A very lucky fan

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There was a moment on Monday night when I found myself stood briefly between Sol Campbell and Jens Lehmann. Someone nudged me and whispered, “big guys”. He wasn’t kidding. The first thing that strikes you about the Invincibles is their size — in every sense, these are sporting giants.

It’s easy to see why their opponents were often beaten in the tunnel, scared in to submission by the sheer athleticism of their adversaries.

I’ll be honest: I was a little intimidated too. However, the principal feeling I had was one of awe.

These men are my heroes. In 2004, when Arsenal achieved the remarkable feat of winning the Premier League title without suffering a single defeat, I was 18. The idols you worship at that age don’t diminish with time — they’re indelibly etched in to your affections.

The occasion was the launch of Arsenal’s new Invincibles documentary. At the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead, a number of ex-players, current staff, celebrity fans and outrageously fortunate bloggers got an early glimpse of the finished film.

You’ll love it. It’s a great reminder of the ups and downs of that incredible season, featuring some superb insight from a cast of former players. Lehmann is in particularly inspired form, tossing out dry one-liners with the same self-assurance employed to drill his defence.

The film airs after our match against Monaco on Sky Sports 1 & 5, with an extended version of the film available on iTunes and DVD from March 30.

The documentary will also be aired in the United States on NBC, with the premiere at 12pm (Eastern Time) on Sunday, March 1 following the Arsenal v Everton match. It will then be repeated the following day at 9pm, as well as on March 14 on 6am and at 4pm on March 22 (all Eastern Time).

I was left feeling very lucky. It goes without saying I was blessed to breath the same air as the saintly Robert Pires, but moreover I am fortunate to have had the privilege of watching that Invincibles team in action. We all are.

So few fans will experience the joy of seeing their team achieve something so unique. And they did it in such style too, sweeping all before them with astonishing flamboyance.

It was Arsene Wenger’s finest hour too. For all his many triumphs, it’s the memories of this team that will surely be his greatest legacy.

Unless, of course, we were to win the Champions League. Bring on Monaco.

ps. For more on our Champions League tie and a review of the Palace game, check out Arsecast Extra.

Arsenal 2-0 Middlesbrough: Olivier Giroud is answering all his critics

Olivier Giroud is showing you don’t have to be young to improve…
Giroud now has 10 goals from 12 starts this season, the most recent a thumping volley from Alexis Sanchez’s quick-thinking corner.

It seems to me as if he’s answering almost every criticism of his game: he’s become more prolific, he’s scoring against big teams, and he’s responded to stiff competition for his central striking spot. Admittedly he hasn’t got any quicker, but fortunately the personnel around him have.

I think fans are sometimes guilty of confining the capacity to improve to young players. There’s a misconception once you hit about 24, your attributes plateau. Giroud turns 29 this year but is developing at a more impressive rate than many young strikers, including those at our own club. It seems that technical potential and exposure to elite competition are bigger determining factors than age.

This is a different Mesut Ozil…
Some have suggested that since Ozil’s return we’ve seen what we missed. I’m not sure you can miss something you haven’t had before.

This Ozil is certainly different to the one we saw this Autumn. Whether deployed on the left or through the middle, there’s a fresh swagger to his game.

I don’t know what’s brought about this change. Perhaps he doesn’t either – confidence is a difficult thing to unpick. Aitor Karanka put it best when he said in his post match press conference, “Ozil is an amazing player. And now he is happy.”

The Arsenal fans are pretty happy too.

There’s an intriguing battle shaping up between Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott…
When Danny Welbeck was signed from Manchester United, most fans anticipated he’d be locked in a duel with Giroud. However, with Welbeck increasingly being fielded on the flank, he instead finds himself in a direct rivalry with Theo Walcott.

It’s obvious what they both bring: pace. Despite that shared speed, in some respects they’re polar opposites. Welbeck is all about hard work and cohesive team play but lacks end product, whereas Walcott can go missing for long spells but then get a goal out of nothing.

The boring thing to say is that both have their uses and will that Wenger will enjoy the luxury of choice. However, I’m intrigued to see who will get the nod in the very biggest games. My hunch is that Wenger might prefer the continuity and protection offered by Welbeck.

Gabriel made his debut…
…and there’s subsequently been a rush to either write him off or hail him as the best thing since Mr. Hovis decided his loaf was a bit too spatially coherent.

In reality, there wasn’t enough evidence to make a call either way. Gabriel made one excellent last-ditch challenge, picked up a classically cynical ‘South American’ booking, and was caught under the ball for Boro’s best chance of the game in stoppage time.

The only thing you can really say about Gabriel with any confidence is that he looks like a defender. Fortunately, that is exactly what Arsenal happen to need.

We’re three games from another party…
When you put it like that, another FA Cup triumph feels tantalisingly close.

We’re now one match from Wembley, two from the final and three from retaining the cup. The domestic cups always represent the most direct route to glory, and I’m glad we’re taking this one with the seriousness it deserves. It would be beyond lovely to wash away a horrendous first half of the season by toasting another trophy.

