10th December 2015: Giroud treble topples Olympiacos to send us through

Evening all. So Arsenal, a significantly under-strength Arsenal, traveled to Olympiacos last night, a team who’d won five and drawn the other one of their last six matches against English opposition on home soil, and won 3-0 thanks to Olivier Giroud’s first-ever hat-trick for the club.

Hands up who saw that result coming? I certainly didn’t, not such a comprehensive victory anyway, but Petr Cech says the Arsenal squad themselves most certainly did. He said:

Well, we could! (see the win coming) We were searching for it and we knew if we played our game, if we have a great team performance and great individual performances then we will have a chance, and we did say exactly that. The first goal was important because going 1-0 ahead, they knew that one goal would not take us through and were holding back as one goal can kill the game for them. So there was pressure from both sides and we managed to get the better side of that pressure ourselves. The second goal was obviously an important point in the game and we knew that we would be able to do it.

Arsene Wenger had spoken before the game about his side being prepared for any eventuality over the course of the 90 minutes but as it transpired, there were no complications to proceedings as far as we were concerned as in the end, we killed the game off with plenty of time to spare.

The boss made one change to the starting line-up from Saturday’s win over Sunderland; Theo Walcott came in for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to start on the right-hand side of our attack. Against the Black Cats, Joel Campbell started on the right before swapping flanks with the Ox and went on to get our opener from a left-wing position. But last night, the Costa Rican made the reverse journey, starting on the left before swapping with Theo and both players came to life after that switch.

The game began with the home side on the attack but we grew into the game and took the lead around the half-hour mark. Mesut Ozil, running away from goal, spun and placed a typically inch-perfect pass through to Aaron Ramsey on the left. The Welshman crossed and Giroud guided a header towards the near-post which their ‘keeper could only help into his own net.

We then had a couple of scares either side of the interval. Just before it, they almost equalised, and just after it, Giroud went down in agony clutching his right ankle deep in his own half after clearing the ball. For a few minutes it seemed as though our injury list would lengthen again, but thankfully, the Frenchman carried on after treatment and soon put us two ahead.

Ozil again provided the assist for the assist, this time lobbing a pass over towards Campbell on the right. He cushioned the dropping ball on his thigh and, under pressure, turned back on himself, produced a brilliant drag-back to evade his marker before playing a reverse pass neatly into Giroud’s path as the striker made a run into the box. The weight and direction of the pass by Campbell was so good, Olympiacos’ defenders were totally helpless and Giroud didn’t break stride in guiding a first-time finish low into the corner.

At that point, we were heading through to the knock-out stages but in the knowledge a goal for Olympiacos would see them through instead. So when our third arrived, not only did it effectively kill the contest in our favour, it also saved millions of Arsenal fans the world over from 20 minutes of gut-wrenching anxiety.

It came via a penalty which was given for handball after Nacho Monreal fired in a low shot from the left following a Hector Bellerin cross. Giroud stepped up, sent the keeper the wrong way and completed his hat-trick with a firm side-footed finish.

I think it’s a little unfair to highlight individuals for praise because it really was a collective team effort with everyone playing their part but given how far down the first-team pecking order Campbell was just a few weeks ago, I think he deserves a special mention. He was industrious going both ways, kept the ball well, plugged into our pass-and-move style with aplomb and produced an assist Ozil would have been proud of. If he carries on playing like last night, he’s first choice on the right as far as I’m concerned, even with everyone fit.

The draw for the next round takes place on Monday morning and regardless of who we get (please don’t let it be Barcelona), right now I’m just proud, if a little amazed, that we’ll be in it.

Til Friday, last-16ers.

9th December 2015: Champions League Preview – Walcott option + the Ox is overdue a big performance

Welcome back. There isn’t long to wait now before we find out if we’ll be playing Champions, or Europa, League football after the New Year, and I have to admit, I’m as nervous as Wayne Rooney waiting for his pizza delivery. Will one, large, stuffed-crust suffice as a mid-morning snack? Can we complete a minor miracle and make it out of our group?

