Arsenal 0 – 2 Chelsea: Arsenal understudies fluff their lines

Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The top story is: Chelsea’s reserves are better than Arsenal’s reserves…
I’m not sure there has been a squad in Premier League history as grossly bloated with talent as this current Chelsea group.

For this match Jose Mourinho was able to make 10 changes, yet the side he fielded would stand every chance of challenging for major honours. To have the likes of Juan Mata in reserve is beyond luxury and bordering upon absurdity.

The signing of Willian was symbolic of Abramovich and Mourinho’s tendency towards excess. When Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil, it was said that the Gunners didn’t “need” the German. Such an argument is plainly nonsense when held up against the Willian deal. Chelsea truly didn’t need the Brazilian. They signed him because they could, and because they feared his acquisition would strengthen a rival.

Wenger would never do that – even if he had the financial resources. He’d worry about congesting his squad, or allocating such a huge proportion of the club’s budget to a player who will not feature frequently.

Mourinho, on the other hand, is too short-termist to care, and Abramovich too rich. They build and build and buy and buy and now they’ve got a squad that contains at least two teams – maybe more. It might not be ethical but it’s pretty effective.

By contrast, Arsenal’s reserves are just that: players who fall a little way short of the standards expected of the first-team. Against Chelsea, it showed.

It would be disingenuous to blame it all on the stand-ins…
Arsenal fielded the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla in midfield, and none of those players hit the heights usually expected of them.

However, Carl Jenkinson had a shocker…
The opening goal exposed his major weakness: his aerial ability. First he was indecisive, then ungainly. It was a dreadful mistake to make.

Unfortunately for Jenkinson, even the areas of his game that are consistently positive, such as his crossing, were uncharacteristically poor.

He’s not as bad as he looked last night. However, it’s becoming clear that he may not be as good as he looked in the early part of last season.

Jenkinson’s current ability level lies somewhere in between the two poles: he is a good prospect with plenty to learn. He is not yet close to taking over as Arsenal’s first-choice right-back.

The sooner Bacary Sagna gets a new contract, the better.

Nicklas Bendtner looked as rusty as you’d expect…
Nothing stuck to the big Dane, and he even looked timid in front of goal. Believe it or not, the man with who turned the self-esteem up to 11 in his psychological profiling test looked short of confidence.

However, I refuse to believe he didn’t try. What would he have to gain from that? You’ve got a guy here who knows he’s on his last chance to make it with a big club, and whose contract expires this summer. He has every incentive to do well. Everyone agreed he seemed motivated and energised against Norwich. Now, all of a sudden, he doesn’t care? I don’t buy it.

The simple truth is he lacked service. A conventional target man like Bendtner is dependent upon supply.

Lacking in fitness? Certainly. Lacking in quality? Arguably. But those things, rather than a lack of will, were his principal crimes. And how booing him is supposed to help matters I have no idea.

Ryo Miyaichi is an odd one…
The coaching staff seem convinced he’s a gem, but he always looks more of a perfectly pleasant but inspiring pebble to me. Quick, with decent technique, but nothing special. I’m sure he’ll prove me wrong in time but I do wonder how great a toll all those injuries have taken.

Criticising Wenger’s selection policy is missing the point…
He didn’t have a huge amount of choice.

I’m convinced that had Serge Gnabry, Gedion Zelalem, Yaya Sanogo and Thomas Eisfeld been fit to start they would have been involved tonight. However, the crop of youngsters Wenger considers most appropriate to blood were almost entirely unavailable.

Wenger will have been disappointed that he was forced to use Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla, especially having failed to pick up a positive result. However, he’d gladly trade off Capital One Cup progression for three points against Liverpool on Saturday. That match is taking on more significance by the day.

For further reading follow me on Twitter @gunnerblog. More reaction to come throughout the day.

WBA 1-1 Arsenal: Ozil looks to be more Bergkamp than Fabregas

WBA 1 – 1 Arsenal
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This was a good point…
Arsenal responded well to a relatively unfamiliar challenge: this was the first time we have fallen behind in the match since the 3-1 victory over Norwich earlier this year. With the additions of Amalfitano and Sessegon, West Brom look an enterprising and athletic team. Their victory over Manchester United was no fluke, and they’ll take several more big scalps this season. Come the end of the season, I’m confident that Arsenal will look back on this one as a point gained.

Arsenal’s winning streak may be over but our unbeaten run continues. In a topsy-turvy Premier League, consistency is King.

If I were in charge, I would’ve taken Jack Wilshere off at half-time…
…so it’s a good job I’m not. Wilshere responded to his dreadful first-half display with real guts. Switching to the centre, he immediately improved and by the end of the ninety minutes was arguably our most dangerous player. As well as grabbing the crucial equaliser, he also produced the pass of the match to find Olivier Giroud free in the penalty area. Unfortunately, Giroud was denied by Myhill.

