18th March 2016: Wenger on title race and team news

Happy Friday. It’s Everton away in the early kick-off tomorrow and nothing bar victory will suffice for Arsenal as we try to keep alive our faint hopes of ending the season as Premier League champions.

Many have already written us off and called a two-horse race between Tottenham and leaders Leicester but that, as things stand at least, is premature. If we win tomorrow we could end the day three points behind second placed Sp*rs and eight behind the Foxes with a game in hand – if Claudio Ranieri’s men slip up at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace.

So when Arsene Wenger spoke at his pre-match press conference earlier today and suggested there’s still likely to be twists and turns and the title race was far from a foregone conclusion, you could see where he’s coming from.

On the other hand, with Manchester City just a point behind us, West Ham a further two adrift and even Manchester United not yet out of the top-four picture entirely in sixth place, we need to be just as wary of those behind us in the standings, as we hopeful of catching the two teams ahead. Here’s what Arsene said:

I would say we have to go step by step. Let’s get back to winning habits first, that starts tomorrow… if we win tomorrow, we’ll see. That’s our target. But at the moment, the only way to achieve something special is first to be realistic and humble enough to deal first with Everton. Things will change until the end of the season, that’s for sure. We have to take care of our own destiny, and that’s by producing the performances we expect from ourselves. It’s very tight, but I believe the Premier League is far from over. We are in a position where we hope for the best. I agree that a negative result would be very bad for us, but we focus on a positive result. We know now is the time for us to produce the result we want. We also have to look behind us because things can change very quickly. We want to move forward, but I’m conscious that our position is not secure, even where we are.

In terms of team news, the boss revealed only Mathieu Flamini, who went off injured against Barcelona on Wednesday, is unavailable from our last match-day squad and will be replaced by Calum Chambers. As for our long-term casualties, he revealed:

Wilshere is showing good signs now of recovery, Santi is a bit slower. The players who will definitely be back from injury [after the international break] will be Ramsey, Cech and maybe Flamini. But I don’t think Cazorla or Wilshere will be straight after the international break.

So good news on most but a little sketchy on Santi, which is of course concerning and also a little confusing, because when Arsene spoke a week or two about the Spaniard suffering a fresh setback due to an Achilles problem, the player himself took to social media to express his surprise at the stories of a delayed comeback and insisted he was on schedule to return at the start of April. All a bit weird.

Now usually, I’d play Arsenal Manager right about now and have a guess at tomorrow’s starting line-up but today, I’m not really feeling it. I just hope whoever’s selected performs well, we keep 11 players on the pitch for the whole game and emerge victorious to breathe fresh life into a campaign that’s nearing a flat-line.

Back post-match.


9th March 2016: Arsenal crush Hull to make FA Cup last eight

Evening all. A hat-trick of consecutive FA Cups is well and truly on for Arsenal after we breezed past Hull City last night, to confirm a quarter final at home with Watford on Sunday. Lovely.

A brace apiece from previously out-of-form forwards Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott secured a comfortable 4-0 win over Steve Bruce’s men but the celebrations were soured a little by injuries to Per Mertesacker, Gabriel and Aaron Ramsey.

The 7pm kick-off gave the game a sense of strangeness and the first half action only added to the surreal feel. Arsene Wenger picked a side very similar to the one I had guessed would play in yesterday’s post, with Kieran Gibbs’ inclusion at left-back instead of Nacho Monreal being the only difference.

In a very forgettable opening 45 minutes, Mertesacker and Nick Powell clashed heads when contesting the ball and with both players needing treatment, the game was stopped for a sustained period. After carrying on for a while, the German defender’s swelling eye caused him to be substituted for Monreal who slotted in as left-sided centre-back.

Then out of the blue, with the game as lively as a wake, on a pitch as smooth as sandpaper, one of Hull’s players decided he’s spare the stadium any more tedium and casually flicked the ball with outside of his left foot across his own six-yard box, where Giroud was waiting to gratefully strike home his first goal in about four years. It wasn’t so much a helping hand, as it was an aiding arm, but given the striker’s recent struggles in scoring, he dispatched the gift with the minimum of fuss.

I have to admit, and this is very, very rarely the case with me, even when we’re getting battered, but I was giving serious consideration to doing something else with my time at the break. Thankfully though, I resisted the urge and was rewarded by three further goals.

