Arsenal 2-1 Leicester: The fixtures favour Arsenal + Theo thoughts

Arsenal edged past Leicester on a nervous night at the Emirates Stadium. Our performance wasn’t much better than the one we produced at Spurs, and a side equipped with better finishers would surely have punished us. However, coming off the back of that defeat, this game was all about getting the points.

It’s our capacity to grind out those kinds of wins that has seen us regularly finish in the top four. Looking at our upcoming schedule, I’m confident we’ll repeat the feat this season. I’m grateful to We Are The North Bank for putting together this handy fixture list for the major top four contenders:

fixturesAfter this latest round of fixtures, we will be the only team in the race with seven home games. Given our impressive record at the Emirates, that’s a notable advantage. In fact, Johnny from Prague emailed me to point out that we don’t even leave London until the middle of March.

Looking at that list, a significant proportion of our games would have to be categorised as very winnable indeed. Only Southampton have a comparably straightforward set of fixtures, and they have a far weaker squad and lack experience of these tense climaxes to the domestic campaign. A third-place finish is a definite possibility.

Our performance against Leicester was not one particularly worthy of in-depth analysis. However, I did think Arseblog’s examination of Theo Walcott’s performance was interesting.

As regular listeners to the Arsecast Extra will know, I have doubts about how Theo will fit in to this team and squad moving forward. Taking his delicate contract situation into consideration, I think there’s a decent chance he could be sold this summer.

Over the past 24 hours I’ve been mulling over his general contribution (or lack thereof). I’m not entirely convinced that his tendency to run away from the ball is cowardice, it’s merely a constant desire to get in behind the back four. When his team-mates have the ball, his instinct is not to run in to a position to receive a sideways pass, but to put himself in an area where he can create a goalscoring opportunity. It may be selfish, but it may also be necessary. Unlike Lukas Podolski, his pace and movement stretches defences and offers a different kind of threat.

If Walcott was played as a conventional No. 9, would we interpret his habit of drifting out of games differently? I don’t remember Ian Wright or Nicolas Anelka contributing significantly to our combination play. Pippo Inzaghi could barely play a pass over six yards, but it never really mattered.

Although Walcott starts as a right winger, he plays much more like an out-and-out striker. With centre-forwards who drop deep and combine with midfield like Giroud, Alexis and Welbeck, that’s probably a luxury Arsenal can afford.

It’s not so much a defence of Theo, more an attempt to redefine the debate. He might line up on the right wing, but he’s a striker through and through.

Everton Preview: My glass needs refilling

I’ve seen our draw with Manchester City cited as vindication of our abilities against the top teams. I can see why one might think that: it was a valiant fight-back against a team in rampant form who are still in the thick of the title race.

My glass, however, is half-drained. I’m more inclined to observe that we haven’t beaten either of Manchester City or Chelsea, home or away, all season. The aggregate scores aren’t pretty. We secured draws in the home games, but they were draws the opposition were more than happy to take. The point suited them far more than us.

Those results are ultimately what have knocked us out of title contention and in to a customary battle for a top four finish. Today we face Everton in what is being called a “six pointer”. Arsenal hope to have an FA Cup Final to look forward to, but this is undoubtedly Everton’s cup final. Lose, and they face an unexciting trudge towards the Europa League. Win, and they will believe they can overhaul us and reach the Champions League.

This is undoubtedly a huge game. However, it’s only become a huge game because we failed to win any of the other huge games. Everton are striving to climb the mountain; Arsenal to arrest the slide.

Given Everton’s challenging fixture list, a point would be fine. I think Arsenal might set up more conservatively than usual. If we avoid defeat today, our run-in looks manageable.

Come on you Gunners.

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal: Time to shoot for the moon

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

So that’s that. Imaginary red ribbons have been tied around the ethereal fourth-placed trophy. Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League.

Well, sort of. There’s still the significant matter of a preliminary round to navigate after Chelsea beat Everton to secure the automatic third spot. It’s a hurdle we’ve overcome several times in the past, and barring an unfortunate draw I’d expect us to do so again.

Crucially, Arsenal have also managed to finish above their rivals Tottenham. Again. I think we all understand that qualifying for the Champions League is important. Finishing above Spurs is just plain fun.

As luck would have it, I was working during the game, which spared both my nerves and my nails. There’s something curiously appropriate about the fact that at the end of a season in which I’ve often felt oddly detached from the side, I was absent at the very moment their fate was decided.

That’s not to say I wasn’t delighted. Arsenal did a difficult job well. Since the derby defeat to Spurs, Arsenal have won eight of their 10 league matches, drawing twice. This match was won in the pragmatic style that has defined this final part of the season.

That style was forged in the fires of the Allianz Arena, when Arsenal secured a surprising 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich. After that game, I said:

Contained within this performance was the DNA of an Arsenal team capable of hauling its way back in to the Champions League. Arsene Wenger must play John Hammond, extract it and bring it back to life before our very eyes, starting this weekend at Swansea.