While Wilshere deserves credit for his second half turnaround, I do wish he wouldn’t spent quite as much time sat on the floor pleading with the referee. Wilshere does get kicked a lot, but not half as much as he claims. If he continues to protest every single challenge, the really dangerous tackles will be lost amid his whining.

Carl Jenkinson’s greatest weakness is arguably his aerial ability…
Jenkinson is a versatile defender but has never been deployed by Arsene Wenger as a centre-back. Yesterday we saw why. Despite his height, Jenkinson is poor in the air: he lacks spring and his timing is often curiously off. Yesterday he struggled under  several high balls, and failed to get anywhere near Claudio Yacob as the Argentine nodded in the opening goal.

It’s an area in which Jenkinson compares particularly poorly with his rival Bacary Sagna, who probably deserves more credit for his outstanding aerial ability.

Ozil is not dominating games as you might expect…
While the German is not yet dictating our tempo, he never fails to produce one or two moments of pure magic in every game. At this stage, he is more Bergkamp than Fabregas; more gifted soloist than conductor.

In this match, there were two sumptuous slide-rule passes in to the feet of Aaron Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs. I also enjoyed his contribution to our equalising goal, out-muscling Mulumbu deep inside our half before spraying a long ball forward to launch the move. When you look at our recent goals, his contribution tends to be key.

The international break comes at a good time…
…and not just because it guarantees we’ll retain top spot for a fortnight. It gives a worryingly thin Arsenal squad the chance to add on some bulk. Santi Cazorla is set to return after the break, with Bacary Sagna and Theo Walcott not far behind. Options will be key ahead of a sequence of difficult fixtures in October and November. Thus far, I’ve avoided any pronouncements about what this Arsenal squad might be capable of this season. I’m cautiously optimistic, but we’ll have a far clearer picture come the end of November.

Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal: He’s Bac

Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This win was absolutely essential…
With Chelsea and Spurs both picking up wins, it was vital that we maintained the pace in the race for Champions League qualification. The next month or so sees us face both Tottenham and Everton, sandwiched by cup ties with Blackburn and Bayern. We are entering the period that will define our season, and momentum is crucial.

In the first half, Arsene’s tactical tweak worked a treat…
I was very surprised to see Lukas Podolski on the bench again, with Aaron Ramsey handed a start. However, Arsenal’s midfield dominated the game, and there was a slightly different shape in evidence too.

Ramsey sat in a deeper role alongside Arteta. Jack was playing as the advanced midfielder, with Cazorla ostensibly starting from the left-wing. In truth, Cazorla spent almost the entire game playing inside, combing with Jack and the strikers. It was a less a midfield three and more of a four, replicating the ‘magic square’ that the Brazil national team have been known to use.

Wilshere’s injury changed the game…
Jack’s combination play with Santi had been mesmerising. When we lost Wilshere, we also lost our way a little bit. It was noticeable too that Sunderland improved significantly when they replaced the thuggish Cattermole with the more technical Larsson.

This game highlighted the gulf between Bacary Sagna and Carl Jenkinson…
I appreciate that Carl only knew he was playing 15 minutes before kick-off. I also appreciate that we came across a referee who seemed only too happy to hand out cards to our players while letting their Sunderland equivalents get away with (attempted) murder.

Despite that, Carl Jenkinson’s sending off was very silly indeed. Having picked up a booking inside the first ten minutes, he was always walking a tight-rope. When walking a tight-rope of any kind, it is not advisable to make any sudden lunges. Unfortunately, Carl did just that at Stephane Sessegnon, and a second yellow duly followed.

By contrast, Bacary Sagna was a rock at centre-back. Like Jenkinson, he didn’t know what role he’d be playing until shortly before kick-off. Unlike Jenkinson, he excelled.

I think some of the criticism aimed at Sagna in recent weeks has been extremely harsh. Yes, his recent performances have fallen below his own impeccable standards, but he remains one of our best players.

The idea that Jenkinson is ready to displace Sagna is nonsense. I for one hope that we keep the Frenchman by giving him the long-term deal he craves. If he leaves this summer, as appears increasingly likely, we’ll need to bring in someone with the requisite experience to fill that spot.

I love Carl, but a few good games earlier this season do not make him an international class defender.

The whole defence deserve credit…
Nacho Monreal coped well, Per Mertesacker organised an unfamiliar defence, and Wojciech Szczesny had his best game of the season. Aaron Ramsey also deserves enormous credit for filling in superbly at right-back when required.

Our finishing…
…ought to have been better. Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla both squandered glaring opportunities to seal the game on the counter. Fortunately, we were able to fall back on an outstanding defensive display to get the three points.

