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Arsene has declared this a dead rubber

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season, Champions League, Match Previews | 193 Guns

If Arsene Wenger thought Arsenal had any realistic chance of progressing against Bayern Munich, Wojciech Szczesny would be playing tomorrow.

If we had designs on producing a remarkable comeback, surely we’d be selecting the man most likely to keep a clean sheet. Conceding would take the chance of victory from implausible to impossible. And yet we’re preparing to select one of Lukasz Fabianski or Vito Mannone: a pair of keepers not entrusted to play against the likes of Bradford and Blackburn in the domestic cups, with Szczesny “rested” at home.

You don’t “rest” players in the biggest games. The decision suggests that Arsene has declared tomorrow a dead rubber and is focusing attention upon an increasingly important domestic campaign. On balance, it’s hard to argue with that point of view. Even the most optimistic Gooner will struggle to make a case for Arsenal being in the hat for the quarter-final draw.

If the tie were a bit closer, I have no doubt that Szczesny would play. I suspect Lukas Podolski, left at home to nurse a niggling ankle problem, would also be in the side. As thing stand, Arsene is being pragmatic. Reaching the Champions League quarter-finals is less important than being in the group stage next year.

Arsenal don’t need to progress tonight, but they do need to restore a modicum of pride. We travel to Swansea on Saturday for a difficult and crucial league game. Restoring some confidence with a creditable result in Germany would be a huge boost, especially for a squad which will be rattled by the loss of the inspirational Jack Wilshere.

We’ve got a huge battle on between now and the end of the season. My delight at Liverpool’s victory over Spurs at the weekend was tempered by the knowledge that Brendan Rogers’ side are now making significant ground on us. Arsenal need to fight for fourth and yet are in real danger of slipping to sixth.

The Bayern game is about finding reasons to believe, for players and fans alike. Let’s hope we get some.

Tottenham 2 – 1 Arsenal: The Defending is Indefensible

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season, Match Reports, Premier League | 849 Guns

Tottenham 2 – 1 Arsenal 
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction 

Those Arsenal supporters who defend Arsene Wenger most vehemently occasionally insist that he is a victim of circumstance: a selfless man who has martyred himself for an economic cause. He works, we are told, with one hand tied behind his back – and presumably it’s the hand he signs cheques with.

That might well be true. I find it hard to believe that Arsene is somehow prohibited from using the vast reserves of cash at the club’s disposal, but I’m prepared to entertain the idea. It’s a potential explanation of an otherwise baffling transfer policy.

If it’s possible to defend Arsene Wenger’s work in the transfer market, it is far harder to excuse his work on the training ground. Yesterday Arsenal were undone by some truly dire defending. Having dominated the early stages, we conceded two goals in as many minutes to hand the initiative and with it the game to Tottenham.

Arsenal’s defensive line looked like it’d been drawn on a spirograph. Playing a high line against the likes of Bale and Lennon is always a risk, but doing so when your defence is bereft of any kind of organisation borders on masochism.

The mistakes were so basic, so fundamental, and so frustratingly familiar. We’ve been here time and time again, and yet the defence don’t learn their lesson. My conclusion has to be that it’s a lesson they’re simply not being taught.

All of these players have a distinguished defensive record with their former clubs and international sides. Only at Arsenal do they appear so flawed. My impression is that for too long the defensive side of the game has not been a priority for the manager.

For a time, we got away with it. Wenger’s early sides inherited the famous back four from George Graham. The Invincibles could rely upon the protection provided by Vieira and Gilberto and the extraordinary recovery pace of Toure and Campbell. What’s more, both sides were balanced out with an irresistible attacking threat. Even last season, we could rely on Robin van Persie to dig us out of the holes we created for ourselves.

No more. We now have a porous defence, and a plain poor attack. Arsenal dominated the midfield for huge swathes of this derby, but came up short at both business ends: Giroud’s laboured display upfront neatly paralleled the slapstick at the back.

