25th April 2016: Wenger on Sunderland + Wilshere on comeback

Welcome back. It turns out Arsenal aren’t the only bottlers in north London after all, because Tottenham hilariously failed to beat West Brom at home tonight, which means a win for Leicester at Manchester United on Sunday, or defeat for Sp*rs at Chelsea a day later, will see the Foxes crowned champions.

As far as we’re concerned, tonight’s 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane leaves the door to second place slightly ajar, when just yesterday it appeared locked, bolted and more inpenetrable than a back four of Dixon, Adams, Bould and Winterburn. It’s still unlikely we’ll finish runners-up of course, but now ever-so-slightly more feasible.

I suppose to make it happen we’ll have to be calm and collected in our final three games (as well as far more creative and clinical in the final third), something Arsene Wenger reckons we weren’t at Sunderland yesterday afternoon. Speaking to Arsenal Player, the boss said:

I think we played very well in the first half. Unfortunately we couldn’t take our chances and in the second half we dropped a little bit physically, because we played three games in seven days and our cohesion was less good. We didn’t make enough with the possession we had and the chances we created, so we have to be supportive of the team at the moment and keep going. I think we had very good opportunities. We didn’t look calm enough when we had the chances. Sometimes we gave the ball a bit late but overall I think the first half was very interesting.

That’s one way to sum it up I suppose. Another though, would be to say we were less sh*t in the first half than we were in the second, were barely threatening as an attacking force for most of the game, fielded a midfielder who can’t pass in Aaron Ramsey, a striker who can’t score in Olivier Giroud, and in the end, had Petr Cech to thank for avoiding defeat against a team who began the game in the relegation zone.

Moving swiftly on and onto rare positive from yesterday’s game – Jack Wilshere’s first competitive appearance this season. The midfielder spoke to Arsenal Player after making a late cameo as a substitute in place of an off-colour Mesut Ozil and expressed his joy at making his long-awaited return to first-team football. He said:

It’s the best feeling. All those late nights and long days in the gym, this is when it really pays off. You can do all the training, you can play for the under-21s to build your fitness up, but what really matters is playing for the first team and getting back on the pitch, so I’m really happy. I felt good. In my first under-21s game, I didn’t really feel that great. In the second I felt better and in the third I felt as though I was able to get through 90 minutes and have an impact on the game. I spoke with the boss in the week, he felt the same and I travelled to Sunderland. It’s a big week for me in training, getting fitter and sharper. Hopefully next weekend I can get some more game time and go from there. I’m not saying that I’m there yet, this is just another step on my way to full recovery. There’s a few games left and after that, hopefully I’ll go away with England to the Euros. It’s an exciting time.

Needless to say if anyone (bar poor Abou obviously) deserves a bit of luck with staying injury-free from now on it’s Jack. And given Arsene seems to have grown bored with a double-defensive bolt, benching Francis Coquelin as he has in our last two games, perhaps Wilshere might be afforded a start in central midfield alongside Mohamed Elneny before the season’s out. I hope so.

Back tomorrow.

24th April 2016: Arsenal stutter at Sunderland as title chances officially ended

So it’s official. After we could only muster a goal-less draw at Sunderland this afternoon and a Jamie Vardy-less Leicester City beat Swansea 4-0 in today’s other Premier League game, we’re now mathematically out of the title race.

Given we’re four points adrift of second-placed Tottenham and they have played a game less, that’s the runner’s up spot all but gone now too. Manchester City remain third on goal difference and we’ve given Manchester United the opportunity to close the gap on us to just two points if they can win their game in hand. A disappointing season is now teetering on the brink of becoming a disastrous one and the sad thing is I’m not sure I’m that fussed.

I mean, unless we sign proven quality, and lots of it, in a dramatic overhauling of the squad this summer, I can’t see us making much of an impact in the Champions League next term anyway and the Europa League would surely offer a are realistic chance of silverware. It’s sad that I’m thinking this way I know, but my stance is the result of the complete and utter mess we’ve made of this season since the turn of the new year. Today’s game was the latest in a long line of matches that have left me resigned to a simple conclusion – we’re just not a very good team.

