3rd May 2016: Leicester are champions + Wenger on striker selection

Welcome back. So Leicester City are Premier League champions after Sp*rs drew 2-2 at Chelsea last night despite leading 2-0 at half-time.

I would revel more in Tottenham’s tragic failure to keep the title race alive but given we’ve been out of contention for a while now and lie below our neighbours in the standings, I’m left with little choice but to reign in the ridicule.

So I’ll limit myself to: “Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahahaha” and,”have you ever seen Tottenham win the league? HAVE YOU F*CK”, as well as, #61NEVERAGAIN.

Meanwhile, the Foxes’ fairytale campaign is complete, they’re champions of England for the first time in their history and have done it at a time when the relative riches of the country’s elite few clubs, and decades-long domination of the Premier League crown, makes Leicester achievement all-the-more astounding.

So I hope everyone associated with Leicester makes the most of their Black Swan season and enjoys every second of their status as champions for the next year or so, because unless they’re taken over by billionaire benefactors like Chelsea or Manchester City, they won’t be repeating this year’s feat for a very, very long time, if ever.

As much as Claudio Ranieri and his squad deserve boundless praise for their achievement, they were aided and abetted by a perfect storm of big-club implosions and transition phases. Except by Arsenal of course, because we were just typically championship-allergic as we have been for 12 years now. Still, what a story. Well done Leicester City.

But back to Arsenal and Arsene Wenger has revealed the reasoning behind his decision to reinstate Olivier Giroud as his starting striker in the last couple of games in place of Danny Welbeck, despite the latter having played very well on the whole since his return from long-term injury. He said:

Welbeck came in and played very well [on his comeback], like the players who have been out for nine months always do. You have to trust me on that, I know that well – after they come in they are super sharp and then after, against Crystal Palace, he had a very average game and looked a bit for one or two games that he paid for the physical energy he had given. So you let them rest one or two games and you bring them back in. [Against Norwich], when he came on, you could see he is a different animal again.

Arsene also discussed the form of Giroud, with the striker currently enduring the worst goal-less spell of his Arsenal career:

A striker wants to score goals and when he doesn’t, is it pure confidence or is it just to think, ‘How can I score again? They need goals. But he responds, he’s a guy who is mentally strong. Today he gave an assist, I put that in the same category as a goal.

Given the above, I’ll be shocked if Welbeck doesn’t start ahead of Giroud against Manchester City on Sunday but with a good few days until the game, there’s plenty of time to look at how we might line-up for the match at Etihad stadium in the days to come.

Back on Wednesday.

6th March 2016: More on the draw at Tottenham

Evening all. So where was I? Oh yeah, Harry Kane being an annoyingly lethal striker, but just like the majority of attackers in today’s game, far from shy in ‘buying’ fouls.

Anyway, after losing Coquelin, I was hoping we’d regroup quickly and keep Tottenham at bay for at least 10 to 15 minutes or so because I thought they’d start to get frustrated, fatigue would begin to set in and perhaps we could grab another goal at some point.

In the end, we could only hold out for five minutes because Toby Alderweireld got an equaliser for Sp*rs on the hour mark, firing home a loose ball low and hard past David Ospina at the far post following a corner. Just two minutes later, the hosts completed the turn-around in the score-line with what can only be described as a stunning long-range strike by Arsenal and Freddie Ljungberg fan Kane.

The chance came about because of some slack defending by Per Mertesacker, who in hindsight should either have committed a tactical foul on Alli as the pair chased the ball near the corner-flag, or slid and put it into touch, but instead he allowed Alli to get ahead of him and back-heel the ball to Kane. The England striker cut inside and unleashed a curler into the far top corner, to leave David Ospina with no chance.

As Kane celebrated wildly, I’m sure I wasn’t the only Arsenal fan filled with dread and anticipating a heavy defeat. But what followed was a gutsy response by the Gunners and an equaliser 15 minutes later. Arsene Wenger threw caution to the wind by replacing Mohamed Elneny with Olivier Giroud and we fashioned our second goals moments afterwards. Mertesacker intercepted the ball, turned neatly and found Ramsey in midfield.

