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.

2013/14: Arsenal’s Season Blogged – Sagas, songs & a cup

Screen shot 2014-07-06 at 18.10.29

As the enthralling World Cup comes to a close and eyes begin to turn towards next season, I thought it’d be worth a bit of a retrospective of the saga that was 2013/14. And so, without further ado…

—-

Please, Arsene: Don’t sign Luis Suarez | July 17th 2013
I cannot understand why a manager as ethical and principled as Arsene would go near a player like Suarez. I cannot fathom why our great club would seek to harbour a footballing fugitive. The situation is made all the more bizarre by the apparent availability of the talented and seemingly decent Gonzalo Higuain, who is now edging towards a move to Napoli.

It’s genuinely baffling. Arsenal paying £40m for a player is something I hoped I’d see one day. However, the sight of Luis Suarez in an Arsenal shirt is something I still hope I’ll never see.

Blowing that sum on a player who will be dogged by suspension and controversy is lunacy. What’s more, Suarez has a proven track record of forcing transfers every couple of seasons. If he joins us, he’ll view us merely as an escape raft until he can leverage a move to Real Madrid.

Opening Day Preview: New season – No new faces | August 17th 2013
A new season ought to feel fresh. It ought to be a new start. The manager ought to enter the new campaign free of the pressures of the last. However, Arsenal’s disastrous summer has put Arsene Wenger under considerable strain before a ball has even been kicked in anger.

If Arsenal fail to beat Aston Villa today, the Emirates will resound with the boos from fans who will understandably feel they have been misled. They were promised statements of intent and a change in policy. Instead they’ve suffered more of the same penny-pinching and indecision.

Arsenal 1 – 3 Aston Villa: It was just a mirage | August 19th 2013
I had a vision of a better Arsenal. It was a vision sold to me by Ivan Gazidis, who promised me that after a decade of harsh desert we were approaching an oasis of plenty. It was a vision that sustained me through a summer starved of football.

It was a vision that I, somewhat foolishly, believed in. And it was just a mirage.

The dream evaporated and condensed in to the cold wet reality of a 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa. Some dream. Some start.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Fenerbahce: Thoughts on Ramsey, Mata & more | August 28th 2013
Aaron Ramsey has been outstanding…
It’s amazing what a difference confidence can make. The way he took his second goal was the mark of a player who has absolute faith in his ability at the moment. Having gone through a process of simplifying his game and bringing it back to basics, Ramsey is now supplementing his hard work with the flair he patently possesses. His progress is exciting.

The Real Madrid trio would all be incredible signings…
Arsenal are being linked with moves for Karim Benzema, Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria. All three would add a huge amount to the Arsenal squad, but only the latter seems remotely probable. Madrid seem unlikely to sell Benzema and Higuain in the same window, while Ozil is likely to also be a target for Manchester United. That is not a tug of war I’d fancy us to win.

Thoughts on the Derby & Deadline Day | September 2nd 2013
Ozil would be a game-changing signing. Assuming it goes ahead, it’s massive. I would never have believed that we’d be capable of recruiting a marquee talent of this level.

However, while I hate to gripe on what is a undoubtedly momentous day for the club, I’m staggered that Arsenal are going to go in to the season with Olivier Giroud as the only senior centre-forward. Giroud was superb against Spurs, but by the end of the game was exhausted. It’s a feeling he’ll have to get used to in the coming months.

Mesut Ozil: A perfect signing in a far from perfect window | September 3rd 2013
There’s no doubt it’s a transformative signing, and the most significant since the arrival of Dennis Bergkamp in 1995. When it was announced half an hour before the window’s close last night, Sky’s Geraint Hughes noted that the Arsenal fans’ jubilation was due to the fact they’d waited all day for a signing like this. The reporter were wrong: we’ve waited for more than a decade.

Just a few hundred yards separate Highbury and the Emirates, yet the Ozil deal feels like the completion of an arduous ten-year journey. However, it must be not only an ending, but also a new beginning. This has to be the start of something.

Thoughts on Sunderland 1-3 Arsenal: Ozil glides like Pires, passes like Bergkamp | September 17th 2013
Great players elevate those around them…
…and Mesut Ozil is undoubtedly a great player. Seeing him step out on to the pitch in an Arsenal shirt was both surreal and sublime. His touch was immaculate and his passing incisive. Considering he had barely trained with the team, his immediate rapport with the likes of Wilshere, Ramsey and Walcott was remarkable.

