Chelsea 2 – 1 Arsenal
: Another early implosion scuppers Gunners

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Chelsea 2 – 1 Arsenal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This Arsenal side just do not seem to learn their lessons. After last weekend’s defeat by Manchester City, Arsene Wenger said:

“Overall we started too timidly, with not enough authority in a game like that, and we allowed them to dictate from the start. We paid very early from it. We didn’t start with enough confidence or enough authority.”

I’m afraid it’s the same old story all over again.

There’s a temptation to focus on our impressive second half display. However, I’m afraid that my glass, much like Arsenal’s recent performances, is only half-full. All too often we only show up for part of a game. By the time we start putting our foot in, showing a bit of desire, and doing the basics the game is often already gone.

So it was at Stamford Bridge. Yes, refereeing decisions went against us – Coquelin was fouled in the build-up to Mata’s opener, and Ramires produced a clever dive to dupe the referee in to awarding the penalty – but ‘play to the whistle’ is something drilled in to kids from when they first start playing. Just as against City, Arsenal switched off, with Bacary Sagna particularly guilty of going AWOL at the key moments.

Whilst Martin Atkinson was guilty of some poor decisions, I draw the line at blaming him for the result. Arsenal’s dreadful defending put them in a mess of their own making.  It was an insipid first-half display.

Whatever Arsene Wenger said at half-time clearly had some impact, as Arsenal were immediately more competitive after the break. Santi Cazorla, who had been anonymous until that point, was suddenly able to influence the game, combining with Jack Wilshere to form Arsenal’s creative hub.

It was Cazorla who created our 58th minute goal, sliding an outstanding pass through to Theo Walcott, who finished well for his 15th goal of the season.

Arsenal went on to make most of the running, with Kieran Gibbs an irrepressible outlet on the left-hand side. Elsewhere, Walcott’s goal was the catalyst for threatening display of direct running, giving Ashley Cole a torrid time.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Arsenal’s fight-back may have transformed the dynamic of the game, but it wasn’t enough to reverse the scoreline. Our half of dominance produced only one clear-cut chance, which Walcott confidently dispatched. Chelsea, meanwhile, seemed to create chances at will, particularly in the first 45. Fortunately for us they had selected Fernando Torres, thus handicapping their goalscoring potential. Only a superb Thomas Vermaelen clearance prevented Demba Ba from sealing it late on.

Arsenal struggled to capitalise on their renewed impetus, and weren’t helped by a chronic lack of options from the bench. The illness of Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain meant that when Arsene Wenger sent out three supposed game-changers to warm up, he called on Aaron Ramsey, Andrey Arshavin and Andre Santos. You would struggle to find a trio who inspire less confidence.

Talking of failing to inspire confidence, I’m afraid I have to state my concerns over Olivier Giroud. Before going 2-0 down, Arsenal really ought to have gone 1-0 up: a good move ended with Walcott playing in Giroud, who screwed a very presentable one-on-one wide.

Unfortunately for Giroud, it’s hardly his first costly miss in an Arsenal shirt. I like him very much: he plays with courage and adds a much needed-focal point to the side. However, at the moment, he is not good enough to start regularly for a club expecting to qualify for the Champions League.

I’m not saying he’s not a good player. I’m not saying he won’t adapt and improve and become good enough for a top four side. At the moment, however, he’s not.

It’s not Giroud’s fault that he is the only pure centre-forward in the squad. The likes of Robin van Persie needed similar adaptation periods, but were afforded them by the presence of established figures like Henry and Bergkamp higher up the pecking order. Arsenal have asked Giroud to hit the ground running, and he’s barely broken out of a jog.

Some will say it’s more of a priority that we sort out the defensive side of our game. I’m afraid to say, I’ve pretty much given up on that. The arrival of experienced internationals like Per Mertesacker has failed to shore up the defence, as has the appointment of Steve Bould on the coaching side. There is no evidence to suggest an Arsene Wenger team will ever undergo a dramatic defensive improvement. With that in mind, and added to my belief that the manager isn’t going anywhere until 2014 at the earliest, our only option is to outscore the opposition. To do that, we need better forwards.

Therein lies the major difference between this season and last, and the reason I believe we need a top striker to secure fourth place. Last season, we were even shakier at the back then this time round, but we had a top class finisher to bail us out. This season, we don’t, and the stats back it up. In 2012/13, Van Persie has converted one in four of his chances this season (25%). Giroud’s record is closer to one in ten (13%).

