3rd March 2016: Swans come (to our) home to roost

Welcome back. So last night Swansea City – a relegation-threatened Swansea City – arrived at Emirates stadium, home of supposed title contenders Arsenal, resting several first-choice regulars including three of their back four, yet still managed to come from a goal down to secure what was ultimately a comfortable 2-1 win.

On a night when Tottenham lost at West Ham and Manchester City were beaten emphatically by Liverpool, this was our chance to both close the gap to the two teams above us, and put some significant distance between us and fourth-placed City. But once again, we came up short, clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.

We’d all speculated about how we might line up after Sunday’s similarly shocking loss to a mish-mash Manchester United team comprised of squad peripherals, utility men and unknown embryos, and there was a surprise when the teams were announced – there was no sign of Laurent Koscielny.

Injury ruled the Frenchman out so Gabriel retained his place and Per Mertesacker partnered him having sat out the defeat at Old Trafford. Further forward, despite many hoping Mohamed Elneny might be given his first-ever Premier League start, Aaron Ramsey retained his place alongside Francis Coquelin in midfield, Joel Campbell came in for Danny Welbeck on the right and Theo Walcott, unsurprising, vacated the striker’s role for Olivier Giroud.

We actually started the game pretty brightly but considering this was a much-changed Swansea line-up, in hindsight our opening wasn’t as impressive as it seemed at the time. Nonetheless, Joel Campbell was by far our liveliest player and duly marked his return to the starting line-up by giving us the lead on the quarter-hour mark, skilfully and cleverly half-volleying home from a tight-ish angle following a brilliant pass by Alexis Sanchez.

It was just the start we needed after two defeats in a row. But instead of building on that promising start, we conceded an equaliser just after the half-hour mark when Mesut Ozil was fouled in Swansea’s half and our defence stood still. Unfortunately for us, the referee didn’t view the challenge on Ozil as a foul and by the time we realised that, one of their players sent a straight-forward ball through the middle of our defence for Wayne Routledge to saunter onto, take a touch, give Petr Cech the eyes, and roll it past him effortlessly.

That was that until half-time and you’d have thought they’d be a strong response from us after the interval, what with us wanting to the win the game and challenge for the title and all, but if you did think that, you obviously didn’t watch us at Old Trafford because we got another lackluster second-half showing, which after Sunday’s shambles, this time, I was wholly expecting.

Arsene Wenger then went full masochistic-mode in the second half, withdrawing our best performer on the night in Campbell and replacing him with Welbeck, who to put it kindly, looked off-the-pace when he came on. The boos that greeted the substitution made the fans’ feelings deafeningly clear and when Walcott later replaced a struggling (by his standards) Sanchez a minute after we’d conceded the winner, strangely, both the team and and the terraces appeared resigned to the result. Never mind there were still fifteen minutes to play plus added time, it seemed the whole stadium had decided 2-1 is how the game would end. And so it did.

There were no ‘come on Arsenal’ cries, no meaningful response from the players, just a limp last portion of the game that ended with Cech going up for a corner and injuring himself as he sprinted back –  the turd cherry, on the dog-food icing, on the rubbish-dump-salvaged sponge.

The full-time whistle blew, one (probably a number) of irate Arsenal fans near the dug-out seemingly aired their views and a clearly devastated, but defiant until the death Arsene, sarcastically gave them the thumbs up as he left. It was so sad to watch.

A man who ought to be feted for his work at the club is reduced to receiving vitriolic ridicule on a regular basis from an increasing section of his own club’s fan-base. I’m not saying Wenger’s faultless – far, far from it. The Campbell sub was weird, his faith in Ramsey as a central midfielder is, for me, as baffling as it is infuriating, but I still think he’s the right man for the job. Just my opinion mind – don’t have a baby about it.

We’re obviously in dire straights results and performances-wise, but in terms of the title, it’s not over until Frank Lampard sings. And I can’t hear the c*nt just yet.

Until tomorrow.

2nd March 2016: Thoughts on selection for Swansea

Evening all. A very, very brief post for you today because kick-off is fast approaching as we prepare to welcome Swansea City to Emirates stadium in a few hours’ time, when we’ll be looking to reduce the gap to the top of the table to just three points after Leicester could only draw with West Brom last night.

