29th February 2016: Walcott needs to man up or move on

Welcome back. I spoke about Aaron Ramsey yesterday because his unsuitability to playing as a central midfielder in our style is the primary reason Arsenal have been functioning poorly as a team for the last few months in my opinion, but today I want to discuss a few of our other players.

I’ll start with Theo Walcott, because he has rightly been derided for going AWOL in our loss to Manchester United yesterday and similar to Ramsey, is a player who divides opinion. Capable of match-winning contributions occasionally, what we get more often than not from Theo is a player with poor control, minimal involvement in the team’s build-up play and an infuriating lack of will to impose himself on the action.

I’ve long thought it to be a mental issue with the player; he has the necessary ability to play for us at the highest level but if one player’s on-pitch personality reflects that of every Arsenal team, funnily enough, since Theo arrived back in January 2006, it’s him. Timid, overly nice with an ‘after you’ demeanour towards team-mates and opponents alike, and the opposite of tenacious, whatever the right word for that is – that’s Theo.

As fans, whether we’re watching from the stands or tuning in on TV, I think I speak for the majority when I say we can take being outplayed. We can take us having a bad day. But what’s unacceptable is players shying away from trying, for whatever reason.

I wouldn’t say it’s laziness at all on Theo’s part though, I think as Amy Lawrence suggests here, and in fairness, similar to what I’ve said in the past, it’s fear. In colloquial terms, if I’m being blunt, he’s a wuss, who lacks faith in his own ability.

He has the mentality of a child who thinks he’s playing against big, bad grown-ups and if I’m honest, it’s a little embarrassing, aside from being detrimental to Arsenal’s quest for success. Amy hits the nail on the head when she says it’s a fear of failure.

Walcott comes across as an articulate young man off the pitch and always says the right things but he’s on autopilot – spewing straight-batted, press office-fed, image-conscience words with little or no real meaning. It’s the way of the world but unlike most professional footballers, Theo plays like he speaks.

I’ve been Theo’s biggest fan since he arrived at the club and have defended him, insisting his qualities are under-estimated – and I still maintain they are. He’s still outstandingly quick, has brilliant movement off the shoulders of defenders, (usually) great finishing technique (despite the odd comical miscue), and a knack for scoring at vital times.

Years ago I confidently told a mate that Theo ‘will explode soon, just you watch’. I knew at the time he needed to mature in his outlook to the physical challenges of the game but not for a second did I think that would still be the case when he was 26.

If you compare Theo to Michael Owen, Owen was more fearless at 17, in what was a tougher, meaner Premier League in those days, than Walcott is now. Perhaps it’s all down to varying upbringings and club environments.

I mean, whereas Owen had the likes of the no-nonsense Paul Ince as a captain in a squad of battle-hardened, old-school British pros, Walcott’s not been toughened up in training, as Thierry Henry for instance, often fondly remembers he was by the likes of Tony Adams and Martin Keown when he joined Arsenal.

And perhaps more than the player then, that’s on the manager. Some players, like Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck, are naturally aggressive and have ‘fire in their bellies’, others need one started for them. In our 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge in 2011, for example, Theo scored a great goal moments after being fouled by Ashley Cole for about the 17th time in ten minutes.

It was obvious that for a few seconds after being upended, Theo got angry. What followed was him showing the kind of determination we need from him all the time. On that occasion, he was felled, sprung to his feet as if to say ‘fuck this, I’ll show you you fouling, money-grabbing, turncoat, and proceeded to score a great solo goal.

Maybe what we need is to make Theo more angry more often. Tell him he’s crap at football, someone’s keyed his new car, nicked his shin-pads – whatever makes him lose his sh*t. Perhaps we should sign Joey Barton and Lee Cattermole for the sole purpose of fouling him in training. Not to injure him mind, just to annoy him into anger. The bottom line to my mind though, is Walcott needs to man up, or in his and our best interests, move onto to a club where he’ll be forced to.

At the start I said I wanted to talk about a few players but Theo’s taken up all my time in the end so Gabriel and Alexis Sanchez will have to wait. But I will say this, I maintain Ramsey being unsuitable to cover for Santi Cazorla is by far the side’s biggest problem at the moment, not Theo’s lack of contribution, or defensive lapses in concentration or Alexis being out of form.

