Arsenal 4-1 Liverpool: Is there a better team in England?

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This might seem like the hyperbolic tubthumping of the deluded fan, but I’m not sure there’s a better team in England at the moment than Arsenal.

Before you say it, it’s not Chelsea. They might lead the league table, but friends behind enemy lines assure me they’ve played well just once since Christmas. The January signing intended to reinvigorate their tiring team, Juan Cuadrado, is currently looking like the world’s most expensive Gervinho impersonator. They should just have bought this lovely curtain set:

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The game against Jose Mourinho’s men is beginning to feel like our cup final (apart from the actual cup final, of course, which remains very much a possibility). It’s a one-off opportunity to lay down a marker for next season, but more than that it’s an opportunity to make this season infinitely more memorable. You can’t win a trophy every year, but you can ensure you leave behind several glorious results enabling you to lord it over your rivals.

Arsenal finally seem to have got the hang of that, with victories over both Manchester clubs and now Liverpool in 2015. Beating the Anfield side isn’t particularly new, but the emphatic nature of this victory is. Arsenal approached this game with confidence rather than trepidation. That’s a delicious novelty.

I really hope they can do the same against Chelsea. The fact that Arsene Wenger has never beaten Mourinho is both bizarre and embarrassing, and this seems like an ideal opportunity to put it right.

We’re undeniably on a roll. The numbers prove it: we’ve won seven on the spin, Olivier Giroud has 10 in 10, and we’ve just put four past Liverpool.

It can’t be coincidence that the upturn in form has coincided with having a full contingent of outfield players for the first time in years. Shad Forsythe has taken some amusing stick this season, but perhaps we’re finally be seeing the benefit of his inaugural year at the club.

This is now the strongest Arsenal squad in years. It’s not perfect, but there is depth in every department. The fact that Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Debuchy, Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby all made a successful return to training during the international break yet were not needed for the bench tells you something about the variety of options at the manager’s disposal. Calum Chambers, who was entirely fit, was not even named in the matchday squad.

Of course, all this positivity comes laced with regret. After leading the league for so long last season and ending the wait for silverware, this should have been the year to mount a serious title-challenge. Unfortunately, our quest for the trophy was over before Autumn was out. Sadly, the emergence of Francis Coquelin and acquisition of Gabriel – both obviously required back in August – came too late to challenge Chelsea.

I’m proud that Arsenal are 2015’s best team, but enormously frustrated that they won’t be 2015’s champions. It was there for the taking.

Arsenal win another big game: Is it getting better?

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For a long time now we’ve collectively lamented Arsenal’s failure to cope with the big occasion. After the stirring win at Old Trafford, the question begs: are things finally improving?

For me, United is the definitive big game. Perhaps it’s because I grew up amid the red-hot rivalry of the late 90s. United were so dominant in that era, and those clashes were always infused with tension, drama and spite. Even taking in to account neighbours Tottenham and Chelsea, there isn’t a game in the fixture-list that inspires more nerves or animosity. Old habits die hard, and old hatreds endure.

I saw someone compare Monday night’s game to Ali vs. Frazier in 1975: two former greats, evenly matched but now hurting each other all too easily. It’s a nice line, but one that doesn’t reflect the trajectory of the two sides. While United do appear to be a team in decline, there are some signs that Arsenal might be on the way up.

There are indications that Arsene Wenger’s men are beginning to conquer their crippling stage-fright. After all, Monday night’s win comes just a couple of months after another landmark victory at the Etihad.

It’s not been a complete reversal of fortunes. Defeats against Tottenham and Monaco show there is still plenty of room for improvement. However, it’s undoubtedly progress: last season, Arsenal would probably have lost all four of those games.

In the wake of such a significant win, there’s a tendency to assume that our problems are now permanently behind us. “That’s it”, we think. “Now we’ll win every big game and be title contenders once again”.

I’m not sure it’s that simple. We’re turning the corner, but it’ll take more than a single step. It’s generally agreed that our problems are psychological as well as strategic. Improvements in the latter are soothing the former: each big win has tactical and therapeutic benefits. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if we might be learning something.

We’re not yet where we need to be. As the Monaco game showed, Arsenal are far from over the big-game jitters. However, we are certainly making positive progress.

On Danny Welbeck…

From the minute the possibility of Danny Welbeck moving to Arsenal was mooted, I fantasised about his scoring the winner at Old Trafford. He must have done so too, and that probably goes some way to explaining his joyous celebration on Monday night. He certainly had a point to prove to the manager who jettisoned him after a matter of months in Manchester.

As Welbeck’s shot hit the net, Louis Van Gaal’s flat face glowed red with embarrassment, leaving him looking like a cartoon thumb throbbing after being hit with a mallet.

Even if Welbeck never does anything hugely significant in an Arsenal shirt again, he’ll be remembered for this night. This, if you like, was his ‘Arshavin moment’.