The Welshman picked out Hector Bellerin on the right and he produced his second assist of the game, perfectly measuring an angled pass into Alexis Sanchez’s run so the Chilean didn’t have to break stride and could shoot first time past Lloris. It wasn’t the sweetest of connections but he got enough on it to see it bobble past their keeper and restore unlikely parity to proceedings.

After that, both sides had chances with the best one falling to Ramsey very late on after his brilliant run into the box was serviced by an equally impressive through ball by Sanchez. But as Ramsey tried to get a shot away, their defender slid in and nicked the ball away.

Spoils shared then and an impressive achievement by us to secure a point under the circumstances. Yet regret at another two points dropped and perhaps a little frustration that the referee didn’t issue a second yellow for Eric Dier when he clearly deserved one for pulling Olivier Giroud’s shirt. That would have evened up the numbers and given us a great chance to win it, but it wasn’t to be and the incident gets filed in the same draw alongside ones with Diego Costa, who also somehow escaped dismissal against us this season when it was clearly warranted.

The negatives from the game are obvious in that we picked up another totally avoidable red card through our own lack of discipline, which in effect cost us two valuable points. On the plus side, we functioned far better as a team, with Mohamed Elneny impressive in midfield, Ramsey playing far better from the right than he has recently in the middle and grabbing a goal, Gabriel solid at the back, Ospina shining in goal, and Danny Welbeck working hard and being a constant threat up front.

Add in a confidence-boosting goal for Sanchez and things are definitely looking up as far as I’m concerned. We look much more like team with yesterday’s selection of starters so hopefully they can stay fit and firing until the likes of Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere are ready to return from injury.

Looking ahead, we play Hull in the Cup on Tuesday and then depending on the outcome of that game, next weekend we host either Watford in the quarter-finals or West Brom in the league. Whoever we face though, after yesterday’s showing at White Hart Lane, I’m feeling far more confident that we can actually string a few wins together now, having failed to get even one in our last five games.

See you next week.

5th March 2016: Arsenal find form in draw with Tottenham despite Coq-up

Welcome back. Despite only managing to draw against Tottenham, I felt our overall performance today was much improved following three defeats on the bounce.

The 2-2 full-time scoreline at White Hart Lane, combined with Leicester’s win at Watford and Manchester City’s comfortable victory over Aston Villa, means we’re now eight points off the Premier League summit and will fall a point below Manuel Pellegrini’s men into fourth if they win their game in hand. In terms of the title race then, the point we earned today could be vital, just as the two dropped could prove fatal – only time will tell.

But for the immediate future, we have to be encouraged by our display today, particularly seeing as we had to play the final 35 minutes or so with a man less following Francis Coquelin’s second-half dismissal for a second yellow. That we managed to grab an equaliser with ten men, after two quick-fire Sp*rs strikes within seven minutes of Coquelin’s red card had cancelled out Aaron Ramsey’s exquisitely-taken first half opener, was as pleasing as it was surprising.

After all, this was a much-vaunted Tottenham team, proudly sitting a place and three points above us in the table at the start of the match, boasting the best defensive record in the league and the healthiest goal difference. Their team contained the media-hyped hybrid of Zinedine Zidane, Garrincha and Eusebio that is Dele Alli, and were managed by the man with the Midas touch in Mauricio Pochettino.

They fielded a core of oh-so-honest English lads who will no doubt conquer the Continent at this summer’s Euros, and who help form a team that plays in an innovative high-intensity style that will never ever waver as the season progresses. They’re destined for the title and there’s never been a a team quite like them. They’re one of England’s own …

And yet, they couldn’t beat an Arsenal side in their worst run of form of the season, missing key players and playing with a man less for almost half the game. Tottenham will always be sh*t, no matter how this one-off title-chasing campaign ends for them.

Back to us though and after a difficult first 30 minutes or so when the hosts piled on the pressure without creating many clear-cut chances, we went one-nil up with a goal owing as much to the composure and vision of Hector Bellerin as it did the magnificent improvisation of Ramsey.

Danny Welbeck, who played up front and put in a non-stop shift in his just his second league start in almost a year, picked up possession on the left, cut inside, looked up and squared it carefully to Bellerin. Our Cockney Catalan played it first-time to Ramsey in the middle who pulled off a brilliant back-heeled shot at goal, somehow generating elevation in guiding it past Hugo Lloris.