Arsenal 3-1 Stoke: A football match, believe it or not | September 22nd 2013
Confidence is an extraordinary thing. It can do incredible things to a footballer. Ramsey is at the crest of a wave, and I hope he can stay there as long as possible. When he inevitably reverts to somewhere approaching the mean, I still think we’ll still have a very fine footballer on our hands.

Arsenal 4 – 1 Norwich: 700 words on THAT goal | October 21st 2013
The ball arrives on Wilshere’s right foot, and he places a perfect volley in to the far corner. No power is needed. The finish, like the rest of the move, is all guile and grace. When he sees the ball hit the net, he allows himself a roar of exhalation.

He knows it’s special. The Arsenal fans do too, reacting with an upwardly-inflected combination of awe and disbelief. And he keeps going, jogging towards the fans before sliding on his knees in celebration.

Wilshere finally rests. 20.34 seconds, five players, nine passes, and 28 touches have come together to create one masterpiece.

Crystal Palace 0 – 2 Arsenal: Gunners slip past greasy Chamakh | October 26th 2013
Caz-ozil is not yet working as anticipated…
Arsenal fans waited for six weeks to see Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil play together. Thus far, the combination has failed to live up to its understandably starry billing.

Arsenal needed a win today…
Our next four fixtures see us face off against Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund and Manchester United. This clash with Palace was all about getting three points – by any means.It’s often said that winning while playing poorly is the mark of a title-challenging side. I’ll hold off from such proclamations until we are able to assess Arsenal’s performance in the difficult games ahead.
Arsenal face a crucial Champions League tie with Dortmund this week, but I’d gladly swap victory in Germany for three points at Old Trafford next Sunday.

The Premier League campaign feels all-encompassing and all-consuming. The irritation felt at dropping out of the League cup was banished by beating Liverpool.

Arsenal are currently five points clear. There is a growing sense that Arsenal can mount their first serious and sustained title challenge since 2007/08. Nothing – not even European progression – would excite me more.

Man United 1 – 0 Arsenal: Anticlimactic end to a good week | November 10th 2013
RVP is welcome to celebrate…
Do you want his respect? His pity? I know I don’t.

There is no love lost between Robin and Arsenal. Why disguise it? Pretending otherwise is just silly.

United are an interesting case study for the theory that “strikers win games”…
It’s my firm belief that Arsenal had the stronger XI going in to this match. Our midfield compares particularly favourably with United’s.

However, the old adage goes that strikers win games, and so it proved. One moment of combination between Rooney and Van Persie was enough for United to secure the three points.

United’s midfield was also weak last season, but Van Persie was able to bail them out time after time, and they ended up as champions. A world class goal-getter can mask many deficiencies.

As good as Olivier Giroud has been this season, I think we’d be getting ahead of ourselves to suggest he’s in the same bracket as United’s front two. However, that’s not a fixed situation. As Wenger often says, you should never put limits on any player’s potential. If Giroud continues to improve at his current rate, that hierarchy might soon change.

What’s preposterous is that we have so little support for Giroud. Introducing Bendtner at Old Trafford, on the day he has made public his displeasure with Arsenal and Arsene, felt absurd.

Strikers win games. And we don’t have enough.

Cardiff 0 – 3 Arsenal: We’ve Got Our Arsene Back | November 30th 2013
In stoppage time, with Arsenal winning this match by three goals to nil, the cameras caught Arsene Wenger bellowing at an Arsenal player. It  may have seemed unnecessary, but I interpreted it as a sign that his focus is greater than ever

Wenger has always been something of a perfectionist. This season, he has shown he is prepared to be a pragmatist too. His perfectionism is no longer confine to Arsenal’s aesthetic dimension, but seems to encompass a broader appreciation of the games. Whereas once he was cavalier, he is increasingly practical. He seems to take pride in the team’s defending once more. He’ll have been just as satisfied by the clean sheet as the three exquisite goals.

Arsenal 1 – 1 Everton: You can’t win them all, annoyingly | December 8th 2013
Mesut Ozil, the man for the big occasion, delivered…
If anyone looked likely to make the breakthrough for Arsenal it was Ozil. His last three performances have all been right out of the top drawer of football’s tallest cabinet. When he smartly lifted the ball over Tim Howard and in to the roof of the net, it really felt like we might be watching a defining goal in the Premier League season.

