Arsecast Extra 35: Derby Day Edition

I’m interrupting my holiday on the stormy isle of Mallorca to bring you the latest Arsecast Extra, recorded between Dublin and the wee town of Pollensa.

Unsurprisingly, the focus is primarily on that slightly underwhelming 1-1 derby draw. We discuss the bizarre team selection, Flamini’s costly error, and our feelings about a slightly disappointing start to the campaign. It’s a barrel of laughs.

Don’t forget, you can subscribe to the Arsecast Extra on iTunes by clicking here. Alternatively, if you want to subscribe directly to the feed URL you can do so too (I’m told this spares you the dastardly delays from iTunes).

Haven’t had time to put together a proper blog on the game – I actually missed a good chunk of the first-half due to delayed flight – but here are some other bits and pieces I wrote for it.

On Alexis Sanchez, for ESPN:

Alexis calculates that his drag-backs and dribbles are a chance worth taking. In future, Wenger must show similar courage in his team selections.

And on a potential solution to our midfield injury problems, for Bleacher Report:

Oxlade-Chamberlain was excellent against Tottenham, with his powerful running posing a constant menace to the Spurs defence. However,Wenger has long insisted that the England international might develop into a top central midfielder. The spate of injuries could be a chance to test that theory once again.

Galatasaray tomorrow. A win is needed. Come on Arsenal.

Audioblog: Immediate reaction to the Southampton defeat – Podolski, Rosicky & more

So there we have it: Arsenal are out of the League Cup.

There are only four competitions we can win this season. That’s one down.

Listen to the audioboom above for my immediate thoughts as I walked away from the ground. I’ll have something more considered for you tomorrow.

Aston Villa 0-3 Arsenal: Three points in four minutes

Arsenal blasted three goals in just over three minutes to blow Aston Villa away.

Aston Villa 0-3 Arsenal
ESPN Player Ratings

Well, that was just what we needed. Arsene Wenger has a fantastic record at Villa Park, and yesterday it brought him everything he would have wished for: a straightforward three points, and goals and garlands for the under-fire duo of Mesut Ozil and Danny Welbeck.

It might have been so different. Amidst the understandable glee over our first comfortable win of the season, the significance of an early Wojciech Szczesny save has been slightly forgotten. With the game balanced at 0-0, the Pole produced a Schmeichel-esque star-jump to deny Ciaran Clark at close range. On such things can a game hinge.

That fact seemed to be somewhat forgotten after the defeat in Dortmund. Had Welbeck tucked away that presentable opportunity at 0-0, Arsenal would have been ahead and the course of the game diverted. The struggles to keep the Dortmund tide at bay would have been hastily rewritten as last-ditch heroics.

The criticism of the team after the Dortmund game always seemed too much, too soon. Arsenal were really good for long spells against Manchester City, and many fans seemed happy to conveniently forget that off the back of one duff display.

This team is still finding its feet. Arsene has refreshed his attack, and that has prompted a reshuffling of the midfield. At Villa Park, we took a major step forward by reverting back to the system that served us so well for much of last season. The manager lined his side up in a 4-2-3-1, with Jack Wilshere dropping to the bench and taking the 4-1-4-1 with him.

Arsenal immediately looked more at ease. Mesut Ozil shone in a central role, but just as integral to our success was the fact that he had Aaron Ramsey tucked in behind him. From a personal point of view, Ramsey had a poor game: his passing radar is malfunctioning badly, and in his desperation to regain form he is attempting flicks and ticks of unnecessary extravagance. However, playing in a deeper role he was able to provide Mikel Arteta with support and help suppress an energetic Aston Villa midfield. He was below par, but brought balance.

That said, Ozil does deserve special praise. Whatever he says publicly, Arsene Wenger must have toyed with the idea of leaving the German out. However, his faith was repaid when Ozil made two telling contributions in as many minutes to effectively sew up the game.

First he ran beyond the defence to meet a well-weighted Welbeck ball. With the goalkeeper advancing towards him, Ozil relied on his technique, passing the ball expertly in to the corner.