With six minutes of the half to play after that goal, we turned the screw and launched a couple more attacks as Sp*rs froze a little and the realisation appeared to dawn on them that they’re actually nothing special at all, and that they’re only in the title race because of a freak set of circumstances. At that point, we had them – they knew it and we knew it.

What we also knew at half-time though, was that Coquelin had been cautioned and would therefore need to be extra careful in the second half to avoid another booking. Arsene Wenger said as much after the game in revealing he reminded his compatriot at the break that he was treading a tightrope. Unfortunately, within ten minutes of second half action, Coquelin recklessly slid in on Harry Kane on the by-line, inevitably earning a second yellow and a red.

No qualms, no complaints, it was a mindless rush of blood and we were now up against it. What I would point out though, is that Kane, for all his striking qualities, and admittedly, as his goal later in the game highlighted, he has them in abundance, purposely made contact with Coquelin in that way all shameless divers do, when he could easily have hurdled the challenge and continued his run.

The striker jumped, left both his airborne legs trailing to ensure connection with Coquelin’s and I thought I’d point it out because I haven’t seen anyone else do it. Of course, it would be a booking 99 times out of a hundred, but a truly honest player with nothing but trying to get forward and score a goal on his mind would have left Coquelin trailing and without contact, they’d have been no caution. Sadly, they’re aren’t too many of that ilk around in football, even English ones, and we were left facing an uphill task to keep our lead.

A bit abrupt but I’ve run out of time. I’ll pick this up tomorrow.

See you on Sunday.

4th March 2016: Premier League Preview – Can we find the right recipe to topple Tottenham?

Friday greetings. We face Sp*rs in the early kick-off tomorrow of course and after three defeats on the bounce, I suppose the big questions are: who will Arsene Wenger choose to start the game? And can we put a stop to our recent rot by winning at White Hart Lane to make ‘power-shift’ proponents think again, whilst hauling ourselves right back into title-winning territory?

In terms of team selection, we know that David Ospina will come in for the injured Petr Cech, who Arsene confirmed today would be out for up to four weeks with the calf injury he sustained against Swansea on Wednesday, and Gabriel will retain his place in central defence alongside Per Mertesacker, as Laurent Koscielny is still sidelined.

You would assume Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal will remain at full back but given the latter’s made 33 starts in all competitions so far this season, which is exceeded only by Mesut Ozil’s 34, I do wonder if Kieran Gibbs’ fresher legs may be a way the boss feels he can add some energy to his side – particularly against Mauricio Pochettino’s hard-running outfit.

I do view Monreal as our undisputed first-choice at left-back, but this will be his fourth game in 12 days were he to start. The former Malaga man’s not the only one who’s endured that demanding recent work load though, so I’ll guess we’ll see. That said, even with all the effort and determination in the world, if we don’t come up with a game-plan that works better than ours have done in our last two games at least, we’ll be in trouble.

I think Arseblog hit the nail on the head in his post this morning, when he suggested that we don’t know what we’re doing as a team. We have no discernible style of play and in my opinion, that’s down to our central midfield area, as regular readers will already know and possibly be a tad bored by.

At risk of sounding like a broken record then, with Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin as a midfield pair, we have nobody to dictate our play. In that duo, Coquelin is the specialist ball-winner, but what role exactly is Ramsey fulfilling?

Now I have no idea if Mohamed Elneny will be good enough to hit the ground running as adequate cover for Santi Cazorla’s sublime distribution from the middle of the park, but with Jack Wilshere also injured, he’s our only candidate. Unless you drop Mesut Ozil in there, which is not as bad an idea as it may sound at first in my opinion.

In fact, I’m torn between Ozil and Elneny as to who should partner Coquelin, but if we went with the former, the fact we would then have nobody obvious (don’t say Ramsey – he’s even less a number ten than he is a deep-lying play-maker) to fill in for Ozil further forward, makes me lean towards the Egyptian.

