Arsene will play “our normal team” in the FA Cup this season

Burnley 2 – 0 Arsenal (McDonald 6, 58)
Highlights here; Arsene’s reaction here

Well, the unbridled fun that is the Carling Cup is over for another season.  Never mind: we’ll be back next year, and the year after – this conveyor belt of talent will continue to enliven a competition that would otherwise be dull as dishwater.

The reason the fun is ‘unbridled’ is that we as fans have nothing to lose.  The manager treats it as a ‘simulated environment’ wherein youngsters can experience something approaching the rigour of first-team football.  And the players respond to the pressure-free conditions, blossoming and playing with a freedom it’s unlikely we’d see in the Premier League.

Last night could easily have been another one of those spectacular nights.  Nicklas Bendtner raced through after just five minutes, but finished tamely.  Typically, they then went right up the other end, and scored a goal, meaning they could sit back and keep their shape for the remainder of the ninety minutes.

In spite of that, we still created many, many chances.  Arsene counted six one-on-ones – I reckon it totalled out even higher.  Either way, we really ought to have scored at least a goal, with Bendtner particularly guilty of some lacksadaisical finishing.  I’m not going to go about criticising the youngsters who’ve entertained us so much this season, but the performances of Bendtner and Silvestre, ostensibly two of the more experienced members of the side, left plenty to be desired.

Anyway, there’s little point in dwelling on the result: the fact that Paul Rodgers had to be drafted in for his debut in the Quarter-Final of the competition demonstrates how thin our squad was being stretched, so it’s arguably no bad thing to avoid a two-legged semi-final.  When you have to rest Alex Song, you know your squad is in trouble.

The kids will learn plenty about concentration and the importance of taking your chances early.  Some of them will go on to push for first-team places in the second half of the season (Vela, Ramsey), others will challenge for a spot in our FA Cup campaign (Fabianski, Wilshere), whilst some might be sent out on loan to gain yet more invaluable experience – I’m sure clubs are already queueing around the block to secure the likes of Kieran Gibbs.

I mentioned the FA Cup – in the aftermath of tonight’s game, Arsene was asked about whether the Carling Cup side would re-emerge in the FA Cup.  His response was emphatic:

“No.  Some of these maybe, but in the FA Cup we will play our normal team”.

It’s a serious piece of back-tracking from Wenger, who back in August claimed he would rest players in the country’s most highly-regarded cup competition.  However, our faltering league performances have perhaps convinced him that the cup represents our best chance of silverware, and I for one am glad that we will be putting our best efforts into winning a competition that I have a lot of affection for.

Attention turns back to the league now, and Wigan on Saturday.  I don’t need to tell you how badly three points are required.

Following arseblog’s lead (when am I not?), if you wish to follow gunnerblog on twitter, just follow this link.

A demain.

Some stats about Denilson + Carling Cup Preview

I’ve criticised Denilson’s performances on several occasions this season, but have always tried to mitigate that with the assertion that it is not his fault that he is being exposed to regular first-team football before he is ready.

That said, as I flicked through some statistics from the season so far, a different picture began to emerge.  So far he has:

  • Two goals this season – that’s double Cesc’s tally
  • Four assists – which is behind only Malbranque, Berbatov, Malouda and Arteta
  • 11th most fouled player in the entire league, winning plenty of free-kicks
  • 45 tackles won – 7th highest in the league – higher than Butt, Clichy, Diarra, Kompany, Reo-Coker, Barry et al
  • 991 passes attempted – behind only Lampard and Mikel
  • 849 completed passes, behind only Mikel
  • What the statistics make clear is that this is an industrious, efficient player who whilst not yet ‘World Class’ is doing remarkably well for a twenty year-old who was little more than a fringe member of the squad last season.  I’ve read some calls for Denilson to be sold, but the figures above make a nonsense of such suggestions.  What Denilson needs is a quality, experienced player to challenge him and force him to improve.  When the Brazilian meets the required level, he would then take his place in the side.  It’s common sense, and we can only hope that Arsene sees that now.  Flamini had to surpass Gilberto to get his place in the side: Denilson ought to have to leap a similar hurdle to truly earn his first-team place.

    Tonight sees our fantastic Carling Cup side travel to Burnley in the competition’s Quarter-Final.  The team should be extremely similar to the previous two rounds, though Mikael Silvestre will start at centre-back after being left out at the weekend (just our luck for Djourou and Gallas to both pick up knocks in the Chelsea game, eh?).

