Thoughts from Wembley: Torturous afternoon’s Final flourish


I don’t know about you, but I remembered reaching an FA Cup final as a good deal more fun. Don’t Read more

Everton 3 - 0 Arsenal: Is it over?


Is it over? Not the title race. That’s been over for a while. Not the “race for fourth”, either. That’s Read more

Arsenal must find a way to replace Theo Walcott’s goals


It’s rare that a piece of Arsenal news shocks me. We live, lest we forget, in a world where Read more

Video: Arsene Wenger sings Cee-Lo Green hit to Robin van Persie


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Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff: We have forgotten how to play without a target man

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season, Match Reports, Premier League |  

Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The Emirates was a pretty gloomy place in the first-half…
…and not just because over the overcast sky that shrouded the ground in a wash of grey.
Arsenal’s first-half performance was poor. Both the crowd and the team were subdued. At its best, the relationship between those two entities is one of mutual provocation, each spurring the other on. On this occasion, neither side did much to elucidate a response from the other. The fans were probably hungover, and the players plain tired. I love the festive period but when you look at the number of muscular injuries being picked up across the league, fatigue is clearly a problem.

The one moment of levity in the gloomy first-half was provided by Bacary Sagna…
Arsenal were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position just outside the penalty area, and Sagna was somehow given permission to take it. Unfortunately, his curled strike hit the wall.
On the serious side, one has to wonder how on Earth that came to pass in a team also containing Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. I suppose one could make the argument that as a player who crosses regularly, Sagna is well practised at putting curl and dip on the ball.
However, Cazorla and Arteta were first-choice set-piece takers at Malaga and Everton respectively. Surely the Arsenal dead-ball jinx can not have struck them so severely that they have now been superseded by Sagna?

Jack Wilshere was a bright spark…
In the absence of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere was handed the No. 10 role. He flourished. This performance was reminiscent of the all-action display he gave against Swansea in last season’s FA Cup. On that occasion, it was universally declared that Wilshere was “back”.

That turned out to be a little hasty, so I’ll refrain from such proclamations today.

This performance was simply another reminder of Wilshere’s undoubted talent. The assist for Walcott’s goal was, in particular, sublime. However, there have been plenty of such reminders this season. One immediately thinks of Wilshere’s glorious goal against Norwich, or his curled effort against Marseille.

His problem is not talent. His problem is consistency. One hopes that time and regular football will enable him to overcome that troublesome hurdle.

I don’t blame Podolski for his poor display…
I was one of those who was hopeful that Podolski could provide cover for Olivier Giroud at centre-forward. On the evidence of this game, that isn’t going to be the case.

Podolski and Giroud are very different types of striker. They require different types of service, and a different style of approach play. Podolski is an instinctive finisher who comes alive in and around the penalty area. Giroud is a tireless target man, who is prepared to run in to the channels and play with his back to goal.

For Podolski to thrive as a centre-forward, Arsenal would need to adapt their game. Judging by today’s performance, we’re in no hurry to do that.

It could be successful. Both Liverpool and Chelsea play without what you would call a traditional ‘target man’. Chelsea are a great example: like Arsenal, they play with three diminutive attack midfielders. However, they do not require a hulking great striker in order for those players to function. They regularly field the nippy Samuel Eto’o or the slight Fernando Torres. The player with the most obvious similarities to Giroud, Demba Ba, barely gets a look-in. The powerful Romelu Lukaku was sent out on loan.

However, Arsenal appear to have forgotten how to play without a traditional no. 9. It’s odd, especially when you consider that for so many years Arsene Wenger was criticised for his refusal to deploy a conventional striker.

The Invincibles team of 2003-04 arguably pioneered the whole “false nine” thing before anyone even knew what it was. With Thierry Henry drifting out to the left, and Dennis Bergkamp dropping in to midfield, Arsenal’s varied goal threat came with stealth and surprise. SKY lazily labelled it a 4-4-2 and we all bought it, but in truth there was no central pivotal striker.

In recent years, that has changed. Arsene Wenger, the man who signed Mark Hateley for Monaco, has renewed his love affair with the powerful centre-forward. Emmanuel Adebayor, Marouane Chamakh and most recently Giroud have heralded a return to playing with a more traditional type of striker.

And now, Arsenal have become dependent on it. We’ve been blessed to have Giroud fit and firing for most of this season and last, but it’s also made us strategically lazy. With Podolski starting up top, the rest of the team didn’t seem to know how to play it.

The Arsenal team have been fed a steady diet of Olivier Giroud for 18 months, and it appears to have significantly altered their palette. Give them Luis Suarez, and they’d probably he aiming balls at his head and chest, wondering why he couldn’t bring them down.

Giroud is not just integral to our attacking shape. He practically is the attacking shape.

Nicklas Bendtner’s introduction changed the game not because he is a better player than Lukas Podolski, but because he is a better impersonator of Olivier Giroud.

