Arsenal 1-2 Southampton: Alexis is a maverick, Podolski is a misfit

clynearsenal

Whatever you think of the League Cup…

…it’s never good to go out of any competition. It amazes me that some can greet a cup exit with a shrug. A few fans even expressed relief. It seems they forget that in each season there are only four potential prizes, and that’s one gone.

Had we beaten Southampton we’d be just four games away from another Wembley final. Any Arsenal fan who experienced the elation of May 17th — or indeed the despair of the Birmingham game in 2011 — will know what an occasion those matches can be. Yes, it’s “only the League Cup”. For a long time it was “only the FA Cup too”, and yet I didn’t see too many muted celebrations at the end of last season. We haven’t yet looked like convincing contenders for either the Premier League or Champions League. Beggars can’t afford to be choosers, and Gooners can’t afford to be snobbish about trophies.

That’s not to say I don’t understand the decision to rotate the side. Arsenal have a hectic schedule, and the point of assembling a big squad is that it enables you to mix it up on a game-by-game basis.

The team Arsenal put out was good enough to win the game, even against a strong and slick Southampton XI. I can’t fault Arsene Wenger there. The front six was packed with players of international calibre, but too many of them underperformed.

The League Cup is an opportunity not just to lift a trophy, but to give squad players a chance to put pressure on regular first-teamers. Last night, Arsenal failed on both counts.

The senior players let down the kids…

The likes of Lukas Podolski and Tomas Rosicky might have hoped that impressive showings against the Saints could force them in to contention for a Premier League place. Unfortunately, both were dire. Rosicky at least compensated for his errors with effort. Podolski, on the other hand…

However, the bright spot was undoubtedly the work done by a very young back four. Arsene Wenger was forced to pick three 19-year-olds and a left-back, and they did not let him down. Calum Chambers grew in to the game alongside the impressive Isaac Hayden, while Francis Coquelin did a superb job at left-back. I made him Arsenal’s best player on the night.

Don’t get your hopes up over Abou Diaby…

The Frenchman got an hour under his belt as a holding midfielder, with Arsene Wenger admitting after the game that he hopes to “transform” him in to a deep-lying anchor man.

After the match, I had a flurry of tweets from fans asking if I think Diaby could be ready to replace Mikel Arteta in the first XI. In a word, “No”. For starters, deploying our most injury-prone player in the most combative area of the pitch is begging for trouble.

This appearance felt more like a testimonial for Diaby’s services than a testament to his abilities. There were moments where you saw flashes of the player Diaby might have been, but it’s difficult to imagine he’ll ever fulfill his potential at Arsenal now.

Don’t pin your hopes on him — and that’s aimed at fans and manager alike.

Alexis Sanchez is a gifted soloist…

Alexis opened the scoring with a stunning free-kick and generally hared about the pitch with his customary vigour. It’s rare to see such a gifted player show that kind of desire. Sanchez is a South American striker in the mould of Luis Suarez and Carlos Tevez. There’s guile, but there’s guts and graft too.

His game isn’t perfect. His passing is erratic and he can be guilty of holding on to the ball too long. It’s partly why he never quite settled in Barcelona’s system. I’m not sure it’s a massive problem for us, though. He’s not a continuity player, he’s a maverick. He’s not a playmaker, he’s a game-breaker.

Every team can afford one maverick, one matador. At times Arsenal can be too guilty of conforming to their intricate passing game. Alexis brings contrast and some welcome chaos to proceedings.

Lukas Podolski is on borrowed time…

It is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage a role for Podolski in the Arsenal team. I’m a self-confessed fan of the player: he is generally efficient in the final third, and remains the best finisher in the squad.

However, he just doesn’t seem to fit. As Wenger seeks to reconstruct his attack around the pace and vibrancy of Welbeck, Walcott and Sanchez, Podolski looks wildly out of place.

