21st April 2016: Sanchez brace beats Baggies

Welcome back. Two first-half strikes by Alexis Sanchez were enough to see off West Brom at Emirates stadium earlier this evening as Arsenal got back to winning ways following two consecutive draws.

The win sees us leapfrog Manchester City into third place in the table with what was our 500th Premier League win – a milestone only bettered by Manchester United who have 584. And while were talking statistics, here’s a couple more: We’ve scored in all 20 of our Premier League games against West Brom – the best 100% record in the division.

More revealing though, is the fact Arsenal scored as many goals from outside the box tonight, as we have in our 33 previous Premier League games this season (two), which obviously adds weight to the argument that we don’t try our luck from distance nearly enough and have a tendency to overplay at times.

On the other hand, I’m sure I read somewhere that there’s a very good reason for this – a high percentage of shots from range are unsuccessful. Yet I can’t help but feel that in games when we’re facing a massed defence, we really ought to get shots in whenever possible rather than switching the play constantly and over-probing.

But back to the game tonight and Arsene Wenger made three changes to his starting line-up from last weekend’s disappointing draw with Crystal Palace; Per Mertesacker replaced Gabriel in defence, Aaron Ramsey came in for Francis Coquelin in midfield and Olivier Giroud replaced Danny Welbeck up front.

I have to admit I was kind of distracted in the second half so thankfully all the meaningful action arrived in the opening period. With just 6 minutes played we took the lead when Sanchez turned his marker brilliantly and let fly low into the corner from about 25 yards. We were passing the ball with zip and purpose and although I felt Mesut Ozil was a bit sluggish in his play by his standards, he still managed to dummy the entire stadium on a couple of occasions with typically visionary passes.

We doubled our lead on 38 minutes, when Sanchez guided his free-kick through the West Brom wall, wrong-footing their keeper in the process and reminding everyone that even if we’ve fallen short in the title race again this season, we still have some top quality talent in our ranks.

As I said, I can’t tell you much about the second half other than Theo Walcott, Joel Campbell and Coquelin all made late substitute appearances as we saw out the game. Afterwards, Arsene said:

We did the job in a serious way. We played well technically and the only regret is we should have scored more goals. The early goal helped us not be be anxious about the consequence of the result. We are in a position where it depends on us to finish in the top three but we want more and we have to fight to do that and if possible do more.

At this stage of the season most fans would now happily take third but although it’s admittedly the most peripheral of outside chances, we could still maintain our proud record of finishing above Tottenham every season since Arsene’s been in charge if we can win all our remaining games. So as well as securing third, the prospect of slipping past Sp*rs into second should be just as much of an incentive, if not more, for the remainder of the campaign.

Up next then, it’s Sunderland away on Sunday and with our hosts battling for Premier League survival, it will no doubt be another testing game, particularly as we’ll have less time to recover having played tonight. The boss holds his press conference a little later than usual tomorrow I think, so I’ll be back with thoughts on that tomorrow evening.

See you then.

20th April 2016: Cazorla back in training, Ozil and Sanchez keen to stay and Mahrez rumours denied

Evening all. Arsene Wenger held his pre-West Brom press conference this morning and amongst other things, revealed that Santi Cazorla is back in ‘normal training’.

Also discussing the latest on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere, the boss said:

Everybody is available from our last game against Crystal Palace. We have no big injuries. We will have a final test today. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the only one not practising now. He (Cazorla) has joined normal training and he looks okay, of course still a bit short on the competitiveness front. We will try to get him maybe more training, and then join us directly maybe. He (Wilshere) has absorbed well his first obstacle of getting games. That means he has finally got 90 minutes and he has had no setbacks and the positives are that in every game he was sharper. That means he has a good fitness basis. Overall, the progression should be normal. I don’t think he will be available for selection [against West Brom], but from then it is whether I select him or not.