Before our second arrived, Ramsey replaced the injured Gabriel which meant Mathieu Flamini filled in at right-back for Calum Chambers, who shifted across to partner Monreal in the middle. Walcott got the assist this time, with a left-wing cross that deflected off a defender straight into Giroud’s path for a near-replica of his first goal.

I thought it was telling Gibbs immediately embraced Walcott, who for all his frustrating qualities as a footballer, is still human and therefore not immune from the considerable criticism he’s taken in recent weeks. And not just from fans either, becasue even if Arsene hasn’t taken Theo to task for his lack of form verbally, by dropping him to the bench for the last two games before last night’s he’s made clear Theo’s far from first-choice at the moment. Plus the fact that for 70 minutes or so again last night before claiming that assist, Walcott’s performance was pretty woeful.

Considering all that then, his last 20 minutes last night will hopefully provide the spark he needs to rediscover some sort of form and confidence beacuse he grabbed a brace of his own. First, Joel Campbell, who must be one of the most enthusiastic attackers I’ve ever seen in chasing back and helping out defensively, played what’s becoming a trade-mark reverse pass, having cut in from the right. His perfectly-threaded ball found Theo on the left and he took two touches in calmly passing it beyond the keeper.

With two minutes of normal time to play, Walcott completed the scoring, when his low strike from the right was deflected in at the near post. Scoring two heavily aided by deflections and one handed to us on a plate by Hull City, would indicate our luck was in last night, but in terms of injuries, karmic balance was redressed.

Thankfully Arsene revealed Mertesacker and Gabriel’s injuries are nothing serious but the news on Ramsey is not so good. I’m sure we’ll find out the extent soon enough but it looks like Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin will get more games to develop their partnership and hopefully, Campbell will continue on the right beacuse having dropped him once already this season when he’d barely put a foot wrong, I can’t see Arsene culling the Costa Rican when he’s so consistently impressive.

Back tomorrow.

29th February 2016: Walcott needs to man up or move on

Welcome back. I spoke about Aaron Ramsey yesterday because his unsuitability to playing as a central midfielder in our style is the primary reason Arsenal have been functioning poorly as a team for the last few months in my opinion, but today I want to discuss a few of our other players.

I’ll start with Theo Walcott, because he has rightly been derided for going AWOL in our loss to Manchester United yesterday and similar to Ramsey, is a player who divides opinion. Capable of match-winning contributions occasionally, what we get more often than not from Theo is a player with poor control, minimal involvement in the team’s build-up play and an infuriating lack of will to impose himself on the action.

I’ve long thought it to be a mental issue with the player; he has the necessary ability to play for us at the highest level but if one player’s on-pitch personality reflects that of every Arsenal team, funnily enough, since Theo arrived back in January 2006, it’s him. Timid, overly nice with an ‘after you’ demeanour towards team-mates and opponents alike, and the opposite of tenacious, whatever the right word for that is – that’s Theo.

As fans, whether we’re watching from the stands or tuning in on TV, I think I speak for the majority when I say we can take being outplayed. We can take us having a bad day. But what’s unacceptable is players shying away from trying, for whatever reason.

I wouldn’t say it’s laziness at all on Theo’s part though, I think as Amy Lawrence suggests here, and in fairness, similar to what I’ve said in the past, it’s fear. In colloquial terms, if I’m being blunt, he’s a wuss, who lacks faith in his own ability.

He has the mentality of a child who thinks he’s playing against big, bad grown-ups and if I’m honest, it’s a little embarrassing, aside from being detrimental to Arsenal’s quest for success. Amy hits the nail on the head when she says it’s a fear of failure.

Walcott comes across as an articulate young man off the pitch and always says the right things but he’s on autopilot – spewing straight-batted, press office-fed, image-conscience words with little or no real meaning. It’s the way of the world but unlike most professional footballers, Theo plays like he speaks.

I’ve been Theo’s biggest fan since he arrived at the club and have defended him, insisting his qualities are under-estimated – and I still maintain they are. He’s still outstandingly quick, has brilliant movement off the shoulders of defenders, (usually) great finishing technique (despite the odd comical miscue), and a knack for scoring at vital times.

Years ago I confidently told a mate that Theo ‘will explode soon, just you watch’. I knew at the time he needed to mature in his outlook to the physical challenges of the game but not for a second did I think that would still be the case when he was 26.

If you compare Theo to Michael Owen, Owen was more fearless at 17, in what was a tougher, meaner Premier League in those days, than Walcott is now. Perhaps it’s all down to varying upbringings and club environments.

