Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff: We have forgotten how to play without a target man

Screen shot 2014-01-01 at 22.03.42

Arsenal 2 – 0 Cardiff
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The Emirates was a pretty gloomy place in the first-half…
…and not just because over the overcast sky that shrouded the ground in a wash of grey.
Arsenal’s first-half performance was poor. Both the crowd and the team were subdued. At its best, the relationship between those two entities is one of mutual provocation, each spurring the other on. On this occasion, neither side did much to elucidate a response from the other. The fans were probably hungover, and the players plain tired. I love the festive period but when you look at the number of muscular injuries being picked up across the league, fatigue is clearly a problem.

The one moment of levity in the gloomy first-half was provided by Bacary Sagna…
Arsenal were awarded a free-kick in a dangerous position just outside the penalty area, and Sagna was somehow given permission to take it. Unfortunately, his curled strike hit the wall.
On the serious side, one has to wonder how on Earth that came to pass in a team also containing Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski and Theo Walcott. I suppose one could make the argument that as a player who crosses regularly, Sagna is well practised at putting curl and dip on the ball.
However, Cazorla and Arteta were first-choice set-piece takers at Malaga and Everton respectively. Surely the Arsenal dead-ball jinx can not have struck them so severely that they have now been superseded by Sagna?

Jack Wilshere was a bright spark…
In the absence of Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere was handed the No. 10 role. He flourished. This performance was reminiscent of the all-action display he gave against Swansea in last season’s FA Cup. On that occasion, it was universally declared that Wilshere was “back”.

That turned out to be a little hasty, so I’ll refrain from such proclamations today.

This performance was simply another reminder of Wilshere’s undoubted talent. The assist for Walcott’s goal was, in particular, sublime. However, there have been plenty of such reminders this season. One immediately thinks of Wilshere’s glorious goal against Norwich, or his curled effort against Marseille.

His problem is not talent. His problem is consistency. One hopes that time and regular football will enable him to overcome that troublesome hurdle.

I don’t blame Podolski for his poor display…
I was one of those who was hopeful that Podolski could provide cover for Olivier Giroud at centre-forward. On the evidence of this game, that isn’t going to be the case.

Podolski and Giroud are very different types of striker. They require different types of service, and a different style of approach play. Podolski is an instinctive finisher who comes alive in and around the penalty area. Giroud is a tireless target man, who is prepared to run in to the channels and play with his back to goal.

For Podolski to thrive as a centre-forward, Arsenal would need to adapt their game. Judging by today’s performance, we’re in no hurry to do that.

It could be successful. Both Liverpool and Chelsea play without what you would call a traditional ‘target man’. Chelsea are a great example: like Arsenal, they play with three diminutive attack midfielders. However, they do not require a hulking great striker in order for those players to function. They regularly field the nippy Samuel Eto’o or the slight Fernando Torres. The player with the most obvious similarities to Giroud, Demba Ba, barely gets a look-in. The powerful Romelu Lukaku was sent out on loan.

However, Arsenal appear to have forgotten how to play without a traditional no. 9. It’s odd, especially when you consider that for so many years Arsene Wenger was criticised for his refusal to deploy a conventional striker.

The Invincibles team of 2003-04 arguably pioneered the whole “false nine” thing before anyone even knew what it was. With Thierry Henry drifting out to the left, and Dennis Bergkamp dropping in to midfield, Arsenal’s varied goal threat came with stealth and surprise. SKY lazily labelled it a 4-4-2 and we all bought it, but in truth there was no central pivotal striker.

In recent years, that has changed. 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. With Podolski starting up top, the rest of the team didn’t seem to know how to play it.

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.

Nicklas Bendtner’s introduction changed the game not because he is a better player than Lukas Podolski, but because he is a better impersonator of Olivier Giroud.

This all has implications for any proposed transfer activity this January…
With Bendtner now injured, Wenger may be a little more likely to dip in to the market. If he does, it must be for a striker with similar attributes to Giroud.  This current Arsenal team look unsuited to playing with any other kind of striker. Someone with a different style would require a period of adaptation, and given the intensity of this title race I’m not sure that’s something we can afford.

Diego Costa would be ideal, but the chances of him leaving Athletico Madrid in pre-season are slim.

Many will baulk at the suggestion, but Arsene Wenger needs to find another Emmanuel Adebayor.