With a fully fit squad, I’d be very optimistic about our chances, but of course, we don’t have a full selection to choose from, as we’re missing our central midfield pairing in Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla and our best goalscorer in Alexis Sanchez. Throw in the fact their replacements have had one game to gel and find collective form and it’s hard not to worry as an Arsenal fan ahead of tonight’s trip to Olympiacos.

In terms of how we’ll line-up, the only change I can envisage would be bringing Theo Walcott in for a start at the expense of either Olivier Giroud, Joel Campbell or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Based on their respective form in last weekend’s win over Sunderland, the favourite to be dropped to the bench in favour of Theo would undoubtedly be the Ox. Yet barring any late injury concerns, my guess would be that Arsene Wenger will either go with the same starting line-up as last Saturday, or bring Walcott in for Giroud.

The Ox is certainly due a good performance and tonight would obviously be a great time for him to rediscover the sort of scintillating form he showed in pre-season. And the player himself has been discussing tonight’s game with Arsenal Player, highlighting the importance of both scoring early, but also keeping it tight at the back. He said:

If we can get that first goal we will really put them under pressure and we can push on and hopefully get another one. If they manage to score we are not out of it by any stretch of the imagination, we will just have to score a few more. We will see how the game goes but we need to defend first and foremost – keeping a clean sheet is the first task. We have got players in our side that can go and score goals and we will be focused on doing that. Olympiacos came to the Emirates and played really well on the night and showed us what a threat they can be. We have played at Olympiacos a number of times so it is a tough place to go and their fans can create a real buzzy atmosphere. It can be a bit intimidating but we have to feed off of that and go there and get two goals, defend well and get the result. Going into that game with nothing to lose, the boss uses the term: ‘playing without the handbrake on’. I think that is when we play our best stuff and if we do that we give ourselves the best chance.

On the opposite flank to the Ox, is likely to be Campbell, who fresh from scoring our opener against the Black Cats, will line-up against the side he played for, on loan from Arsenal, during the 2013-2014 campaign, scoring eight goals from 32 appearances for the Greeks. And the Costa Rican is expecting a tough battle in what he’s dubbed as our “most important game of the season so far”. He said:

[The win over Sunderland] was a good result for the team. We got the result and that’s what we wanted. Now we have to prepare mentally and physically for Wednesday’s game because it will be very difficult. We already played against Olympiacos at Emirates Stadium. They are a great team, a great rival and especially because they play at home. In the Pireo (Karaiskakis Stadium) it is very difficult to get points but it is the last game of the group stage and we will give our best. It is the most important game of the season so far. It will be a cup final and we have to win to continue in the Champions League.

I suppose it can only be a good thing that we have a player in our ranks who will know some of the oppositions players; their strengths and weaknesses, and also feel at home playing at their ground. But then that works both ways – they’ll also have a good idea of how they think they can stop Campbell from hurting them, having watched and studied his game at close quarters.

My gut feeling is that I need a poo we’ll do it tonight, but then I thought that just before the second legs against AC Milan, Bayern Munich (twice) and Monaco in recent years,  when we nearly manged the requisite result, but in the end fell tantalizingly, agonizingly, just short. Let’s hope tonight’s different and we can get the necessary win to carry us through.

Back tomorrow.

COYG!

8th December 2015: Wenger and Flamini chat Champions League

Hello again. So Arsene Wenger was joined by Mathieu Flamini when he faced the media at a press conference this evening, ahead of tomorrow evening’s game against Olympiacos.

The boss seemed in relaxed mood and expressed his belief that should Arsenal manage to progress to the last 16 this season, we’d be a threat to any of the other qualifiers. He said:

We can be dangerous if we go through because we come from far. Overall if you look at the numbers since the start of the Champions League group stage, we have played with 10 men in Zagreb, we scored an own goal at home to Olympiacos, every single game we were a bit unlucky but if we get through we will be dangerous that is for sure. At the moment we have two or three super-favourites [for the competition] and whoever gets through will have to chase them. As long as you don’t win the competition – at any stage to go out is bad. That is basically it. On the other hand, we have gone 15 times out of the group consecutively so you could say that is a good habit.