I mean, whereas Owen had the likes of the no-nonsense Paul Ince as a captain in a squad of battle-hardened, old-school British pros, Walcott’s not been toughened up in training, as Thierry Henry for instance, often fondly remembers he was by the likes of Tony Adams and Martin Keown when he joined Arsenal.

And perhaps more than the player then, that’s on the manager. Some players, like Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck, are naturally aggressive and have ‘fire in their bellies’, others need one started for them. In our 5-3 win at Stamford Bridge in 2011, for example, Theo scored a great goal moments after being fouled by Ashley Cole for about the 17th time in ten minutes.

It was obvious that for a few seconds after being upended, Theo got angry. What followed was him showing the kind of determination we need from him all the time. On that occasion, he was felled, sprung to his feet as if to say ‘fuck this, I’ll show you you fouling, money-grabbing, turncoat, and proceeded to score a great solo goal.

Maybe what we need is to make Theo more angry more often. Tell him he’s crap at football, someone’s keyed his new car, nicked his shin-pads – whatever makes him lose his sh*t. Perhaps we should sign Joey Barton and Lee Cattermole for the sole purpose of fouling him in training. Not to injure him mind, just to annoy him into anger. The bottom line to my mind though, is Walcott needs to man up, or in his and our best interests, move onto to a club where he’ll be forced to.

At the start I said I wanted to talk about a few players but Theo’s taken up all my time in the end so Gabriel and Alexis Sanchez will have to wait. But I will say this, I maintain Ramsey being unsuitable to cover for Santi Cazorla is by far the side’s biggest problem at the moment, not Theo’s lack of contribution, or defensive lapses in concentration or Alexis being out of form.

Theo may have gone missing at Old Trafford, but if you’re singling him out as the reason for our loss, you’re missing the point. The point’s Ramsey.

Until tomorrow.

14th February 2016: Subs Walcott and Welbeck shoot down Foxes

Arsenal’s substitutes stole the show at Emirates stadium earlier today, as Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck stepped off the bench to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win against 10-man league leaders Leicester City.

After Jamie Vardy had channeled his inner Wayne Rooney by cheating to win a penalty against the Gunners, before taking it himself and finding the net on the stroke of half-time, the visitors had Danny Simpson sent off early in the second half for two bookable offences and conceded an equaliser with 20 minutes to play.

Olivier Giroud, who was ferociously industrious all game, provided a second headed assist in as many weeks by cleverly nodding the ball into the path of Walcott inside the crowded Leicester penalty area. And Theo, who looked really determined and had proven a livewire on the right flank from the moment he entered the action on the hour mark, remained cool and composed as he met the awkwardly bouncing ball with a side-footed first-time finish.

It was the type of chance you often see players spurn by mis-timing the connection but Walcott utilised the same nerves of steel and text-book finishing technique he produced at Wembley last May when he gave us the lead in the FA Cup Final. After that, and as it had been from the 54th minute when Simpson saw red, it was one-way traffic as Leicester defended deep and in numbers whilst Arsenal racked their brains and ramped up the pressure in search of a winner.

By the time the fourth official held up his board to signal four minutes of added time at the end of the match, Welbeck had been sent on in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to make his first appearance since last April.

The stage was set for the former Manchester United man with seconds to go when Leicester gave away a freekick on our right. Mesut Ozil puffed out his cheeks, collected his thoughts, uttered a little prayer and proceeded to drift a divine ball into the box which Welbeck glanced into the corner to win the match and reduce the gap to the top of the table to just two points for the Gunners.

As Welbeck wheeled away to celebrate in and amongst the fans in the corner, almost all of his team-mates sprinted to join him as the stadium erupted in the kind of feverish manner only a last-gasp winner in a big match can evoke. It was fairytale stuff for Welbz after his near year-long battle with a knee problem as he marked his return in the best possible way.

In truth, the contest had been fairly even in the opening period so the fact Ozil was blatantly fouled in the build-up to Leicester’s penalty award compounded our sense of injustice when Vardy conned the referee by running into Nacho Monreal’s leg to ‘win’ his side a spot-kick, resulting in the visitors carrying a lead into the interval.

The game undeniably swung in our favour once they had a man dismissed but having been on the wrong end of awful refereeing in the first 45, it was about time we got the rub of the green from dubious officiating. Although both of Simpson’s cards were deserved by the letter of the law, it still felt a bit harsh on the Foxes. But f*ck ’em – obviously.