In January (yes, January) of 2006, Arsene Wenger plucked the little-known Adebayor from the subs bench at Monaco. He went on to become a 30 goal, £25m striker. It’s time to ask Arsene to pull another such rabbit from his extraordinary hat.

When Emmanuel Adebayor was being left out of the Tottenham squad week-on-week by Andre Villas Boas, I privately wondered if Arsene Wenger would ever consider a short-term move for the former Arsenal man. Note: privately – I knew such a suggestion would invite ridicule and abuse if made public. It’s off the table now, and would probably have never happened: Adebayor simply carries too much baggage. However, there’s no doubt that physically and technically, he has all the attributes we require.

Arsenal need someone with size, strength, good close control, and ideally a bit of speed. Someone who can play the Giroud role, but perhaps with their own unique spin. An extra trick, or yard of pace.

Over to you, Arsene. Surprise me.

Arsene’s subs corrected his erroneous starting XI…
Introducing Rosicky and Bendtner was effectively an admission of the issues with the initial team. Fielding both Flamini and Arteta was unnnecessarily cautious, whilst Podolski’s problems have been covered above. As soon as the pair came on, Arsenal looked more effective.

In the second half, Theo Walcott was absolutely outstanding…
Walcott occasionally takes stick for shirking responsibility, but I thought he really took this game by the scruff of the neck. His crossing was quite superb, and Per Mertesacker probably ought to have scored from two of his most enticing balls. According to Squawka, he created six goalscoring opportunities against Cardiff – his highest tally in any game thus far.

He also has six goals this season, from just 10 starts.

Wingers, by their nature, are a bit infuriating to watch. They deal in fine margins – quite literally, given their proximity to the touchline. Considering that, Walcott’s efficiency and continued productivity is quite remarkable.

It’s almost impossible not to be pleased for Bendtner…
Everyone loves a redemptive hero, and there’s no doubt that his could be a hugely significant goal in our title bid. It’s unfortunate that he was injured in scoring, but I suspect his ego might have enjoyed the pseudo-martyrdom of sacrificing himself for the good of the team.
Rather enjoyably, he has now scored more goals from open play in this season’s Premier League than Tottenham’s £26m man Roberto Soldado.

All eyes on the FA Cup…
…and a mouth-watering game against Tim Sherwood’s Tottenham. With a tricky tie against Bayern in the Champions League, the FA Cup now represents our second-best chance of a trophy in 2013/14. Maybe the best. The season we’re having deserves silverware. We ought to give this competition absolute focus.

Arsenal 2-0 Hull: “Nicklas Bendtner: He scores when he wants”

Arsenal 2-0 Hull
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

It was a nice moment when Bendtner got the opener…
With Arsenal going so well in the table, there’s a genuinely positive atmosphere around the ground. The reception Bendtner got was predominantly warm even before he headed us in to an early lead.

It was clear he was delighted to score. It must have represented a moment of some retribution for him. Let’s be clear: a solitary goal against Hull doesn’t suddenly erase the sins of the past, but it might be the start of him moving on his career — be that at Arsenal or more likely elsewhere.

We saw different aspects of Bendtner’s game…
The goal demonstrated that Bendtner will always be a threatening physical presence in the penalty area. At his size, it’d be difficult not to be. Even earlier this season, when he was supposedly carrying an ankle problem and an extra couple of stone, he managed to head home two goals for Denmark against Italy.

While Bendtner is perfectly capable of emulating Giroud’s robust penalty box threat, he struggles to match the Frenchman’s accomplished hold-up game. It was telling that for long periods Bendtner didn’t seem to be involved in our build-up play. His movement and his first-touch still have a long way to go.

I’m no Bendtner apologist, but…
…the way he is talked about in the wider football media is extraordinary.

Obviously, as fans, we all poke a bit of fun at him. I’m more guilty of that than most. But I am slightly taken aback when I see the way supposedly ‘serious’ pundits talk about a player with 24 goals in 56 international caps.

On Match of the Day, they stated a goal from Bendtner against Hull is “not something you expect”. He is talked about as if he’s one of the worst footballers of all time. He’s not. He’s a guy with plenty of talent but a poor attitude.

As a personality, I agree that he is utterly risible. As a footballer? Less so. And that’s what these people should be assessing.

After the opening goal, the game threatened to become a bit ‘too easy’…
It was exhibition stuff, really. Beautiful to watch, but a little disconcerting for fans of a nervous disposition. I feared that Arsenal were in danger of becoming complacent. Fortunately, at the start of the second half, any such concerns were dispelled by the second goal which effectively killed the game.