    Ahead of the game Aaron Ramsey, who certainly doesn’t lack confidence, has compared himself to Steven Gerrard – as long as his hairline doesn’t get as freakishly low as Gerrard’s (I am convinced that one day it will meet his eyebrows and his forehead will become redundant), then that’ll do just fine.  Ramsey’s Carling Cup midfield partner, Mark Randall, is a doubt, so we may see a debut for Amaury Bischoff.

    Under Owen Coyle, Burnley have moved on from being long-ball merchants to develop an attractive passing game, married to the aerial power of Ade Akinbiyi, who has troubled us in past cup encounters.  Let’s not forget, this is a side who went to Stamford Bridge and knocked out Chelsea.  That said, their manager is showing our youngsters plenty of respect:

    “I watched their games against Sheffield United and Wigan – at one point I thought about turning it off because I couldn’t bear it any more.  They are the yardstick for everyone who is aspiring to play a passing game.

    “Four or five of that team will reach the very highest level.  I am not talking about good international players, I mean beyond that. Ramsey is unbelievable. At 16, the world is Wilshere’s oyster.

    “The maturity they show is way beyond their years.  I played with people for 15 years who were still not experienced in the game. These kids have that. The relationship they have with one another in terms of interchange of passing and movement is exceptional.”

    High praise indeed.  I just hope we live up to our billing.

    Gunnerblog has been nominated for Best Football Blog Community of 2008 by Soccerlens, which is nice of them.  Feel free to vote, – as it’s a “Community” award it’s far more about you than about me, so thanks.

    I have a feeling tonight could be a really good game.  Let’s hope the kids get the result and see us through to the semis.

    Belief is the ignition switch that gets you off the launching pad*

    Van Persie celebrates at the final whistle

    Chelsea 1 – 2 Arsenal (Djourou (og) 31, Van Persie 60, 62)
    here; Arsene’s reaction here

    In the build-up to yesterday’s game, I didn’t see that coming.  When Johan Djourou turned into his own net after just half an hour, I really didn’t see that coming.  When we went in at half-time trailing with Chelsea looking fairly comfortable, I really really didn’t see that coming.

    I am really really really glad that it came.

    At half-time yesterday, we were on course to be thirteen points adrift of Chelsea.  In forty-five minutes, we halved that deficit to seven.  A sixth Premiership defeat would have plunged our season even deeper into the icy waters of despair.  As it is, a first league win away to a big four side in more than two years has seemingly offered us yet another reprieve.

    As I suggested at the top of this piece, it didn’t always look as if it would turn out this way.  Arsene sprang a surprise by dropping Mikael Silvestre in favour of the pacier Johan Djourou.  Ahead of that, it was a 4-4-2 with Denilson tucking in from the right-hand side, and Alex Song in the holding role.

    Although Robin van Persie and William Gallas both came close in the first-half, Chelsea were bossing it.  We looked nervous at the back, and I for one was hoping to get to half-time at 0-0 – Manuel Almunia clearly had other ideas.  The Spaniard collected a corner comfortably enough, but chose to throw the ball out when all ten of our outfield players were camped within our own penalty area.  The ball was intercepted by the impressive Jose Bosingwa, who played a one-two with Anelka and ran through untracked by Nasri before whipping in a cross that Djourou turned into his own net with an outstretched right foot.

    Between the goal and half-time, we didn’t seem particularly inclined to raise our game, and only an underhit pass from Frank Lampard and a couple of dodgy offside decisions (the linesman, it seems, was a Gooner) prevented Anelka and then Kalou from racing in on goal.

    What we needed was a break – and in the second half, we got it.  A long clearance was headed straight up in the air by Branislav Ivanovic, and Adebayor knocked it down for Nasri to find Denilson.  The Brazilian took one touch before slipping the ball through to meet the spinning run of Robin van Persie.  The Dutchman was, undoubtedly, offside.  But the fact that his first touch didn’t take him forward but instead sideways meant that within a split-second, the retreating Bosingwa was level with Van Persie.  This sufficiently confused the linesman to allow play to go on, and Robin duly smashed the ball into the top corner with his weaker right foot.

    Yes, it was lucky, but it was a fantastic finish, and pleasing proof that what goes around sometimes comes around.

    After the goal, we were transformed.  I had been pleased with the work ethic and competetivite spirit we had shown throughout the game, but our lack of confidence meant we weren’t able to match that with our usual quality.  It was all heart, no skill – the reverse of our usual problems.  As soon as the goal went in, that changed.  Players suddenly seemed to have more time on the ball; passes were being played with what I believe is technically described as “oomph”; Gael Clichy’s jet-pack was turned back on.

