Not 1-1 at Newcastle (again)

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

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

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!)

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…