We could do with a midfielder too. Abou Diaby played his third game in a week after a three month absence, and looked well off the pace. It’s hardly his fault – he shouldn’t have to be thrown back in to the fray after such a long spell on the sidelines.

It’s clear Arsene considers his collection of attributes invaluable. Speaking before the game, the manager said:

“Abou Diaby, with the way we have structured the team, he is an important piece of the puzzle because he adds qualities that we need in the middle of the park.”

You know what? I agree. Diaby offers us something that no other player in the squad does. However, he is also seemingly guaranteed to miss several chunks of the season through injury. That means that Arsene is effectively knowingly allowing for us to be without “qualities that we need” for prolonged periods.

It’s particularly frustrating when you see players capable of offering the same combination of power, acceleration and skill that Diaby promises available at reasonable fees. Moussa Dembele was allowed to join Tottenham unchallenged for around £15m. Momo Diame has a release clause of just £3.5m. And yet we continue to rely on a player who is provenly unreliable.

Our month of inactivity in the transfer market has thus far produced just one league point from the nine available. This weekend, Arsenal fans found themselves in the painful  position of having to be grateful for a Robin van Persie goal against Spurs. Without that, the league table could have looked even more bleak.

I don’t subscribe to the belief that failing to make the top four could ever be a ‘good thing’. We need to be there, and I still believe we can. However, a couple of additions could make all the difference. The one upside to our poor run is that it comes at a time when it’s possible to do something about it.

I know it’s cold outside, Arsene, but it’s time to open the window.

Chelsea Preview: Dawn of the Theo-cracy

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The saga is over and Theo Walcott has signed a new contract with Arsenal Football Club.

It’s undoubtedly good news for Arsenal.  It stems the flow of talent away from the club, and shows a renewed willingness to flex our financial muscle.

It’s arguably even better news for Theo.  Having steadfastly refused to agree to the club’s initial offer of £75k p/week, he’ll now find himself picking up far more than that.  Depending on which red top you read, the weekly salary wages from between £90k to a mammoth £113k.  Either way, it seems he has escaped the binds of Arsene’s “socialist” pay structure, simultaneously superseding Lukas Podolski as the club’s highest paid player.

I never imagined that Theo Walcott would be the man for whom Arsenal would break their strict wage hierarchy.  Granted, he’s having a statistically outstanding season, but he remains far from perfect.  So many more talented players have sought the kind of sums Walcott was demanding, only to find themselves being shown the door to Barcelona or Manchester.

The truth is that Walcott is the lucky beneficiary of a perfect storm of circumstance.  Arsenal could not afford the PR disaster of losing another one of their perceived stars.  The club is also under more pressure than ever to show ambition in their expenditure.  Every time Walcott produced on the pitch, the likelihood of Arsenal caving to his demands increased significantly.

I’m still a little surprised he’s signed.  It’s rare that a player gets within six months of a Bosman move and is able to resist, and I went on record as saying that I didn’t think Arsenal and Theo would ever come to an agreement.  But Walcott knows that Arsenal is a set-up that suits him, and it’s not clear which (if any) elite clubs would be able to offer him the playing time he gets at the Emirates.

He enjoys playing with the likes of Kieran Gibbs, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Jack Wilshere.  At the risk of sounding jingoistic, I think the British core the club are building is important.  We are building a group of young players who seem eager to stick together and achieve something.  Keeping Walcott benefits the collective.

It’s now very much a case of “over to you, Theo”.  He’s got the money he wanted; now he has to justify it.  If he doesn’t, at least Arsenal can look to recoup a fee, rather than losing a valuable asset for nothing.

It’s “over to you, Arsene” too.  Having tied up the deal that was his priority for January, he now has a couple of weeks remaining to make an impact in the transfer market.  Talk of someone like Cavani is wildly unrealistic, although I still think it’s imperative that Arsenal bring in a striker.  If we select our first choice front three of Podolski, Giroud and Walcott, we would not have a single forward on the bench.  For a club of our size, that is unforgivable.

In a watershed week for Arsenal, I hope tomorrow’s game with Chelsea is a similarly significant landmark in our season.  It proved so last season, with a 5-3 victory restoring faith in a team that had spent the early months of the season on the ropes.  This fixture at Stamford Bridge could also be pivotal: if we could win there, then against West Ham in midweek, we’d find ourselves just two points behind a Chelsea side who had threatened to pull out of sight.  With Spurs facing of against United, this could be a critical week in the race for the Champions League.

