18th January 2016: The Cech Effect

Welcome to a brand new week on TremendArse. A couple of our players have been speaking about The Cech Effect © and how influential it is, after Petr Cech produced a man-of-the-match performance to help us secure a point at Stoke yesterday.

First up it’s Theo Walcott, who as an aside, I wish played as good a game as he talks more often. The speedster touched on why he thinks our draw at the Britannia stadium was a good result, hailed the squad’s mentality, and revealed Cech had helped his team-mates overcome any disappointment at not winning the match by putting things in perspective. He said:

All the big teams that have come here have struggled, with Stoke getting positive results. There were mixed emotions in the dressing room, but it is probably a fair result. We felt from the start we were up for the fight, physically. It’s a shame that we couldn’t get the result we desperately wanted but it is an improvement from previous performances here and we have got to be proud of that point. The mental strength in our dressing room is the strongest it has ever been. When you have the likes of Petr Cech coming in as well, he only enhances that. He has lifted everybody’s heads up, saying this is a very good point and that nobody tends to win here. We just have to look at him because he has been at the top level and won many things so if we have the belief that he has got, we can push on.

Meanwhile, Hector Bellerin explained that Cech’s presence between the sticks behind them, fills our back four with confidence, saying:

When we try to stop all the shots but they manage to get some on target then they have another man to beat and that is tough for them. We feel very confident with him in goal. They were great saves and it is very important to have a solid goalkeeper and Petr Cech is one of the best. I think he has given us that confidence at the back. It helps that this is a solid team defensively [that] has played a lot of teams together, and that you have probably the best goalkeeper in the league playing for you. Not long ago he broke the record of clean sheets so you can see that when you look back that the goal is covered by a great player and that is very important for us. We are very happy to have him. I think the team defended really well as a unit and Petr made some great saves which were very important. A lot of big teams have lost at this ground and at the end of the day it is a point that could matter a lot at the end of the year.

Mesut Ozil and his endless assists have rightly seen him emerge as a genuine candidate for the player of the year awards this season but in my opinion, Cech ought to at least be in the conversation for the individual accolades too.

The Stoke game was simply the latest top-notch display from the former Chelsea ‘keeper in what has been a near faultless first campaign for him in Arsenal colours. Aside from the opening day of the league season, when he was at fault for at least one of the two goals we conceded as we lost at home to West Ham, Cech has added a sense of authority to our defence, consistently produced crucial saves, and on the evidence of his team-mates’ words above, brought some much-needed maturity and intelligence to the squad.

His off-field impact is something I wrote about when it became clear we were on the verge of signing him back in late June last year, but as ever with a new recruit, there were still doubts in my mind whether he could be the same player for us, as he’d been for Chelsea for over a decade. I remember reading how he was a very vocal and respected figure in the dressing room at Stamford Bridge and hoped he would bring some of that winning ‘know-how’ to Arsenal.

I mean, whatever your thoughts on Chelsea as a club (and mine are that they’re the epitome of evil and I hope they get relegated before becoming extinct), nobody can deny they’ve had a prolific ten years or so in terms of winning trophies, whilst we’ve endured a relatively barren period in our history. Well, half-a-season into his Gunners career and it’s safe to say Cech’s lived up to our hopes, both in terms of performance and personality.

If he can carry on ‘keeping and cajoling in the same vein for the rest of the season, not only do Arsenal stand a great chance of winning a first Premier League title since 2004, Cech could very conceivably become the first goalkeeper to win the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award since Nottingham Forest’s Peter Shilton way back in 1978.

Until Tuesday.

17th January 2016: Stalemate at Stoke sends us top

Evening all. Arsenal returned to the top of the Premier League table after playing out a goal-less draw at Stoke City earlier today and considering the players we were missing through injury, for me at least, it feels like a very valuable point earned indeed.

Although Arsene Wenger had suggested Alexis Sanchez may play some part at the Britannia stadium, when the teams were announced the Chilean was missing from the squad altogether. As was Mesut Ozil, who we later learned had been ruled out with minor foot inflammation. Thankfully, Arsene expects both players to be available again when we entertain Chelsea a week today, which is just as well based on today’s attacking performance.

