Sunderland Preview: The long uphill climb begins

Arsenal play host to Sunderland today.  It’s a meeting between two teams at the wrong end of the table, desperate to get their respective seasons back on track.  According to rumours in the media, Sunderland boss Steve Bruce is on the verge of the sack.  It is a measure of how poor our start has been that at kick-off we have just one more point and a significantly worse goal difference.

Like us, Sunderland underwent major rebuilding in the summer, bringing in a host of new players and losing a couple of key stars in Jordan Henderson and Asamoah Gyan.  Unlike us, they do not expect to be challenging for honours at the end of the season.  A few wins on the bounce will take them up in to mid-table and back in line with their expectations.  Arsenal have a far greater hill to climb.   We have an obligation not only to pull ourselves clear of the relegation zone, but towards the distant goal of the top four.

At the moment, this feels like a relegation six-pointer.  It ought to feel like a home banker.  Although Sunderland’s away form has been surprisingly decent (only one defeat for their first three games), Arsenal have to win today.  Our next league fixtures are home ties against the Mackems and then Stoke.  Six points would make a tremendous difference to our confidence, and almost double our total for the season.

There are, however, new problems to overcome.  We have lost our most consistent and reliable defender, Bacary Sagna, for a period of several months.  There are serious doubts over the ability of the obvious deputy, Carl Jenkinson, who has played most of his football in the non-league and still carries the scars of an Old Trafford mauling.  Nevertheless, he’ll start today, and Arsene has unsurprisingly declared his confidence in the young man:

“He has top qualities. His fitness is outstanding, he’s quick, he has good crosses and he is good going forward. He needs to adjust a little bit his defensive game. But we are working with him and he is improving.”

Per Mertesacker, Laurent Kosicelny and Kieran Gibbs attempting to help him acclimatise, and they’ll be pleased not to have to deal with Nicklas Bendtner, who is prevented from playing for Sunderland by the conditions of his loan deal.

Alex Song, Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey will most likely patrol the midfield, with Gervinho and Theo Walcott flanking Robin van Persie.

On paper, Arsenal should win this.  In reality, one can’t help but have doubts.  This side has betrayed our faith so many times already this season.  Arsene often speaks about the length of time it takes for the team to regain confidence.  Arguably, it will take even longer for the fans to regain confidence in the team.  Only once that happens, and the healing process is complete, will the Emirates become the fortress it ought to be.

Let’s hope that process starts today.

Arsene Wenger and the world’s worst handbrake

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Bacary Sagna writhes in agony as Arsenal go down at Spurs

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The table makes unpleasant reading for Arsenal fans today.  Spurs are in the top six; Arsenal are in the bottom six.  If Tottenham were to win their game in hand, they’d have more than double our points tally.  Seven games in to the season, we have less points than the promoted trio of Swansea, Norwich and QPR.

After the game, Arsene trotted out the now-familiar refrain of Arsenal’s problematic braking system:

“In the first half I felt we played a little but with the handbrake on.”

Maybe.  But I thought a handbrake was supposed to stop you going downhill fast?

This wasn’t, by any stretch, our worst performance of the season.  But that only makes the fact we failed to take any points away from it all the more damning.  The first half was a fairly even affair, and we should have taken the lead when great work from Van Persie down the left saw the Dutchman cut the ball back to the onrushing Gervinho, who put his effort wide at the near post.  It was a fantastic chance, and underlined some of my concerns about the Ivorian.  When he signed I compared him to Chelsea’s Salomon Kalou, and it was as much for his inconsistency and erratic decision-making as his pace, trickery and versatility.  It’s clear Arsene is a big admirer of the winger, but at this level you simply have to put chances like this one away.

Spurs had opportunities of their own.  When Alex Song overplayed in defence, Wojciech Szczesny spread himself well to block Scott Parker’s goalbound effort.  There was little he could do, however, about the goal that gave Spurs the lead.