If you fancy a flutter on tomorrow’s game, check out my betting preview for Unibet, complete with predicted line-ups and top tips.  You can get 8.5 on Theo to celebrate his new contract with the first goal…

Chelsea thoughts: Familiar failings & Feeble Fire-power

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsenal should be kicking themselves…
This first defeat of the season felt completely unnecessary. Arsenal were punished for stupid mistakes at the back and poor finishing up top. Arsene Wenger will be furious, though some of course have suggested he has only himself to blame…

I’d be a hypocrite to criticise Arsene for leaving out Per…
I called it earlier this week and didn’t raise the alarm then. In fact, it seemed to me to be an entirely reasonable decision. As it was, Koscielny had an absolute stinker, and will probably find himself back on the sidelines for the next two games at least. I’m loathe to heap all of the blame on Kos, though – when you concede from a set-piece, more often than not it’s the result of collective disorganisation and a touch of cowardice. Positional intelligence is only worth so much: you have to fight to go and win the ball too.

Gervinho’s strike was a fantastic finish…
You know the saying: If you give enough monkeys enough typewriters, one of them will eventually thump the ball in to the top corner. Or something like that. I was pleased for Gervinho, but equally I’m conscious that he probably had about as much idea about where that ball would end up when he hit it as he did when firing off those haphazard shots against City. By the laws of probability, eventually he is bound get one right, as on Saturday. I’m not sure, however, that it makes him the solution to our striking problem.

For me, Giroud had to score…
The defence “it was a tight angle” is not valid when the angle is only tight because of the strikers touch around the goalie. He had a perfectly good opportunity to strike before that, dallied, and paid the price. I make that three clear one-on-ones and a penalty he’s missed since joining the club. I’m not writing him off, but I am a little concerned. On which note, I won’t pretend to understand why Arsene saw fit to bring off our best finisher, Lukas Podolski, with twenty minutes to play.

A couple of things the cameras might not have picked up…
The first is that substitute Theo Walcott was very chummy indeed with his Chelsea counterparts whilst warming up. I suspect I’d find that easier to stomach if his time on the pitch hadn’t consisted of hiding in the centre when we needed him to be driving at his full-back out wide. I may be being unfair, but then if Theo refuses to commit to the club then I’m afraid he will invite this kind of scrutiny.
The second thing was just how much of a hatchet job Mikel Arteta did in midfield. With Chelsea threatening on the counter, he produced a series of outrageous off-the-ball fouls to halt runners in their tracks. Fortunately, the referee missed most of them, otherwise he would have been lucky to stay on the pitch. The same goes for Laurent Koscienly, who appeared to slap a Chelsea player in the centre-circle.

I’m off on holiday now…
I’m heading abroad for the next two weeks. Chances of getting to see our games during that period are slim. See you here when I’m back…

Chelsea Preview: Time to reunite Vermaelen & Koscielny?

Yesterday afternoon I posited the theory on twitter that Arsene Wenger might reunite Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny at the heart of the defence today.

It tells you a lot about how much Per Mertesacker’s stock has risen that I was met with loud cries of dissent from my followers – Mertesacker was outstanding at Man City and to drop him after that would seem, on paper, to be harsh.

However, Arsene has spent the week insisting he will select the centre-backs best suited to the opposition.  Mertesacker was chosen against City in part to combat the height of Edin Dzeko; against Chelsea’s nimble forward line of Torres, Mata, Hazard and Oscar, Koscielny and Vermaelen’s fleet of foot might be the sensible choice.  The informed whispers last night suggested that Tommy and Kos have indeed got the nod; Per will most likely come back in for the Champions League game in midweek.

The full-backs, goalkeeper, and holding midfield are certain to remain the same.  The other big conundrum facing Arsene Wenger is who to plump for at centre-forward.  Despite Gervinho’s erratic display in Manchester, my gut tells me that Arsene prefers the mobile attacking style he lends to the team.

The other choice is whether he feels we need to persist with Aaron Ramsey at right-wing.  Whilst Ramsey was excellent against City, I think Ashley Cole might be more tested by a flier like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

It’s rare to be going in to such a big game so confident in Arsenal.  We really have a great chance to go and beat Chelsea today.  I hope for all the world these players do it; it would give them a tremendous boost and cap an excellent start to the season.  Whatever happens, it’s vital we maintain our unbeaten record: lose, and we’d suddenly find ourselves seven points behind.