The only alternative I see is to contain and counter, like we attempted against Barcelona last week, and like we succeeded in doing at home against Bayern Munich earlier this season. I have no doubt at all that our lack of cohesion in this area of the pitch is adversely affecting out performance both in defence and in the final third. A lack of control, composure and coordination in our midfield spreads to both ends of the pitch and to my mind, if we remedy that issue, we’ll start looking and playing like a team again and the wins will follow.

So with all that in mind, I’d go with: ‘play Elneny, look to control possession and take the game to Tottenham’, over, ‘stick with Ramsey in the middle, and either produce another disjointed display, or sit back and hope to counter them’. And as such, my starting selection, fitness permitting, would be:

Ospina; Bellerin, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Monreal; Coquelin, Elneny; Campbell, Ozil, Sanchez; Welbeck.

I think with that XI, we would be fielding the strongest defence we have available, on paper our most complimentary and functional deep-lying midfield duo, the best goal-creator in the league in a free role, two industrious wide players boasting both a goal-threat and defensive diligence, all topped off with the best all-round striker at the club. A player who can stretch a defence with pace like Theo Walcott, and hold the ball up and link play like Olivier Giroud – our two other striking options.

But crucially, without Ramsey, Walcott and Giroud, we have ten outfield players, with the possible exception of big Per (although he is usually a very reliable passer), who are comfortable in possession and collectively, should much more easily find a common wavelength. It’s all in the chemistry and too often recently, our pH levels have been aimlessly sliding the scale.

It feels like every game we play at the moment is billed as a must-win, despite there being over a quarter of the league season yet to be played, but you can understand the sentiment.

By the end of tomorrow’s Premier League action, we could be any one of nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, or three points behind the leaders. So not only is tomorrow’s game a north London derby with a title-contesting difference, in a way, it’s potentially also a nine-pointer, in the countdown to the crown.

Back post-match.

COME on Arsenal. COME. THE. F*CK. ON.

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.

9th November 2015: Gibbs on goals + Mertesacker on mentality

Welcome back. So international football is upon us again and as much as I usually hate the interruption of the club game, this particular break is very timely indeed for Arsenal, in that it allows some of our injured players time to recover before we next play.

As yesterday’s draw with Tottenham highlighted, our squad was stretched to it’s limit in certain areas recently, and our available players running on empty, after playing every three days for the last three weeks.

But when we travel to West Brom a week on Saturday for our next game, we could have the likes of Hector Bellerin, Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain fit and available again, which means not only should our starting XI be strengthened but we’ll also have a far stronger bench for Arsene Wenger to utilise if a game needs changing.

Speaking of substitutes, the man who unexpectedly picked up Olivier Giroud’s goal-scoring slack to secure us a valuable point yesterday, Kieran Gibbs, spoke to the press after the game about his goalscoring, the squad’s disappointment in not capitalizing on dropped points by Manchester City, our recent injury worries and more. He said:

The last time I scored was against Anderlecht away last season but in the Premier League it was a few years ago. We are disappointed obviously, with Manchester City dropping points we had a good oppourunity. It was important not to lose this game but now the international break, we can recover for a few players and they can come back fit and we can push on after. It has been difficult for the boss with options so in the last few games I have been coming on and I knew, looking across the bench that, probably, even though I’m a defender I’m one of the more offensive players on the bench. I was happy to come on in a big game like that and get a goal. The boss has been struggling with options especially in midfield and up front, so I think a few of the boys were tired having played last weekend, midweek and today. It was a chance for me to bring on some fresh legs and do everything I can to try and help the boys. In these types of games you can’t give up when you know what it means to everyone in the club and the fans. I think they were great for us today and spurred us on. You have to come on in those games and give everything you can to try and get the boys going. It feels like we are not disappointed because we didn’t lose, even though Manchester City dropped points so it was a good opportunity for us to get ahead of them. But we are going away in the international break and will come back raring to go again as we have a long way to go.

Of course, the concern whenever our players disperse from London Colney to link up with their respective national sides is that they return in good shape and ready to play but all we can do on that front is hope and pray they come back unscathed.