To be honest, I’m still too pumped up by our victory to be writing this coherently but I want to share a few thoughts on individual performances today. I’ll only highlight positive ones though (so no mention of Aaron Ramsey or Alexis Sanchez) and where better to start than Arsene Wenger, who threw on Theo and Danny to turn a match in a manner very reminiscent of when he would often introduce Sylvain Wiltord and Kanu from the bench way back when.

Petr Cech was flawless again, with one save and gather from a Vardy header in the first-half showcasing ridiculously swift reactions. Giroud was tireless up front and played very well, capping his performance with another assist. And Calum Chambers, a half-time sub for Laurent Koscielny after the Frenchman sustained a dead leg, barely put a foot wrong at the back.

Elsewhere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was threatening on the right before playing some nice passes after moving into the middle following Walcott’s introduction, and despite being successfully shackled by N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater for long periods of the game, Ozil kept going, grew into the match and grabbed another high-quality assist to help us win it at the death

Despite the euphoria of the game’s finale and the importance of the result against a direct rival, there were still some worrying aspects about our play in my opinion but there’s no way I’m dampening the joy of today’s win by discussing them now. That can wait until tomorrow at least because for the time being it’s time to enjoy the Arsenal love-in on this fine, fine Valentine’s Day.

Back tomorrow.

6th February 2016: Premier League Preview – Arsenal to face familiar A-foe-be

Good evening. Arsenal face south-coast opposition for the second time inside a week when we travel to Bournemouth tomorrow afternoon, looking to secure our first Premier League win in five fixtures.

With Leicester City’s dream season continuing unabated as they beat Manchester City 3-1 at Etihad stadium earlier today to remain clear at the top of the table, we’re now eight points behind the Foxes, so the pressure on us to get back to winning ways in the Premier League has obviously been amplified.

But beat Bournemouth tomorrow and we have an opportunity to close that gap to just two points as early as next weekend, when we host Claudio Ranieri’s league leaders on Valentine’s Day and attempt to take some of the romance out of their surreal success story so far this season, along with the three points.

Standing in our way first though are the Cherries, who themselves have exceeded most people’s pre-season expectations and currently sit relatively comfortably in 15th place in the standings, five points above the relegation zone and with a game in hand over the teams below them.

One of their most in-form players at the moment is striker Benik Afobe, who of course came through the Arsenal youth ranks having joined our academy at just six years of age, before we eventually let him leave for Wolverhampton Wanderers in a reported £2 million transfer in January last year.

I remember Arsene Wenger describing Afobe as a ‘deadly finisher’, or something along those lines when he was still an Arsenal player, and after struggling for goals in several loan spells earlier in his career, he managed 19 from 30 appearances in a temporary spell at then League One side MK Dons in the first half of last season, leading to his switch to Wolves, where he continued his prolific form a division higher scoring 23 times in 48 appearances.

So it was unsurprising to see him back at a Premier League club so soon and he’s already managed three goals from his first four top-flight games for his new side since arriving last month, to suggest he’s more than capable of finding the net consistently at the highest level of the English game.

Some have recently criticized Arsene, saying he boobed big-time in letting Afobe leave without giving him a chance in the Arsenal first-team but I think that’s harsh and probably stems from being a little under-informed, given Afobe’s progress at the club was severely hampered by injury.

Also, as has been shown countless times in the past, timing, in terms of competition for places, often plays a big role in whether a young player gets a prolonged first-team chance at Arsenal or has to leave in search of regular football elsewhere. That’s something Arsene touched on when discussing his former player at yesterday’s press conference, when he said:

He (Afobe) was very young, he had big competition in front of him with Robin van Persie, and players like that, so I gave him authorisation to go somewhere and play, which he did. You educate people to influence their lives and give them success, that is what we do. When they do not manage to play for us, if they do it somewhere else we are of course very happy for them. Benik has done extremely well, even beyond the expectations of many people and that’s great, that’s down to him and congratulations to him. I think the best way to stop (him) being dangerous is for us to have the ball and dominate the game and being aware that Benik is quick, strong and has good movement in the box. We are used to facing these kind of strikers in the Premier League because in every single club there are top-quality strikers. That’s the same with Bournemouth.

I must admit I haven’t seen Afobe play much other than the odd highlight clip so can’t really comment on his best attributes with too much authority, but his goalscoring record speaks for itself and we’ll obviously need to keep him on a tight leash given his form. Especially when you throw the ‘ex factor’ into the equation, which will no doubt spur him on to try that little bit harder against the club that let him leave.