Tottenham weren’t great, but they’re organised and determined. That counts for a lot. This win takes them seven points clear of us and hands them a huge advantage in the race for Champions League qualification.

It’s not quite over. Their fixture list gets a lot trickier over the next six weeks, and we also have the possible boon of a Chelsea implosion to look forward to. Arsenal can still make the top four, but if we do it’ll be in spite of our own self-destructive tendencies.

Arsenal now face ten days of brooding and self-examination before a daunting trip to Bayern Munich. Respite is likely to be in short supply. It’s a gloomy time to follow the club, made gloomier by the stark fact that of 28 league games this season, we have won just 13.
Unless that record improves dramatically, it will be hard to argue we deserve a place at Europe’s top table.

Spurs vs. Arsenal: Fan-to-Fan Preview

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season, Match Previews, Premier League | 237 Guns

Hello one and all.  I’m back from a brief holiday in time for the biggest game of our season.  To help me preview it, I’ve called upon the services of Tottenham fan @adamdnathan.

TEAM NEWS

AN: Aside from the long term injuries to Sandro and Kaboul, both of whom would be massive additions to the side, Spurs should be at full strength. Defoe may return in time for a place on the bench, but in spite of Adebayor’s recent poor form, it seems generally accepted that we play better as a team with the Togolese leading the line.

GS: Arsenal will be without Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, meaning Nacho Monreal and Carl Jenkinson will continue at full-back.  Abou Diaby is apparently facing a fitness test, although even if he passes I’d consider starting him too great a gamble.

PREDICTED LINE-UP

AN: Most of the team picks itself, with Lloris, Walker, Dawson, Vertonghen, Parker, Dembele, Bale, Lennon and Adebayor certain to start. AVB’s only decision will be to play Ekotto or Vertonghen at left back, with Caulker inside if he takes the latter option, and Holtby in the attacking three or perhaps Gylfi Sigurdsson, who finally looked to be an £8 million player on Monday.

GS: Arsenal’s back four picks itself – it’s ahead of that where Arsene Wenger faces some tricky choices.  I’d opt for the work-rate of Aaron Ramsey alongside Mikel Arteta at the base of our midfield, with Jack Wilshere in the number 10 role.  That means shifting Santi Cazorla wide, which unfortunately drops Lukas Podolski to the bench once again.

MATCH-WINNER

AN: Bale is pretty much the only answer to this question of course, but Hugo Lloris could be as much of a match saver as a winner. He has been exceptional since taking the reigns from Friedel in the reverse fixture, and is regularly winning the team points with big moments between the sticks.

GS: Santi Cazorla has scored Arsenal’s last three Premier League goals, and my gut says he could be the man to unlock Spurs once again tomorrow.

DANGER-MAN

AN: In terms of dictating the game, it will be vitally important for us to limit the time we allow Wilshere, Arteta and Cazorla on the ball, but the player who will always scare me when in an Arsenal shirt is Theo Walcott. I’m firmly in the camp of him being a top Premier League player, and his goals and assist stats over the last few years certainly suggest that he will be the man to watch tomorrow.

GS: There’s no doubt that Gareth Bale is the man in form.  Few players in Europe are producing those match-winning moments on such a consistent basis.  Arsenal fans are quick to knock Bale down (not the hardest thing to do, after all), but I suspect that any criticism masks their genuine irritation that Tottenham have a player with that kind of ability.  In recent games he’s been deployed in the centre.  I’d be happy to see him there again, as I do worry about what he might do up against Carl Jenkinson, who is currently lacking both experience and match practice.

STAKES

AN: It’s going to be a crucial games for both teams’ aspirations of getting into the Champions League next year, with a win really boosting either sides’ chances going into the last 10 games of the season. Should the game be a draw with 15-20 minutes to go however, it wouldn’t surprise me if both teams were happy to play the rest of the game out and back themselves to finish above the other with a good run of form going into May.