One man who won’t be going away on international duty is Per Mertesacker of course, who retired after winning the World Cup last year and the big German has been speaking about Arsenal’s title challenge, the draw with Spurs and our squad’s mental maturity, saying:

We want to be involved throughout the season, competing at the top until the last second. We promised ourselves to do better than last season, not to drop a lot of points too early. It’s an interesting position but we still have room for improvement. When you look at the first half we need to manage to play a lot better. We lost our creativity and our way to play a bit, but how we came back shows that we have got a good mentality and level of character in the squad. That’s important for the Christmas period coming up. Santi felt unwell in the first half and that was a bit of a disappointment for us, that he couldn’t continue, but what Mathieu and Kieran gave us when they came on is what we need. It’s really important that, even if we suffer sometimes, we can come back. We showed mental strength. The energy and creativity those players who come on give sets the tone and gives us goals. That’s massively important. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks we’ll get more energy because it’s important while having injured players.

It must be said Mertesacker hasn’t been quite at the top of his game recently and in my opinion he was poor in the away games against Sheffield Wednesday and Bayern Munich in particular.

But maybe that’s down to mental and physical fatigue so a fortnight without competitive action might be just what he needs to get back to his best.

Til Tuesday.

8th November 2015: Gibbs’ goal salvages point to keep us level with Man City at the top

Evening all. It’s not often I’m happy with a draw, but after watching an injury-ravaged and understandably fatigued Arsenal side come from a goal down to salvage a draw against Spurs earlier, today is one such occasion.

This fixture last year left me frustrated, disappointed and a bit annoyed despite the end result being identical, but today’s 1-1 result has me feeling proud more than anything else. Proud and encouraged. Proud that we found the resources to haul ourselves back into a game we were being dominated in, and encouraged because in years gone by, we’d have folded in similar circumstances.

With half our squad side-lined through injury, and in our seventh game in just 21 days, we were forced to rely on the same set of players we’ve used for most of the season, against a young, energetic opponent who came into the game undefeated in the league since the opening weekend of the campaign.

Yet after Arsenal fan Harry Kane had capitalized on Laurent Koscielny’s poor decision to step up and catch him offside by giving them the lead, and after they’d bossed a first half in which we, in effect, played with ten men, we somehow managed to keep the game alive, conjured an equaliser through the most unlikely of sources in substitute Kieran Gibbs and created enough chances for Olivier Giroud to be ruing not scoring a hat-trick by full-time.

Gary Neville, commentating on Sky, said Santi Cazorla was being ‘harassed’ by the Tottenham midfield which was why, in his opinion, the Spaniard was performing so badly in the first half. Yet any observers who don’t have a fetish for Nemanja Matic’s height and build, would have told you Cazorla was either carrying an injury or feeling unwell, because his participation in the opening period amounted to him being present on the pitch.

Other than that he was a spectator and not, contrary to what Neville said, because he was being dominated by Dele Alli (the new Jermaine Jenas, not the new Lionel Messi, so calm down Graeme Souness). As it turns out, Santi was feeling dizzy and subsequently removed at half-time to be replaced by Mathieu Flamini.

But it was another substitute who scored our equaliser, from yet another assist by Mesut Ozil. The German produced a pin-point pass from the right to the far post, where Gibbs gleefully bundled the ball past Hugo Lloris.

Afterwards, Arsene Wenger gave his take on the game:

It was a very intense game with complete commitment from both sides. We suffered in the first half because Cazorla was at 30 per cent of his potential, he was dizzy. I was sitting there thinking do I take him off or not? You never know, maybe it will get better. At half-time I took him off, and in the second half we had a bit better balance. The team have shown great mental resources, we refused to give up. Tottenham had a good moment at 1-0 in the second half, where they had one or two good chances in the game. In the end, it is a fair point for both sides.

A ‘fair point’ perhaps, especially when you consider Spurs’ superiority in the first half, but if Giroud didn’t produce a horror show in terms of his finishing, we would actually have won this match by a distance.

Our passing game, particularly once our distributor-in-chief, Cazorla, had been removed, was never going to be at it’s best and so we went more direct, sending in crosses, free-kicks and corners which Tottenham struggled to deal with. As a result, Giroud was presented with at least a couple of glorious openings but fluffed his lines like it was Monaco in the last 16 of the Champions League all over again.

The thing is though, were he not in the side, we don’t really have anyone else, even with everybody fit, who can cause anywhere near the same panic in opposition defences as Giroud does through his frame and physicality, and nobody who’d be in those positions to miss in the first place.

