Fulham 0 – 1 Arsenal: Thoughts on red cards, Giroud, and Suarez

Fulham 0 – 1 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This was a dismal display from Arsenal…
…but it really doesn’t matter. At the end of a season, you’ll often hear managers saying they face “five cup finals”, or some such guff. And here’s the thing: no-one remembers who played well in a cup final. They remember who won.

Arsenal’s record in the seven games since the North London Derby reads six wins and one draw.  It’s a remarkable run. Prior to Spurs, we’d won just 46% of our league games. Since then, it’s 83%.

Steven Sidwell couldn’t really argue with his red card…
Partly because a card is an inanimate object incapable of discourse. Also because the tackle was more clumsy than calculated, but it was still dangerous. Arteta was lucky to escape without injury, and Sidwell had to go.

Arsenal failed to impose themselves upon the ten men…
The attacking trio of Giroud, Walcott and Cazorla were particularly poor. Walcott spent much of his time charging in to crowded central channels when he would have been better off stretching an outnumbered Fulham defence by providing width on the overlap.

It was satisfying to finally score from a set-piece…
Our failure to convert more of our corners and free-kicks is inexcusable. If the brain-dead orcs of Stoke can manage to rehearse and execute a few set-pieces, we should be able to as well. Watching Santi Cazorla fire a corner in to the first defender is like watching Picasso fail to draw a stick man. In this instance, Theo Walcott’s lofted free-kick was neatly converted by the combination of Koscielny and Mertesacker.

Giroud has little chance of an appeal…
Even though his tackle had all the force of a Gervinho shot at goal, his foot was clearly over the ball. Even if Arsene Wenger goes back on his post-match assertion that a red card was fair, Giroud has little chance of being let off.

Perhaps Arsene’s readiness to accept the referee’s decision is borne out of concern that Giroud may be burning out. The Frenchman was particularly poor at Craven Cottage, and taking him out of the firing line may be no bad thing. It is maddening, however, that we have no obvious replacement for the central striker role. I will forever regard Arsene’s reluctance to bid for Demba Ba as one of the most baffling decisions of his reign to date.

Results elsewhere…
…didn’t go exactly as we hoped. With Spurs facing City and Chelsea at Liverpool, this was a weekend on which we could have reasonably expected both of our rivals to lose. Instead, Tottenham came from behind to comprehensively beat City, while Chelsea were pegged back to earn a point at Anfield.

It makes the race for the top four incredibly tight. It’s important to remember that Spurs and Chelsea’s game in hand is against each other, so they can’t both take maximum points. At this stage, my gut instinct is that Chelsea’s fixture list is simply too tough to navigate without dropping points, so the North London clubs have the advantage for now. Three wins from our remaining four games will probably be enough for us, barring an extraordinary sequence of results from the other two.

The first of those games is against Manchester United, who could well be Champions by then. I’d certainly rather face a side hungover from a title-winning party than a side on the verge of winning the league at the home of a rival club.

On Luis Suarez…
Luis Suarez is a despicable human being. We’ve known that for some time.

In the aftermath of his latest transgression – biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic – he has been widely criticised by the football media. The same football media who have spent much of the season praising him and may have already voted for him as the Football Writer’s Footballer of the Year.

Gary Lineker has begun a campaign last night to see Suarez removed from the PFA Player of the Year Shortlist. I can’t help but think: isn’t it strange that it’s his behaviour today that has precipitated this reaction, rather than Suarez’s past behaviour?

Don’t exclude him from a shortlist because he bit someone. Exclude him from all shortlists – exclude him from English football entirely – because of his racist behaviour. It’s a thousand times worse; a thousand times more significant. I’ve been sickened and disappointed by how easily English football seems to have forgiven Suarez for his proven abuse of Patrice Evra.

Pundits will queue up to ask what kind of example Suarez biting Ivanovic sets to kids. I’d ask them instead what sort of example their season-long praise of a man guilty of proven racist behaviour sets.

I recognise that Suarez is a fantastic footballer. But that, like the biting, is something of a red herring.

This season, some Premier League players chose not to wear t-shirts that bore the slogan ‘Kick it out’. It saddens me that the stark and important message of that campaign seems to have been forgotten.