Theo may have gone missing at Old Trafford, but if you’re singling him out as the reason for our loss, you’re missing the point. The point’s Ramsey.

Until tomorrow.

28th February: Misfiring Arsenal outgunned by Man United’s reserves

Arsenal today completed a week to forget by losing 3-2 against a Manchester United side largely made up of reserves and academy players in what was for me, the most disappointing result of the season so far.

Our title hopes suffered a massive setback, when instead they were widely expected to be raised, and both our players and manager will now rightly come under increased scrutiny as we enter the final straight of a season of which so much was expected, but is increasingly looking like concluding with all-too-familiar failings.

Yes we’ve lost to Sheffield Wednesday this term, been routed by Bayern Munich and Southampton, had the double done over us by a half-arsed Chelsea, lost at home to West Ham, thrown leads away late on in games, but today’s defeat is by far the hardest to swallow for me, for a few reasons.

First and foremost, a quick glance at the United team-sheet prior to kickoff will have had even the most in-the-know anoraks Googling their match-day squad. They were missing their first-choice right-back, left-back, centre-half, striker and captain, and most expensive-ever buy, not to mention a host of other household names.

They were fielding an inexperienced 22-year-old right-back, an 18 year-old striker making his Premier League debut and just his second-ever start in professional football, a veteran midfielder – the Per-paced Michael Carrick – out of position at centre-half, and two wingers who probably wouldn’t start with everyone available.

We on the other hand, were missing just Santi Cazorla from being able to put out what would be a first-choice eleven. And yet we still went two nil down in the first half, produced a pitiful collective performance for a team with title-winning pretensions, and eventually lost 3-2 with oles ringing around Old Trafford as the hosts comfortably saw out what for them was a rare home win this season.

Opinion drives football debate and here’s mine – we’re not functioning as a team and we have a couple of options. We either approach every game between now and the end of the season as we did against Barcelona, that’s to say sit back, cede possession, defend in numbers and play as directly as we can on the counter, whether we’re playing Swansea at home, Hull away in the Cup, or Barcelona at the Nou Camp, or, we find somebody who can distribute the ball from the middle of the park to give our team it’s tempo back. We lack cohesion – that buzzword from early season – and in my mind it’s because one vital cog is missing in front of our defence, adversely affecting our whole style of play.

The only player who has shown signs that he has the speed of thought, weight of pass and all-round ability to cover the absence of Santi Cazorla and, to a lesser extent, Jack Wilshere, is Mohamed Elneny. But what we can’t do, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, is persist with Aaron Ramsey in there. Play him on the right. Or drop him to the bench. It’s not that important a role in our set-up, relatively speaking.

But the primary distributor from the middle of the park is crucial. He needs vision and to be able to pass but Ramsey, for all his strengths, such as stamina, and a knack for popping up with goals, is not that man, even if his stats suggest the Welshman’s better than Pirlo, Alonso and Cesc combined. You could have Neymar, Messi, Suarez or Superman himself up front, if you replace Busquets or Rakitic or Iniesta with Ramsey, it’d disrupt even Barcelona’s rhythm big-style. He’s laborious, clumsy and erratic bless him, and those traits have no place at the heart of our team, or at the heart of any team trying to build from the back.

The lack of control and reliability in midfield effects the shape of the side, players roam from their positions with greater frequency in search of the ball to make things happen spontaneously, fluency is lost altogether, and even our defending is afflicted by the chaos ahead of it.

You may read this and think, ‘boll*cks’, and that’s fine. You might point to games lost with Cazorla playing in the middle and that’s a fair point, but since the Cazorla-Coquelin partnership emerged just over a year ago, we’ve been winning consistently when it’s been used, controlling games and showing title-winning form far more often than not. In my mind, that partnership has been the bed-rock on which we built our brilliant form over the calendar year of 2015 and though there were the odd hiccups, we nearly always looked like a well-functioning side.

These last few months, when we’ve been deprived of that midfield platform, we’ve flattered to deceive when winning, or just gone to pieces like we did this afternoon, against what on paper, was the weakest United team in decades.

I realise I haven’t touched on other talking points from today’s game; like Gabriel’s defending, Walcott’s whereabouts, Sanchez’s struggles, Arsene’s choices, the impact of sunlight, the fearlessness of youth, Louis van Gaal’s, admittedly brilliant, touchline amateur dramatics on a day the Oscars are handed out, but I wanted instead to talk about what I feel is the main issue behind our poor form at the moment.