Ramsey’s contribution to both goals was brilliant…
Although Bendtner will justifiably take most headlines, Aaron Ramsey played a crucial part in both goals. For the first, he played a beautiful slide-rule pass in to Carl Jenkinson, who again showed that he is the club’s best crosser by perfectly picking out Bendtner.

On the second goal, Ramsey’s interplay with Ozil was just a joy. The greatest compliment I can pay the final pass is that it’s one Ozil would’ve been chuffed to play himself.

The defensive record is beginning to look seriously impressive…
Arsenal have now kept four clean sheets on the bounce. I believe it’s also six in the last seven, and seven in the last nine. The numbers (or lack thereof) are mightily impressive.

Arsenal’s defensive solidarity was summed up for me in one late vignette. Hull’s Egyptian striker, Mohamed Nagy, raced on to a long ball over the top. Unsurprisingly, he appeared to have the beating of Per Mertesacker for pace. Instead of panicking and pulling him down, Mertesacker actually slowed up. He knew what would happen next.

From nowhere, Laurent Koscielny came steaming in at full throttle to nick the ball away. It was a moment that was indicative of the telepathic understanding between this pair.

As Arsene looks to rotate the side over the next few games, you can bet he’ll do everything he can to keep Mertesacker and Koscielny together.

I never thought I’d see a Man United side this bad…
…and boy is it funny. Yes, they’ll improve. Yes, they may even come in to contention later in the season. But let’s laugh at them now. Truly, it’s our turn, and we’ve waited long enough for it.

As for Roberto Martinez…
…I’m delighted to see him doing well. I always rated him at Wigan and he’s showing that his stylish philosophy is actually more effective when employed at a club with better resources and players.

Everton will be a big test for Arsenal come Sunday. Just as with Hull and Cardiff, our next opposition have fired a warning shot across our bows. It’s up to us to meet the challenge.

FURTHER READING:

For ESPN: Arsenal rotate but roll on past Hull

Arsenal 0 – 2 Chelsea: Arsenal understudies fluff their lines

Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The top story is: Chelsea’s reserves are better than Arsenal’s reserves…
I’m not sure there has been a squad in Premier League history as grossly bloated with talent as this current Chelsea group.

For this match Jose Mourinho was able to make 10 changes, yet the side he fielded would stand every chance of challenging for major honours. To have the likes of Juan Mata in reserve is beyond luxury and bordering upon absurdity.

The signing of Willian was symbolic of Abramovich and Mourinho’s tendency towards excess. When Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil, it was said that the Gunners didn’t “need” the German. Such an argument is plainly nonsense when held up against the Willian deal. Chelsea truly didn’t need the Brazilian. They signed him because they could, and because they feared his acquisition would strengthen a rival.

Wenger would never do that – even if he had the financial resources. He’d worry about congesting his squad, or allocating such a huge proportion of the club’s budget to a player who will not feature frequently.

Mourinho, on the other hand, is too short-termist to care, and Abramovich too rich. They build and build and buy and buy and now they’ve got a squad that contains at least two teams – maybe more. It might not be ethical but it’s pretty effective.

By contrast, Arsenal’s reserves are just that: players who fall a little way short of the standards expected of the first-team. Against Chelsea, it showed.

It would be disingenuous to blame it all on the stand-ins…
Arsenal fielded the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla in midfield, and none of those players hit the heights usually expected of them.

However, Carl Jenkinson had a shocker…
The opening goal exposed his major weakness: his aerial ability. First he was indecisive, then ungainly. It was a dreadful mistake to make.

Unfortunately for Jenkinson, even the areas of his game that are consistently positive, such as his crossing, were uncharacteristically poor.

He’s not as bad as he looked last night. However, it’s becoming clear that he may not be as good as he looked in the early part of last season.

Jenkinson’s current ability level lies somewhere in between the two poles: he is a good prospect with plenty to learn. He is not yet close to taking over as Arsenal’s first-choice right-back.

The sooner Bacary Sagna gets a new contract, the better.

Nicklas Bendtner looked as rusty as you’d expect…
Nothing stuck to the big Dane, and he even looked timid in front of goal. Believe it or not, the man with who turned the self-esteem up to 11 in his psychological profiling test looked short of confidence.