And when asked if the game against the Baggies was important, he offered:

It is important, of course. We want to win our games, instead of focusing the table I think it is very important to focus on the process and quality of what we do. At the moment that is frustrating as there is a lot of quality in our game, but we have not exactly got the wins that we wanted. We have to focus on that. We want to finish as high as we can. It is not a consolation, it is about getting the best out of the team and focusing and giving everything in every single game. We need to show we have the mental level to compete until the end. Our job is to give absolutely the maximum until the last day of the season. You expect that from ambitious, professional football players. We have values at this club that we respect and that we have to respect until the last minute of the season.

Arsene also cleared up a few other topical uncertainties. He revealed that both Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil were keen to renew their contracts at the club despite reports to the contrary, he himself would definitely see out the final year of his contract next season, and speculation linking Arsenal with a summer move for Leicester’s Riyad Mahrez was wide of the mark. On the latter, he said:

No, and even if there was I would not speak about that at this stage of the season [out of] respect to Leicester.

As you might have guessed from the matter of fact tone and length of today’s blog, I’m pressed for time but also a little short of patience when it comes to words from the Arsenal camp right now.

Let’s see the players and the manager do their talking through football tomorrow evening, go on to secure at least third place in the league and then we can regroup and ideally, address our shortcomings via the transfer market.

Because as Arseblog ruefully noted recently, interest in this season has waned dramatically along with the teams chances of silverware and aside from anything else, I think people are just a bit bored. I know I am.

Back pre or post match depending on my day tomorrow.

Until then.

21st November 2015: Beaten by the Baggies

So we’ve gone from joint-first to fourth in the space of a few hours after we lost 2-1 at West Brom today, but the biggest blow of the afternoon isn’t the three points we surrendered in my opinion, it’s the injury to Francis Coquelin, if it turns out to be a serious one.

The fact Manchester City were outclassed 4-1 at home by Liverpool means we didn’t lose ground on the team I think remain favourites for the title, but since the summer, my stance has been that to have any chance of winning the league this season, we’d need to keep Coquelin fit, because we simply do not have another player in the squad capable of doing the job he does for the team.

Hopefully we’ll get some good news regarding his knee soon, but looking at the tackle that caused it, the extension of his leg and the jarring impact, it could quite easily be ligament damage. Please don’t let it be as bad as that …

The game itself was one we could have won, but in the end, marginally lost after the hosts responded to Oliver Giroud’s Mesut Ozil-assisted opener after 28 minutes, by scoring twice before the interval to turn the game on it’s head.

In yesterday’s post I wondered if Kieran Gibbs’ goal against Tottenham just before the international break may tempt Arsene Wenger into handing the left-back a starting spot at the expense of Joel Campbell, with Alexis Sanchez swapping wings to the right and Gibbs lining up ahead of Nacho Monreal, but concluded it was unlikely. Yet the boss did just that and to be fair, it worked okay.

Our problems were more defensively on the day, and as much as I appreciate what Mikel Arteta has brought to the club in his time with us, he’s simply not good enough anymore judging by his performances. I think it is telling that he admitted he’d thought long and hard about signing a contract extension because he wasn’t sure he was up to the level required. In the end, he clearly felt he could still offer something but unfortunately for us, that ‘something’ is being a liability.

Although he was unlucky to concede the free-kick that led to the Baggies first goal, getting a toe to the ball as he did, his part in defending the delivery was poor. Giroud was furiously berating his own team-mates as their players wheeled off celebrating and I’m fairly certain Mikel was the target of his anger.

As for West Brom’s second goal, Arteta was in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to defend the near post but succeeding only in impeding Petr Cech from doing his job and deflecting the ball past his own keeper. That he instinctively tried to stop the ball with his hand was symbolic of a player who’s not just slow of foot, but also of mind, at the moment.

I realise that may sound harsh but when you’re talking title challenges, you’re speaking about fine margins and to be fielding a player so fragrantly not up to the task, both physically and mentally, is madness. Sentiment should have absolutely no place in competition. Hindsight’s 20-20 as they say, but Mathieu Flamini should have replaced Coquelin when he hobbled off after 11 minutes, not Mikel. In all honesty, Flamini’s far from an adequate understudy for Coquelin in my opinion, but he’s infinitely a better bet than the player Arteta is these days.