My main concern at the start of the season was our lack of cover for Francis Coquelin but as it’s turned out, the player who’s absence has cost us most this season in my opinion, is Santi Cazorla and today was no different. We missed the Spaniard’s passing, particularly as Mesut Ozil was off form by his standards today, guile and above all, creativity.

As I feared pre-match, Arsene Wenger decided to stick with his starting line-up from Thursday night and although I felt we had a decent opening period with Alex Iwobi firing a low shot just wide, overall, we looked as threatening as baby brandishing a balloon. Olivier Giroud was woeful upfront, but not helped by a lack of service, and Ramsey in central midfield is something I never, ever want to see again. Even if he was the only fit midfielder we had at the club I’d rather we played someone, anyone, else.

There’s been a lot of speculation surrounding the futures of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – and you can understand why given their struggles in finding form this season – but none about Ramsey role moving forward. To my mind, he plays on the right or not at all and if Jack Wilshere can remain fit and/or we sign a Granit Xhaka or a N’Golo Kante this summer, I’m struggling to see why the Welshman deserves to get anywhere near the team next term. Which begs the question, should we keep him?

Personally, I’d rather we kept the Ox and gave him more time to prove himself as a central midfielder and instead moved Aaron on so he could play in his preferred central midfield position somewhere else. That may sound harsh but if we’re contemplating keeping Ramsey and selling the Ox, I think we’re crazy because the latter’s simply a better footballer, in any position.

That’s all for tonight folks.

See you next week.

 

23rd April 2016: Can we beat Sunderland to snatch back third spot?

Saturday greetings. So it’s Sunderland away tomorrow afternoon and after Manchester City today handed Stoke their second 4-0 drubbing inside a week, we need all three points if we’re to take back third spot in the standings.

With the scenario that Manchester United finish third, City win the Champions League and we end the campaign in fourth place still a possibility, our seat at the top table of the European game for next season is far from secured.

Because if that’s how things  unfolded, City would take our place as holders and we’d be relegated to competing for the Europa Cup.  Arsene Wenger also highlighted another problem with finishing fourth – the pitfalls of the playoff. Speaking at his press conference yesterday, he said:

It’s difficult because you can play teams who are in the middle of a championship because they have started already in June. But for us, we don’t know where we will finish. We are not guaranteed the top four and we have to fight for that. Manchester United are behind us and they will fight for it as well. We have difficult games, they have difficult games as well. What has changed over the years is that the impact of the finances in the Champions League is not as big anymore. It was vital for us for a period. The supporter impact, the planning of next season changes completely, especially when you have a big tournament like the European Championship, which is now like a World Cup because it starts on June 10 and finishes on July 10. When you have to play qualifiers the European Championship is still going on.

With four games left we still have it in our hands to avoid both a playoff and the possibility of missing out on the Champions League altogether simply by winning our remaining games and that has to start against the Black Cats tomorrow.

In terms of how we might line-up, my hope is that Francis Coquelin and Danny Welbeck will return in place of Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud respectively for a simple reason; the former pair are better players in my opinion. As regular readers will know, I think Ramsey’s a good footballer but a poor central midfielder and Giroud’s a decent striker but Welbeck offers us more at the tip of our attack. More pace, more ability on the ball and given Giroud’s current barren run in front of goal, more chance of scoring.

That said, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we’re unchanged from Thursday night because Arsene doesn’t often alter a winning formula unless he’s forced to. We’ll see I guess.

Just a short one today because in all honesty, I can’t be asked.

Back post-match.

COYG!

9th January 2016: Three first-time finishes put Arsenal into fourth round

Welcome back. Arsenal made it 13 FA Cup wins in a row by beating Sunderland 3-1 at Emirates stadium this afternoon, thanks to goals by Joel Campbell, Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud.

Our defence of the Cup began with us boasting a much-changed line-up featuring Alex Iwobi in central midfield alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Calum Chambers backing them up in the defensive midfield role.

