3rd April 2016: Iwobi impressive again as Arsenal beat Watford

First off, apologies for the four-day break in posts on TremendArse. My adjustment to new working commitments is taking a little longer than I envisaged but hopefully normal service should be resumed from today.

With it being the final stretch of the international break, we didn’t miss much anyway before Arsenal returned to action by hosting Watford yesterday afternoon, when an unchanged side picked up where they’d left off in the league against Everton a fortnight ago by securing three points and keeping a clean sheet.

Alex Iwobi made his second-ever Premier League start and just like he did in his debut at Goodison Park, marked the occasion with a very well-taken goal to cap another impressive personal performance. Indeed, this time the Nigerian international also created a goal – our first after just four minutes for Alexis Sanchez.

Iwobi’s perfectly flighted cross from the left was headed goal-wards by the Chilean, who then tapped home with his left foot after Heurelho Gomes had saved his initial effort. It was a deserved opener for the Gunners after a bright start and having dominated the first half, we doubled our lead seven minutes before the interval. This time roles were reversed as Sanchez’s right-wing cross was expertly converted by Iwobi as he swept it home first time before wheeling away and reproducing that gun-firing celebration he introduced against the Toffees.

The game was all but over as a contest just three minutes into the second period when Hector Bellerin’s left-footed strike was deflected past Gomes after our Cockney Catalan had linked well with Sanchez on the right. Then at the death, Joel Campbell crossed for fellow substitute Theo Walcott to tap home at the near post and complete the scoring.

So overall it was a pretty comfortable day at the office for Arsene Wenger’s men, built on a very effective midfield base of Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny and with a forward quartet in Iwobi, Sanchez, Mesut Ozil and Danny Welbeck, who seem to have the perfect blend of attacking attributes between them, combining well and functioning far more fluently than most other combinations we’ve tried this season.

Tottenham’s two dropped points at Anfield yesterday added to the feel-good factor but Leicester’s fourth consecutive one-nil win today leaves them needing four wins from their final seven games to be crowned champions, so it’s very hard not to feel it’s all too little too late as far as our own recent wins go.

Yet Iwobi, for one, is still contemplating winning the title. He said:

It’s crazy, a mad feeling. When you’re young, you dream of this and this is like a dream come true, winning with this team. Winning the title would be amazing but we’re taking each game as it comes, game by game, and we will see where we end up come the end of the season.

Meanwhile, Arsene explained why the win pleased him and praised the impact of Iwobi, saying:

I am very happy because it was a good performance. We scored goals and didn’t concede, and kept the game having a good flow even at 3-0 up. I am pleased with Alex Iwobi’s talent but even more with his attitude and his willingness to learn and to contribute with his teamwork.

Last year it was Coquelin, earlier this season we had Campbell, and now as we near the end of the campaign Iwobi has emerged from nowhere to make himself first-choice and it’s fully deserved. If he can keep playing like he has these last few games, there’s no reason why he can’t stay in the side long-term like Coquelin, rather than drop away a little like Campbell.

He’s got the ability to go it alone as well as play the intricate pass and move football we like so much and it’s possessing that combination of skill-sets that gives him an edge over more established team-mates for a regular starting berth in my opinion.

See you next week.

Probably.

14th March 2016: Backing Benitez + Looking to Barcelona

Welcome to a brand new week on TremendArse. I suppose the first thing to say with an hour or so until kickoff between Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United and league leaders Leicester City is: COME ON YOU GEORDIES!

Before Rafa’s appointment, most football followers would quite understandably have given the Magpies next to no chance of getting anything from tonight’s game at the King Power stadium – and they might still feel the same way now.

But Newcastle’s new boss is undoubtedly a brilliant tactician, whatever your overall views on him as a manager are, so personally I’m clinging to the hope he can hit the ground running, benefit from the fabled ‘new manager bounce’, and do Arsenal a huge favour by at least taking a point off the Foxes.