The ‘super-favourites’ Arsene refers to are obviously the holders Barcelona, Bayern Munich and possibly Real Madrid – on their day – but given we can’t draw the Germans in the first knock-out round, as long as we avoided Barca, I’d take anyone.

But before we get carried away, there’s the small matter of winning for the first time against Olympiacos on Greek soil, and winning by the necessary scoreline of course (anything bar 1-0 and 2-1 will do), but the boss was quick to highlight his team would be mentally prepared to deal with any course tomorrow night’s game might take, saying:

We have to put every scenario in our head, it is important we focus on the performance. The results come if we play well so let’s focus on that. When the goal comes I don’t know, but if we play well we have a chance to score. Mentally, you prepare yourself to adapt to every situation and give the right response to every situation you face. We will have to adapt to what is happening on the pitch and to all of the scenarios, accept them and respond. Ideally, you would like to not have to be patient but we might need to be. What is important is that basically the same for every game in Champions League you attack well and defend well, that is the best way, go into the game with a desire to win it and knowing you need to do both sides of the game well. Of course, we have a history where we have positive results. We know we can do it so the best way to do it is with a top-quality performance and that is what we want to focus on.

Meanwhile, Flamini says Arsenal’s vast experience in the competition can help us progress. He said:

Of course this is an important competition for me personally and for the club. We have a good test to prove we have the quality to go through and continue our adventure. Everyone is focused and I will try to help my partners. We are experienced for the big games and I believe we can progress.

I suppose the biggest concern about potentially exiting Europe’s premier competition isn’t that we’ll be out for another year, but the fact we’ll have to play in the Europa League and the adverse effect that competition may have on our domestic title chase.

I think we have to give it our all tomorrow and the team should be focused on scoring at least three goals. Obviously 2-0 would suffice but if we can get three, we’d have room to concede twice and still be in with a chance.

Back with a preview tomorrow.

Until then.

2nd October 2015: Wenger stands firm as he’s grilled on goalkeeper selection

Good evening Gooners. There’s only one place to start today and that is with Arsene Wenger’s press conference this morning, where the manager was unusually tetchy as he faced a bit of an inquisition into his team selection for last Tuesday’s loss against Olympiakos.

Asked again about his decision to play David Ospina rather than Petr Cech in goal against the Greek champions, the boss went on the defensive, stating his belief that both his goalkeepers were ‘world class’ and that Ospina was not to blame for the defeat in midweek. He said:

Looking at Ospina and Petr Cech, I think I have two world-class goalkeepers and it is the easiest choice I have to make because I can pick either of the two and I am very comfortable. It is the most difficult as well, because the two of them are world-class players and always you have to leave one out. No matter who plays you have a good goalkeeper in goal. One pundit says something on television and all behind that they repeat exactly the same thing. It is quite boring because nobody came out with numbers of this game where the game was won and lost. It’s quite depressing to read that and to hear that, to all come just to the same conclusion and not watch well what has gone on on the pitch. We have lost the game because we didn’t defend well, yes the goalkeeper made a mistake but we could still have won the game [despite] that.

I like the fact reporters are now asking difficult questions at these gatherings because for far too long I’ve felt that managers generally get too easy a ride from meek journalists, who are either afraid, or incapable, of making the kind of inquiries that would elicit insightful responses.

I’m not saying we’ve got to a stage where managers are intelligently grilled on tactical nuances or offered blunt appraisals by the press on certain players, as you often get in other countries for instance, but moving away from simply asking for an injury update or a manager’s ‘thoughts’ on something or someone is a step in the right direction in my opinion.

That said, what Arsene highlighted about Tuesday’s game is hard to argue with. Yes Ospina made a terrible mistake which led directly to us conceding a goal but then if, for example, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had done better on that first-half counter attack we had and scored or set-up a goal, perhaps the game would have turned out very differently.