As far as our line-up  is concerned, I do wonder if Arsene might make a change or two seeing as we’ve failed to score in our last three league games. It may be a match to give Theo Walcott a return to the striker’s role for instance, with Olivier Giroud dropping to the bench. I mean, Theo’s clearly been out of form playing on the flanks in recent weeks but then Giroud’s hardly been banging them in for fun. A rest for the big Frenchman, and at the same time, a show of faith with a return to his favoured position for Walcott, could prove beneficial for both players in the long-run.

At the back I think we’ll see Per Mertesacker return at the expense of Gabriel to partner Laurent Koscielny after the German missed the FA Cup clash with Burnley through suspension and watched the Southampton game from the bench. Francis Coquelin starting alongside Aaron Ramsey in central midfield in place of Mathieu Flamini, is another very likely change in my opinion providing the former is now deemed completely match-fit.

The rest of the line-up should be largely unchanged from the Southampton game though, with Petr Cech in goal, our two Spanish fullbacks, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez all starting. But a bit like up front, I’ve a feeling Arsene might want to freshen up the right hand side of the attack, where we could see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain come in for Joel Campbell for instance.

I wrote earlier this week that I don’t really like Ramsey in central midfield because of his unreliable distribution but given he’s hardly ever played in a two with Coquelin, the boss may want to give that combination a chance to prove it can work before trying something else, such as bringing in Mohamed Elneny or even handing Alex Iwobi a Premier League starting berth as a central midfielder.

By my recollection, Coquelin and Ramsey have only ever played as a partnership for 45 minutes this season – the first half of our opening-day defeat by West Ham – so even if many, myself included, aren’t convinced it can be effective, hopefully the doubters can be shown up as not knowing nearly as much as we think we do, and that duo will gel to form the midfield platform on which we go on to win things this season.

How I’d love to be proven wrong as Coquelin stealthily covers Ramsey’s goal-getting forward raids, Mesut picks up the Cazorla-less circulation slack and we function fluently as a team all the way to the Treble …

Whichever line-up Arsene opts for however, the objective is very simple: we need to win because a manageable gap could very quickly morph into an insurmountable one if we’re not careful.

Back post-match.


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.

31st January 2016: Arsenal handed home FA Cup tie against Hull

Sunday salutations. The draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup was made a little earlier and we’ve been handed another home tie, after being paired with Hull City for the third year running.

After beating them in the final in 2014, we faced them in last year’s third round and emerged 2-0 victors at Emirates stadium thanks to goals by Per Mertesacker and Alexis Sanchez, so perhaps Steve Bruce’s men can prove our lucky charm as we aim to make it a hat-trick of consecutive Cup wins.

Two of our young stars, Chuba Akpom and Isaac Hayden, are of course on-loan from Arsenal at the Tigers, so it will be interesting to see if we grant Hull permission to play them against us. Personally, I’d say hell no, because you know, I want them to have fewer personnel options against us and rule out a Lomana LuaLua scenario, where a player scores against his parent club. But that’s just me – Arsene Wenger may well feel very differently. We’ll see.

Speaking of the boss, he’s been praising Alex Iwobi, after the teenager put in another very impressive display as a central midfielder against Burnley yesterday. Arsene said:

I think he has shown everybody that he is a good player again. I personally find him very interesting because of his decision making, his awareness is very interesting. He is a boy who, two years ago, not many would have said he [will make it]. You see he develops very well because he’s very clever. I like his game, I like the timing of his decision making and the quality of his decision making. He always turns where you want him to turn and he plays the ball where you want him to play the ball. He’s very interesting. He can play on the left, he can play on the right, he can play behind the striker and he can even play as a No 9, because he scores goals in training.

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been as impressed with Iwobi as the boss and every other Arsenal fan. Where I think he has an edge on the likes of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, especially the former, is that he’s more reliable in keeping possession and making the right pass at the right time, as the boss highlights above. He’s similar to Joel Campbell in that sense and also works as hard as the Costa Rican going both ways.

I think it was telling then, that the Ox was positioned on the right and Iwobi preferred in the middle against Burnley, because despite being a fan myself of the former Southampton man playing centrally in the past, the truth is he gives the ball away far too frequently when he has played there. So if Chamberlain would prefer to carve out an Arsenal career in the middle, that’s something he’ll have to improve significantly in my opinion, as will Aaron Ramsey if I’m honest.

