14th January 2016: Arsenal remain top despite late Liverpool leveller

Welcome back. So Arsenal remain top of the Premier League tree after drawing 3-3 in a roller coaster encounter with Liverpool at Anfield last night, but now only lead the standings on goal difference after Robert Huth’s late header gave Leicester a 1-0 win at Tottenham.

Although the concession of an injury-time goal saw us drop two points in this fixture for the second season running, when you consider the hosts enjoyed 60% of the possession, forced 9 corners to our 3, and produced 22 shots at goal (albeit with just 6 on target) compared with our 14 (5), a draw was just reward for the performance of both sides in my opinion.

Weather conditions at Anfield were highly conducive to defensive errors and combined with hosts who began the game expending energy like the match would only last for 45 minutes, plus a slow start by Arsenal, it was no surprise to see Liverpool take the  lead after just 10 minutes.

It was a goal Arsenal were just as responsible for conceding as Liverpool were for scoring. First Theo Walcott was dispossessed as he tried to dribble out of our area following a Liverpool corner, Emre Can fired in a shot which Petr Cech should have parried wide and away from danger, but instead could only divert to Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian adroitly took two touches with his left foot in giving the hosts the lead.

That said, having seen the goal again just now, Can actually fouled Walcott, forcing him to stumble, so even if Walcott should have cleared the ball at the earliest opportunity, he should also have earned a free-kick. But there was no denying Liverpool were on top and we were struggling to establish ourselves in the contest, so it was a very welcome surprise to see us equalize just four minutes later.

Olivier Giroud won a header just outside the Liverpool box, Kolo Toure’s attempt at a headed clearance only found Aaron Ramsey, whose looped pass towards Joel Campbell was classily-controlled by the Costa Rican before he played a well-weighted reverse pass back to Ramsey, who rifled home first-time at the near post.

But parity didn’t last long because just five minutes later, Arsenal again heavily assisted a goal for the hosts. Mathieu Flamini shoddily passed straight to a Liverpool player in midfield, they attacked, the ball ricocheted off Campbell to Per Mertesacker, whose clearance pin-balled off Campbell for the second time in the move before it fell to Firmino at the edge of the box, and he curled an admittedly superb strike into the top corner.

Flamini’s role at the start of the move was infuriating enough but our reluctance to close shots down this season is something I’ve spoken about on this blog already this season, after Bayern Munich away I think, and cost us dearly again here. Laurent Koscielny’s half-arsed attempts at closing down both Firmino strikes were prime examples of that defensive deficiency. And it was clear the manager had brought up this very subject during the interval because after the break, not just one, but two or three Arsenal players, seemed to be breaking their proverbial necks in trying to stop shots at source.

Thankfully, Liverpool’s defending remained as abject as ours and we produced a second equalizer after 25 minutes. Ramsey nearly scored after build-up play involving Mesut Ozil and Giroud but his lobbed effort from close range was headed off the line and away for a corner. The Welshman took it himself, whipping a lowish ball to the near post where Giroud managed to apply the merest of flicks through a crowd of players to divert the ball home off their keeper.

Giroud missed an open-goal shortly afterwards, following great play by Campbell and Walcott, in one of those footballing moments so surreal you’re left rubbing your eyes and mouthing ‘how the f*cking f*ck, did he miss that?’. On second glance though, it’s quite simple – he got there ahead of the ball. So it remained 2-2 until the break but Giroud made amends for his glaring miss by producing a turn and finish of the highest standard to give us the lead for the first time in the match, ten minutes into the second half.

Hector Bellerin nipped in marginally ahead of James Milner on the right to turn a poor Flamini pass into an adequate one, before bursting forward in trademark fashion. He then played it short to Campbell, who found Giroud via a deflection. The Frenchman showed he has plenty of dexterity to compliment his physicality, as well as decent spatial awareness, by turning away from his marker and the goal with his first touch, before wrapping his left-foot round the ball to place it emphatically into the far corner. A great piece of opportunistic forward play by a striker in great form. Giroud has now scored 11 goals in 11 away games in all competitions this season, as well as four in his last four league games against Liverpool.

