On The Whistle: Who would you swap Giroud for?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Right now, who would you trade Giroud for? On current form, I’m not sure there’s anyone in the Premier League I’d rather have. There are better players out there, but I’m not sure any of them are outperforming the Frenchman.

Anyway, have a watch of the video. I’m off on an international break of my own to Morocco. There’s an Arsecast Extra here for you too with chat on Newcastle, Walcott, Welbeck and more.

Tactics truck: Why Alexis, Giroud & Welbeck works so well

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That might have been Arsenal’s best performance of the season thus far. Scoring four times against a team who had conceded just two goals in their previous seven games is not to sniffed at. It’s somewhat ironic that a cobbled-together XI managed to put together our most fluent 90 minutes of 2014/15.

Key to that fluency was the attacking trio of Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck. They started in tandem at the Hawthorns at the back end of November, but despite encouraging signs were split up for the subsequent games against Southampton and Stoke. I hope Arsene Wenger sees fit to stick with them now: they appear to be a potent combination.

There’s a lot to like about the way the three strikers combine. Few forwards offer quite as much defensively as Alexis and Welbeck, who work tirelessly to protect their full-back. Both players also have the technical skill and tactical intelligence to join up with Arsenal’s approach play when required.

Giroud was outstanding on Saturday, and it’s surely no coincidence that he looks more of an asset when complemented by attackers with speed and dribbling ability. However, he deserves a measure of credit for being prepared to adapt his game. Against Newcastle, he regularly drifted in to wide areas to allow Alexis and Welbeck spells in the middle.

His Squawka heat map demonstrates that he was willing to work the channels, particularly on the right, when required. He may be the team’s focal point, but he is determined not to weigh down a mobile attack by becoming an immobile anchor.

There’s a growing camaraderie there, too. These players seem to have embraced the challenge of competition, and are working hard to discover a way to play together. Giroud is not affronted by Welbeck’s presence, and Welbeck in turn has not piped up about being ousted to the flank. Alexis meanwhile, just wants to play anywhere with anyone.

However, what I like most of all is that fielding this front three almost guarantees that Arsenal have a bigger presence in the penalty area. Last season, crosses would flash across a box occupied primarily by opposition defenders. If it wasn’t within Giroud’s reach, it would generally be cleared without danger: No longer: Welbeck and Sanchez both have the stamina and the willingness to get in the box to join Giroud on a regular basis.

That much was evident from our winning goal at West Brom. When Santi Cazorla sprinted to the byline, Giroud’s mere presence at the near post was enough to attract a defender out of the centre, granting Welbeck the space to charge in and score.

Since then, the interchanging movement has only become more sophisticated. The opening goal against Newcastle was a perfect example: when Alexis crossed from the right, Welbeck and Giroud engaged in criss-crossing diagonal runs, the Englishman darting from far post to near and his French counterpart moving in the opposite direction. Their markers were baffled, and Giroud was able to climb high to score.

Our third goal came from another cross from the right. This time, Giroud made his preferred darting run to the dear post. Beyond him, Welbeck sprinted towards goal before pulling back in to space around the penalty spot — a classic Thierry Henry strategy. His positioning created doubt in the mind of Fabricio Colocccini, and allowed Giroud to nip in to score.

Arsenal’s improved penalty box presence has another benefit at the other end of the pitch: having the height of both Welbeck and Giroud in our area does offer a measure of insurance at set-pieces.

Arsenal looked as impressive going forward against Newcastle as they have done all season, and for once it wasn’t solely down to the individual brilliance of Alexis Sanchez. This new front three is already working. Let’s give it the time it needs to get even better.

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ps. Thanks to Arsenalist for the goal clips for me to deface, and sorry for reminding everyone of the horrors of Andy Townsend’s Tactics truc.

Not 1-1 at Newcastle (again)

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

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. Six points away from home inside three days is an impressive feat. With matches against strugglers Cardiff, Villa, Fulham and Palace to come before the end of January, we have a great chance to build up a head of steam in the league.

