Arsenal prepare to get back on the horse

Realistically speaking, Arsenal have one remaining target this season: to qualify for the Champions League.  That battle recommences this weekend as Arsenal host an ailing Aston Villa side.

It’s ostensibly a good chance to get back on the good foot.  Despite recent positive results against Everton and West Ham, Villa are remain right in the relegation mix.  This is a side that we should be beating, and the odds reflect that: Ladbrokes has Arsenal as 1/3 to win the game.

It’s also a weekend that could see us make ground on our rivals.  Chelsea travel to Manchester City, while Tottenham face a tricky London derby at Upton Park.  If results go our way, we could go in to next week’s crucial North London derby just one point behind Spurs.

The next few games will have a huge say on our ultimate league position.  After Villa, we face Spurs, Everton and Swansea in succession.  We simply cannot afford to allow our downward spiral to continue.

In an effort to bring some spark back to the side, I’d advocate the reintroduction of Tomas Rosicky.  Last season, when things were similarly precarious, his energy and drive was essential in dragging us towards the top four, and his recent cameos suggest he’s capable of making a similar impact in the latter portion of this season.

We are entering that period of the campaign when performances cease to matter: it is all about results.  We need to grab every point we can between now and May, and hope that Spurs combust in their own inimitable style.  An injury to Gareth Bale would probably help, too.

Finally, at a time when the world and his wife seem to writing letters (either open, closed or slightly ajar) to significant figures at Arsenal, it’d be remiss of me not to mention this piece of musical correspondence between Arsene Wenger and Stan Kroenke.  It’s worrying how much of it is still relevant.

Villa 0 – 0 Arsenal: Arsenal’s lack of ammunition exposed

Aston Villa 0 – 0 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights (?) | Arsene’s reaction 

This was a deadly dull game…
I’m always loathe to call Arsenal games boring.  It sounds a bit spoilt, like I’m some sort of prawn sandwich-scoffing ponce who demands to be entertained.  However, this was truly tedious.  Goalscoring chances were few and far between, and midfield play was turgid and tentative.

A point is a poor result…
No away game is easy, but a side in the top four has to be looking to win pretty much every game they play.  Villa played well, but to put things in perspective, they ended the weekend in the relegation zone, behind the likes of Norwich, Wigan and Southampton.  These are games a club of our supposed ambition should be taking three points from.

Substituting Olivier Giroud for Francis Coquelin infuriated me…
…and I wasn’t alone.   The away fans openly booed and chanted “you don’t know what you’re doing” at Arsene.  The only precedent I can think of is the removal of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain against Manchester United.  On that occasion, I did my best to back the manager.  This time, I’m not sure I can.  Lukas Podolski had been withdrawn, as has become customary, at the 70 minute mark.  With the German off the field, Giroud was our only credible goal threat.  I appreciate he was tired, but the game was almost over.  An extra five minutes would not have killed him.  Taking him off, for a defensive midfielder of all things, was a tacit admission that we were content with a draw.  Against a tiring Villa side, this show of reduced ambition pained me.  A top side – Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, for example – would have thrown on a forward and gone for the win.

A crucial difference, of course, is that United would have a forward to throw on…
The need for a striker is pressing.  Gervinho is not a striker.  Theo Walcott is not (yet) a striker.  Lukas Podolski is a striker, but is required to play on the left wing, because we have no-one else realistically capable of filling that position.  Marouane Chamakh is a striker, but is so far out of favour that he didn’t even make the bench yesterday.  Giroud is the only realistic option to play centre-forward at the club.  It’s a situation that can needs resolving sooner rather than later – and not with a temporary fix like the return of Thierry Henry.  Klaas Jan Huntelaar and Fernando Llorente are both just six months away from the end of their contracts with Schalke and Bilbao.  Theo Walcott might not be worth £100k p/week to us, but either of these two might be.

Why bother taking Jack Wilshere with the squad?
The young midfielder spent the entire game sat on the bench.  Arsene admitted after the game he didn’t want to use him unless absolutely necessary.  I’m sorry, but for me, toiling to a 0-0 draw against a side as poor as Villa necessitates the introduction of a creative talent like Wilshere.  If he’s not fit to play, leave him at home.