Ramsey’s had a rough ride from me this week so I’ll reiterate that I do like him as a player and don’t mean to sound overly critical. He can be an effective footballer, but he’s poorly positioned at the moment and like a lot of our squad, horribly out of form. I’d like to see him back playing from the right, where his energy is an asset rather than a liability, he can drift without the unsuitable task of running the game for us, and can time runs into the box and get on the end of things.

Back tomorrow.

24th February 2016: Thoughts on Barcelona loss and Ramsey’s role

Welcome back. So as expected, we lost to Barcelona last night. What was more of a surprise and makes the defeat annoying, is that for all of the visitors’ attacking brilliance, the result owed as much to us making mistakes as it did to the quality of messrs Messi, Neymar and Suarez.

It was pretty obvious beforehand that our best game-plan would be to contain and counter and for 70 minutes or so, we did that pretty faultlessly. The contain part anyway. I’d spoken about the fact that all four of our goals against Barca the two previous times we’ve played them at Emirates stadium had arrived around, or after, the 70 minute mark, with the inference being we were the better conditioned of the two teams to last the pace for the full ninety.

Yet instead of winning the game in the last 20 minutes, we contrived to gift-wrap two goals for the best team in club football. Their first arrived when we were on the attack. Hector Bellerin’s cross was headed clear by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta stretched out a leg to toe it on the volley to Neymar. He played a one-two with Suarez, who had drifted to the left byline, and when he received the return pass, the Brazilian found himself in acres in the middle and hurtling towards our goal.

Bellerin was the only one of our players to give chase with any hope of catching him, Nacho Monreal was drawn across from left-back, which left Messi all alone on the right. Neymar squared it and Messi took two touches in finishing like the best footballer on the planet that he is. It was a typically efficient and brilliant counter-attack by the Catalans but one we could have done a lot more to halt.

Mertesacker could have resisted pushing up so high and wide knowing that he’s as slow as he is, Monreal could have left Bellerin to contain Neymar and stuck with marking Messi, and Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey could have tracked Neymar’s run when he played it left to Suarez. There was no one player at fault really, rather it was collectively poor decision-making and defending. We lost our defensive shape in the search for a goal ourselves and as Arsene said after the game, it was reminiscent of Monaco last year.

I think Coquelin’s inertia explains why he was then removed and replaced by Mathieu Flamini, which I felt was understandable at the time given the former’s not long been back from long-term injury and is yet to find full match-fitness. Unfortunately, his replacement’s first act was to swipe sluggishly at the ball in our own penalty area only to kick Messi, who had got there first, and concede a penalty. Forget game, that was tie all but over right there. Flamini was obviously at fault but Mertesacker’s decision to cushion the ball down rather than just smash it clear up-field was the root cause.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain should have buried a first-half sitter but miscued his connection. Apart from that though, I didn’t think we looked close to breaching their defence. Alexis Sanchez was quiet and clearly still struggling to regain his best form since returning from injury but the main reason for us lacking fluency and quality as an attacking unit as far as I’m concerned, is Ramsey playing in central midfield.

I’m sure his stats show he completed the most passes and ran the furthest and ‘was everywhere’ but that’s not really what we need. We need a Santi Cazorla – a player who’s comfortable in possession, spatially aware, intelligent with his passes (not just accurate), skillful enough to beat a man, drop a shoulder, play it short and sharp, or long and precise, into a team-mates stride, rather than behind it, confident enough to put his foot on the ball, slow the game up or accelerate it’s tempo – basically all the things Ramsey is infuriatingly inept at.

In our current style of play, with the way our team is structured, he’s only playing there because we have no realistic alternative, at least until Jack Wilshere returns or Mohamed Elneny’s deemed physically robust enough. I do like Ramsey, but we’re asking him to play a role he’s simply not equipped to.

If I’m honest, when he’s not regularly getting goals, and he isn’t, ‘energy’ is all he contributes playing from there. Similar to Theo Walcott and the striker’s position, I think Aaron should play wide-right or not at all once we have alternatives. For now though, we’re forced to persist with him there but I’ll be blunt, I’m hating every second of Ramsey in central midfield.