Arsenal 0 – 0 Everton: Giroud misfires in stalemate

Arsenal 0 – 0 Everton
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I’ve seen this hailed as a great match…
I’m not sure I necessarily subscribe to that point of view.  The first half was stodgy, made more turgid by some poor refereeing. Neil Swarbrick allowed Everton to get away with a few too many physical challenges – Darron Gibson in particular was lucky to stay on the field after two hacks at Theo Walcott – and Arsenal’s passing game lacked the fizz to escape Everton’s clutching and cleaving.

The second half was a marked improvement as Arsenal finally began to build up some momentum. However, we were unable to capitalise and a tiring Everton escaped with a draw.

The three best chances fell to Olivier Giroud…
…and arguably, the Frenchman should have walked away with the match-ball. First he stretched to meet an Aaron Ramsey cross but poked his effort wide. Then a goal-bound effort from close-rage was diverted away by some superb defending from Sylvain Distin. Finally, he fired over with his right-foot after creating space inside the penalty box.

I’ll be kind and say he was unlucky in front of goal. However, the very best forwards don’t rely on luck. Giroud is a good player, but he is not exceptional. It’s clear to me that acquiring a world-class centre-forward is one of the most obvious ways in which Arsene Wenger can improve the squad this summer.

Giroud is popular among the fans, but that oughtn’t disguise our need for someone superior. His defenders will point to the 17 goals he has scored, and with some justification, but I’m reminded of Emmanuel Adebayor in 2007/08. The Togolese totem-pole racked up 30 goals, but was rebuffed in most quarters with cries of, “Well how many should he have scored given the chances he’s missed?”.

The same is true of Giroud. For every goal he’s scored, there’s another he’s let slip by. What’s more, unlike in 2008 we don’t have an Eduardo or Van Persie on the bench to support him.

Jack Wilshere struggled again…
Perhaps it’s just a fitness issue. Perhaps not.

In the past two games Arsene Wenger has deployed him in the number ten role. He’s done it to compensate for the absence of Tomas Rosicky and maintain continuity with a midfield shape that’s proved successful in recent weeks. However, I’m beginning to wonder just how suited to that position Wilshere is.

Wilshere is a player with immense vertical drive. He can burst past two or three players in succession. That quality is best deployed deeper in midfield, where he can open the game up with a moment of skill and acceleration.

In the more advanced role, the sole flaw in his game – his one-footedness – becomes painfully clear. His turning circle is relatively wide, and he becomes surprisingly predictably as he is constantly forced back on to his favoured left-foot.

Tomas Rosicky is admittedly similarly one-footed when striking the ball – his preference  for the oughtside of his right over his left-foot is infamous – but he is a tighter dribbler than Jack. He turns on a six-pence. Jack’s spin is still very tidy, but requires space more akin to a ten pence piece.

It was notable that Arsenal managed to build up much more momentum when Santi Cazorla switched in to the number ten role. His two-footedness lends a genuine unpredictability to the Arsenal attack – he can go both inside and outside his marker. He’s also more comfortable dropping in to wide areas, which enables us to create an overlap and get crosses in to the box.

On the night, Wilshere ended up being outshone by Aaron Ramsey, who was again outstanding. He’s playing with confidence now, and it manifests itself in a busy physicality that makes me think he could have a genuine future as a first-team starter.

Szczesny should re-think his kicks…
In this game he lumped the ball up toward Giroud time after time. However, the Frenchman was superbly marshalled by the towering Fellaini. He barely won a single flick.

I don’t know why we’ve abandoned the policy of kicking towards Sagna that was so successful last season. The right-back would win knock-down after knock-down for Theo Walcott to race on to. Against the diminutive Baines and Pienaar, it seemed like an obvious ploy to use.

One for Arsene to come back to.

Arsenal looked tired by the end…
The likes of Gibbs, Arteta, Ramsey and Cazorla were shattered. It’s been an exhausting period for the Gunners, but they’ve come out of it well. This result is not a bad one by any means, especially if coupled with a win at Fulham on Saturday.

The five fixtures we have remaining produced four losses and one draw last season. Arsenal will need to turn that round entirely if we’re to secure a top four spot.

