Marseille 1-2 Arsenal: Arsenal’s “magic square” leaves Marseille puzzled

Kieran Gibbs was a decisive figure at both ends of the field…
Shortly after clearing a miscued Per Mertesacker clearance off the line, Gibbs bounded up the other end of the field to supply the telling cross for Theo Walcott to fire home.

Those few minutes encapsulate a finely-balanced match. Mertesacker’s mistake could so easily have seen Marseille grab the opener, and as Arsene Wenger shrewdly observed in his post-match conference, the first goal is so often crucial in these ties. As it was, Gibbs bailed us out, and it a similarly misjudged header from Marseille full-back Jeremy Morel tipped the balance of power our way.

Gibbs has had a terrific start to the 2013/14 campaign, firmly establishing himself as first-choice left-back ahead of Nacho Monreal. It’s a shame for Gibbs that international recognition remains unlikely – Roy Hodgson seems understandably taken with Ashley Cole and Leighton Baines. However, as an Arsenal fan first and foremost I’m delighted that Gibbs’ brittle body is not being exposed to the rigours of the international schedule.

Theo Walcott…
…has taken an undue amount of stick this season for both Arsenal and England. Although this was his first goal of the season, he has consistently been one of our most dangerous players. And it’s not as if Walcott has been missing open goals. Had Wojciech Szczesny pulled off the saves Kieran Westwood did to deny Walcott at Sunderland we’d be hailing the shot-stopping of our Polish ‘keeper rather than laying in to the opposition forward.

That said, Szczesny is doing pretty well himself…
After an inauspicious start, Wojciech Szczesny has had a very solid start to the season. Were it not for some sloppily conceded penalties, the big Pole would have a couple more clean sheets to his name too. Perhaps the presence of two experienced back-ups in Fabianski and Viviano is helping focus his occasionally wandering mind.

Jack Wilshere outshone Ozil on the night…
It was good to see the young Englishman take the game to Marseille, cutting in from his left-wing position to drive at central defenders and try to make things happen. I know Wilshere himself prefers to play deeper, picking up the ball from the defenders and scooting through the midfield, but I like seeing his acceleration and artistry applied in the final third.

It’s not really a 4-3-3…
Arsenal conventionally line-up in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Right now, things are a little different. With Wilshere drifting infield from his wide starting position, and Theo Walcott playing almost as advanced as Olivier Giroud, Arsenal have adopted a South American style “magic square” in midfield.

It’s something we saw a bit of last season, with the likes of Aaron Ramsey or Santi Cazorla stationed on one flank, with an advanced forward like Walcott or Lukas Podolski on the other.

You can read more about our new tactical system in my latest column for Bleacher Report, here.

Fatigue is the greatest threat against Stoke…
We don’t currently have a squad capable of withstanding rotation, so Arsene will almost certainly have to call upon the same set of players for Sunday’s game at Stoke.

If the players can muster some energy, we should have more than enough to dispatch Mark Hughes’ side. The supposed evolution of Stoke’s game from Stone Age to Bronze Age  should play straight in to our hands.

It will be Mesut Ozil’s home debut, and the Emirates should be rocking. I can’t wait.

Gunnerblog End of Season Awards 2013

Cazorla vs Liverpool

It’s that time again, when I metaphorically hand out fictional awards to players who will never actually receive them or know they’ve won.

Let’s get straight on with it.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON

Last year Arsenal hand a stand-out winner: footballer of the year Robin van Persie. In the wake of Van Persie’s departure, Arsene Wenger made it plain that responsibility would have to be shared more equally throughout the team.

Nevertheless, one man rose above the rest. It’s a good job he rose, because he’s so small that frankly you’d have difficulty spotting him otherwise.

Santi Cazorla has had an outstanding first season in English football. I’d second Arsene Wenger’s sentiments in wondering aloud just how he wasn’t voted in to the PFA Team of the Year. Few players in English football have demonstrated Cazorla’s combination of style and stoicism; technique and tenacity. Cazorla is that rare thing: a flair player with real guts. His numbers aren’t bad either: in the Premier League alone, he managed 12 goals and 12 assists.