This has turned into a Ramsey Rant but it’s been building for a long while. Either we change our footballing philosophy, or we find a player who can defend like Coquelin and pass like Cazorla to partner the Welshman. Otherwise, on the right, at least against the best teams, is where Ramsey should be restricted to playing from.

Then in the summer, we need to reassess the personnel we have and how suitable they are to the style we want to play because at the moment we’ve got some who could play for our opponents last night, and others who’d be a better fit in say, Chelsea circa 2003-present. That’s to say, good players, but pass and move’s not their strong suit.

Back 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.

7th February 2016: Quick-fire double sends Gunners joint-second

That’s much more like it. Despite still not being nearly as fluent in our overall play as we were earlier in the season, two goals in two minutes midway through the first half gave Arsenal a 2-0 win at Bournemouth this afternoon, to see us leapfrog Manchester City in the Premier League table and join second-placed Sp*rs on 48 points.

Our first arrived after 23 minutes when Aaron Ramsey’s lofted ball into the box was won in the air by Giroud, who nodded it down for the on-rushing Mesut Ozil to rifle home first-time on the half-volley using his weaker right foot.

Then just 88 seconds later Arsenal broke forward again, Ramsey toed the ball wide to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right of the hosts’ penalty area and the winger took a touch before finding the net via the far post with an unerring low strike.

After three league games without a goal and four without a win, it was a relief to see us score twice in quick succession and settle any nerves we may have had in what was a crucial fixture given our recent poor form and the emergence of an eight-point gap to leaders Leicester City.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one slightly surprised that Arsene Wenger opted to make just one change to his starting line-up from last Tuesday’s draw with Southampton – the Ox replacing Joel Campbell – but he again went with Mathieu Flamini ahead of Francis Coquelin to partner Ramsey in midfield and the former was involved in the first major talking point of the game.

With eight minutes on the clock Flamini went into a challenge two-footed and despite winning the ball, was lucky to escape with just a caution, because on another day with another referee and against an opponent who didn’t half pull out as the Bornemouth player did today, we’d undoubtedly have been down to ten men and facing a much more difficult task.

It was reckless to say the least and also very unnecessary so hopefully Flamini will watch that incident again and try his best not to be so brainless in future. Aggression is fine and indeed very welcome but today he was just plain stupid and we’re lucky we’re not sitting here ruing a defeat because of an early dismissal like we were after the Chelsea game a couple of weeks ago.

As a spectacle, the game was pretty forgettable and but for our two goals, clear-cut chances were few and far between for both sides. Alexis Sanchez had a pretty poor game by his standards in my opinion, yet still created a coupe of moments of danger with one run to the byline and cross across goal deserving better reactions from his team-mates. Considering the Chilean’s still working his way back to peak match sharpness after a two-month injury lay-off, it’s not surprising he looked a bit below-par and I’m sure he’ll be back to his sizzling best soon enough.

On the opposite flank I felt the Ox had probably his best performance of the season and not just because of his expertly-taken goal. I thought he was far more involved and despite giving the ball away a few times, he drifted infield to great effect at times so should gain a lot of confidence from his display today moving forward.

As I mentioned a the start of this post, we didn’t function smoothly as an attacking unit and I think we still have an issue with circulating the ball from the middle of the park. Ozil dropped deeper with greater frequency to spray the ball around than he has to when Cazorla’s playing but that then obviously limits his presence in the final third.

I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else suggest this but maybe we ought to consider playing Ozil alongside Coquelin in a two instead of Ramsey. I think it could work if we then restore the Welshman to wide-right and maybe give Campbell or Alex iwobi the central attacking midfield berth. Innovative and perhaps some would say, stupid, but hey, how many of you would have envisaged Santi deeper before Arsene played him there? I think it could work a treat, especially now that Mesut’s muscled-up since first arriving in England and is clearly more than capable of holding his own in this physically-demanding Premier League.

We have a big problem with passing through midfield at the moment which is the main reason we’re struggling attacking-wise in my opinion and I can’t see Ramsey suddenly learning to pass it like Pirlo. Aaron’s got a great engine and many admirable attributes etc etc etc but I thought he looked a much better player once he moved to the right after the introduction from the bench of Coquelin in place of the Ox today.

