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.

Mikel Arteta on Alexis Sanchez, contract talks, & more transfers

Last night I was fortunate enough to be invited down to the kit launch by Puma, and was one of several bloggers able to grab a few words with Mikel Arteta. Here’s what he had to say.

On his reaction to the Alexis Sanchez news…

I was really happy. Everyone was waiting for a big signing like this. It’s a proper player – he’s got the experience, the technique, the pace. I met him this morning and he looked very excited. I think he’s going to be a good fit.

On Alexis’ English…

His English isn’t great as with 99% of the South Americans! But I think he will try. He was a bit worried about it but he will be fine. We have a very humble squad and the players will look after him. We have plenty of Spanish speakers too.

On beating stiff competition to land the player…

He had many options and he decided to join us which makes us really proud. I think he likes the style of Arsenal because it’s very similar to what he was used to in Barcelona. I’m excited to watch him play.

On the significance of the deal…

I think it’s a big statement from the club to say early on in the transfer window, “Ok, let’s go and get one of the best strikers in the world at the moment”. They have convinced him to come and we got him. I think we’ve been lacking that pace and that creativity that he can probably bring to the club, so I can’t wait.

On what Sanchez brings…

I think we were missing pace last season with Theo & Chambo injured. At some point we were playing with Cazorla, Wilshere & Giroud, all three coming in, you know? Arsenal was always a team who could play on the break and upfront had the speed to break people down. Now, I think we’re going to be more powerful and much harder to deal with.

On the possibility of more signings…

One of them is almost done I think – but we have to see. I don’t think it’s going to stop here, I think they’ve got more targets. I don’t think the players should get involved in that at all. They’re doing their work well. Let’s just be patient.

On this summer feeling different…

Yeah, when you win something it’s a different summer. I think it took a lot of the pressure off our shoulders. This has to be the start. It’s nowhere near good enough for Arsenal FC, we need to aim for much bigger things. We have the capacity to win things and we need to start showing that consistency in the next few years.

On a new contract…

I had my conversation with the manager – he knows my opinion, I know his opinion, and we are all good. That’s all I can say.

I can’t stop the rumours [about leaving] but I can be certain that I feel really happy here. I feel valued. I am given lots of responsibility here and I like it. Until the club thinks something different about me, I’m happy here.

On Arsene Wenger…

He’s a very demanding manager. He’s a very straightforward manager as well. You know what you’re getting with him, you know exactly what he wants from you. If you’re fair, you’re right and you’re honest then you’re never going to have a problem with him.

On Arsene’s beach football…

Yeah I was surprised. He looked younger than what he is! He is a very fit man though. He’s one of the few who would look OK in the new kit.

He’s coming back from Brazil on Monday. It shows you how much he loves football: even when he has a break he’s watching football.

On if Aaron Ramsey can still progress…

Yes. This year’s going to be very demanding for him because everyone’s going to expect something big from him, and those seasons are not easy. But Aaron has the character and the ability to go and do it again. The way he trains and prepares himself is top drawer. He knows that now he is one of the main guys, and he needs to stand firm on it and deal with it because now it’s going to be demanded from him.

On Diaby’s return…

Abou’s one of the players that I like most and I feel so sorry for him – he’s been very unlucky with injuries throughout his career. When you look at him when he’s had a month of training, some of the stuff he does is amazing. If we can add Abou to the squad I think he’ll be a great addition.

On his favourite World Cup moment…

Well being Spanish I haven’t had a favourite moment yet! Tim Cahill’s goal was fabulous, that’s the best so far. But hopefully the German’s lift the cup. It’ll be a nice moment and I’ll be very happy for them.

On Brazil’s heavy defeat…

I felt so sorry for them. Unfortunately last season we had some disappointing results against big teams. When I was watching that I was really feeling sorry for them because that was also in front of their home crowd which makes it even harder. I think it’s going to be tough to digest that one.

On how he digested Arsenal’s heavy defeats last season…

I don’t think you do digest it. As soon as you talk about those games I feel something in my stomach. In that moment you just want the ground to open up and swallow you because you’re not honouring your club, your shirt. It’s very frustrating but these things happen in football. You have to accept them and you have to learn, and it can not happen again.

On if he’s confident for next season…

Yes I am. Because I know the quality we have, the character, the desire. All the players have shown a good mentality when things aren’t going well. When everything’s going well it’s easy, but when people are criticising you and asking questions of you you need to see how people deal with that, and I’m telling you these guys are top drawer.

As ever, Mikel came across as a thoughtful and articulate guy. My take on the wonderful Alexis Sanchez news should be with you soon. Thanks again to Puma for a lovely evening.