Check out Gilbertosilver’s betting preview with Unibet

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Latest on M’Vila + Thoughts on Champions League

Apologies for a bit of radio silence. I’ve been on the continent, scouting, sunbathing and trying to get my head around the craziest season since the Premier League’s inception.  I need a bit more time before putting a lid on it once and for all, so here are some little bits of news in the mean-time.

I’ll start with Yann M’Vila.  There were reports a few weeks back that this deal was done and dusted.  I’ve urged caution all along, and that was confirmed to me on Friday from a source very close to the deal.  Contrary what you may have read elsewhere, this transfer is a long way from being imminent.  This won’t be news to any of you that follow me on Twitter, but for those who don’t, here is the situation as it stands:

1) Arsenal have a long-standing interest in the player, and bid last summer.

2) The player would obviously like to join Arsenal.  We are a massive step up from Rennes.  The presence of Arsene Wenger is also a huge factor.

3) Arsenal need a player like M’Vila: a strong, disciplined defensive midfielder as a foil for Alex Song.

4) In spite of the above, there has been no formal contact since last summer.  The player does not expect his future to be resolved until after EURO 2012.

You may have read a story last week suggesting that M’Vila would be announcing his destination last night.  This was a misinterpretation: he meant after the end of the season – ie. at some unspecified point in the summer.  The idea that he was going to walk off the pitch and say, “Yes, it’s Arsenal, surprise!” was never realistic.  Especially considering how far away any potential deal clearly is.

I’m not saying it won’t happen at a later date.  Nor am I criticising those journalists whose sources say a deal is close.  I’m just saying my sources say different.

Personally, I’d like it to happen.  On paper it looks like a great signing.  We know there’s long-standing interest, so we may just have to be a bit more patient than we would like.  International camps are kicking off all over the place, and signing any player involved in this summer’s Championships is going to be difficult.

Also while I was away, many were forced to witness the apocalyptic vision of John Terry with the Champions League trophy.  All I can say is thank God for Jose Bosingwa, whose celebratory antics obscured the sight of Terry actually lifting the trophy.  Chelsea rode their luck, and as Gary Neville insisted, their victory seemed to be “written in the stars”.  It’s painful for Arsenal fans.  I think we all harboured an ambition to be the first London side to bring home the European Cup, and having some so close in 2006, it’s galling to see our rivals manage it.  That said, I don’t think it’s the disaster that it’s been made out to be.

I think it’s important to remember that despite Chelsea’s status as underdogs in the final, Roman Abramovich has thrown hundreds of millions of pounds at them to get them to the point where they’re even competing on that stage.  Much like Man City winning the league, the amount of money involved meant victory was eventually inevitable.  Truth be told, only bits of bad luck (a ‘Ghost goal’, or missed penalty) have stopped this from happening long before now.

It’s also worth pointing out that it doesn’t change all that much.  It’s a cup competition, not a barometer of greatness.  Nottingham Forest have got one.  Arsenal can and will do it in time, and hopefully when we do it will be on secure, billionaire-less foundations.  Imagine what that will be worth.

Some Arsenal players, like Jack Wilshere, took a lot of stick for congratulating Chelsea on their victory.  I think that’s unfair: you have to realise that these guys are professionals and see it differently to us fans.  Wilshere has friends in that Chelsea team, and is happy for them.  He knows what it means to an athlete to reach that pinnacle.  And it’s worth noting that he followed up his praise by saying, “Arsenal fans how good would it be of we won something next year?”.  If Chelsea’s victory acts as a spur to drive Arsenal on to bigger and better things, then so be it.  And speaking of Spurs, let’s not forget that as a little consolation, Chelsea’s victory puts them back where they belong: Thursday nights, Channel 5ive.

I draw inspiration for the future form last night’s enthralling climax to the French Ligue 1 season, where Oil-rich PSG were beaten to the title by little Montpellier.  One of PSG’s goals on the night was scored by €45m Argentine superstar Javier Pastore; both of Montpellier’s were scored by John Utaka, released from Championship Portsmouth.  At the start of the season, Montpellier were 80/1 to win the league.  It is an extraordinary tale.  Football is a game with a financial handicap, but it can be overcome.  Take note, Arsenal.