Sky Sports gave him their man-of-the-match award and I’ve already seen some stats suggesting Ramsey had a high pass completion rate but that’s where stats can be completely deceiving. I mean, if Ramsey plays a pass out to Nacho Monreal for instance and the full-back gains possession, it goes down as a successful pass.

But he may have played it behind him, or to feet, when a far better pass would have been to play it into his path ahead of him to set us on the attack. That kind of scenario is exactly what I’m talking about when I use the word fluency – a completed pass can still be an infuriatingly move-hampering one.

Still, it’s job very well done for today at least and now we can start looking ahead to next weekend’s visit of leaders Leicester.

See you next week.

6th February 2016: Premier League Preview – Arsenal to face familiar A-foe-be

Good evening. Arsenal face south-coast opposition for the second time inside a week when we travel to Bournemouth tomorrow afternoon, looking to secure our first Premier League win in five fixtures.

With Leicester City’s dream season continuing unabated as they beat Manchester City 3-1 at Etihad stadium earlier today to remain clear at the top of the table, we’re now eight points behind the Foxes, so the pressure on us to get back to winning ways in the Premier League has obviously been amplified.

But beat Bournemouth tomorrow and we have an opportunity to close that gap to just two points as early as next weekend, when we host Claudio Ranieri’s league leaders on Valentine’s Day and attempt to take some of the romance out of their surreal success story so far this season, along with the three points.

Standing in our way first though are the Cherries, who themselves have exceeded most people’s pre-season expectations and currently sit relatively comfortably in 15th place in the standings, five points above the relegation zone and with a game in hand over the teams below them.

One of their most in-form players at the moment is striker Benik Afobe, who of course came through the Arsenal youth ranks having joined our academy at just six years of age, before we eventually let him leave for Wolverhampton Wanderers in a reported £2 million transfer in January last year.

I remember Arsene Wenger describing Afobe as a ‘deadly finisher’, or something along those lines when he was still an Arsenal player, and after struggling for goals in several loan spells earlier in his career, he managed 19 from 30 appearances in a temporary spell at then League One side MK Dons in the first half of last season, leading to his switch to Wolves, where he continued his prolific form a division higher scoring 23 times in 48 appearances.

So it was unsurprising to see him back at a Premier League club so soon and he’s already managed three goals from his first four top-flight games for his new side since arriving last month, to suggest he’s more than capable of finding the net consistently at the highest level of the English game.

Some have recently criticized Arsene, saying he boobed big-time in letting Afobe leave without giving him a chance in the Arsenal first-team but I think that’s harsh and probably stems from being a little under-informed, given Afobe’s progress at the club was severely hampered by injury.

Also, as has been shown countless times in the past, timing, in terms of competition for places, often plays a big role in whether a young player gets a prolonged first-team chance at Arsenal or has to leave in search of regular football elsewhere. That’s something Arsene touched on when discussing his former player at yesterday’s press conference, when he said:

He (Afobe) was very young, he had big competition in front of him with Robin van Persie, and players like that, so I gave him authorisation to go somewhere and play, which he did. You educate people to influence their lives and give them success, that is what we do. When they do not manage to play for us, if they do it somewhere else we are of course very happy for them. Benik has done extremely well, even beyond the expectations of many people and that’s great, that’s down to him and congratulations to him. I think the best way to stop (him) being dangerous is for us to have the ball and dominate the game and being aware that Benik is quick, strong and has good movement in the box. We are used to facing these kind of strikers in the Premier League because in every single club there are top-quality strikers. That’s the same with Bournemouth.

I must admit I haven’t seen Afobe play much other than the odd highlight clip so can’t really comment on his best attributes with too much authority, but his goalscoring record speaks for itself and we’ll obviously need to keep him on a tight leash given his form. Especially when you throw the ‘ex factor’ into the equation, which will no doubt spur him on to try that little bit harder against the club that let him leave.

As far as our line-up  is concerned, I do wonder if Arsene might make a change or two seeing as we’ve failed to score in our last three league games. It may be a match to give Theo Walcott a return to the striker’s role for instance, with Olivier Giroud dropping to the bench. I mean, Theo’s clearly been out of form playing on the flanks in recent weeks but then Giroud’s hardly been banging them in for fun. A rest for the big Frenchman, and at the same time, a show of faith with a return to his favoured position for Walcott, could prove beneficial for both players in the long-run.