Games that promise goals seem to rarely deliver…
Newcastle had scored in 15 of their last 16. Arsenal are Arsenal. It seemed for all the world that there were goals lurking in them there hills.

However, this was a game of few opportunities. Rosicky and Cazorla buzzed around but with little tangible end product. Tempting as it is to pin the blame on our plucky playmakers, Newcastle also deserve credit for some resilient defending.

Arsenal missed Ozil & Ramsey…
Of course they did. They’ve been our most creative players this season. Against Newcastle, we mustered just 11 attempts on goal. Against West Ham, with Ozil and Ramsey in action, we clocked up 29.

Giroud’s goal was invaluable for two reasons…
First and foremost, it won us the game. However, it’s also a vital goal for Giroud’s confidence. I’m not optimistic about Arsene signing a striker in January, so we need Giroud at his very best if we’re to have any chance of holding off City and Chelsea.

Theo Walcott’s technical improvement is often overlooked…
Theo takes a lot of stick for his failure to apply himself defensively and an occasional lack of composure. However, his technique really has come on leaps and bounds. I remember when I didn’t trust him to control the ball, let alone kick it cleanly. However, in this game he delivered a wonderful whipped free-kick to create the winning goal. Once upon a time, I would not have believed he was capable of anything even as seemingly simple as that. Arsene Wenger is right: never put limits on a player’s potential.

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. The Toon threw everything at us, but Mertesacker resisted, making a phenomenal 16 clearances along the way.

Arsene’s decision to switch to a back five was a big gamble…
With 10 minutes to play, Wenger withdrew Theo Walcott and put on Carl Jenkinson, shifting Bacary Sagna inside as a third central defender.
With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like a wise move. With Sagna, Koscielny and Mertesacker all in the middle, Arsenal were well-placed to deal with Newcastle’s aerial onslaught.
However, at the time the move made me anxious: in substituting Walcott, we lost our main threat on the counter-attack and essentially surrendered the momentum to Newcastle, inviting pressure. Fortunately, we now seem to have a defence capable of coping with that kind of siege warfare.
The gamble paid off. That, I expect, is why Arsene is the manager and not me. Also, I’m pretty busy with all the blogging.

It’s a matter of time until Wojciech Szczesny gets caught out…
On this occasion, his attempted clearance struck Loic Remy in the face but bounced just wide of the goal.
It seems to happen in every other game, and yet Szczesny is yet to have been punished. What we really need is for him to make a calamitous, Artur Boruc-style error when we’re already out of sight. That’ll give him the wake-up call he needs without costing us any points.

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.
Long may it continue.

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal: Time to shoot for the moon

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Newcastle 0 – 1 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

So that’s that. Imaginary red ribbons have been tied around the ethereal fourth-placed trophy. Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League.

Well, sort of. There’s still the significant matter of a preliminary round to navigate after Chelsea beat Everton to secure the automatic third spot. It’s a hurdle we’ve overcome several times in the past, and barring an unfortunate draw I’d expect us to do so again.

Crucially, Arsenal have also managed to finish above their rivals Tottenham. Again. I think we all understand that qualifying for the Champions League is important. Finishing above Spurs is just plain fun.

As luck would have it, I was working during the game, which spared both my nerves and my nails. There’s something curiously appropriate about the fact that at the end of a season in which I’ve often felt oddly detached from the side, I was absent at the very moment their fate was decided.

That’s not to say I wasn’t delighted. Arsenal did a difficult job well. Since the derby defeat to Spurs, Arsenal have won eight of their 10 league matches, drawing twice. This match was won in the pragmatic style that has defined this final part of the season.

That style was forged in the fires of the Allianz Arena, when Arsenal secured a surprising 2-0 victory over Bayern Munich. After that game, I said:

Contained within this performance was the DNA of an Arsenal team capable of hauling its way back in to the Champions League. Arsene Wenger must play John Hammond, extract it and bring it back to life before our very eyes, starting this weekend at Swansea.