The new kit is available from JD Sports.

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 Liverpool: Arsenal win by 2 goals and £1

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Brendan Rodgers over-thought this game…
I think Rodgers is a good manager. He has improved Liverpool dramatically. He seems to have an eye for a player and a creditable core philosophy.

However, he does have a tendency to over-think things. He seems to regard himself as an ingenious tactician, constantly seeking to reinvent the wheel.

Going in to a game against Arsenal with an outdated 3-5-2 formation was suicide. Liverpool’s wing backs – who, it should be pointed out, happen to be among the worst players in their squad – were isolated and overwhelmed.

At half-time, Rodgers switched to a conventional 4-4-2 to try and bring more stability to the side. However, Steven Gerrard has not been capable of playing in a central midfield pairing for some time. Even Rafa Benitez infamously fielded him wide on the right when selecting a midfield four, and that was years ago.

Rodgers’ tactical tinkering contributed to Liverpool’s downfall.

Mikel Arteta was outstanding…
Going in to the game, there was much wailing about the absence of Mathieu Flamini. However, Mikel Arteta covered for his absence with a superb man of the match display.

Arteta has been a little taken for granted this season. Flamini’s best performances came while the Spaniard was missing through inure. Given our excellent start, some fans wondered aloud whether Arteta had become obsolete.

Yesterday he demonstrated just why he’s such an essential member of the squad. His tackling was exemplary and his use of the ball typically intelligent. What’s more, he’s a leader. Throughout the game he could be seen marshalling Arsenal’s midfield, cajoling team-mates in to position and berating them if they neglected their defensive responsibilities.

Arsene Wenger deserves more credit for Arteta’s transformation…
Arsene used to be renowned for converting players to different positions. Indeed, in this match Arsenal came up against Kolo Toure, who had played on both wings for Arsenal before Wenger elected to use him as a centre-back.

Arteta arrived at Arsenal as a creative playmaker and has been refashioned in to a holding midfielder. The move has prolonged Arteta’s career and made him invaluable to the squad.

What’s happening to Aaron Ramsey feels almost supernatural…
In the week of Halloween, the Welshman is truly playing like a man possessed. His goal was the sort of thing you only attempt when your confidence is sky high. I’ve long thought Ramsey’s energy levels and shooting prowess were reminiscent of a young Steven Gerrard. The manner in which Ramsey dominated Gerrard in this match suggested a passing of the torch.

I was pleased for Thomas Vermaelen…
The club captain came on as a late substitute for Kieran Gibbs, and I was delighted he was involved in a great win. Vermaelen remains an important figure in the squad and the best reserve centre-half we’ve had in some time. It’s vital to keep him happy.

Confession: I only really care about the league…
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.

Crystal Palace 0 – 2 Arsenal: Gunners slip past greasy Chamakh

I never expected this to be walkover…
After their hammering on Monday, and with the cavalier Ian Holloway no longer in charge, Palace were always likely to have a conservative approach to the game.

So it proved. They sat deep and looked to frustrate Arsenal, occasionally launching a counter-attack with the pace of Jerome Thomas. An early goal would have forced them to change their strategy, but Arsenal initially looked sluggish despite dominating possession.

Gnabry was an intriguing introduction…
When Mathieu Flamini pulled up with a groin problem after eight minutes, I expected Arsene Wenger to replace him with Jack Wilshere.

However, Wenger had already read the pattern of play, and opted for Serge Gnabry to provide an injection of pace and width.

Gnabry’s introduction proved to be integral to Arsenal’s victory. He won the penalty with a darting run in to the penalty area, and tracked back tirelessly until he himself was replaced with 20 minutes to go.

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.

In this game, Cazorla looked some way from his best. His touch was unusually erratic and his passing wayward. It’s almost certainly merely a question of match practice. Ozil, meanwhile, will surely benefit from a rest for the Capital One Cup tie with Chelsea.

Arteta’s sending off seemed harsh…
Even if you deem it a clear goalscoring opportunity, I’m not certain it was a foul. Chamakh initiated the challenge, needlessly bundling in to Arteta.

For Arsenal fans, it was a piece of familiar cowardice from Chamakh, who would rather go to ground than muster the courage to actually take on a shot.

Arsenal were able to rely on some outstanding defensive performances…
Wojciech Szczesny has been nothing less than excellent since the opening day defeat to Aston Villa. In this game, he produced two phenomenal saves to deny Palace when the game was precariously balanced at 1-0.

In front of him, the back four were all solid, but Bacary Sagna was particularly good. Sagna seems to relish these “backs to the wall” performances. The challenge brings the best out of him, and in this match he was simply unbeatable.

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.