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.

2nd February 2016: Premier League Preview – Southampton at home

Evening all. So we resume our chase for the Premier League title when we welcome Southampton to Emirates stadium in a couple of hours’ time and after a poor January points-wise, a win tonight has become all the more important.

We secured just five points from four league games last month; losing to Chelsea, drawing at Liverpool and Stoke, and managing only to take all three points from our home game against Newcastle.

And after playing the Saints, we travel to Bournemouth before hosting league-leaders Leicester City in our other two Premier League games in February – far from an easing-looking fixture-list, but one Arsene Wenger says he feels confident in tackling:

The [coming weeks] can be pivotal but not decisive. They will give a clear indication of the strength of the teams and who can cope with the importance of the games. At the end of the day somebody will win and the team who will win has to go through the important games with strong performances. It’s a big month for us. I am quite confident, having everybody available, that we can do very well. What is important now is for us to be capable of focusing and coping with that kind of expectation level. I don’t feel that we have really struggled recently because we had two difficult away games with Stoke and Liverpool and we didn’t lose. We had a bad result against Chelsea and of course, if you put the three results together, it looks like we’ve struggled but overall the Chelsea result is under special circumstances. If you take the history of our season, we started with a defeat against West Ham and the way we responded and where we are today shows that this team has the capability of responding under pressure. I’m sure that we will show that in February.

Hopefully starting tonight. We owe Southampton a beating after they won 4-0 the last time the two sides met on Boxing Day, but if I remember correctly, this fixture last season was a very close contest and it took us 88 minutes or so to score the only goal of the game through Alexis Sanchez.

To be honest, I’d be happy to win by a similarly slender score-line tonight and Arsene says his team are eager to put right that big loss at St Mary’s in December by producing a ‘strong performance’:

They gave us a tough game last time and we have to put that right. It is a very important time in the season as we go into big, big games and have 13 matches to go. They were dominant in the challenges and the duels. We just came out of a very tough game at Man City, and maybe didn’t have the urgency to cope with that. We were a bit unlucky with three goals on the decisions of the referee as well. The message [this time] is that we play at home and we want to put things right and put a strong performance in because the strength we show at home now in the remaining games can be decisive. The defeat against Chelsea was very unlucky, because our performance was right – it was not a Southampton performance. Our performance, our energy level, our commitment and the quality of what we did was very good. It is an encouragement. Sometimes you have to raise a little bit above the result and keep the positives. In that game there were a lot of positives.

Which is right. In the loss to Southampton we simply weren’t at the races and were soundly beaten by the better team on the day, whereas against Chelsea, the early dismissal of Per Mertesacker and our subsequent display with a man less shouldn’t have affected us confidence-wise.

In terms of the team tonight, I’m guessing Mertesacker will return in place of Gabriel having served his one-match ban for that red card against Chelsea, but at the same time wouldn’t be surprised to see Laurent Koscielny given a breather with the Brazilian starting alongside Per instead.

Further forward, Aaron Ramsey should partner Francis Coquelin in midfield, Mesut Ozil will surely start ahead of them, as will Sanchez on the left, but the right flank and up front remain a little more uncertain now that we have increased personnel options.

Personally I’d go with Joel Campbell on the right and Olivier Giroud up top but the boss could conceivably select Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott in those positions respectively. We’ll see.

Right, not long until kick-off now and the line-ups should be announced soon so I’ll leave it there.

Back on Wednesday.


27th December 2015: A bad Boxing Day at the office

It’s dark, dreary and overcast in my part of London today, a bit like the mood among Gooners everywhere after we lost 4-0 at Southampton last night.

Having won so impressively against Manchester City on Monday night, the same starting line-up somehow contrived to collapse against a physical Saints side who certainly enjoyed a large slice of festive luck in securing their win, but in the end, ran out consummately comfortable victors.

The first goal was undoubtedly a brilliant long-range strike, executed with text-book technique, as their right-back Cuco Martina met a dropping ball on the half-volley with the outside of his boot and sent it arcing inside Petr Cech’s far post. It was a bit like Thierry Henry’s record-breaking (or equaling?) goal at Sparta Prague all those years ago, only further out and far more wind-assisted.

I felt the blustery conditions at St Mary’s played a pivotal part in our abject performance overall, along with a slippery pitch which seemed to have been deliberately left unmowed for Arsenal’s visit. It was more difficult than usual to weight passes and the aerial side of the game became far more unpredictable and challenging. That said, Southampton used the conditions in their favour, whilst we failed to adapt.