On several occasions last night, Alexis could be seen cajoling his team-mates, urging them to offer more movement off the ball and press higher up the pitch. If he continues to play alongside Podolski, Sanchez will have to learn the English (or German) for “move yourself” pretty quickly.

He’s rusty, certainly. He might also be lacking a little confidence, having effectively been told he was surplus to requirements in the summer before Olivier Giroud’s injury scuppered a move.

The problem is that, given the options at Wenger’s disposal, Podolski is never likely to get the run of games he patently needs. At the moment he’s stuck in some strange limbo, being brought on as a centre-forward despite the manager having publicly stated that he can’t really play in that position.

It’s a situation that I expect to reach a head during the January transfer window. Podolski’s time in London looks to be approaching an end.

Ps. Now that the spam filters have been reinforced, comments are back. Do use them please, as I’ve greatly missed the interaction on here. Thanks for reading.

Reading Preview: Is this thing on?

One-two… one-two… is anyone out there? Is this thing on?

Football is back. It feels like it’s been away for an eternity. We had that international nonsense, but that’s not ‘football’ as I understand it. It’s essentially an elaborate cover-up for a conspiracy to maim as many members of our squad as possible.

This time round we lost Theo Walcott to an injury picked up while away with England. Fortunately for Theo and Arsenal, it’s not too serious and he should be back in the next couple of weeks.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for Abou Diaby: Arsenal’s worst injury news was reserved for a player who hadn’t actually gone away on international duty.

Diaby has torn his left anterior cruciate ligament while training at London Colney, and will subsequently miss the remainder of 2013. It’s unsurprising, but still terribly sad. There’s no doubting Diaby’s talent, but it seems injury problems will prevent him from ever fulfilling it. I don’t want to write him off prematurely, but even if he recovers from this injury and is fit and healthy for the remainder of his career, the years he has lost mean he will never be the player he threatened to be.

By the time he returns from this injury he will be 27. He should be at his peak, and yet his career has never really started. I would curse his luck, but I’d far rather curse Dan Smith: the man responsible for the horror tackle that precipitated his decline.

Arsene Wenger had previously earmarked Diaby as someone who could player an important part during the run-in. However, the manager will now have to do without his French midfielder, starting today against Reading. Despite an intervening fortnight gap, I expect the line-up to show some continuity from the ones which triumphed over Bayern and Swansea. That means the defensive trio of Lukasz Fabianski, Carl Jenkinson and Laurent Koscielny should continue at the expense of messrs Szczesny, Sagna and Vermaelen. In midfield, Arteta and Ramsey will provide a defensive platform for Santi Cazorla to weave his magic. Olivier Giroud should keep his place upfront, and Arsene will then have to choose two wingers from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho and the fit again Lukas Podolski. I’d like to see a recall for the German, who was devastatingly efficient in the reverse fixture back in December.

This is a game Arsenal must win. It’s also, with respect to Reading, a game Arsenal should win. Tottenham travel to Swansea who are certainly no pushover. The right results today could see Arsenal within a point of their North London rivals with a game in hand. After the derby defeat, it catching Spurs felt unthinkable.

Now, Arsenal fans everywhere are wondering: is this thing on?

Come on you Gunners. Let’s make it happen.

Chelsea 2 – 1 Arsenal
: Another early implosion scuppers Gunners

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Chelsea 2 – 1 Arsenal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This Arsenal side just do not seem to learn their lessons. After last weekend’s defeat by Manchester City, Arsene Wenger said:

“Overall we started too timidly, with not enough authority in a game like that, and we allowed them to dictate from the start. We paid very early from it. We didn’t start with enough confidence or enough authority.”

I’m afraid it’s the same old story all over again.

There’s a temptation to focus on our impressive second half display. However, I’m afraid that my glass, much like Arsenal’s recent performances, is only half-full. All too often we only show up for part of a game. By the time we start putting our foot in, showing a bit of desire, and doing the basics the game is often already gone.

