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 Wenger is famously reluctant to make early changes – the fact he was withdrawn at half-time speaks volumes.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.

Arsenal 4-1 Everton: Giroud is comfortably our best striker

Arsenal 4-1 Everton
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsene gambled with his team at either end of the pitch…
When it came to selecting his team, Arsene Wenger made two big calls at the extremities of the pitch. First off, he allowed Lukasz Fabianski to continue in his role as Arsenal’s cup goalkeeper. At the opposite end, he selected Yaya Sanogo to start ahead of Olivier Giroud.

Given the result, Wenger will feel justified in his decisions. However, if Arsenal ultimately reach the FA Cup Final, I’ll be screaming for Szczesny to start. There is little room for sentiment when there is silverware at stake.

The goal was an important moment for Mesut Ozil…
The fist pump he gave when the ball hit the net was as expressive a show of emotion as we’ve seen from Ozil since he arrived on these shores. The fact that every single outfield Arsenal player joined him in celebration seemed significant, too: this was a clear show of support for a player who has been under fire.

This was Ozil’s first goal for three months, and his best performance in a while too. Afterwards, Wenger described him as “regenerated” after a recent rest.

He’s certainly found the season hard going. I’ve heard that Arsene believes this is a particularly difficult year for Ozil to have moved to the Premier League. Six teams are battling for Champions League qualification. Another 10 face the possibility of relegation. Every time you face one of those teams, you’re engaged in a high-intensity battle. At Madrid, Ozil simply didn’t encounter that ferocious level of competition on such a regular basis.

It’s been a steep learning curve. Hopefully this match represents something of a turning point.

Flamini’s booking made life hard…
Mathieu Flamini was booked after 23 minutes. It’s no coincidence that it was around that time that Everton began to pose a consistent threat on the counter-attack. His ability to break up the play was severely hampered. On Everton’s equaliser, there was a clear moment of indecision where Flamini was reluctant to put in a tackle and face a red card.

Giroud is the best striker we have…
I must confess I find Arsene Wenger’s faith in Yaya Sanogo somewhat baffling. He’s big, strong and willing, but miles away from Olivier Giroud. I’m not even convinced that he’s better than Nicklas Bendtner.

Giroud’s two goals showed he’s still the top man. He now has 18 in all competitions — one more than he managed in the entirety of last season. He’s far from perfect, but he’s also comfortably the best striker we have.

Two wins from glory…
I’m not a fan of hosting the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley, but it ensures a good day out and a sense of occasion. If we can win there and book a place in the final it will ensure a dramatic end to what’s been, on the whole, a positive season.

It was great to see some familiar faces at the Emirates…
Before the game, Theo Walcott was out on the pitch. It was encouraging to see him walking unaided – I’m told he’s begun doing rehab on a zero-gravity treadmill. Disappointingly, this does not teach him how to fly, but instead allows him to run without putting significant weight on his joints.

Then, at half-time, Pat Rice came out to thank the fans for their support in his battle with cancer. Pat’s a real fighter and a true Arsenal man, and it was genuinely heartwarming to see him looking so well.

All in all, a very good day.

 

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.