GS: Arsenal simply have to avoid defeat.  A draw keeps things open going in to the final stretch, but a win for Spurs would hand them all the initiative.  As for what a heavy defeat would do to the club… well, I’d rather not think/write about it.  A win would be fantastic, but a draw would be enough to give us a fighting chance of finishing fourth.

PREDICTION

AN: If, as alluded to in his press conference, Arsenal don’t go into the game with a plan for Gareth Bale, there is a strong possibility that the Welshman could run riot again against a shaky defence. I don’t see him being the sole protagonist though, and arsenal clearly have a number of players who could hurt us. In truth, I can see the game being a bit of a topsy-turvy 2-2 draw, which both sides ultimately settle for at the final whistle.

GS: It strikes me that a draw would suit both sides, and on such occasions I’m always inclined to plump for a stale-mate.  I’ll follow Adams lead and plump for an entertaining 2-2.

Fancy a flutter on the big game? Check out my Unibet Betting Preview here.

Arsenal prepare to get back on the horse

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season, Match Previews | 147 Guns

Realistically speaking, Arsenal have one remaining target this season: to qualify for the Champions League.  That battle recommences this weekend as Arsenal host an ailing Aston Villa side.

It’s ostensibly a good chance to get back on the good foot.  Despite recent positive results against Everton and West Ham, Villa are remain right in the relegation mix.  This is a side that we should be beating, and the odds reflect that: Ladbrokes has Arsenal as 1/3 to win the game.

It’s also a weekend that could see us make ground on our rivals.  Chelsea travel to Manchester City, while Tottenham face a tricky London derby at Upton Park.  If results go our way, we could go in to next week’s crucial North London derby just one point behind Spurs.

The next few games will have a huge say on our ultimate league position.  After Villa, we face Spurs, Everton and Swansea in succession.  We simply cannot afford to allow our downward spiral to continue.

In an effort to bring some spark back to the side, I’d advocate the reintroduction of Tomas Rosicky.  Last season, when things were similarly precarious, his energy and drive was essential in dragging us towards the top four, and his recent cameos suggest he’s capable of making a similar impact in the latter portion of this season.

We are entering that period of the campaign when performances cease to matter: it is all about results.  We need to grab every point we can between now and May, and hope that Spurs combust in their own inimitable style.  An injury to Gareth Bale would probably help, too.

Finally, at a time when the world and his wife seem to writing letters (either open, closed or slightly ajar) to significant figures at Arsenal, it’d be remiss of me not to mention this piece of musical correspondence between Arsene Wenger and Stan Kroenke.  It’s worrying how much of it is still relevant.

Arsenal 1 – 3 Bayern: Müllered

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season, Champions League, Match Reports | 966 Guns

Arsenal 1 – 3 Bayern Munich
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Last night, we dared to expect the unexpected.

Arsenal went in to the game off the back of a dispiriting defeat to Blackburn, but we hoped that against Bayern we might see the Dr. Jekyll to Saturday’s Mr. Hyde.  We needed an Arsenal display better than anything we’ve seen thus far this season, and we needed Bayern to fall well below their usual standard.

Instead, what we got was about par.  We were hoping for a miracle, but got another ordinary day at the office.  Arsenal looked mediocre next to a truly impressive Bayern side.

Arsenal fans had clung to the idea that we tend to turn it on against the big teams.  However, I’m not sure there’s much evidence to support that theory anymore.  This season we’ve faltered in clashes with both Manchester clubs and Chelsea.  When we come up against top class opposition, we struggle to impose ourselves.

Bayern undoubtedly belong in that top class.  They  were compact, organised, and efficient on the attack.  They reminded me of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea sides: a powerful core supplemented by blistering wing play.  In the Brazilian Dante, they have one of the best centre-backs I’ve seen in a while.  Sebastian Schweinsteiger is approaching his peak, and they can even afford to leave the likes of Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez on the bench.  They are, in short, far better than us.  I wouldn’t fancy any Premier League side’s chances against them.