The equaliser was gutting…

A buoyant stadium was silenced by a smashing strike from Gerard Deulofeu. Some have criticised Szczesny for failing to stop the shot, but it really was an excellent hit. It flashed past the Pole and evaporated our hopes of that seven-point lead. Gutting, but probably fair.

Man City 6-3 Arsenal: Old habits return as Arsenal die hard | December 14th 2013
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.

Meeting Thierry | December 19th 2013
I was chatting away to Tim Stillman of Arseblog fame – two fish in unfamiliarly opulent waters. Suddenly, Tim’s eyes lit up. Someone was approaching us – someone Tim recognised and, judging by his widening smile, somewhat liked. I felt a hand on my back. I turned around.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Thierry.”

Arsenal 0 – 0 Chelsea: Stalemate sees Mourinho in his element | December 24th 2013
It’s not so much that Wenger can’t beat Mourinho — it’s that Mourinho is expert at finding ways to stop him. Our boss invariably sends his team out play the same way, whereas Mourinho will select a team specifically designed to nullify the opposition. It’s ugly, but it works. The stats back it up.

“If you can’t win the match, don’t lose” is becoming something a mantra for Wenger. It started as a reaction to the defeat to Swansea last season, and was reinforced after Robert Lewandowski’s late winner for Dortmund a couple of months back.

There was a palpable fear of losing in similar circumstances tonight. The fans cried out for changes, but Wenger stuck with XI he started with, anxious that an unnecessary switch might upset the rhythm and, crucially , the defensive balance of his team.

In some ways it’s commendable, and shows Wenger’s growing pragmatism. However, at some stage Arsenal are going to have to gamble, and accept the risk of defeat. Too many draws could prove costly in such a tightly-contested league.

Not 1-1 at Newcastle (again) | 29th December 2013
Big points…
Apart from in the Emirates Cup, all wins are worth three points. Some, however, feel a bit special. Maybe it’s because the win put us back on top, maybe it’s because we were under the cosh for so long, or maybe it’s just because it’s Christmas, but these points feel significant. I’ll dip in to my big bag of cliches to state that these are the sort of games that eventual champions win.

Per Mertesacker was a true giant…
I love seeing Mertesacker with the captain’s armband. For me, he is the team’s true leader, and he truly led by example at St. James’ Park with a dominating defensive display.
His performance against Newcastle really cemented his transformation from giant mutant bambi to defensive rock.

2013 has been a pretty good year for Arsenal…
No side won more Premier League points than us. Unfortunately, titles are won between August and May rather than January and December, but it’s a great testament to our consistency.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff: We have forgotten how to play without a target man | January 1st 2013
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.

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.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Spurs: I Sher-Woodn’t want to be a Tottenham fan | Jan 4th 2014
Theo Walcott looked impressive as a target man. His finishing was a little off, but he showed great movement and a willingness to take on the physical elements of the role. On the admittedly limited evidence of the past two games, he’s a far better bet for the position than Lukas Podolski.

Arsenal must find a way to replace Theo Walcott’s goals | Jan 5th 2014
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.

 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.

Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t see the Draxler 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.

Southampton 2 – 2 Arsenal: Arsenal guilty of cardinal sins against Saints | January 27th 2014
Apart from a seven minute spell at the start of the second half, we were all over the place. The most worrying development was the return of a genuine sense of chaos in our play. On other occasions when we’ve dropped points this season, the machine has simply failed to function efficiently. Against Southampton, the machine went haywire. Nothing really seemed to work. Conceding a goal immediately after taking the lead is particularly concerning: that sort of sloppiness is unlike the Arsenal defence we’ve come to appreciate in 2013/14.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Crystal Palace: Ox in the box sees off Pulis | February 3rd 2014
This is my first opportunity to talk about the Kallstrom deal. Arsenal really needed a striker in this window, yet Arsene insisted there was no-one of the “super quality” required available. I’m not convinced we necessarily needed a midfielder, and yet he brought in one of dubious calibre who is injured.It’s a funny one. But he’s proved me wrong before. I, like many, has my doubts about the acquisition of Mathieu Flamini. I’d love to be similarly wrong again.

