Arsecast Extra 37: For fans of internationals and injuries…

If you’re still looking for things to fill the time between now and Saturday, why not listen to the latest Arsecast Extra? In this episode, we attempt to work out if any of our players are not injured. It’s as tricky as you’d imagine.

You know the drill: you can subscribe to the Arsecast Extra on iTunes by clicking here. Alternatively, you can dodge the elays and subscribe directly to the feed URL.

Not long now until the return of proper football. It really can’t come soon enough.

 

Arsenal 2-2 Manchester City: Might we be this year’s Liverpool?

This game reminded me a little of the 1-1 with Everton last year…
From beginning to end – and from end-to-end – this was a frenetic and fabulous spectacle. In truth, either side could have come away with three points. This was a game Arsenal could have lost, and yet arguably should have won.

The reason it reminds me of that Everton match – apart from the calibre of entertainment of show – is that at one stage it seemed we were going to make a real statement with a victory. It felt like we were on the verge of a landmark win. Instead, a late equaliser rather took the wind out of our sails.

Nevertheless, there were plenty of encouraging signs. Jack Wilshere and Alexis were both outstanding. Amid the hurry to hail Diego Costa as sliced bread’s superior successor, his impressive acclimatisation to the Premier League has gone almost unnoticed.

For more detailed thoughts on the game, check out my Player Ratings for ESPN.

Danny Welbeck nearly had the perfect start…
I’m in the camp that says his effort off the post was unlucky rather than profligate. I liked the imagination and confidence he showed to take that shot on. When Yaya Sanogo plays, he looks more likely to chip a tooth running in to a post than chip an international goalkeeper.

The injury to Mathieu Debuchy was horribly predictable…

Arsene Wenger’s decision not to strengthen his defensive options before deadline day was effectively the equivalent of climbing in to a bull pen, naked except for bright red body paint, and bellowing “come on then you cow twat let’s see what you’ve got”. The boss was asking for trouble, and it has promptly arrived with Debuchy’s severe ankle knack. If the latest reports are to be believed, Nacho Monreal has also suffered a minor injury. We are down to the bare bones, and it feels like only a matter of time until those bones snap under the weight of a gruelling schedule. We are in the midst of a mini ‘Death Run’. Let’s hope the rest of our defenders can survive it.

Mesut Ozil looks lost…

…and I don’t think it’s anything to do with playing on the left. It seemed to me that he was granted the freedom to roam wherever he likes from that flank, frequently swapping with Alexis Sanchez on the other wing and even drifting in to his preferred central role. The heat maps appear to verify that.

The greater problem is what happens when he has the ball at his feet – or rather, what doesn’t. According to Opta, Ozil has 3 assists in his last 19 games. I think I’m right in saying he’s only scored one goal in the same period. For a player with his undoubted talent that is well below-par.

I sensed a bit of a sea-change in attitudes towards Ozil after the City game. Thus far, while he has attracted criticism from outside the club, the Arsenal fans have been stoutly defensive of him. That’s shifting. I think it’s partly due to the fact that we have another expensive plaything in Alexis Sanchez, and I don’t think it’s helped by the fact that Ozil is now being directly compared with Cesc Fabregas, who is excelling at Chelsea.

I’m not sure what’s required for Ozil to click back in to gear, but I’m not convinced that playing him through the middle will be the panacea some suggest.

Could we be this season’s Liverpool?
Watching the City game, I wondered if we might be capable of being this season’s Liverpool. Hold your vomit, readers: I mean it as a good thing. Sort of.

The frenzied high-press we employed in the game’s early stages was reminiscent of the tactics Brendan Rodgers used to blow teams away for much of 2013/14. We should know: we fell victims to it ourselves. A front line of Alexis, Welbeck and Walcott certainly bears comparison with the trio of Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling. Both sets of strikers are characterised by relentless movement and blistering pace. If we get our attacking blend right, we could be as irresistible as the Anfield side were last term.

