Aston Villa 1 – 2 Arsenal: Sheer Will From Wilshere

Aston Villa 1 – 2 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Before the game…
I was asked by People.co.uk to compare Aston Villa to a cartoon character. I suggested Spongebob Squarepants, as he’s young, full of energy, but ultimately not very good at football.

I was wrong. They didn’t have much energy.

Wilshere’s contribution was Ramsey-esque…
In the Welshman’s absence, Jack has really stepped up. Many will point to the fact he’s getting a run in his preferred position, but I also think he’s relishing the added responsibility.

Whenever he praised Ramsey’s heroics earlier this season, I always felt he was masking a nagging envy. There was a lot of, “he’s a great example” and “I hope I can follow what he’s doing”, but the subtext was clear: Wilshere wanted a bit of the glory. Now, finally, he’s getting it.

Prior to the kickoff of the 2013/14 campaign, Wilshere had just five Arsenal goals to his name. However, the goal he scored against Villa was his fifth of this season. You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out what that means, but I’m going to tell you anyway. In just half a season, Wilshere has doubled his career goals tally for Arsenal. Ramsey’s extraordinary feats have clouded Wilshere’s improving efficiency.

The fact that moments after scoring his goal he won the ball back and created the second tells you everything about his character. Many players would have been content to sit back and soak up the glory for a bit. Not Jack: he was straight back on the front foot. That competitive spirit is invaluable.

Per Mertesacker loves his job…
His job is to defend, and he clearly adores it. For too long Arsenal had defenders who aspired to be footballers. Mertesacker, on the other hand, has embraced his fate.

He’s under no illusions: he couldn’t be a No. 10. With his physical and technical limitations, centre-back is the only position in which he could realistically make a career as a professional footballer. Almost because of that, he is absolutely dedicated to his craft. Unlike the likes of Ozil, he can’t get by simply on talent. He is a student of the game. Scrap that: he’s a professor. A don.

His reaction to conceding the Benteke goal was fabulous. He was furious with Santi Cazorla for ceding possession in such a needless manner. We saw a flash of the rage that Mertesacker turned on Ozil when he failed to applaud the away fans a few weeks back. Behind the meek exterior is the same competitive spirit that drives Wilshere.

The decision not to bring Podolski on will get people talking…

…largely due to his clearly disappointed response.

There’s a few things to say on this. The first is that it’s entirely reasonable and normal for a player to be disappointed at not being used. The second is that Arsene probably made the right choice: when you’re holding on to a lead, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s energy is certainly more useful than Podolski’s powerful shooting.

However, the noise surrounding Podolski’s uncertain future has not been generated by one isolated incident. It’s been clear since the start of 2013 that Arsene Wenger has issues with selecting the German.

The fact that teenager Serge Gnabry was selected to start over Podolski seems far more significant than the fact he didn’t make it off the bench. As a man with more than 100 caps to his name, Podolski wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t a little irked to have fallen behind the upstart Gnabry in the pecking order.

Arsene has thrown down quite the gauntlet to Podolski here. As I wrote in this piece for ESPN, I fear it could end acrimoniously in the summer. However, perhaps it’s the mother of all motivation techniques. If Podolski is handed an opportunity from the start against Fulham, he’ll certainly feel he has a point to prove.

This wasn’t one of those “mark of champions” performances…
It wasn’t professional. It was sloppy. Arsenal should have had this game wrapped up, but instead slacked off in the second half and allowed Villa back in to it. Given how poor Villa were for most of the game, anything other than three points would have been something of a disaster.

However, we got there in the end. We stumbled but we didn’t slip. Arsenal are back on top of the table. Just how I like it.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff: We have forgotten how to play without a target man

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Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The Emirates was a pretty gloomy place in the first-half…
…and not just because over the overcast sky that shrouded the ground in a wash of grey.
Arsenal’s first-half performance was poor. Both the crowd and the team were subdued. At its best, the relationship between those two entities is one of mutual provocation, each spurring the other on. On this occasion, neither side did much to elucidate a response from the other. The fans were probably hungover, and the players plain tired. I love the festive period but when you look at the number of muscular injuries being picked up across the league, fatigue is clearly a problem.

