Sunderland 0-2 Arsenal: Alexis makes his own luck

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Alexis Sanchez continues to amaze…

It’s only October and I’m already running out of superlatives for this magnificent man. To be honest, saying you’re running out of superlatives is in itself a cliche. I’m running out of ways to say I’m running out of superlatives.

I was one of those banging a particularly loud drum about the potential signing of Alexis as early as March, but even I could not have expected him to have such an immediate impact in English football.

The key to his success is that he shares Luis Suarez’s capacity to combin technique, imagination and relentless running. His quality is underpinned by huge desire. He was the beneficiary of big mistakes against Sunderland, but he also generated his own luck through sheer hard work. He’s an example to the rest of the players.

Alexis played in the No. 10 role…

I don’t think there’s any great need to pin Alexis down to one position. Wherever he plays, he is capable of creating problems for the opposition. In a recent interview with SkySports, he expressed a slight preference for starting on the left as it enables him to cut in on to his right foot. However, with Ozil out, he might be most useful to us through the middle.

The way we’ve exploited Alexis’ versatility is somewhat telling, though. Already this season he’s played in four different positions. It suggests a lack of clarity in our team-building, especially in contrast to someone like Chelsea. They brought in Fabregas and Costa as missing parts in a nigh-complete puzzle. They were components with a clear function in a grander plan. We seem to be making it up on the fly. If you asked Arsene to name his best XI now, I don’t think he could tell you.

The return of Mikel Arteta was important…

Although he can be steamrollered by more physical opposition, he remains the team’s primary playmaker at the base of the midfield. When he is absent, Mathieu Flamini struggles to replicate the captain’s range of passing. With Arteta back in the fold, we were able to control possession far better. His ability to dictate the game from the middle is partly what enabled us to keep a rare clean sheet.

Santi Cazorla’s misses caught the eye…

…largely because we’re not as used to seeing chances missed this season. In the past, it has been the hallmark of Arsenal teams to dominate the game but be profligate in front of goal. This season, we’ve created so little that we’ve been forced to be quite efficient with the few chances we forge. It’s rare to see such presentable opportunities passed up.

The positive reading of Santi’s shockers? At least we’re creating the opportunities.

The ‘Podolski Problem’ was illustrated perfectly…

Lukas Podolski was the hero in midweek, coming off the substitutes bench to score a late winner. The following weekend, he didn’t even get off the bench. For all his quality, it’s very hard to see him remaining at the club beyond January.

Arsenal 1-2 Southampton: Alexis is a maverick, Podolski is a misfit

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Whatever you think of the League Cup…

…it’s never good to go out of any competition. It amazes me that some can greet a cup exit with a shrug. A few fans even expressed relief. It seems they forget that in each season there are only four potential prizes, and that’s one gone.

Had we beaten Southampton we’d be just four games away from another Wembley final. Any Arsenal fan who experienced the elation of May 17th — or indeed the despair of the Birmingham game in 2011 — will know what an occasion those matches can be. Yes, it’s “only the League Cup”. For a long time it was “only the FA Cup too”, and yet I didn’t see too many muted celebrations at the end of last season. We haven’t yet looked like convincing contenders for either the Premier League or Champions League. Beggars can’t afford to be choosers, and Gooners can’t afford to be snobbish about trophies.

That’s not to say I don’t understand the decision to rotate the side. Arsenal have a hectic schedule, and the point of assembling a big squad is that it enables you to mix it up on a game-by-game basis.

The team Arsenal put out was good enough to win the game, even against a strong and slick Southampton XI. I can’t fault Arsene Wenger there. The front six was packed with players of international calibre, but too many of them underperformed.

The League Cup is an opportunity not just to lift a trophy, but to give squad players a chance to put pressure on regular first-teamers. Last night, Arsenal failed on both counts.

The senior players let down the kids…

The likes of Lukas Podolski and Tomas Rosicky might have hoped that impressive showings against the Saints could force them in to contention for a Premier League place. Unfortunately, both were dire. Rosicky at least compensated for his errors with effort. Podolski, on the other hand…

However, the bright spot was undoubtedly the work done by a very young back four. Arsene Wenger was forced to pick three 19-year-olds and a left-back, and they did not let him down. Calum Chambers grew in to the game alongside the impressive Isaac Hayden, while Francis Coquelin did a superb job at left-back. I made him Arsenal’s best player on the night.

Don’t get your hopes up over Abou Diaby…

The Frenchman got an hour under his belt as a holding midfielder, with Arsene Wenger admitting after the game that he hopes to “transform” him in to a deep-lying anchor man.

After the match, I had a flurry of tweets from fans asking if I think Diaby could be ready to replace Mikel Arteta in the first XI. In a word, “No”. For starters, deploying our most injury-prone player in the most combative area of the pitch is begging for trouble.

This appearance felt more like a testimonial for Diaby’s services than a testament to his abilities. There were moments where you saw flashes of the player Diaby might have been, but it’s difficult to imagine he’ll ever fulfill his potential at Arsenal now.