So he’s still a great option if we want to be more direct in my opinion, it’s just he’s prone to having days like today when he can’t finish to save his life and it’s unbelievably frustrating.

Here’s what the boss said of his striker after the match:

He (Giroud) is very angry. When you see players happy to miss chances you can worry. He is a real goalscorer, he did try. In the last two games, against Bayern and today he worked extremely hard and maybe he wanted too much to score in the end, and especially the opportunity he had in the six-yard box, but that can happen.

None of which you can argue with really. Anyway, we now have two weeks without a game, after which hopefully we’ll see some of injured players return to give us fresh impetus as we build up to the hectic Christmas period.

Of course there are important players like Francis Coquelin and Per Mertesacker who won’t be going away with their national sides so they should get a well-deserved and much-needed breather.

Back Monday.

7th November 2015: Premier League Preview – We should have too much for Tottenham

Greetings Gooners. After our obliteration at the hands of Bayern Munich in midweek, we have the chance to prove we haven’t been deterred from our domestic title challenge when we host Tottenham tomorrow.

We’ll be seeking to secure our sixth consecutive Premier League victory by beating Spurs, so cup woes aside, we’re in great form. Our neighbours aren’t in bad nick themselves of course, sitting five points and four places adrift of us in sixth, and unbeaten in their last ten games in the league. So we’re in for a tough game, made all the more testing by our injury troubles at the moment.

I’m expecting Laurent Koscielny to be passed fit given Arsene Wenger gave him such a high percentage chance of doing so yesterday, as well as the fact he was part of full training earlier this morning if these pictures are anything to go by. Whether he comes in to replace Per Mertesacker or Gabriel is anybody’s guess, seeing as neither of them covered themselves in glory with their performances in Germany.

Elsewhere in the team, I think we’ll be unchanged purely because of the lack of options presently available to the boss. That would mean another start for Joel Campbell – his first-ever Premier League one at Emirates stadium – and hopefully he can perform more like he did at Swansea than he managed to against Bayern.

That goes for most of the team though, and against a Spurs side who have the youngest average age in the league at present, we’ll need to match their work-rate first and foremost, which should lead to our undeniably superior quality shining through.

The fixture itself needs no hyping of course, partly because Sky have been doing that for about a month now, but mainly because the two clubs and sets of fans like each other as much as Wayne Rooney does sticking to an athlete’s diet, which ensures the matches are always atmospheric and keenly contested.

The boss has obviously overseen his fair share of them over the years and has been discussing the north London derby with Arsenal Player, saying:

It’s a special game because it’s always special between the two north London clubs. It’s a game with a big importance in the table and psychologically it has a big meaning. It is always a special game and a game where you want to come out on top. I agree about the power, energy and electricity around the game. It’s more the feeling [that stays with you]. I remember when we won the championship there, and our last game in the League Cup was a frenetic game. But the energy, the intensity, the commitment, the happiness when you’re [winning] – that’s what remains with you.

Just very quickly, if I was to name a few of stand-out derby moments they would, in no particular order, be the title-winning game at White Hart Lane in 2004 and the two sublime goals we scored that day, Kanu’s flick and finish in what I think was a 3-1 midweek win in 1999, Thierry’s run from his own half at Highbury, Ian Wright twisting one way then the other, before crossing from the right to Dennis Bergkamp on the left, who took a glorious touch inside his marker before smashing it home, and of course, Tony Adams’ volley in the same game. (Get well soon Tony!)

To be honest, I, like I’m sure you, could go on all day so I’ll leave it there. Alright one more, Emmanuel Adebayor’s flick up and volley at the Lane – WHAT a goal that was, untainted by his subsequent career path, for me anyway. There’s soooo many to choose from dammit. Maybe I’ll dedicate a post to special moments against Spurs before the next derby when I have more time.

Right, hopefully that little trip down memory lane has got you up for the game, not that I’m sure you needed it, and we can add another Gunners victory over our shadow-dwellers to our memories at full-time tomorrow.

Back post-match.

COME ON YOU ARSENAL! 

