Napoli 2-0 Arsenal: A bit of perspective

Just a quick one from me tonight.

Tonight was a mixed night for most Arsenal fans. We lost 2-0 to Napoli, but managed to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League. However, looking at some of the mewling and moaning going on among Arsenal fans, you’d think we’d been doomed to imprisonment in the EUROPA League. I’m shocked to see so many fans treating this evening’s result as a disaster.

Perhaps it’s just a vocal minority. But it does perturb me.

In my eyes, qualification from such a treacherous group is a pretty significant achievement. Four wins from six games against teams of this quality is not a record to be sniffed at.

I think most sane Arsenal fans appreciate that. I hope so. Getting out of the group was the priority, and winning it merely a bonus. The most important thing is that we have evaded a draining and depressing assault on that Thursday night monstrosity. Instead, Rafael Benitez has been left to continue his bizarre love affair with that particular competition.

The performance wasn’t great, but Arsenal entered the game in something of an awkward position. We knew a draw would be enough to see us through. That’s never particularly conducive to a stirring showing — witness Bayern Munich’s listless display against us back in March.

It’s a blow to miss out on top spot, but it’s not the end of the world. Surely one of the very reasons we bother to qualify for the Champions League is to enjoy hosting the continent’s finest? I can’t wait to welcome one of Barca, Real, Atletico, Bayern or PSG to the Emirates. If you want to watch Maribor, turn on Channel 5ive.

If you want to win the trophy, you have to beat the top teams somewhere along the line. Better to face up to it early. If we go through, fantastic. If we go out, we have all the more time to focus on our domestic affairs.

Speaking of which, there’s a very big game with Manchester City coming up on Saturday. Should we lose that, it looks as if some people will go in to some kind of meltdown.

That’d be unwise too. There’s a long, long way to go in the title-race. Saturday  will be an indicator, but not a decider.

And you know what? I’m looking forward to it.

If you want more, I’ve written a more conventional match report for ESPN.

Arsenal 1 – 1 Everton: You can’t win them all, annoyingly

Match report | Arsene’s reaction | Highlights

In the end, this was a fair result…
It was a pretty extraordinary game, too. Both sides absolutely went for it: Arsenal because we had the carrot of a seven-point lead before us; Everton because their confidence was buoyed by a win at Old Trafford and they had almost nothing to lose. I was hugely impressed by Roberto Martinez’s side. Granted, we have a couple of big tests coming up in the next fortnight, but Everton are certainly the best team we’ve faced in the Premier League to date.

Everton bossed the first half…

They went for the jugular right from kick-off, and it seemed to catch our team by surprise. Indeed, it took us the best part of 40 minutes to get over our shock and actually start to take the game to the Toffees.

We had two outstanding centre-back performances to thank for being at 0-0 at half-time…

Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny were both every bit as good as we’ve come to expect. Romelu Lukaku presented an awkward challenge, and one feared a repeat of the roastings we were regularly given by Didier Drogba – a similarly athletic forward in a blue shirt.
However, both centre-halves were at the top of their game. Koscielny in particular seemed to grow in stature as the game wore on, regularly nipping in to win the ball cleanly before bursting upfield to join the attack. The Frenchman was Arsenal’s best player on the day.

Despite Everton’s first-half dominance, we still had the better chances…
Tim Howard was in good form to deny both Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud. Had our finishing been a touch better, we could have had an unlikely half-time lead.

In the second half, Arsenal looked sharper…

Our punch-drunk opening was banished to memory as we set about imposing ourselves on the game. The balance of possession was significant redressed, and we won plenty more second balls – especially after the introduction of the busy Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini.

Aaron Ramsey had his poorest game for a while…

The Welshman was not at his best, and it’s tempting to put it down to tired legs: this was, after all, his 22nd start of the season.
There were signs of a performance like this coming his way in midweek against Hull. Aside from his delicious assist for Mesut Ozil, Ramsey was unusually wasteful in possession. In the past week, some of his bad habits have crept back in: overly-ambitious passes and unnecessary flicks. He needs to remember that simplicity has been the key to the revival in his game. I’d be tempted to rest him in midweek.

Mesut Ozil, the man for the big occasion, delivered…
If anyone looked likely to make the breakthrough for Arsenal it was Ozil. His last three performances have all been right out of the top drawer of football’s tallest cabinet. When he smartly lifted the ball over Tim Howard and in to the roof of the net, it really felt like we might be watching a defining goal in the Premier League season.

The equaliser was gutting…

A buoyant stadium was silenced by a smashing strike from Gerard Deulofeu. Some have criticised Szczesny for failing to stop the shot, but it really was an excellent hit. It flashed past the Pole and evaporated our hopes of that seven-point lead. Gutting, but probably fair.