This all has implications for any proposed transfer activity this January…
With Bendtner now injured, Wenger may be a little more likely to dip in to the market. If he does, it must be for a striker with similar attributes to Giroud.  This current Arsenal team look unsuited to playing with any other kind of striker. Someone with a different style would require a period of adaptation, and given the intensity of this title race I’m not sure that’s something we can afford.

Diego Costa would be ideal, but the chances of him leaving Athletico Madrid in pre-season are slim.

Many will baulk at the suggestion, but Arsene Wenger needs to find another Emmanuel Adebayor.

In January (yes, January) of 2006, Arsene Wenger plucked the little-known Adebayor from the subs bench at Monaco. He went on to become a 30 goal, £25m striker. It’s time to ask Arsene to pull another such rabbit from his extraordinary hat.

When Emmanuel Adebayor was being left out of the Tottenham squad week-on-week by Andre Villas Boas, I privately wondered if Arsene Wenger would ever consider a short-term move for the former Arsenal man. Note: privately – I knew such a suggestion would invite ridicule and abuse if made public. It’s off the table now, and would probably have never happened: Adebayor simply carries too much baggage. However, there’s no doubt that physically and technically, he has all the attributes we require.

Arsenal need someone with size, strength, good close control, and ideally a bit of speed. Someone who can play the Giroud role, but perhaps with their own unique spin. An extra trick, or yard of pace.

Over to you, Arsene. Surprise me.

Arsene’s subs corrected his erroneous starting XI…
Introducing Rosicky and Bendtner was effectively an admission of the issues with the initial team. Fielding both Flamini and Arteta was unnnecessarily cautious, whilst Podolski’s problems have been covered above. As soon as the pair came on, Arsenal looked more effective.

In the second half, Theo Walcott was absolutely outstanding…
Walcott occasionally takes stick for shirking responsibility, but I thought he really took this game by the scruff of the neck. His crossing was quite superb, and Per Mertesacker probably ought to have scored from two of his most enticing balls. According to Squawka, he created six goalscoring opportunities against Cardiff – his highest tally in any game thus far.

He also has six goals this season, from just 10 starts.

Wingers, by their nature, are a bit infuriating to watch. They deal in fine margins – quite literally, given their proximity to the touchline. Considering that, Walcott’s efficiency and continued productivity is quite remarkable.

It’s almost impossible not to be pleased for Bendtner…
Everyone loves a redemptive hero, and there’s no doubt that his could be a hugely significant goal in our title bid. It’s unfortunate that he was injured in scoring, but I suspect his ego might have enjoyed the pseudo-martyrdom of sacrificing himself for the good of the team.
Rather enjoyably, he has now scored more goals from open play in this season’s Premier League than Tottenham’s £26m man Roberto Soldado.

All eyes on the FA Cup…
…and a mouth-watering game against Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham. With a tricky tie against Bayern in the Champions League, the FA Cup now represents our second-best chance of a trophy in 2013/14. Maybe the best. The season we’re having deserves silverware. We ought to give this competition absolute focus.

Not 1-1 at Newcastle (again)

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season, Match Reports, Premier League |  

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Big points…
Apart from in the Emirates Cup, all wins are worth three points. Some, however, feel a bit special. Maybe it’s because the win put us back on top, maybe it’s because we were under the cosh for so long, or maybe it’s just because it’s Christmas, but these points feel significant.

I’ll dip in to my big bag of cliches to state that these are the sort of games that eventual champions win. Six points away from home inside three days is an impressive feat. With matches against strugglers Cardiff, Villa, Fulham and Palace to come before the end of January, we have a great chance to build up a head of steam in the league.

Games that promise goals seem to rarely deliver…
Newcastle had scored in 15 of their last 16. Arsenal are Arsenal. It seemed for all the world that there were goals lurking in them there hills.

However, this was a game of few opportunities. Rosicky and Cazorla buzzed around but with little tangible end product. Tempting as it is to pin the blame on our plucky playmakers, Newcastle also deserve credit for some resilient defending.

Arsenal missed Ozil & Ramsey…
Of course they did. They’ve been our most creative players this season. Against Newcastle, we mustered just 11 attempts on goal. Against West Ham, with Ozil and Ramsey in action, we clocked up 29.

Giroud’s goal was invaluable for two reasons…
First and foremost, it won us the game. However, it’s also a vital goal for Giroud’s confidence. I’m not optimistic about Arsene signing a striker in January, so we need Giroud at his very best if we’re to have any chance of holding off City and Chelsea.

Theo Walcott’s technical improvement is often overlooked…
Theo takes a lot of stick for his failure to apply himself defensively and an occasional lack of composure. However, his technique really has come on leaps and bounds. I remember when I didn’t trust him to control the ball, let alone kick it cleanly. However, in this game he delivered a wonderful whipped free-kick to create the winning goal. Once upon a time, I would not have believed he was capable of anything even as seemingly simple as that. Arsene Wenger is right: never put limits on a player’s potential.

