Newcastle Preview, Theo Thoughts & SKREAMER competition

Arsenal host Newcastle United today in our final match of 2012.  It’s been an up-and-down year – more on that next week – but victory today would enable us to end it with four consecutive Premier League wins.

The team news is worryingly good.  Worrying in that anything unfamiliar is unsettling, but also because a clean bill of health might encourage Arsene to keep his cheque-book closed in January.  The return from illness of Olivier Giroud gives Arsene his major selection headache: whether or not to reintroduce the Frenchman or persist with Theo Walcott in the central striking berth.

Much of Arsene’s press conference focused on Walcott’s hypothesised evolution in to a centre-forward:

“I like the signs that I have seen.  If you look at my statements, I always said that one day he would play through the middle and it grew in his brain.

He is now 23. I decided to play Thierry Henry at 23 through the middle because you have to learn a lot before. The fact that you play in other positions as well helps your technique.  On the wing you need a shorter technique against the line. Once you [then] play in the middle you can go on both sides.

From [the ages of] 19 to 23, Theo has learnt a lot. Now we will sometimes play him on the flanks and sometimes through the middle. I like what I have seen through the middle.”

I have to say I’m not convinced by this switch.  It seems odd that having resisted playing Walcott through the middle for so long, Arsene has suddenly introduced such a radical shift halfway through the season.  It looks, to me at least, like something of a desperate move, with as many as four possible motivating factors.  The first is his lack of options: Arsenal are patently lacking in quality strikers.  The second is a desire to convince Theo to sign a new deal and remain at Arsenal.  The third is to save a bit of money in January by turning Walcott in to a striker instead of bringing one in.  And the last, and arguably most worrying, is that Arsene might have been influenced by the huge consensus among the media that Walcott deserves a chance through the middle.

I don’t foresee it being a long-term solution.  Firstly, because I’m not certain that Walcott is more suited to the central role than one on the wing, but also because I don’t think Theo will be here come next season.  Arsenal still need a forward, and while Arsene insists he is preparing to be ‘busy’ in January, I am concerned he is mainly going to be busy making excuses about ‘super super quality’ and lack of value.

Today, Walcott is guaranteed to start, and my hunch is that despite all the noise from Arsene it’ll be on the wing.  Rotation is important at this time of year, and Giroud should be fairly well rested and raring to go.  Other than that, the team will surely be as we expect, with Podolski on the left flank, Cazorla joining Wilshere and Arteta in midfield, and Vermaelen and Mertesacker flanked by Gibbs and Sagna.  It’s possible that one of the centre-backs will be rested in the next couple of games, but I don’t think Arsene will take that chance today against the dangerous duo of Ba and Cisse – the former of which he has denied an interest in.  Again, a little worrying.

The fact that Arsenal had a rest of Boxing Day while Newcastle suffered a morale and energy-sapping last-minute 4-3 defeat at Old Trafford means we really have no excuses today: we ought to win.If you fancy a flutter on today’s match, then you can check out my predicted team and betting tips over at Unibet.

In other news today, I’ve got a bit of a competition for you lot.  The guys at Warrior Football have given me a pair of their new SKREAMER football boots to give away.

They’re a really lovely bit of kit.  I wore a pair myself in my final Sunday League game of 2012, and whilst the bright colours probably attracted an extra few kicks on the ankle, they feel great on the pitch.  They’re apparently packed full of scientific advances, much like the Predator was all those years ago, so fair play to Warrior for attempting to do something genuinely innovative.  You can read more about them here.

And if you fancy, you can nab yourselves a pair.  I’ll be running a competition – entry is via Twitter only, I’m afraid, so make sure you’re following me @Gunnerblog.  As we all know, a ‘Skreamer’ in football terminology is a rocket shot – a goal from distance that flies past a helpless goalkeeper.  My question is simple:

Which Arsenal player scored the most goals from outside the box last season?

Tweet me and tag your answer with #SKREAMER to go in to the hat.   You’ve got until Monday to enter.