Unfortunately, at present our team also seems to share some of Liverpool’s defensive vulnerabilities. It’s vital we iron those out if we want to climb up the Premier League table.

For more…

…be sure to tune in to this week’s Arsecast Extra over on Arseblog.

Arsenal must find a way to replace Theo Walcott’s goals

Screen shot 2012-12-29 at 23.46.36

It’s rare that a piece of Arsenal news shocks me. We live, lest we forget, in a world where Nicklas Bendtner has claimed to have the potential to be the best footballer in the world, and in which Emmanuel Eboue once dressed as a tiger.

However, when I saw the news that Theo Walcott would miss the remainder of the season and this summer’s World Cup, I was genuinely taken aback.

When Theo Walcott first pulled up against Spurs, I was immediately concerned. His knee bulged in that unnatural way that one associates with cruciate ligament injuries. However, in his post-match press conference Arsene Wenger played down any major fears. The talk in the press room was that Walcott would be out for a few weeks at worst.

Some Arsenal fans were unwilling to countenance even that. It seems hugely ironic now, but I saw The Guardian’s David Hytner being pilloried on Twitter for publishing an article saying Walcott “could miss four weeks”. The trolls accused him of jumping the gun. They said he ought to wait for the scan rather than posting speculative news. How right they were. And yet how wrong.

The truth is far worse than anyone could have feared. The official statement says Walcott will miss “at least” six months. In reality, it could be closer to a year.

I’m actually surprised by how gutted I am for him. He’s not a player I have a particularly strong emotional attachment too. He has probably caused me as much frustration as joy.

However, I have huge admiration for the way his game has evolved over the past 18 months. As my friend Tobi said, his head finally seemed to have caught up with his feet. Walcott has overcome criticism and some fairly serious injuries to become a bona fide star of the Premier League. He had earned the prize of a legitimate title challenge and a World Cup in Brazil.

Ah, the World Cup. It’s not Arsenal’s problem, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for a guy who will miss out on a second World Cup in succession. Theo plainly loves playing for England, and it will crush him to know that, despite being selected for one aged 17, he will have no chance of playing on world football’s greatest stage until he is 29. It pains me to say it, but by then Walcott’s pace and subsequently his star may be fading — especially with the added complication of a cruciate injury.

It’s often said that it’s tragic that the likes of George Best and Ryan Giggs never got to play in the World Cup. I get that. However, they had their chance to qualify like everyone else. What about playing through a qualification campaign, earning the right to grace that stage, and then being cruelly robbed of it by a freak injury? That’s a tragedy of it’s own.

As for Arsenal? Well, it’s an enormous blow. Whenever I allowed myself to envisage Arsenal winning this season’s Premier League, our success was always contingent on the availability of our best players.

I’ve tried to work out whose injury would hit the team harder. I’ve come up with a list of three: Wojciech Szczesny, Per Mertesacker, and Olivier Giroud. As important as players like Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil might be, we have others capable of doing a similar job.

Walcott offers something special: goals.

Replacing Walcott in his starting position on the right wing is not that difficult. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has returned to training and will soon be ready to bring his direct running and skill to the side. In the meantime, young Serge Gnabry looks more than capable of bridging the gap.

However, neither Chamberlain or Gnabry is likely to offer a goal threat to match that of Walcott. Despite missing two months with another injury, Theo’s goal tally is bettered only by Giroud and Ramsey, and his recent form suggested he was preparing to build on his total of six thus far. With Giroud’s prolific start to the season now a distant memory, Walcott’s presence in the side became increasingly important.

Theo loves goals. Some accused him of being overly selfish against Spurs, but the truth is there are few players in our squad who share that unbridled desire to see the ball in the back of net. Even our resident centre-forward, Olivier Giroud, can be unduly generous at times.