The one moment of levity in the gloomy first-half was provided by Bacary Sagna…
Arsenal were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position just outside the penalty area, and Sagna was somehow given permission to take it. Unfortunately, his curled strike hit the wall.
On the serious side, one has to wonder how on Earth that came to pass in a team also containing Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. I suppose one could make the argument that as a player who crosses regularly, Sagna is well practised at putting curl and dip on the ball.
However, Cazorla and Arteta were first-choice set-piece takers at Malaga and Everton respectively. Surely the Arsenal dead-ball jinx can not have struck them so severely that they have now been superseded by Sagna?

Jack Wilshere was a bright spark…
In the absence of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere was handed the No. 10 role. He flourished. This performance was reminiscent of the all-action display he gave against Swansea in last season’s FA Cup. On that occasion, it was universally declared that Wilshere was “back”.

That turned out to be a little hasty, so I’ll refrain from such proclamations today.

This performance was simply another reminder of Wilshere’s undoubted talent. The assist for Walcott’s goal was, in particular, sublime. However, there have been plenty of such reminders this season. One immediately thinks of Wilshere’s glorious goal against Norwich, or his curled effort against Marseille.

His problem is not talent. His problem is consistency. One hopes that time and regular football will enable him to overcome that troublesome hurdle.

I don’t blame Podolski for his poor display…
I was one of those who was hopeful that Podolski could provide cover for Olivier Giroud at centre-forward. On the evidence of this game, that isn’t going to be the case.

Podolski and Giroud are very different types of striker. They require different types of service, and a different style of approach play. Podolski is an instinctive finisher who comes alive in and around the penalty area. Giroud is a tireless target man, who is prepared to run in to the channels and play with his back to goal.

For Podolski to thrive as a centre-forward, Arsenal would need to adapt their game. Judging by today’s performance, we’re in no hurry to do that.

It could be successful. Both Liverpool and Chelsea play without what you would call a traditional ‘target man’. Chelsea are a great example: like Arsenal, they play with three diminutive attack midfielders. However, they do not require a hulking great striker in order for those players to function. They regularly field the nippy Samuel Eto’o or the slight Fernando Torres. The player with the most obvious similarities to Giroud, Demba Ba, barely gets a look-in. The powerful Romelu Lukaku was sent out on loan.

However, Arsenal appear to have forgotten how to play without a traditional no. 9. It’s odd, especially when you consider that for so many years Arsene Wenger was criticised for his refusal to deploy a conventional striker.

The Invincibles team of 2003-04 arguably pioneered the whole “false nine” thing before anyone even knew what it was. With Thierry Henry drifting out to the left, and Dennis Bergkamp dropping in to midfield, Arsenal’s varied goal threat came with stealth and surprise. SKY lazily labelled it a 4-4-2 and we all bought it, but in truth there was no central pivotal striker.

In recent years, that has changed. Arsene Wenger, the man who signed Mark Hateley for Monaco, has renewed his love affair with the powerful centre-forward. Emmanuel Adebayor, Marouane Chamakh and most recently Giroud have heralded a return to playing with a more traditional type of striker.

And now, Arsenal have become dependent on it. We’ve been blessed to have Giroud fit and firing for most of this season and last, but it’s also made us strategically lazy. With Podolski starting up top, the rest of the team didn’t seem to know how to play it.

The Arsenal team have been fed a steady diet of Olivier Giroud for 18 months, and it appears to have significantly altered their palette. Give them Luis Suarez, and they’d probably he aiming balls at his head and chest, wondering why he couldn’t bring them down.

Giroud is not just integral to our attacking shape. He practically is the attacking shape.

Nicklas Bendtner’s introduction changed the game not because he is a better player than Lukas Podolski, but because he is a better impersonator of Olivier Giroud.