Don’t pin your hopes on him — and that’s aimed at fans and manager alike.

Alexis Sanchez is a gifted soloist…

Alexis opened the scoring with a stunning free-kick and generally hared about the pitch with his customary vigour. It’s rare to see such a gifted player show that kind of desire. Sanchez is a South American striker in the mould of Luis Suarez and Carlos Tevez. There’s guile, but there’s guts and graft too.

His game isn’t perfect. His passing is erratic and he can be guilty of holding on to the ball too long. It’s partly why he never quite settled in Barcelona’s system. I’m not sure it’s a massive problem for us, though. He’s not a continuity player, he’s a maverick. He’s not a playmaker, he’s a game-breaker.

Every team can afford one maverick, one matador. At times Arsenal can be too guilty of conforming to their intricate passing game. Alexis brings contrast and some welcome chaos to proceedings.

Lukas Podolski is on borrowed time…

It is becoming increasingly difficult to envisage a role for Podolski in the Arsenal team. I’m a self-confessed fan of the player: he is generally efficient in the final third, and remains the best finisher in the squad.

However, he just doesn’t seem to fit. As Wenger seeks to reconstruct his attack around the pace and vibrancy of Welbeck, Walcott and Sanchez, Podolski looks wildly out of place.

On several occasions last night, Alexis could be seen cajoling his team-mates, urging them to offer more movement off the ball and press higher up the pitch. If he continues to play alongside Podolski, Sanchez will have to learn the English (or German) for “move yourself” pretty quickly.

He’s rusty, certainly. He might also be lacking a little confidence, having effectively been told he was surplus to requirements in the summer before Olivier Giroud’s injury scuppered a move.

The problem is that, given the options at Wenger’s disposal, Podolski is never likely to get the run of games he patently needs. At the moment he’s stuck in some strange limbo, being brought on as a centre-forward despite the manager having publicly stated that he can’t really play in that position.

It’s a situation that I expect to reach a head during the January transfer window. Podolski’s time in London looks to be approaching an end.

Ps. Now that the spam filters have been reinforced, comments are back. Do use them please, as I’ve greatly missed the interaction on here. Thanks for reading.

Looking back at the Hammers, ahead to Hull, and up at Liverpool

The win over West Ham was huge. After being put through the wringer in the semi-final, a physical Allardyce team were hardly the ideal opposition. When we fell behind, the collective intake of breath was almost audible.

However, Lukas Podolski’s instant response settled nerves. Goals from Giroud and Podolski again later settled the game. The German’s record is pretty remarkable. His 10 goals this season have come in about 1197 minutes. That’s roughly 13.3 “games”. The figures aren’t distorted by cup goals either. In the Premier League, he boasts a record of six goals in 9.3 games. He is absolutely lethal.

I understand that he doesn’t quite fit in to our system, but our system is hardly pulling up any trees is it? Podolski’s efficiency in the final third is approaching the point whereby it justifies experimenting with a formation that suits him better. It would be intriguing to see how he would get on in a front two, absolved of a degree of defensive responsibility.

A good week got better when Everton lost to Crystal Palace. As an Arsenal fan, it causes me great pain to credit Tony Pulis with a pretty remarkable job down in South London. A positive result away to Hull will put us firmly in the driving seat as far as fourth place is concerned. With Everton still to face the two Manchester clubs, a four-point lead will feel pretty comfortable.

Never mind a four-point lead over fifth: if Liverpool beat Norwich tomorrow, they’ll open up a five-point advantage over the rest of the Premier League.

I can’t be the only Arsenal fan looking at Liverpool and thinking it ought to have been us. If they do go on to win the title, as looks increasingly likely, it will be confirmation that this league was there for the taking. United, City and Chelsea have all had their problems this season. It was a unique opportunity to snatch the big prize, we were in poll position, and we surrendered it.

Yes, they’ve benefited from a lack of European fixtures. But they’ve also built a truly title-challenging team without the lure and financial boon of the Champions League. We had both of those things at our disposal, and yet we’ve failed to match them.

Yes, we’ve had injuries. But we knew about the problems with both Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott well before the close of the January transfer window, and did nothing.

From the first months of the season, it was clear this season presented a unique opportunity for a dark horse to snatch the league. Arsenal fumbled, and Liverpool seem poised to pick it up. We needed to gamble, but in what would become a recurring theme, we lacked the balls.

It’s like Liverpool have been sent to show us what we ought to have done. They’ve invested ambitiously, fought tooth-and-nail to keep hold of their best players, and played with style and courage.

They also, not too long ago, replaced an ageing legend with an upwardly-mobile young manager. Increasingly, I think Arsenal may have to do the same this summer. Regarding Arsene’s future, it suddenly struck me the other day: have we all missed the obvious?

If Arsene is staying, why hasn’t he signed? He’s had ample opportunity to do so throughout the season. If it was a question of PR timing, surely the optimum time to announce a new deal would have been either side of the Christmas period, when Arsenal topped the table?