Walcott’s determination to be recognised as a striker sees him repeatedly putting himself in a position to score. Look at his brace against West Ham: the first was a tame effort, but he at least had the self-confidence to take the shot on and test the goalkeeper. As for the second goal, how many other players in this Arsenal team would make a lung-bursting sprint to stick their head on a cross? Not too many.

Wenger will doubtless talk about ‘internal solutions’. There is one: Lukas Podolski. The manager has always been loathe to field both Walcott and Podolski on the flanks. However, Walcott’s absence might allow him to rebalance his midfield and include the German international regularly on the left-hand side. Although he lacks Walcott’s blistering pace, he does possess a nose for goal and a fine shot.

However, Wenger must also be considering a move in the transfer market. Prior to this incident, I received word that Arsenal had made tentative enquiries about signing a diminutive dribbling winger. I was dismissive of the news, but wonder if that interest might now intensify.

I’m not sure it will. Arsenal have plenty of wingers. Arsenal don’t necessarily need to replace Walcott, but they do need to replace his goals.

Arsene Wenger must scour the market for someone who is capable of making up that shortfall of 8-10 goals created by Walcott’s absence. They might be a winger or attacking midfielder in the ‘Draxler’ mould, or they might be a supplementary centre-forward.

The truth is that in recent weeks Theo has almost been playing as a second striker, so acquiring a front-man still seems like the priority.

The season might be over for Theo, but it’s not for Arsenal. Arsene Wenger must act fast to ensure that the rupture of Walcott’s ligament does not also precipitate the tearing up of Arsenal’s title dreams.

Reading Preview: Is this thing on?

One-two… one-two… is anyone out there? Is this thing on?

Football is back. It feels like it’s been away for an eternity. We had that international nonsense, but that’s not ‘football’ as I understand it. It’s essentially an elaborate cover-up for a conspiracy to maim as many members of our squad as possible.

This time round we lost Theo Walcott to an injury picked up while away with England. Fortunately for Theo and Arsenal, it’s not too serious and he should be back in the next couple of weeks.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for Abou Diaby: Arsenal’s worst injury news was reserved for a player who hadn’t actually gone away on international duty.

Diaby has torn his left anterior cruciate ligament while training at London Colney, and will subsequently miss the remainder of 2013. It’s unsurprising, but still terribly sad. There’s no doubting Diaby’s talent, but it seems injury problems will prevent him from ever fulfilling it. I don’t want to write him off prematurely, but even if he recovers from this injury and is fit and healthy for the remainder of his career, the years he has lost mean he will never be the player he threatened to be.

By the time he returns from this injury he will be 27. He should be at his peak, and yet his career has never really started. I would curse his luck, but I’d far rather curse Dan Smith: the man responsible for the horror tackle that precipitated his decline.

Arsene Wenger had previously earmarked Diaby as someone who could player an important part during the run-in. However, the manager will now have to do without his French midfielder, starting today against Reading. Despite an intervening fortnight gap, I expect the line-up to show some continuity from the ones which triumphed over Bayern and Swansea. That means the defensive trio of Lukasz Fabianski, Carl Jenkinson and Laurent Koscielny should continue at the expense of messrs Szczesny, Sagna and Vermaelen. In midfield, Arteta and Ramsey will provide a defensive platform for Santi Cazorla to weave his magic. Olivier Giroud should keep his place upfront, and Arsene will then have to choose two wingers from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho and the fit again Lukas Podolski. I’d like to see a recall for the German, who was devastatingly efficient in the reverse fixture back in December.

This is a game Arsenal must win. It’s also, with respect to Reading, a game Arsenal should win. Tottenham travel to Swansea who are certainly no pushover. The right results today could see Arsenal within a point of their North London rivals with a game in hand. After the derby defeat, it catching Spurs felt unthinkable.

Now, Arsenal fans everywhere are wondering: is this thing on?

Come on you Gunners. Let’s make it happen.

