Wigan Preview: A relegation six-pointer

As a man once said: it’s squeaky bum time.

I’ll confess: I don’t really know what that means. Not literally. It could refer to the squeaking sound created by edging forward on your seat in excitement, or the flatulence created as a consequence of anxiety. I haven’t got a clue. I’m not sure anyone really knows. People just accepted it and laughed, because that’s what you did if you wanted to stay on Alex Ferguson’s good side. More of him later.

Figuratively, I know what it means. It refers to the unique tension experienced at the business end of the season. It’s a tension all too familiar to both Arsenal, as they chase a Champions League spot, and tonight’s relegation-threatened opponents Wigan. This ought to be a hell of a game. Anything other than a win for Wigan will see the Lactics effectively relegated. Anything other than a win for Arsenal will hand Spurs the initiative in the race for the Champions League. It’s a straight-up shoot-out. If I were looking to put a bet on in a place like Unibet in this game, I’d be scouring the live betting odds for more than four goals in the game.

Going gung-ho will suit Wigan, who are more comfortable in possession than under pressure. They will be buoyed by the weekend’s FA Cup Final victory over Manchester City, and with good reason: few sides in the bottom half of the Premier League could take the game to City with the ebullience and effervescence Wigan displayed. The attacking trio of McManaman, Maloney and Kone would grace teams far higher up the table.

The Wembley turf is famously energy-sapping, and Arsenal will be hoping to exploit those tired legs tonight. The permutations could not be plainer: Chelsea’s win at Aston Villa has all but secured them a top four spot. If Arsenal win both their remaining games, they are guaranteed to join them.

If Arsenal do relegate Wigan tonight, I’ll be sorry to see them go. Few teams in this league play football with more ambition and artistry. However, I’d far rather see Wigan go down than see Arsenal effectively relegated from the top four – especially if Tottenham were to benefit.

Arsene Wenger faces several selection dilemmas. The return to fitness of Lukasz Fabianski threatens the place of Wojciech Szczesny, while the manager must also choose which of Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal is best suited to cope with the trickery of Calum McManaman. In midfield, Jack Wilshere will be pushing for a recall, while Lukas Podolski’s inert performance at QPR could see his claim to the central striking role come under threat from Theo Walcott and Gervinho.

Whichever side Arsene names tonight ought to be good enough to secure three points, but we’ve been here before. In this fixture last season, Arsenal were foiled by a tactical masterclass from Wigan. It won’t be easy.

I’ll be honest: I didn’t think it would come to this. I didn’t expect Chelsea and Spurs to pick up quite so many points from the run-in as they have. Last season, it felt as if no side wanted the Champions League spots. This side, no-one wants to give them up. It would be cruel and painful to miss out so late in the day.

A word on Fergie. Whatever your opinions of the man, it’s hard not to have an enormous amount of respect for what he’s achieved in the game. As I watched him bid farewell to an appreciative Old Trafford yesterday, I couldn’t help but hope that we’re eventually able to give Arsene Wenger a similarly warm send-off.

Two wins this week would help make that a little more probable.

 

QPR 0 – 1 Arsenal: No point playing the blame game

QPR 0 – 1 Arsenal
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This ought to have been a good weekend for Arsenal.

A fixture against relegated QPR presented an opportunity to stamp our authority on the race for Champions League qualification. It was a chance to comfortably secure three points, and perhaps even surpass Chelsea’s goal difference advantage.

Chelsea themselves were set to travel to Old Trafford. If they were to slip up in any of their remaining four league games, this was surely the one.

As it turned out, Arsenal scraped to an unconvincing 1-0 win at Loftus Road, turning in their worst performance in weeks. That in itself is no bad thing: at this stage of the season results are everything.

However, Chelsea’s unexpected triumph at Old Trafford darkened the mood and precipitated a flurry of finger-pointing. If Spurs were to win at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, it would be truly out of our hands.

