Stoke 1-0 Arsenal: Gunners fall to familiar foe

In truth, Arsenal couldn’t really afford to draw this game, let alone lose…
In isolation, a draw at Stoke is a decent result. However, this game was not played in isolation. It was played in the context of a title race, and all our other results. A draw would not have been good enough, and a defeat is a disaster.

There were only so many times we could afford to drop points between now and the end of the season. Given that we face the most difficult fixture list of any of the four title-challengers, this was a game we probably had to win.

I know Stoke’s not an easy place to go. However, when we dropped points at home to United, it effectively narrowed the margin for potential error. Some hailed that as a good result “in isolation”. I wonder if they still think so now.

We have now won just two of our last six Premier League games.

Do I think Chelsea could slip up? Maybe. Do I think that Chelsea, City and Liverpool will pick up less points than us in the run-in, given our respective fixture lists? Probably not.

I know some will consider this an unnecessarily grim assessment. After all, we might go and beat Tottenham, Everton, Chelsea and City in succession. However, given the evidence of our performances against our biggest rivals thus far this season, such a run seems improbable at best.

Our title challenge has been mounted upon our capacity to put away the lesser teams. Today, we failed to do that. It looks costly.

Saying all that, the penalty award was incredibly harsh…
I’m not sure how the referee can possibly give that as a deliberate handball. Still, it seems that The Curse of Laurent Koscielny has struck again. That was the sixth Premier League penalty he’s given away in his time at Arsenal (h/t @OptaJoe). However well he’s playing, he can’t seem to escape those big controversial moments.

You could question the line-up…
I can understand leaving out Mesut Ozil. Tomas Rosicky was outstanding against Sunderland and didn’t really deserve to be dropped.

However, was Jack Wilshere really better equipped than Mathieu Flamini to cope with the tumult of the Britannia’s midfield battle? I’m not sure. This was one of those games in which Wilshere seemed to spend more time on the floor than his feet.

I’m also surprised that Wenger didn’t see the need to start with The Ox. Against Liverpool, he showed that his penetrative running is invaluable to a side desperately missing Theo Walcott. A rest against Sunderland made sense, but there was no reason for him to be left out today.

That late Yaya Sanogo miss felt telling…
When we desperately needed something to rescue the game, we turned to an unproved 21 year-old without a Premier League goal to his name. I’m by no means holding young Sanogo accountable, but he way he scooped that late chance over the bar reminded me of our inexplicable failure to recruit a new attacker.

The priority in January was to find a striker who was better than Bendtner and Sanogo. I refuse to accept that was an impossible task.

The FA Cup feels massive now…
Arsenal are still just three wins away from winning a trophy. I pray that we don’t witness any rotation against Everton. Our league hopes hang by a thread, but the FA Cup remains a very real possibility.

To end on a positive…
Congratulations to @bentayloruk for winning the Bergkamp print – I’ll be in touch shortly about your prize. If you missed out, you can use the discount code ‘GUNNERBLOG’ to get 10% off any Arsenal canvas print.

Thoughts on Sanogo, Sunderland + Win a Bergkamp Canvas Print

I’ve been away…
…in Amsterdam. Working. No, not like that. I did manage to catch all our games while I was there, but given the demands of the job I was doing the Liverpool, Bayern and Sunderland matches had to remain blogless. I’d apologise, but I know that in this day and age you’re spoilt for choice. I’m sure you all got your fix elsewhere.

The Yaya Sanogo thing…
…caught me somewhat off-guard. I was mildly surprised to see him start against Liverpool, and truly shocked that he played against Bayern. It’s clear his opportunity has come about primarily due to non-footballing issues. Giroud’s off-field misdemeanours are well-documented, while Nicklas Bendtner is finally beginning to be frozen out.

Having been thrown in at the deep-end, Sanogo did enough to stay afloat. However, to continue the swimming analogy, I’m not yet convinced he’s the next Ian Thorpe. Nor Eric The Eel. Basically, he’s quite good at swimming. And football.