The first thing that struck me about Cazorla in pre-season was his remarkable two-footedness. He is genuinely ambidextrous, able to torment defenders by shifting on to either his left or right foot with equal ease. That two-footedness is a hallmark of the astonishing degree of technical excellence which Cazorla brings to all aspects of his game (with the disappointing and typically-Arsenal exception of set-piece delivery).

At the start of the season, Arsene understandably sought to build the team around the diminutive Spaniard, fielding him in a central playmaking role. As the campaign wore on, pragmatism took hold, and Cazorla was confined to the left wing. It is testament to his intelligence and versatility that his influence has not waned.

No player has had a more consistent presence in the first team: Cazorla has started 47 games this season. That underlines his important to the side. We simply wouldn’t know what to do without him.

Cazorla was the obvious candidate for me, although I’d also like to give a quick mention to two other players. Firstly, Per Mertesacker deserves credit for a hugely consistent year. Many expected him to fall behind Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen in the battle for places at centre-back, but instead he emerged as the lynch-pin of our defence. I can’t help but feel Steve Bould sees something of himself in the lanky German.

Theo Walcott also warrants praise for his best season to date. In just 31 starts he amassed 22 goals and 15 assists. Our collective frustration with Walcott would be better exercised elsewhere: when we needed him, he invariably produced the goods, and his decision to stay with the club was undoubtedly one of the high-points of the season.

YOUNG PLAYER OF THE SEASON

Once upon a time the Arsenal team was full of striplings, and this category was hotly contested. Previous winners include the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Jack Wilshere. However those kids have either graduated, grown up, or been injured a lot.

The Arsenal team these days has a more grizzled look to it. The likes of Mertesacker, Sagna, Arteta and Cazorla raise the age profile of the side considerably, and even our Carling Cup side this term had an unusual degree of experience.

Of the remaining Arsenal tyros, there were high hopes for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but he struggled to meet the unfair levels of expectation. Carl Jenkinson had an excellent start to the season that saw him earn an England call-up and a new contract, and he’ll hope to challenge for a first-team spot on a more consistent basis next season.

I toyed with the idea of giving it to Kieran Gibbs, but decided that at 23 he was probably too old. I hate seeing the PFA dish out Young Player awards to the likes of James Milner when he’s well in to his mid-twenties.

However, at the start of this season, Aaron Ramsey was just 21. He was also something of a lightening-conductor for the Arsenal fans’ frustrations. If not every misplaced pass was met with a boo, they were certainly met with a collective tut of disapproval. By the end of the season, however, he had emerged as one of the team’s most important components.

Ramsey’s season mirrors Arsenal’s own. In the first half he looked out of sorts. He was trying things he didn’t necessarily have the skill or the confidence to pull off. In the second half, pragmatism took hold. Ramsey, like Arsenal, kept it simple and reaped the benefits. Alongside the efficiency of Arteta, Ramsey’s energy and effervescence has proved invaluable.

WORST PLAYER OF THE SEASON

There are some players who disappointed this season. Bacary Sagna fell below his previously immaculate standards, and Thomas Vermaelen’s performances lacked the discipline you’d expect of an Arsenal captain and centre-half.

Then there are some players whose contribution was plain poor. Our record signing Andrey Arshavin failed to make a single Premier League start, and even when called upon rarely looked like a player itching for 90 minutes of action.

Then there is Andre Santos. When it comes to this award, it’s impossible to see past the Brazilian – and that’s not just because of his expanding waistline. I actually think the stick he received for his half-time strip session with a certain Dutchman was way overblown, but it remains impossible to defend some of his performances on the field. Although his loan spell with Gremio is about to come to an end, it seems Santos’ Arsenal career reached its own conclusion the moment we signed Nacho Monreal.

GAME OF THE SEASON

There was a period before Christmas when Arsenal played with all the self-destructive madness of a radicalised lemming. The consequence was a series of unbelievable matches. The 7-3 with Newcastle is noteworthy not only for the unusual scoreline but also Theo Walcott’s breathtaking hat-trick.

Beating Tottenham 5-2 is hard to surpass, although seeing as it’s becoming an annual thing there’s no need to lavish it with another award. Like that swotty child in school, it can’t win the Maths prize every year.