Arsene Wenger made his usual subs in trying to see out the win, with Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mikel Arteta replacing Walcott, Campbell and Ozil, but the changes simply invited sustained pressure on our defence and eventually Liverpool found a leveller when Christian Benteke headed a lofted ball down for Joe Alen to sweep home first-time. Arriving so late, the goal was obviously hugely deflating but in the cold light of day, when you consider how stretched our squad is because of injury, it’s far from a bad result.

I’ve said this plenty of times previously but when a round of fixtures come to a close this season, my main concern is always our position relative to Manchester City, who I think remain favourites to win the league. So the fact they also drew last night, at home to Everton, means we’re still three points ahead of them with one game less to play, so that should temper any disappointment at two dropped points at Anfield.

In terms of individual performances last night, two-goal Giroud was rightly named man-of-the-match I thought, but Nacho Monreal was outstanding at left-back, as was Campbell on the right of the attack. In contrast, Flamini’s had better games shall we say, the Ox was typically clumsy, Gibbs typically uncultured and Walcott typically timid.

Overall, a bad showing by our English contingent but what I would say is for me, their talent is undoubted – it’s their mentality and confidence that needs work. Yet, how you get Theo, for instance, to develop his attitude from ‘after you, old chap’, to ‘get out of my f*cking way’ when he’s on the pitch, is anybody’s guess at this stage – he turns 27 in a couple of months. At Aston Villa recently, he was aggressive in winning a penalty but last night he reverted to looking like a kid playing with adults at times. But I’ll reiterate, it’s a confidence and conviction thing in my opinion – and that can be remedied.

Right, this post has tuned out longer than intended so I’ll leave discussing the confirmation of Mohamed Elneny’s move to Arsenal until tomorrow. In the meantime, this is a good read on our new number 35. Needless to say though, another central midfield option in the continued absence of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin is very welcome indeed.

Back on Friday.

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.

COYG!

11th January 2016: Burnley next in the Cup + Pre-Liverpool chat

Welcome to a brand new week on TremendArse. The fourth-round draw for the FA Cup was made earlier this evening and we’ll be welcoming Joey Barton’s Burnley, who currently sit fifth in the Championship, to Emirates stadium on either the 30th, or 31st, of this month.

I have to admit I haven’t seen Burnley play since they were in the Premier League last season, so I have no idea about their strengths and weaknesses as a side, but we’ll obviously be super favourites, especially as we play at home.

There’s still the matter of three tricky Premier League fixtures to navigate through before that game though, and Arsene Wenger held his pre-match press conference this morning as we prepare to face Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday night.

Team news is mixed, with a positive update about the availability of David Ospina and Tomas Rosicky, but a not-so-positive one regarding Alexis Sanchez. Here’s what Arsene said:

We will have to test Ospina who was not available on Saturday. We have Rosicky back in training so the situation is getting better. Ospina is a muscular issue and we have to check if he will be available or not. Overall I think he has a 60/40 chance to make it. He (Rosicky) will be back in full training this week, it is fantastic because he has been out for very long and it is good to know that a player of that calibre is back in our squad. We think he (Sanchez) will be short for Wednesday, he has a chance to be available for Sunday [against Stoke]. He is always keen to play. If you listen to Alexis, he can always play – even when he is injured. We try to be cautious. With a muscular injury you never exactly how big the risk but he is very close. If you look at him training he is very close.

Considering the above and the fact Mathieu Flamini is expected to be available, I can’t see beyond a starting line-up of:

Cech;
Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal;
Flamini, Ramsey;
Campbell, Ozil, Walcott;
Giroud

Arsene was also asked about what he thought of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, compared with Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, and said:

Every time we go to Anfield, we face a team who is up for it. It’s always a ferocious battle, no matter who the manager is. They had a very strong manager before, they have a very strong one now and Klopp has the personality to do well there. [We need to] play our game at a good pace. We are used to pressing. It is not just Liverpool who do that, everybody in the modern game [does it]. Pressing has been created in England basically because there is a history of teams who have done that very well so it is part of the modern game to make quick decisions, be very short with your first touch and play your game.