 

Arsenal 0 – 0 Man United: We’ve missed the party | February 13th
I had a more emotional reaction to this game than normal. The reason why is simple: I hate United. I loathe them. Their demise this season has made me cackle like the most perfectly played out slapstick comedy.

And I so wanted us to be in on it. I wanted us to join the party, along with West Brom, Newcastle, Sunderland, and all those other teams. When we went to Old Trafford, I had visions of a cathartic victory. I wanted us to batter them, get a bit drunk, piss on the corner flag, and dance disgracefully on the grave of Fergie’s dugout. I thought we’d be the munchkins in Oz, the Ewoks on Endor, gleefully celebrating the destruction of a once feared nemesis.

The Emirates wasn’t much different. We weren’t dominated by United, but nor did we shed our insecurities. We had an opportunity to put them to the sword, but we looked more worried about dropping our shield. We’re as scared of Fergie’s ghost as David Moyes is.

Stoke 1-0 Arsenal: Gunners fall to familiar foe | March 1st 2014
In isolation, a draw at Stoke is a decent result. However, this game was not played in isolation. It was played in the context of a title race, and all our other results. A draw would not have been good enough, and a defeat is a disaster.I know Stoke’s not an easy place to go. However, when we dropped points at home to United, it effectively narrowed the margin for potential error. Some hailed that as a good result “in isolation”. I wonder if they still think so now.

Thoughts on FA Cup, Bayern & Spurs | March 15th 2014
There is a strange pressure about being FA Cup favourites…
It’s an unpleasantly familiar sensation, much like the one we found ourselves in at this stage 2011’s Carling Cup.Surely, the lessons of that disastrous final have been learnt. We’re more experienced, more determined and more professional. We ought to do it. There are no excuses.

Spurs beaten & 1000 not out for Arsene | March 20th 2014
I don’t think Arsene is perfect. He’s arrogant, occasionally myopic, and infuriatingly stubborn. He’s human. However, as humans go, he’s pretty special.The longer his contract remains unsigned, the greater the chance of him walking away at the end of the season. Arsenal fans are being made to contemplate the daunting prospect of a team without Wenger at the helm.Let’s enjoy him while he’s here, and honour him as he deserves.

Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal: Bridge of Sighs | March 22nd 2014
This was a dreadful day…
It was sickening but not surprising. Arsenal have collapsed in each of their three games away to Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, conceding a remarkable 17 goals along the way. We’ve only conceded 34 goals this season, meaning half that tally has come in our three most important games.

Each of those games was seen as vital in our bid for the title. Each of those games took place at 12.45 on a Saturday. And each of those games saw us effectively surrender in the first quarter. Across the fixtures, we conspired to concede seven goals in the opening 20 minutes.

It can’t be just coincidence. Something is deeply wrong.

We haven’t looked like champions for a while…
Arsenal have now won just three of their last eight games. Three times this season we’ve faced a supposed “Death Run”, and it’s difficult to argue we’ve come out of any of those periods well.

What next for Arsene?
On Friday, Wenger spoke with confidence about the prospect of signing a new deal at Arsenal. One wonders if a result like this might give him cause for reconsideration. On the biggest stages, his team continue to freeze. The spate of new contracts suggest a full recast is unlikely. To continue the theatrical analogy, the simplest thing might be to change the director.

Wenger is intelligent and self-aware. If we can see his problems, the chances are he can too. His last eight years at Arsenal have been characterised by his selfless sense of duty. Perhaps his final selfless act will be to recognise a new man may be required to fix some of the underlying problems in this team.

Ready, Set, Go: The Race for fourth is underway! | March 26th 2014
With Everton making good ground behind us, all focus is on securing a top four finish. It’s a somewhat depressing reality at the end of an exciting season, but fortunately we still have the carrot of a potential FA Cup win dangling ahead of us. Without that, the fans would be in full-blown meltdown.

Everton 3 – 0 Arsenal: Is it over? | April 6th 2014
The operative *it* in this instance is the reign of Arsene Wenger. After this latest capitulation, serious questions have to be asked about his suitability to take the team in to next season — regardless of what happens between now and May. Truth be told, I happen to think we’ll make the top four. Call me crazy, but I still think we’ll win the FA Cup too. But that doesn’t assuage all my fears about the manager.
If Wenger loses the FA Cup semi-final next week, it’s indisputably over. Even if he wins the competition, it may be more of a celebratory send-off than cause for a new contract. It’s not over yet, but it feels like it’s accelerating towards a gloomy conclusion.