This all has implications for any proposed transfer activity this January…
With Bendtner now injured, Wenger may be a little more likely to dip in to the market. If he does, it must be for a striker with similar attributes to Giroud.  This current Arsenal team look unsuited to playing with any other kind of striker. Someone with a different style would require a period of adaptation, and given the intensity of this title race I’m not sure that’s something we can afford.

Diego Costa would be ideal, but the chances of him leaving Athletico Madrid in pre-season are slim.

Many will baulk at the suggestion, but Arsene Wenger needs to find another Emmanuel Adebayor.

In January (yes, January) of 2006, Arsene Wenger plucked the little-known Adebayor from the subs bench at Monaco. He went on to become a 30 goal, £25m striker. It’s time to ask Arsene to pull another such rabbit from his extraordinary hat.

When Emmanuel Adebayor was being left out of the Tottenham squad week-on-week by Andre Villas Boas, I privately wondered if Arsene Wenger would ever consider a short-term move for the former Arsenal man. Note: privately – I knew such a suggestion would invite ridicule and abuse if made public. It’s off the table now, and would probably have never happened: Adebayor simply carries too much baggage. However, there’s no doubt that physically and technically, he has all the attributes we require.

Arsenal need someone with size, strength, good close control, and ideally a bit of speed. Someone who can play the Giroud role, but perhaps with their own unique spin. An extra trick, or yard of pace.

Over to you, Arsene. Surprise me.

Arsene’s subs corrected his erroneous starting XI…
Introducing Rosicky and Bendtner was effectively an admission of the issues with the initial team. Fielding both Flamini and Arteta was unnnecessarily cautious, whilst Podolski’s problems have been covered above. As soon as the pair came on, Arsenal looked more effective.

In the second half, Theo Walcott was absolutely outstanding…
Walcott occasionally takes stick for shirking responsibility, but I thought he really took this game by the scruff of the neck. His crossing was quite superb, and Per Mertesacker probably ought to have scored from two of his most enticing balls. According to Squawka, he created six goalscoring opportunities against Cardiff – his highest tally in any game thus far.

He also has six goals this season, from just 10 starts.

Wingers, by their nature, are a bit infuriating to watch. They deal in fine margins – quite literally, given their proximity to the touchline. Considering that, Walcott’s efficiency and continued productivity is quite remarkable.

It’s almost impossible not to be pleased for Bendtner…
Everyone loves a redemptive hero, and there’s no doubt that his could be a hugely significant goal in our title bid. It’s unfortunate that he was injured in scoring, but I suspect his ego might have enjoyed the pseudo-martyrdom of sacrificing himself for the good of the team.
Rather enjoyably, he has now scored more goals from open play in this season’s Premier League than Tottenham’s £26m man Roberto Soldado.

All eyes on the FA Cup…
…and a mouth-watering game against Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham. With a tricky tie against Bayern in the Champions League, the FA Cup now represents our second-best chance of a trophy in 2013/14. Maybe the best. The season we’re having deserves silverware. We ought to give this competition absolute focus.

Man City 6-3 Arsenal: Old habits return as Arsenal die hard

Manchester City 6 – 3 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction | My BR piece

This was an entertaining but ridiculous game…
Both sides are renowned for their attractive attacking play, and that manifested in an end-to-end encounter. However, without wanting to go all miserablist and Mourinho-esque about it, to proclaim this game a “great advert for the Premier League” would require overlooking some truly diabolical defensive play.

When you look at clashes between the Premier League’s title-chasers, they are typically cagey, low-scoring games. The stakes are high, and the margins fine. This match, however, was played with all the reckless abandon of a preseason exhibition match.

City will take plenty of plaudits for their stylish swashbuckling, but it’s worth noting that their defending was nearly as bad as ours.

Nearly, but not quite.

Our defending was awful…
This was as bad as it’s been for quite some time. Bear in mind, it’s the first time Arsenal have conceded more than two goals in a game since our opening day defeat to Aston Villa.

The Villa game was something of a freak result, but against City we got the hiding we deserved. I think the last time we defended this badly was probably in the 5-7 farce against Reading last October. This time, however, there’s no Martinez or Djourou to hold up as a scapegoat: to a man, we were poor.