At the back I think we’ll see Per Mertesacker return at the expense of Gabriel to partner Laurent Koscielny after the German missed the FA Cup clash with Burnley through suspension and watched the Southampton game from the bench. Francis Coquelin starting alongside Aaron Ramsey in central midfield in place of Mathieu Flamini, is another very likely change in my opinion providing the former is now deemed completely match-fit.

The rest of the line-up should be largely unchanged from the Southampton game though, with Petr Cech in goal, our two Spanish fullbacks, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez all starting. But a bit like up front, I’ve a feeling Arsene might want to freshen up the right hand side of the attack, where we could see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain come in for Joel Campbell for instance.

I wrote earlier this week that I don’t really like Ramsey in central midfield because of his unreliable distribution but given he’s hardly ever played in a two with Coquelin, the boss may want to give that combination a chance to prove it can work before trying something else, such as bringing in Mohamed Elneny or even handing Alex Iwobi a Premier League starting berth as a central midfielder.

By my recollection, Coquelin and Ramsey have only ever played as a partnership for 45 minutes this season – the first half of our opening-day defeat by West Ham – so even if many, myself included, aren’t convinced it can be effective, hopefully the doubters can be shown up as not knowing nearly as much as we think we do, and that duo will gel to form the midfield platform on which we go on to win things this season.

How I’d love to be proven wrong as Coquelin stealthily covers Ramsey’s goal-getting forward raids, Mesut picks up the Cazorla-less circulation slack and we function fluently as a team all the way to the Treble …

Whichever line-up Arsene opts for however, the objective is very simple: we need to win because a manageable gap could very quickly morph into an insurmountable one if we’re not careful.

Back post-match.

COYG!

4th February 2016: Thoughts on Ramsey and Wilshere

Welcome back. It was only a few years ago that Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey were being touted as Arsenal’s central midfield double-act of the future – British bedrocks on which we could build a new team following the departures of the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Alex Song in consecutive summers.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way, what with Jack being injured more often than not during that time, and Aaron, despite enjoying one superb season stationed centrally in 2013-2014, now looking more and more like a player better suited to playing further up the pitch.

In fact, despite England’s management preferring to deploy Wilshere as a deep playmaker, Arsene Wenger is on record as saying he views the midfielder’s best position as also being closer to the opposition goal, in what would be one of the three attacking roles behind the striker in our current system.

As much as I rate the pair of them, barring injuries, neither will dislodge Alexis Sanchez from the left or relieve Mesut Ozil from his no 10 duties any time soon, so in effect, Ramsey and Wilshere find themselves in competition with one another – and several others too – to be first-choice on the right.

Yet the former has been pretty open about preferring to play more centrally and highlighted what he thinks it takes to play that position in the modern game when he spoke to Arsenal Player:

It’s obviously a balance but if you do sense an opportunity to break away from your man to get into the box or to be free in the box, you have to take it because you can score a goal from it. But you have to get back in as quickly as possible and when you are, try to get a bit of a breather then. And then it all starts again. I prefer to get forward, to get on the end of things, to create things. But it’s important to defend and help the team out defensively as well. But it’s also nice when you win the ball in quite a deep position and then you can start an attack which leads to a goal. That’s quite rewarding as well. An all-round midfielder needs to have that, where you can defend, you can tackle, you can create goals, you can score goals. That’s the complete midfielder that I want to be. Your time on the ball is definitely a lot shorter now so you have to try and make your decisions and try and have options a lot quicker than before. It’s just the way the game is going. It’s becoming a lot quicker, a lot more physical, so you have to be able to make decisions a lot quicker and move the ball quicker as well. I feel really confident and comfortable in the middle. I back myself to put in performances every week. The game is always developing and the demands are always a bit more every season. Hopefully I can continue developing as a player. I think there’s definitely more to come.

Although he says you have to ‘move the ball quicker’, it’s making the right pass at the right time with accuracy, as well as speed, that is surely a key requirement for a central midfielder, because in a style such as ours, being an efficient and reliable distributor is arguably the most important skill-set to have. I mean, there’s no point being quick to release the ball if your’re clubbing it out for an opposition throw, or misplacing the simplest of five-yard passes.