    Confidence transmuted into elation just two minutes later when we went ahead.  It was a breathtakingly simple goal: a Cesc free-kick, an Adebayor knock-down, and a first-time swivel and volley from Van Persie.  Two minutes, two goals, 2-1.  Not two shabby.

    Now, more than ever, I was nervous.  I prepared myself for the inevitable onslaught, as Chelsea threw kitchen sink, table, and fridge at our infamously fragile back-line.

    But it never came.  Perhaps it was the absence of Didier Drogba, perhaps it was the lack of options out wide, but Chelsea never really threatened.  Everybody knows we’re defensively suspect, and yet we were never tested – in the entire ninety minutes, Chelsea mustered one shot on target, and even their goal was scored by one of our own players.  Indeed, were it not for the cynicism of Invanovic and a poor touch by Denilson, we could have had one or two more on the break.

    When the final whistle went, I almost couldn’t believe we’d gotten away with it.  It was far, far too easy.  But that’s Chelsea’s problem, not ours.

    Games like yesterday remind me why, come the Gunnerblog End of Season Awards, I designate seperate categories for Best Result and Best Performance.  Yesterday is unlikely to be up there in the latter category, but as far as results go this was massive.

    That’s not to say there weren’t good displays in our ranks.  Johan Djourou was powerful and assured at the back, and his presence drew an impressive performance from the maligned Gallas.  It says much about our array of centre-halves that despite giving away a penalty and scoring an own goal in his past two games, the Swiss youngster looks the most solid option available.

    Then there was Robin van Persie, who finally delivered in a big game.  Arsene has shown a lot of patience with Robin through a seemingly endless string of injuries, and now it’s time for the Dutchman to start repaying that faith.  His goals yesterday were indicative of how devastating he can be, and keeping him and Adebayor fit is critical to our season.

    And what of our season?  Well, I don’t subscribe to the view that this win puts up firmly back into the title race.  What it hopefully gives us is belief, and as the title of this report implies, that is what is required to get our season back on track.

    We have, however, been here before.  The victory over Manchester United a few weeks back seemed like a turning point, but was just a false dawn.  Gallas-gate and the appointment of Cesc as captain gave us another chance to turn the corner, and yesterday’s result will certainly help us on our way.  But only by consolidating our form with some good performances in the forthcoming weeks can this result obtain the significance it deserves.

    We need to use the confidence we earned yesterday to fuel us with enough momentum to reach January, when the reinforcements which still must arrive will reignite the embers of an Arsenal team that yesterday flickered into life once more.

    We’ve been given another chance.  We won’t get many more.  This time, we have to grasp it.

    *Denis Waitley, 1933

    “I cannot comprehend Gallas’s dramatic loss of form”: A Chelsea fan speaks to Gunnerblog

    Chelsea fans have had a funny time of it.  In the past few years they’ve seen their club come back from the brink of extinction to become the richest club in the world.  They’ve had the most charismatic manager in European football, and the least.  They’ve won two titles, suffered Champions League Final defeat, and seen their club and team transformed beyond recognition.

    All of that seems a long way from the Chelsea my brother grew up supporting.  He is close to me in more than simply age, and I was a first-hand witness as he followed the likes of Gavin Peacock, John Spencer, and Eddie Newton to the odd cup run and regular mid-table mediocrity.

    In recent seasons, the rivalry between the clubs has intensified due to Chelsea’s emergence as title-challengers (and winners), adding another string to the bow of our brotherly banter.

    Yesterday, ahead of what is undoubtedly a massive game for both sides, I spoke to him about all things Chelsea, all things Arsenal, and the men who bestride that gaping ravine: Ashley Cole, Nicolas Anelka, and our very own (well, ish) William Gallas.  Enjoy:

    Chelsea are top of the league, and a home victory against Cluj away from Champions League qualification. And yet, with a little dip in the once formidable home form, there are suggestions that Phil Scolari is now ‘under pressure’. What have you made of his first few months as Chelsea manager? 
    I don’t think he is under pressure. The media have posed some questions, but the fans understand that in general we are performing better than we were this time last year. He will be judged in May. 
    Well, regarding the league: having dropped points at home to Liverpool and Manchester United, how important is it to beat Arsenal this weekend? 
    People have made a lot out of our supposed failure to win a ‘big game’. We beat Roma (just) at home, but have lost to Liverpool, Roma (away), and scraped draws against Man United, Spurs and Bordeaux. A win would silence those who doubt our credentials to grind out results in these ‘Grand Slam’ clashes, but the fact that this is our final opportunity to pick up three points at home to one of our supposed title rivals is still no reason to panic. 
    There has been a lot of talk about Chelsea’s new expansive style – have you noticed a difference? 
    We have played some fantastic stuff at times this year, dominating teams and really hammering them as opposed to going 2-0 up and taking it easy. But we also played some fantastic stuff under Mourinho and Grant. In my view, the difference does not lie within the style of play, but in the manner in which Scolari encourages the players to take advantage of demoralised, defeated teams by urging our players to press forward for more goals. When hosting Bordeaux, we took an early 2-0 lead but then did not score for another hour or so. Throughout the game, Scolari made his frustration quite clear, and we ended up grabbing a couple of late goals to win 4-0. It is, to an extent, a Brazilian mentality, but that is not to say that we are playing ‘Samba-style jogo bonito’: style of play has a lot to do with personnel, too. We play a different way with Anelka in the team. The wide players have to come in off the flanks to support him, and we try to play through the middle. It is prettier when it works. However, evidence is mounting that it is a less effective method of breaking teams down. 
    One player who seems to have benefited from Chelsea’s liberation under Scolari is Ashley Cole, who seems to be playing a role similar to the one which made him the best left-back in the world at Arsenal. Is he in his best form since his controversial move to Chelsea? 
    Firstly, let me just state that the claim that our “full-backs never got past the half-way line under Mourinho” is a complete myth. The performances of our full-backs have attracted attention in recent weeks because they are playing well and the team are getting results. We now have a proper, attacking full-back on the right hand side in José Bosingwa, a fine acquisition and another reason the full-backs are subject to more column inches (not that media scrutiny has ever been a problem in the case of Mr Cole). Ashley has always defended terrifically well for us. Going forward, however, he is not as good as Wayne Bridge. He does not run at players and he cannot cross the ball. He is at his best when getting to the by-line and cutting the ball back, and he’s had the opportunity to do that more so in recent weeks, when fit. He has been playing well for a while now, and saves his performances for the big games (I felt he was our best player in Moscow in May, for instance).  

    When William Gallas came the other way and joined Arsenal, did you have any suspicion it might go as wrong as it has? 
    No, although his petulant nature has always been evident. Chelsea fans had become accustomed to opening their newspapers to be greeted by headlines such as “GALLAS: I WANT PAY RISE”,  “GALLAS: I WANT OUT” or “GALLAS: I WON’T PLAY LEFT-BACK AGAIN”. This all peaked with the absurd claim that he once threatened to score an own-goal. Frankly, I don’t believe that story and feel it was taken out of context, but none of us fans were surprised to read it by that stage. 
    However, his performances were consistently sensational. We really believed we had one of the top five defenders in the world on our books, and – in spite of all of the above – were gutted to lose him in 2006, and it took a lot to admit that. I cannot comprehend or explain such a dramatic loss of form since his transfer to The Emirates. 
    Did you ever see him as a potential captain? 
    No, primarily because of the events I just described. Captains are either great leaders or great players. They are either a commander of troops or a figure players can turn to as a source of inspiration. Gallas could have been the latter, were it not for his tendency for tantrums and his inability to keep his gob shut. Wenger has been fantastic for Arsenal, but the appointment of Gallas as captain was a monumental gaffe, and I believe he must privately acknowledge that, in spite of what he’s been saying to the press.  
    What kind of reception do you think he’ll get at Stamford Bridge?
    He will get a poor reception, although sensible fans will recall some excellent displays, some vital goals, and the fact that we have not won the league since he left. However, loyalty and dedication matters more to many fans than ability, and – like A.Cole – it’s not going to be an enjoyable 90 minutes for him. 
    Is this ‘a good time’ to play Arsenal? 
    Better than five years ago. But no, in truth, I don’t think it is. I feel that sides which are decnet yet out-of-form tend to pull together when a big game comes knocking. Look at Arsenal’s performance against Man Utd last month. The chips were down, the side was depleted, but the result was remarkable. I expect Arsenal to put in a good display on Sunday. 
    But do you consider Arsenal to be a serious title threat? If so, why? If not, why? 
    No. Arsenal will not finish in the top three this season, and have failed to progress at the same rate as Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool. Even last year, Chelsea fans were confident that Arsenal would be unable to sustain their good form until May, and were merely over-achieving early doors. This view is not intended to be an insult, but just a realistic outlook. Great, great players – Campbell, Vieira, Pires, Edu, Bergkamp, Henry – have not yet been properly replaced, and it really is as simple as that. People can talk about “leadership” and “battling qualities” all they like. At the end of the day, Arsenal’s team today is not (yet) good enough to win the league, despite a wealth of wonderful young talent. 
    I don’t think many Arsenal fans will disagree with that assessment, depressingly. How much of a miss will the suspended Didier Drogba be? 
    A huge miss. You don’t get more of a big-game player than Didier Drogba, who more often that not does the business against the big boys, particularly at Stamford Bridge. My people in Milan tell me that Phillippe Senderos still has nightmares, and that Mathieu Flamini has to regularly come into the Swiss’ hotel room on away-trips to convince the defender that Drogba is not in fact “hiding in the wardrobe”. Drogba also offers the crucial alternative of a Plan B, and given Arsenal’s frailty when bombarded aerially, his inclusion could have been a big plus.  