6th November 2015: Koscielny faces fitness test but Bellerin ruled out of NLD

Evening all. As we prepare to bring a marathon run of seven games in 21 days to a close by hosting Tottenham on Sunday, Arsene Wenger has revealed the latest team news at his pre-match press conference earlier today.

According to the boss, Laurent Koscielny has an 80 percent chance of recovering from the hip injury that kept him out of our defeat at Bayern Munich on Wednesday, and along with Mikel Arteta, faces a fitness test ahead of the game.

But Hector Bellerin has been ruled out until after the upcoming international break. Mathieu Debuchy will therefore play in what, I think, will be his first Premier League start of the season, and Arsene says his French right-back is nearing peak match-fitness:

Mathieu needed a little competition. Game after game he has basic fitness and now with another game he should be better.

Let’s hope so. I mean, if we could see the Mathieu Debuchy of early last season, the one with the mohican hair-cut, determined attitude and high levels of self-confidence, as opposed to the sluggish, distant and defensively suspect version we’ve seen this, then that would obviously help our cause no end against Spurs and their youthful, high-energy side.

And perhaps we will, finally. As the boss says, Mathieu is improving physically game by game and now nearing his best shape. I do wonder if all he actually needs is just a trip to the barbers though …

Of course every Premier League game is a ‘big’ one for us at the moment as we try to match Manchester City stride for stride at the top of the table, but being the north London derby obviously gives this fixture added significance, even more so as we look to put our midweek mauling in the Champions League behind us.

Arsene was asked about the rivalry between the two north London clubs and whether ‘the gap’ between them had narrowed but he remained modest and insisted:

They have been a threat every year since I’ve been here. In the last 20 years, they always had very strong teams and let’s not forget that some periods we were eight or nine points behind them in April, so they have had very strong teams. This year they are younger, they work very hard and they will be a tough opponent again – they are every year. I enjoy [the derby] because I believe that what you want in football is to play games that are important and where there is an excitement in the preparation, games that have meaning for everybody. Football can give special emotions to people and you want to be part of that.

As much as I respect Arsene for being typically polite and professional, I’d have loved for him to have just shrugged and said:

Spurs? Well, they’re a bit shit, they’ve always been a bit shit, and they’ll always be a bit on the shit side – the gap’s more a colossal chasm.

But I suppose we have Jack Wilshere to tell it like it is when it comes to that lot, so we shouldn’t complain. Anyway, moving away from the derby for now and the boss has been fulsome in his praise for summer signing Petr Cech.

Calling him one of the greatest ‘keepers to ever play on these shores, Arsene suggested the former Chelsea man could play on for a good four or five years yet, despite being 33 already, and said he wasn’t surprised Cech was closing in on David James’ record of 169 Premier League clean sheets, saying:

I believe that there is no coincidence. What is repeated is not coincidence, it is just class. As well, not only class but dedication and consistency of quality. Knowing him well now after a few months, I’m not surprised by this kind of achievement because he is absolutely dedicated to his job, he analyses absolutely everything and is gifted as well. He is a super talent. He is certainly one of the greatest goalkeepers we have ever seen here in this country. He plays in a position where age is less of a restriction than in any other job. Until 37 or 38 I consider that a goalkeeper can be completely able to play at this level.

To add a bit of context, Cech has managed 167 clean sheets so far from just 337 games, whereas it took James 567 to set his record.

But it’s not just in England Cech’s eyeing top spot for shut-outs, he’s currently third in the Champions League list with 45, behind only Edwin van de Sar who has 50, and Iker Casillas who’s managed 51. Again though, Cech has achieved his haul in far fewer games, having played 107 compared to Casillas’ 153.

There will be those who try to taint Cech’s achievements by pointing out he was massively aided by Chelsea being the most defensive-minded club side in history, over this past decade or so, but that would be unfair.

Yes the Blues have parked the bus most weeks since 2004, but behind that bus they’ve undoubtedly had one of the finest goalkeepers of the modern era. I’m just glad we can now call him ours and that he’ll set those records as a Gunner.

Back with a Spurs-preview on Saturday.

Have a good one.

24th September 2015: Forgotten man Flamini fires us into fourth round

I’ll hold my hands up and admit I wanted Mathieu Flamini to be sold by Arsenal this past summer.