Good luck to you, and good luck to Arsenal today.  Three points required to end 2012 on a relative high.  And three cheers for Pat Rice, who has been awarded a richly-deserved MBE.  Congratulations to him.

Chelsea thoughts: Familiar failings & Feeble Fire-power

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsenal should be kicking themselves…
This first defeat of the season felt completely unnecessary. Arsenal were punished for stupid mistakes at the back and poor finishing up top. Arsene Wenger will be furious, though some of course have suggested he has only himself to blame…

I’d be a hypocrite to criticise Arsene for leaving out Per…
I called it earlier this week and didn’t raise the alarm then. In fact, it seemed to me to be an entirely reasonable decision. As it was, Koscielny had an absolute stinker, and will probably find himself back on the sidelines for the next two games at least. I’m loathe to heap all of the blame on Kos, though – when you concede from a set-piece, more often than not it’s the result of collective disorganisation and a touch of cowardice. Positional intelligence is only worth so much: you have to fight to go and win the ball too.

Gervinho’s strike was a fantastic finish…
You know the saying: If you give enough monkeys enough typewriters, one of them will eventually thump the ball in to the top corner. Or something like that. I was pleased for Gervinho, but equally I’m conscious that he probably had about as much idea about where that ball would end up when he hit it as he did when firing off those haphazard shots against City. By the laws of probability, eventually he is bound get one right, as on Saturday. I’m not sure, however, that it makes him the solution to our striking problem.

For me, Giroud had to score…
The defence “it was a tight angle” is not valid when the angle is only tight because of the strikers touch around the goalie. He had a perfectly good opportunity to strike before that, dallied, and paid the price. I make that three clear one-on-ones and a penalty he’s missed since joining the club. I’m not writing him off, but I am a little concerned. On which note, I won’t pretend to understand why Arsene saw fit to bring off our best finisher, Lukas Podolski, with twenty minutes to play.

A couple of things the cameras might not have picked up…
The first is that substitute Theo Walcott was very chummy indeed with his Chelsea counterparts whilst warming up. I suspect I’d find that easier to stomach if his time on the pitch hadn’t consisted of hiding in the centre when we needed him to be driving at his full-back out wide. I may be being unfair, but then if Theo refuses to commit to the club then I’m afraid he will invite this kind of scrutiny.
The second thing was just how much of a hatchet job Mikel Arteta did in midfield. With Chelsea threatening on the counter, he produced a series of outrageous off-the-ball fouls to halt runners in their tracks. Fortunately, the referee missed most of them, otherwise he would have been lucky to stay on the pitch. The same goes for Laurent Koscienly, who appeared to slap a Chelsea player in the centre-circle.

I’m off on holiday now…
I’m heading abroad for the next two weeks. Chances of getting to see our games during that period are slim. See you here when I’m back…

RVP to United is painful but unsurprising

Arsenal fans know more than most that, in football, loyalty is a lie.  Putting your lips to the badge is almost always a Judas kiss; a horrible precursor to an inevitable betrayal.  All that said, there is something particularly painful about losing Robin van Persie to Manchester United.

It’s partly to do with the individual in question.  Here’s a guy who claimed to have grown up an Arsenal fan, admiring the exploits of his idol Dennis Bergkamp.  In his eight years at the club, Van Persie seemed as dedicated as anyone to Arsene Wenger’s policy of sustainable success.  Arsenal, in turn, were good to him, showing tremendous patience throughout years of injury problems, resulting in the rewards of last season and a 36 goal haul.  I will confess that as the season drew to a close, I firmly believed the dutchman would sign a new deal.  It turns out that what we were witnessing was not a glorious blossoming, but a bittersweet swansong.