Throw in the fact that Newcastle, and their Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum in particular, have played well in front of live cameras so far this season, the case for the Magpies getting something from the game is strengthened. Orrrrrrrrrrrr, maybe I’m clutching at straws because THAT’S WHAT ARSENAL’S FORM HAS DONE TO ME …

Speaking of the mis-firing Gunners, thoughts now begin to turn away from yesterday FA Cup defeat and towards Wednesday’s Champions League defeat game. We play Barcelona, in Barcelona, trying to overturn a two-nil first-leg defeat, missing key players in Petr Cech and Santi Cazorla, and looking to pull off what would be the biggest surprise result in recent footballing history. By recent, mean entire. Because the Catalans are pretty much footballing perfection personified, whilst on current form, we’re a bit, well, sh*t.

Thank God then, that Per Mertesacker has the answer for how we beat Barcelona! Also discussing our loss to Watford, he said:

You have to give us credit because we kept going against Watford and created chance after chance. But at the moment we lack that killer instinct. We need to work on that if we want to be successful in the Premier League and the Champions League. We were not relaxed against Watford. Even in the box we played and always found good positions, with the man in the right position but we lacked that relaxation even to hit the target. We did not do that sometimes. We missed it too often. We cannot afford to concede against Barcelona. We have to go there and try to attack, no matter what, that is the only possibility we have. We can be fortunate to have such big game in front of us. They are the ultimate team at the minute, so we are straight away under pressure and we have to go away from home. I think the confidence is there, we are just missing something. The season is not over. We play in a confident way, we maybe lack that bit at the end. The desire to play together and to be good as a team is there, you can feel that.

Although Per’s completely right about us needing to up our game in terms of scoring goals, some would point out that if he’d defended the throw-in that led to Watford’s opener a little better (or at all), we might still be in the Cup.

Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger also spoke about our upcoming Champions League clash and highlighted the tough schedule we’re in the middle of, with Everton away to come on Saturday, so soon after our midweek game in Spain. The boss told Arsenal Player:

We want to now focus on the Champions League and then we go to Everton and that schedule is very tight. It is very difficult playing on Sunday afternoon, Wednesday night and then Saturday morning. It is important that we respond very quickly. We play a big game and players want to play in the big games. When you have a big game in front of you, you want to prepare well and show how good you are. I think that is natural.

He’s quite right of course, we have a daunting few days coming up, away in two grounds we’ve struggled at in recent times, but it’s Arsene’s job to manage his squad and get us winning again and he’ll be judged on how well he does it.

Even the most optimistic of Arsenal fans out there will no doubt be fearing the worst on Wednesday but we quite simply have to win at Goodison Park, if not for the sake of an increasingly unlikely title challenge, then at least to arrest our dismal form and avoid a three defeats in a row.

Back tomorrow.

13th March 2016: Arsenal crash out of FA Cup to impressive Watford

Welcome back. So Arsenal’s hopes of winning a third successive FA Cup went up in flames earlier today when they lost 2-1 at home to a Watford side I thought were deserved winners and simply out-played us on the day.

The Hornets were organised, compact, pressed us ferociously in packs and in the right areas, and carried a constant threat on the counter-attack, mainly through the impressive partnership of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo up front. But bar the last few minutes of the game, we were poor, looking impotent in attack and an accident waiting to happen at the back.

Arsene Wenger went with a very strong starting line-up (which suggests he’s as resigned to Champions League elimination as the rest of us, despite what he says in public) with both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil selected, but even with our two big guns on the pitch, we still lacked firepower.

The former’s struggles for form continued, whilst the latter was probably our best player on the day. Yet both were involved in creating our goal. Sanchez found substitute Danny Welbeck and he played a brilliant one-two with Ozil before firmly side-footing the ball into the far side-netting to give us a glimmer of hope in the 88th minute.

By that point were were two-nil down having conceded twice in 13 second-half minutes. First, Deeney glanced a throw-in to Ighalo who span Gabriel and fired past David Ospina from close range, before Deeney again played provider, brilliantly holding up the ball and laying it off for the on-rushing Adlene Guedioura to send a first-time thunderbolt past a helpless Ospina and into the roof of the net at the near post.

We can’t say we hadn’t been warned of Watford’s attacking abilities because there had been a few dangerous attacks by the visitors earlier in the game that narrowly failed due to mis-timed final passes.