I don’t like it. But I’m not as scared of it as some.

Thoughts from Wembley: Torturous afternoon’s Final flourish | April 13th 2014
I don’t know about you, but I remembered reaching an FA Cup final as a good deal more fun.

Let’s focus on the positives: however shoddily, the job got done. A positive result in the final will vanquish any traumatic memories of the painful semi. In recent weeks, Arsenal have been criticised for a failure to grind out results on the big stage. Yesterday, they managed exactly that.

A penalty shootout is a test of technique. However, it’s also a test of nerve. It was to my considerable surprise that Arsenal passed that particular test with flying colours. Settled by the confidence and competence of Lukasz Fabianski, our takers executed their kicks perfectly.

Red, Yellow & Silver: Gunnerblog’s FA Cup Final Preview | May 17th 2014
We’ve waited nine years for this. Think of what you’ve done in the last nine years. Ponder what’s changed since. 2005 was the year Youtube was launched. Lance Armstrong retired a champion, not a cheat. Twitter didn’t even exist.

A Party 9 years in the Making | May 19th 2014

A cup nine years in the winning. A party nine years in the making. A blog nine years in the writing. The wait is over. Arsenal have a trophy again. And it feels fantastic.

Arsenal is about a lot of things — I’ve already alluded to the amazing community that surrounds our club. However, a look at our story tells you it’s also about glory. It’s about history. It’s about transitory moments of elation that create indelible memories.

That’s what we achieved at Wembley, and it’s what we ought to be constantly chasing. Sometimes, it’s seemed like the board had forgotten what that felt like. Maybe the manager, too. Time — and a shifting of priorities — had dulled their memory of the euphoria victory can invoke. A good deal of the players simply didn’t know any better: it wasn’t a sensation they were familiar with — until now. Now they know what the prize feels like. They know what they’re playing for. They know what it is to be winners.

You can only hope the’ve got the taste for it. I know I have.

So there you have it. Amazing to see how opinion vacillates and optimism waxes and wanes across the season. I’d love to say it’l give me a new sense of dispassionate perspective heading in to 2014/15, but that seems improbable. Bring on another rollercoaster.

Arsenal 4-1 Everton: Giroud is comfortably our best striker

Arsenal 4-1 Everton
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsene gambled with his team at either end of the pitch…
When it came to selecting his team, Arsene Wenger made two big calls at the extremities of the pitch. First off, he allowed Lukasz Fabianski to continue in his role as Arsenal’s cup goalkeeper. At the opposite end, he selected Yaya Sanogo to start ahead of Olivier Giroud.

Given the result, Wenger will feel justified in his decisions. However, if Arsenal ultimately reach the FA Cup Final, I’ll be screaming for Szczesny to start. There is little room for sentiment when there is silverware at stake.

The goal was an important moment for Mesut Ozil…
The fist pump he gave when the ball hit the net was as expressive a show of emotion as we’ve seen from Ozil since he arrived on these shores. The fact that every single outfield Arsenal player joined him in celebration seemed significant, too: this was a clear show of support for a player who has been under fire.

This was Ozil’s first goal for three months, and his best performance in a while too. Afterwards, Wenger described him as “regenerated” after a recent rest.

He’s certainly found the season hard going. I’ve heard that Arsene believes this is a particularly difficult year for Ozil to have moved to the Premier League. Six teams are battling for Champions League qualification. Another 10 face the possibility of relegation. Every time you face one of those teams, you’re engaged in a high-intensity battle. At Madrid, Ozil simply didn’t encounter that ferocious level of competition on such a regular basis.

It’s been a steep learning curve. Hopefully this match represents something of a turning point.

Flamini’s booking made life hard…
Mathieu Flamini was booked after 23 minutes. It’s no coincidence that it was around that time that Everton began to pose a consistent threat on the counter-attack. His ability to break up the play was severely hampered. On Everton’s equaliser, there was a clear moment of indecision where Flamini was reluctant to put in a tackle and face a red card.

