just inside the near post to make it 4-1.

Yet still, considering Leicester’s powers of recovery this season, it didn’t feel as though the scoring would end there, just nine minutes before the end. And it didn’t, because Vardy grabbed his and Leicester’s second with another unerring, side-footed finish into the far corner, before we broke forward again, Nacho Monreal pulled back a cross, and sub Olivier Giroud swept home a first-time finish in the third minute of added time.

Maybe the scoreline was harsh on the hosts but statistically, one of our opponents were due a bit of a battering sooner or later because we had created more chances than any other team heading into this game, yet had the worst conversion rate too. That profligacy in front of goal was never going to last, whilst with players like Cazorla and Ozil in our creative ranks, the chances were bound to continue to flow.

Sanchez and his three goals aside, I thought Walcott was absolutely superb. His runs were relentless, their timing spot-on and his general link-up play, which is often deemed not cultured enough, was classy. In fact, for those who have said he lacks the requisite awareness and movement to play up front, well, Theo was producing what I can only describe as multi-mini-runs yesterday.

He’d go, then hold, then arc, all the while eyes fixed on his teammate in possession, waiting, urging and sometimes gesticulating where he wanted the ball before repeating that process several times, all in a solitary attack. He can of course still improve considerably , but this recent run in his favoured role has seen him look better and better in his all-round game and regularly find the net.

A bit abrupt but that’s it for today, I’ll be back tomorrow with post match reaction from the manager etc.

Til then.