Per Mertesacker was a true giant…
I love seeing Mertesacker with the captain’s armband. For me, he is the team’s true leader, and he truly led by example at St. James’ Park with a dominating defensive display.
His performance against Newcastle really cemented his transformation from giant mutant bambi to defensive rock. The Toon threw everything at us, but Mertesacker resisted, making a phenomenal 16 clearances along the way.

Arsene’s decision to switch to a back five was a big gamble…
With 10 minutes to play, Wenger withdrew Theo Walcott and put on Carl Jenkinson, shifting Bacary Sagna inside as a third central defender.
With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like a wise move. With Sagna, Koscielny and Mertesacker all in the middle, Arsenal were well-placed to deal with Newcastle’s aerial onslaught.
However, at the time the move made me anxious: in substituting Walcott, we lost our main threat on the counter-attack and essentially surrendered the momentum to Newcastle, inviting pressure. Fortunately, we now seem to have a defence capable of coping with that kind of siege warfare.
The gamble paid off. That, I expect, is why Arsene is the manager and not me. Also, I’m pretty busy with all the blogging.

It’s a matter of time until Wojciech Szczesny gets caught out…
On this occasion, his attempted clearance struck Loic Remy in the face but bounced just wide of the goal.
It seems to happen in every other game, and yet Szczesny is yet to have been punished. What we really need is for him to make a calamitous, Artur Boruc-style error when we’re already out of sight. That’ll give him the wake-up call he needs without costing us any points.

2013 has been a pretty good year for Arsenal…
No side won more Premier League points than us. Unfortunately, titles are won between August and May rather than January and December, but it’s a great testament to our consistency.
Long may it continue.

West Ham 1-3 Arsenal: Podolski delivers knockout blow on Boxing Day

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season, Match Reports, Premier League |  

West Ham 1-3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This was a thoroughly deserved victory…
Even though the scoreline was 0-0 at half-time, Arsenal were completely dominant. I believe I’m right in saying there was one five-minute period in which we had 85% of possession.

Sam Allardyce was recently on a SKY tv show about football statistics, saying that possession was something of a red herring: goals win games. To a degree, he’s right, but in this match Arsenal were able to strangle Allardyce’s team by keeping a firm grip on the ball. By the end of the game, Arsenal had controlled the possession for 64% of the game, and attempted an incredible 29 shots at goal.

When West Ham took the lead, it was a consequence of an inexplicable individual error from Wojciech Szczesny, who was otherwise commanding. Having fallen behind, Arsenal reeled for five minutes, but soon reasserted their authority.

In truth, anything other than a convincing Arsenal victory would have been a freak result.

Olivier Giroud is short of confidence…
Giroud can’t buy a goal at the moment. Although he screwed an effort woefully wide when put through one-on-one, his lack of self belief was just as evident in his movement as his shooting.

When Giroud’s on top of his game, his off-the-ball running is characterised by anticipatory darts to the near post. However, several times during yesterday’s game Giroud started his run a little late and failed to meet a series of appetising crosses in to the box.

When a striker is firing on all cylinders, everything happens by instinct. At the moment, Giroud’s lack of goals is giving him pause for thought.

The return of Walcott and Podolski is perfectly timed…
Walcott didn’t have his best game yesterday, but he does tend to guarantee goals. His finishing can be erratic, but his pace and movement ensure he will always generate chances. As for the chance he missed in the first-half, I was initially frustrated, but greater reflection has made me rethink. Had Robin van Persie volleyed home that shot from an Alex Song pass, he would have been hailed as a technical wonder.

As for Lukas Podolski, I’m so delighted to see him back. He’s the best finisher in the squad, and enjoyably direct in his style. It’s clear Wenger has reservations about deploying him on the left-wing on a regular basis, but I hope we see a lot more of him in 2014 than we did in 2013.

On to the next one…
Our brief barren run is over, but it’s all about consistency. Next up: St. James’ Park.

Arsenal 0 – 0 Chelsea: Stalemate sees Mourinho in his element

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season, Match Reports, Premier League |  

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

This match was a Mourinho wet dream…
Everything went almost exactly as he planned it.

Having spent much of the build-up lavishing praise on Mesut Ozil, he subsequently set up his team to ensure the German would be denied space for the majority of the game. Mourinho’s admiration does not extend to affording the German international much freedom.

The Portugese augmented his ‘deep block’ of Mikel and Lampard with Ramires. Although ostensibly starting on the right flank, the Brazilian was tasked with tucking in to crowd the midfield, much as Ray Parlour did for many years at Arsenal.