At the back, Petr Cech retained his place in goal with David Ospina – expected to start by many – not in the squad at all, and Kieran Gibbs and Gabriel replaced Nacho Monreal and Per Mertesacker respectively, from last Saturday’s starting line-up against Newcastle. Campbell and Theo Walcott kept their places on the flanks and Giroud again led the line.

I actually missed the first 20 minutes of the game and once I’d found a stream and settled down, we were a goal down – but just about to equalize. Laurent Koscielny had been caught in possession with 17 minutes played, after Gibbs gave him the ball under pressure and left him little time to sort out his feet. Jeremain Lens nicked the ball and finished emphatically past Cech at the near post.

Sunderland’s lead lasted just 8 minutes however, because Iwobi released Walcott down the left, he took on his marker before cutting the ball back into a busy penalty area for Campbell to saunter onto and nonchalantly guide home into the corner first time. As it would turn out, it was the first of three, one-touch finishes by Arsenal players on the day but this one was easily the hardest to execute.

Campbell carefully adjusted his stride to connect with the ball at the peak of it’s bounce, ensuring he kept it down and on target. Intelligent work from a player who seems to be going from strength to strength as our right-sided attacker.

The Costa Rican doesn’t appear to have a weakness in terms of his effectiveness for the side, now that he’s producing goals on a regular basis. He rarely gives the ball away, his passing is accurate and well-weighted, he can play the intricate game in small spaces, he tracks back like Alexis Sanchez – I’m struggling to find an area he’s obviously weak in.

But back to the game and after going into the interval level, we survived a scare in the second period when Steven Fletcher saw his header rattle our crossbar with Cech, for once, beaten. It was quite an open game at this stage but after Arsene Wenger sent on Ramsey and Mikel Arteta for Iwobi and Chambers after 67 minutes, we took control of proceedings and were ahead within five minutes.

Hector Bellerin and Campbell played a one-two down our right-hand side and the Spaniard crossed for the on-rushing Ramsey to guide home left-footed at the near post. Three minutes later, Bellerin produced an even better assist for Giroud to tap home, as he threaded a precise pass with his instep across the Sunderland defence to the far post. With Mesut Ozil given the game off, Bellerin emerged as our chief goal-creator to further embellish is burgeoning reputation.

Then came the moment everyone had actually turned up, or tuned in, to see: a first competitive appearance in Arsenal colours for none other, than Jeff Reine-Adelaide. The French teenager didn’t have time to embarrass an opponent like he did Kevin de Bruyne in the Emirates Cup last summer, but he did get himself on the end of a cross and force a corner after having a shot at goal smothered by their keeper.

Coincidentally, we produced the same result, courtesy of the same three goal-scorers, as our win over Sunderland at Emirates stadium back at the start of December. But this time, our reward is a place in round four of the FA Cup rather than three points and we’ll find out who we face next when the draw is made on BBC’s The One Show on Monday night.

See you on Sunday.

8th January 2016: Sunderland in the Cup kick-starts testing run of fixtures

Happy Friday folks. Arsene Wenger held his press conference this morning ahead of tomorrow’s FA Cup third round clash with Sunderland at Emirates stadium, and insisted his side won’t be taking the competition lightly as they attempt to win it for the third consecutive season.

Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce indicated earlier in the week that he’d rest several first-choice players tomorrow, with a Premier League game at Swansea on the horizon next mid-week, but Arsene says he’s only looking as far ahead as the next game and won’t be prioritizing any one competition over another. He said:

We want to win every competition we participate in. The FA Cup is one of them, for us it is an important competition. Confidence is a global thing and you can’t really separate it from one competition to another. My energy is about giving absolutely everything to win the next game. The next game is the FA Cup. For us it is a very important competition as always. We just this week had the semi-finals of the League Cup. The teams gave absolutely everything. I saw Everton against Manchester City and it was a top-class game. That’s what you want – the teams to commit. At our level, you do not choose when you commit and when you don’t. This is a serious competition. I’ve won the FA Cup six times – that means I take it seriously. In the whole history, nobody won it more. That means as well that it’s not so easy to win it. You want to feel as well that your team is ready for every single challenge and the FA Cup is one that matters to us.