That said, we didn’t help ourselves.  Conceding two goals inside just 21 minutes is typical of this Arsenal team.  In his post match press conference, Arsene Wenger spoke once again of “nerves”.  He claims the team’s desire to do well inhibits their performance.  If that really is the case, I’d suggest a good chunk of the fortune we have in the bank is spent on hiring a few sports psychologists.  Elite sportsmen should embrace the highest level of competition, not fear it.

I’d also question the selection of Theo Walcott at centre-forward.  This was too much too soon for a player who has only played a handful of games as a pure striker.  As supporters we throw our heads back in anguish when we see Thomas Vermaelen at left-back or Aaron Ramsey on the right-wing.  For me, Walcott at centre-forward is not much different.  That position is no less specialised than any other.  It takes time to learn the tricks of the trade.  Expecting Walcott to be able to perform there against one of Europe’s best teams seemed a little naive on Arsene’s part.  I can understand dropping Giroud to add an extra body in to midfield, but perhaps Lukas Podolski would have been a better option to play through the middle: unlike Walcott, he has extensive experience in that position.  To be fair to Theo, he wasn’t helped by his team-mates, who seemed to mistake him for Giroud, launching long ball after long ball at the space above his head.  Dante and Van Buyten gobbled these speculative balls up, and Walcott was rendered anonymous.

At the other end, our defending was poor.  Against Bayern, you simply won’t get away with that.  Our flaws were ruthlessly exposed, and the scoreline is a fair reflection of the gulf between the sides.  The only surprise was that an Arsenal-esque mistake from the Germans allowed Lukas Podolski to nick a consolation against his former club.

The tie is all but over.  Arsenal will go to Munich and play for pride, but the solemn expression of Arsene Wenger at his post-match press conference suggests even he believes the damage done in this first leg is irreparable.

I didn’t join the chorus of boos at full-time: Arsenal lost fair and square to a better side.  I hoped for more, but it would have been madness to expect  it.  However, the result has compounded the pain of the FA Cup defeat.  Within the space of a few days, the focus of our season has narrowed dramatically: it’s suddenly looking like fourth or bust.

Arsenal will return to the Premier League on Saturday to fight for the right to return to this European stage.  Last night, Bayern provided a stark reminder that even if we make it back to the Champions League, vast improvement will be required if we’re to do anything more than simply make up the numbers.

Arsenal 0 – 1 Blackburn: The Middle Of The End

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season, FA Cup, Match Reports | 546 Guns

Arsenal 0 – 1 Blackburn
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction 

In this game, Arsenal played with such soporific slovenliness that it was as if they were trying to lull us in to such a stupour that the inevitable sucker punch wouldn’t sting quite so much.

To be fair, it worked. When Colin Kazim-Richards ran untracked through the midfield to fire home after Wojciech Szczesny’s feeble parry, I wasn’t surprised. There was a grim inevitability about the whole scene.

When Jack Wilshere fell in a crumpled heap at the final whistle, I felt for him. But any angst on my part was tempered by familiarity. His anguish was fresh, but mine has been dulled by duplication: I’ve seen it before. I’ve seen Cesc Fabregas similarly felled, and Robin van Persie too; great players, folding under the strain of swimming against a tide of mediocrity.

After Bradford and Blackburn, Arsenal now face a cup clash with Bayern Munich. One hardly imagines the Germans are quaking in their boots. A bad result at the Emirates on Tuesday night could all but guarantee us an eighth consecutive campaign without a trophy.

Things could be worse, I know. Whenever he comes under scrutiny, Arsene Wenger is quick to point out that Arsenal are not in a relegation battle. However, I’m afraid that just doesn’t cut it.

It’s about expectation. Reading are very much in a relegation battle, but that doesn’t mean Brian McDermott is under-performing. Equally, Arsenal might be well clear of 18th place, but they are falling below the standards expected of the club.