Every change he made was smart. He left out Luiz, knowing Cahill and Terry would cope better with the robust threat of Giroud. He even left Oscar and Mata on the bench, opting for the hard-working but erratic Willian (aka ‘The New Kalou’).

It’s not so much that Wenger can’t beat Mourinho — it’s that Mourinho is expert at finding ways to stop him. Our boss invariably sends his team out play the same way, whereas Mourinho will select a team specifically designed to nullify the opposition. It’s ugly, but it works. The stats back it up.

“If you can’t win the match, don’t lose” is becoming something a mantra for Wenger…
It started as a reaction to the defeat to Swansea last season, and was reinforced after Robert Lewandowski’s late winner for Dortmund a couple of months back.

There was a palpable fear of losing in similar circumstances tonight. The fans cried out for changes, but Wenger stuck with XI he started with, anxious that an unnecessary switch might upset the rhythm and, crucially , the defensive balance of his team.

In some ways it’s commendable, and shows Wenger’s growing pragmatism.

However, at some stage Arsenal are going to have to gamble, and accept the risk of defeat. Too many draws could prove costly in such a tightly-contested league.

The referee, Mike Dean, was awful…
I feel justified in saying this because although the majority of decisions went against us, there were plenty he called in our favour that baffled me too. Tomas Rosicky, for example, should have been booked long before he was eventually handed a yellow card.

The two major talking points were the Mikel tackle on Arteta and Willian’s trip on Walcott inside the penalty box. Both were well within Dean’s view, and yet both went unpunished.

It was plain odd. I don’t believe he’s biased, but I do believe he is a bad referee.

I can only think there’s a contrary streak in Dean; something that enables him to think he sees something thousands of fans and hundreds of cameras don’t. He enjoys the power and he revels in the controversy.

This match was haunted by the ghosts of two strikers past…
When Olivier Giroud shanked our most presentable chance wide at the near post, I can’t say I was surprised. The Frenchman is now without a goal in his last six games.

It’s the sort of chance the great centre-forward of Arsenal’s past would have gobbled up. Robin van Persie, in particular, frequently buried opportunities from that precise position.

On the other hand, had this Chelsea performance been augmented by the presence of our nemesis Didier Drogba, they might well have emerged victorious. Neither of these sides a boast a centre-forward to match their previous greats.

I don’t know what people expect from Arteta…
After the game Jose Mourinho admitted that Chelsea allowed Arteta to have the ball, knowing he would not cause significant damage. This is not because Arteta is a poor player, but because Chelsea expertly blocked off all available avenues to the Spaniard. He cannot pass to a team-mate who is marked. He can’t create a clear path where one doesn’t exist. He’s a midfielder, not Moses.

Thomas Vermaelen played well…
There were a couple of customary hairy moments, but generally the skipper looked assured alongside Per Mertesacker. Arsene Wenger did not say when Laurent Koscielny would be fit to return, but Vermaelen showed he is capable of being a fine deputy in the interim.

-

Finally, congratulations to the winner of the Warrior #SuperHeat boots competition: Rob Stein. I’ll be in touch shortly to help sort you out with your prize.

Other pieces of mine on the game: ESPN | Bleacher Report

Meeting Thierry + Win Free Warrior boots (It’s Christmas!)

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season |  

On Tuesday afternoon, I was stood in the Emirates Stadium’s rather swanky Diamond Club, waiting for the screening of the new ‘Arsenal Legends: Thierry Henry‘ film.

I was chatting away to Tim Stillman of Arseblog fame – two fish in unfamiliarly opulent waters. Suddenly, Tim’s eyes lit up. Someone was approaching us – someone Tim recognised and, judging by his widening smile, somewhat liked. I felt a hand on my back. I turned around.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Thierry.”

I’ll be honest: I was starstruck. I muttered something about my name being James, as if it remotely mattered to Him, and just about managed a handshake. He might have felt me tremble. I was in the presence of a genuine hero of mine. I suspect Henry will be the greatest player I ever see in an Arsenal shirt. At his best, he was truly electrifying.

When Arsenal invited me down to the screening, I was flattered. When they mentioned Thierry would be there, I was excited but thought little of it. I imagined a crowded press junket with plenty of red rope and red tape.

What was most extraordinary about this event was the intimacy. As this video on Arsenal.com shows, there can’t have been more than 30 people there to watch the film. Among them were Thierry and his family, and a selection of other Arsenal legends.

I can’t believe I was in a room with the likes of Thierry, Ian Wright, David Seaman, Martin Keown, Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell and Ray Parlour – and it wasn’t Heaven. I have lived to tell the tale. Truly, it was an honour to be there.

Being present allowed me to get an extra degree of insight in to Henry, the man. There were touching moments, such as when he pointed out the ‘T’ celebration to his young daughter, explaining that it was devised in celebration of her birth. It was also wonderful to witness the obvious close friendship that exists between Henry and the rest of the players. Being part of a winning team clearly creates a strong bond.