Too often, one moment in a game is used to define the entire ninety minutes of action and that’s a bit simplistic. So in that respect, I agree with the manager – our loss had far more to do with collectively bad defending and in-game management by the team, than the selection and performance of the goalkeeper on the night. A better question to ask would have been ‘why do Arsenal seem to have these games every so often when they show all the intelligence of 11 Robbie Savages?’. Arsene then expanded on where he felt we went wrong, saying:

Maybe we lost the focus to defend and we just thought that we want to score more now. We were too much orientated on offensive drive and not enough on defensive caution. We learn from victory and we learn from defeat. We are eager to learn from what happens to us but it is true the disappointment is that it happened to us before and it has happened again.

Which goes back to what I said earlier this week that we were basically just a bit thick for a period in that game. Having just made it 2-2 and with plenty of time on the clock for a winner, we should have regrouped and taken our time in finding the next goal whilst ensuring we kept it tight at the back.

Anyway, that subject’s getting a bit boring now and if the squad’s soul-searching in the latter part of the week leads to a win against United on Sunday, then we might look back and say our shambolic showing in the Champions League was perfectly timed as far as our title challenge is concerned. That’s what I’m clinging to anyway.

Back tomorrow with a preview of the United game.

Have a good one. Laters.

1st October 2015: No defence for the defence

Welcome to a brand new month on TremendArse. Whatever your thoughts on Danny Murphy as a pundit, and mine are indifferent; he’s not as insightful as Gary Neville usually is but then he’s no dreary dolt, like Michael Owen, either, I thought the former Liverpool midfielder summed up our recent defensive displays perfectly when he spoke on talkSPORT today:

I’ve watched Arsenal in their last two games and I must say, defensively, Arsenal have been absolutely all over the place. Naive, gung-ho, thoughtless – it’s really not that difficult to play a bit more defence minded. With the players they’ve got going forward they will create chances.

Naive, gung-ho and thoughtless – exactly my sentiments about our defending when the full-time whistle blew on Tuesday night. If five goals had glossed over our frailties at the back last Saturday at Leicester, there was no similar attacking camouflage against Olympiakos and the brittleness we’re so often accused of was evident for all to see.

So what can we do to improve? The two central defenders likely to play in our next game at home to league leaders Man Utd on Sunday, due to Laurent Koscielny’s hamstring strain, have been discussing the debacle against the Greek champions and offering their views on what we need to do better.

First up is Gabriel, who has urged calm and remains confident we can still qualify from our Champions League group despite still having to face Pep Guardiola’s currently rampant Bayern Munich side twice in our remaining four fixtures:

It was a complicated night [against Olympiacos]. We were in a good place in the first half, defending well, we were happy. But the three goals were our own fault. We only have ourselves to blame for conceding them and now we have to rest, work harder, and then on Sunday come back and have a good game. We just need to be calm. We have to work hard and focus on putting in a good performance [against Manchester United]. I am sad that we lost an important game at home. But we can still qualify. We have a very strong team, with some very good players. We now have to try to win the remaining matches in the group.

Our vice-captain Per Mertesacker was similarly forthright in his appraisal of our last game and says it will take a while for the players to clear their heads before they can refocus and try to produce a far better performance against Louis van Gaal’s men at the weekend. He told Arsenal Player:

First of all, we are disappointed because we started quite well, especially on the break after they had set-pieces. We lacked that concentration and it is not understandable why we drifted and did not do the job we are used to doing. That is not acceptable and we will be punished [for that] in the Champions League. We need to get behind the ball and play better defensively. We lacked discipline, even when you get a goal back don’t rush yourself. Get your discipline back and with possession you get your chances. If we are not disciplined and do not chase the ball we have got no chance. We have got a couple of days to look back on that performance. I think everyone will have regrets and it is good to take that away. It will take a couple of days to recover and to think about Manchester United and play in a different competition, which will be a good opportunity to come back to the Emirates and play our football with possession and dynamism.