Let me be clear: if Arsenal finish fifth, it will not be the fault of Manchester United for losing to Chelsea. It will not be the fault of Alex Ferguson for fielding a weakened team. It will not be the fault of Robin van Persie for failing to put them to the sword.

Nor will it be the fault of Bacary Sagna for his mistimed lunge on the Dutchman at the Emirates, or Olivier Giroud for missing several presentable opportunities in the home game against Everton.

This will not have been decided by one incident, or one game. If Arsenal falter in their final match against Newcastle, that will wrongly be remembered as the day Arsenal lost the Champions League spot.

The truth is it would have been lost long before, as a consequence of systematic summers of failure and a season of dreary disappointment.

The fact we’re even in the running for the top four is the consequence of an extraordinary and anomalous run, but that good form should not allow us to overlook everything that came before.

The final league standings will be the consequence of 38 games. Unfortunately for Arsenal, the first 28 of those games yielded just 13 wins.

I enjoy the race for fourth, because it provides the illusion of genuine competition. As a supporter, you crave contesting something until the last second of the season. The thrills and spills of that kind of topsy-turvy battle are what make being a fan such an enthralling experience. However, it’s not a real trophy. It’s a surrogate.

What’s more, the margins are so fine that I’m not sure they allow us to make any valuable judgements. I’m not sure that if Arsene Wenger finishes a single point ahead of Andre Villas Boas it makes his season that much more successful.

As it stands, all we can do is sit and wait. By the time we play our next game against Wigan we should have a much clearer idea of exactly what’s required. Wednesday night’s clash between Spurs and Chelsea will be critical.

You’ll have to forgive me for feeling a little ambivalent about the whole thing. I hope we make the top four, but fundamentally I am more interested in why we finish 20 points behind United than whether we finish two points ahead of Chelsea.

Arsenal 1 – 1 Man United: Disappointed Love

Arsenal 1 – 1 Manchester United
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

After the game, Arsene Wenger described Arsenal fans’ hostility towards Robin van Persie as “disappointed love”. It strikes me that this explains much of the animosity and in-fighting among our own supporters. We all desperately want the same things, and the strength of that desire spills over in to frustration and anger.

Today, however, we can surely be unanimous that this was a positive Arsenal performance. For the first time this season we imposed ourselves upon a top four side, taking the game to United from the first few minutes. Indeed, we even nabbed an early lead, with Theo Walcott racing away to open the scoring. Those who chose to miss the guard of honour probably also missed our opening goal.

If there’s any negativity today it surrounds United’s equalising goal. Bacary Sagna gave the ball away with a sloppy back-pass before chasing back and felling Robin van Persie. As expected, the Dutchman converted the penalty with typical efficiency.

Sagna’s mistake came in the midst of an uncertain performance from a man who was, for several seasons, Arsenal’s most consistent performer. At his peak, he was twice voted as the league’s best right-back by his fellow professionals. However, this season his powers have visibly waned, and the moment his slide tackle made contact with Van Persie rather than the ball probably represents his Arsenal nadir – his ‘Eboue’ moment, if you will.

Just moments before Sagna had almost been responsible for conceding another goal. Released on the right by Tomas Rosicky, he dallied on the ball and was dispossessed, leaving him well out of position for United’s surging counter-attack.

There was a lack of conviction to Sagna’s play at both ends of the pitch. He vacillated between uncertainty, as when handed the opportunity to cross, and over-compensation, as when throwing himself wildly at Van Persie.

Some will relate his decline to the cloud over his contract situation. It certainly can’t help. Personally, I suspect it has far more two do with suffering two broken legs in the past year or so. The physical and psychological effects of that kind of trauma can’t be underestimated.

Anyhow, on balance, a draw seems a fair result. Arsenal may have dominated the play for long periods, but only occasionally did their possession convert to clear-cut chances.

This is largely down to the absence of a real-life centre-forward. For all Olivier Giroud’s flaws, he is at least a central striker with the physicality to pose a threat to the likes of Ferdinand and Evans. Lukas Podolski had neither the fitness to drag the defenders out of position, nor the willingness to attack the six-yard box. Arsenal played with a false nine, but not on purpose.

