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!

Napoli 2-0 Arsenal: A bit of perspective

Just a quick one from me tonight.

Tonight was a mixed night for most Arsenal fans. We lost 2-0 to Napoli, but managed to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League. However, looking at some of the mewling and moaning going on among Arsenal fans, you’d think we’d been doomed to imprisonment in the EUROPA League. I’m shocked to see so many fans treating this evening’s result as a disaster.

Perhaps it’s just a vocal minority. But it does perturb me.

In my eyes, qualification from such a treacherous group is a pretty significant achievement. Four wins from six games against teams of this quality is not a record to be sniffed at.

I think most sane Arsenal fans appreciate that. I hope so. Getting out of the group was the priority, and winning it merely a bonus. The most important thing is that we have evaded a draining and depressing assault on that Thursday night monstrosity. Instead, Rafael Benitez has been left to continue his bizarre love affair with that particular competition.

The performance wasn’t great, but Arsenal entered the game in something of an awkward position. We knew a draw would be enough to see us through. That’s never particularly conducive to a stirring showing — witness Bayern Munich’s listless display against us back in March.

It’s a blow to miss out on top spot, but it’s not the end of the world. Surely one of the very reasons we bother to qualify for the Champions League is to enjoy hosting the continent’s finest? I can’t wait to welcome one of Barca, Real, Atletico, Bayern or PSG to the Emirates. If you want to watch Maribor, turn on Channel 5ive.

If you want to win the trophy, you have to beat the top teams somewhere along the line. Better to face up to it early. If we go through, fantastic. If we go out, we have all the more time to focus on our domestic affairs.

Speaking of which, there’s a very big game with Manchester City coming up on Saturday. Should we lose that, it looks as if some people will go in to some kind of meltdown.

That’d be unwise too. There’s a long, long way to go in the title-race. Saturday  will be an indicator, but not a decider.

And you know what? I’m looking forward to it.

If you want more, I’ve written a more conventional match report for ESPN.

Arsenal 2-0 Marseille: Wilshere wings it as Arsenal edge closer to qualification

This was a 2-0 thrashing…
Arsenal had eight attempts on target and should have scored at least two more goals. Mesut Ozil was denied from the penalty spot, while Aaron Ramsey will have been shocked not to have scored from close range. Marseille rested several key players and simply couldn’t keep pace with a dominant Arsenal midfield.

Arsenal showed off their strength-in-depth…
Arsene was able to make three changes to his starting XI without compromising its potency. Monreal, Flamini and Rosicky came in and were every bit as solid as you’d expect. There can’t be many better reserve full-backs in Europe than Monreal, while Rosicky must be the only 33-year old who actually increases the tempo of whatever team he’s picked for. When Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla were introduced from the bench, the mounting options at Wenger’s disposal became starkly apparent.

I like Wilshere on the right…
I saw him make his debut there as a 16-year old. Back then, Wenger pushed him out wide to protect him from the hurly-burly of the middle of the park.
The unfortunate truth is that, given his injury problems, he still benefits from that protection. His future might be as a deep-lying midfielder but at presents he’s best when liberated from the congestion and conflict of the centre.
His goalscoring record at youth level was sensational and typically that returns to a player’s game once they hit their early twenties. Fabregas was exactly the same, and Ramsey is showing signs of emulating that progression. If Wilshere can do so too, Arsenal will have a midfield to reckon with for years to come.

The missed penalty might be the kick up the back-side Ozil needs…
As he stepped up to take the penalty, every fan around me watched on in grim anticipation of what was to come. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a German look less likely to score from the spot.
By his own excellent standards, Ozil came in to the game in the midst of something of a slump. Hopefully that penalty miss was his nadir, and this can be a turning point.
After the spot-kick was saved he immediately looked more energised, buzzing around the penalty area with the bristling resolution of a player determined to make amends.
His assist for Wilshere’s second goal was the sort of telling pass we became accustomed to seeing during Ozil’s first few games for the club. I expect the embarrassment of the penalty miss will spark an upturn in form for the mercurial playmaker.

Arsenal look set to survive the supposed “Group of Death”…
Anything other than a heavy defeat in Naples will see us progress. Given the strength of the group, it’s a remarkable achievement – I’d argue it’s every bit as impressive as our domestic form.

Further Reading:

ESPN: Arsenal’s victory over Marseille shows off growing strength in depth
BR: Jack Wilshere is on the right path on the right wing 

Arsenal 1-2 Dortmund: Lewandowski gives Arsenal the elbow

Giroud vs. Lewandowski…
…was an intriguing comparison. In the first half particularly, Lewandowski was imperious. His hold-up play is immaculate.

Giroud’s performance was a little more uncouth, but just as effective. Robbed of the service Lewandowski received, Giroud made his own luck, working the channels tirelessly.

Arsenal have been linked with Lewandowski, but for my money he’s too similar to Giroud to be ideal. Arsenal would be better served signing someone who provides an alternative rather than a replica. Plus, Lewandowski is obviously off to Bayern.

A red card for the Pole would have been harsh…
The elbow Lewandowski swung at Koscielny was certainly reckless. However, according to the laws of the game, a yellow card is the appropriate response for “reckless” behaviour. It is violence or the use of excessive force that warrants a straight red.

Lewandoski’s elbow looked to be dangerous but not deliberate. A yellow seemed about right.

Jack Wilshere struggled again…
Anyone hoping that his switch to the right and fabulous goal against Norwich might provoke an immediate upturn in his form will have been sorely disappointed. According to the official UEFA stat-pack handed at the end of the game, Wilshere completed just 15 of 30 attempted passes – a shockingly poor 50%.

By comparison, his replacement Santi Cazorla managed to complete 90% of his passes in his 30 minutes on the field.

There are two ways of interpreting those figures. The first and most lenient reading is that Wilshere was on the field during Arsenal’s poorest spell, hence the skewed numbers. He wasn’t the only player guilty of poor passing in the first half, and Cazorla may have benefited from facing a tiring Dortmund.

The alternative inference is that Wilshere directly contributed to Arsenal’s first half struggles, and that the introduction of Cazorla was actually the catalyst for Arsenal’s improvement.

Arsenal couldn’t get Mesut Ozil in to the game…
…until the last 20 minutes. After an anonymous first-half, he spent the second half drifting from flank to flank looking for space. Eventually he found some joy on the right-hand side, and almost created a spectacular goal for Santi Cazorla, who was denied by the crossbar.

Arsenal were guilty of chasing the win…
After last season’s home defeat to Swansea, Wenger told the assembled press conference: “If you can’t win the game, don’t lose it”. He will have been disappointed to be forced to repeat the mantra in the wake of this defeat. Arsenal sensed their growing superiority against a tiring Dortmund and went for the jugular. Unfortunately, the Germans countered with a classic sucker punch.

Qualification will be difficult now…
Arsenal are in the unenviable position of requiring a favour from Marseille to avoid having to win at either Dortmund of Napoli. Given the French side have thus far failed to pick up a point, that seems unlikely.

Unfortunately, Marseille are so far adrift at the bottom of the group that if Arsenal fail to qualify they will more than likely drop in to the energy-sapping Europa League.

That, for me, is the worst case scenario.

But there’s no need for too much negativity…
In Dortmund, Arsenal lost to a side that is better than any they will come up against in the Premier League. What’s more, we were unlucky to lose.

This is a bump in the road rather than the end of it.