Some thoughts on Andre Santos…
As I write this it seems the “false three” is on the verge of joining Gremio on loan. It’s remarkable to think that on the final day of last season, he was preferred to Kieran Gibbs and scored a crucial goal in our ascension to the Champions League places.

His fall since then has been spectacular. I can’t help but feel that the infamous shirt swap incident with Robin van Persie was a huge catalyst towards his departure. On that day, he lost the fans, and it’s almost impossible to come back from that – just ask Emmanuel Eboue or Nicklas Bendtner. Every mistake is highlighted; every indiscretion scrutinised. I’m not sure that Santos has been more error-prone than many of our other defenders, but the tide turned against him on that November day.

I wish him all the best. He seems like a very decent guy, if not a great defender.

I also have to question our policy of continually weakening our squad. When Arsene signed Nacho Monreal, he suggested it was because he needed two left-backs at all times. Why has that changed in the space of ten days?

The fact we’re playing Sagna at centre-back suggests that loaning Djourou out probably wasn’t the smartest move. I hope we don’t pay for allowing other players to leave at a time when it’s impossible to replace them.

Gloomy interlull thoughts on Jenkinson, Sagna, Theo & more

It’s a great week to be Carl Jenkinson. Not only has he been handed his first call-up to the England squad, forsaking Finland in the process, but he’s agreed a new five-year contract with Arsenal worth more than £30,000 p/ week. It’s just reward for a player whose career has not so much taken strides forward as giant leaps and bounds. Little more than two years ago he was on loan in the non-league; now he’s on the verge of his international debut. It shows, too, just how quietly and quickly a deal can be agreed when both parties are willing to come to an agreement.

In the meantime, several other players continue to run their contracts towards conclusion with worryingly little news on potential agreements. I’ve made plain my stated belief that Theo Walcott will not sign a new deal, and I expect the club will make every effort to move him on at a reduced price in January rather than lose him for nothing. Theo, who has picked up a glute muscle strain, has been replaced in the England squad by Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha. It would not surprise me too greatly to see the same substitution occur in the Arsenal squad after Christmas.

Whilst I’ve pretty much come to terms with the likelihood of Theo’s departure, I am a little alarmed at the lack of news regarding an extension to Bacary Sagna’s contract. The Frenchman was pretty vocal about the fact he hadn’t yet been approached by Arsenal in the summer. Time has worn on and whilst his youthful deputy has been handed a new deal, Sagna waits for progress. Come next summer, he’ll have just twelve months remaining on his current deal, and we all know that story ends. For me, keeping Sagna is imperative. Jenkinson has been impressive this season, but the Frenchman is one of the best right-backs in the world. If he became available, some of the biggest clubs in football would be queuing up his signature: the likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan or even Manchester United. I’d argue he’s one of our few remaining world class talents. Worryingly, that also makes him one of our few remaining saleable assets.

However much Jenkinson improves in the coming months, Arsenal should not contemplate losing an experienced performer like Sagna. Similarly you could argue that Zaha for Walcott would be swapping inexperience and risk for relative consistency – unfortunately in the case of Theo it seems the battle to keep him is already lost. What terrifies me about the Sagna situation is that it seems to stem from our own complacency. There is a willingness to see him enter the last 18 months of his contract, which shows a staggering failure to learn lessons from previous experience.

The talent drain will continue, and no player is immune. Jack Wilshere might profess his loyalty now, but unless Arsenal improve enough to match his ambition then that commitment will be tested by the pounds and prizes on offer elsewhere. Arsenal are unmatched in their ability to lose their best players. Look at Everton: a club with far greater financial restrictions. In recent years, they’ve held on to Leighton Baines, Phil Jagielka, Marouane Fellaini and others, despite interest from some of the country’s biggest clubs. Arsenal themselves were rebuffed in a bid for Jagielka. We did, of course, succeed in prizing away Mikel Arteta, but Everton got a very good fee for a player entering his thirties with a dodgy knee. They’ve also balanced the books by selling Jack Rodwell, receiving £15m for a player who didn’t even regularly make their first team. In the same period of time, Arsenal have lost Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie and Song. Once upon a time, Arsenal sold their stars when their powers were on the wane. Now they lose players as they enter their peak.

Financial Fair Play has long been touted as the antidote to Arsenal’s ailment. However, the fact that Chelsea were able to demonstrate a profit last week is yet another puncture in that once hopeful prospect. Arsenal have held on waiting to reap the rewards of parsimony. In the meantime Chelsea have speculated to accumulate, overtaken us footballistically, and are fast catching up financially. This interlull feels gloomier than most.

Reading 5 – 7 Arsenal: The game that nearly broke me

The first half was abject, then apocalyptic, then embarrassing. The second half was acceptable, then alluring, then astounding. Extra-time was just plain bonkers.