So it was at Stamford Bridge. Yes, refereeing decisions went against us – Coquelin was fouled in the build-up to Mata’s opener, and Ramires produced a clever dive to dupe the referee in to awarding the penalty – but ‘play to the whistle’ is something drilled in to kids from when they first start playing. Just as against City, Arsenal switched off, with Bacary Sagna particularly guilty of going AWOL at the key moments.

Whilst Martin Atkinson was guilty of some poor decisions, I draw the line at blaming him for the result. Arsenal’s dreadful defending put them in a mess of their own making.  It was an insipid first-half display.

Whatever Arsene Wenger said at half-time clearly had some impact, as Arsenal were immediately more competitive after the break. Santi Cazorla, who had been anonymous until that point, was suddenly able to influence the game, combining with Jack Wilshere to form Arsenal’s creative hub.

It was Cazorla who created our 58th minute goal, sliding an outstanding pass through to Theo Walcott, who finished well for his 15th goal of the season.

Arsenal went on to make most of the running, with Kieran Gibbs an irrepressible outlet on the left-hand side. Elsewhere, Walcott’s goal was the catalyst for threatening display of direct running, giving Ashley Cole a torrid time.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Arsenal’s fight-back may have transformed the dynamic of the game, but it wasn’t enough to reverse the scoreline. Our half of dominance produced only one clear-cut chance, which Walcott confidently dispatched. Chelsea, meanwhile, seemed to create chances at will, particularly in the first 45. Fortunately for us they had selected Fernando Torres, thus handicapping their goalscoring potential. Only a superb Thomas Vermaelen clearance prevented Demba Ba from sealing it late on.

Arsenal struggled to capitalise on their renewed impetus, and weren’t helped by a chronic lack of options from the bench. The illness of Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain meant that when Arsene Wenger sent out three supposed game-changers to warm up, he called on Aaron Ramsey, Andrey Arshavin and Andre Santos. You would struggle to find a trio who inspire less confidence.

Talking of failing to inspire confidence, I’m afraid I have to state my concerns over Olivier Giroud. Before going 2-0 down, Arsenal really ought to have gone 1-0 up: a good move ended with Walcott playing in Giroud, who screwed a very presentable one-on-one wide.

Unfortunately for Giroud, it’s hardly his first costly miss in an Arsenal shirt. I like him very much: he plays with courage and adds a much needed-focal point to the side. However, at the moment, he is not good enough to start regularly for a club expecting to qualify for the Champions League.

I’m not saying he’s not a good player. I’m not saying he won’t adapt and improve and become good enough for a top four side. At the moment, however, he’s not.

It’s not Giroud’s fault that he is the only pure centre-forward in the squad. The likes of Robin van Persie needed similar adaptation periods, but were afforded them by the presence of established figures like Henry and Bergkamp higher up the pecking order. Arsenal have asked Giroud to hit the ground running, and he’s barely broken out of a jog.

Some will say it’s more of a priority that we sort out the defensive side of our game. I’m afraid to say, I’ve pretty much given up on that. The arrival of experienced internationals like Per Mertesacker has failed to shore up the defence, as has the appointment of Steve Bould on the coaching side. There is no evidence to suggest an Arsene Wenger team will ever undergo a dramatic defensive improvement. With that in mind, and added to my belief that the manager isn’t going anywhere until 2014 at the earliest, our only option is to outscore the opposition. To do that, we need better forwards.

Therein lies the major difference between this season and last, and the reason I believe we need a top striker to secure fourth place. Last season, we were even shakier at the back then this time round, but we had a top class finisher to bail us out. This season, we don’t, and the stats back it up. In 2012/13, Van Persie has converted one in four of his chances this season (25%). Giroud’s record is closer to one in ten (13%).

We could do with a midfielder too. Abou Diaby played his third game in a week after a three month absence, and looked well off the pace. It’s hardly his fault – he shouldn’t have to be thrown back in to the fray after such a long spell on the sidelines.