Those who criticise the manager are often characterized as pessimists, but it strikes me that there is an optimistic slant to their discontent. They see the potential of the club to be in a far better position than it currently is.

Replacing the manager doesn’t provide an absolute guarantee of positive change. However, an ever-increasing wealth of evidence suggests that keeping the manager absolutely guarantees more of the same.

I’m often asked when I’ll finally join the “Wenger Out!” brigade. Well, the answer is that I almost certainly never will. I’ve no time for brigades, or any other tactical military formations for that matter. Similarly, bandwagons have always struck me as an outmoded form of transport. I’ll make up my own mind on where I stand. I refuse to buy in to the dichotomy that has been imposed on the Arsenal supporter base, splitting us in to “AKB”s and “Doomers”. The reality, and my own position, is far more complex.

I will never chant for the removal of a man who has given me some of my greatest memories. However, I do believe there are certain fundamental issues with the management of the team that will only be resolved by a change of manager. Whether this summer would be the optimum time to do that, I don’t know: it depends on the availability of alternatives.

It’s moot, anyway. Arsene Wenger is no closer to leaving Arsenal today than he was on Friday. Negative results do not edge him closer to the door; only time and the running down of his contract do that. His current deal runs till 2014, and I find it impossible to foresee him leaving before that date. He may even be handed a renewal.

The extrication of Arsene Wenger from Arsenal will be a long and painful process, for both sides. I’d argue it’s a process that is already underway. It began when Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri abandoned Arsene’s project, and will end the day whatever contract he is bound to is allowed to expire.

Ivan Gazidis will not push him. Arsene will not jump. In the meantime, here we are: stuck in the middle of the end.

Blackburn Preview & Betting odds: Return of The Rat King

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season, FA Cup, Match Previews | 1,132 Guns

Clashes between Arsenal and Blackburn are traditionally tasty affairs.  Well, the taste of this one is a little off this morning.  The secret ingredient is, perhaps surprisingly, not horse, but a touch of rat: David Bentley has made a return to Blackburn just in time to be eligible to play at the Emirates.

It’s the return of the prodigal son.  If the prodigal son’s Dad had hated his son, and greeted his return predominantly with boos.

David Bentley is a funny one.  I was there for his remarkable first goal in professional football: a beautiful, Bergkamp-esque chip from the edge of the box.  However, his attitude never quite matched up to his ability, and aged just 28 his career appears to be petering out.  One wonders if he’d shown more patience and remained at Arsenal how things might have turned out.  Football is a game of sliding doors as well as tackles.

As it is, I think Arsenal fans are pretty much united in their hatred of all things Bentley.  It’s everything from his murine appearance to his affiliation with Spurs and preposterously over-gelled hair.  That said, I think we’re all lying if we say we don’t fancy him to stick one in the net against us today.  Were I more of a betting man, I’d put the lives of my imaginary children on it.  He’s got spectacular previous at the Emirates, too.

Whatever Bentley gets up to, Arsenal should have enough to see off Blackburn today.  I expect rests for the likes of Wilshere, Giroud and perhaps even Walcott, but our side will still be strong.  Thomas Vermaelen is likely to play at centre-back, with Nacho Monreal outside him.  Abou Diaby comes in to contention for a midfield berth, and the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho will be hoping to get some much-needed game-time in attacking areas.  I think Gervinho may well get a start at centre-forward, although whatever the odds (5/1 as it happens) I wouldn’t be queueing up to lay money on him to score.

I’m backing us to win this one.  The bookmakers are too, I see (we’re 1.28 to win with https://sports.bwin.com/en/sports/4/betting/football).

Blackburn are not the force they were, and at home we should be far too strong.  However, I’ve said that before and been wrong.

And with The Rat King in their ranks, you just never know.

A tribute to Patrick Vieira, Midfield Colossus

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season | 1,188 Guns

Hello one and all. Little bit of bonus reading for you today – I wrote the blow piece for former Arsenal player Danny Karbassiyoon’s new website Soccer Without Limits. Be sure to check it out – there are some excellent pieces on a few other Arsenal legends available too.