The next three games are all massive…

Travelling to the Etihad just days days after a crucial Champions League tie against Napoli does look like a daunting task, but if we are to be champions then these are the kinds of challenges we have to overcome. Beyond that, there’s the home tie with Chelsea, and a chance for Arsene Wenger to finally get one over on Jose Mourinho.
All Arsenal can do is take it one game at a time. Next stop: Naples.

Arsenal 2-0 Hull: “Nicklas Bendtner: He scores when he wants”

Arsenal 2-0 Hull
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

It was a nice moment when Bendtner got the opener…
With Arsenal going so well in the table, there’s a genuinely positive atmosphere around the ground. The reception Bendtner got was predominantly warm even before he headed us in to an early lead.

It was clear he was delighted to score. It must have represented a moment of some retribution for him. Let’s be clear: a solitary goal against Hull doesn’t suddenly erase the sins of the past, but it might be the start of him moving on his career — be that at Arsenal or more likely elsewhere.

We saw different aspects of Bendtner’s game…
The goal demonstrated that Bendtner will always be a threatening physical presence in the penalty area. At his size, it’d be difficult not to be. Even earlier this season, when he was supposedly carrying an ankle problem and an extra couple of stone, he managed to head home two goals for Denmark against Italy.

While Bendtner is perfectly capable of emulating Giroud’s robust penalty box threat, he struggles to match the Frenchman’s accomplished hold-up game. It was telling that for long periods Bendtner didn’t seem to be involved in our build-up play. His movement and his first-touch still have a long way to go.

I’m no Bendtner apologist, but…
…the way he is talked about in the wider football media is extraordinary.

Obviously, as fans, we all poke a bit of fun at him. I’m more guilty of that than most. But I am slightly taken aback when I see the way supposedly ‘serious’ pundits talk about a player with 24 goals in 56 international caps.

On Match of the Day, they stated a goal from Bendtner against Hull is “not something you expect”. He is talked about as if he’s one of the worst footballers of all time. He’s not. He’s a guy with plenty of talent but a poor attitude.

As a personality, I agree that he is utterly risible. As a footballer? Less so. And that’s what these people should be assessing.

After the opening goal, the game threatened to become a bit ‘too easy’…
It was exhibition stuff, really. Beautiful to watch, but a little disconcerting for fans of a nervous disposition. I feared that Arsenal were in danger of becoming complacent. Fortunately, at the start of the second half, any such concerns were dispelled by the second goal which effectively killed the game.

Ramsey’s contribution to both goals was brilliant…
Although Bendtner will justifiably take most headlines, Aaron Ramsey played a crucial part in both goals. For the first, he played a beautiful slide-rule pass in to Carl Jenkinson, who again showed that he is the club’s best crosser by perfectly picking out Bendtner.

On the second goal, Ramsey’s interplay with Ozil was just a joy. The greatest compliment I can pay the final pass is that it’s one Ozil would’ve been chuffed to play himself.

The defensive record is beginning to look seriously impressive…
Arsenal have now kept four clean sheets on the bounce. I believe it’s also six in the last seven, and seven in the last nine. The numbers (or lack thereof) are mightily impressive.

Arsenal’s defensive solidarity was summed up for me in one late vignette. Hull’s Egyptian striker, Mohamed Nagy, raced on to a long ball over the top. Unsurprisingly, he appeared to have the beating of Per Mertesacker for pace. Instead of panicking and pulling him down, Mertesacker actually slowed up. He knew what would happen next.

From nowhere, Laurent Koscielny came steaming in at full throttle to nick the ball away. It was a moment that was indicative of the telepathic understanding between this pair.

As Arsene looks to rotate the side over the next few games, you can bet he’ll do everything he can to keep Mertesacker and Koscielny together.

I never thought I’d see a Man United side this bad…
…and boy is it funny. Yes, they’ll improve. Yes, they may even come in to contention later in the season. But let’s laugh at them now. Truly, it’s our turn, and we’ve waited long enough for it.

As for Roberto Martinez…
…I’m delighted to see him doing well. I always rated him at Wigan and he’s showing that his stylish philosophy is actually more effective when employed at a club with better resources and players.

Everton will be a big test for Arsenal come Sunday. Just as with Hull and Cardiff, our next opposition have fired a warning shot across our bows. It’s up to us to meet the challenge.

FURTHER READING:

For ESPN: Arsenal rotate but roll on past Hull

Cardiff 0 – 3 Arsenal: We’ve Got Our Arsene Back

Screen shot 2013-11-30 at 18.42.29

Cardiff City 0 – 3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights

We’ve got our Arsene back…
In stoppage time, with Arsenal winning this match by three goals to nil, the cameras caught Arsene Wenger bellowing at an Arsenal player.

It  may have seemed unnecessary, but I interpreted it as a sign that his focus is greater than ever. Many of us have doubted Wenger’s powers in the last few seasons. What’s clear is that –  even if they had ever faded  – they have now returned with a vengeance.