 

Arsenal 3 – 1 Norwich: Arsenal set for a sprint finish

Arsenal 3 – 1 Norwich
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Anyone expecting an easy ride had clearly forgotten last year…
When these two sides met at the Emirates in May of 2012, Arsenal’s Champions League destiny had finally fallen in to their own hands – their butter-clad, slippery hands. Arsenal slumped to a 3-3 draw, and only the remarkable incompetence of Tottenham Hotspur allowed us to wrest back control of the race for fourth place.

Yesterday was very nearly the same story. Norwich took the lead through a brilliantly-executed set piece, and Arsenal toiled for much of the game.

However, eventually we managed to drag ourselves back in to the lead – and unlike last year, we held on to it too.

Arsene Wenger deserves credit…
For long periods of the game I found myself wondering how  Chris Hughton had managed to draw such impressive performances from a decidedly average XI. By contrast, Arsene’s Arsenal were performing well below the expected standard of a fleet of internationals. In terms of motivation and organisation, Hughton appeared the clear winner.

However, Arsene has enough experience to know when it’s not working. He is occasionally criticised for being too inflexible with his substitutions, but on this occasion he called for Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski as soon as Norwich took the lead. He was brave enough to withdraw the out-of-sorts Jack Wilshere, and later gambled by switching Aaron Ramsey to right-back and deploying Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the centre.

The conviction Arsene showed to make those changes ultimately won us the game.

Lukas Podolski is among the very best players in this Arsenal squad…
Each of the subs made a crucial impact. Walcott grabbed an assist and should have been awarded a penalty and The Ox’s direct running created the crucial second goal. The real game-changer, however, was Lukas Podolski.

No player in the Arsenal squad represents such a consistent menace to the opposition goal. On the ball, Podolski is our best finisher and ruthlessly efficient in the penalty area. Off the ball, his movement is intelligent and he shows a real willingness to play off Olivier Giroud.

Although Podolski is comfortably one of Arsenal’s best eleven players, he has not always been in Arsene Wenger’s best XI. Some whispers suggest his spell on the sidelines is explained by an ankle problem that requires surgery.

If that is truly the case, cameos like this explain why the club have decided to wait until the summer before proceeding with an operation. Podolski can make a vital contribution between now and the end of May.

Let’s credit the officials who get it right…
The penalty given to Arsenal has been described by the Norwich management and a host of pundits as “controversial”. Not because it wasn’t a foul: no-one can deny that Olivier Giroud was wrestled to the ground as he went for the ball.

Instead, the supposed controversy stems from the fact it was the linesman, rather than the referee, who awarded the spot-kick.

This shouldn’t matter a jot. The referee had a stinker of a game, and the linesman should be commended for making an immaculate call from such a distance. It’s absurd that the question of whether or not a linesman should be allowed to make such a call has become secondary to the more important question of whether or not he got it right.

He did, so hats off to him. They’re called assistant referees for a reason.

Time for a sprint finish…
If Arsenal beat Everton and Fulham this week, we could be seven points clear of Spurs before they play their next game. They’ll have games in hand, of course, but it’s always better to have the points on the board rather in deal in hypotheticals.

The match against the Toffees will be a difficult one, but Arsenal have some serious momentum now.

The cannon is rolling in to position. Time to blow away the opposition.

WBA 1 – 2 Arsenal: Rosicky the run-in expert to the rescue

WBA 1 – 2 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Tomas Rosicky is a bit like Wigan. Or blossom. Come spring, he comes to life.

It’s freezing in England. Going by the weather, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were still gripped by midwinter. A more accurate calendar is created by the form of Wigan and Rosicky. The changing of the seasons is more reliably marked by the sight of an energetic Czech midfielder darting about the Premier League than it is by any shift in weather patterns.

If Rosicky ever does leave Arsenal, perhaps he should consider joining Roberto Martinez’s side. With their powers combined they could probably go from relegation strugglers to title-challengers between March and the end of May.

For now, Arsene Wenger is eager to keep him. It’s easy to see why. Arsenal have players with greater technical gifts, but few who marry those gifts with such a degree of hard work and commitment.

Goals have been hard to come by for Rosicky, but the double he scored at the Hawthorns showed a rare predatory instinct. His first was a diving header to divert a wild strike from Gervinho. The Ivorian received praise from some for an ‘assist’, which I think might be putting it a bit strongly. Whilst Gervinho’s direct style and clever footwork certainly contributed to the goal, only Rosicky’s intervention transformed a miscued shot in to an effective cross.