Santi Cazorla may have salvaged a point for us but did a John Terry and slipped as he tried to convert a late penalty. But we can’t really blame the little Spaniard as it was bad luck, combined with a little unsporting behaviour in trying to put Santi off his spot-kick by the West Brom players, that led to his miss I felt.

Other points to make about the loss include Per Mertesacker’s worrying recent habit of not attempting blocks. I mean, he just stands there at times, refusing to even attempt to close down a shot, assuming, i’m guessing, that he thinks opponents won’t hit the target or that Cech’s better off having a clear sight of of the strike.

Ross Barkley’s deflected effort off of Gabriel’s attempted block at Emirates stadium recently perhaps justifies Per’s reluctance to attempt blocks but I’d prefer we tried to stop shots at source whenever possible. The way Per was manhandled by one of their players for their equaliser was also annoying to see and overall our defending as a unit was poor on the day.

Hector Bellerin looked like a player who’d just returned from injury and wasn’t yet up to match speed and even Laurent Koscielny, our best defender, didn’t play at his best.

Given this was an away match at a difficult ground against organised, resilient opponents straight after an international break and with us still deprived or several players through injury, our performance and the result doesn’t worry me too much.

As I’ve said, it’s the potential long-term absence of Coquelin and if our worst fears are confirmed I think a January signing in that position becomes an absolute must. Identify the player, pay the price and if that means the likes of Arteta, or anyone else for that matter, is pushed down the pecking order to the extent they fail to make match-day squads, then tough luck. We’re trying to win the league, not running a retirement home.

More on Sunday. Til then.

20th November 2015: Premier League Preview – Back to business against the Baggies

So here we go. Four months of club football without the irritating interruption of an international break and we begin by travelling to West Brom tomorrow afternoon looking to maintain our fine Premier League form.

We’ve won five of our last six in the league since succumbing to a Mike Dean-inspired Chelsea two months ago, and glancing at our upcoming fixture-list, we now have a great opportunity to rack up the points before we entertain Manchester City a few days before Christmas.

After our trip to the Hawthorns, we play Norwich (a), Sunderland (h) and Aston Villa (a), so 12 points from 12 is far from unfeasible. If we do manage to take the maximum tally available from those 4 games, hope of a first title success since 2004 might start morphing into excited expectancy.

Looking at City’s next four fixtures in the league, they begin by hosting Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool tomorrow and Southampton next weekend, before travelling to Stoke and hosting Swansea – on paper a much tougher run than ours, before our meeting with them on December 21.

We had the team news yesterday of course and Hector Bellerin’s return to fitness should see him come straight back into the side at the expense of Mathieu Debuchy. We have question marks hanging over both Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud’s involvement, due to the emotional toll of the tragic events of a week ago in Paris, but I’m expecting both to play seeing as they were involved in training today.

Elsewhere, the team picks itself, with Joel Campbell retaining his starting berth on the right, unless Kieran Gibbs’ goalscoring substitute appearance against Spurs two weeks ago has convinced Arsene Wenger he deserves a start.

I highly doubt it though, as it would mean either asking Alexis Sanchez to swap wings to the right, or playing Gibbs as a right-sided attacker. More likely is that Arsene will be encouraging Gibbs to build on his goal in the north London derby by offering a genuine attacking threat from the bench again, if needed.

As for our hosts, they are struggling to score goals so far this season and come into the match with the joint-fewest in the division. Yet in Salomon Rondon and Saido Berahino, they have two strikers of good quality so we’ll need to be mindful of their threat. When asked about the former, the boss said:

He’s a fighter. He has a physical ability to resist the challenges of the centre backs and he has a good nose in the box to be where you have to be.

One major reason I think we can be confident in our defending against Rondon and co tomorrow is the return of Bellerin. Assuming Koscielny plays, we’ll be at full strength back there, with a nicely-rested and hopefully re-energised Francis Coquelin protecting them with typically tenacious defensive midfield play.