It’s clear Arsene considers his collection of attributes invaluable. Speaking before the game, the manager said:

“Abou Diaby, with the way we have structured the team, he is an important piece of the puzzle because he adds qualities that we need in the middle of the park.”

You know what? I agree. Diaby offers us something that no other player in the squad does. However, he is also seemingly guaranteed to miss several chunks of the season through injury. That means that Arsene is effectively knowingly allowing for us to be without “qualities that we need” for prolonged periods.

It’s particularly frustrating when you see players capable of offering the same combination of power, acceleration and skill that Diaby promises available at reasonable fees. Moussa Dembele was allowed to join Tottenham unchallenged for around £15m. Momo Diame has a release clause of just £3.5m. And yet we continue to rely on a player who is provenly unreliable.

Our month of inactivity in the transfer market has thus far produced just one league point from the nine available. This weekend, Arsenal fans found themselves in the painful  position of having to be grateful for a Robin van Persie goal against Spurs. Without that, the league table could have looked even more bleak.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that failing to make the top four could ever be a ‘good thing’. We need to be there, and I still believe we can. However, a couple of additions could make all the difference. The one upside to our poor run is that it comes at a time when it’s possible to do something about it.

I know it’s cold outside, Arsene, but it’s time to open the window.

Bac says, Arshavin stays, & Arsene prays

Hello all.  That is, if there’s anyone out there, and you haven’t all turned away from football entirely during the dark times that constitute any international break.  Unusually, there is actually some Arsenal news to report, although not all of it is good.

Gooners will have been slightly alarmed to read the comments of Bacary Sagna yesterday.  He told L’Equipe:

“I expected Robin’s departure, but Alex, that was a surprise. He’s 24 and had three years on his contract.  When you see your two best players from last season leave, you ask yourself questions.

In the street, supporters sometimes come to see me. I can understand that they’re annoyed. I’m like them – I don’t understand everything.”

In some ways it’s reassuring to see that the players share our sentiments.  However, it’s not ideal for the club to see those thoughts emerge in print, especially when it calls the decisions of the manager and the board in to question.  It’s surprising these words have come from Sagna, though – a guy whose brilliance on the pitch is underlined by a stoic professionalism off it.  If anything, that lends the words more gravitas.  The departure of Song in particular will have hurt him as the pair were close off the pitch.   However, I’m confident that once Bac is back and playing his concerns will fade.  What I do hope, however, is that Arsenal don’t let the mistake of allowing Sagna’s contract to run too far down.  We won’t find a better full-back.

One player who isn’t leaving is Andrey Arshavin.  The Russian transfer window slammed shut last night, with the player still firmly on English soil.  Both Dinamo Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg claimed to have reached agreement with Arsenal to take Arshavin on a free transfer, but in both instances he turned them down.  His motivation, as far as I understand, is simple: he doesn’t want to leave London.  When he joined Zenit on loan last year, his family remained behind.  His kids are in school and he’s hopeful of getting them citizenship.  I have to say, I’m a little bit glad he’s stayed.  We saw glimpses in EURO 2012 of what he’s capable of, and he’s not a bad squad player to have around.  I’d still choose Arshavin over Gervinho in most circumstances.  The little Russian’s desire to stay for off-field reasons is clear; now he has to earn it on the pitch.

Tonight sees a host of international games kicking off, and Arsene will be anxiously watching on, hoping his players return intact.  No-one will cause more concern than Abou Diaby, who is set to be involved for France in their game against Finland.  Ahead of the game, Diaby has been talking to Le Parisien about his injury nightmare:

“I have revenge to take over the time I lost but I want to prove to myself that I can go higher.

All I wanted was to play again. I am born with a strong temper. I never give up. Maybe some people would have given up in my position but it was out of the question for me.  It was my destiny, it was written [to come back].”