However, I refuse to believe he didn’t try. What would he have to gain from that? You’ve got a guy here who knows he’s on his last chance to make it with a big club, and whose contract expires this summer. He has every incentive to do well. Everyone agreed he seemed motivated and energised against Norwich. Now, all of a sudden, he doesn’t care? I don’t buy it.

The simple truth is he lacked service. A conventional target man like Bendtner is dependent upon supply.

Lacking in fitness? Certainly. Lacking in quality? Arguably. But those things, rather than a lack of will, were his principal crimes. And how booing him is supposed to help matters I have no idea.

Ryo Miyaichi is an odd one…
The coaching staff seem convinced he’s a gem, but he always looks more of a perfectly pleasant but inspiring pebble to me. Quick, with decent technique, but nothing special. I’m sure he’ll prove me wrong in time but I do wonder how great a toll all those injuries have taken.

Criticising Wenger’s selection policy is missing the point…
He didn’t have a huge amount of choice.

I’m convinced that had Serge Gnabry, Gedion Zelalem, Yaya Sanogo and Thomas Eisfeld been fit to start they would have been involved tonight. However, the crop of youngsters Wenger considers most appropriate to blood were almost entirely unavailable.

Wenger will have been disappointed that he was forced to use Ramsey, Wilshere and Cazorla, especially having failed to pick up a positive result. However, he’d gladly trade off Capital One Cup progression for three points against Liverpool on Saturday. That match is taking on more significance by the day.

For further reading follow me on Twitter @gunnerblog. More reaction to come throughout the day.

Arsenal 3-1 Stoke: A football match, believe it or not

It sticks in my craw, but I have to credit Mark Hughes…

Funny idiom, that. Apparently a craw is the throat of a bird. I googled it. I don’t have a bird’s throat, but if I did, having to be nice about Mark Hughes would certainly clog it right up.

Stoke are a changed team. They’re playing football now. Proper football. Rory Delap has been let go and has found his rightful place in League Two. Ryan Shotton and his towel have been dispatched to Wigan. The long-throws are out and short-passing is in.

I have to admit, I was impressed. Marc Wilson has transformed from a lumbering utility player in to a technically competent and positionally intelligent holding midfielder. In Marko Arnautovic, the Potters have acquired a number ten with both imagination and industry.

I don’t know if the speed of Stoke’s adaptation says more about Hughes’ innovation or Pulis’ intransigence. However, the latter option allows me to reduce Hughes’ credit and have a pop his predecessor, so I’ll plump for that.

There was a bit of role-reversal going on…

Stoke controlled a lot of the possession, yet Arsenal scored from three set-pieces. Still, at least the Stoke fans were forced to abandon their usual boast of supporting an “English” team – Kieran Gibbs and Jack Wilshere outnumbered Ryan Shawcross on today’s team-sheets.

Opportunity Gnocked for Serge…
…and I thought Gnabry did very well. His touch was superb, and the only criticism you could level at him is that he sometimes looked a little timid. After beating the first man he’d generally look to pass the ball to a more senior colleague.

His body-shape and running style remind me a little of Chelsea’s Eden Hazard. I certainly hope to see more of him in next week’s Capital One Cup tie with West Brom.

It was good to see some familiar faces on the bench…

The return of Mikel Arteta gives us back some depth in midfield. It will be genuinely difficult to choose between Arteta and Flamini, who was at his rambunctious best against Stoke, putting as much energy in to pointing and cajoling as tackling and harrying.

In difficult away games, it could be an option to field both, with Aaron Ramsey patrolling the area just ahead and Mesut Ozil stationed on the wing. It’s one of those “nice problems” Arsene Wenger will be delighted to have.

It was good too see Nicklas Bendtner back on the bench. Yes, he is hugely out of practise. Yes, he is a little overweight. Yes, he looks like he’s come to a fancy dress party in disguise as ‘The Mandarin’ from Iron Man 3. However, I’d still rather call on the Dane than either Yaya Sanogo or Chuba Akpom.

For Aaron Ramsey, confidence is everything…

His opening goal looked like a simple tap-in, but was in reality far trickier. He had to react in an instant to find a very narrow gap between goalie and post with his weaker foot.

Of course, in his current form, he pulled it off. 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.

Ozil’s set-pieces are a bonus…
The German is not renowned as a dead-ball specialist but as an assured technician is able to get the ball beyond the first man and in to dangerous areas. That’s more than most of our current crop.