Pretty diplomatic stuff, as you’d expect, from the boss there, but he must be looking at Liverpool’s absentee list, which includes Philippe Coutinho (who in my opinion is their best attack-minded player) and Martin Skrtel (their best defender) and think we’re playing Liverpool at a great time. Obviously we have injury woes of our own but we do have a relatively settled side at the moment, with a set game-plan and a stable defence, which I’m not sure you’d say about Klopp’s side currently.

Reports today suggest they’ll have Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho available to play, which is a real shame because I was really looking forward to seeing two players forced to play out of position in the heart of their defence, yet Skrtel will undoubtedly be a huge miss for them and for once, I really fancy our chances heading to Anfield, rather than merely being cautiously optimistic.

Back tomorrow.

21st August 2015: We have to beat Liverpool if we want to win the title

So it’s Friday already and that means Arsene Wenger held his pre-match press conference today and as usual, he was asked about everything from the latest team news at Arsenal, to the freshest furore in the wider footballing world – West Ham’s move to the Olympic Stadium.

And as he always does, the boss took time to answer every question put to him, no matter how irrelevant or far-removed from Monday night’s game with Liverpool – you now, the reason they were actually all there – in a typically thoughtful, insightful and balanced manner.

Sometimes I wonder why Arsene doesn’t just tell reporters to stick their questions up their to the subject but then I remember that’s what sets him apart from self-obsessed scoundrels like you find at bus stops in west London, who say they’re ‘unique’ because reporters have the temerity to ask them about their ghastly, public treatment of medical staff, and think a story which quite rightly dominated headlines for over a week, shouldn’t be a topic of conversation.

Anyway, Arsene spent some time discussing the importance of a strong home record for a title challenge and highlighted that although his side bounced back from an unexpected home defeat on the opening day of the season to secure three points at Crystal Palace, they must now get back to winning ways at Emirates Stadium:

If you want to have a successful season you want to be strong at home. Normally we are strong at home. This is an opportunity to show that. We missed our first game and we had to look at ourselves, and we responded very well. Now we need to come back to our usual strength that we have at home.

If we quantify ‘usual strength’ based on last season’s league table, that translates as 19 played, 12 won, five drawn and two lost – only the fourth best points tally behind champions Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs. So although that is a very respectable record in relation to most clubs, we were still three points worse at home than United, gained four fewer than City and finished eight behind Chelsea.

Our way record actually saw us fare better relative to the other members of the top four, finishing 3rd overall with a record reading played 19, won 10, drawn four and lost five, giving us a total of 34 – the same as City and four worse off than Chelsea. Remarkably, United finished seventh in the away league table last term, with Liverpool sixth, Crystal Palace miraculously fifth and our shadow dwellers Tottenham 4th. Amazing really.

But what all of the above does show is that although we may have had a ‘strong’ home record compared to 16 other clubs, it still needs to be fortified in comparison to United, City and Chelsea, and if last season is any kind of gauge, the margin for error is already very slim. Chelsea lost eight points at home over the whole of last season and we’ve already conceded three. That leaves leeway for just one more defeat and a draw so as silly as it sounds, with harder home tests to come, beating Liverpool is almost already a must if we want to be champions.

Luckily, as we prepare to host Liverpool, Arsene says his side should be confident mood after last weekend’s win and although he feels the game arrives too early in the campaign to be tagged a ‘title decider’, he did concede the match was ‘vital’:

Your confidence is linked with your last result and at Crystal Palace we responded well. You could see that we were a bit edgy at times but we responded in a very strong way. From that we should have enough confidence to go into the game positively against Liverpool. This is a very important game where the result will of course be vital. It’s not a result that will decide [our title chances] but in our heads we know it’s very important.

After a slow start cost us badly in the title race last term, losing two of our first three this term, or even five points out of the first nine, which would, in all likelihood, see us fall six points behind this City squad, would spell title trouble as far as I’m concerned, no matter how many games are left.

So If not a title decider, Monday’s game could easily prove to be a title eliminator. Let’s make sure its not boys…

See you on Saturday.