Arsene left it five minutes before sending on three subs at the same time, introducing Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Iwobi for Olivier Giroud, Joel Campbell and Mohamed Elneny. Despite Walcott again contributing as much to proceedings as Jimmy Carr does to HMRC, Iwobi and Welbeck’s introduction almost instantly made us seem more likely to get a goal I felt.

In the end we managed one, Welbeck missed a sitter moments after scoring, Iwobi hit a post in the build-up to that miss, and we exited the Cup for the first time in three seasons. I would sum up our display today as reactive, when it needed to be proactive, and although I thought it was far from our worst performance in recent times (we did manage to produce a few slick moves over the course of the 90 minutes), some of our play was infuriatingly average.

Chambers’ crossing was sh*t, and both full-backs’ understanding with their team-mates ahead of them was non-existent. Sanchez tried hard as usual but was brilliantly shackled by Watford’s right-back I thought, eventually having to concede defeat in that duel and switch over to the right. Up top Giroud was easily contained and just looked so off the wavelength of team-mates it makes you feel he should be no more than a plan b or c, last resort, get-it-in-the-mixer option for a club with supposed aspirations of success like Arsenal.

At the back, Gabriel seems to have taken a lot of stick for his defending and although he was lucky to escape a red card for a two-footed tackle on Deeney in the first half, and then failed to stop Ighalo from scoring despite being tight to the striker, I actually thought Mertesacker was worse. His lack of aggression is astounding for a centre-half playing in English football and even if I can appreciate his coolness can be an asset at times, more often it’s a liability. Too often he appears to be hoping opponents will miss in the midst of action, rather than making sure they do miss by, er, defending. It’s weird. He’s a reluctant defender – yet he’s a defender.

To make matters worse, Sp*rs beat Aston Villa today to move six points and a mammoth 13 goals ahead of us in the Premier League standings – it’s been another baaaaaaaaaaaaad day to be a Gooner. Unfortunately, with Barcelona to face on Wednesday, things will probably get worse before they can get better.

I can see why Arsene wants to give it a go against the Catalans and select a strong team, because we have to basically, whatever the odds of us progressing, yet with Everton away so soon afterwards, ruining our hopes in all three competitions in the space of a week seems very, very likely right now.

See you next week.

12th March 2016: Watford stand in our way to Wembley

Saturday salutations. Two goals from Romelu Lukaku helped Everton to knock his former club Chelsea out of the FA Cup earlier today and in my opinion, also provide a boost to Arsenal’s chances of winning the competition for the third year running.

The Toffees are obviously a good side on their day and boast players, in Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones in particular, who are coveted by some of the biggest clubs around, but given our wretched record against Chelsea over the last decade or so, I’d rather face Roberto Martinez’s men given the choice.

So providing we beat Watford in our own last-eight tie tomorrow, the only teams that could deny us a rare Cup hat-trick are Everton, Crystal Palace and one of Manchester United or West Ham, who contest the last quarter-final at Old Trafford tomorrow. Frankly, we should be strong favourites now, even if United turned us over just a few weeks ago.

Of course, so late in the competition all the remaining teams will fancy their chances and that’s something Arsene Wenger touched on at his press conference yesterday, as well as rejecting the idea that clubs no longer hold the FA Cup in much esteem. He said:

We have always taken the FA Cup seriously and if you look at the record we have over the years, we try to do well. Everyone does. This story of the FA Cup not being taken seriously is not right – everyone wants to do well. In the [Premier League] we have not done as well because maybe some teams have done better than us in recent years. Is it fair or not [to say we are favourites for the FA Cup]? I don’t know. I look at the teams who are still in the competition and you could say the same to three or four as well. We have a chance like everyone else and we want to play as hard as we can to give ourselves a good chance to be successful. I haven’t given up on the Premier League at all and I’ve said that many times, nor the Champions League. We have to take care of the next minute and the next minute is an FA Cup game. Is it the best chance to win a trophy? It’s still far away. We must win the next game and prove that we can show consistency again. I don’t believe anyone in my side thinks about Barcelona at the moment, or Everton, they are completely focused on Watford.

So with mission ‘we need the mother of all miracles’ at Barcelona on Wednesday and a tricky trip to face the Toffees in the league next Saturday lunchtime definitely not on our minds or influencing selection for Watford at all, how are we likely to line-up tomorrow?