During the documentary, Henry speaks at length about wanting to write his own legacy. When he arrived at Arsenal, the club were still reliving the glory of the double-winning 1997-98 campaign. He wanted a glory all of his own.

Let’s hope that drive exists within the current squad. They have a chance to do something special this season, and begin to build legends to match those of the figures I was fortunate enough to encounter this week. A nice anecdotal addendum: after the film, Ian Wright came up and explained that his favourite thing about Henry is his palpable dislike of Tottenham.

As for the film itself, I heartily recommend it. UK-based readers can catch it on iTunes (details here), and I believe a DVD release is on the way for those who are based abroad. The film also inspired me to write this piece for Bleacher Report, which you might enjoy: ‘The Invincible who became Immortal’.

Right, enough name-dropping. You’re probably all here for the free goodies alluded to in the headline.

Thanks to the nice guys at Warrior, we’ve got a pair of their brand new ‘Superheat’ boots to give away. They’ve focused on making the boots great for control as well as extremely lightweight.

The techno-babble says:

A revolutionary Tri-fusion construction provides you with limitless touch and speed no matter the conditions, with separate layers for water resistance, support and touch.

The neoweb base layer moulds to your foot, providing freedom of movement, comfort and breathability, complete with a water resistant mesh construction.

The nanocradle sits above and offers support and optimum agility, along with a lightweight, internal membrane heel shield to guarantee protection without sacrificing weight. Finally, the super thin organitouch outer layer gives you the touch you need for close control at high speed.

They sound a bit like they were made by aliens. However, I’ve had a kick around in them myself, and can confirm that they actually managed to make slightly less terrible at football. They’re comfortable and seem to make a nice contact with the ball.

Now, to win these beautiful booties, all you need to do is answering the following Henry-based question:

Q. Against which team did Thierry Henry score his last Arsenal goal?

Simply tweet me your answer including the hash-tag “#superheat” by 6pm (UK-time) tomorrow. A winner will be selected at random.

Good luck, guys.

Finally, keep your eyes peeled tomorrow for a very special Christmas duet…

Man City 6-3 Arsenal: Old habits return as Arsenal die hard

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season, Match Reports, Premier League |  

Manchester City 6 – 3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction | My BR piece

This was an entertaining but ridiculous game…
Both sides are renowned for their attractive attacking play, and that manifested in an end-to-end encounter. However, without wanting to go all miserablist and Mourinho-esque about it, to proclaim this game a “great advert for the Premier League” would require overlooking some truly diabolical defensive play.

When you look at clashes between the Premier League’s title-chasers, they are typically cagey, low-scoring games. The stakes are high, and the margins fine. This match, however, was played with all the reckless abandon of a preseason exhibition match.

City will take plenty of plaudits for their stylish swashbuckling, but it’s worth noting that their defending was nearly as bad as ours.

Nearly, but not quite.

Our defending was awful…
This was as bad as it’s been for quite some time. Bear in mind, it’s the first time Arsenal have conceded more than two goals in a game since our opening day defeat to Aston Villa.

The Villa game was something of a freak result, but against City we got the hiding we deserved. I think the last time we defended this badly was probably in the 5-7 farce against Reading last October. This time, however, there’s no Martinez or Djourou to hold up as a scapegoat: to a man, we were poor.

It’s not just the back four who were to blame…
One of the major strengths of the team this season has been the way they’ve defended as a unit.

However, in this match the back four were badly exposed. Arsenal’s midfield simply did not provide the level of protection we have seen since August.

It’s something of a fallacy that the best form of defence is attack, but it’s certainly true that a good form of defence is possession. However, Arsenal didn’t look after the ball sufficiently well today — witness Mesut Ozil’s loose pass that led to City’s crucial third goal.

The timing of the goals was particularly painful…
Conceding an early goal to a set-piece was a huge blow, but at that stage there was plenty of time to claw things back. However, every time Arsenal dragged themselves back in to the game, they turned around and subsequently fired a bullet right in to their own foot. There has been a lot of talk about physical fatigue, but repeatedly conceding just after scoring suggests we’re mentally tired too.

Jack Wilshere should have been one of the fresher players…
However, I thought he was shockingly bad on the day. It was actually quite arresting to see such a technically-gifted player repeatedly give the ball away.

When Flamini was withdrawn in the second half, Wilshere was asked to play the the defensive midfield role. It was something of a disaster.

There’s an understandable desire among Arsenal fans to protect Wilshere: he is a huge prospect and is still recovering from an equally huge lay-off. However, performances like today show just how far he is from getting back to his best.

I’m sorry, Mikel…
Prior to the game, I was one of those who advocated the dropping of Mikel Arteta. Arsene Wenger clearly felt similarly, as he left the Spaniard on the substitutes bench. It was a bold, ruthless selection from Arsene, which I admired — but sometimes gambles fail: Arteta’s positional discipline and intelligent use of the ball were badly missed. I fully expect Arteta to be restored to the side for the Chelsea game.