I can’t remember when it was now, but after one of his contract renewals Arsene spoke about the importance of offering security and certainty to the team. Surely that would have proved beneficial this season, too. And yet the manager has resisted.

A few years back, he spoke about his intention to quit management before retirement age. He’ll be 65 in October. When Arsene said after the semi-final that the result of the final would have no bearing on his future, I immediately felt his mind was already made up. And then much of the above crystallised in a moment of what felt like clarity.

Bacary Sagna hasn’t signed his new deal, and it’s led many of us to conclude that he’s definitely leaving. Apply the same logic to Arsene, and you can only reach one conclusion.

I’m only speculating, and you’re all entitled to point and laugh when Arsene announces his new deal on Monday morning. I just wonder if our heads have been in the sand all season long, when the obvious has been hammering on the ground desperately trying to get our attention.

Anyway. Hull next. Time to tame the Tigers.

Some thoughts on Coventry, Podolski and Draxler

Arsenal 4 – 0 Coventry

Match report | Highlights

This was our biggest win of the season…
…although the scoreline was arguably somewhat flattering. After romping in to a two-goal lead, Arsenal took their foot off the gas and instead applied the dreaded handbrake. On a side note, it’s vaguely amusing that a handbreak is something designed for security, but in Arsenal terminology has transmogrified in to something perilous.

Anyhow. Had Coventry’s Leon Clarke been in better form, the underdogs may even have grabbed a couple of goals. As it was, they failed to take their opportunities, and tired late on.

That’s what a midfield without Arteta & Flamini looks like…
Arsene fielded a very attack-minded central midfield of Jack Wilshere alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Although both players impressed in possession, without the ball they struggled. In the second half, Coventry regularly isolated and outmanoeuvred our full-backs. The work that Arteta and particularly Flamini do in wide areas is often overlooked and utterly vital.

It’s hard to argue with Podolski’s numbers…
He now has more goals than starts in 2013/14. He’s comfortably the best finisher in the Arsenal squad. In the light of his brace, it’ll be fascinating to see whether or not he gets the nod to start against Southampton on Tuesday. He couldn’t really have done much more to demonstrate his ability against Coventry. If he doesn’t start, it suggests that nothing Podolski can produce on the pitch will alleviate Wenger’s patent unwillingness to field him from the start.

We were more German than ever….
When Gedion Zelalem came on for his first-team debut, Arsenal had five Germans on the pitch. On the same night, Bayern Munich played in the Bundesliga. They ended their game with just four.

Further reading: Globe-trotting Gedion Zelalem looks at home at Arsenal – ESPN

However, I don’t think Draxler is coming…
Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t see this deal happening in the January window. A lot of amateur body language experts have come out of the woodwork to analyse Arsene’s various smirks and batting eyelashes, but I don’t think there’s anything in there to suggest we’re on the verge of a swoop for the prodigiously-talented Draxler.

I think the player would very much like to come. A lot of the noise this week seems to have emanated from his camp. However, the more certain Arsenal are of the player’s commitment the less likely they are to play his steep release clause. Arsenal will do the deal when they can get it cheapest.

There’s another reason for my doubts. Earlier in January, the club were actively considering a bid for a wide player. That search was accelerated when Theo Walcott was ruled out for the rest of the season. However, since then, agents who had previously being tasked with identifying potential recruits are now being fed the same “we have 17 wingers” line that Wenger trotted out in his post-Coventry press conference. That is the new company line – inspired, one might imagine, by the swift development of Serge Gnabry.

“Ah”, you say, “but what if he sees Draxler as a striker?” Wenger may well have a long-term plan to develop Draxler in to a striker, but is the middle of a title challenge really the best time to embark upon that sort of experiment? As much as I’d like us to sign the player, I suspect not.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the reason Wenger has privately called off the hunt for a wide attacker is that he’s already found the one he wants: Draxler. However, looking in to his eyes on Friday night, I didn’t sense the same anticipatory glee I saw prior to the Ozil signing.

I think Arsene would still like to sign a striker, ideally on loan. Whether or not that will be possible in what’s left of the window remains to be seen. It looks unlikely.

I’d like to be wrong. I’d love Wenger to go out and make a signing in this window. I have a horrible, nagging suspicion that if we don’t, we may be left wondering “what if” come May. We’re in a phenomenal position, and I can’t fathom why we’d choose to leave anything to chance.

The FA Cup Draw…
I’ve come to accept that any home draw is essentially a good draw. We’ve been handed three in succession, so can’t really complain. Manchester City facing off against Chelsea is also fantastic for our chances. The FA Cup certainly represents our most direct route to silverware this season. It’s tantalising to imagine that we are just two wins from Wembley, and four wins from a trophy. Admittedly, the draw does leave us with a pretty daunting schedule over the next two months. However, as a United-supporting friend said to me in the light of the draw: “Better to be scared than bored”.

Further reading: Why February Could Be Make or Break for Arsenal’s Season – Bleacher Report