I’m going to opt for Reading 5-7 Arsenal: The game that nearly broke me. This match had everything – even a Marouane Chamakh goal. Arsenal came from four goals down to win in some style. As I wrote at the time:

The first half was abject, then apocalyptic, then embarrassing. The second half was acceptable, then alluring, then astounding. Extra-time was just plain bonkers.

WORST GAME OF THE SEASON

This season managed to provide far too many contenders for this category for my liking.

The home defeat to Swansea was probably as volatile an atmosphere as the Emirates has ever experienced. I remember leaving the ground that day wondering if Arsene would be forced to resign. The players were apathetic and the crowd were apoplectic.

However, the cup defeats to lower league opposition take the biscuit. Blackburn was bad; Bradford was worse. To lose to a team in League Two, with effectively our best team on the field, was humiliating. The fact that defeat also robbed us of a fantastic chance to win a trophy merely rubbed salt in to the not inconsiderable wound.

Also, this:

HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON

I was so stuck for what to write in this bit that I opened it up to Twitter. As ever, there were some cracking suggestions: Per Mertesacker’s thumping header against Spurs; Tottenham fans celebrating an imaginary goal on the final day; Jack Wilshere’s long-awaited return.

In the end, I’ve simply had to plump for the end.

This was not a vintage season for our club. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad to see the back of it. We celebrated on the final day, but it was more an escape than an achievement. Fourth place is often compared to a trophy, but for a club of our stature it’s more comparable to surviving a relegation scrap. We felt relief rather than joy.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE SEASON

There were so many – and sadly, so many that are now horribly familiar. Our utter failure to contest the major trophies is something that is becoming soul-crushingly customary.

For the sake of variety, I’ve decided to opt for an unusual choice: the plight of Abou Diaby.

When scrolling through our statistics to make my choice for Player of the Season, I was genuinely jolted by seeing Diaby’s name: I had forgotten he played for us. That rapid decline is all the more remarkable when you consider that at the start of the season he was turning in man of the match performances against the likes of Manchester City.

Sadly, since then he has succumbed to another major injury.  I’m not sure how many more there will be in his career.

Arsene Wenger has shown enormous faith in Diaby throughout his struggles, and Diaby himself has shown tremendous courage to fight back from a succession of blows. However, after this latest blow I can’t help but feel that Arsene’s faith and Diaby’s courage will be wearing as thin as the cartilage in the Frenchman’s knackered ankle.

So there you have it. Tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at the season as a whole through the prism of the blog. Till then.

Deadline Day Thoughts: He’s Nacho left-back anymore, Malaga

To my immense surprise, Arsenal bought a player yesterday.

And not just any player. Several friends whose opinion I value highly sought me out to tell me just what a good player Arsenal have got. To be fair, his CV speaks for itself: Nacho Monreal is a Spanish international at the peak of his career.

Were it not for an injury to Kieran Gibbs on the eve of the transfer window, I doubt anyone would have arrived. Arsene Wenger revealed in his press conference today that Gibbs could miss as many as eight weeks with a thigh problem, and the prospect of relying on Andre Santos for that crucial period of the season was obviously not something the manage was prepared to face.

It shows you how swiftly a deal can be done when there’s a bit of urgency. I have spent most of this window frustrated with Arsene’s reluctance to enter the market. He seems to have fallen out of love with the entire idea of transfers; his recent quotes suggest he finds them dirty and a bit sordid. He views them as the ugly side of football – a side he would rather not engage with.

His relationship with the market seems to have been irrevocably soured by the sages over the likes of Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie. Meantime many of his own signings have floundered. In the last few years, transfers have been more hurtful than helpful.

He’s wrong to be dismissive of transfers. People rightly laugh at cheque-book managers, but good recruitment is a skill. There are deficiencies in Arsenal’s squad and a club with our resources ought to be able to correct them.

Monreal is a great start. I would have liked to have seen him supplemented by a defensive midfielder and a striker, but despite reported bids for Etienne Capoue and David Villa, it wasn’t to be.

We’ve been allowed to get away with it, though. I expected our rivals for fourth place, Spurs and Everton, to make significant additions in this window. Instead, Tottenham only added Lewis Holtby, failing to sign the striker or holding midfielder they plainly need. Everton, meanwhile, got an England U-19 International defender and missed out on ambitious moves for Alvaro Negredo and Leroy Fer.