Andrey Arshavin ought to be given more of a chance…
Speaking of creative talents, I have to say I’ve generally been impressed with the little I’ve seen of Andrey Arshavin this season.  I certainly think he’s a more worthwhile substitute than Gervinho, whose first two touches of the ball yesterday were both hideous pieces of miscontrol.  It seems likely that Arshavin will be allowed to leave in January, but between now and then I’d back him to make a telling contribution or two.

It’s telling where Arsene chose to rotate…
He changed both his full-backs, which is arguably where he has the most strength in depth.  Gibbs, Santos and Vermaelen are three credible options at left-back, whilst Jenkinson, Sagna and even Coquelin give him options on the right.  He also left out Wilshere for Aaron Ramsey, in a box-to-box midfield role that has been also been filled by Diaby and Coquelin in the course of this season.  There are, however, several players in the side that Arsene simply cannot afford to leave out: Arteta, Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud.  Unsurprisingly, it is these players who are beginning to look jaded.  The transfer window is only a month or so away.  If we’re to make the Champions League, Arsene will have to recruit some trustworthy alternatives to prevent these key players being run in to the ground.

Thoughts on Arsenal’s festive sandwich

festivesandwich

‘Tis the season to be jolly. And then less so.
Arsenal have just completed a festive sandwich of fixtures. On the one side, a wholesome and thoroughly rewarding victory away to Aston Villa. On the other, a rather stale draw at home to Wolves. In the middle, of course, was a big fat Christmas. Hope you had a great one, wherever you are and whatever you might be celebrating.

Alex McCleish is the enemy of football.
Anyone who watched our game against them on Wednesday last will surely concur. This man must be stopped: he seems to suck the joy out of any club he takes over. His Villa are a horrendous side – seemingly as dull on the eye as the Birmingham City team he led to relegation last season. On Boxing Day, Sky sought to outdo Scrooge himself by screening just one game: Stoke vs. Aston Villa. It was apocalyptically bad.

Yossi Benayoun deserves more opportunities.
His headed winner at Villa Park was a rare example of an Arsenal player coming off the bench and making a genuine different to the game. Supporters are tired of seeing the uninspiring sight of Marouane Chamakh or Andrey Arshavin preparing to take to the field. Benayoun guarantees hard work and, of late, real quality. His display at home to Wolves was another example of what he can offer the side.

Arsenal were denied by Hennessey’s brilliance rather than their own incompetence.
A point at home to Wolves is a frustrating result, particularly when the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool have both dropped points in similar circumstances, but on this occasion I think arseblog has it right: we have to offer congratulations to an outstanding performance by the goalkeeper rather than blame ourselves. These freakish results will occasionally occur – it’s only when they become regular that there is genuine cause for concern.

Four points from Villa and Wolves is not a bad return.
If we go on to beat QPR and Fulham, which is not an unrealistic target, 10 points from 12 available will look even healthier.

Whisper it quietly, but Spurs don’t look likely to collapse anytime soon.
Whilst of course we ought to try and pursue and overhaul them, I’m increasingly of the belief that the real battle for Champions League qualification is between us and Chelsea, and for fourth rather than third place. Spurs look very strong indeed, and I don’t perceive Liverpool to have the strength in depth to mount a sustained challenge – particularly in light of Luis Suarez’s ban.

Thierry Henry could be the best available option to strengthen the squad.
Of course there are better strikers out there than a 34-year old who plies his trade in the MLS, but how many of them are available in January? Very few. It’s not worth investing millions of pounds in a substandard player who will make a limited impact – you could argue we’ve already done that with Chu-Young Park. Bringing in Henry would give us a viable option from the bench as well as providing a lift to everyone at the club. If it happens, however, it’d have to be soon. No point waiting to look at other options until the end of January then letting Henry go back to the states after a fortnight.

Right. The next game is QPR at home on New Year’s Eve, after which we’ll be able to put a very rocky 2011 to bed.