When you consider we play Sp*rs in the early kick-off on Saturday, with Leicester travelling to Watford in the 5.30pm game, we could actually be joint top of the table as early as Saturday afternoon. Despite all the doom and gloom after a disappointing week then, Arsenal still have it in their hands – providing the Foxes lose just one of their remaining ten games.

Tonight’s starting selection should be interesting, because not many players covered themselves in glory in our defeat to Manchester United last Sunday and there are a few who weren’t involved from the start at Old Trafford who will no doubt be strongly urging the boss to give them a go.

I think Per Mertesacker for Gabriel is an obvious change in central defence providing Laurent Koscielny is fit and I do wonder if we could see one or both full-backs rotated for Kieran Gibbs or Calum Chambers with the trip to White Hart Lane in mind.

Further forward, I would love to see Aaron Ramsey replaced at the base of our midfield by Mohamed Elneny or even, Alex Iwobi, if we want to go gung-ho and play just Francis Coquelin as a defensively-minded midfielder in the trio in the middle of the park.

Although Alexis Sanchez has struggled for form, I think Arsene will expect him to play his way back to sharpness rather than take him out and hope a rest will help him rediscover his mojo, and I think that would be the right call. The Chilean had a lengthy period out of action due to injury recently and I think the more minutes he can get right now the better he’ll perform.

On the right, I think we’ll see Ramsey if Elneny or Iwobi come into the middle, otherwise my guess would be Joel Campbell, with Theo Walcott dropped to the bench. Again, I think that would be the right call because Walcott was woefully lacking in impact against United and Campbell should count himself unlucky to lose his starting place in the first place having performed consistently well after breaking into the starting line-up.

My preference for tonight would be the following: Cech; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Monreal; Elneny, Coquelin; Ramsey, Ozil, Sanchez, Giroud, but I think Arsene will persist with Ramsey in the middle and bring in Campbell on the right. We’ll see.

Finally for today, after some reports that Santi Cazorla could miss the rest of the season (!) through injury, the player himself today mercifully took to social media to reassure fans he was still very much on course for a comeback at the start of April.

Of course the boss had spoken about Santi having an Achilles problem at his press conference yesterday, which is where those reports were obviously rooted, but it appears what the boss said had been exaggerated in the press. Who’d have thunk it?

Right. That’s me done. I told you it would be short.

Please win tonight Arsenal. Please?

COYG!

1st November 2015: Can Campbell play his way into first-choice permanence?

Welcome back. So another weekend comes to a close having seen Arsenal pick up all three points to stay firmly in contention for the Premier League title.

Thoughts will start to turn soon to Wednesday’s Champions League trip to Bayern Munich, but not before we reflect back on another fine domestic performance by the Gunners yesterday, and one player in particular.

Going into the game, all the talk revolved around whether Joel Campbell could perform after Arsene Wenger indicated the Costa Rican would be given the nod to start at his press conference on Friday. Well, just like last year with Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin, our injury crisis appears to have provided a platform for a new star to rise.

Of course it’s only one game and Campbell will be judged over a far longer stretch of time, but his performance yesterday was more than promising. Both defensively and offensively, I thought Campbell contributed hugely to our win over Swansea at the Liberty Stadium and speaking to Arsenal Player after the game, the forward revealed his joy at being given a first-team chance. He said:

I’m very happy. I had to wait for this moment and now we have to keep working to strengthen our team. I’m very happy but the important thing is the team wins. We had a good game so we have to keep going and prepare for the next game against Bayern Munich. The fans were incredible. They supported us the whole game and it was very important for us.

So not only is Campbell a team player on the pitch, he’s also tuned into the collective cause in his outlook, which bodes very well indeed. One big reason Coquelin has enjoyed such a meteoric rise in both his standing at the club and the level of affection for him from the fans, is his non-stop work-rate. So if Campbell can, at the very least, maintain his levels of effort in both yesterday’s game and last Tuesday’s against Sheffield Wednesday, he’s got a very good chance of emulating Coquelin’s emergence as a permanent first-team fixture.

That may sound ludicrously premature to say, but to me there’s no reason why Campbell can’t aspire to such a lofty achievement. With everyone fit, and assuming the likes of Theo Walcott, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere are viewed as central options, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are probably first and second pick respectively, in Arsene’s thinking for the right-sided role.

But seeing as the former freely admits he prefers playing in the middle and the Ox’s struggles for form, it’s not unreasonable to think that Campbell has a genuine chance to make the role his own if he plays well enough over the next few weeks. If Coquelin and Bellerin can usurp experienced players like Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Debuchy in the manager’s estimation, why can’t Campbell do something similar?