I am continually amazed that a group of such technically gifted players are unable to consistently deliver a decent set-piece. Even the wondrously-gifted Santi Cazorla seems to have inherited the Arsenal disease of lumping the ball directly in to the first defender.

Hopefully Ozil’s immaculate technique can give us a new attacking weapon for our Arsenal.

Have Arsenal ever had so many one-footed players?
We frequently celebrate Cazorla’s ambidexterity, but I can’t remember an Arsenal team containing so many players who simply refused to use their wrong foot. The likes of Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud seem allergic to kicking the ball with their right boot.

Perhaps its because we have so many lefties in the squad. Left-footed players aren’t encouraged to develop their two-footedness as much as they’re generally allowed to flourish as specialists.

It’s time some of our squad got working on moulding their chocolate legs.

Arsenal miss Tomas Rosicky…
Arsenal struggled to maintain their tempo for long periods of this game. I can’t help but feel that’s because of the absence of the metronomic Tomas Rosicky.

It seems there will not be room for Rosicky and Ozil in the same team. Hopefully one of the other midfielders – Ramsey perhaps – can pick up the baton and start picking up the tempo in the middle of the park.

For all Ozil’s gifts, he won’t replicate the persistent pressure that Rosicky is able to put on opposition defenders.

Deadline Day: Don’t get your hopes up

It’s that time of year again.  Jim White is frothing at the mouth in a cage deep in the bowels of Sky Sports, soon to be released.  Agents are rubbing their hands, clubs are panicking, and Arsenal are doing, well, nothing.  Transfer deadline day is here.

I’m exaggerating for comic effect.  We’re not doing ‘nothing’.  There will be a couple of relatively high-profile departures today – although Theo Walcott won’t be one of them.  Arsene Wenger has decided to run the risk of keeping him at the club as he enters the final year of his contract.  The latest quotes from Arsene don’t sound entirely convincing:

“Theo is focused to do well, and whatever happens at the end of the season happens at the end of the season. He loves the club. Maybe we can find an agreement at some stage.”

Keeping him without an agreement doesn’t make much business sense.  Either we’re very confident he’ll choose to sign, or we simply don’t feel we can afford to lose another established star.

One man who is going is Nicklas Bendtner.  The Not-so-great Dane is undertaking a medical in Turin this morning ahead of a loan move to Juventus.  I think we’re probably all agreed he’s landed on his feet there.  It’ll be a deal with an option to buy, but he’l have to have a better season than he did at Sunderland to stay in Serie A permanently.
Reports in the Korean media say Park Chu-Young has flown to Spain to complete a transfer to Celta Vigo.  However, I have it on good authority that Celta are pursuing other options, so this deal may not be quite as advanced as those stories suggest.
There’s a bit of chat that he could be joined in La Liga by Marouane Chamakh, who is linked with a move to Malaga.  I suppose we owe them a favour after stealing Santi Cazorla for £12.6m, although I’d still be slightly surprised to see us let all three of Chamakh, Park and Bendtner go.  If we do, then surely we have to bring in another centre-forward – and at the moment I can’t see us bringing in anyone at all.
There are a few stories doing the rounds in the papers this morning, linking us with Cheick Tiote, Daniel Sturridge, and Michael Essien.  Tiote I can write off straight away – Alan Pardew spent much of last night’s post-match press conference praising his chairman Mike Ashley for resisting enquiries from other clubs for his top talent.  Sturridge too seems unlikely – he is one of only two centre-forwards in the Chelsea squad, and question marks over his attitude make him an unlikely Arsene signing.  The Essien story has a ring of truth to it – Chelsea have little use for him in an over-stocked midfield, and he’s a player Arsene has long admired.  There are question marks over his form and his fitness, but no more so than when we took Yossi Benayoun on loan from the same club a year ago.
However, if you asked me to be bold, I’d stick with yesterday’s prediction:
Predicted Outs: Bendtner, Park
Predicted Ins: None
I’d love to be wrong.
Finally, yesterday saw the most celebrated draw of the football calendar: the Capital One Cup. We’ve got Coventry at home.  In other news, we’ve got Schalke, Olympiakos (again) and Olivier Giroud’s former club Montpellier in a comfortable-looking Champions League group.

And so it’s on with the transfer frenzy.  Through the pain, the anguish, the glimmers of hope and the long periods of boredom, I’ll be tweeting events over at @Gunnerblog.  Come Follow Me.