Whilst I don’t doubt for a second that Arsene genuinely wants to win every game he manages, we’re likely to rotate our squad quite a lot tomorrow in preparation for Wednesday’s league game at Liverpool, so we’ll undoubtedly be under-strength against the Black Cats. Yet that’s merely part of management; using your resources sensibly, and so rather than being disrespectful to the world’s oldest cup competition, he’ll just be doing his job.

Arsene also explained he won’t be expecting an easy ride against Sunderland, despite their boss hinting at resting players, and highlighted the importance of a competition he’s won a record six times, and Arsenal have lifted on a record 12 occasions. He said:

I’ve been in the job long enough to not expect any weaknesses from Sam Allardyce because I know him well enough to know that his team will be focused and motivated no matter who plays. In the Premier League you cannot say that the managers play weaker teams because everybody has a squad of 25 players who are of Premier League level. The FA Cup is a great competition. We take care of this competition like everybody does. Everybody dreams of winning the FA Cup. There may be some priorities at some stage of the season for some clubs who think they are in trouble and have to make these kinds of decisions, so they choose. We are confident because when we perform we know we can beat anyone in the Premier League. We have learnt this season that the Premier League is tricky and we play at home in front of our crowd where we feel that we can qualify, but we have learnt against Sunderland that on the break they were dangerous. It was a very hard-fought win against them.

That game was at the start of December and despite taking a first-half lead through Joel Campbell, we were made to work very hard for the three points after Olivier Giroud scored an own-goal just before half-time.

The striker made amends in the second period, heading home an Aaron Ramsey cross, before the Welshman sealed a 3-1 win himself right at the death. With memories of that game still relatively fresh then, we should be well aware that tomorrow is likely to a be very testing, even if both sides will likely be missing some key players.

But if we can win, it’d be a great start to a difficult run of fixtures that sees us travel to Liverpool and Stoke before hosting Chelsea.

Back post-match.

COYG!

6th December 2015: Wenger and Ramsey on Sunderland win

Welcome back. So another weekend of Premier League football comes to a close and looking back, it was almost the perfect set of results from an Arsenal perspective.

Manchester City and Liverpool lost, Manchester United and Tottenham drew, whilst we managed to beat Sunderland despite having to come to terms with a much-changed line-up because of a spate of injuries to key components of our first-choice selection.

I would revel a little more in Chelsea’s hilarious defeat at home to Bournemouth but a) the Blues are in a relegation battle, not the title race and b) I genuinely expect them to lose every match they play between now and when Jose Mourinho gets handed his p45. When they evade defeat, it comes as more of a shock these days …

Anyway, moving on from London’s worst, to the capital’s top-flight finest, and Arsene Wenger has been talking about his pre-match nerves before yesterday’s game at Emirates stadium and hailing his side’s victory as ‘pivotal’, telling Arsenal Player:

In my mind I was a little bit more nervous than usual because I felt it was a pivotal game. It was our first game without the injured players and we absolutely had to win. We played against a difficult team who were well organised and good on the break, so all the ingredients were there for a disappointing result. Because we hadn’t won for three games people would have said we were in a crisis, so it was important to get the win. We were a bit edgy, a bit nervous, in the first half but in the second half we played with more freedom, fluency and incisiveness which is how we won the game. It was a tough one and if you look at the results in the Premier League it was like that. It’s been a good day for us, because we have won the game and that makes helps us prepare for Olympiacos. Secondly it puts us in an interesting position again and that’s all positive. The squad that was out there for Sunderland – the good news is that we won and that we don’t have any injuries. It makes it obvious for the media to guess who will go to Olympiacos.