Olivier Giroud tried manfully…
Considering how little he must have left in the tank, I was impressed by how well Giroud put himself about for most of the game. However, he is now without a goal in five games, and allowed several alluring opportunities to score pass him by. Arsene Wenger was not amused:

One suspects that Sergio Aguero would have snapped up one of the chances Giroud passed up. As good as Giroud can be, Arsenal still have room for improvement alongside or ahead of him.

Of course we were tired…
Before the game, Arsene Wenger insisted he would not blame our heavy fixture schedule. His post-match press conference suggests he’s changed his tune. Several key players looked utterly drained by the 70th minute.

There’s no doubt that City have superior strength in depth. Arsenal have many excellent squad players, but City have no squad players. Almost every footballer in their possession would be good enough to start for them regularly. When they rotate, there is no discernible drop in quality. When we rotate, we play Bendtner.

The one positive was Theo Walcott…
Walcott took both his chances well and showed that he could provide some much-needed support for Olivier Giroud. If he can stay fit he will certainly add a different dimension to our attacking play.

The incident between Ozil and Per wasn’t pretty…
When Ozil neglected to go over and clap the travelling fans, the usually placed Per lost it a bit.

It’s a consequence of frustration on both sides. Ozil was probably embarrassed by the scoreline and his own mistake, and wanted out of there ASAP. Per, as a committed defender, would have been furious to have shipped six goals. I wonder too if he didn’t hold Ozil a little responsible for that misplaced pass when the game was finely balanced at 2-1.

Emotions run high — that’s normal. Hopefully that charged atmosphere can be channeled in a more positive way ahead of our next game.

It’s all about the response…
If Arsenal overcome Chelsea in the next game, much will be forgiven. However, that’s no easy task: Arsene Wenger has never beaten a Jose Mourinho team.

Having been roundly trounced by City, it’s tempting to wonder just how costly that Gerard Deulofeu goal last week might prove to be. Arsenal’s cushion has disappeared and our seat at the top of the table suddenly feels a lot less comfortable.

The stark truth is that Arsenal have lost to each of Manchester United, City and Chelsea this season. Beating the likes of Spurs and Liverpool is one thing, but that titanic trio provide the real acid test. Arsenal will need to win their home games against their closest rivals if they are to stand a chance of lasting the pace.

Napoli 2-0 Arsenal: A bit of perspective

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season, Champions League, Match Reports |  

Just a quick one from me tonight.

Tonight was a mixed night for most Arsenal fans. We lost 2-0 to Napoli, but managed to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League. However, looking at some of the mewling and moaning going on among Arsenal fans, you’d think we’d been doomed to imprisonment in the EUROPA League. I’m shocked to see so many fans treating this evening’s result as a disaster.

Perhaps it’s just a vocal minority. But it does perturb me.

In my eyes, qualification from such a treacherous group is a pretty significant achievement. Four wins from six games against teams of this quality is not a record to be sniffed at.

I think most sane Arsenal fans appreciate that. I hope so. Getting out of the group was the priority, and winning it merely a bonus. The most important thing is that we have evaded a draining and depressing assault on that Thursday night monstrosity. Instead, Rafael Benitez has been left to continue his bizarre love affair with that particular competition.

The performance wasn’t great, but Arsenal entered the game in something of an awkward position. We knew a draw would be enough to see us through. That’s never particularly conducive to a stirring showing — witness Bayern Munich’s listless display against us back in March.

It’s a blow to miss out on top spot, but it’s not the end of the world. Surely one of the very reasons we bother to qualify for the Champions League is to enjoy hosting the continent’s finest? I can’t wait to welcome one of Barca, Real, Atletico, Bayern or PSG to the Emirates. If you want to watch Maribor, turn on Channel 5ive.

If you want to win the trophy, you have to beat the top teams somewhere along the line. Better to face up to it early. If we go through, fantastic. If we go out, we have all the more time to focus on our domestic affairs.

Speaking of which, there’s a very big game with Manchester City coming up on Saturday. Should we lose that, it looks as if some people will go in to some kind of meltdown.

That’d be unwise too. There’s a long, long way to go in the title-race. Saturday  will be an indicator, but not a decider.

And you know what? I’m looking forward to it.

If you want more, I’ve written a more conventional match report for ESPN.

Arsenal 1 – 1 Everton: You can’t win them all, annoyingly

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season, Match Reports, Premier League |  

Match report | Arsene’s reaction | Highlights

In the end, this was a fair result…
It was a pretty extraordinary game, too. Both sides absolutely went for it: Arsenal because we had the carrot of a seven-point lead before us; Everton because their confidence was buoyed by a win at Old Trafford and they had almost nothing to lose. I was hugely impressed by Roberto Martinez’s side. Granted, we have a couple of big tests coming up in the next fortnight, but Everton are certainly the best team we’ve faced in the Premier League to date.

