On The Whistle: Who would you swap Giroud for?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Right now, who would you trade Giroud for? On current form, I’m not sure there’s anyone in the Premier League I’d rather have. There are better players out there, but I’m not sure any of them are outperforming the Frenchman.

Anyway, have a watch of the video. I’m off on an international break of my own to Morocco. There’s an Arsecast Extra here for you too with chat on Newcastle, Walcott, Welbeck and more.

Arsenal 3-0 West Ham: On What Might Have Been, and Why It Wasn’t

With a tireless Aaron Ramsey feeding off Olivier Giroud’s excellent hold-up play, this performance was almost reminiscent of our table-topping performances of 2013/14.

With West Ham without three of their first choice back-four, Giroud’s powerful hold-up play and deft touch was simply too much for them to handle. Arsenal also benefited from another virtuoso display from Mesut Ozil, who is certainly in the midst of his best run of form since joining from Real Madrid. After the match, Arsene Wenger told Arsenal.com rather emphatically that “Ozil has now adapted”. He took his time, but recent evidence suggests he will prove to be worth the wait.

With Manchester City losing at Burnley later in the day, Arsenal are now just one point off second place.

After the game, the boss was asked if we are now part of the title race:

Not at the moment but we just have to keep going. We’ve won eight of the last nine and we are stronger today than we were at the start of the season. We dropped off in this league because we won one of six at the start of the season. Today we are a different team. We suffered a lot from the post-World Cup fixtures. Players came back and they weren’t ready to play.

He’s right: Arsenal can’t win the title this season because of the disastrous way in which they began the campaign.

With the Gunners now ensconced in third place and looking ahead to an FA Cup semi-final, it’s easy to forget what a tumultuous start to the season it was.

Wenger refers to one win in six, but that record is actually across all competitions. In the Premier League, we won just two of our opening eight games.

That’s dire. Had Arsenal managed to convert draws with Leicester, Everton, and Hull in to wins, we’d currently sit joint-top of the Premier League. Yes, Chelsea would have games in hand, but they’d also have a daunting trip to the Emirates Stadium to come.

The reasons we failed to find our gear are well-documented. There were new players to integrate, injuries to account for and a World Cup hangover to endure.

Intriguingly, Chelsea had plenty of players at the World Cup but started like a house on fire. The other day I read some criticism of Jose Mourinho, suggesting their recent struggles are due to the fact that some of their players were overplayed in the first half of the season. Perhaps so, but when Chelsea eventually stumble over the finish line as champions, it will largely be down to the spectacular way in which they began the season. They built a lead that is likely to prove insurmountable.

Why were they able to start so much quicker? I guess in part due to the availability of key players through their spine — by contrast, the absence of Laurent Koscielny and Olivier Giroud clearly destabilised this Arsenal team. What’s more, we started the season with three world cup winners in the squad. Who knows to what extent their motivation and focus was disturbed by lifting football’s most famous prize?

Anyway, the fact we’re even having this (admittedly somewhat one-sided) conversation is pretty remarkable given how bleak things looked after the November defeat against Stoke. I put much of the optimistic mood down to the win at Old Trafford. Had we lost, we’d be out of the domestic cups and staring glumly down the barrel of a Champions League exit.

Now, we’re dreaming of second place and an unlikely comeback in Monaco. Thanks to the Cup, the glass is half-full.

Arsenal win another big game: Is it getting better?

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For a long time now we’ve collectively lamented Arsenal’s failure to cope with the big occasion. After the stirring win at Old Trafford, the question begs: are things finally improving?

For me, United is the definitive big game. Perhaps it’s because I grew up amid the red-hot rivalry of the late 90s. United were so dominant in that era, and those clashes were always infused with tension, drama and spite. Even taking in to account neighbours Tottenham and Chelsea, there isn’t a game in the fixture-list that inspires more nerves or animosity. Old habits die hard, and old hatreds endure.

I saw someone compare Monday night’s game to Ali vs. Frazier in 1975: two former greats, evenly matched but now hurting each other all too easily. It’s a nice line, but one that doesn’t reflect the trajectory of the two sides. While United do appear to be a team in decline, there are some signs that Arsenal might be on the way up.

There are indications that Arsene Wenger’s men are beginning to conquer their crippling stage-fright. After all, Monday night’s win comes just a couple of months after another landmark victory at the Etihad.

It’s not been a complete reversal of fortunes. Defeats against Tottenham and Monaco show there is still plenty of room for improvement. However, it’s undoubtedly progress: last season, Arsenal would probably have lost all four of those games.

In the wake of such a significant win, there’s a tendency to assume that our problems are now permanently behind us. “That’s it”, we think. “Now we’ll win every big game and be title contenders once again”.

I’m not sure it’s that simple. We’re turning the corner, but it’ll take more than a single step. It’s generally agreed that our problems are psychological as well as strategic. Improvements in the latter are soothing the former: each big win has tactical and therapeutic benefits. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if we might be learning something.

We’re not yet where we need to be. As the Monaco game showed, Arsenal are far from over the big-game jitters. However, we are certainly making positive progress.

On Danny Welbeck…

From the minute the possibility of Danny Welbeck moving to Arsenal was mooted, I fantasised about his scoring the winner at Old Trafford. He must have done so too, and that probably goes some way to explaining his joyous celebration on Monday night. He certainly had a point to prove to the manager who jettisoned him after a matter of months in Manchester.

As Welbeck’s shot hit the net, Louis Van Gaal’s flat face glowed red with embarrassment, leaving him looking like a cartoon thumb throbbing after being hit with a mallet.

Even if Welbeck never does anything hugely significant in an Arsenal shirt again, he’ll be remembered for this night. This, if you like, was his ‘Arshavin moment’.

However, I’m hopeful that there’s a lot more to come from the Englishman. That goal effectively closed one chapter in his career, but should mark the true beginning of a bright new one.

ps. If you haven’t yet, do check out the Arsecast Extra for more luxurious basking.