They shot from long-range and made the most of set-pieces whereas we didn’t take enough pot-shots in conditions that were clearly going to cause goalkeepers difficulties. When we did swing decent deliveries into the box, Olivier Giroud (very early on in the game), and then Theo Walcott, lacked accuracy and conviction when afforded uncontested headers at goal.

Their second goal arrived ten minutes after the interval and although we should have defended far better as a team, Shane Long slyly tripped Laurent Koscielny in the build-up to his his first goal of the game, which allowed him to tap home unmarked at the far post from Sadio Mane’s cross.

Southampton scored a third with about 20 minutes to go as Jose Fonte powered home a header from a corner that should actually have been a goal-kick, but also better defended by Arsenal. Then right at the death, Long grabbed his second and Southampton’s fourth to complete a miserable day for the Gunners.

I’m loathe to draw too many conclusions from the game because in my opinion, although we performed very, very poorly both individually and collectively, we were also extremely unfortunate to be victims of officiating errors which directly led to the hosts first three goals (there was an offside in the build-up to Southampton’s first).

Our squad is obviously stretched to it’s limit in central midfield and we’re also currently missing the irreplaceable brilliance of Alexis Sanchez, so there are mitigating circumstances, even if the same players have produced far better in our last few games.

Mohamed Elneny, the Basel midfielder said to be set for a move to Arsenal in early January, will have a medical in Paris on Wednesday according to reports today, so that transfer will at least give us one more option in midfield if it goes through. But with Danny Welbeck’s return date still uncertain, perhaps we also need to seriously consider another striker purchase, even if it’s a bit of a punt. Alexandre Pato at around £15m seems a no brainer, for instance.

But for tomorrow’s game against Bournemouth at Emirates stadium, we have to go with what we have, hope yesterday’s defeat was merely an anomaly and we can get back to winning ways immediately. With Leicester hosting Manchester City on Tuesday, we also have a second opportunity to go top of the table in 48 hours. If we don’t do it this time, perhaps then it might be time to start worrying, just a little, about our title credentials.

That said, despite the defeat at Southampton, we’re second in the table and have as good a chance as any of being crowned champions in May. I mean, taking into account the fact that Tottenham and Liverpool are sh*t, and the shocking state of Manchester United and Chelsea, I’d be amazed if the title is won by anybody other than Arsenal or Manchester City. It’s worth remembering then, that right now, we’re ahead of City in the standings.

See you next week.

26th December 2015: Premier League Preview – Slay Saints and we go top + Elneny deal done?

Welcome back. After league-leaders Leicester City lost 1-0 at Liverpool this afternoon, we now have the chance to go top of the table if we can win at Southampton in a couple of hours’ time.

More importantly in my opinion, a victory would also restore our four-point cushion over Manchester City, who eased to a 4-1 home win over Sunderland earlier.

In terms of how we’ll line-up at St Mary’s, it’s unlikely we’ll see any changes to the starting selection from Monday’s win over City, and if we can produce a similar performance, we should enjoy our trip to the south coast a lot more than we did our last visit around a year ago.

On that occasion, we lost the match of course and Wojciech Szczesny was infamously caught having a crafty fag in the dressing room. It’s a game Arsene Wenger discussed when he spoke to Arsenal Player earlier in the week, saying:

Every loss hurts – and that one has not gone out of my mind. It was a bad moment for us but also a turning point because we responded very well and overall, in 2015, we had a very consistent year on the result front.

And Arsene also explained how Monday’s win over City has seen the confidence of his side burgeon as they approach tonight’s Boxing Day battle with the Saints. He said:

The vibes coming out after the City game are that we are a real team who want to work together, play together and are ready to fight to achieve a result. I believe you cannot cheat the crowd. The crowd was maybe better than ever but I’ve always said that to get that, the vibes coming from your team need to be absolutely spot on. We missed passes, we missed goal chances but you could not fault the attitude of any player at any second. As a unit for 90 minutes, the desire to earn your right to win, the desire to commit completely was the most satisfying [facet] of the night. The confidence following a victory like the one against Manchester City of course increases dramatically. What you want to maintain is the urgency and remember how much a defeat hurts. You have to take the positives out of a game to believe in your strengths. That balance between confidence and urgency has to be right.