Arsene clearly holds Campbell in very high regard already, as he highlighted again after the game yesterday, saying:

He had to wait, to be patient, to get a chance and he was always on the waiting list. He got through a few countries but he is still very young and I never let him go as I feel he is a good player and on top of that he is a team player. Today he scored one but he could have scored more so that is something very interesting. You see when he has good players around him he is a good player.

As his manager mentions at the end there, Campbell appears to be yet another example of how mixing with higher quality team-mates can raise a player’s level. I think that applies whether you’re having a kick-about with mates at the local park, or at a professional level at the top of the game.

All that said however, it’s worth repeating that Joel has it all still to prove. Playing against one of the very best teams in club football, Bayern, on Wednesday, will of course be another big test for him, providing he’s picked of course. But another defensively diligent display which is combined with a genuine threat on the counter like yesterday, and Campbell will have taken another huge step in carving out a long-term future at the club and possibly even a regular slot in our first-choice selection.

Until tomorrow.

31st October 2015: Mature Arsenal find it easy in Swansea

Happy Halloween Gooners. We suffered a few first-half frights at the Liberty Stadium this afternoon, before emerging 3-0 winners over Swansea City to secure our fifth consecutive Premier League success and stay joint-top of the table.

Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny, who both scored in our win over Everton last Saturday, repeated the feat today to put us two goals ahead before Joel Campbell marked a hard-working, first-ever Premier League start with our third to wrap up the points.

Arsene Wenger picked the expected team, with Campbell playing on the right and those rested for Tuesday night’s Capital One Cup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday returning to the starting eleven.

The game as a whole had more than a passing resemblance with our last away game in the league at Watford; a fairly even first half on a big, slow, demanding pitch, with a couple of chances at either end before we scored three times in the second period, kept a clean sheet and ran out comfortable winners.

As expected, Jefferson Montero was a big threat on the hosts’ left flank but after struggling to contain the Ecuadorian in the early exchanges, a bit like he did against Bayern Munich’s Douglas Costa recently, Hector Bellerin grew into the game and nullified his direct opponent’s threat, this time with a little help from the industrious Campbell ahead of him.

Nacho Monreal had the first clear chance of the game but dragged his shot wide when he really should have hit the target, or picked out Mesut Ozil who was well-positioned in the middle. A superb pass by Alexis Sanchez then created our best opening of the first-half for Giroud, but the Frenchman’s first-time shot was perhaps a little rushed and he stroked it over the cross-bar. Campbell had a similar effort from a little further out but also missed the target.

Yet the best chance in the first 45 fell to Bafetimbi Gomis at the other end. Jonjo Shelvey split our defence with a slide-rule pass as Per Mertesacker decided to step up in an attempt to play offside, ignoring his partner Koscielny’s deeper positioning, and the striker raced clear towards Petr Cech.

But Cech didn’t panic, didn’t slide in or go to ground early to make it easy for Gomis, he stood firm for as long as possible, which meant when the striker eventually tried to round him, Bellerin had been afforded just enough time to race back and intervene, poking the ball away before Gomis could apply a finish.

To be fair, a less cumbersome forward would probably have scored given that much time but Bellerin and Cech in particular, did brilliantly to keep the score at nil-nil. It was another imperious performance by the former Chelsea ‘keeper I thought, as he claimed crosses, dealt with shots with ease and varied his distribution intelligently, to either launch quick counter attacks or delay releasing the ball to allow us time to reorganize and take the sting out of periods of Swansea pressure.

I must admit I’ve never placed as much importance on a keeper’s influence on a side as most, but after witnessing the difference Cech’s made, I say go out and spend big on the best we can find once Petr calls it a day. Hopefully that won’t be for a good number of years yet and in the meantime we can enjoy having arguably, on current form at least, the world’s best between the sticks. So once again, cheers Chelsea.

But on to the second half and we took the lead just four minutes into it. Ozil swung in a corner from the left and Giroud produced text-book movement to bamboozle his marker, taking a few steps towards the front post before checking, which allowed him to nod home unmarked and unchallenged.