Wenger has always been something of a perfectionist. This season, he has shown he is prepared to be a pragmatist too. His perfectionism is no longer confine to Arsenal’s aesthetic dimension, but seems to encompass a broader appreciation of the games. Whereas once he was cavalier, he is increasingly practical. He seems to take pride in the team’s defending once more. He’ll have been just as satisfied by the clean sheet as the three exquisite goals.

A couple of weeks back, Santi Cazorla told The Guardian:

The manager is more concienciado, more concentrated, more conscious.

He’s more demanding. It’s been a long time without winning anything and he’s determined.

Arsenal are reaping the benefits of Arsene’s renewed vigour.

Aaron Ramsey was a class act…
The way he took the goals was sublime, but his celebration (or lack thereof) underlined his class. For home fans to applaud a visiting conqueror requires a very special set of circumstances. Fortunately, Cardiff fans had the sophistication to recognise that Ramsey is more of a cause for pride than disparagement.

This was Mesut Ozil’s best game for some time…
I’ve been tentatively critical of his recent displays, but he was excellent in Wales. The two assists were laced with the kind of pinpoint precision one expects of the uber-technician, but his all-round game was excellent too.

It wasn’t Olivier Giroud’s best day…
In the first half, there was the rather embarrassing moment when he neglected to play to the whistle and pulled up when through on goal. Then, at the start of the second half, he saw a close-range effort cleared off the line.

Giroud can’t be expected to excel in every game – hence why Arsenal need to invest in another forward in January.

Theo Walcott reminded us of what he can do…
His cameo from the bench was brief but explosive. Unfortunately for Theo, he may merely have reminded Arsene of how effective he can be as a late substitute against a tiring defence. Being a superb substitute is something of a poisoned chalice.

Wojciech Szczesny deserves enormous credit…
At 1-0, Szczesny made a couple of crucial saves, including one outstanding stop to deny a powerful Frazier Campbell header.

The Pole has now kept five clean sheets in his last six games.

Arsenal must keep up the momentum…
We now face two home games against Hull and in-form Everton. It’s vital we win both games to give us a cushion heading in to the crucial double-header against City and Chelsea.

Fortunately, with the squad returning to something approaching full-strength, we finally have the option to rotate without reducing the potency of the XI.

Arsenal 2-0 Marseille: Wilshere wings it as Arsenal edge closer to qualification

This was a 2-0 thrashing…
Arsenal had eight attempts on target and should have scored at least two more goals. Mesut Ozil was denied from the penalty spot, while Aaron Ramsey will have been shocked not to have scored from close range. Marseille rested several key players and simply couldn’t keep pace with a dominant Arsenal midfield.

Arsenal showed off their strength-in-depth…
Arsene was able to make three changes to his starting XI without compromising its potency. Monreal, Flamini and Rosicky came in and were every bit as solid as you’d expect. There can’t be many better reserve full-backs in Europe than Monreal, while Rosicky must be the only 33-year old who actually increases the tempo of whatever team he’s picked for. When Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla were introduced from the bench, the mounting options at Wenger’s disposal became starkly apparent.

I like Wilshere on the right…
I saw him make his debut there as a 16-year old. Back then, Wenger pushed him out wide to protect him from the hurly-burly of the middle of the park.
The unfortunate truth is that, given his injury problems, he still benefits from that protection. His future might be as a deep-lying midfielder but at presents he’s best when liberated from the congestion and conflict of the centre.
His goalscoring record at youth level was sensational and typically that returns to a player’s game once they hit their early twenties. Fabregas was exactly the same, and Ramsey is showing signs of emulating that progression. If Wilshere can do so too, Arsenal will have a midfield to reckon with for years to come.

The missed penalty might be the kick up the back-side Ozil needs…
As he stepped up to take the penalty, every fan around me watched on in grim anticipation of what was to come. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a German look less likely to score from the spot.
By his own excellent standards, Ozil came in to the game in the midst of something of a slump. Hopefully that penalty miss was his nadir, and this can be a turning point.
After the spot-kick was saved he immediately looked more energised, buzzing around the penalty area with the bristling resolution of a player determined to make amends.
His assist for Wilshere’s second goal was the sort of telling pass we became accustomed to seeing during Ozil’s first few games for the club. I expect the embarrassment of the penalty miss will spark an upturn in form for the mercurial playmaker.

Arsenal look set to survive the supposed “Group of Death”…
Anything other than a heavy defeat in Naples will see us progress. Given the strength of the group, it’s a remarkable achievement – I’d argue it’s every bit as impressive as our domestic form.

Further Reading:

ESPN: Arsenal’s victory over Marseille shows off growing strength in depth
BR: Jack Wilshere is on the right path on the right wing