The opening goal gave Arsenal and Ozil’s confidence a real boost, and within seconds they had doubled their advantage. This time, the playmaker reverted to his conventional role as supplier, playing a teasing ball across the six yard box for Welbeck, who capped an intelligent piece of movement by thumping home his first Arsenal goal.

It’s great for Welbeck that he’s got off the mark. The scrutiny he was coming under was absurd given that he’d played just two games for the club against seriously tough opposition. It took Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry around eight games to open their Arsenal accounts. Olivier Giroud didn’t score until the he was picked to face Coventry in the Capital One Cup. Yaya Sanogo, as we all know, has yet to break his duck. That Welbeck has done so inside three games should relieve some of the undue pressure he was under.

I hope so, because he was excellent yesterday. It was often said of Ian Rush that he was the best defensive forward in the league. Welbeck is similar: he sprints back to harry the opposition, ensuring they are never allowed a moment’s rest. When he does get the ball, he uses it well: yesterday he completed 31 of 32 attempted passes. Given the tight spaces centre-forwards operate in, that’s outstanding. Crucially, he also seems to be striking up a good relationship with Ozil. Welbeck has the pace and movement to thrive on Ozil’s creativity, and their combination play yesterday was really exciting.

Kieran Gibbs’ cross was diverted in by Aly Cissokho to gift Arsenal a third goal inside little over three minutes. Yes, Villa collapsed, but Arsenal showed an unfamiliar ruthlessness to profit. It’s certainly nice to be on this side of a capitulation, and it was satisfying too to see us control the game so effectively in the second half.

Both Ozil and Welbeck are likely to get a rest on Tuesday when Arsenal face Southampton in the Capital One Cup. Arsene will want to keep some of the explosive powder that blew Villa away dry for derby day.

 ps. You may notice there’s been a bit of a redesign on the blog. I’m sure there’ll be some issues to iron out, but the good news is that the comments section should now be working once again. Please do feel free to contribute! Cheers.

Dortmund 2-0 Arsenal: An apocalyptic performance, but not the end of the world

Arsenal were dreadful against Dortmund. Watching this felt like looking at a cruelly-drawn caricature of a bad Arsenal display. Jurgen Klopp’s team were outstanding, and had us on the back-foot for 90 minutes.

That said, I feel like I’m a little more positive than most in the wake of this match. I think it’s because I saw encouraging signs against City that I’m not prepared to write off on the back of one horrendous night. There’s a certain novelty about our squad. We’ve got some shiny new toys to play with, and until they’re settled in I’m refraining from definitive judgement.

I can understand the frustration and anger that envelops the Arsenal fanbase this morning. Arsene Wenger might have loosened the purse strings, but he doesn’t seem to know how to tighten the defence.

It’s the repetitive nature of these defeats that’s so infuriating. Wenger’s team make the same errors time after time, marching lemming-like towards high-profile defeat after high-profile defeat. It’s tempting to wheel out the same blog as I do after each of those loses, citing a lack of defensive discipline and the absence of a powerful holding midfielder. To be honest, talk of missed signings feels like a bit of a red herring. The problem is as much to do with tactics as transfers.

Still, I’m optimistic. We haven’t yet hit form this season, but oddly I find that reassuring. I feel like there’s a good XI in our current squad, but Arsene is yet to achieve the alchemic balance to see that translate on to the pitch. It must be true that the best is yet to come.

It’s a dirty word but we’re a team in transition. We’ve had that label in the past when coping with the loss of a major star. That wasn’t transition — that was recovery. This time, the change has been instigated deliberately, not forced upon us. In signing Alexis and Welbeck, Wenger has indicated an intended shift in style. He wants us to a play a more intense pressing game. He wants us to use our speed to win the ball high up the pitch, long before it reaches that dreaded defensive midfield area, and punish opponents with rapier counter-attacks. In short, he wants us to be more like Dortmund.

That kind of strategic shift takes time to implement. We lack fluidity and we lack balance. Both will come with time.