I expected both clubs to consolidate their strong league position with a few speculative purchases. Instead, they’ve allowed us right back in to the game.

No-one predicted the signing of Monreal. However, as usual with Arsene Wenger, there were clues. A few days ago, he said of the January window:

“It’s a market for me that is a wrong transfer market because the only teams who sell players are teams in financial trouble.”

His sympathy obviously only extends so far, as he returned to the club from whom he stole Santi Cazorla, debt-ridden Malaga, to take another top talent.

It’s unusual for Arsene Wenger to sign a player who provides genuine competition for an established first-team player. His squads usually have quite a rigid hierarchy, with a clear first XI and then a set of reserves. Nacho Monreal breaks that mould: he has not come here to play second fiddle to Kieran Gibbs. Once Gibbs is fit again, there will be a genuine tussle between these those two.

That is how it should be. Competition is healthy, and important. Has the emergence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seen a decline in the form of Theo Walcott? Quite the opposite.

For the first time in a long time, Arsene Wenger may have the option of rotating a member of his defence without significantly weakening the side.

For now, however, Monreal has the left-back slot to himself. He is cup-tied for the European clash with Bayern Munich, but I expect him to slot straight in for tomorrow’s Premier League tie with Stoke.

Let’s just hope the orcs don’t end up feasting on Nacho.

Swansea 2-2 Arsenal: Podolski shows the value of having quality in reserve

Swansea 2 – 2 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I think arseblog called it right when he said this was a game we could have lost and yet should have won.  For a long time, it looked as if this was going to be one of those games for Arsenal: we had plenty of possession without doing very much with it.  Swansea, however, were typically efficient, and looked a threat every time their passing game developed in to a full-blown attack.

The first half was a tepid, turgid affair.  This Arsenal team seem to have an ‘all or nothing’ approach to fluidity; when they fail to click, it’s like milking a rottweiler: painful for everyone involved and ugly on the eye.  The game only exploded in to life with the introduction of Michu.

The Spaniard came on as a 56th minute substitute.  By the 58th minute, he’d scored.  He looped the ball over Per Mertesacker, sprinted past the off-form German, and held off Laurent Koscielny to score his fifteenth goal of the campaign.  Just as at the Emirates a month or so ago, I was hugely impressed by his movement, strength, and technical ability.  Come the start of next season, he ought to be playing for a Champions League club.

The goal came against the run of play.  Arsenal had begun the second half with considerably more purpose, with the tireless forward momentum of Kieran Gibbs a key feature.  It was a substitute of our own who would help bring just reward: Lukas Podolski.  He himself had been on for less than ten minutes when he turned to volley home after Swansea failed to clear a Theo Walcott corner.

It was a stunning finish: for all the talk about Theo Walcott, the German is the most clinical man in front of goal at the club.  Some supporters seem frustrated by his habit of disappearing in certain games, but I’d suggest that pattern is typical of a forward in a side struggling for fluency.  When we’re off our game, his movement goes unnoticed and he can be very quiet.  When we’re in the groove, however, there is no player I trust more to make the most of opportunities to score or create.  His goal yesterday takes his tally for the season to 10; impressive for a player at the halfway point of his first season in English football.

Having grabbed the equaliser, Arsenal had all the momentum, and there was a touch of Podolski about their second goal too.  Kieran Gibbs played a one-two with Olivier Giroud to meet his clipped pass with a sumptuous volley that had more than a hint of Poldi’s against Montpellier about it.  It was just reward for a storming performance from Gibbs.  Whilst I appreciate he is prone to the occasional defensive lapse, his energy, stamina and positive running from left-back make up for it on balance, and I was delighted for him to get a deserved goal.

Having taken the lead with just seven minutes to play, most teams would expect to hold on for the victory.  N.B. : ‘most teams’.  Arsenal had other ideas, and their static zonal marking came a-cropper again when Danny Graham was left free at the far post to thump in a late equaliser from a corner.  Mikel Arteta will be particularly disappointed with his failure to close the striker down.