Not because I have any special dislike of the Frenchman, far from it. For instance, I fondly remember his contribution at left back in the run to the Champions League Final in 2006 and his superb partnership with Cesc Fabregas in the middle of the park a couple of seasons later.

And despite leaving the club on a Bosman free in the summer of 2008 when we clearly wanted him to stay, I didn’t begrudge him a move to one of the traditional giants of the European club game, AC Milan, particularly considering he’s half Italian and had very likely held a long-term ambition to try out Serie A.

But my reasoning was that if he stayed this summer, we wouldn’t sign somebody like Grzegorz Krychowiak to be a competitor with, or deputy for, Francis Coquelin in the defensive midfield role, and that we needed a younger and to be blunt, better model than Flamini is right now at the age of 31.

That stance hasn’t changed and an upgrade for one or both of Flamini and Mikel Arteta should still be a priority signing in my opinion. Yet last night, Flamini started our game at Tottenham in the third round of the Capital One Cup and came up with two goals – the second as well executed a finish as you could hope to see  – to win us the game. Ben fatto Flamster – that was some strike.

The team in the end was not far off the one The Mirror had predicted and I had relayed here yesterday, with the one alteration being Aaron Ramsey starting, not Alex Iwobi, which meant Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played wide left, with Ramsey in the middle, Campbell on the right and Flamini and Arteta anchoring the team behind them. Olivier Giroud led the line as expected but in truth, and far from unexpectedly, we failed to really find any kind attacking rhythm in a first half that was played at a pretty frenetic pace but had few phases of fluent football from either side.

The fact Tottenham also made changes – not as many as our ten alterations – but enough to disrupt any momentum three wins in a row had given them prior to last night, meant neither team looked a likely winner throughout the contest. But Flamini broke the deadlock after 26 minutes, expertly guiding the ball into the roof of the net after their ‘keeper had parried a stinging, low strike by the Ox from the edge of the box into his path.

The hosts leveled the contest 11 minutes after the restart though, when Nacer Chadli’s low cross from the left was diverted past David Ospina and into his own net by Calum Chambers. With Chelsea’s second goal last Saturday now also confirmed as a Chambers own goal, the former Southampton man rather unfortunately has two own goals in two games to his name.

Yet his performance alongside the returning Per Mertesacker in the centre of our defence last night was pretty impressive on the whole I thought, and at just 20 years of age, he still has plenty of time to improve and make the position his own in the the years to come.

But it was all about Flamini last night and after Kieran Gibbs had produced a brilliant, Ashley Cole-esque, goal-line clearance to deny Arsenal fan Harry Kane a first club goal of the season, Mathieu spotted a stray ball lumped high into the air by a Tottenham defender, decided he would decide this north London derby, strode forward with purpose and just the perfect number of steps, all the while with eyes fixed on the prize and produced a technically perfect first-time volley in the bottom corner. What. A. Finish.

Tottenham tried to muster a response and we should have done better with a couple of late counter-attacks but in the end, Flamini’s second goal of the night was enough to secure us a trip to Sheffield Wednesday in the fourth round of the competition. Afterwards, the obvious man-of-the-match made his feelings clear to his detractors in the press and dedicated his goals to the Arsenal fans:

I’m very happy for the team because it was a difficult and tough game. Personally I am happy because I scored two goals. I have heard many things in the press, many people have been talking about me but I have proved everyone wrong. I’ve been working hard and I was ready for the game. The two goals were for them (the fans).They’ve always supported me, they’ve all been behind me and they’ve played a big role in my career. It was important for me to celebrate with them and nobody else. It was the first time I’ve scored two times in a game. [It’s good] to score against Tottenham in a derby in such an important game for Arsenal and the fans.

Even if I remain unconvinced by Flamini as an adequate deputy for Coquelin this season, one thing beyond debate is the man’s character in the heat of battle. He showed in his very first game for us after returning from Milan, incidentally against Spurs at Emirates stadium, that he had the stomach for a fight and although his body may not allow him to zip in on opponents and nick the ball away like in his prime, he can, at times, prove both a decent defensive midfielder and as last night showed, an expert goal poacher.

Till Friday.