The components are clear:

  • Hard work
  • Disciplined defending – not just from the back four, but the entire team
  • Efficiency in attack

I’d have been lying if I’d said I had absolute conviction that Arsenal could follow that mantra on a regular basis. However, Arsene Wenger has managed to set aside his love of flowing football and focus on the only thing that matters at this stage of the season: results. We compromised on some of our principles; we also conquered a good many of our problems.

That Laurent Koscielny was the clear match-winner yesterday typifies our recent resolve. Not only was he was scorer of the vital goal for the second year in succession, but he was also absolutely outstanding in defence. In Koscielny and Mertesacker, Arsene Wenger has uncovered a central defensive pairing with communication, balance, determination and no small amount of ability. That partnership, much like this Champions League qualification, is a foundation on which to build.

Some pundits have seen fit to criticise the Arsenal players for celebrating yesterday’s events with such vigour. Frankly, I don’t think it’s up to them to determine how happy our players should be. What’s more, such a view seems churlish in the extreme. In spite of everything that’s come before, Arsenal’s recent run is an achievement worth celebrating. We had a clear goal: to salvage the situation and finish fourth, and we did it. What’s more, we did it at the expense of our closest and most loathed rivals. To allow that to pass without celebration that would be bizarre. Remiss, even.

There are those who say there’s no point qualifying for a competition you’re unlikely to win. These snipers are the same folk who hold the trophy-hoarding example of Chelsea aloft as a superior model of management. Chelsea will be roundly praised for having won the Europa League this season, but it’s worth remembering they only competed in the competition as a consequence of exiting the Champions League – before Arsenal.

While I’m picking that bone: what a ridiculous system that is. Arsenal qualify from their group and go out on away goals to a Bayern Munich side who later beat Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate, yet Chelsea are allowed to remain in European competition and have another crack at silverware despite failing to even make it through their group. I struggle to see the logic there.

Anyhow, I digress. Qualifying for the Champions League is important for us. It keeps both the bank balance and the reputation of the club healthy. It’s not the be-all, but it’s certainly beneficial.

However, I don’t think it makes this season a success. Our domestic cup campaigns both ended in defeats that were not only humbling but humiliating. As for the league campaign, I suspect I will come to look back on this season as an opportunity missed.

Take a look around the other major clubs: Chelsea spent a season battling their own supporters after the appointment of a manager they detested. Manchester City had the worst summer they could possibly have had, missing out on Van Persie and Hazard and settling instead for Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair. United may have waltzed to the title but even their own fans will admit this is far from Ferguson’s strongest side.

The noises coming out of Arsenal now suggest that they’ll have money to spend this summer. That’s good news, but has to be tempered by the fact that market-place is set to be crowded with other big spenders. Messrs Moyes, Mourinho and Pellegrini will all be wanting to put their own stamp on their new teams, and however much our budget might have swelled it is unlikely to match theirs.

The advantage Arsenal have is that of consistent leadership. Arsene Wenger will be comfortably the longest-serving manager in the Premier League next season, but with that comfort comes an element of danger. When asked about new recruits in the aftermath of yesterday’s game, Arsene urged the importance of ‘stability’. My fear is that stability and complacency could go hand-in-hand.

It’s essential that Arsenal push on and do their utmost to make an impact in the market. Tread water for long enough and you drown.

The feat of making the top four for 16 consecutive years is impressive, but hearing Arsene trot that record out with increasing frequency makes me uncomfortable. On the weekend of Alex Ferguson’s retirement, it was telling that among the 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues, his 22 consecutive top four finishes passed without mention.

If fourth place is any kind of prize, it’s a runners-up medal. For a club of our size, it’s oughtn’t be an aspiration but a conciliatory accessory to failure.

It’s simple, really. Don’t aim for fourth; aim for first, hit fourth if you fail.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the Champions League’s assembled stars.

Everton Preview: Depressingly, this is definitely a six-pointer

In the run up to this game, both Arsene Wenger and Wojciech Szczesny have called it a “six pointer”.  You’ll be aware of this football cliche, I’m sure.  It’s quite early in the season for it to appear, but traditionally it refers to matches that will have a crucial impact on league standing come the end of the season.  Conventionally, they refer to relegation scraps or title-winning bouts between a notional ‘big two’.

This, however, is modern football.  The fourth Champions League qualification spot is now revered as such a crucial prize that there are some of these ‘six-pointers’ being played for it.  This too is the modern Arsenal, and it this kind of match (rather than glamourous times against Manchester United or Man City) that will ultimately define our season.  I admire the humility and realism of both Arsene and Wojciech in admitting it, but I can’t help but find that a slightly depressing pill to swallow.

Of late, some have accused me of being a little more negative than usual.  I don’t think I’m being actively negative; I’m just a little sobered by the steady, wearing realisation of our standing in English football.  Every year you hope that we’ll burst above the parapet and contend again for the major titles.  Every year you slowly realise that you’re just in another race for fourth, the trophy without a prize to lift.

