Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: A different kind of frustration

I’m used to finishing matches between Arsenal and Chelsea with a feeling of immense frustration gnawing at me. It generally floods in to replace the dread that’s accompanied the build-up to such games.

However, this time round it’s been different. Heading in to the match I was actually excited. We had such a weight of momentum behind us that I was convinced we stood a really good chance of ending Arsene Wenger’s ugly record against Jose Mourinho. If there was ever to be a time to end the hoodoo, this felt like it — 13th time lucky.

It wasn’t to be. I do feel frustration now, but it’s not the hair-pulling, hand-wringing hysteria that previously accompanied our capitulations in these top-of-the-table clashes. I think Arsenal did most things right. Game-management has been Arsenal’s undoing on so many occasions, but they were largely able to negotiate this fixture with intelligence and maturity.

Nevertheless, they couldn’t shake the Mourinho-faced monkey from their back. We did most things right, but he clung on to preserve his record. This was an Arsenal team ready to win, but they faced a Chelsea team who weren’t ready to lose. The scoreline may have been a draw, but only one manager left with the result they came for.

At this point in the season, Mourinho has given up any pretence of trying to appease Abramovich with attractive attacking football. He abided by that decree in the first half of the season, but on this home straight he’s reverted to type with some execrably pragmatic displays. It’s regression to the meanest of footballing philosophies, but it works.

For Arsenal, there’s no shame in drawing with the champions elect. It’s actually a very decent result, especially in the light of Manchester United’s defeat at Everton — but it also feels like an opportunity missed. Chelsea might be weaker in future, but with eight consecutive wins behind us I’m not sure we’ll ever be stronger.

The fact we still couldn’t break them down suggests that when we do eventually beat them, it will require the rarest of defensive lapses. As John Terry marshalled Olivier Giroud into subordination, his hilarious slip at Stamford Bridge felt like an awfully long time ago.

This game was understandably talked about as an opportunity to lay down a marker for next season, but the reality is that Arsenal do not need to beat Chelsea to win a Premier League title. Far more important is to avoid the sort of disastrous start to the campaign which handed Mourinho his insurmountable lead.

Arsenal didn’t get the landmark win they craved but they gave a good account of themselves nonetheless.

Traditionally, my exasperation has stemmed from the fact Arsenal have humiliated themselves. This time, it’s due to the fact that we weren’t able to humiliate Mourinho. I’m choosing to look upon that as progress.

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

_82123381_mesutozilgetty2

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:

gervinhocurtains

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.

Ready, Set, Go: The Race for fourth is underway!

Arsenal 2 – 2 Swansea

Even the most wildly optimistic fan has forgotten about the title now…
With Everton making good ground behind us, all focus is on securing a top four finish. It’s a somewhat depressing reality at the end of an exciting season, but fortunately we still have the carrot of a potential FA Cup win dangling ahead of us. Without that, the fans would be in full-blown meltdown.

The defending on the first goal was far too casual…
Just as at Chelsea, Arsenal just weren’t switched on enough. That said, it was a terrific cross and a great leap from Wilfried Bony.

Watching Bony at close quarters was interesting…
Like Giroud, he lacks pace, but everything he does is done with real power, purpose and intent. He’s not the calibre of striker who could take our team to the next level, but someone of his ilk would definitely have helped bulk out the squad. Watching Olivier Giroud labour around the pitch wasn’t pretty.

Giroud looks drained of both stamina and confidence. Although he added to his goal tally in the second half, this was one of his poorest performances of the season.

At half-time I said on Twitter that Arsenal could win the game if they brought on Podolski…
When the German score and created a goal inside 66 seconds, I thought I might be be awarded a modicum of credit. Swansea’s late equaliser soon put paid to that.

As for Podolski, he is a curious case. He is undoubtedly efficient in the final third. He has a shooting accuracy of 67%, as compared with Giroud’s 41%. Only Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil have been more deadly in front of goal, and Ozil’s stats are somewhat skewed by his steadfast refusal to shoot.

However, defensively he remains something of disaster. From an attacking point of view, we seem to need him. And yet, defensively, we can’t seem to afford him. It’s a paradox, all right.

Bringing Sanogo on seemed strange…
Granted, Giroud was knackered, but I would far rather have seen either Nacho Monreal or Carl Jenkinson introduced. Wenger has employed his “all the full-backs” strategy to good effect on several occasions this season. Giving Sanogo a two minute cameo seemed like an unnecessary concession to Arsene’s latest pet project.

Mathieu Flamini didn’t deserve to score that own goal…
He was one of our better performers. In the second half, he marshalled Bony superbly. His display showed the folly of leaving him out at Stamford Bridge.

To end on a positive…
…Kallstrom looked good! Some commentators observed that he received a “good reception” when coming on for his Arsenal debut – in person, it felt more like the ironic cheers reserved for the likes of Nicklas Bendtner. Nevertheless, his passing was crisp and he showed a willingness to get involved in the physical aspect of the game.

 

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.