There’s some lovely translation in there, that makes Diaby sound like the revenging swordsman from The Princess Bridge.

“My name is Vassiriki Abou Diaby.  You broke my ankle.  Prepare to die.”

In seriousness though, it’s great to see him back, but I think we should sound a note of caution.  The chances of him being able to play every game this season – even if he avoids injury – are slim.  After that long out his body will need rest and recuperation, and hopefully the return of Jack Wilshere will allow Arsene to lighten the load on both injury-prone midfielders.

It’s been interesting to note that our start to the season has seen our title odds significantly shorten. I don’t think we’re candidates – I envisage a familiar fourth-placed finish. What can’t be denied is this: the bookies and online casinos such as www.bellerockentertainment.comobviously recognise the potential of Arsene Wenger’s new-look team.

Till next time…

Liverpool 0 – 2 Arsenal: The signs are good

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

A victory built on solid foundations…
After two games, your perception of our results depended on whether your glass was half-full or half-empty. If it was half-empty, you were concerned about our lack of goals; half-full, and you were delighted to have kept two clean sheets. Three games in, we’ve broken our goalscoring duck, but remain yet to concede. It’s a great foundation on which to build, and credit is due not just to Steve Bould, Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen, but the entire team for a fantastic collective effort. To have achieved that record without Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, and (for the past two games) Wojciech Szczesny makes it all the more impressive. To put it in context, by this point last season we had scored the same number of goals, but conceded 10 goals. It is a dramatic improvement.

Two news boys got off the mark…
And both Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla were outstanding, picking up an assist each to go with their first Arsenal goals. Podolski combines predatory instincts with a phenomenal work-rate, whilst Cazorla is perpetual motion, and perpetual class. I haven’t seen many players who’ve made such an impression on the Premier League so early. At £12.6m, I’m convinced he will prove to be one of the buys of the season.

Olivier Giroud could do with a goal…
He snatched at a fantastic opportunity in the first half, and headed over when well-placed in the second. His movement is intelligent and the signs are good, but he could do with converting one sooner rather than later.

Abou Diaby was immense in central midfield…
His performance was a heart-warming reminder of his undoubted talent. He seemed to spin away from opposition midfielders at will, turning in to space and driving at defenders throughout the game. I’ve had to chuckle at the way pundits have fallen over themselves to praise his combination of power and technique, and label Abou as the ‘new Vieira’. These are the same comparisons people made over half a decade ago, when Diaby first arrived as a teenager from Auxerre. Still, I suppose I can forgive the Match of the Day posse for getting Diaby: prior to this season, he had not started a Premier League game in over a year.

Whilst it’s great that he played to his potential yesterday, it’s important that he goes on to show some consistency. It’s become a bit of a myth that the only obstacle between Diaby and greatness is injuries. This isn’t true: even when he’s been fit, he’s been prone to drift in and out of games, or inexplicably lose confidence and subsequently form. He needs to use the hunger from his time on the sidelines to drive him on to a good run of performances. Fingers crossed he and the rest of the squad return from the international break healthy.

Alex Who?
Alongside Diaby, Mikel Arteta was immaculate in the holding role. In fact, our central midfield display was so good that the discourse about our failure to replace Alex Song almost evaporated over the course of the ninety minutes. It is, as someone has observed before, a funny old game. Had we lost this match, with one-time transfer target Nuri Sahin impressing for Liverpool, the fanbase would be up in arms. As it is, Arteta and Diaby bossed it, Sahin was anonymous, Arsenal victorious, and Song forgotten. Add that to the news that Jack Wilshere could return inside a month, and our midfield suddenly looks much healthier. Perhaps Arsene does know after all.

Is the window really shut?
It was intriguing that both Andrey Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh were left out of the matchday squad. Although I expect both to stay, the windows in Russia and Turkey are still open for a few days. If a decent offer came in, could we resist? We’ll have to wait and see.