The components are clear:

  • Hard work
  • Disciplined defending – not just from the back four, but the entire team
  • Efficiency in attack

I’d have been lying if I’d said I had absolute conviction that Arsenal could follow that mantra on a regular basis. However, Arsene Wenger has managed to set aside his love of flowing football and focus on the only thing that matters at this stage of the season: results. We compromised on some of our principles; we also conquered a good many of our problems.

That Laurent Koscielny was the clear match-winner yesterday typifies our recent resolve. Not only was he was scorer of the vital goal for the second year in succession, but he was also absolutely outstanding in defence. In Koscielny and Mertesacker, Arsene Wenger has uncovered a central defensive pairing with communication, balance, determination and no small amount of ability. That partnership, much like this Champions League qualification, is a foundation on which to build.

Some pundits have seen fit to criticise the Arsenal players for celebrating yesterday’s events with such vigour. Frankly, I don’t think it’s up to them to determine how happy our players should be. What’s more, such a view seems churlish in the extreme. In spite of everything that’s come before, Arsenal’s recent run is an achievement worth celebrating. We had a clear goal: to salvage the situation and finish fourth, and we did it. What’s more, we did it at the expense of our closest and most loathed rivals. To allow that to pass without celebration that would be bizarre. Remiss, even.

There are those who say there’s no point qualifying for a competition you’re unlikely to win. These snipers are the same folk who hold the trophy-hoarding example of Chelsea aloft as a superior model of management. Chelsea will be roundly praised for having won the Europa League this season, but it’s worth remembering they only competed in the competition as a consequence of exiting the Champions League – before Arsenal.

While I’m picking that bone: what a ridiculous system that is. Arsenal qualify from their group and go out on away goals to a Bayern Munich side who later beat Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate, yet Chelsea are allowed to remain in European competition and have another crack at silverware despite failing to even make it through their group. I struggle to see the logic there.

Anyhow, I digress. Qualifying for the Champions League is important for us. It keeps both the bank balance and the reputation of the club healthy. It’s not the be-all, but it’s certainly beneficial.

However, I don’t think it makes this season a success. Our domestic cup campaigns both ended in defeats that were not only humbling but humiliating. As for the league campaign, I suspect I will come to look back on this season as an opportunity missed.

Take a look around the other major clubs: Chelsea spent a season battling their own supporters after the appointment of a manager they detested. Manchester City had the worst summer they could possibly have had, missing out on Van Persie and Hazard and settling instead for Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair. United may have waltzed to the title but even their own fans will admit this is far from Ferguson’s strongest side.

The noises coming out of Arsenal now suggest that they’ll have money to spend this summer. That’s good news, but has to be tempered by the fact that market-place is set to be crowded with other big spenders. Messrs Moyes, Mourinho and Pellegrini will all be wanting to put their own stamp on their new teams, and however much our budget might have swelled it is unlikely to match theirs.

The advantage Arsenal have is that of consistent leadership. Arsene Wenger will be comfortably the longest-serving manager in the Premier League next season, but with that comfort comes an element of danger. When asked about new recruits in the aftermath of yesterday’s game, Arsene urged the importance of ‘stability’. My fear is that stability and complacency could go hand-in-hand.

It’s essential that Arsenal push on and do their utmost to make an impact in the market. Tread water for long enough and you drown.

The feat of making the top four for 16 consecutive years is impressive, but hearing Arsene trot that record out with increasing frequency makes me uncomfortable. On the weekend of Alex Ferguson’s retirement, it was telling that among the 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two Champions Leagues, his 22 consecutive top four finishes passed without mention.

If fourth place is any kind of prize, it’s a runners-up medal. For a club of our size, it’s oughtn’t be an aspiration but a conciliatory accessory to failure.

It’s simple, really. Don’t aim for fourth; aim for first, hit fourth if you fail.

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the Champions League’s assembled stars.