Everton bossed the first half…

They went for the jugular right from kick-off, and it seemed to catch our team by surprise. Indeed, it took us the best part of 40 minutes to get over our shock and actually start to take the game to the Toffees.

We had two outstanding centre-back performances to thank for being at 0-0 at half-time…

Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were both every bit as good as we’ve come to expect. Romelu Lukaku presented an awkward challenge, and one feared a repeat of the roastings we were regularly given by Didier Drogba – a similarly athletic forward in a blue shirt.
However, both centre-halves were at the top of their game. Koscielny in particular seemed to grow in stature as the game wore on, regularly nipping in to win the ball cleanly before bursting upfield to join the attack. The Frenchman was Arsenal’s best player on the day.

Despite Everton’s first-half dominance, we still had the better chances…
Tim Howard was in good form to deny both Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud. Had our finishing been a touch better, we could have had an unlikely half-time lead.

In the second half, Arsenal looked sharper…

Our punch-drunk opening was banished to memory as we set about imposing ourselves on the game. The balance of possession was significant redressed, and we won plenty more second balls – especially after the introduction of the busy Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini.

Aaron Ramsey had his poorest game for a while…

The Welshman was not at his best, and it’s tempting to put it down to tired legs: this was, after all, his 22nd start of the season.
There were signs of a performance like this coming his way in midweek against Hull. Aside from his delicious assist for Mesut Ozil, Ramsey was unusually wasteful in possession. In the past week, some of his bad habits have crept back in: overly-ambitious passes and unnecessary flicks. He needs to remember that simplicity has been the key to the revival in his game. I’d be tempted to rest him in midweek.

Mesut Ozil, the man for the big occasion, delivered…
If anyone looked likely to make the breakthrough for Arsenal it was Ozil. His last three performances have all been right out of the top drawer of football’s tallest cabinet. When he smartly lifted the ball over Tim Howard and in to the roof of the net, it really felt like we might be watching a defining goal in the Premier League season.

The equaliser was gutting…

A buoyant stadium was silenced by a smashing strike from Gerard Deulofeu. Some have criticised Szczesny for failing to stop the shot, but it really was an excellent hit. It flashed past the Pole and evaporated our hopes of that seven-point lead. Gutting, but probably fair.

The next three games are all massive…

Travelling to the Etihad just days days after a crucial Champions League tie against Napoli does look like a daunting task, but if we are to be champions then these are the kinds of challenges we have to overcome. Beyond that, there’s the home tie with Chelsea, and a chance for Arsene Wenger to finally get one over on Jose Mourinho.
All Arsenal can do is take it one game at a time. Next stop: Naples.

Arsenal 2-0 Hull: “Nicklas Bendtner: He scores when he wants”

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season, Match Reports, Premier League |  

Arsenal 2-0 Hull
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

It was a nice moment when Bendtner got the opener…
With Arsenal going so well in the table, there’s a genuinely positive atmosphere around the ground. The reception Bendtner got was predominantly warm even before he headed us in to an early lead.

It was clear he was delighted to score. It must have represented a moment of some retribution for him. Let’s be clear: a solitary goal against Hull doesn’t suddenly erase the sins of the past, but it might be the start of him moving on his career — be that at Arsenal or more likely elsewhere.

We saw different aspects of Bendtner’s game…
The goal demonstrated that Bendtner will always be a threatening physical presence in the penalty area. At his size, it’d be difficult not to be. Even earlier this season, when he was supposedly carrying an ankle problem and an extra couple of stone, he managed to head home two goals for Denmark against Italy.

While Bendtner is perfectly capable of emulating Giroud’s robust penalty box threat, he struggles to match the Frenchman’s accomplished hold-up game. It was telling that for long periods Bendtner didn’t seem to be involved in our build-up play. His movement and his first-touch still have a long way to go.

I’m no Bendtner apologist, but…
…the way he is talked about in the wider football media is extraordinary.

Obviously, as fans, we all poke a bit of fun at him. I’m more guilty of that than most. But I am slightly taken aback when I see the way supposedly ‘serious’ pundits talk about a player with 24 goals in 56 international caps.

On Match of the Day, they stated a goal from Bendtner against Hull is “not something you expect”. He is talked about as if he’s one of the worst footballers of all time. He’s not. He’s a guy with plenty of talent but a poor attitude.

As a personality, I agree that he is utterly risible. As a footballer? Less so. And that’s what these people should be assessing.

After the opening goal, the game threatened to become a bit ‘too easy’…
It was exhibition stuff, really. Beautiful to watch, but a little disconcerting for fans of a nervous disposition. I feared that Arsenal were in danger of becoming complacent. Fortunately, at the start of the second half, any such concerns were dispelled by the second goal which effectively killed the game.