I’ll be back soon with an FA Cup Preview. Till then.

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.”
William Shakespeare; Julius Caesar; Act I Scene II

It was September 1996. Arsenal were trailing 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday, and midfield dynamo Ray Parlour was struggling with injury. In his stead, caretaker manager Pat Rice turned to a gangly twenty-year old debutant. Before full-time, I had a new favourite Arsenal player.

Patrick Vieira was unlike anyone I’d seen before in an Arsenal shirt. He was tall with a lean build, yet capable of surprising bursts of power. Most strikingly, he was hugely technically accomplished.

His impact at Arsenal was immediate. I remember one of his early starts at Ewood Park when he took Blackburn apart, playing a one-two with Paul Merson and slipping in Ian Wright with a nonchalant swing of his right foot. In the course of that move, Vieira travelled fully 50 yards in a matter of seconds. Arsenal had a player who could defend, attack, and crucially manage the moment of footballing alchemy which allowed him to transition instantaneously between the two.

Arsene Wenger had some idea what he was getting. Prior to taking the reigns at Arsenal, he insisted the club went ahead and bought Vieira from AC Milan, where his career was in danger of stagnation. Wenger had witnessed Vieira’s emergence in the French league, where another of his key qualities had become evident: he was a born leader. Vieira captained Cannes while still in his teens.

It was in summer 1997 that Vieira’s Arsenal career really took off. Arsene brought in Emmanuel Petit from Monaco, and that pair dove-tailed beautifully. I have not seen a better midfield partnership anywhere in football. Both were such complete footballers, able to defend and attack in equal measure. Arsene’s later switch to using three central midfielders is the ultimate compliment to the Vieira-Petit axis: without them, he had to add another player to match their influence.

That season brought the first silverware of Vieira’s time at the club, as the club captured a historic double. They would be the first trophies of many. Vieira’s time at the club is synonymous with glory. He was the figurehead of the first half of Arsene Wenger’s reign. Between his debut in 1996 and his final appearance in 2005 he was a key figure in lifting three Premier League trophies and four FA Cups. Throughout that period, there were many stars: Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell and more. Vieira was the constant. He was the beating heart of the side from the moment he first pulled on the shirt.

And he had so much heart. Vieira was a fighter – sometimes literally. His disciplinary problems became infamous, but they showed an inherent battling spirit. It has become de riguer to lament the modern Arsenal’s lack of leadership and fight on the pitch, but in his day Vieira was a true general.

The driving narrative of the early part of Arsene’s reign was the rivalry with Manchester United, and at the very core of that was the battle between Vieira and Roy Keane. These were two of the great players of their era, both driven by a desire for supremacy that spilled over in to antipathy. When they weren’t scrapping on the pitch, they were scrapping in the tunnel.

It was tense, but it was also hugely entertaining. The Premier League has become a very sterilised environment, but here were two players who plainly didn’t like each other and made absolutely no secret of the fact. Thankfully, these were the days before an enforced handshake before the game.

Picking out individual highlights for Vieira is difficult. He was the engine in so many fantastic team performances, and was a fundamentally selfless player. Take a look at perhaps the most memorable goal of the last twenty years at Arsenal: Dennis Bergkamp’s pirouette and finish at St. James’ Park. Watch that goal again, and Vieira’s contribution to a sweeping move immediately becomes clear. There is an outstretched left leg to take the ball from his opponent, then an instant burst of acceleration beyond three Newcastle midfielders. Suddenly, Arsenal are in space and have launched an attack.

That was Vieira’s most remarkable gift. The ability to win the ball and begin a counter-attack in the same motion. Arsene Wenger has a habit of talking about Jack Wilshere’s “little burst”. Vieira had a big burst, and it was devastating.