All three first-choice centre-halves appear to be available judging by today’s training pics but my guess would be that we’ll go again with Gabriel and Per Mertesacer from the start and keep Laurent Koscielny fresh for Lionel Messi and his show-boating amigos in midweek.

Similarly, I think Calum Chambers and Kieran Gibbs will play full-back with Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal rested for Camp Nou. That said, the Catalans have a huge pitch and Gibbs may be better equipped to cover what will no doubt be counter-attacking ground than Monreal, so we’ll see.

Further forward I think it gets a little more difficult. So far this season in the FA Cup, we’ve rested Mesut Ozil and gone with Alex Iwobi, but with all due respect to Hull, Burnley and even Sunderland, I think Watford will be our hardest test, and given our very slim hopes against Barca, perhaps we’ll see the German involved from the start this time.

Personally, I think I’d retain Iwobi, rest Ozil and go with the same team that started against Hull on Tuesday:

Ospina; Chambers, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Gibbs; Flamini, Elneny; Campbell, Iwobi, Walcott; Giroud. 

That would mean Bellerin, Koscielny, Monreal, Coquelin, Ozil, Sanchez and Welbeck – seven first-choice starters – would all be fresh for two very demanding away days to come, whilst still leaving us with what I think would be a good enough team to beat Watford at home.

More likely though in my opinion, is that we’ll see a side stronger than we played so far in the FA Cup this season, but still some way from full, available strength, which might mean a start for Ozil or Sanchez for instance. It’s certainly a tricky balancing act for the boss and we’ll only know how well he’s performed it this time next week.

Back post-match tomorrow.

COYG!

11th March 2016: Wenger on Elneny, Giroud and Watford forwards

Welcome back. Arsene Wenger’s pre-Watford press conference was streamed live on the official site this morning (a nice surprise and I hope this real-time relaying becomes the norm rather than remaining just for FA Cup games) and in it, the boss revealed Aaron Ramsey would be out for around four weeks with the thigh injury he picked up at Hull.

Given Arsene had labelled it a ‘small alert’ only yesterday, the Welshman’s prognosis is longer than anticipated, but with Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla penciled in for returns at the start of April, we should be far better stocked for options in the middle of the park pretty soon, so that’s some consolation I suppose.

For now though, Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny are the most likely partnership to be picked at the base of our midfield and when asked if the latter was ready to play regularly, and if he’d consider a change of formation to cope with our injury list, the boss said:

He looks like he is ready to play. I consider every formula that is possible to give us a balance. At the moment I think Elneny in central midfield can cope. We have Flamini, we have Coquelin who can cope as well. They have shown [that] already. The formula can change as well if needed but that depends on the games. Every game will be different now. In our job, you want to perform in the next game and the next game is an important one because we have fought hard to get there and that is our purpose. After that we deal with the next one. If you have a good run, you sometimes absorb them without any problems. If you have a bad result, of course there is no time to digest sometimes and to get the belief back in the squad. We want to do that and what is very important is to be in there and have a chance to show how good you are.

Arsene was also asked to assess the qualities of Sunday’s opponents Watford and highlighted the Hornets’ striker partnership as being particularly impressive, saying:

They have two strikers who are very efficient in Ighalo and Deeney and we worked very hard to control the game [last time we played them]. They have a very good understanding between their strikers and the quality between our two centre backs will be vital on Sunday. Watford have done extremely well. It looks like the Championship teams that come up now deal very well with the Premier League regime. The difficulty [for us] is that Watford have a team who are very solid defensively. They are also a team who are athletically very strong and the basis of their game is on efficiency and waiting for the right moment to be very dangerous.

Finally for today, the boss also had some words for his own strikers and revealed he expects Olivier Giroud to deliver more goals in the coming games having broken a 12-match drought by bagging a brace in our win at Hull earlier this week. He said:

Look, it is a weight on the shoulders when the players don’t score. So the fact that they score will of course take that weight off. Overall, I am pleased that [Giroud and Walcott] scored. But it is a bit cyclic always, especially for Giroud. Giroud has cycles so it was a weight off his shoulders. You know this season for example, he has had games where he has gone boom, boom, boom, boom, boom and after he had a little spell where he didn’t score. Now I hope he has a repetition of his former spell and starts to score again. Between what he says and what is real, even I don’t really know what is going in there. You know that if you don’t score and you are a striker, somewhere you are not happy.

