Everton Preview: My glass needs refilling

I’ve seen our draw with Manchester City cited as vindication of our abilities against the top teams. I can see why one might think that: it was a valiant fight-back against a team in rampant form who are still in the thick of the title race.

My glass, however, is half-drained. I’m more inclined to observe that we haven’t beaten either of Manchester City or Chelsea, home or away, all season. The aggregate scores aren’t pretty. We secured draws in the home games, but they were draws the opposition were more than happy to take. The point suited them far more than us.

Those results are ultimately what have knocked us out of title contention and in to a customary battle for a top four finish. Today we face Everton in what is being called a “six pointer”. Arsenal hope to have an FA Cup Final to look forward to, but this is undoubtedly Everton’s cup final. Lose, and they face an unexciting trudge towards the Europa League. Win, and they will believe they can overhaul us and reach the Champions League.

This is undoubtedly a huge game. However, it’s only become a huge game because we failed to win any of the other huge games. Everton are striving to climb the mountain; Arsenal to arrest the slide.

Given Everton’s challenging fixture list, a point would be fine. I think Arsenal might set up more conservatively than usual. If we avoid defeat today, our run-in looks manageable.

Come on you Gunners.

Ready, Set, Go: The Race for fourth is underway!

Arsenal 2 – 2 Swansea

Even the most wildly optimistic fan has forgotten about the title now…
With Everton making good ground behind us, all focus is on securing a top four finish. It’s a somewhat depressing reality at the end of an exciting season, but fortunately we still have the carrot of a potential FA Cup win dangling ahead of us. Without that, the fans would be in full-blown meltdown.

The defending on the first goal was far too casual…
Just as at Chelsea, Arsenal just weren’t switched on enough. That said, it was a terrific cross and a great leap from Wilfried Bony.

Watching Bony at close quarters was interesting…
Like Giroud, he lacks pace, but everything he does is done with real power, purpose and intent. He’s not the calibre of striker who could take our team to the next level, but someone of his ilk would definitely have helped bulk out the squad. Watching Olivier Giroud labour around the pitch wasn’t pretty.

Giroud looks drained of both stamina and confidence. Although he added to his goal tally in the second half, this was one of his poorest performances of the season.

At half-time I said on Twitter that Arsenal could win the game if they brought on Podolski…
When the German score and created a goal inside 66 seconds, I thought I might be be awarded a modicum of credit. Swansea’s late equaliser soon put paid to that.

As for Podolski, he is a curious case. He is undoubtedly efficient in the final third. He has a shooting accuracy of 67%, as compared with Giroud’s 41%. Only Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil have been more deadly in front of goal, and Ozil’s stats are somewhat skewed by his steadfast refusal to shoot.

However, defensively he remains something of disaster. From an attacking point of view, we seem to need him. And yet, defensively, we can’t seem to afford him. It’s a paradox, all right.

Bringing Sanogo on seemed strange…
Granted, Giroud was knackered, but I would far rather have seen either Nacho Monreal or Carl Jenkinson introduced. Wenger has employed his “all the full-backs” strategy to good effect on several occasions this season. Giving Sanogo a two minute cameo seemed like an unnecessary concession to Arsene’s latest pet project.

Mathieu Flamini didn’t deserve to score that own goal…
He was one of our better performers. In the second half, he marshalled Bony superbly. His display showed the folly of leaving him out at Stamford Bridge.

To end on a positive…
…Kallstrom looked good! Some commentators observed that he received a “good reception” when coming on for his Arsenal debut – in person, it felt more like the ironic cheers reserved for the likes of Nicklas Bendtner. Nevertheless, his passing was crisp and he showed a willingness to get involved in the physical aspect of the game.

 

Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal: Bridge of Sighs

This was a dreadful day…
The scoreline equals the 8-2 at Old Trafford as Arsenal’s worst ever Premier League defeat under Arsene Wenger. Speaking personally, I found that match more painful, due to my deep-seated hatred of all things Manchester United.

However, on that occasion there were mitigating circumstances. Arsenal were in the midst of a difficult transfer window and a defensive injury crisis. The team we fielded included Jenkinson, Djourou, Traore and Coquelin. The bench found room for Miquel, Lansbury, Ozyakup, Chamakh and Sunu.