Meanwhile, Aaron Ramsey, who marked his return to central midfield with a goal and an assist, discussed the win over Sunderland, the title race, and surprise league-leaders Leicester City, when he spoke to reporters yesterday, saying:

It was very important to get the win after losing one game and drawing another and it was important to get back to winning ways and close the gap on the top and it was nice to do it at home in front of the fans. It (the title race) is really close at the moment. Teams are taking points off each other so it is going to be tight all the way through and it is important to keep ourselves in the race for this busy time and into the New Year and it was a good way to start ahead of December. It felt really good today. I feel a lot more comfortable and it (playing in the middle) suited my game a lot better, I could time my runs into the box and get on the end of things and I could have had two or three goals but at the end of the day I’m happy. It is quite a surprise Leicester are there but full credit to them, they have been exceptional but it is important for ourselves and what we have done today.

A lot was made of Ramsey’s re-stationing in the middle in the build-up to the game and although I felt the team stuttered and failed to find the kind of fluency we’ve become accustomed to seeing from Arsenal these last 12 months or so, that’s to be expected as the balance of the team readjusts.

A bit brief this evening but that’s all for tonight folks.

See you next week.

5th December 2015: Win over Sunderland sends Arsenal second

Saturday night salutations. We secured our first Premier League win in four today, as goals by Joel Campbell, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey helped us to a 3-1 win over Sunderland at Emirates stadium to lift us up to second in the table.

I didn’t catch the opening half-an-hour of the action, thanks to a failed ignition coil in my car which resulted in me having to drive at Per Mertesacker-pace as I returned home from the shops, but from what I’ve read and heard, that wasn’t such a bad thing as the visitors enjoyed the better of the opening third of the match.

Just as I’d found a stream and settled down, Mesut Ozil picked up possession and sliced Sunderland’s defence wide open with a perfectly-weighted through ball on the left, to allow Campbell to guide home our opener without breaking stride after 33 minutes. Apparently, the Costa Rican had begun the game on the right but had swapped flanks with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain shortly before scoring, so it was a timely switch of position to say the least.

From the 15 minutes or so of the first-half I saw, Sunderland were far more adventurous than I had anticipated before the match and drew level on the stroke of half-time as Giroud found the net at the wrong end, clumsily slicing his attempted clearance into his own net following a Sunderland free-kick from our right. It was unfortunate for the Frenchman if I’m honest, with one of their players stepping over the delivery, leaving Giroud with little time to adjust his footing.

Thankfully for the striker and us, he made amends by heading home our second just past the hour mark from a left-wing cross by the typically-industrious Ramsey. After that, Sunderland looked dangerous and created a few openings as the game swung from end to end and both sides gave the ball away with regularity in midfield, but we settled the contest in stoppage time when substitute Calum Chambers fired in a cross-shot from the right and the ball eventually fell to Ramsey who scored via a deflection off their keeper from close-range.

Cue a little hop, skip and jump from Arsene Wenger on the touchline as the Gunners leapfrogged both Manchester City and Manchester United, who lost and drew respectively today, in going second in the table behind an annoyingly consistent Leicester City, who swept aside Swansea thanks to a hat-trick by Riyad Mahrez.

After the game, the boss discussed the game as well as the surprise league-leaders Leicester, telling the BBC:

We started a bit nervous and edgy in the first half. We were unlucky to come in at 1-1, so I was positive. I told the players they still had 45 minutes to win the game, and play with more pace and different angles. You see this Premier League is a battle. Sunderland played a dangerous game on the break. It could have been one of those days, but we kept our determination and the mental aspect was good. We have lost players in the heart of our game, so we had to find a balance again. It took us time to get going. [Premier League leaders] Leicester have been very impressive. The best you can do is to win games, and hope that they drop points, but that is not happening. We go to Olympiakos in midweek, which Leicester don’t do, so they have an advantage in that way too.

I have to say, as much as I’ve been impressed by the Foxes this season, I really can’t see them keeping up this form for the rest of the season. So in terms of the title race, I think it was far more important that City lost, United drew and Tottenham also dropped points today, because I think those teams will eventually prove the bigger threat to both our title and top-four hopes by the end of the season.

Time will tell obviously, but for now, we can stay upbeat, despite all our injury woes, as we look ahead to our crucial midweek date with Olympiacos in Greece.

Til tomorrow.