This was a match that defies analysis.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain quite how bad Arsenal were in the first half, nor what inspired the change that formed the basis of that incredible turnaround.  In that first 45, every time Reading went forward they looked like scoring.  We simply could not deal with their crosses.  Ignasi Miquel and Carl Jenkinson looked exposed and awkward at full-back, whilst Koscielny and Djourou looked anything but international class defenders in the centre.

First Jason Roberts outwitted Koscielny to dart to the back post and prod home.  Then, just minutes later, Koscielny’s nightmare half continued as his outstretched leg diverted the ball past Martinez and in to his own net.  The Argentine keeper wasn’t helping affairs; his inexperience was clear to see as he flapped at cross after cross.  It was his criminal error which led to the third goal. Mikele Leigertwood fired a fairly simple shot at goal;   Martinez could probably have caught it where he stood, but instead threw himself up and back in an acrobatic arc, playing for the cameras.  How humiliating then that his palm only pushed the ball lamely up in to the air, allowing it to drop in to the net behind him.  Twenty minutes gone; three nil to Reading.

Incredibly, it got worse.  Another cross drifted in, from the right this time, and Noel Hunt climbed highest to power home.  Arsenal were dreadful all over the pitch.  In the build up to the game the manager had made it very public just where this competition lies in his list of priorities.  Unfortunately, it seems the players took that as their cue to put in an entirely listless display.  We were second to every ball, and for the most part you felt glad that the majority of these players are nowhere near the first team.

And then, just before half-time, Arsenal were handed a glimmer of hope.  Andrey Arshavin split the defence with a cute through ball which Theo Walcott raced on to before clipping delightfully over the advancing Adam Federici.  Ah, Federici: with him, you always have a chance.

From the interviews with the players after the match, we can gleam that Arsene’s half-time team talk pulled no punches: this wasn’t good enough.  This was not Arsenal.  In the first half, the fans had been chanting “we want our Arsenal back”.  In the second, they got it.

The game hinged on the double substitution in the 62nd minute.  Olivier Giroud and Thomas Eisfeld were introduced for Gnabry and Frimpong, and suddenly Arsenal came to life.  Within two minutes of coming on to the field of play, Giroud had got on to the end of a Walcott corner and thumped a brilliant header beyond Federici.  Arsenal fans dared to hope.

There then followed a succession of near-misses which I couldn’t help but feel we needed to score to have any chance.  If we could get a third before the 80th minute, I reasoned, then we could have a real go at grabbing an equaliser.  But the clock ticked on, and no goal came.

Fair play to Arsenal; they kept going.  And, in the 89th minute, another Walcott corner found Koscielny, who’s eventful night continued with his second goal of the season.

The board went up, and the situation crystallised: Arsenal had four minutes to score an equaliser.  Reading did everything right.  They kept the ball in the corners, far away up the other end of the pitch.  The four minutes expired.  And yet, the whistle didn’t come.  Arsenal suddenly found themselves with one last tantalising chance. Eisfeld thumped the ball fifty yards in to the area.  Giroud did incredibly well to nod it down towards Theo Walcott, and he stabbed an effort towards goal.  And then, panic.  Replays showed the ball had crossed the line, but the referee didn’t spot it, instead not blowing his whistle until Carl Jenkinson of all people popped up to make sure and hammer the ball back in to the net.  Whoever scored, it didn’t matter.  Arsenal had done it: 4-4, in the 96th minute.

Some players thought their work for the night was done.  Olivier Giroud and Francis Coquelin threw their shirts in to the crowd, only to hurriedly retrieve them when they discovered they had to play extra-time.  Arsenal had the momentum now, and goal their fifth successive goal to put them ahead when Chamakh played a neat one-two with Giroud and fired low in to the corner from outside the box.  I wasn’t sure he had it in him, to be honest.

That, of course, should have been that.  This, however, was no ordinary game, and with just four minutes remaining on the clock a deflect cross found it’s way to Pavel Pogrebnyak,who levelled things up at 5-5.

With Martinez in such worrying form, Arsenal didn’t fancy penalties, but time was and tiring legs were against them.  That’s why I was so shocked when it was a 120th minute forty yard sprint from Andrey Arshavin that proved the difference.  He scooted in to the box and ignored options in the middle to slip the ball under the keeper.  This time, Reading did manage to get the ball off the line, but only as far as Walcott, who smashed it in to give us the crucial lead.  Alongside Walcott was Laurent Koscielny, who had won the ball at the back and sprinted the length of the pitch in the search for the winner.

There was time for one more. A glacé cherry on this delicious cake of a game. Arsene Wenger was still admonishing Martinez for failing to run down the clock when Walcott launched a long ball forward. Chamakh chased it down and lobbed over the keeper (again from outside the box) to set the seal on the game and make it 7-5.

Yes, 7-5.  I’m going for another lie down.