Right. A bit brief this evening but that’s your lot. See you on Saturday for a Watford preview.

Laters.

18th October 2015: Cazorla, Cech and Bellerin react to Watford win

Welcome back. It’s Bayern Munich on Tuesday night of course but we’ve got tomorrow to talk about the clash with the German champions so for today, I’m choosing to look back on what was our fourth win from five away Premier League games so far this season at Watford yesterday.

A few of the players have been speaking about the hard-fought, but ultimately convincing, victory at Vicarage Road. First up is Santi Cazorla, who ran the show with typically awe-inspiring close control, speed of thought and precision passing from the middle of the park. The diminutive Spaniard said:

It was a difficult game and a very good win for us. We are second in the league and we need to keep the play at the same level. They played the long ball and they have very good and strong players in front of them, but we came together and it is very important for us to beat these teams and we are very proud of the team.

Santi also described how the game against Watford varied from the 3-0 win over Manchester United before the international break, the importance of scoring first and Arsenal’s title challenge:

It is a very different game. We played against Manchester United last time and it is a different game. They have very good players but today it was physical and with the team it is the most important thing to play well. We need to keep this level for the future. We need to improve the game. It is important to make the first goal but we need more goals and this is the most important thing for the team. We have very good players like Alexis and Mesut which is good. We will try to win the league. Game by game it is important for us. We have a vital game against Bayern Munich and after that we have a big game against Everton.

What a player Santi is. The twists and turns, those ambidextrous, dancing feet, his scuttling slaloms, and far more physically imposing opponents bouncing off him with regularity, simply have to be seen to be believed.

I’m not sure the former Malaga man gets the recognition he deserves and his partnership with Francis Coquelin is a little like Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini’s in the 2007-2008 season, only way, way better. Both individually and collectively, our current pair are a cut above.

Meanwhile, Petr Cech also discussed the win and pointed out Arsenal must perform at their best regardless of the perceived calibre of opposition, saying:

It is always difficult going away for the internationals and you come back home and everyone comes back at different times. You have only one day to prepare and you play away from home against a good team that was very solid at home in their previous games. We knew it was going to be a difficult game. We needed to be patient to score the first goal. We had a really big game against Manchester United last week before the internationals, so when you win those games [you have to] win another game. We treat everybody with the same respect so the three points are vital for us.

As the season wears on, Cech’s experience and quality is coming more and more to the fore, highlighting the benefits of having a truly top-class ‘keeper between the sticks. Countless times already this season, he’s held onto the ball and helped to take the sting out of periods of opposition pressure, when his predecessors in the Arsenal goal would have distributed too rashly.

A small example of why Cech’s a player who knows all about game management and as he screamed to our BFG, Per Mertesacker, his BFF, at the end of our Community Shield win over Chelsea, it’s all about the ‘small details’.

Finally for today, some words from our Cockney Catalan, Hector Bellerin, who was returning to the ground he called home in a brief loan spell a couple of seasons ago.

The 20-year-old was again a relentless runner, defending with maturity and attacking with the kind of conviction we haven’t seen from any of our right-backs since the Invincible Lauren. He capped his performance with a brilliantly composed assist for Aaron Ramsey’s goal and gave his take on the game when he spoke to Arsenal Player after the game:

It is important when the ball does not go in that you carry on playing your game. I think that Watford were very, very physical for the whole game and they were running out towards the end and we took profit from that. I was a right winger before so it is always nice when I have the space up front to go forward and hopefully I can help the team like that. We scored three late goals and it does not matter as long as you score them. They have very strong players up front and they are a handful especially players like Troy [Deeney] and I think we dealt with them and when we could play with the ball we did that. It is important we got a win here as it is a very difficult venue.

Time will tell obviously, but I think Bellerin may well be proved right in calling Vicarage Road a ‘difficult venue’ come the end of the campaign. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the other big sides struggle on a big, demanding surface against what are organised, direct hosts, making the manner of our victory yesterday, all the more impressive.