Santi Cazorla is undoubtedly a cut or ten above, but although he’s a ferocious ball-winner, intelligent interceptor and great reader of opposition attacks first and foremost, Francis Coquelin is also better passer than Ramsey in my opinion. All of which is to say if Aaron wants to play in what he thinks is his best role in the middle, he needs to work on his passing big-time, as far as I’m concerned.

What would help is if he could improve his ball-control too, had better spatial awareness and had a picture of what he wanted to do with the ball before he received it, but I’m not sure those things can be developed on the training pitch. You either have them or not and unfortunately for the Welshman and us as fans, he doesn’t.

Meanwhile, Wilshere, who I think is better equipped to play centrally than Ramsey, due to being a much better passer and having far better close control and awareness, says he sees light at the end of the tunnel in his recovery from another long-term injury:

[My recovery is] going well. I’m back on the pitch and I’m just trying to build my fitness up because everyone knows how tough it is to play in the Premier League. I’m working on it and I’m slowly getting there. Sometimes it’s been difficult to stay positive, especially after the injuries that I’ve had which have been frustrating, but as the injury goes, you get closer to full fitness and you see the light at the end of the tunnel, then you start to think about coming back and getting involved in the team.

With Santi side-lined, what I’d give to have a fit and firing Wilshere right now. I think of all the alternatives to the Spaniard in our current squad, Wilshere is the one player who would compliment Coquelin in the middle and successfully take on the mantle of dictating our play from deep.

I can see why Arsene likes Wilshere further forward, and I think he could be equally good there seeing as he’s a genuinely good footballer. But perhaps, Wilshere and Coquelin, rather than Wilshere and Ramsey, or Ramsey and Coquelin, will prove our long-term partnership in front of the defence given the chance, seeing as Cazorla turns 32 in December.

In our current situation, the Wilsh-Coq combo would go a long way in rectifying our recent Santi-less stuttering in my opinion, making it all the more galling the England man’s still some way from a return.

See you 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.

28th January 2016: Squad takes three steps closer to full strength

Welcome back. With the winter transfer window coming to a close in a few days’ time, it’s looking increasingly likely that Mohamed Elneny will be the only addition to our first-term squad this month.

But when you consider today’s update from Arsene Wenger on our injury list, which confirmed that Francis Coquelin, Danny Welbeck and Tomas Rosicky are all back in full training, it’s difficult to highlight an area in which we’re lacking in options, even if you could argue we can be improved in terms of quality.

That said, with Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla still on the treatment table, I suppose our best two ‘passers’ from the middle of the park are unavailable, if you assume that Elneny will be more of a defensive option and Mikel Arteta is no longer up to the task. So if pushed, I’d say that’s the one potentially problem-position we need to find a solution for in the short-term, until Jack and Santi are ready to return.

Who knows, perhaps Elneny will show he can step in and circulate the ball like Cazorla, or Aaron Ramsey can alter my perception that passing is his weakest attribute by playing it around like Andrea Pirlo in his pomp. However we look to cover for Cazorla’s absence though, I think our results in January suggest we need to try something other than the Mathieu Flamini-Ramsey combination in there.

Anyway, here’s what Arsene said about team news ahead of Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Burnley at Emirates stadium when he spoke to the official site:

Mertesacker is out because of the red card, and everybody else is available, apart from Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla. After that it is just a question of selection and decision-making, that is the key. Jack and Santi are progressing well but they are at least a few weeks away. But these two apart, it is just about competitiveness and match fitness. Danny Welbeck is not completely ready but he is not far. He needs a game or two because he’s been out since last April. The Stoke [under-21] game is too soon because he only had one session with the team, and that is too short. Francis is available to play now because he has passed two weeks of full training. Tomas is also available for selection.

I’m sure we’ll get more clues as to which players might start against Burnley when the boss holds his press conference tomorrow morning, but we’ll no doubt be rotating the squad quite a bit, especially when you consider we host Southampton in the league on Tuesday.