Giroud is the best striker we have…
I must confess I find Arsene Wenger’s faith in Yaya Sanogo somewhat baffling. He’s big, strong and willing, but miles away from Olivier Giroud. I’m not even convinced that he’s better than Nicklas Bendtner.

Giroud’s two goals showed he’s still the top man. He now has 18 in all competitions — one more than he managed in the entirety of last season. He’s far from perfect, but he’s also comfortably the best striker we have.

Two wins from glory…
I’m not a fan of hosting the FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley, but it ensures a good day out and a sense of occasion. If we can win there and book a place in the final it will ensure a dramatic end to what’s been, on the whole, a positive season.

It was great to see some familiar faces at the Emirates…
Before the game, Theo Walcott was out on the pitch. It was encouraging to see him walking unaided – I’m told he’s begun doing rehab on a zero-gravity treadmill. Disappointingly, this does not teach him how to fly, but instead allows him to run without putting significant weight on his joints.

Then, at half-time, Pat Rice came out to thank the fans for their support in his battle with cancer. Pat’s a real fighter and a true Arsenal man, and it was genuinely heartwarming to see him looking so well.

All in all, a very good day.

 

Arsenal 0 – 0 Man United: We’ve missed the party

I had a more emotional reaction to this game than normal. The reason why is simple: I hate United. I loathe them. Their demise this season has made me cackle like the most perfectly played out slapstick comedy.

And I so wanted us to be in on it. I wanted us to join the party, along with West Brom, Newcastle, Sunderland, and all those other teams. When we went to Old Trafford, I had visions of a cathartic victory. I wanted us to batter them, get a bit drunk, piss on the corner flag, and dance disgracefully on the grave of Fergie’s dugout. I thought we’d be the munchkins in Oz, the Ewoks on Endor, gleefully celebrating the destruction of a once feared nemesis.

But we weren’t. We were feeble.

This time, surely, it had to be different. Yes, we went in to the match on the back of a painful defeat to Liverpool, but United come in to it off the back of a truly agonising season. Surely, this time, we ought to have had the psychological upper hand.

It wasn’t to be. We blew it.

We weren’t dominated by United, but nor did we shed our insecurities. We had an opportunity to put them to the sword, but we looked more worried about dropping our shield. We’re as scared of Fergie’s ghost as David Moyes is.

There was plenty wrong with the performance, but it’s clear the main problems are in attack. Without Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud’s weakness come in to sharp focus. Arsenal lack pace on the counter and someone who can run in behind the defence. With the pair in tandem, you get a bit of everything. Giroud in isolation is a one-dimensional threat.

Mesut Ozil had one of his finest games in an Arsenal shirt, but his dribbles forward often ended in frustration as he looked up to survey his options. No-one in this XI had the speed required to sprint in to the space Ozil’s probing passes seek out. When Ozil looks up, you can almost feel him forlornly casting his eyes across the horizon in search of Cristiano Ronaldo.

It’s clear the jig’s up for Lukas Podolski, too. In a game in which Arsenal’s attacking was limp and lifeless, Podolski went unused. Wenger’s vote of confidence could not have been more emphatically delivered.

I do feel this was a game we had to win. Not mathematically. Numbers-wise, the title is still very much on. No: I thought we had to win it to escape our hang-ups, to instil the team with confidence, and to make a statement to our rivals.

After the game, Arsene suggested that the team was inhibited by the mauling at Anfield. Perhaps so. “We are only human”, he offered. My concern is that champions often have the sheen of the superhuman. One point from the two games against Liverpool and United does not seem enough for a title-winning team.

There are certain similarities with the sequence of games where we lost to City and then drew at home to Chelsea. Arsenal followed that up with a further seven games unbeaten in the league. Given that our next seven games encompass games with Tottenham, City, Chelsea and Everton, I consider it unlikely we’ll repeat that feat.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The table makes it clear: we’re still in the race. I’m not going to prematurely mourn the title. However, I’m inconsolably sad that Arsenal will go through the 2013/14 season having failed to beat the worst United team in decades. We’ve missed the party.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Fulham: Cazorla good, Ozil bad, Arsenal top

 It wasn’t just the team that was the same as against Villa…
…the lackadaisical attitude was pretty familiar too. In the first half, Arsenal were poor. Fulham seemed to replicate Villa’s trick of lulling us in to a false sense of security before proving relatively dangerous – all within the space of 45 minutes.