Rafael Van der Vaart uses his arm to control the ball

When Emmanuel Adebayor brought the ball under control on the edge of our area, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna were nowhere to be seen.  Adebayor looped the ball over Mertesacker, for Van der Vaart to bring it down and finish smartly in to the far corner.  The German immediately appealed for handball, and whilst replays yesterday still left me feeling it was a marginal decision, the photograph on the right provides little room for doubt.

With Van der Vaart already on a booking for a lunge at Kieran Gibbs, a deliberate handball could even have seen him dismissed, which would have altered the pattern of the game enormously.  Some suggested he was lucky not to go for his celebration, which saw him embrace fans in the crowd, but that’s a rule I’m neither fond nor keen to take advantage of.

The start of the second half saw Arsenal looking purposeful, and we swiftly had an equaliser – Alex Song danced to the byling and pulled a left-footed cross in the box for Aaron Ramsey to tap in.

From then on, however, we simply failed to impose ourselves.  Spurs grew as the game wore on, switching from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 to combat our midfield trio.

The winning goal was one strewn with errors.  First Arteta and Ramsey were slow to react to a quick Spurs throw in; then when the ball was cleared Kyle Walker was not closed down and allowed room to hit a screamer from range.  Powerful though the shot was, Wojciech Szczesny (who had produced another outstanding save to deny Adebayor) will know he ought to have done better, allowing himself to be beaten by a late swerve on the ball.

At this stage there were still twenty minutes to go, but instead of laying the Tottenham goal to siege, we lay down and meekly accepted our fate.  Even when we threw Per Mertesacker upfront in stoppage time, we seemed reluctant to hoist the ball towards him.  There was a lack of urgency and a clear lack of belief.

At full-time Arsene Wenger shook hands with Harry Redknapp and his assistant, before being pursued by the demented figure of Clive Allen, who felt he’d been overlooked for a handshake.  Allen himself overlooked the fact that he’s about one above ‘kit man’ in the Spurs pecking order, and that he did little to endear himself to Arsene by giving him a shove on the touchline in this fixture last year.

As I said, it wasn’t our worst performance of the season, and young Francis Coquelin can be very proud of the job he did holding midfield.  However, there were still plenty of negatives.  Aaron Ramsey, goal aside, had a dreadful game and seems to be making countless wrong decisions on the ball.  His performance highlighted a longer-term problem – without Wilshere or Diaby, we don’t have anyone in central midfield with the acceleration to beat a man.  It means our game is inevitably slower and more predictable.

Defensive organisation was again an issue, and both Gervinho and Walcott will have reason to feel they didn’t contribute enough to turn our possession in to chances.  The greatest blow could yet be the injury to Bacary Sagna, who is expected to miss three months after breaking a fibula.  Sagna remains an outstanding right-back and relatively consistent performer, and without experienced cover could prove to be a huge loss.  Although Carl Jenkinson replaced him yesterday, I wonder if Coquelin might be given a go in a role he played several times for Lorient last season.

Another international break now.  A fortnight of stewing over how to put this right.  Just what we don’t need.

Derby Day Preview

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Hello all.  As fate would have it I am unwell on Derby Day, so this will be a very swift, digestible preview.  Which is ironic, as my stomach seems unwilling to digest anything at the moment.  Let’s begin with team news.

Laurent Koscielny is almost certainly out, and with Sebastien Squillaci lacking match practise Alex Song is expected to partner Per Mertesacker at centre-back.  The goalie and right-back pick themselves, but Arsene has a tougher call to make between Andre Santos and Kieran Gibbs.  I expect him to opt for the young Englishman, though Santos’ performance in midweek will certainly have given the manager food for thought.

Wojciech Szczesny will keep goal behind the defence, and he has revealed that Arsenal have jettisoned their much-heralded zonal marking system:

“We have decided to change it since Blackburn. It really doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it correctly and it works. I think zonal works better for us. We have worked on it during pre-season where we never conceded from a set piece and it looked like it was working.

We did concede a stupid goal at Blackburn [Alex Song’s 50th-minute own goal when no defender dealt with a free-kick] and I hope the man-marking will work for us now.”