The greatest insult to Vieira’s legacy is that he is remembered by some as purely a destroyer. That’s nonsense: he was as elegant as he was aggressive. Watching Vieira lift the ball over an opposing player’s head, saunter round him and collect it on the other side was an awe-inspiring experience.

Vieira’s reputation is tainted for some by the fact that in several consecutive summers he agitated for a move away from the club. I prefer to remember the fact that he stayed until his peak was past. I saw him play games with his knee strapped and clearly causing him enormous pain, but his determination to win remained absolute. He suffered for the cause.

Vieira joined as just another player, and left as an icon. Like his international colleague Claude Makelele, his name became short-hand for the complete midfielder: any tall athletic midfielder is liable to be labelled as a “Vieira-type”. Such comparisons flatter these players, and yet they persist. One wonders if Arsene Wenger’s continuing patience with the injury-prone Abou Diaby is borne out of a desperate hope that Diaby could be the closest thing to a reincarnation of Vieira’s brilliance.

Any such hopes are false: I don’t think we will ever see the likes of Patrick Vieira again. He was a one-off, and I’m glad I was around to enjoy him.

 

Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal: He’s Bac

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season, Match Reports, Premier League | 552 Guns

Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This win was absolutely essential…
With Chelsea and Spurs both picking up wins, it was vital that we maintained the pace in the race for Champions League qualification. The next month or so sees us face both Tottenham and Everton, sandwiched by cup ties with Blackburn and Bayern. We are entering the period that will define our season, and momentum is crucial.

In the first half, Arsene’s tactical tweak worked a treat…
I was very surprised to see Lukas Podolski on the bench again, with Aaron Ramsey handed a start. However, Arsenal’s midfield dominated the game, and there was a slightly different shape in evidence too.

Ramsey sat in a deeper role alongside Arteta. Jack was playing as the advanced midfielder, with Cazorla ostensibly starting from the left-wing. In truth, Cazorla spent almost the entire game playing inside, combing with Jack and the strikers. It was a less a midfield three and more of a four, replicating the ‘magic square’ that the Brazil national team have been known to use.

Wilshere’s injury changed the game…
Jack’s combination play with Santi had been mesmerising. When we lost Wilshere, we also lost our way a little bit. It was noticeable too that Sunderland improved significantly when they replaced the thuggish Cattermole with the more technical Larsson.

This game highlighted the gulf between Bacary Sagna and Carl Jenkinson…
I appreciate that Carl only knew he was playing 15 minutes before kick-off. I also appreciate that we came across a referee who seemed only too happy to hand out cards to our players while letting their Sunderland equivalents get away with (attempted) murder.

Despite that, Carl Jenkinson’s sending off was very silly indeed. Having picked up a booking inside the first ten minutes, he was always walking a tight-rope. When walking a tight-rope of any kind, it is not advisable to make any sudden lunges. Unfortunately, Carl did just that at Stephane Sessegnon, and a second yellow duly followed.

By contrast, Bacary Sagna was a rock at centre-back. Like Jenkinson, he didn’t know what role he’d be playing until shortly before kick-off. Unlike Jenkinson, he excelled.

I think some of the criticism aimed at Sagna in recent weeks has been extremely harsh. Yes, his recent performances have fallen below his own impeccable standards, but he remains one of our best players.

The idea that Jenkinson is ready to displace Sagna is nonsense. I for one hope that we keep the Frenchman by giving him the long-term deal he craves. If he leaves this summer, as appears increasingly likely, we’ll need to bring in someone with the requisite experience to fill that spot.

I love Carl, but a few good games earlier this season do not make him an international class defender.

The whole defence deserve credit…
Nacho Monreal coped well, Per Mertesacker organised an unfamiliar defence, and Wojciech Szczesny had his best game of the season. Aaron Ramsey also deserves enormous credit for filling in superbly at right-back when required.

Our finishing…
…ought to have been better. Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla both squandered glaring opportunities to seal the game on the counter. Fortunately, we were able to fall back on an outstanding defensive display to get the three points.