United, however, were consistently dangerous on the break. Even before Van Persie converted the spot-kick, he ought to have had a goal and two assists. First Wojciech Szczesny spread himself brilliant to block a goal-bound header with his face – then Phil Jones twice conspired to head wide with the goalkeeper rooted to the spot.

In the second half their counter-attacking threat only increased as Arsenal chased a winner. With a better final ball, United could have scored three of four times – only a last ditch block by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain prevented Ryan Giggs from adding an ugly gloss to the score-line.

Although United’s final pass was sloppy, there’s no doubt they came to win. Fergie picked his best side and was chasing a record points tally and validation for a team he still finds himself defending despite a convincing championship win. Arsenal matched them for ninety minutes, with Aaron Ramsey’s remarkable energy levels the key to our unusually intense display.

A midfielder is usually judged on his success in the 50/50s. At the moment, Ramsey is winning the 30/70s. His improvement in the last few months has been dramatic, and Rambo now looks ready for war.

I would’ve taken a draw beforehand and I’m more than satisfied with it now. A point against the the Manchester teams is never a bad one. We’re left with three games against QPR, Wigan and Newcastle. If we can’t take nine points from those, it’s hard to argue that we deserve a place at Europe’s top table.

And if you’re angry at dropping two points against England’s champions, perhaps you need to calm down. Remember: it’s just disappointed love.

Man U Preview: Let’s win for our own sake

A lot of pre-match chat will surround how Arsenal fans should react to United entering the field. There is debate over how exactly we should greet the return of Robin van Persie. Some pundits suggest respect is due; most fans are preoccupied by revenge.

Frankly, I think it’s soap opera nonsense. There is something far more important at stake today: three points.

It doesn’t really hurt me to welcome United as champions. It would hurt far more if they’d won it at our expense, but it’s not as if they pipped us to the post. We were never in contention for the prize.

Seeing Van Persie return as a champions is uncomfortable, irritating and a touch embarrassing, but we’ve got to remember our priorities. Right now we’re embroiled in a battle to for Champions League qualification with Spurs and Chelsea, and this is a great opportunity to tighten our grip on third place.

As it happens, I wouldn’t be surprised if Van Persie was left on the bench today. Alex Ferguson left Wayne Rooney out on his first return to Everton, and perhaps the United manager will be mindful that including the Dutchman will work the Emirates crowd in to a frenzy.

It’s our responsibility to create that atmosphere regardless. United have little to play for; Arsenal still have their season at stake. On our home turf, we should have every chance of causing an upset.

Manchester United arrive today expecting to receive a guard of honour. Let’s make them run the gauntlet instead.

Arsenal Transfer Requirements 2013/14

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If you’ve played Football Manager or FIFA 13, you might think you know how the transfer window works.

You’d be wrong.

The common perception is that it is an activity led by the clubs. They identify the players and then make an official approach to the appropriate chairmen.

In reality, it is rarely such a streamlined process. Transfers are conducted primarily through agents and middle-men. Take the case of Robin van Persie’s protracted move to Manchester United: the finer details of his contract would have been all but agreed before there was any official contact between United and Arsenal themselves.

Even the occasionally naive board at Arsenal are savvy enough to understand the way things work. That is why they, along with almost every other Premier League club, issue a ‘Player requirements’ list to Europe’s major football agents on the eve of every transfer window.

Each summer, the offices of agents are laden with spread-sheets and post-its detailing the individual needs of every Premier League club. They then play cupid, matching players with itchy feet to clubs with bulging budgets, and taking their 5% off the top as recompense.

Sometimes Arsenal are able to rely purely on the work of their extensive scouting team. Sometimes they are prepared to take a punt on a player proposed by an agent. It varies year on year, but the briefing they have put out ahead of this window gives us an insight as to what might happen this summer.