His second goal was also reliant on lightning reactions. Aaron Ramsey broke well and crossed to find the number seven. After his first shot was saved by Ben Foster, Rosicky raced on to the rebound and fired smartly in to the corner.

From that point on it should have been a comfortable Arsenal victory, but that’s just not our style. With 20 minutes to go, Per Mertesacker was dismissed for a clumsy tackle as the last man. James Morrison converted the resulting penalty, and suddenly Arsenal found themselves very much under the cosh.

In their panic, Arsenal were completely incapable of retaining possession. Arsenal invited West Brom on to them, and only luck and last-ditch defended prevented the Baggies from finding an equaliser. This fixture was our final game of last season, and will be remembered for Arsene Wenger clinging nervously to Pat Rice. This game was every bit as finely balanced, and you could have forgiven Arsene for seeking a hug from the far less cuddly Steve Bould.

The last passage of the game was summed up by the final few seconds of stoppage time, as Ben Foster was allowed to dribble fully forty yards up the pitch unchallenged before launching a long ball in to our penalty area.

Fortunately, Arsenal survived. Few wins this season have been as satisfactory. It was gritty, it was grubby, and it was great. The three points take us in to the top four, with the onus now firmly on Spurs and Chelsea in their games tomorrow.

The continuing progress of our rivals in the Europa League means this pattern will be repeated between now and the end of the season. We will have more opportunities to take the initiative and crank up the pressure on the other two London clubs.

Since losing the Derby at Spurs, Arsenal have won four games, scoring ten goals and conceding just two. We have the momentum, and we have Tomas Rosicky.

The omens are good. We just need to keep it going.

Arsenal 4 – 1 Reading: Arsenal win on Gervinho roulette

Gervinho shows off his Paolo Di Canio impression

Arsenal 4 – 1 Reading
Match Report | Arsene’s reaction | Highlights 

Fair play to Arsene…
I raised my eyebrows when I first saw the line-up he’d selected, but the result redeemed him. The two surprise inclusions were Gervinho and Bacary Sagna at the expense of Carl Jenkinson and Lukas Podolski, but both players demonstrated their worth with impressive displays.

Let’s celebrate Gervinho when he’s good…
…because we’re certainly quick to criticise him when he’s bad. The Ivorian was terrific in the wide attacking role usually occupied by Theo Walcott. Like Walcott, he was clearly encouraged by the manager to dart inside and support Olivier Giroud whenever possible. While the Englishman is undoubtedly a better finisher, Gervinho’s movement and dribbling ability is probably superior, and provided a constant headache for the Reading defence. We’re used to seeing Gervinho cause chaos on the pitch, but rarely for the right reasons.

I don’t expect this performance to mark any kind of pivotal moment in Gervinho’s Arsenal career. I don’t think he’s about to embark on a long run characterised by reliability and consistency. The goals and assists will always be accompanied by glaring moments of miscontrol. The flaws in his technique mean he will always remain unpredictable and erratic. However, every so often it will click and work out for him. When it does, we should be grateful and gracious.

Santi Cazorla was far too good for Reading…
Watching him, I began to worry that if we continue our gradual decline he will soon be too good for Arsenal as well. Since moving to England, he has been selected for the Spanish national team with increasing regularity. Among that group of players he represents something of an anomaly as he does not play for either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Not yet, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if Arsenal were eventually tested by a bid from one of the La Liga giants. Cazorla is a rare gem, and the twin powers of Spanish football know it.

Regardless of what happens down the line, I’m determined to enjoy him while I can. If you love football, you love Santi.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s form is on an upwards curvature at last…
Until recently his season had been full of frustration. His potential is undoubted, but we’ve only seen flashes of his ability during this campaign. However, after an ebullient performance for England against San Marino, this cameo was full of the powerful running and energetic effervescence which built Chamberlain’s reputation as one of the brightest young talents in European football.

The table…
…is a little misleading, due to our game in hand. Currently, Chelsea are just two points ahead, with Spurs a further three in-front.  However, our North London rivals have played a game more.

It’s incredibly close, and all we can do is continue to win our games and hope for more slip-ups from Tottenham and Chelsea. Both clubs are competing on more than one front, while Arsenal are have the advantage of a single and solitary focus. We know what we need to do. Yesterday was certainly a step in the right direction.