What makes this divorce particularly painful is the third party: Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.  Over the years, Fergie has tried to snare several Arsenal players – most infamously, Patrick Vieira.  In the past, such moves seemed improbably.  United and Arsenal were simply too close in their rivalry and their status.  Now, for the first time, one of our assets has been prised away to Old Trafford, and it stings.  Arsenal fans will claim Van Persie left for the money.  They’ll chuckle at the fact he’s ended up at a team that probably wasn’t his first choice.  But the uncomfortable truth remains that he’s joined a club where he stands a better chance of winning the trophies that have eluded him for so long.

I’m disappointed that the self-professed ‘Gooner’ would so readily join a rival, but I’m not surprised.  Footballers are just doing a job.  Never allow yourself to believe it means any more to them than that – you’ll only get hurt.

Considering that his departure has been inevitable for some time, I feel Arsenal have handled it well on several counts: they have kept it relatively quiet in the media; they have got the deal done before the start of the season; and at £24m they have secured a very reasonable fee for a 29-year old with brittle legs and a year remaining on his deal.

Van Persie’s replacements, Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud, are already in place.  Whilst Nicklas Bendtner and Park aree both certain to depart, it’s looking increasingly like Marouane Chamakh will remain at the club to play second fiddle to Giroud as a target man.  It’s possible another forward will come in, but it’s by no means a certainty, or a necessity.  We have been preparing for life without Robin for some time now.

Preparations are going well.  We have a stronger squad than last season, even without the Dutchman, and can look forward to watching an exciting new team take shape.  As for Van Persie?  Well, he’s about to destroy whatever legacy he might have had at Arsenal.  From talisman to traitor, so swiftly.  That’s footballers for you.  Disappointing, but no surprise.

Still keen to show your loyalty? Click here for Arsenal’s new kit.

FC Koln 0 – 4 Arsenal: Podolski off the mark as Arsenal show off strength in depth

FC Koln 0 – 4 Arsenal (Vermaelen 5, Podolski 15 (pen), 43, Gervinho 62)
Match Report | Highlights

Arsenal’s first goal had all the hallmarks of Steve Bould…
That corner routine was classic Arsenal – near post flick on from one centre-back to the other.  Clearly the new assistant has been drilling them on the training ground.

Lukas Podolski looked good in that number nine shirt …
It had been widely assumed Podolski’s squad number was yet to be announced because he was waiting for Robin van Persie’s number 10 shirt to become available.  Perhaps we’re merely waiting to sanction the sale of Park Ju-Young before handing him the number nine shirt he wore in such style yesterday.  Podolski began the match on the left-flank, but showed a real willingness to tuck inside, and a goalscorer’s instinct to net twice against his former club.  The first was a typically German (ie. accurate) penalty, and the second a sweeping finish after a great one-two with Kieran Gibbs.

 Olivier Giroud wore 12…
…and yet is every inch a traditional number 9.  This guy is huge, and yesterday his hold-up play and interlinking was fantastic, whilst slightly sharper shooting would have seen him grab a goal or two.  I was hugely encouraged by the two new strikers, and Theo Walcott’s constant threat from the right gave us a consistent attacking threat.

Santi Cazorla is a class act…
…just as we knew he would be.  As expected, he played at the tip of the central midfield trio, spraying passes to either flank with consummate ease.   I don’t want to heap pressure on the lad, but something tells me we will look back on his signing as one of the steals of the summer.

The Ox’s evolution to central midfield is well and truly underway…
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has made almost all his pre-season appearances as a central midfielder.  Despite impressing as a winger last season and at the European Championships, it’s clear Arsene likes the idea of deploying him as a deep-lying midfielder, where his footballing intelligence and driving runs can be put to more frequent use.  It’ll be interesting to see where he is deployed when the season proper gets underway.

Gervinho has had a fantastic pre-season…
I’ve been one of the Ivorian’s sternest critics, but I take my hat off to him: he’s knuckled down and been one of the best performers of our pre-season period.  There was the trademark terrible miss yesterday, but there was also a fantastic goal and some very effective dribbling.  Signs of improvement and adaptation?  Let’s hope so.