Arsenal 3 – 3 Norwich: Advantage Spurs

Arsenal 3 -3 Norwich

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This game was a rather neat microcosm of our entire season. A fairly abject first half, a spirited improvement in the second, due largely to the unquestionable brilliance of Robin van Persie; and a heart-wrenching collapse at the finale. Having dragged us ourselves back from the brink to lead 3-2, we handed Norwich an equaliser, and in doing so may have handed third place to either Spurs or Newcastle.

That guaranteed Champions League spot seems to have been in our hands for a little while now. We’ve treated it like a hot potato, fumbling and flustering, and have now well and truly dropped it. Both chasing sides know now that if they win their remaining two games, they will finish above us – even if we beat West Brom on the final day.

If we play like we did yesterday, there’s little chance of us doing that. The first half was every bit as poor a performance as the one we put in against Wigan – worse, really, because it showed we’d learnt no lessons from that game.

The key area of the pitch was central midfield, where we had no shape or discipline. Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey were ostensibly the holding pair, but there was almost no protection provided for the back four. Norwich were canny and left three attackers up the pitch at all times. As Song and Ramsey bombed on, we were left vulnerable to counter-attack after counter-attack. Similarly, when the likes of Vermaelen pushed forward, neither Song nor Ramsey showed the initiative to fill in. Ultimately, would prove costly.

It all started so well when Yossi Benayoun, celebrating his 32nd birthday, curled home a peach of an effort with barely a minute on the clock. Unfortunately the rest of the team took it as a cue to sit back on their imagined laurels. Norwich were all over us in the first half, and their two goals were undoubtedly deserved. The first came after a simple move down the right-flank, although Wojciech Szczesny will be disappointed to be beaten so easily at the near post. He could do little about the second, which cannoned off Kieran Gibbs and looped over his head and in to the net. It reminded of the goal Louis Saha scored for Spurs when they led at half-time. Arsenal would need a similarly remarkable comeback in the second half to salvage anything from this game.

To give credit to the players, we showed a lot of spirit. The likes of Gervinho, abject in the first 45, suddenly sprung in to life. Of course it was Robin van Persie who scored the two goals to restore our lead – his 29th and 30th league goals of the season. The first saw him collect yet another of those clipped Alex Song passes to volley home; the second spin and fire in after a lucky deflection inside the penalty box.
At that point, there were 80 minutes on the clock. It tells you something about how dangerous Norwich looked, and how poorly we had defended, that I had absolutely no faith we would see through the game at 3-2. And so it proved: Alex Song gave the ball away, Kieran Gibbs inexplicably allowed Steve Morison to run beyond him, and the lifelong Spurs fan fired expertly past Szczesny, rooted to his line.

There was still time for Arsenal to spurn a couple of chances to win it, but in truth Norwich deserved at least a point. On the touchline, Arsene Wenger was as frustrated as he’s been all season, and that’s saying something. His irritation was with his own team. Yes, we should have a penalty, but so should Norwich. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.

There were mistakes and poor performances all over the pitch, but what stood out for me was how badly we missed Mikel Arteta. It remains the case that we have not won a Premier League game in his absence. Without him, I’m not sure Alex Song has the will or the nous to play as a true holding midfielder. Perhaps that’s something we need to address in the summer.

It was a particularly bad day for great Arsenal right-backs. This was almost certainly Pat Rice’s last home game before retirement, and he deserved a better send-off. Also, in a sad footnote to the game, Bacary Sagna broke the same fibula bone as earlier in the season, and will now miss the Euros and quite possibly the start of next season.

Before that there’s plenty to be decided. We’re now in a position whereby we need favours from other clubs: namely Man City, Aston Villa, Fulham, Everton and possibly Bayern Munich. Both Spurs and Newcastle face their hardest games today. If we’re to get a reprieve, it will surely come at Villa Park. It’s unlikely, but you never know.

As many said in the build-up to yesterday’s game: if we can’t beat Norwich, we don’t deserve Champions League football. Perhaps they were right.