I do find it slightly disconcerting that after a summer working on a tactic to counteract our set-piece frailties has been abandoned quite so quickly.  Hopefully the man-marking system proves a little more effective than it did last season.

Song’s place in midfield is likely to be taken by Emmanuel Frimpong.  Arteta and Ramsey are guaranteed to start, and it’ll be one of Frimpong, Coquelin or Rosicky completing the trio.

Robin van Persie will lead the line, whilst the selection of the wingers will be dependent entirely on the fitness tests of Theo Walcott and Gervinho – Walcott is considered more likely to be ready.  Beyond those two, Arshavin, Rosicky, Benayoun and Chamberlain are all in contention.

It’s a massive game.  We got hammered at Old Trafford, but we were never realistically going to compete with United.  This season, our immediate competition are the Spurs and Liverpools of this world.  Defeat today would leave us adrift and having a significant hillock to climb to reach the Champions League.  Victory, however, would take us above our local rivals and within a one-game swing of Liverpool.

A final note for those going to the game: by all means boo Emmanuel Adebayor if you want, but don’t sink to the level of Spurs fans and worse by singing racist chants.  We’re better than that.  Hopefully we’ll show it on and off the pitch.

Centurion RVP helps Arsenal vanquish Bolton

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RVP celebrates his 100th Arsenal goal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

In the circumstances, this was just the result we needed.  Three goals, three points, a clean sheet, and a landmark moment for the talismanic Robin van Persie.

At half-time, the result was still very much in the balance.  It was 0-0, and Wojciech Szczesny had produced an outstanding early save to keep his sheet clean.  Arsenal should have gone ahead when Mikel Arteta played in Gervinho, but the Ivorian’s touch was too heavy and the ball ran through to Jussi Jääskeläinen.

Bolton were marking very tight in midfield and Arteta seemed to be carrying all the creative responsibility.  Aaron Ramsey was having little impact, and Walcott and Gervinho struggled for space on the flanks.  Despite missing Gary Cahill through illness, Bolton looked secure at the back and a threat on the break.

Occasionally, Arsene Wenger’s critics accuse him of lacking tactical acumen.  However, his post-match explanation of his half-time team-talk instantly dispels that myth:

“I felt that in the first half we were a bit impatient sometimes, that we didn’t move the ball quickly enough, that our midfielders came a bit deep because we were man-marked. That exposed us a bit to counter-attacking and we had less support up front. In the second half, maybe because they were fatigued as well, our midfielders played higher up and we became straight away more dangerous.”

Our second half display was also helped by two things that settled our obvious nerves: an early goal, and a sending off for Bolton.  First, Van Persie finished superbly from a narrow angle after the referee waived play on when Gervinho was brought down in midfield.  Then David Wheater was dismissed for tugging back Theo Walcott after he’d been played in by an improving Ramsey.

It was a game in which we saw the good and the bad of Walcott.  He showcased his electrifying pace, racing behind the defence to leave Wheater fatally training, and reaching a Ramsey pass to cross for RVP to nudge home his second goal of the game and 100th for Arsenal.  He also showed just why he frustrates, missing a couple of glaring opportunities – one when set clean through by the impressive Alex Song.  On balance it was an effective display, and Arsene will hoping that the knee injury which forced him to limp off is not too serious.

It was that second goal, created by Walcott, that killed the game, and made for a fantastic landmark for Van Persie.  He joins sixteen other Arsenal centurions in passing the milestone, and his pride in doing so will only be tempered by the thought of how many he might have were it not for a succession of injuries.

Alex Song gabbed a deserved late third, stepping inside his man to curl in to the top corner.  The three points mean that a win at White Hart Lane next weekend would take us above them in the league – as if any more incentive for a North London Derby were needed.

I thought there were plenty of positives to take from today’s game, albeit against ten men.  Mikel Arteta continues to look every inch the class act we hoped he would be, and Alex Song appears to be stepping up to the midfield mantle with some incisive passing to match his essential physical presence.

