Thoughts on FA Cup, Bayern & Spurs

There is a strange pressure about being FA Cup favourites…
It’s an unpleasantly familiar sensation, much like the one we found ourselves in at this stage 2011’s Carling Cup.

Surely, the lessons of that disastrous final have been learnt. We’re more experienced, more determined and more professional. We ought to do it. There are no excuses.

I was pleased with the Bayern result and performance…

In my opinion, the tie was effectively dead after the first leg result. If I’m honest, I’d pretty much resigned it as soon as the initial draw was made. However, 1-1 at the Allianz Arena was a creditable result that allowed us to continue our campaign with the semblance of gathering momentum. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was absolutely superb: in the continued absence of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott, he must be one of the first names on the team-sheet.

The penalty save felt significant…

Not only did it ensure we left without suffering a dispiriting defeat, but it also felt like the moment that Lukasz Fabianski guaranteed his place in the FA Cup semi-final side. In this form, his departure on a Bosman in the summer feels like a significant loss.

Spurs are on the ropes…

Their fans are as unsettled as they’ve been for some time. Speaking to Spurs supporters, it seems there’s a sense that the club lack direction and purpose. They feel little to no affinity with the players, and are worried they’re trapped in a purgatorial prison. A “negative spiral”, you might say.

However, derby day is a real equaliser. We know only two well how quickly the trajectories of the two north London clubs can be reversed. Arsenal will need to ensure their focus is absolutely right if they’re to come away with three points.

We need those points pretty badly. Although the increased probability of FA Cup success has made that the focus, we still have a good chance of winning the Premier League. It would take an extraordinary run, but then title wins usually do.

Thoughts on Sanogo, Sunderland + Win a Bergkamp Canvas Print

I’ve been away…
…in Amsterdam. Working. No, not like that. I did manage to catch all our games while I was there, but given the demands of the job I was doing the Liverpool, Bayern and Sunderland matches had to remain blogless. I’d apologise, but I know that in this day and age you’re spoilt for choice. I’m sure you all got your fix elsewhere.

The Yaya Sanogo thing…
…caught me somewhat off-guard. I was mildly surprised to see him start against Liverpool, and truly shocked that he played against Bayern. It’s clear his opportunity has come about primarily due to non-footballing issues. Giroud’s off-field misdemeanours are well-documented, while Nicklas Bendtner is finally beginning to be frozen out.

Having been thrown in at the deep-end, Sanogo did enough to stay afloat. However, to continue the swimming analogy, I’m not yet convinced he’s the next Ian Thorpe. Nor Eric The Eel. Basically, he’s quite good at swimming. And football.

The criticism of Mesut Ozil…
…was way over the top. Anyone can miss a penalty.

That said, some people are more likely to miss than others. I have to say, I would never choose Ozil as a penalty taker. He simply doesn’t have the requisite ruthlessness in front of goal. He’s now missed two out of two for Arsenal. I’d be surprised if we see him take another.

Nevertheless, you can read about my hopes for his return over at ESPN.

Arsenal were excellent against Sunderland…
…and Tomas Rosicky rightly took plenty of the plaudits. Some argue we look better with just one of Ozil or Santi Cazorla in the team. I’d suggest the truth is that we simply look better because Rosicky is invariably the replacement for either player. We’re better with the Little Mozart in the team. It’s just a shame he’s not ten years younger.

Stoke away doesn’t hold as much fear as it used to…
Given the fixture list we face, this is actually one of our easier games. Three points is a must.

Competition time…
As you’ll know, last weekend Dennis Bergkamp’s statue was unveiled outside the Emirates Stadium. Obviously I can’t start giving away full-size bronze replicas of the non-flying Dutchman. However, thanks to the guys at Canvasartrocks.com, we have got one of these excellent Canvas Prints to give away.

Winning one is pretty simple. All you need to do is Tweet the answer to the following question, including the hashtag #DB10canvas.

Q. Against which club did Dennis Bergkamp score his last Arsenal goal?

The winner will be chosen at random and announced in the weekend’s post-Stoke blog. If you don’t fancy your chances in the competition, you can buy this and many other Arsenal-themed canvases here – use the discount code ‘GUNNERBLOG’ to get yourself  10% off any purchase.

Good luck!

Arsene has declared this a dead rubber

If Arsene Wenger thought Arsenal had any realistic chance of progressing against Bayern Munich, Wojciech Szczesny would be playing tomorrow.

If we had designs on producing a remarkable comeback, surely we’d be selecting the man most likely to keep a clean sheet. Conceding would take the chance of victory from implausible to impossible. And yet we’re preparing to select one of Lukasz Fabianski or Vito Mannone: a pair of keepers not entrusted to play against the likes of Bradford and Blackburn in the domestic cups, with Szczesny “rested” at home.