We can’t wait forever. Transition is only bearable if it arrives at a decent destination — none of us want to watch much more of this purgatorial pish. Call me crazy, but I think someone will be on the end of a hiding when this team eventually clicks in to gear. Let’s hope it’s Villa this weekend.

Further Reading:

Borussia Dortmund vs. Arsenal – Player Ratings | ESPN

Why Arsenal may have to wait for Welbeck | ESPN

Arsenal 2-2 Manchester City: Might we be this year’s Liverpool?

This game reminded me a little of the 1-1 with Everton last year…
From beginning to end – and from end-to-end – this was a frenetic and fabulous spectacle. In truth, either side could have come away with three points. This was a game Arsenal could have lost, and yet arguably should have won.

The reason it reminds me of that Everton match – apart from the calibre of entertainment of show – is that at one stage it seemed we were going to make a real statement with a victory. It felt like we were on the verge of a landmark win. Instead, a late equaliser rather took the wind out of our sails.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of encouraging signs. Jack Wilshere and Alexis were both outstanding. Amid the hurry to hail Diego Costa as sliced bread’s superior successor, his impressive acclimatisation to the Premier League has gone almost unnoticed.

For more detailed thoughts on the game, check out my Player Ratings for ESPN.

Danny Welbeck nearly had the perfect start…
I’m in the camp that says his effort off the post was unlucky rather than profligate. I liked the imagination and confidence he showed to take that shot on. When Yaya Sanogo plays, he looks more likely to chip a tooth running in to a post than chip an international goalkeeper.

The injury to Mathieu Debuchy was horribly predictable…

Arsene Wenger’s decision not to strengthen his defensive options before deadline day was effectively the equivalent of climbing in to a bull pen, naked except for bright red body paint, and bellowing “come on then you cow twat let’s see what you’ve got”. The boss was asking for trouble, and it has promptly arrived with Debuchy’s severe ankle knack. If the latest reports are to be believed, Nacho Monreal has also suffered a minor injury. We are down to the bare bones, and it feels like only a matter of time until those bones snap under the weight of a gruelling schedule. We are in the midst of a mini ‘Death Run’. Let’s hope the rest of our defenders can survive it.

Mesut Ozil looks lost…

…and I don’t think it’s anything to do with playing on the left. It seemed to me that he was granted the freedom to roam wherever he likes from that flank, frequently swapping with Alexis Sanchez on the other wing and even drifting in to his preferred central role. The heat maps appear to verify that.

The greater problem is what happens when he has the ball at his feet – or rather, what doesn’t. According to Opta, Ozil has 3 assists in his last 19 games. I think I’m right in saying he’s only scored one goal in the same period. For a player with his undoubted talent that is well below-par.

I sensed a bit of a sea-change in attitudes towards Ozil after the City game. Thus far, while he has attracted criticism from outside the club, the Arsenal fans have been stoutly defensive of him. That’s shifting. I think it’s partly due to the fact that we have another expensive plaything in Alexis Sanchez, and I don’t think it’s helped by the fact that Ozil is now being directly compared with Cesc Fabregas, who is excelling at Chelsea.

I’m not sure what’s required for Ozil to click back in to gear, but I’m not convinced that playing him through the middle will be the panacea some suggest.

Could we be this season’s Liverpool?
Watching the City game, I wondered if we might be capable of being this season’s Liverpool. Hold your vomit, readers: I mean it as a good thing. Sort of.

The frenzied high-press we employed in the game’s early stages was reminiscent of the tactics Brendan Rodgers used to blow teams away for much of 2013/14. We should know: we fell victims to it ourselves. A front line of Alexis, Welbeck and Walcott certainly bears comparison with the trio of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. Both sets of strikers are characterised by relentless movement and blistering pace. If we get our attacking blend right, we could be as irresistible as the Anfield side were last term.

Unfortunately, at present our team also seems to share some of Liverpool’s defensive vulnerabilities. It’s vital we iron those out if we want to climb up the Premier League table.

For more…

…be sure to tune in to this week’s Arsecast Extra over on Arseblog.