Our second arrived after 68 minutes and owed a little to both dodgy keeping by former Gunner Lukasz Fabianski, as well as remarkably sensible officiating. I mean, usually, when there are opposition players within a mile of a keeper as he comes to claim a high ball, he’ll get a free-kick. Not today though, and it was refreshing. The ball came in, Giroud and Koscielny rose, made little or no contact with Fabianski, who flapped, couldn’t trap the ball or punch it clear, and it dropped to Laurent who spun and gleefully turned it into an empty net.

Swansea’s players and manager looked outraged but I’m guessing that on reflection, they’ll be blaming their ‘keeper rather than the referee. Where I would have sympathy for them, is the fact that in 99 percent of instances such as this one, they’d have got a free-kick regardless of whether their was any foul.

Anyway, our third goal arrived five minutes later and no player was more deserving in terms of how hard he worked than Campbell. After neat, intricate passing on our left, Ozil crossed low and found the Costa Rican at the far post, who took a touch and struck it home into the far corner.

I don’t know what it is but I like us having a left-footed player cutting in from the right of our attack, and not just for the symmetry it provides with Sanchez on the opposite flank. It feels we can get more shots off and aide the efficiency of our attacking, not than I have any stats to prove it or anything.

So after going three-nil up, Campbell, by now brimming with confidence, led a counter on the left and let fly from distance only to cut across the ball and skew it wide. There were other chances too, Ozil going close and Sanchez on the follow up, but in the end we had to make do with just the three, which makes it 11 goals scored and just two conceded in our three away league fixtures since losing to Mike Dean at Stamford Bridge in September.

Back with post match reaction etc tomorrow.

Have a good one league-leaders.

30th October 2015: Premier League Preview – Get in while you can Joel! The Swans await

Happy Friday folks. We travel to Swansea for a 3pm kick-off tomorrow of course, and I would say it’s a chance for Arsenal to get back on track after getting spanked by lower league opposition in midweek, but I won’t, because it wasn’t our first-choice selection who were derailed was it? It was ‘an Arsenal XI’ containing just a couple of players who are likely to play tomorrow.

So a far more appropriate opening to this post would be: We travel to Swansea for a 3pm kick-off tomorrow of course, as Arsenal look to secure their fifth consecutive Premier League win to ensure they remain at least level on points with Manchester City at the top of the table.

It won’t be easy, what with Swansea being a good side and us having to scour the deepest depths of our squad to find a player to play on the right, but I’m still pretty confident we can grab a win.

The vast majority of the team will have had a full week to prepare for the game following last Saturday’s win over Everton, and although we haven’t beaten Swansea in our last three meetings, having lost both league games last season and drawn the one before that, the side we field tomorrow, despite numerous injured absentees, should still be a very strong one.

It looks as though Joel Campbell will get the nod on the right and the way he chased back several times to win back possession against Sheffield Wednesday fills me with hope that even if he struggles with the attacking side of things, he’ll at least track back diligently. After all, providing Hector Bellerin with defensive support could well be crucial if Swansea’s Jefferson Montero is in the same kind of mood as he was in this fixture last season.

Speaking at his pre-match press conference earlier today, Arsene Wenger spoke about having a strong enough squad to cope with our current spate of injures, praised Campbell’s professionalism and challenged the Costa Rican international to follow in the footsteps of Bellerin and Francis Coquelin last season, by showing he has the quality to cement a first-team starting spot. He said:

It is always disappointing to lose players but we are equipped first of all with the quality of our squad and we are equipped mentally as well to deal with anything. My short-term option is [to play] Campbell or get one more defensive midfielder in like Flamini and put Cazorla on the flank. I haven’t decided yet. We will find solutions and I have to find the right one. I have been very impressed with Campbell, his attitude is outstanding and his daily dedication in training and his desire to improve is absolutely outstanding. I think he can be a big help for us, and he can play centre forward don’t forget that. In the coming two to three months he can be a very important player for us. This is a challenge for me and for the players who come in to show their quality. At the end you can find yourself with a bigger squad – that is what happened with Coquelin and Bellerin last season.

So Joel has to get in while he can, because when the walking wounded in our squad start filtering back to full fitness, he’ll find himself slipping back down the pecking order and out of contention unless he can show he has what it takes at this level over the next few weeks or so. In terms of his career at the club, it really could be be a case of now or never. No pressure then.

A very brief offering today because I’m afraid I’m as short on time tonight as Jose Mourinho will be as manager of Chelsea football club if they lose to Liverpool tomorrow. Come on Liverpool, put him out of his misery.

But more than that, COYG!

Back post-match.