The criticism of Mesut Ozil…
…was way over the top. Anyone can miss a penalty.

That said, some people are more likely to miss than others. I have to say, I would never choose Ozil as a penalty taker. He simply doesn’t have the requisite ruthlessness in front of goal. He’s now missed two out of two for Arsenal. I’d be surprised if we see him take another.

Nevertheless, you can read about my hopes for his return over at ESPN.

Arsenal were excellent against Sunderland…
…and Tomas Rosicky rightly took plenty of the plaudits. Some argue we look better with just one of Ozil or Santi Cazorla in the team. I’d suggest the truth is that we simply look better because Rosicky is invariably the replacement for either player. We’re better with the Little Mozart in the team. It’s just a shame he’s not ten years younger.

Stoke away doesn’t hold as much fear as it used to…
Given the fixture list we face, this is actually one of our easier games. Three points is a must.

Competition time…
As you’ll know, last weekend Dennis Bergkamp’s statue was unveiled outside the Emirates Stadium. Obviously I can’t start giving away full-size bronze replicas of the non-flying Dutchman. However, thanks to the guys at Canvasartrocks.com, we have got one of these excellent Canvas Prints to give away.

Winning one is pretty simple. All you need to do is Tweet the answer to the following question, including the hashtag #DB10canvas.

Q. Against which club did Dennis Bergkamp score his last Arsenal goal?

The winner will be chosen at random and announced in the weekend’s post-Stoke blog. If you don’t fancy your chances in the competition, you can buy this and many other Arsenal-themed canvases here – use the discount code ‘GUNNERBLOG’ to get yourself  10% off any purchase.

Good luck!

Arsenal 0 – 0 Man United: We’ve missed the party

I had a more emotional reaction to this game than normal. The reason why is simple: I hate United. I loathe them. Their demise this season has made me cackle like the most perfectly played out slapstick comedy.

And I so wanted us to be in on it. I wanted us to join the party, along with West Brom, Newcastle, Sunderland, and all those other teams. When we went to Old Trafford, I had visions of a cathartic victory. I wanted us to batter them, get a bit drunk, piss on the corner flag, and dance disgracefully on the grave of Fergie’s dugout. I thought we’d be the munchkins in Oz, the Ewoks on Endor, gleefully celebrating the destruction of a once feared nemesis.

But we weren’t. We were feeble.

This time, surely, it had to be different. Yes, we went in to the match on the back of a painful defeat to Liverpool, but United come in to it off the back of a truly agonising season. Surely, this time, we ought to have had the psychological upper hand.

It wasn’t to be. We blew it.

We weren’t dominated by United, but nor did we shed our insecurities. We had an opportunity to put them to the sword, but we looked more worried about dropping our shield. We’re as scared of Fergie’s ghost as David Moyes is.

There was plenty wrong with the performance, but it’s clear the main problems are in attack. Without Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud’s weakness come in to sharp focus. Arsenal lack pace on the counter and someone who can run in behind the defence. With the pair in tandem, you get a bit of everything. Giroud in isolation is a one-dimensional threat.

Mesut Ozil had one of his finest games in an Arsenal shirt, but his dribbles forward often ended in frustration as he looked up to survey his options. No-one in this XI had the speed required to sprint in to the space Ozil’s probing passes seek out. When Ozil looks up, you can almost feel him forlornly casting his eyes across the horizon in search of Cristiano Ronaldo.

It’s clear the jig’s up for Lukas Podolski, too. In a game in which Arsenal’s attacking was limp and lifeless, Podolski went unused. Wenger’s vote of confidence could not have been more emphatically delivered.

I do feel this was a game we had to win. Not mathematically. Numbers-wise, the title is still very much on. No: I thought we had to win it to escape our hang-ups, to instil the team with confidence, and to make a statement to our rivals.