At the back we coped well with the supposed threat of Kevin Davies, on as an early sub for the injured N’Gog.  Mertesacker and Koscielny were happy to let Davies win the majority of long-balls; they got tight enough to him to prevent him bringing the ball down, and were able to intercept the second ball every time.  For all the headers Davies won, barely a single one reached a team-mate.

Our concentration at set-pieces was better too.  It was heartening that when defending a corner in stoppage time, at 3-0 up, Wojciech Szczesny was bellowing at his team-mates to concentrate.  A clean sheet will do the defence a world of good.

Next up it’s Olympiakos in the Champions League.  Another home game, and a chance to maintain that momentum ahead of that crucial derby game a week today.

Bolton Preview: Polar Bears are endangered

In the build-up to today’s crucial match with Bolton Wanderers, Arsene Wenger has compared himself to ursus maritimus – that cuddly killer, the polar bear.

“Since I arrived in England there have been a lot of things said.

Personally I do not complain. I am supposed to take the bullets and absorb them. Like a bear, a polar bear.

In fairness, they don’t hurt me too much. You worry more about the young player who gets in the team at the moment and gets slaughtered. I remember when I was 19 that was much more difficult for me to take.”

Whilst I understand Arsene’s intention – to depict himself as a shield for his players, taking the weight of criticism upon his experienced shoulders – I would question some aspects of his chosen analogy.  I’m not sure where Arsene’s got his info, but I’m not convinced polar bears are “supposed” to take bullets at all.  When plucky Tommies went over the top in the Great War, they did not send a squadron of polar bears out first as cannon fodder.  Shooting a polar bear is, I’m pretty sure, illegal.  They’re endangered, after all.

It’s here that Arsene’s analogy begins to right itself and come bobbing up on the side of truth once more.  The threat of global warming has led scientists to suggest polar bears could be eliminated within 100 years.  Lose against Bolton today, and Arsene could find himself under an even more immediate threat of extinction.

The team will be very similar to the one that started at Blackburn.  Tomas Rosicky has recovered and is back in the squad, but is unlikely to dislodge any of Song, Ramsey and Arteta.  The only possible changes are on the flanks – Arsene Wenger will have to choose between Kieran Gibbs and Andre Santos, and is likely to reintroduce Theo Walcott, most likely at the expense of Andrey Arshavin.

Alex Chamberlain is in the squad, and Arsene insists, “ready to play”:

“With the ball, he’s ready. Off the ball he plays now like a young talented boy and he has to take responsibility in the senior team.

That will demand two or three months and after he will be there.”

If we’re in a winning position he might get off the bench today to make his home league debut.

I’m optimistic we’ll begin to turn out form around this afternoon, but the day’s undoubtedly been clouded by some bad news: Jack Wilshere will undergo surgery on his ankle and is likely to be out until Christmas at the earliest.  It’s huge blow.  With Cesc and Nasri gone, Jack is comfortably our most accomplished and inspirational midfield player.  This team ought to be being built around him – instead, he’ll be absent for half the season.  The only positive spin I can put on it is that I’d rather have him fit for the second half of the season than the first, when we reach the crunch period and the accumulation of points is all the more vital.

Whether or not we get Champions League football, there are already ominous signs for next summer.  The quintet of Andrey Arshavin, Thomas Vermaelen, Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Alex Song all have less than two years to run on their existing deals.  If new contracts aren’t tied up this season, we could find ourselves over a barrel as we did with Samir Nasri.  Arsene doesn’t exactly sound confident of reaching agreements with all players concerned:

“We will try to convince them. Our desire is there to do it and we are ready to sit down with them.

After that we see where we go but the gap on that front has become bigger for us so, today, I cannot say that if we go to the maximum [deal] we are sure to sign a player – even if we do that we are not sure.”

To compound your distress, Arseblog reports that Darren Dein (the machiavellian marketeer behind the exits of Henry, Clichy, Cesc & Nasri) is now representing the interests of both Song and Van Persie.

All that fun can wait for another day.  For now, we need to focus on beating Bolton – who we’ve just been drawn against in the League Cup, as fate would have it.  Come On You Gunners.