Some thoughts on Andre Santos…
As I write this it seems the “false three” is on the verge of joining Gremio on loan. It’s remarkable to think that on the final day of last season, he was preferred to Kieran Gibbs and scored a crucial goal in our ascension to the Champions League places.

His fall since then has been spectacular. I can’t help but feel that the infamous shirt swap incident with Robin van Persie was a huge catalyst towards his departure. On that day, he lost the fans, and it’s almost impossible to come back from that – just ask Emmanuel Eboue or Nicklas Bendtner. Every mistake is highlighted; every indiscretion scrutinised. I’m not sure that Santos has been more error-prone than many of our other defenders, but the tide turned against him on that November day.

I wish him all the best. He seems like a very decent guy, if not a great defender.

I also have to question our policy of continually weakening our squad. When Arsene signed Nacho Monreal, he suggested it was because he needed two left-backs at all times. Why has that changed in the space of ten days?

The fact we’re playing Sagna at centre-back suggests that loaning Djourou out probably wasn’t the smartest move. I hope we don’t pay for allowing other players to leave at a time when it’s impossible to replace them.

Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke: Podolski breaks Stoke hearts, and I laugh

Posted on by GilbertoSilver Posted in 2012-13 Season, Match Reports, Premier League | 653 Guns

Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This wasn’t a great game…
It’s hardly surprising when you consider the opposition.  Stoke are a horrible side, in every respect.  I find their style of play and their character equally repulsive.

Their performance at the Emirates was one of the most negative I’ve ever seen by a Premier League team.  It was a strange tactical decision when you consider our vulnerability at the back.  If Stoke had gone for us, we might just have buckled.

As it was, we simply had to be patient, and the late introduction of Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski helped bring about the tipping point.  When Stoke did occasionally venture forward, Mertesacker and Koscielny had more than enough to deal with anything The Potters threw at them.

I’m delighted the goal was scored in ‘controversial’ circumstances…
The brief reprieve provided by the linesman only made the crushing blow of Podolski’s goal all the more profound for Stoke’s players and manager.  It hurt them, and I’m glad it did.

Nacho Gonzalez…
…had a solid if unspectacular debut.  I suspect we’ll accustomed to describing him in that manner: he seems to be a no-nonsense, safety-first kind of player.  That’s fine by me: not enough of our supposed defenders are willing to be defenders first and foremost.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain…
…is having a difficult season.  If only there was a cliche to describe the struggles of a player who made a significant impact in their first season, only to then struggle to replicate that form second time round.  Alas.

Chamberlain has two basic problems.  The first is that the outstanding form of Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski has limited his opportunities.  The second issue is that when he is afforded a chance to start, he invariably tries too hard to impress.  On one occasion on Saturday he beat his man to get to the byline, only to turn back and try to beat him a further two times.  By the time he eventually got his cross away, all the men in the middle were marked.

The Ox could learn something from Podolski: efficiency is key.

One of the most interesting battles took place away from the pitch…
Bizarrely, the Arsenal stewards decided that the second half of this heated game would be the opportune moment to try and convince the singing section of the crowd to break the habit of a lifetime (well, six-and-a-half years) and sit down.  Needless to say, they failed, and gave up after about ten minutes amid chants of, “Stand up if you love Arsenal!”.

On the subject of the Arsenal fans…
I can’t help but chuckle at our continued failure to master the scansion of one of our own chants.  Arsenal fans are fond of singing a certain ditty that implies that the mother of the manager of our local rivals may be seeking employment as a lady of the night.

Whenever the manager changes, so must the chant.  While there is usually a period of adaptation, we are now six months in to Andre Villas Boas’ reign, and still that chant dwindles embarrassing out whenever it reaches that crucial point.

The problem, it would seem, is the sheer number of syllables in Villas Boas’ name.  Might I suggest using the popular acronym ‘AVB’, and that way we can get on with questioning the honour of his mother in the time-honoured tradition.