As for Walcott, I think it’s pretty clear that he can be lethal up front, but looks pretty useless out wide more often than not. All of which is to say that if Iwobi can continue playing well when given an opportunity centrally, with Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere out injured, he has a great opportunity between now and the end of the season to prove himself as a genuine starting candidate in the middle moving forward.

Right, that was a very brief one today but it’s Sunday, the Milan derby kicks off soon and it won’t watch itself.

See you on Transfer Deadline Day.

20th January 2016: A decade of Walcott but is his best yet to come?

Welcome back. Remarkably, today marks the ten-year anniversary of Theo Walcott’s arrival from Southampton as a fresh-faced 16-year-old who’d already been tagged as ‘the new Thierry Henry’.

I remember that January very well, because we also signed Emmanuel Adebayor and Abou Diaby, who were similarly being heralded as the ‘the new Kanu’ and ‘the new Vieira’ respectively. But it was Theo’s signing that excited me most. Not because he was the highest-rated young English star since Wayne Rooney a few years earlier, but because unlike for Diaby and Adebayor, there were a few clips of him in action for Southampton’s youth and first-teams available to view on what was then still a fledgling YouTube. 

And I liked what I saw; extraordinary pace, flamboyant goals and believe it or not now, a fearlessness about his game. He was a 16-year-old playing in a physically-demanding Championship and making an impact – I just assumed he’d carry that straight into Arsenal’s first-team. Especially when, shortly after he signed for us, I traveled to Havant and Waterlooville’s ground to see him make his debut in Arsenal colours for our reserve team against Portsmouth’s and he managed to score a very well-taken goal.

But Theo didn’t feature at all for our first-team for the remained of the 2005-2006 campaign and was made to wait until the opening game of the following season – the very first Premier League fixture at our newly-opened Emirates stadium – versus Aston Villa. If I remember correctly, we scored a last minute equaliser through Gilberto Silva and it was Theo with the cross that led to the goal.

A decade on though and the jury is still very much out on Theo as a player. Some, like me, rate him highly, others don’t at all and the rest are still unsure whether he’s sh*t, average, good or great. Injuries have clearly hampered his development throughout his time at Arsenal  – and he’s had some serious ones to recover from too – but I think even his staunchest supporters would concede he hasn’t quite lived up to the early hype.

Anyway, Arsene Wenger has been speaking to Arsenal Player about his number 14, discussing his development as a player and reveling what stood out about Theo as a player when he first saw him play for Southampton’s youth team. He said:

Theo is very intelligent. He always had pace and his movement off the ball was always perfect. I think he is much more conscious of teamwork and he has improved as well in his finishing. He is absolutely deadly compared to 10 years ago. He needed many chances to score a goal and today he can finish very well. His final ball and his technique are much better. Ten years here, that shows as well that he loves Arsenal and I’m convinced he will give us much more in the next five years than the last five because he is a player who is always moving forward and trying to do better. He has a very positive attitude. [I first saw him play] in the FA Youth Cup with Southampton. I saw him in the final, he played on the left side where he plays now and I liked his movement off the ball. A player like him is very difficult to find and Theo’s movement off the ball and intelligence is really his brand and [are part of his] characteristics.

While team-mate Per Mertesacker lauded Walcott’s loyalty in staying at Arsenal so long and says Theo’s love for the club has kept him in north London. He said:

Ten years, it’s an unbelievable achievement to play on a consistent level for such a long time in the same club. That is rare in modern football and we are happy to have him. I think what kept him here was the spirit of the group and his love for the club, and that is something I look up to. He is a role model to a lot of young people, and he plays a major role now and that’s what he likes to play for us, being much more experienced than when he came. He looks different as well… it is amazing to see such a player play for us.

Black-slapping aside, it’s fair to say Theo faces a real battle to hold onto his first-choice status once the likes of Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez , Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere start filtering back to full fitness, and at nearly 27 now, that surely has to be a concern for him.

Then there’s the fact that should a world-class attacker become available on the market either now, next summer, or whenever, Arsenal are now in a position were they’re willing and able to spend big to improve the team. So Walcott has a challenge and a half on his hands to prove that a) he deserves to start ahead of current team-mates and b) that he’s so good, we wouldn’t be upgrading by buying say, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

Arsene said recently that he thinks’ Theo’s best years will be from now until he’s 31/32 – let’s hope the boss is right and ‘the new Theirry Henry’ shows he was worthy of such a comparison when it was made all those years ago. Over to you Theo …

Back on Thursday.

18th January 2016: The Cech Effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until Tuesday.

17th January 2016: Stalemate at Stoke sends us top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week.