You don’t “rest” players in the biggest games. The decision suggests that Arsene has declared tomorrow a dead rubber and is focusing attention upon an increasingly important domestic campaign. On balance, it’s hard to argue with that point of view. Even the most optimistic Gooner will struggle to make a case for Arsenal being in the hat for the quarter-final draw.

If the tie were a bit closer, I have no doubt that Szczesny would play. I suspect Lukas Podolski, left at home to nurse a niggling ankle problem, would also be in the side. As thing stand, Arsene is being pragmatic. Reaching the Champions League quarter-finals is less important than being in the group stage next year.

Arsenal don’t need to progress tonight, but they do need to restore a modicum of pride. We travel to Swansea on Saturday for a difficult and crucial league game. Restoring some confidence with a creditable result in Germany would be a huge boost, especially for a squad which will be rattled by the loss of the inspirational Jack Wilshere.

We’ve got a huge battle on between now and the end of the season. My delight at Liverpool’s victory over Spurs at the weekend was tempered by the knowledge that Brendan Rogers’ side are now making significant ground on us. Arsenal need to fight for fourth and yet are in real danger of slipping to sixth.

The Bayern game is about finding reasons to believe, for players and fans alike. Let’s hope we get some.

Arsenal 1 – 3 Bayern: Müllered

Arsenal 1 – 3 Bayern Munich
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Last night, we dared to expect the unexpected.

Arsenal went in to the game off the back of a dispiriting defeat to Blackburn, but we hoped that against Bayern we might see the Dr. Jekyll to Saturday’s Mr. Hyde.  We needed an Arsenal display better than anything we’ve seen thus far this season, and we needed Bayern to fall well below their usual standard.

Instead, what we got was about par.  We were hoping for a miracle, but got another ordinary day at the office.  Arsenal looked mediocre next to a truly impressive Bayern side.

Arsenal fans had clung to the idea that we tend to turn it on against the big teams.  However, I’m not sure there’s much evidence to support that theory anymore.  This season we’ve faltered in clashes with both Manchester clubs and Chelsea.  When we come up against top class opposition, we struggle to impose ourselves.

Bayern undoubtedly belong in that top class.  They  were compact, organised, and efficient on the attack.  They reminded me of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea sides: a powerful core supplemented by blistering wing play.  In the Brazilian Dante, they have one of the best centre-backs I’ve seen in a while.  Sebastian Schweinsteiger is approaching his peak, and they can even afford to leave the likes of Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez on the bench.  They are, in short, far better than us.  I wouldn’t fancy any Premier League side’s chances against them.

That said, we didn’t help ourselves.  Conceding two goals inside just 21 minutes is typical of this Arsenal team.  In his post match press conference, Arsene Wenger spoke once again of “nerves”.  He claims the team’s desire to do well inhibits their performance.  If that really is the case, I’d suggest a good chunk of the fortune we have in the bank is spent on hiring a few sports psychologists.  Elite sportsmen should embrace the highest level of competition, not fear it.

I’d also question the selection of Theo Walcott at centre-forward.  This was too much too soon for a player who has only played a handful of games as a pure striker.  As supporters we throw our heads back in anguish when we see Thomas Vermaelen at left-back or Aaron Ramsey on the right-wing.  For me, Walcott at centre-forward is not much different.  That position is no less specialised than any other.  It takes time to learn the tricks of the trade.  Expecting Walcott to be able to perform there against one of Europe’s best teams seemed a little naive on Arsene’s part.  I can understand dropping Giroud to add an extra body in to midfield, but perhaps Lukas Podolski would have been a better option to play through the middle: unlike Walcott, he has extensive experience in that position.  To be fair to Theo, he wasn’t helped by his team-mates, who seemed to mistake him for Giroud, launching long ball after long ball at the space above his head.  Dante and Van Buyten gobbled these speculative balls up, and Walcott was rendered anonymous.

At the other end, our defending was poor.  Against Bayern, you simply won’t get away with that.  Our flaws were ruthlessly exposed, and the scoreline is a fair reflection of the gulf between the sides.  The only surprise was that an Arsenal-esque mistake from the Germans allowed Lukas Podolski to nick a consolation against his former club.

The tie is all but over.  Arsenal will go to Munich and play for pride, but the solemn expression of Arsene Wenger at his post-match press conference suggests even he believes the damage done in this first leg is irreparable.

I didn’t join the chorus of boos at full-time: Arsenal lost fair and square to a better side.  I hoped for more, but it would have been madness to expect  it.  However, the result has compounded the pain of the FA Cup defeat.  Within the space of a few days, the focus of our season has narrowed dramatically: it’s suddenly looking like fourth or bust.

Arsenal will return to the Premier League on Saturday to fight for the right to return to this European stage.  Last night, Bayern provided a stark reminder that even if we make it back to the Champions League, vast improvement will be required if we’re to do anything more than simply make up the numbers.