After the game, Arsene suggested that the team was inhibited by the mauling at Anfield. Perhaps so. “We are only human”, he offered. My concern is that champions often have the sheen of the superhuman. One point from the two games against Liverpool and United does not seem enough for a title-winning team.

There are certain similarities with the sequence of games where we lost to City and then drew at home to Chelsea. Arsenal followed that up with a further seven games unbeaten in the league. Given that our next seven games encompass games with Tottenham, City, Chelsea and Everton, I consider it unlikely we’ll repeat that feat.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The table makes it clear: we’re still in the race. I’m not going to prematurely mourn the title. However, I’m inconsolably sad that Arsenal will go through the 2013/14 season having failed to beat the worst United team in decades. We’ve missed the party.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Crystal Palace: Ox in the box sees off Pulis

Arsenal were methodical rather than meek…
At half-time I saw a number of people on my Twitter timeline criticising Arsenal for an apparent lack of attacking ambition. On closer inspection, it transpired most of these people were neutrals.

Their disappointment was presumably based on ill-informed expectations. Tuning in to televised coverage of the game, they probably anticipated Arsenal producing an exhibition of attacking excellence. We retain a reputation for extravagant football, just as we retain a reputation as bottlers. This season, it could be argued that both are unjustified. The fans who watch regularly will recognise that this team is evolving a different character: one far steelier, and devastatingly efficient.

Arsene Wenger remarked recently that while Mesut Ozil’s style is not always the most eye-catching, he wears opponents down due to the sheer consistency of his passing. The same analysis could be applied to the team as a whole.

Crystal Palace under Tony Pulis are a highly-organised unit. They are notoriously difficult to break down. Arsenal showed great patience to break down their opponent. It’s also worth pointing out that we put one more goal past them than the vaunted Manchester City.

I couldn’t care less if neutrals are entertained. We’re winning. That’s all I’m bothered about.

Ox t-shirts on sale now

Oxlade-Chamberlain in midfield reminds of Ross Barkley…

He has the same entrancing combination of power and technique. As his second goal demonstrates, he is able to burst past defenders at will, and has the shooting power to finish things off too.

Comparisons with Theo Walcott have always been somewhat lazy. Chamberlain doesn’t share Walcott’s blistering pace or his probing movement off the ball. However, he does possess an impressive range of passing and a genuinely creative streak. As Wenger has long stressed, the middle is his natural home.

Like Barkley, Ox needs to improve his stamina and defensive play if he’s to become a true box-to-box midfielder. Given time, he’ll do it. In Aaron Ramsey’s continued absence, Oxlade-Chamberlain is arguably the closest replicant of the Welshman’s all-action style.

The defence deserve enormous credit…

Arsenal have conceded one goal in their last 11 matches at the Emirates Stadium. It’s stunning stuff. Yesterday, Mertesacker and Koscielny were simply imperious. At one point they could even afford to play a spot of head tennis in their own half.

It’d be remiss not to mention the Kallstrom deal…
This is my first opportunity to talk about it on the blog, and I have to say it continues to puzzle me. Seemingly the only reason we were after a midfielder was to cope with the short-term absence of Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini. However, we have signed a player who is not available for the period those two are set to miss.

Arsene has stressed that the club were not aware of Kallstrom’s injury until 5pm on Deadline Day. By then, it was “too late” to find an alternative. The choice, according to Le Boss, was to sign Kallstrom or no-one. In those circumstances, concluding the deal was probably the right option. However, should it have come to that? Could there not have been a back-up for Kallstrom?

Arsenal really needed a striker in this window, yet Arsene insisted there was no-one of the “super quality” required available. I’m not convinced we necessarily needed a midfielder, and yet he brought in one of dubious calibre who is injured.

It’s a funny one. But he’s proved me wrong before. I, like many, has my doubts about the acquisition of Mathieu Flamini. I’d love to be similarly wrong again.