However, I’m hopeful that there’s a lot more to come from the Englishman. That goal effectively closed one chapter in his career, but should mark the true beginning of a bright new one.

ps. If you haven’t yet, do check out the Arsecast Extra for more luxurious basking.

Spurs 2-1 Arsenal: Kaned and Unable

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I seem to bang on about ‘fine margins’ an awful lot at the moment. So much so that I’ve started using online thesauri to try and come up with some alternatives. The best I can find is ‘narrow gap’, which funnily enough is precisely what has opened up between Tottenham and Arsenal since our derby defeat.

That’s of little immediate concern: looking at the two sets of fixture lists, I still expect Arsenal to finish above Tottenham. The greater threat to our top four place comes from Southampton and Manchester United. Even the gloriously hubristic Hotspurs have been noticeably quiet about their one-point lead — surely they’ll never be so foolish as to warn us to mind a gap again.

That said, Spurs were undoubtedly the better side on Saturday. I think all football fans are sometimes guilty of only assessing their own team’s performance. If we score a goal it’s purely down to our own brilliance; if we concede one our incompetence is held equally responsible. Sometimes you do have to give credit to your opposition — much as it pains me to say it, they were excellent.

But what of those ‘fine margins’ I mentioned in the first paragraph as if they were going to be important?

I suppose what I mean is that the gap in perception between a ‘spirited rear-guard action’ and being ‘on the backfoot for 90 minutes’ is incredibly small. When you play as Arsenal did at Spurs, inviting pressure and looking to play on the break, the game is inevitably going to be on a knife-edge.

When you’re under sustained pressure, as Arsenal were, the smallest defensive mistake can be crucial. Yes, Aaron Ramsey might have done better to stay with Harry Kane at a corner, and Theo Walcott could have closed down Nabil Bentaleb a little sooner, but they’re not criminal errors. I struggle to find the energy to crucify those players for momentary lapses in concentration. If you set up to defend for 90 minutes, it’s draining.

Such a game-plan also demands you’re incredibly efficient in possession. Surprisingly, that’s where Arsenal most obviously fell short. Defensive errors are par for the course, but an inability to keep the ball comes as more of a shock. That’s the greatest disappointment to come out of Saturday’s game: with more finesse on the ball, we might have punished Tottenham sufficiently on the break to render our defensive errors inconsequential. Instead, we struggled to live with Tottenham’s high intensity pressing game, just as we did at Dortmund and Liverpool earlier this season.

This game followed a remarkably similar pattern to last year’s fixture. In both matches, Spurs recovered from going a goal behind to dominate — they actually had more possession in 2014. Sometimes you’ll get away with it, sometimes you won’t.

For more rambling discussion of this ilk, why no tune in to the latest Arsecast Extra, in which we take a closer look at the form of Aaron Ramsey.

Meritocratic selection sees off Stoke + Arsecast Extra 50

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Arsenal recorded their 13th consecutive home win over Stoke City, and in doing so put in one of their most cohesive performances of the season.

It was interesting to see that Arsene Wenger’s team selection was not swayed by the renewed availability of some big names. The manager chose to keep Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott in reserve, giving the likes of Francis Coquelin, Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a chance to extend their run of impressive form.

I suspect that even if Kieran Gibbs had been fit, Nacho Monreal might still have got the nod at left-back. Gibbs was very poor at the Britannia, and Monreal has emerged as a rugged and reliable option at full-back. His last seven starts have all resulted in wins, with five clean sheets along the way.

It seems Arsene has adopted a meritocratic selection policy, rewarding those in good form and making some players accustomed to an automatic spot bide their time. That’s ostensibly a decent plan, but it’ll certainly be put to the test when Arsenal face the giants of Manchester City next week.

The one selection decision I was not entirely convinced was based on performance levels was the one that saw Wojciech Szczesny dropped for David Ospina. As much as Arsene insists that call was made purely on form, it looks to me like a clear disciplinary issue.

I’m generally more comfortable seeing Szczesny between the sticks, but that’s largely because I haven’t seen enough of Ospina to make a valuable judgement. My suspicion is that the Pole will be back in the goal before too long – read why over on Mirror Football.

The Arsenal fans’ joy at seeing off Stoke was capped by the news that their train home was cancelled. This was met by cheers from most, but a perturbed silence from the few who realised this meant that Stoke fans would be patrolling the streets of London for longer than was strictly necessary. Deeply unpleasant.

As you’ll have noticed from the big play button at the top of this piece, there’s a new Arsecast Extra out today. It’s the 50th of its kind, and the familiar beep of the Arsecast lorry makes a return to mark the occasion. Have a listen: we chat about Debuchy’s injury, the goalkeeping situation, and whether Morgan Schneiderlin really is worth £30m.

Arsecast Extra 49: What we think we’ll spend in January

The latest Arsecast Extra is here, featuring lengthy discussion on Theo Walcott, Francis Coquelin, and Joel Campbell. Andrew and I also make our prediction as to what we think we’ll spend in January. It makes for scary listening.

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