All in all, I’m content with the draw.  It meant Arsenal went in to the hat for the fourth round, when for 83 minutes that looked dubious at best.  The impact of Podolski from the bench was a lesson in the value of having quality in reserve.  The problem Arsenal have going forward is that Podolski was only on the bench to save his tired legs.  Ordinarily, they wouldn’t be able to turn to someone of that calibre to bail them out.

You can see where I’m going with this: with loan departures for Marouane Chamakh and Johan Djourou now confirmed, it’s time for Arsenal to take advantage of that space in the squad and bring in some new players.  Arsene repeated his post-match mantra of being on the lookout for “one or two” additions; I hope he’s bluffing and that those targets were identified long ago.  A month is not as long as he seems to think.

Arsenal now face a replay with Swansea on the 16th of January.  The winner of that game will travel to Brighton in the FA Cup fourth round.  Along with the rescheduled game with West Ham, it means Arsenal have a pretty hectic month ahead, and any reinforcements will thus be all the more welcome.

Arsene might be worried about 8 games in four weeks, but for supporters it means a veritable feast of football.  Bring it on.

Gunnerblog on: Campbell’s goal, Thierry’s return, Gervinho’s assists & more…

You can come out. The interlull is over, and between now and Christmas, there’s a veritable flurry of football. Here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about:

…Joel Campbell

As some of you know, I spent a good deal of my summer following the trail as Arsenal pursued Costa Rican striker, Joel Campbell. Whilst a deal was ultimately agreed, Arsenal were forced to send the player on loan to Lorient after his application for a work permit was rejected.

Since then, he’s fared well – this piece from French Football Weekly will bring you up to speed on his start to life in Ligue 1, whilst this week he notched the most significant goal of his career to date, curling in a twenty-yard effort to put Costa Rica 2-0 up against World Champions Spain. Whilst the Spanish clawed their way back to a draw, it will doubtless remain a famous goal in his homeland.

If he continues to rack up international caps he has a chance of qualifying for a permit next summer.

…Thierry’s return

Despite his relative success at Lorient, Campbell will be kicking himself that he’s not in London at the moment. If he were, he’d be able to pick up a few tips from one of the game’s true greats. Arsenal’s record goalscorer, Thierry Henry, is training with the club to keep himself fit in the MLS off-season.

The sight of Thierry in an Arsenal training strip is enough to make me feel all fuzzy inside, like the mouth of person suffering from flu. So, in the hope of giving you the same on this cold Friday morning – the nice feeling, not the flu – here’s a picture:

The blonde man behind Henry is American Brek Shea, who is here not only to keep fit, but also to try and impress Arsene enough to earn a move across the Atlantic. By the looks of things, he’d instantly take Gervinho’s crown as possessor of the worst haircut at the club.

Whilst I don’t think anyone would realistically want Henry to come back and sully his record and reputation, but at times Arsene must be tempted to bring him back to the club on loan. This January will leave us with only the injury-prone van Persie and anonymous Park as striking options. Tempting, isn’t it…

…Gervinho’s assists

Whoever plays up front for Arsenal will be able to rely on a decent supply from Gervinho. In ten starts, the Ivorian has created six goals. It’s an impressive return, and suggests his record as the most productive attacking player in France last season was no fluke. The challenge now is to improve his own finishing and take some of the goalscoring burden off RVP.

…Kieran Gibbs

Yesterday saw Jack Wilshere tweet the following:

It doesn’t take Jonathan Creek to work out that Gibbs must have been going some sort of surgical procedure, and the whispers are that it was for a troublesome hernia. If that is the case, I’d expect him to miss a further month. Still, at least Andre Santos has been working hard on his new fitness regime:

…Norwich

Our next game is away to Norwich tomorrow lunchtime. I’ve been really impressed with both the Canaries and Swansea, who’ve managed to combine decent results with attractive, enterprising football. Any lapse in concentration will doubtless be punished, so we’ll need everyone to refocus immediately after their international exploits.

…the Arsecast

In order to celebrate the return of proper football, I had a chat with Arseblogger for today’s Arsecast. Why not head over to www.arseblog.com and have a listen? On the agenda: Injuries in defence, Koreans in Sunderland, and racism in football. Enjoy.