Arsenal have injury problems, but the XI we fielded against Chelsea was still made up of experienced internationals. Our first-choice back four and goalkeeper were all available to play. And yet this game looked more like a mismatched cup tie against a League Two side than an elite clash between two Champions League teams.

It was sickening but not surprising. Arsenal have collapsed in each of their three games away to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, conceding a remarkable 17 goals along the way. We’ve only conceded 34 goals this season, meaning half that tally has come in our three most important games.

Each of those games was seen as vital in our bid for the title. Each of those games took place at 12.45 on a Saturday. And each of those games saw us effectively surrender in the first quarter. Across the fixtures, we conspired to concede seven goals in the opening 20 minutes.

It can’t be just coincidence. Something is deeply wrong.

We haven’t looked like champions for a while…
Arsenal have now won just three of their last eight games. Three times this season we’ve faced a supposed “Death Run”, and it’s difficult to argue we’ve come out of any of those periods well.

The team selection was wrong…
Sticking with the same XI who played at Spurs was a strange decision given our awkward performance at White Hart Lane. After the first meeting between Arsenal and Chelsea in the league, Jose Mourinho boasted that he had stifled Arsenal by suffocating Mikel Arteta. He did exactly the same thing at Stamford Bridge. Perhaps the inclusion of Mathieu Flamini alongside Arteta would have helped the Spaniard cope with Chelsea’s marauding midfield.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain produced one of their worst performances in memory…
He was absolutely atrocious. Wenger is famously reluctant to make early changes – the fact he was withdrawn at half-time speaks volumes. Given his recent form, I must confess I did not see this coming.

Arsene was as frustrated with Giroud as the fans…
Friends at the game tell me he frequently showed his displeasure with the striker’s performance. His frustration mirrored that experienced by the fans at home. Many of our players looked as if they were running through treacle — Giroud looked as if he was running through cement.

However, the fact remains that it was Arsene who put his faith in Giroud, and Arsene who neglected to bring in another striker. Giroud’s flaws have been evident for some time. He certainly isn’t going to become quicker anytime soon.

What next for Arsene?
The manager neglected to turn up for his post-match press conference. Presumably, he didn’t know what to say. When asked by BT Sport if he could have anticipated such a catastrophic result, he said it was “unfortunately unpredictable”.

Arsenal’s capitulations at the Etihad and Anfield suggests he’s wrong about that. Distressingly, every time Arsenal head in to a big match away from home, this kind of humiliation is on the cards. The floodgates opened in August 2011 and Wenger can’t seem to find a way to close them.

It’s not entirely his fault. The players have to take responsibility for their abject performance. However, Arsene is in charge of selecting and preparing them. He is struggling to break the cycle which sees this kind of display occur again and again.

Today will have hurt him. His contempt for Jose Mourinho is clear, and the Portugese’s barbed comments about Wenger’s many “bad moments” prior to the game will have stung. That pain will be amplified by the prophetic nature of Mourinho’s words – this game will surely rank among Wenger’s worst moments as Arsenal manager.

On Friday, Wenger spoke with confidence about the prospect of signing a new deal at Arsenal. One wonders if a result like this might give him cause for reconsideration. On the biggest stages, his team continue to freeze. The spate of new contracts suggest a full recast is unlikely. To continue the theatrical analogy, the simplest thing might be to change the director.

Wenger is intelligent and self-aware. If we can see his problems, the chances are he can too. His last eight years at Arsenal have been characterised by his selfless sense of duty. Perhaps his final selfless act will be to recognise a new man may be required to fix some of the underlying problems in this team.

I don’t know if it’s that simple, in truth. I’m certainly not wishing Wenger in to a hasty retirement. I’m merely articulating my concern at seeing the same issues reoccur again and again. There’s been much to admire about this season, but when you break it down the problems — defeat at Stoke, frailty against the big boys, a failure to invest in the crucial midseason period — remain worryingly familiar.

Given this teams propensity to self-destruct, the FA Cup semi-final currently engenders feelings of anxiety rather than comfort.

Much to ponder — and I’d be fibbing if I said I had the answers. Unfortunately, I’m not confident that Arsene has them either.