With Santi Cazorla missing from our engine room, we were again far from fluent from the middle of the park, and Ozil’s absence unsurprisingly resulted in us lacking creativity as well as rhythm in our play. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was the man chosen to replace the German in midfield, for what was our only change to the team that started Wednesday’s game at Liverpool.

After conceding a goal in the first minute on our last visit to Stoke, we seemed determined not to let the hosts enjoy another fast start and began the game today bossing possession in the opening exchanges, without creating any goal-scoring opportunities. In fact, the vast majority of the first half was played out in the middle portion of the pitch as both sides failed to establish superiority in the contest.

That said, we did create the clearest opening of the half, and arguably the game, when Joel Campbell sent Olivier Giroud clear on goal down the right with only Jack Butland to beat, but the goalkeeper raced off his line to close down the target and smother Giroud’s shot. Other than that, I can only really recall Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fierce strike from the edge of the box, which was tipped over by Butland, as an instance we came close to scoring in the opening 45.

In the second period, Giroud nearly scored with a header from a corner but saw his effort saved by Butland and Campbell should have done better a little later when he had a sight of goal inside the Stoke penalty area on his favored left foot, but put too much on his curler, sending it high and wide of the far top corner.

At the other end, Laurent Koscielny’s poor pass out from defence resulted in Petr Cech been forced into a very impressive double-save. First the keeper denied Joselu, Stoke’s German-born, Spanish striker, before diving to prevent Bojan knocking in the rebound at the near post. It was a typically outstanding piece of keeping that helped Cech claim the man-of-the-match award and again underline how important he is to our side. Then towards the end, as Stoke pressed for a winner, Aaron Ramsey cleared a header off the line before Cech repelled the rebound as Stoke threatened to snatch all three points.

In terms of talking points about individual performances, I thought on the whole we looked solid defensively, with both fullbacks especially impressive. But the distribution of our central defenders – particularly Koscielny – was below their usual standard. In midfield, Mathieu Flamini enjoyed a good game and the Ox tried hard but was still some way away from his best. Ramsey was less adventurous than usual going forwards – I can’t really remember him breaking into the Stoke box at all – and when that happens, he struggles because he’s not really a passer.

In fact, that was one of the most frustrating aspects of our performance for me today – Ramsey’s dreadful passing, and as far as I’m concerned, it really was that bad. I like him a lot as a player and he has many good attributes, but his passing, particularly the seemingly straight-forward, five-yard ones under no pressure, needs serious attention on the training ground.

I would suggest his history at the Britannia and the abhorrent abuse he’s subjected to whenever he plays there should act as mitigation, because that combination would put any player in the world a little off their usual game, but it’s a recurring issue with Aaron unfortunately – he’s just not a very good passer.

Elsewhere Campbell was his usual industrious, silky-smooth self, passing well and tracking back diligently. That said, he should have done better with his chance and like Ramsey and passing, shooting is probably Campbell’s glaring weak point. But overall, he was again one of our better performers.

On the other side though, Theo Walcott really struggled, going missing for long periods, looking clumsy in possession and being far, far, far too easily dispossessed. I’ve been his biggest fan over his Arsenal career and still maintain his problem is more mental – i.e he has the on-pitch personality of a little boy lost – than ability, but in this form he deserves no more than a place on the bench against Chelsea.

I think Walcott’s variety and quality of finishing, at it’s best, is superb, and his pace is virtually peerless, so perhaps what we’re finding out once and for all this season, is that he’s a very good striker, but a very average winger. It was no surprise then, to see him replaced after 70 minutes or so by Alex Iwobi, who instantly brought a bit more composure to our left flank. Calum Chambers for the Ox in added time was our only other substitution so we’ll have to wait to see Mohamed Elneny make his debut, at least until next weekend.