See you next week.

17th October 2015: Arsenal wear down Watford to secure 3-0 win

As much as Arsenal’s pass-and-move penchant allows us to dominate possession and create a catalogue of goalscoring opportunities in most matches, it also, if we’re at the top of our game, causes our opponents to run themselves to a standstill as they chase after Santi Cazorla-shaped shadows all over the pitch.

That was certainly the case this afternoon as three goals in 12 minutes after an hour of valiant, but ultimately futile, effort by hosts Watford, secured us three more points, saw us reclaim second spot in the table having been dislodged for a few hours following Manchester United’s win at Everton, and ensured we picked up where we left off before the international break, just as we’d all hoped we would before kick-off.

The one change to our starting line-up from our win over United a fortnight ago was the return of Laurent Koscielny in place of Gabriel who missed out on the match-day squad entirely. There were conflicting reports about the Brazilian’s absence with illness and a ‘small operation’ both cited as explanations but thankfully, Arsene Wenger expects the defender to be fit for Tuesday’s game against Bayern Munich whatever the issue really was.

The large Vicarage Road pitch seemed smooth but could certainly have done with some sprinkler action because although the ball ran pretty smoothly, it was a little slow and looked far more physically draining than most others in the league. The fact the ball would hold up when hit long also facilitated the hosts’ deliberate game-plan of defending in numbers and then going route one at every opportunity.

That tactic tested our defence on a number of occasions in the first half and Koscielny vitally cut out a Troy Deeney cross from the left at one point, with Odion Ighalo lurking in the middle unmarked. Ighalo then raced clear on the right but carefully placed a glorious opportunity as wide as Frank Lampard’s waist.

At the other end, Theo Walcott glanced a header wide from a pin-point, right-wing cross by Aaron Ramsey, Alexis Sanchez tested their ‘keeper with what’s becoming a trademark 25-yard screamer and Ramsey himself replicated his miss for 4-0 against United by guiding the ball over the bar from close range following a Sanchez cross from the left.

I’ll be honest, at half-time I thought there was no way Watford could keep up their level of effort for long in the second period and not just because Deeney was blowing out of his arse after about 25 minutes. The pitch and our passing meant I was confident they would ease off, leaving us more space and then it would just be a case of can we take our chances when they inevitably arrive?

The answer, with Sanchez in such sizzling goalscoring form, was provided after 62 minutes. Tottenham reject Etienne Capoue tried to buy a penalty by falling over thin air and Francis Coquelin wasted no time in berating his fellow Frenchman in both English and then, when he realised who the diver was, in their common mother tongue. A bilingual bollocking.

Meanwhile, the referee waved away appeals, Arsenal countered, Mesut Ozil played a one-two with Cazorla taking the German one-on-one with their ‘keeper who duly brought him down. A clear penalty then, had Sanchez not instantly and nonchalantly stroked the loose ball off the near post and into the net to give us the lead.

That made it seven goals in four club games for the Chilean and heralded a bit of an onslaught for the hosts as substitute Olivier Giroud guided an Ozil cut-back from the right into the roof of the net and Ramsey found the net via a deflection, following what can only be described as a barnstorming run by Hector Bellerin on the right. Bang, bang, bang. Game over.

After the game, Wenger described our attacking as relentless from the moment we took the lead and he wasn’t wrong. He said:

I like that we continued to attack relentlessly until the end and to finish with it was a convincing win. We scored five at Leicester, we scored three against Watford today, who had only conceded one [at home], so that tells you we can score goals and we can be dangerous against anybody. We faced a team that was very well organised, very strong in their challenges and very direct as well. It took us a while to adjust to that level of commitment and when we did it in the second half we dominated the game and after the first goal you could see that mentally and physically they got the blow. Sometimes the first goal changes the game. When they had to come out it was much easier for us. We know once we are in full power, we are quick in transition and we can kill teams off with our pace and that is what happened.

So another three goals, another clean sheet and another three points keep us just two points behind Manchester City in the title race. Now to recover and go again when we entertain the mighty Munich in a few days’ time.

Back Sunday.