Our squad looks to have a lot more depth…
Although the line-up changed almost entirely at half-time, there was little discernible difference in quality between the two teams.  We have options all over the pitch, and if we can keep our players fit then we certainly have a squad capable of coping with the rigours of a long season.  There are still issues to resolve, but there is an overwhelming sense of optimism around the club.  Roll on Saturday.

For your consideration: Thoughts on Cazorla, RVP, & Song

Hello all. I write this from the Edinburgh festival, where I am making my way through a mostly fun but occasionally torturous month of work. I have been meaning to sit down and write this blog for some time. Finally, having pretended to be meeting a fictional family member by the name of ‘Gavin’, I have found the peace and quiet required to do so.

Let’s begin with the most exciting news of the past couple of weeks: the signing of Santi Cazorla. I was rather deliberate about not talking too much about the Spaniard’s potential signing. This was in part because I had no substantial information to add, but also because it all sounded a bit too good to be true. A Spanish international midfielder for just £12.6m? Surely not. Even now that the deal has gone through, I won’t really believe it until I see him run out in red and white.

It’s clear that Arsene has been a long-time admirer of the player, and now he’s got his man, twelve months later than originally intended. I’ve bored you before with my observation that Arsenal never signed a replacement for Cesc Fabregas last summer – the deeper deployment of Mikel Arteta made him more of a stand-in for the injured Wilshere. Now, in Cazorla, we have one: a playmaker with experience, class, and match-winning ability.

Most independent observers of last year’s La Liga will tell you that Cazorla was the best Spanish midfielder outside the top two. When I’ve watched him, the thing I’ve most been struck by is how genuinely two-footed he is: at first glance, it is almost impossible to tell whether he is right or left-footed. Inevitably, this makes him a dangerous prospect in the wide positions, as he can go both inside and out. However, I expect he will start his Arsenal career in a less familiar central role. Not only are we already well stocked in wide areas, but Tomas Rosicky is injured and will not be fit for the start of the season. Cazorla should be able to slot in beside Arteta and Song to form an impressive midfield triumvirate.

Whilst Malaga’s financial plight made the fee far from extortionate, it’s still a massive signing for Arsenal. When you add his arrival to that of Podolski and Giroud, it’s even bigger. So much so that fans seem far more relaxed than previously about the future of Robin van Persie.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Dutchman intends to leave Arsenal this summer. The recent comments of Alex Ferguson convince me that he has probably arrived at some sort of provisional agreement with Manchester United too – they wouldn’t risk the embarrassment of going public with the bid if they thought there was a chance RVP would reject them.

From the outside it looks as if Arsenal are waiting for a bidding club to hit a trigger point – probably somewhere around the £20m mark. If that happens, Van Persie will go. If it doesn’t, he’ll stay and see out his contract. The latter option is feasible: I don’t think he’s the type to kick up and fuss and refuse to play if he doesn’t get what he wants. However, my gut instinct is still that he will be gone by August 31st. It might go all the way to the wire.

I made my peace with Van Persie’s probable exit a while ago, but I am a little worried about the reports of Barcelona’s interest in Alex Song. Whilst I admit he has flaws, I’m a big fan of the Cameroon midfielder, and unlike with Van Persie I cannot see an obvious replacement within the squad. Ironically, if Barca do get Song, they are likely to field him as a centre-back rather than a midfielder. Arsenal remain in a strong position: Song has three years remaining on his deal. However, We know that Barcelona like to do their business in the newspapers, and this one could get quite ugly.

For now, though, I’m not going to dwell on the negatives. We face FC Koln tomorrow afternoon, and it’ll be a first chance to see Podolski, Giroud and Cazorla in an Arsenal shirt. The new season is just around the corner, and there’s cause for optimism. I’ll have a report on the friendly for you on Monday.

With the new season just around the corner, you can get in the football spirit by heading over to casino.ladbrokes.com to play some football slots games. How about the great ‘Shoot!’ based on the classic magazine. Or ‘Soccer Safari’, the beautiful game with an African twist. It they get you in the casino mood, then you could try out some blackjack too.