Gripes aside though, as I said at the start, I’m pleased with the point today and I think Cech summed it up best when he spoke to Sky after the game:

We could have won, we could have lost. We can take the point.

Now to rest, recuperate, train and prepare for the visit of relegation-haunted (God I love being able to say that) Chelsea next weekend.

See you next week.

16th January 2016: Premier League Preview – Stoke away

Welcome back. So after the last minute agony of Anfield on Wednesday, we travel to Stoke City tomorrow looking to secure what would be just our second Premier League victory at the Britannia stadium, having drawn two and lost the other four of the seven we’ve played at their place since they were promoted in 2008.

After Manchester City beat Crystal Palace 4-0 and Leicester picked up a point at Aston Villa earlier today, we’ve dropped to third in the table on goal difference, but do now have the chance to go two points clear at the top should we win against Mark Hughes’ men, so hopefully that will provide a little bit of extra motivation as we go into the game.

In terms of team news, Arsene Wenger provided an update when he spoke at his pre-match press conference yesterday morning, saying:

From Liverpool we have no injuries, so that’s good news. (Mohamed) Elneny is available for selection, I haven’t decided yet [whether I will play him]. I have to see how everyone has recovered. Elneny is a possibility to be in the squad for Sunday. Alexis (Sanchez) I would say has a 60:40 chance to be available and be back in the squad. He has two decisive days – Friday and Saturday. He is fit, he has worked very hard and the decision we have to take is whether to take a gamble or not on his injury. Tomas (Rosicky) needs first to have a game somewhere. We hope for maybe an under-21 game or at least a bit more training with the first team.

Even if they don’t start the match, based on the above it seems pretty certain both new signing Mohamed Elneny and Alexis Sanchez will be available from the bench, which is clearly great news considering we’ve been relying on the same 13 or 14 players for a while now, including the busy festive period.

Although I’d love to see him in action from the start against Stoke, when you consider that because of a two-month winter break in the Swiss league, Elneny hasn’t featured in a competitive game since December 13th, when he played (and scored) for former club Basel in the Schweizer Pokal, the Swiss domestic cup competition, it’s very unlikely he’ll be thrown in from the get-go at the Britannia.

As for Sanchez, despite also not playing for a similar amount of time, I wouldn’t be so sure he won’t come straight back into the starting selection. It’s Alexis, after all, and we all know he’d play whatever his physical condition, given half a chance. And if he does start, based on form over the last couple of games at least, Theo Walcott will surely be the man to make way, because Olivier Giroud and Joel Campbell are on fire, relatively speaking.

Whoever is selected to play though, we’ll have to make sure we start the game better than we did in this fixture last season, when Stoke took the lead in the first minute and we went into the interval losing three-nil. Arsene discussed that game, as well as the development of Stoke’s style-of-play, when he spoke to Arsenal Player:

Last season we had a very bad start and I think we have more experience now and we are more stable defensively. We have a good opportunity to show that. Stoke have improved their creative potential and we will want a really strong defensive display from our side because players like Arnautovic, Afellay and Bojan are all very creative players. Stoke is a team that is in progress. We have had difficulty there in the past. When you look at the results year by year we are not the only ones to have had difficulties. They produce top-quality performances against Manchester City and Manchester United and that shows it is a big chance for everybody. They have a strong record against us at home and they will have to maintain it but for us it is a good challenge to prove that we have made a step forward and can change that record.

If we’re honest, there’s no denying Stoke have certainly progressed from the long-ball, long-throw, leg-breaking merchants they were for so long. But they are still a very physical side, so first and foremost, we’ll have to match them in that aspect of the contest before our undoubtedly superior footballing quality has a chance to shine through.

Back post-match.

COYG!

11th September 2015: Premier League Preview – Time to Stoke our goal-scoring fire

Evening all. Cloid’s history and the real stuff returns. We’ll be hoping to make it third time lucky, in terms of scoring a goal and winning a game at Emirates Stadium this season, when we host a Stoke City side missing key players tomorrow afternoon.