Ramsey’s contribution to both goals was brilliant…
Although Bendtner will justifiably take most headlines, Aaron Ramsey played a crucial part in both goals. For the first, he played a beautiful slide-rule pass in to Carl Jenkinson, who again showed that he is the club’s best crosser by perfectly picking out Bendtner.

On the second goal, Ramsey’s interplay with Ozil was just a joy. The greatest compliment I can pay the final pass is that it’s one Ozil would’ve been chuffed to play himself.

The defensive record is beginning to look seriously impressive…
Arsenal have now kept four clean sheets on the bounce. I believe it’s also six in the last seven, and seven in the last nine. The numbers (or lack thereof) are mightily impressive.

Arsenal’s defensive solidarity was summed up for me in one late vignette. Hull’s Egyptian striker, Mohamed Nagy, raced on to a long ball over the top. Unsurprisingly, he appeared to have the beating of Per Mertesacker for pace. Instead of panicking and pulling him down, Mertesacker actually slowed up. He knew what would happen next.

From nowhere, Laurent Koscielny came steaming in at full throttle to nick the ball away. It was a moment that was indicative of the telepathic understanding between this pair.

As Arsene looks to rotate the side over the next few games, you can bet he’ll do everything he can to keep Mertesacker and Koscielny together.

I never thought I’d see a Man United side this bad…
…and boy is it funny. Yes, they’ll improve. Yes, they may even come in to contention later in the season. But let’s laugh at them now. Truly, it’s our turn, and we’ve waited long enough for it.

As for Roberto Martinez…
…I’m delighted to see him doing well. I always rated him at Wigan and he’s showing that his stylish philosophy is actually more effective when employed at a club with better resources and players.

Everton will be a big test for Arsenal come Sunday. Just as with Hull and Cardiff, our next opposition have fired a warning shot across our bows. It’s up to us to meet the challenge.

FURTHER READING:

For ESPN: Arsenal rotate but roll on past Hull

Cardiff 0 – 3 Arsenal: We’ve Got Our Arsene Back

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2013-14 Season, Match Reports, Premier League |  

Cardiff City 0 – 3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights

We’ve got our Arsene back…
In stoppage time, with Arsenal winning this match by three goals to nil, the cameras caught Arsene Wenger bellowing at an Arsenal player.

It  may have seemed unnecessary, but I interpreted it as a sign that his focus is greater than ever. Many of us have doubted Wenger’s powers in the last few seasons. What’s clear is that –  even if they had ever faded  - they have now returned with a vengeance.

Wenger has always been something of a perfectionist. This season, he has shown he is prepared to be a pragmatist too. His perfectionism is no longer confine to Arsenal’s aesthetic dimension, but seems to encompass a broader appreciation of the games. Whereas once he was cavalier, he is increasingly practical. He seems to take pride in the team’s defending once more. He’ll have been just as satisfied by the clean sheet as the three exquisite goals.

A couple of weeks back, Santi Cazorla told The Guardian:

The manager is more concienciado, more concentrated, more conscious.

He’s more demanding. It’s been a long time without winning anything and he’s determined.

Arsenal are reaping the benefits of Arsene’s renewed vigour.

Aaron Ramsey was a class act…
The way he took the goals was sublime, but his celebration (or lack thereof) underlined his class. For home fans to applaud a visiting conqueror requires a very special set of circumstances. Fortunately, Cardiff fans had the sophistication to recognise that Ramsey is more of a cause for pride than disparagement.

This was Mesut Ozil’s best game for some time…
I’ve been tentatively critical of his recent displays, but he was excellent in Wales. The two assists were laced with the kind of pinpoint precision one expects of the uber-technician, but his all-round game was excellent too.

It wasn’t Olivier Giroud’s best day…
In the first half, there was the rather embarrassing moment when he neglected to play to the whistle and pulled up when through on goal. Then, at the start of the second half, he saw a close-range effort cleared off the line.

Giroud can’t be expected to excel in every game – hence why Arsenal need to invest in another forward in January.

Theo Walcott reminded us of what he can do…
His cameo from the bench was brief but explosive. Unfortunately for Theo, he may merely have reminded Arsene of how effective he can be as a late substitute against a tiring defence. Being a superb substitute is something of a poisoned chalice.

Wojciech Szczesny deserves enormous credit…
At 1-0, Szczesny made a couple of crucial saves, including one outstanding stop to deny a powerful Frazier Campbell header.

The Pole has now kept five clean sheets in his last six games.

Arsenal must keep up the momentum…
We now face two home games against Hull and in-form Everton. It’s vital we win both games to give us a cushion heading in to the crucial double-header against City and Chelsea.

Fortunately, with the squad returning to something approaching full-strength, we finally have the option to rotate without reducing the potency of the XI.