At least the players seem to have recognised their mistakes, evaluated where they went wrong and are clear in what they must do to improve. Or so you would say if this was the first instance of us f*cking things up to such an outrageous extent, but it’s not. It’s about the 151st time in recent memory, so I don’t blame any fans for yawning at Gabriel and Mertesacker’s words and switching off from the subject. To be honest, I’m not sure how we improve our squad’s collective mid-set and intelligence but that’s the issue I think here, brains, not ability.

The old ‘lack of leaders’ cliche certainly gains an awful lot of credence after results like Tuesday’s and as much as I lean towards the ideal of pure football, having the right mix of steely characters in combination with an easy-on-the-eye game-plan is crucial of course. Looking at our squad, only Francis Coquelin strikes as a player with the requisite organisational qualities. The rest of them to a man, including our captain Mikel Arteta and his deputy Mertesacker, have proven themselves lacking in that department.

Even if our football can be improved on the training pitches at London Colney, I’m not convinced character can be developed in the same manner, so the next time we dip into the transfer market, rather than focusing just on ability with the ball at a player’s feet, perhaps we need to scour the market for the kind of individuals who can make us a bit more of a savvy side when the sh*t starts hitting the fan in the midst of a game.

See you on Friday.

30th September 2015: All-too-familiar failings leave us facing early Euro elimination

Evening. We’re now facing the ignominy of failing to qualify from our Champions League group for the first time in 16 years thanks to a 3-2 defeat to Olympiakos last night, with the nature of all three goals conceded best described as pitiful from an Arsenal perspective.

The first arrived after Gabriel and Koscielny attacked the same ball as it was floated into our box and the former eventually raced out to block a shot, deflecting it over the bar. When the resultant corner was swung out to the edge of our penalty area for their player to hit first-time, Mesut Ozil was the only one to read it and react. But then, inexplicably, he pulled out of a possible slide to cut the ball out and appeared too scared to engage in a challenge. An all-too-familiar unwillingness to get physical from our flimsy German schemer.

Meanwhile, as the ball was struck towards our goal, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain half turned away in just the same cowardly, ‘what if the ball hits me in the face?’, manner in which his team-mate had done a split-second earlier, and the ball deflected off his foot before nestling in the corner with David Ospina helpless. An all-too-familiar moment of brainless botching from the Ox.

We then equalised almost instantly as Sanchez cut infield from the left, fed a good run by Theo Walcott and the England man found the net, thanks largely to poor keeping.

But back to our terrible concessions. Olympiakos’ second goal was quite simply a bad mistake by Ospina, as he misjudged his position, palmed a corner over his own goal-line and despite his best attempts to claw the ball away, saw the goal awarded by the first fifth official to ever make a decision of any kind whatsoever. Bad keeping but then, as Arsene said after the game, all keepers make mistakes.

In the emotional aftermath of a disappointing defeat like last night’s, people will obviously point to Petr Cech’s omission for such a vital game and blame the boss, but aside from the fact he was reportedly nursing a small calf injury, Cech has already shown this season that he’s far from faultless and frankly, I disagree with most fans that say Ospina’s a bad keeper. By my reckoning, that was his first major error in an Arsenal shirt and that he’s suddenly being portrayed as the reincarnation of Manuel Almunia is way wide of the mark.

So onto the third and my personal favourite in terms of summing up our players’ infuriatingly, brainless management of games at crucial times over the last countless campaigns. There are too many examples to list and the most recent before last night was after we pulled a goal back against Monaco at home and recklessly left ourselves open at the back whilst chasing an equaliser at 2-1 only to concede a third.

So having restored parity last night when Sanchez headed home to make it 2-2 from a precise Walcott cross, we had plenty of time on the clock to calm down, clear our heads, regain composure, remind ourselves of the score and the fact we didn’t need to rush a winner, yet did need to ensure we didn’t concede a third at all costs.