Mark Hughes’ men, thankfully now trying to emulate the Gunners by playing good football as opposed to bad rugby, will have to make do without long-term injury absentee and club captain Ryan ‘not a malicious bone in his body’ Shawcross, as well as the suspended Ibrahim ‘one-time Arsenal target’ Afellay and Charlie ‘decent left peg but what a prolifically-stampy, choke-holding c*nt’ Adam.

In addition, they have doubts over the involvement of Glen Johnson, Mame Diouf and Marko Arnautovic. Which is all excellent to hear, given the fact Stoke have been somewhat of a pain in the arse for us since they were promoted to the Premier League at the start of the 2008-09 campaign.

Since then, we’ve played them 14 times in the league; winning eight, drawing two and losing four. We also faced them once in the FA Cup in that period, losing 3-1 (although in fairness, our starting 11 that day was very inexperienced, as we fielded the likes of Armand Traore, Craig Eastmond and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas). But all our defeats have been at the Britannia Stadium and so i’m fully expecting us to make it eight wins out of eight on home turf, when we play them tomorrow.

Arsene Wenger chose his words very carefully when asked what he thought of Stoke at his press conference yesterday and I think the boss deserves a lot of credit for not acting on what must have been an over-whelming urge to call them the ghastly, leg-breaking Wimbledon-wannabees they were for so long under former boss Tony Pulis:

They are a team with a good culture of the Premier League, they know how to behave and they have experience. They have been here a long time in the Premier League and they have improved their technical quality. They have Afellay, Bojan, Shaqiri, Diouf up front and Charlie Adam in midfield. They have a lot of technical players that can give you problems. What we want is to focus on our own performance as we want to take off at home now. We had two good away games with positive results in difficult places and we know at home we can be efficient against anybody.

The Potters’ transformation from their Pulis days is pretty remarkable to be fair, and was facilitated by the ability to attract a swathe of quality players like Bojan Krkić and Xherdan Shaqiri – names you would never have thought remotely likely to sign for them a few years ago. But as we all know, money talks and they’ve certainly had some great conversations in the transfer market under Hughes.

Speaking of which, although suffering a bad slump in his development since his breakthrough at Barcelona, would you take Bojan as a central striker for us right now? Something to ponder if Giroud and Walcott keep missing from three yards, as if they’re allergic to the sound of the ball hitting the back of the net.

But despite their new-found fondness of passing a football along the ground, there have been 18 yellow cards issued in the last five meetings between the two teams and Arsene says that’s down to a ‘special motivation’ on their part and he prefers to focus on his own side’s performance:

They have always had good teams and overall when we go to Stoke they are always specially motivated against us. There is a little bit of history because of what happened and overall it was always very difficult for us. For me there was never bad blood, it was just a game that was always very difficult for us to play. But I always focus on playing football and trying to get my team to play as well as we can.

In terms of our selection for tomorrow, you’d imagine Mesut Ozil will come straight back into the side after missing the win at Newcastle with a slight knee injury. I’m guessing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be the man to make way, as Aaron Ramsey starts from the right and Ozil resumes the role of number 10. At the back, Per Mertesacker should return to partner Laurent Koscielny at the expense of Gabriel and the only other change to our line-up would perhaps see Olivier Giroud afforded a start instead of Theo Walcott up top.

That said, Theo bagged a brace for England during Cloid, whereas Giroud got booed off the pitch by his own fans so that might play a part in the manager’s thinking. I mean, does he allow Theo to capitalize on any boost in confidence he got from his San Marino-slaying, or let Giroud regain some belief by giving him the nod? Who knows?

Personally, I still think a midfield of Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin in the middle, with Sanchez, Ozil and Ramsey lining up left to right in front of them is our best bet. Maybe at times the Ox or Theo would come in for Ramsey but I’d keep the Coquelin-Cazorla combo in the middle for sure. In terms of whether I’d pick Giroud or Walcott to lead the line, that would be based on the specific opponents in question and I haven’t watched any Stoke games so far this season so can’t decide. Let’s see what Arsene goes with.

Back post-match tomorrow.

COYG!