    That said, with Nicolas Anelka in such good form, would Drogba have been guaranteed to start?

    Tough question. Anelka is putting the ball in the back of the net, and it’s almost impossible to argue with that. But that is not to say that Drogba would not have done the same had he been fit and playing. I would feel more confident going into tomorrow’s game with Drogba leading the line, because he is a better player. But tomorrow is Anelka’s chance to hit back at those who doubt his ability to perform (though he doesn’t really ever perform, he just scores) in a big game.

    Who do you consider the dangermen for Arsenal, and where do you think the game will be won and lost? 
    The reliance on Cesc Fabregas for Arsenal to succeed is astonishing. Handing him the armband has only served to highlight how he really is becoming an emblem for what Wenger is trying to achieve, but it is a huge amount of pressure for a 21 year old’s shoulders to bear. I believe that Fabregas is Arsenal’s best player, but look elsewhere when picking out dangermen. The return to fitness of Sagna and Adebayor could prove vital. I know that John Terry rates (and possibly fears) the latter, whereas Sagna forms one half of arguably the best pair of attacking full-backs in Europe. 
    Finally, would you venture a prediction? 
    I think it’ll be a draw, and I’ll say 1-1. Arsenal cannot afford to lose and I’m sure they’ll turn up. We, for our part, have been performing quite tepidly of late, and a lack of firepower up top means that if Arsenal do what Liverpool did – defend deep but narrow – they shouldn’t concede more than one.

    There we go.  Thanks to the bro for that.  It’s horrible reading to hear that we’re just not perceived as a threat in the title race, but utterly unsurprising all the same.  That said, it’s clear he’s taking nothing for granted as regards the result today, and I share his belief that if we perform to our capacity we have a good chance of taking something away with us (even if it’s just John Terry’s head on a stick).  Someone on the arseblog forums mentioned that some bookmakers are offering 200-1 on Arsenal to win 1-0 with Gallas to score.  Tempting, eh…

    N.B. As well as the game today, there is the FA Cup Third Round Draw. We’re the number 1 ball, which makes me happy for reasons it’s hard to rationally explain. Anyway, it’s at 2.15pm, and tends to be quite interesting.

    Come On You Gunners.

    Promising injury news ahead of Chelsea game

    Ahead of tomorrow’s clash with Chelsea, the news that Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, and Bacary Sagna are all available for selection is a significant boost.  With our attack having looked somewhat toothless in recent weeks, the return of Adebayor in particular couldn’t come at a better time: when he has been in the side, we’ve averaged 2.3 goals per game.  When he hasn’t been present in our Champions League or Premiership line-up, we’ve mustered a paltry 0.76 goals per game.  Hopefully he’s fit enough to give John Terry a torrid afternoon.

    If Adebayor had left, we might have ended up with Salomon Kalou as his replacement.  Thank God we didn’t.  Kalou is exceptionally talented but equally infuriating, and his failure to establish himself ahead of the woeful Florent Malouda speaks volumes.

    Chelsea’s team news sees them without Didier Drogba, which ought to be a relief when you consider how much trouble he’s caused us in the past.  However, there’s only one thing more painful than Didier Drogba scoring against you: Nicolas Anelka scoring against you.  I’m crossing everything that he stumbles down the steps coming off the coach and is unable to play, just to avoid that possibility.

    This is just a brief update, really.  Tomorrow there’ll be a full preview, hopefully with some views from the Chelsea fans’ perspective.  Till then.