A second striker would have been incredibly useful…
Fulham were simply too comfortable in their own half. For long periods, Dimitar Berbatov was the only player anywhere near the Arsenal goal. The Cottagers were happy to drop the majority of their men deep and thus ensure they picked up the second balls in and around their own penalty area. Their attacking ambition was limited, but the sheer weight of numbers also meant they could keep the ball in their half with relative ease.

Arsene has long-since abandoned the idea of a strict “4-4-2”, but in the absence of a ‘wide attacker’ like Theo Walcott meant that Olivier Giroud was far too isolated. It was telling that when Lukas Podolski was later introduced to play closer to Giroud, Fulham looked far more stretched.

Some Arsenal fans would love Andros Townsend…
The England winger has taken on more shots per game than any other player in this season’s Premier League.

Young Serge Gnabry had a good game, but there is one exuberant aspect of his game I’d urge him to temper. Gnabry likes a shot. A vocal section of the supporters seem to love it: finally they have someone to respond to their pleading cries of “shooooot!” However, I’d question how effective taking pot-shots from range actually is.

During today’s game, Gnabry had five shots. Only one tested the goalkeeper.

Supporters like seeing a player get a shot away. It feels more satisfying, more rewarding than another sideways pass. It’s quantifiable ‘end product’. However, at times today Gnabry took shots on when one extra pass might have led to a genuine goalscoring opportunity for another player. Patience is a virtue he will that will come in time. (I guess I’ll have to be patient too.)

It’s clear from some of the spectacular strikes Gnabry has produced at youth level that he has the potential to be dangerous from range. However, on today’s evidence he would be wise to rein it in a touch. He’s learning. It’ll come.

Flamini’s importance can’t be underestimated…
As the second half kicked off, he was urging his team mates to drive forward. Flamini, like Per Mertesacker, seems acutely conscious of the importance of consistency in every single game. He is a proper pro.

We’re allowed to criticise Mesut Ozil…
Sometimes it feels as if we’re so eager for our record signing to do well that anything approaching criticism of his performance is deemed a kind of blasphemy. Equally, the tiniest contribution is hailed as a game-changer. I half expect someone to suggest that Santi Cazorla was afforded the room to score his second goal against Fulham due to a particularly well-timed Ozil fart.

Let’s get this straight: I love Ozil as much as the rest of you. I think his signing is one of the most exciting things to happen in my time as a fan. I think he’s generally been an excellent addition, and the effect of his arrival on the club has been dramatic and transformative.

However, he played badly against Fulham. There were frequent incidents of miscontrol and some curiously misplaced passes.

Perversely, it sometimes feels as if the standards we expect of our record signing are lower than the expectations we place on less heralded players. If another player in the team had made the alarming errors that Ozil did against Fulham, it’d be highlighted by many – in far more vicious terms than this.

He has been good. However, he can do so much better. And I’m sure he will. But the point I want to make is that it’s not wrong to demand more of a player with Ozil’s extraordinary gifts.

Podolski celebrated coming on like he’d scored a goal…
When Steve Bould indicated that he was about to come on, Podolski started furiously pumping his fist towards the nearby Arsenal fans. He was plainly desperate to make an impact, and was unlucky not to score with one spectacular strike that was tipped on to the post. Perhaps a little time on the sidelines has provided him with the perfect motivation.

Does anyone know the rules about kicking the ball out?
On more than one occasion, a player went down and both teams and the referee looked genuinely confused about what to do. It’s baffling. The clubs need to be properly briefed so that this issue is cleared up once and for all, and the referees need to be more demonstrative about following the existing guidelines.

Santi Cazorla…
…looked more like the player I remember from last season, which was heartening. With Walcott out, he needs to continue regularly making a tangible impact in terms of goals and assists.

Arsenal haven’t really hammered anyone this season…
It’s odd. For all our good form, we haven’t beaten anyone by more than three-goal margin this season. Sometimes it feels as if a Mourinho-esque hand-brake comes on when we feel the game is won. Alternatively, it could be because we simply don’t have the same surplus of goal-hungry strikers as previous Arsenal sides.

This time last year…
Arsenal were sixth with 34 points. Now, they sit top with 51. It’s some turnaround. Any team that beats us to the title will have to be rather special.