Spurs beaten & 1000 not out for Arsene

Any kind of derby win is welcome…
In these games, performance is secondary to result. Arsenal may have been on the ropes at times, but ultimately it was our hand that was lifted aloft at full-time.

The truth is that, as they have done all season, Spurs struggled to convert their dominance in to presentable goalscoring opportunities. 70% of their attempts at goal came from outside the box, which is something of an inevitability for a team including the trigger-happy Andros Townsend.

Tottenham’s best chance came from a Wojciech Szczesny error, but Mertesacker and Koscielny were on hand to rescue the Pole. Arsene Wenger has had some great individual defenders, but I’m not sure he’s had such an effective partnership as these two since the 1998 stable of Keown, Bould and Adams.

For more on whether Arsenal can win things playing like they did at Spurs, read my piece in The Mirror. 

Tomas Rosicky is becoming the scourge of Spurs…
He’s not known as much of a goalscorer, but two of this three goals this season have come against our local rivals. This one was a spectacular strike, and the sort of goal we might have imagined him scoring more regularly after watching him during the 2006 World Cup.

Arsenal’s need for a new striker crystallised at White Hart Lane…
With the team pegged back, we desperately needed an outlet up top. A bit of pace would have been invaluable. Sadly, Olivier Giroud does not even have “a bit”. He isn’t one-paced. He’s no-paced.

For more on the North London Derby, have a listen to this week’s Arsecast Extra.

Chelsea’s defeat at Villa changes things…
This was a game Arsenal had to win. However, it’s arguably now one we simply mustn’t lose. With that in mind, I expect Mathieu Flamini to come in to shore up the midfield, most likely at the expense of Lukas Podolski.

1000 up for Arsene…
What an incredible achievement. Now seems an appropriate time to share an anecdote from an agent friend of mine who recently went for a meeting with a member of the Arsenal recruitment team at London Colney. Although he didn’t meet Wenger, he was struck by the fact that his presence was evident everywhere. Every inch of that training ground is designed to his specifications.

That influence extends beyond Hertfordshire to North London, where the Emirates Stadium stands as monument to Wenger’s ambition and vision. The agent said his two hours at Colney left him with a deep respect for the remarkable transformation Wenger has enacted in North London. As Arsenal fans, we don’t need to look behind the curtain to understand his importance.

I don’t think Arsene is perfect. He’s arrogant, occasionally myopic, and infuriatingly stubborn. He’s human. However, as humans go, he’s pretty special.

The longer his contract remains unsigned, the greater the chance of him walking away at the end of the season. Arsenal fans are being made to contemplate the daunting prospect of a team without Wenger at the helm.

Let’s enjoy him while he’s here, and honour him as he deserves.

Thoughts on FA Cup, Bayern & Spurs

There is a strange pressure about being FA Cup favourites…
It’s an unpleasantly familiar sensation, much like the one we found ourselves in at this stage 2011’s Carling Cup.

Surely, the lessons of that disastrous final have been learnt. We’re more experienced, more determined and more professional. We ought to do it. There are no excuses.

I was pleased with the Bayern result and performance…

In my opinion, the tie was effectively dead after the first leg result. If I’m honest, I’d pretty much resigned it as soon as the initial draw was made. However, 1-1 at the Allianz Arena was a creditable result that allowed us to continue our campaign with the semblance of gathering momentum. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was absolutely superb: in the continued absence of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, he must be one of the first names on the team-sheet.

The penalty save felt significant…

Not only did it ensure we left without suffering a dispiriting defeat, but it also felt like the moment that Lukasz Fabianski guaranteed his place in the FA Cup semi-final side. In this form, his departure on a Bosman in the summer feels like a significant loss.

Spurs are on the ropes…

Their fans are as unsettled as they’ve been for some time. Speaking to Spurs supporters, it seems there’s a sense that the club lack direction and purpose. They feel little to no affinity with the players, and are worried they’re trapped in a purgatorial prison. A “negative spiral”, you might say.

However, derby day is a real equaliser. We know only two well how quickly the trajectories of the two north London clubs can be reversed. Arsenal will need to ensure their focus is absolutely right if they’re to come away with three points.

We need those points pretty badly. Although the increased probability of FA Cup success has made that the focus, we still have a good chance of winning the Premier League. It would take an extraordinary run, but then title wins usually do.