Instead, we conceded almost straight from the kick-off. Evidently, we were assuming the visitors couldn’t possibly get a third, were disorganised, half-arsed in our defending, with Per Mertesacker’s lack of a challenge as the ball was struck past Ospina encapsulating the criminal complacency.

After that, despite plenty of effort, we failed to grab a third equaliser and now have zero points from our first two games with a double header against Bayern Munich next up in the competition. Perfect.

A wider worry though, is our home form this season. That’s now two defeats, a draw and a win over Stoke, with five conceded and four scored at Emirates stadium. That needs to change and we have the chance to do it on Sunday when he entertain league leaders Man Utd.

As far as I’m concerned, Europe can take a back-seat for the next three weeks because we now need to ensure a likely early European exit is offset by a genuine tilt at the Premier League title. That said, on the evidence of last night, we’re too timid and too stupid as a squad, to end the long wait.

Back tomorrow.

29th September 2015: Champions League Preview – Three points a must

Welcome back. So the Champions League returns this evening as we host Olympiakos and after losing at Dinamo Zagreb on matchday one, picking up all three points against the Greek champions is almost a must if we want to reach the knockout stages.

As such, I’m expecting Arsene Wenger to field as strong a line-up as possible which, with a bit of luck, will include Francis Coquelin who has been a doubt with a knee injury. There’s also been some rumours flying around that Petr Cech has some form of minor injury and may not be risked with David Ospina replacing him between the sticks and if that is the case, I’d rather we didn’t take any risks despite the importance of a win tonight. We’ll see.

Elsewhere in the team, the boss spoke about checking on the recovery of those who had played both against Tottenham in the league cup a week ago and Saturday’s win at Leicester and the only players who started both games are Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini. The latter has already been ruled out of tonight’s game through injury so perhaps we’ll see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replace Ramsey on the right of the attack.

But with Mikel Arteta also sidelined, if Coquelin doesn’t quite make it, Ramsey would likely be needed to play in central midfield even if he is in desperate need of a rest, because with Jack Wilshere recovering from a fractured leg, we really are down to the bare bones in that area of the pitch at the moment.

Olivier Giroud serves a one-match ban for the red card he received in Croatia and Gabriel could potentially return in defence after serving his own suspension domestically. All that considered, my guess is we’ll line-up as follows:

Ospina;

Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal;

Coquelin, Cazorla;

Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ozil, Sanchez;

Walcott

That team looks more than capable of getting the win, although we’ll need to be wary of a side who Arsene suggested will have prepared well for this game because they are dominating their own league with ease, having won five out five so far this term.

Indeed, their current manager, the Portuguese, former Estoril right-back Marco Silva, was in bullish mood when he spoke at his press conference yesterday, explaining that whilst Arsenal and Bayern Munich are favourites to emerge from the group, his side have prepared well, are ambitious and ‘have to go for it’. He said:

We know it will be a difficult game, how big a team Arsenal are and we respect them, but we believe in our own strengths and are ready for a strong game. We are going to come here and show our best self, to show what we can do. We have analysed the jobs which Arsenal do well and will try not to make mistakes, bring to them match what we have done in training. If you asked people who would be the first two in the group, people would say it is Bayern and Arsenal, but football is not like this – there are no rules to say the favourites must win all of the games. We did not manage to win against Bayern, and yes the Dinamo win over Arsenal has made it more difficult for us, but we have our own ambitions and there are no limits to them. You have to go for it and we hope that we can change the situation in the group.

In terms of the history between the clubs, we’ve faced Olympiakos six times previously – all in the Champions League group stages – winning our three home games but losing the three at their place. So the omens for tonight at Emirates stadium at least, are good.

The first meeting in north London came in September 2009, when we beat them 2-0 thanks to goals from Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin. The next was two years later and goals by Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andre Santos secured us a 2-1 win, and the last match between the sides in London came in 2012, ending 3-1 in our favour thanks to strikes by Gervinho, Lukas Podolski and Ramsey.

Not long left until the teams are announced now  so I’ll leave it there and see you tomorrow.

COME ON ARSENAL!