Arsene’s come under a lot of flak recently – some justified, some not.  I’m no psychologist, but I can’t help but feel his tetchiness under questioning betrays the fact that he recognises some of the disenchantment among the support is justified.  I wasn’t particularly bowled over by his self-defence either.  Among the things he said was:

“At the end of last season we finished third. Honestly I don’t think there was much more in the team than finishing third. My pride comes from that as well.”

Here’s my issue with that: his job isn’t simply to get the best out of the team he has available.  He’s also in charge of building the team.  Whose fault is it that the team he had assembled could only, at its absolute maximum, achieve third place?

Anyway, putting a more positive spin on things, we’re entirely capable of going and winning at Everton tonight.  That said, they’re a good side with some terrific players, so it’ll be a close game.  The ‘six-pointer’ nature of the match means a win here would eradicate memories of that dreadful 0-0 with Villa, and that’d be no bad thing.

My hunch is that Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna will come back in for Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson, with Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott replacing Ramsey and Chamberlain.  The tired legs of Cazorla, Podolski and Giroud will once again be called upon to inspire us to victory.

Come on Arsenal.  Make me smile!

 

WBA 2 – 3 Arsenal: Arsenal complete The Great Escape

Arsenal players hold Pat Rice aloft after the final whistle

West Brom 2 – 3 Arsenal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsenal were not able to raise a trophy aloft at the end of this season. We were, however, allowed to lift up Pat Rice, and give him the send-off he truly deserves. A traumatic season ended on a high as Arsenal secured third place with this win at the Hawthorns. You might not get any baubles for qualifying for the Champions League, but one need only look at our post-match celebrations to realise its significance.

This has, in my humble opinion, been the most exciting season in the history of the rebranded Premier League, and it had a final day to match. Events in Manchester will rightly take the headlines, but for any Arsenal fan the only thing that mattered was our game against West Brom. Arsene gambled a little in his team selection, dropping Gibbs and Ramsey for Santos and Coquelin, and playing the inexperienced Jenkinson at right-back. The result would suggest that this brave move paid off.

We certainly owe a lot to West Brom’s stand-in goalkeeper, Marton Fulop. Early on, his dallying over a back-pass allowed Yossi Benayoun to steal in and grant us a lead that should have settled the nerves. Instead, as against Norwich, his goal was a cue for complacency to creep in, and we ended up going behind. First Shane Long was wrongly ruled onside and fired past a hesitant Szczesny, before poor defending allowed Graham Dorrans to reach his own flick-on and fire home from the edge of the box.

Fortunately, we got a goal back before half time. Without that I’m not sure we would have had the bottle to turn it around. Andre Santos, playing in the “false three” position (credit to Barney Ronay), strode forward and thumped a 25-yard shot that took a slight deflection before beating Fulop at his near post. Again, the Hungarian could have done better.

At half-time Spurs led Fulham comfortably. Arsenal knew that only a win would be good enough. I said then I felt that if we could cut out our defensive errors, we’d have enough to win the game, and so it proved. Again we owed a debt to Fulop, who flapped horribly at a corner, allowing Laurent Koscielny to stab home. Interestingly, Fulop spent three seasons on the books of one Tottenham Hotspur, in which time he failed to muster a single competitive appearance. Judging by yesterday’s evidence, he’s still feeling a little sore about that.

This rolercoaster game was by now horribly reminiscent of that fateful 3-3 with Norwich, and I was dreading a heartbreaking late equaliser. That we didn’t see one is due largely to Kieran Gibbs, who produced this stunning tackle in stoppage time.

There were other heroes on the day. Wojciech Szczesny recovered from his positional error on the first West Brom goal to put in a commanding display, especially when you consider that Arsene Wenger revealed he has been playing with a bad shoulder injury. It was fitting that Koscielny, our best player over the season bar Van Persie, should score the vital goal. As for Yossi Benayoun, what can I say? His contribution has been enormous, and his role in final day folklore will make him a firm favourite among Arsenal fans for years to come. It seems unlikely Arsene will give him a permanent deal – Yossi himself has intimated he’d like to move somewhere he’ll play more regularly – but I’d certainly consider trying to convince him to stay. Whenever he’s been called upon, he’s shown more commitment than many players on more lucrative, long-term deals. The guy is a real pro, and whoever gets him next season will be lucky to have him.

At the full-time whistle, the relief was palpable. To have finished third in a season which began with four defeats from seven feels like we have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Disaster threatened to engulf us on so many occasions this season, and yet we’ve actually managed to improve upon our league placing from last year. And, crucially, we’ve edged above Tottenham. Not so chatty now, Mr. Van der Vaart.

Personally, I’d like to extend my congratulations to Arsene Wenger. If another manager had arrived in September and shepherded us to this position, he’d be hailed as a messiah. Instead, I’ll doff my cap to an ordinary human who is an extraordinary football manager.

There are other challenges ahead, starting with resolving the future of Robin van Persie. After that we have the summer transfer window, next season’s Premier League, and (thankfully) a Champions League campaign to worry about. I hope you’ll excuse me if I forget all that for now, and enjoy the moment. My glass is half-full. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s Fulop.