And Nacho Monreal has been praising his compatriot Bellerin’s meteoric rise at the club, saying:

He’s a young player, only 20 years old, but he plays like a guy who is 30. He’s very mature and he plays with a lot of confidence. He trusts in himself and that’s very good for us. Since he’s started to play the level of the team is improving so we are very proud of him. When I was 20 like him, I was scared every time I had to play at the beginning, but he’s not. That’s the secret for him, that he’s so confident in himself. He knows what he has to do, he goes on to the pitch and he does it. It looks easy but it’s not easy. He’s only 20, he has a long way to go, he has to play more games but obviously everything he has done is brilliant. He just needs to keep going in the same way. I’m 100 per cent sure he will play for the Spanish national team. I don’t know when as that’s the question. At this moment there are another two right backs like Juanfran and Dani Carvajal. Hector is still playing for the under-21s but if he carries on, he will play with the senior team 100 per cent.

If there’s a better right-back in the Premier League than Bellerin at the moment, then he’s doing a fine job of going undetected. The point Nacho makes about our cockney Catalan’s maturity is, along with his searing pace obviously, the most startling thing about the 20-year-old in my opinion.

When he’s been faced with tough opponents and struggled initially, he’s had the intelligence to adapt his game mid-match, to turn the tide of the duel in his favour. It’s great to have him back and after a depressing last seven days in he context of the wider world, it feels great to have the Premier League back.

Back post-match.



19th November 2015: Wenger talks team news, contracts and West Brom

Evening all. Arsene Wenger held his pre-West Brom press conference this morning, as we look forward to the return of Premier League football in a couple of days’ time.

Team news is that Hector Bellerin is fit and available again after missing both our trip to Bayern Munich and the home encounter with Tottenham before the international break.

But Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain won’t won’t be risked for the Hawthorns, with the boss saying the pair should be available from Monday. And on Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Jack Wilshere and Danny Welbeck, he said:

He (Walcott) is doing well, he could be a bit ahead of schedule but still you count a few weeks more while Rosicky, Wilshere, Welbeck will be later.

Following the tragic events of late last week in Paris, Laurent Koscielny was visibly emotional on Tuesday evening as England hosted France at Wembley, and when Arsene was asked if his defender would be in the right frame of mind to play this weekend, he said:

I will talk with him. It’s a big game for us. I have not talked to him yet, but I will talk to him to see if he’s completely recovered and focused.

Arsene also remarked that he thought Laurent was a different player against England from the one he saw enjoy a fine performance against Germany on Friday. He followed up by saying that every player needs to be completely focused on the task at hand in the Premier League, so if there is any doubt at all in Laurent’s mind that he’s ready, the boss won’t select him.

Obviously only the player himself can say how he’s feeling but it’s reassuring to know we have a well-rested Per Mertesacker and Gabriel, in case that’s the partnership we need to go with.

Moving on and there have been reports over the past few days that Alexis Sanchez was nearing an agreement on an extension to his contract with the club and that Mesut Ozil would follow suit shortly. But Arsene revealed today that although he’ll sit down with the pair in the coming months, no negotiations have yet begun with either player:

We have not started to talk about that (a new contract) with Mesut. We are in the same situation (with Alexis). At the end of the year they have two-and-a-half years left on their contract so we still have some time. We are not in a hurry. Of course we want them to stay here at the club and we will start the negotiations at some stage. At the moment we have not started them.

Reassuringly however, Arsene suggested there would be no repeat of players running there contracts down to the last year like Robin van Persie or Samir Nasri, or to it’s end like Bacary Sagna, because the club was ‘in a stronger position to negotiate.’

Finally for today, the boss was asked what he made of Saturday’s opponents West Brom, and said:

I watched them against Man United and they looked a very well organised team which is absolutely – as always with Tony Pulis – fully committed. On top of that they are in a difficult situation a little bit in the Premier League and you expect what you always expect in the Premier League – a committed, physical, fast game and a game where we cannot afford to make any mistakes. I would even say that you don’t even look at the table any more because you know what you get. The difference between the teams has narrowed and today it is more about how much can you be close to your best which will decide the result, more than the team you play against.

I’ll be honest, I’ve paid next to no attention to how West Brom have performed so far this season but they have some dangerous attackers and will no doubt prove highly organised opposition.

That said, we’ve been sensational on our travels in the league so far this term so, as always, I’m confident we can secure all three points.

Back with more on Friday.

Til then.