Elsewhere Per Mertesacker, who as the boss mentions above will be suspended this weekend after falling victim to Diego Costa, er, falling over thin air, has been speaking to the Arsenal Weekly podcast about leadership, energy, managing the loss of players to injury, the squad’s development, mental strength aaaaaaaaaaaand team spirit – i.e the usual. He said:

There’s always a balance between having good leaders and a good team, but everyone needs to lead. Everyone needs to lead, to talk and give energy to the squad. It’s a balance and you don’t want to do too much or exaggerate at times, you just have to get the team going at times. In general we have a good balance in the team and a good squad. We’ve still got players coming back from injury but we’ve never complained about it, that is the main reason for our success. Players have stepped up, brought their energy and we’ve got the results as well. We won¹t look back on players being injured as a negative because other players have stepped up, especially this season. We’ve kept the same squad and we have obviously made some great additions over the past two years. In general, the team spirit has grown a lot. We are competing at the top and that’s something that was not always the case when I joined. The team is much stronger and mentally stronger as well. There are a few steps to go, the season is always long and to get consistency is never easy. There are challenges ahead of us but they make us even stronger, and I must say that the team spirit in the squad is huge at the minute.

Hands up who instantly pictured William Gallas lecturing his Arsenal team-mates in a pre-game huddle some years back when they read “you don’t want to do too much or exaggerate at times”?

Well I did, and it just reminded me that even if Gallas was arguably a better centre-half than Mertesacker, he didn’t have half the personality the German does. Sometimes, that can be more valuable to a team than ability.

Back on Friday.

24th January 2016: Ten-man Arsenal beaten by Chelsea

So our Chelsea hoodoo continued this afternoon after Per Mertesacker was sent off just 18 minutes into the contest and Diego Costa scored the only goal of the game five minutes later to secure all three points for the Blues at Emirates stadium.

If I’m honest, after conceding the goal having just been reduced to ten men, I was seriously concerned about us potentially getting a battering. So considering how the rest of the match played out, I was pretty pleased with the overall team effort, if not the performance of individuals.

Theo Walcott has taken a lot of flak online from what I’ve seen, and rightly so in my opinion, but he was far from alone in playing badly. I thought Aaron Ramsey, for example, was very, very poor in the middle of the park and his display again underlined just how much we miss Santi Cazorla’s distribution and game-running capabilities in that position.

Mathieu Flamini was just, well, Mathieu Flamini, and I don’t expect much more from him, but I do expect Ramsey to be able to find a team-mate with a pass every now and again and to not get caught in possession every time he receives the ball, as he seemed to today.

At the back, Laurent Koscielny had a poor start to the game but I think that can be put down to nerves and I thought he got better as the game wore on. Meanwhile, his partner Per reminded us why opponents like assigning even remotely mobile attackers to play off of his shoulder, by reacting to a through ball played past him in what seemed like slow-mo speed.

Unsurprisingly, the German defender only succeeded in getting himself sent off after sliding for a ball he was never going to reach – especially after he disorientated himself at the last second by looking to see if he’d be saved by an offside flag – and Costa took full advantage, hitting the deck and rolling around like the big feigning f*cktard he is.

As for the fullbacks, Nacho Monreal could have done more to close down the cross that led to their goal and Hector Bellerin was steady and tried hard but with our team looking disjointed and lacking any kind of fluency, he wasn’t as effective raiding forward as he usually is.

In truth, when you’re reduced to ten men so early in a game, especially against quality opposition like today, it’s an almost impossible task to take anything from the game and if you avoid doing serious damage to your goal difference, it’s a big plus. And that’s what we can cling to today if nothing else. As I said earlier, we might have been beaten by three or four goals and that would also have been a much bigger blow to our confidence than the narrow defeat we ended up with.

As it is, I think the squad should be able to compartmentalize this game for what it was; another defeat to Chelsea yes, but also the second one this season against them where we’ve had at least one man less for a large portion of the game.

On the bright side, we’re still level on points with Manchester City, we’re getting players back fit and with the FA Cup next weekend, we now have nine days to get our team balance right before we resume our title chase by entertaining Southampton a week on Tuesday.

One final point on today’s game before I go though, and it’s about the apparently widespread disillusionment over Olivier Giroud being the man to make way for Gabriel after Mertesacker was sent off. Personally, I called that switch and still think it was the right one.

Arsene decided we’d need pace out wide to best implement the counter-attacking game-plan we’d be forced to adopt with a man less, and although he could have taken off Walcott or Campbell and moved Ozil wide, taking Giroud off allowed us to keep Ozil in a free-ish role in the middle of the park, which I think was hugely responsible for us enjoying as much possession as we did in the end, and keeping ourselves firmly in reach of a draw right until the end.

Until tomorrow.