Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff: We have forgotten how to play without a target man

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Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The Emirates was a pretty gloomy place in the first-half…
…and not just because over the overcast sky that shrouded the ground in a wash of grey.
Arsenal’s first-half performance was poor. Both the crowd and the team were subdued. At its best, the relationship between those two entities is one of mutual provocation, each spurring the other on. On this occasion, neither side did much to elucidate a response from the other. The fans were probably hungover, and the players plain tired. I love the festive period but when you look at the number of muscular injuries being picked up across the league, fatigue is clearly a problem.

The one moment of levity in the gloomy first-half was provided by Bacary Sagna…
Arsenal were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position just outside the penalty area, and Sagna was somehow given permission to take it. Unfortunately, his curled strike hit the wall.
On the serious side, one has to wonder how on Earth that came to pass in a team also containing Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. I suppose one could make the argument that as a player who crosses regularly, Sagna is well practised at putting curl and dip on the ball.
However, Cazorla and Arteta were first-choice set-piece takers at Malaga and Everton respectively. Surely the Arsenal dead-ball jinx can not have struck them so severely that they have now been superseded by Sagna?

Jack Wilshere was a bright spark…
In the absence of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere was handed the No. 10 role. He flourished. This performance was reminiscent of the all-action display he gave against Swansea in last season’s FA Cup. On that occasion, it was universally declared that Wilshere was “back”.

That turned out to be a little hasty, so I’ll refrain from such proclamations today.

This performance was simply another reminder of Wilshere’s undoubted talent. The assist for Walcott’s goal was, in particular, sublime. However, there have been plenty of such reminders this season. One immediately thinks of Wilshere’s glorious goal against Norwich, or his curled effort against Marseille.

His problem is not talent. His problem is consistency. One hopes that time and regular football will enable him to overcome that troublesome hurdle.

I don’t blame Podolski for his poor display…
I was one of those who was hopeful that Podolski could provide cover for Olivier Giroud at centre-forward. On the evidence of this game, that isn’t going to be the case.

Podolski and Giroud are very different types of striker. They require different types of service, and a different style of approach play. Podolski is an instinctive finisher who comes alive in and around the penalty area. Giroud is a tireless target man, who is prepared to run in to the channels and play with his back to goal.

For Podolski to thrive as a centre-forward, Arsenal would need to adapt their game. Judging by today’s performance, we’re in no hurry to do that.

It could be successful. Both Liverpool and Chelsea play without what you would call a traditional ‘target man’. Chelsea are a great example: like Arsenal, they play with three diminutive attack midfielders. However, they do not require a hulking great striker in order for those players to function. They regularly field the nippy Samuel Eto’o or the slight Fernando Torres. The player with the most obvious similarities to Giroud, Demba Ba, barely gets a look-in. The powerful Romelu Lukaku was sent out on loan.

However, Arsenal appear to have forgotten how to play without a traditional no. 9. It’s odd, especially when you consider that for so many years Arsene Wenger was criticised for his refusal to deploy a conventional striker.

The Invincibles team of 2003-04 arguably pioneered the whole “false nine” thing before anyone even knew what it was. With Thierry Henry drifting out to the left, and Dennis Bergkamp dropping in to midfield, Arsenal’s varied goal threat came with stealth and surprise. SKY lazily labelled it a 4-4-2 and we all bought it, but in truth there was no central pivotal striker.

In recent years, that has changed. Arsene Wenger, the man who signed Mark Hateley for Monaco, has renewed his love affair with the powerful centre-forward. Emmanuel Adebayor, Marouane Chamakh and most recently Giroud have heralded a return to playing with a more traditional type of striker.

And now, Arsenal have become dependent on it. We’ve been blessed to have Giroud fit and firing for most of this season and last, but it’s also made us strategically lazy. With Podolski starting up top, the rest of the team didn’t seem to know how to play it.

The Arsenal team have been fed a steady diet of Olivier Giroud for 18 months, and it appears to have significantly altered their palette. Give them Luis Suarez, and they’d probably he aiming balls at his head and chest, wondering why he couldn’t bring them down.

Giroud is not just integral to our attacking shape. He practically is the attacking shape.

Nicklas Bendtner’s introduction changed the game not because he is a better player than Lukas Podolski, but because he is a better impersonator of Olivier Giroud.

This all has implications for any proposed transfer activity this January…
With Bendtner now injured, Wenger may be a little more likely to dip in to the market. If he does, it must be for a striker with similar attributes to Giroud.  This current Arsenal team look unsuited to playing with any other kind of striker. Someone with a different style would require a period of adaptation, and given the intensity of this title race I’m not sure that’s something we can afford.

Diego Costa would be ideal, but the chances of him leaving Athletico Madrid in pre-season are slim.

Many will baulk at the suggestion, but Arsene Wenger needs to find another Emmanuel Adebayor.

In January (yes, January) of 2006, Arsene Wenger plucked the little-known Adebayor from the subs bench at Monaco. He went on to become a 30 goal, £25m striker. It’s time to ask Arsene to pull another such rabbit from his extraordinary hat.

When Emmanuel Adebayor was being left out of the Tottenham squad week-on-week by Andre Villas Boas, I privately wondered if Arsene Wenger would ever consider a short-term move for the former Arsenal man. Note: privately – I knew such a suggestion would invite ridicule and abuse if made public. It’s off the table now, and would probably have never happened: Adebayor simply carries too much baggage. However, there’s no doubt that physically and technically, he has all the attributes we require.

Arsenal need someone with size, strength, good close control, and ideally a bit of speed. Someone who can play the Giroud role, but perhaps with their own unique spin. An extra trick, or yard of pace.

Over to you, Arsene. Surprise me.

Arsene’s subs corrected his erroneous starting XI…
Introducing Rosicky and Bendtner was effectively an admission of the issues with the initial team. Fielding both Flamini and Arteta was unnnecessarily cautious, whilst Podolski’s problems have been covered above. As soon as the pair came on, Arsenal looked more effective.

In the second half, Theo Walcott was absolutely outstanding…
Walcott occasionally takes stick for shirking responsibility, but I thought he really took this game by the scruff of the neck. His crossing was quite superb, and Per Mertesacker probably ought to have scored from two of his most enticing balls. According to Squawka, he created six goalscoring opportunities against Cardiff – his highest tally in any game thus far.

He also has six goals this season, from just 10 starts.

Wingers, by their nature, are a bit infuriating to watch. They deal in fine margins – quite literally, given their proximity to the touchline. Considering that, Walcott’s efficiency and continued productivity is quite remarkable.

It’s almost impossible not to be pleased for Bendtner…
Everyone loves a redemptive hero, and there’s no doubt that his could be a hugely significant goal in our title bid. It’s unfortunate that he was injured in scoring, but I suspect his ego might have enjoyed the pseudo-martyrdom of sacrificing himself for the good of the team.
Rather enjoyably, he has now scored more goals from open play in this season’s Premier League than Tottenham’s £26m man Roberto Soldado.

All eyes on the FA Cup…
…and a mouth-watering game against Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham. With a tricky tie against Bayern in the Champions League, the FA Cup now represents our second-best chance of a trophy in 2013/14. Maybe the best. The season we’re having deserves silverware. We ought to give this competition absolute focus.

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