It’s not just the back four who were to blame…
One of the major strengths of the team this season has been the way they’ve defended as a unit.

However, in this match the back four were badly exposed. Arsenal’s midfield simply did not provide the level of protection we have seen since August.

It’s something of a fallacy that the best form of defence is attack, but it’s certainly true that a good form of defence is possession. However, Arsenal didn’t look after the ball sufficiently well today — witness Mesut Ozil’s loose pass that led to City’s crucial third goal.

The timing of the goals was particularly painful…
Conceding an early goal to a set-piece was a huge blow, but at that stage there was plenty of time to claw things back. However, every time Arsenal dragged themselves back in to the game, they turned around and subsequently fired a bullet right in to their own foot. There has been a lot of talk about physical fatigue, but repeatedly conceding just after scoring suggests we’re mentally tired too.

Jack Wilshere should have been one of the fresher players…
However, I thought he was shockingly bad on the day. It was actually quite arresting to see such a technically-gifted player repeatedly give the ball away.

When Flamini was withdrawn in the second half, Wilshere was asked to play the the defensive midfield role. It was something of a disaster.

There’s an understandable desire among Arsenal fans to protect Wilshere: he is a huge prospect and is still recovering from an equally huge lay-off. However, performances like today show just how far he is from getting back to his best.

I’m sorry, Mikel…
Prior to the game, I was one of those who advocated the dropping of Mikel Arteta. Arsene Wenger clearly felt similarly, as he left the Spaniard on the substitutes bench. It was a bold, ruthless selection from Arsene, which I admired — but sometimes gambles fail: Arteta’s positional discipline and intelligent use of the ball were badly missed. I fully expect Arteta to be restored to the side for the Chelsea game.

Olivier Giroud tried manfully…
Considering how little he must have left in the tank, I was impressed by how well Giroud put himself about for most of the game. However, he is now without a goal in five games, and allowed several alluring opportunities to score pass him by. Arsene Wenger was not amused:

One suspects that Sergio Aguero would have snapped up one of the chances Giroud passed up. As good as Giroud can be, Arsenal still have room for improvement alongside or ahead of him.

Of course we were tired…
Before the game, Arsene Wenger insisted he would not blame our heavy fixture schedule. His post-match press conference suggests he’s changed his tune. Several key players looked utterly drained by the 70th minute.

There’s no doubt that City have superior strength in depth. Arsenal have many excellent squad players, but City have no squad players. Almost every footballer in their possession would be good enough to start for them regularly. When they rotate, there is no discernible drop in quality. When we rotate, we play Bendtner.

The one positive was Theo Walcott…
Walcott took both his chances well and showed that he could provide some much-needed support for Olivier Giroud. If he can stay fit he will certainly add a different dimension to our attacking play.

The incident between Ozil and Per wasn’t pretty…
When Ozil neglected to go over and clap the travelling fans, the usually placed Per lost it a bit.

It’s a consequence of frustration on both sides. Ozil was probably embarrassed by the scoreline and his own mistake, and wanted out of there ASAP. Per, as a committed defender, would have been furious to have shipped six goals. I wonder too if he didn’t hold Ozil a little responsible for that misplaced pass when the game was finely balanced at 2-1.

Emotions run high — that’s normal. Hopefully that charged atmosphere can be channeled in a more positive way ahead of our next game.

It’s all about the response…
If Arsenal overcome Chelsea in the next game, much will be forgiven. However, that’s no easy task: Arsene Wenger has never beaten a Jose Mourinho team.

Having been roundly trounced by City, it’s tempting to wonder just how costly that Gerard Deulofeu goal last week might prove to be. Arsenal’s cushion has disappeared and our seat at the top of the table suddenly feels a lot less comfortable.

The stark truth is that Arsenal have lost to each of Manchester United, City and Chelsea this season. Beating the likes of Spurs and Liverpool is one thing, but that titanic trio provide the real acid test. Arsenal will need to win their home games against their closest rivals if they are to stand a chance of lasting the pace.

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.