Let’s hope we get the balance right in every sense tonight and secure the win that will take us to the summit.

But moving away from the game now and onto a bit of transfer speculation with the January window opening in under a weeks’ time. John Cross in The Mirror reports Arsenal have agreed a deal to sign Basel’s Egyptian central midfielder Mohamed Elneny and the deal should go through shortly after the window opens.

I must admit I’d never heard of the player before this morning but having indulged in a spot of YouTube scouting, I like what I see. A lot. Great control, pacey, mobile, aggressive, can pass, appears to have a shot-and-a-half on him from long-range and at 23 years of age, can still develop and improve. Plus if the report is accurate, he’d be relatively cheap at £5m and so we have little to lose.

The Mirror’s report has also been, er, mirrored by The Telegraph this afternoon and they suggest the fee may rise to £7m but talks are progressing well, personal terms with the player should be straightforward and Elneny will be eligible for the Champions League after Basel were eliminated in the qualifying rounds of this season’s competition by Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Right, kick-off is fast approaching so I’ll leave it there.

Back tomorrow.



23rd December 2015: Wenger on 2015, likely champions and more

Welcome back and happy Christmas Eve Eve. Arsene Wenger held his pre-Southampton press conference this morning and the big team news is that there is nothing new to report.

We’ll have the same squad as Monday night against Manchester City and barring any late injury concerns, that’ll also mean the starting line-up will be unchanged for the game at St Mary’s on Boxing Day.

As far as our absentees are concerned, Alexis Sanchez and Mikel Arteta are the closest to making a comeback according to the boss, and he also revealed Tomas Rosicky “could be back in full training” in three weeks. The likes of Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin are of course some way from being able to make a return yet.

Meanwhile, as we approach the end of 2015, Arsene discussed the last 12 months for his team, revealed where he believes the “real pressure” in the Premier League lies, and pointed out that it was far too early in the campaign to be trying to work out who the eventual champions will be. He said:

The only the thing I can say is 2015, if you look back and try to analyse it, we have been consistent. We have had quite a positive year and stabilised our defensive record and improved our record against the strong teams in the Premier League so it looks like we are on the right train going the right way. We have been top of the league in previous years and I think football is pragmatic. Nobody can predict what can happen in the next 17 games for example, and you just want to go with the same attitude and spirit. The real pressure is not to go down. All the rest is positive pressure. I believe that football is down to performance. In the media it quickly becomes a bit intellectual. Who will win the title? Nobody knows. I’ve worked for a long time in the game and nobody can tell you who will win the title. It’s down to being pragmatic, putting the effort in to win your next game and worrying about your performance. That gives you a chance over a longer distance to maybe achieve your goals. At the moment, it’s miles too early to say who will win the Premier League. We’ve played 17 games – we’re not even at halfway.

After we beat City on Monday to extend our lead over them to four points, I must admit I allowed myself to wonder if this could really be the year we end our long wait for the title. But obviously Arsene’s right – it’s still far too early in the season to start getting excited. That said, there are reasons to at least feel confident of our chances.

Chelsea being out of the race already, Manchester United having a p*ss-poor squad and an increasingly unhinged manager, City’s inconsistency, Liverpool and Tottenham being, well, Liverpool and Tottenham – things would appear to be falling in our favour as far as challengers go. On the other hand, our injury list seems ever-lengthening and we still have over half the season still to run. But whatever happens, as Arsene mentions above, we’re on the right track. Whether we can last the course only time will tell …

Finally for today, a few words from the boss on our win over City and the upcoming game against the Saints:

It was an important win for us (against City) but we already had a good confidence level. To win these sorts of game you need to believe you can do it. Overall what came out of the game was a strong team attitude and strong team effort. Everybody put hard work into the game – we got a positive result against a strong team who will fight for the championship, so it was an important night for us. I believe for us, the most important is to focus on ourselves. We have not to speculate too much on any weakness of Southampton. When you look at their team, they have the potential to be a very strong team. We have to convince ourselves that we again need another top-level performance.

Nothing to argue with there at all. So I won’t. Our mental approach to games has been very noticeable for it’s marked improvement this season and whether that’s down to the squad’s average age going up over the last few seasons, the Petr Cech effect, or whatever, it bodes well for our chances of success this season and beyond.

Til tomorrow.