It’s another hugely important transfer window for the club. When United took Van Persie, the gap between them and us United widened agonizingly, like a freshly-cut Chelsea smile. Seeing them celebrate winning the Premier League last night, crowned with a Van Persie hat-trick, was agonizing. The Dutchman will face a cauldron of hate at the Emirates on Sunday, but will wear the armour of triumph and conviction. If we’re to stand any chance of reeling United in any time soon we need to improve the squad significantly.

My understanding is that Arsenal’s list reads very simply:

  • CENTRE-BACK
  • CENTRAL MIDFIELDER
  • STRIKER

My immediate reaction is surprise that the list doesn’t include a goalkeeper and a right-back. Perhaps Arsene Wenger has more faith in Wojciech Szczesny than we think, and perhaps Bacary Sagna is closer to a signing a new contract than we previously imagined.

It’s equally possible that these positions haven’t been mentioned as Arsenal have already identified and approached the players they wish to bring in to fill those roles.

What we can gather is that Arsenal are looking for a new spine.

CENTRE-BACK 

This one shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Arsene Wenger is fond of telling anyone who’ll listen that we have three top quality centre-backs. However, one of those (Thomas Vermaelen) has had such a poor season that he isn’t trusted to start despite the fact he is supposedly the team’s captain. Furthermore, beyond the trio of Vermaelen, Koscielny and Mertesacker, we are woefully short of depth.

Johan Djourou and Sebastien Squillaci are likely to depart the club in the summer, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vermaelen join them. Typically, Arsenal lose at least one major player each summer, and this year could be Vermaelen’s turn. The Belgian’s stock is  still high enough for him to earn a move to one of Europe’s glamour clubs, and Arsene might see this as an ideal time to cash in on a player who has under-performed for more than a year now.

I have no idea who Arsenal will look to bring in. Ashley Williams has been mentioned and would certainly make sense, although I suspect he’ll be reunited with his former boss Brendan Rogers at Liverpool. A player with that kind of Premier League experience would be useful though. Wenger must surely regret not going the extra mile to secure the signature of a young Gary Cahill from Bolton two years ago.

CENTRAL MIDFIELDER 

When Arsenal sold Alex Song to Barcelona, Arsene Wenger elected to replace him with a repositioned Mikel Arteta and a rehabilitated Abou Diaby.

While Arteta has generally been consistent in the ‘pivote’ role – only Santi Cazorla has started more games this season – Diaby has spent the majority of the season injured before tearing an anterior cruciate ligament at a crucial point in one of his many ‘come-backs’.

The good news is that Arsene Wenger has already identified his replacement. My understanding is that preliminary talks are taking place as early as this week between Arsenal and representatives for the Lyon midfielder Maxime Gonalons.

Gonalons is a 24-year old France international, who was made Lyon captain by former-Gunner Remi Garde this year. Garde and Wenger are still close, and it seems that the former may have a given Gonalons a glowing reference. He’s been linked several times in the press, but from what I’m told this has developed beyond the usual transfer tittle-tattle.

This is certainly one to watch as the summer approaches.

STRIKER

Our greatest need is for a new centre-forward.

Olivier Giroud has had a good first season in English football, but it’s clear we require an alternative to the powerful Frenchman. With Giroud hoping to kick on in his second campaign, it will be tempting for Arsene to bring in someone who can play second fiddle to the handsome target man.

However, as I said on last week’s arseblog arsecast, my ideal would be to bring in a marquee name. A big signing would help fill the aching void still left after Van Persie’s departure, and transform the atmosphere around the club. As for Giroud: if he is going to develop in to the player we need him to be, he will respond to the increased competition and fight for his spot.

Stefan Jovetic is the name being linked most frequently in the press, and you can understand why. He is a different type of forward to Giroud – mobile, inventive and technically-gifted. He offers a similarly diverse threat to that of Luis Suarez, only without the biting.

Manchester United have shown the value of adding a star striker to your ranks. Let’s hope Arsenal follow suit this summer.