Arsenal 2-1 Leicester: The fixtures favour Arsenal + Theo thoughts

Arsenal edged past Leicester on a nervous night at the Emirates Stadium. Our performance wasn’t much better than the one we produced at Spurs, and a side equipped with better finishers would surely have punished us. However, coming off the back of that defeat, this game was all about getting the points.

It’s our capacity to grind out those kinds of wins that has seen us regularly finish in the top four. Looking at our upcoming schedule, I’m confident we’ll repeat the feat this season. I’m grateful to We Are The North Bank for putting together this handy fixture list for the major top four contenders:

fixturesAfter this latest round of fixtures, we will be the only team in the race with seven home games. Given our impressive record at the Emirates, that’s a notable advantage. In fact, Johnny from Prague emailed me to point out that we don’t even leave London until the middle of March.

Looking at that list, a significant proportion of our games would have to be categorised as very winnable indeed. Only Southampton have a comparably straightforward set of fixtures, and they have a far weaker squad and lack experience of these tense climaxes to the domestic campaign. A third-place finish is a definite possibility.

Our performance against Leicester was not one particularly worthy of in-depth analysis. However, I did think Arseblog’s examination of Theo Walcott’s performance was interesting.

As regular listeners to the Arsecast Extra will know, I have doubts about how Theo will fit in to this team and squad moving forward. Taking his delicate contract situation into consideration, I think there’s a decent chance he could be sold this summer.

Over the past 24 hours I’ve been mulling over his general contribution (or lack thereof). I’m not entirely convinced that his tendency to run away from the ball is cowardice, it’s merely a constant desire to get in behind the back four. When his team-mates have the ball, his instinct is not to run in to a position to receive a sideways pass, but to put himself in an area where he can create a goalscoring opportunity. It may be selfish, but it may also be necessary. Unlike Lukas Podolski, his pace and movement stretches defences and offers a different kind of threat.

If Walcott was played as a conventional No. 9, would we interpret his habit of drifting out of games differently? I don’t remember Ian Wright or Nicolas Anelka contributing significantly to our combination play. Pippo Inzaghi could barely play a pass over six yards, but it never really mattered.

Although Walcott starts as a right winger, he plays much more like an out-and-out striker. With centre-forwards who drop deep and combine with midfield like Giroud, Alexis and Welbeck, that’s probably a luxury Arsenal can afford.

It’s not so much a defence of Theo, more an attempt to redefine the debate. He might line up on the right wing, but he’s a striker through and through.

Spurs 2-1 Arsenal: Kaned and Unable

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I seem to bang on about ‘fine margins’ an awful lot at the moment. So much so that I’ve started using online thesauri to try and come up with some alternatives. The best I can find is ‘narrow gap’, which funnily enough is precisely what has opened up between Tottenham and Arsenal since our derby defeat.

That’s of little immediate concern: looking at the two sets of fixture lists, I still expect Arsenal to finish above Tottenham. The greater threat to our top four place comes from Southampton and Manchester United. Even the gloriously hubristic Hotspurs have been noticeably quiet about their one-point lead — surely they’ll never be so foolish as to warn us to mind a gap again.

That said, Spurs were undoubtedly the better side on Saturday. I think all football fans are sometimes guilty of only assessing their own team’s performance. If we score a goal it’s purely down to our own brilliance; if we concede one our incompetence is held equally responsible. Sometimes you do have to give credit to your opposition — much as it pains me to say it, they were excellent.

But what of those ‘fine margins’ I mentioned in the first paragraph as if they were going to be important?

I suppose what I mean is that the gap in perception between a ‘spirited rear-guard action’ and being ‘on the backfoot for 90 minutes’ is incredibly small. When you play as Arsenal did at Spurs, inviting pressure and looking to play on the break, the game is inevitably going to be on a knife-edge.

When you’re under sustained pressure, as Arsenal were, the smallest defensive mistake can be crucial. Yes, Aaron Ramsey might have done better to stay with Harry Kane at a corner, and Theo Walcott could have closed down Nabil Bentaleb a little sooner, but they’re not criminal errors. I struggle to find the energy to crucify those players for momentary lapses in concentration. If you set up to defend for 90 minutes, it’s draining.

Such a game-plan also demands you’re incredibly efficient in possession. Surprisingly, that’s where Arsenal most obviously fell short. Defensive errors are par for the course, but an inability to keep the ball comes as more of a shock. That’s the greatest disappointment to come out of Saturday’s game: with more finesse on the ball, we might have punished Tottenham sufficiently on the break to render our defensive errors inconsequential. Instead, we struggled to live with Tottenham’s high intensity pressing game, just as we did at Dortmund and Liverpool earlier this season.

This game followed a remarkably similar pattern to last year’s fixture. In both matches, Spurs recovered from going a goal behind to dominate — they actually had more possession in 2014. Sometimes you’ll get away with it, sometimes you won’t.

For more rambling discussion of this ilk, why no tune in to the latest Arsecast Extra, in which we take a closer look at the form of Aaron Ramsey.