Aston Villa 1 – 2 Arsenal: Sheer Will From Wilshere

Aston Villa 1 – 2 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Before the game…
I was asked by People.co.uk to compare Aston Villa to a cartoon character. I suggested Spongebob Squarepants, as he’s young, full of energy, but ultimately not very good at football.

I was wrong. They didn’t have much energy.

Wilshere’s contribution was Ramsey-esque…
In the Welshman’s absence, Jack has really stepped up. Many will point to the fact he’s getting a run in his preferred position, but I also think he’s relishing the added responsibility.

Whenever he praised Ramsey’s heroics earlier this season, I always felt he was masking a nagging envy. There was a lot of, “he’s a great example” and “I hope I can follow what he’s doing”, but the subtext was clear: Wilshere wanted a bit of the glory. Now, finally, he’s getting it.

Prior to the kickoff of the 2013/14 campaign, Wilshere had just five Arsenal goals to his name. However, the goal he scored against Villa was his fifth of this season. You don’t need to be a mathematician to work out what that means, but I’m going to tell you anyway. In just half a season, Wilshere has doubled his career goals tally for Arsenal. Ramsey’s extraordinary feats have clouded Wilshere’s improving efficiency.

The fact that moments after scoring his goal he won the ball back and created the second tells you everything about his character. Many players would have been content to sit back and soak up the glory for a bit. Not Jack: he was straight back on the front foot. That competitive spirit is invaluable.

Per Mertesacker loves his job…
His job is to defend, and he clearly adores it. For too long Arsenal had defenders who aspired to be footballers. Mertesacker, on the other hand, has embraced his fate.

He’s under no illusions: he couldn’t be a No. 10. With his physical and technical limitations, centre-back is the only position in which he could realistically make a career as a professional footballer. Almost because of that, he is absolutely dedicated to his craft. Unlike the likes of Ozil, he can’t get by simply on talent. He is a student of the game. Scrap that: he’s a professor. A don.

His reaction to conceding the Benteke goal was fabulous. He was furious with Santi Cazorla for ceding possession in such a needless manner. We saw a flash of the rage that Mertesacker turned on Ozil when he failed to applaud the away fans a few weeks back. Behind the meek exterior is the same competitive spirit that drives Wilshere.

The decision not to bring Podolski on will get people talking…

…largely due to his clearly disappointed response.

There’s a few things to say on this. The first is that it’s entirely reasonable and normal for a player to be disappointed at not being used. The second is that Arsene probably made the right choice: when you’re holding on to a lead, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s energy is certainly more useful than Podolski’s powerful shooting.

However, the noise surrounding Podolski’s uncertain future has not been generated by one isolated incident. It’s been clear since the start of 2013 that Arsene Wenger has issues with selecting the German.

The fact that teenager Serge Gnabry was selected to start over Podolski seems far more significant than the fact he didn’t make it off the bench. As a man with more than 100 caps to his name, Podolski wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t a little irked to have fallen behind the upstart Gnabry in the pecking order.

Arsene has thrown down quite the gauntlet to Podolski here. As I wrote in this piece for ESPN, I fear it could end acrimoniously in the summer. However, perhaps it’s the mother of all motivation techniques. If Podolski is handed an opportunity from the start against Fulham, he’ll certainly feel he has a point to prove.

This wasn’t one of those “mark of champions” performances…
It wasn’t professional. It was sloppy. Arsenal should have had this game wrapped up, but instead slacked off in the second half and allowed Villa back in to it. Given how poor Villa were for most of the game, anything other than three points would have been something of a disaster.

However, we got there in the end. We stumbled but we didn’t slip. Arsenal are back on top of the table. Just how I like it.

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.

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.

Gunnerblog End of Season Awards 2013

Cazorla vs Liverpool

It’s that time again, when I metaphorically hand out fictional awards to players who will never actually receive them or know they’ve won.

Let’s get straight on with it.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON

Last year Arsenal hand a stand-out winner: footballer of the year Robin van Persie. In the wake of Van Persie’s departure, Arsene Wenger made it plain that responsibility would have to be shared more equally throughout the team.

Nevertheless, one man rose above the rest. It’s a good job he rose, because he’s so small that frankly you’d have difficulty spotting him otherwise.

Santi Cazorla has had an outstanding first season in English football. I’d second Arsene Wenger’s sentiments in wondering aloud just how he wasn’t voted in to the PFA Team of the Year. Few players in English football have demonstrated Cazorla’s combination of style and stoicism; technique and tenacity. Cazorla is that rare thing: a flair player with real guts. His numbers aren’t bad either: in the Premier League alone, he managed 12 goals and 12 assists.

The first thing that struck me about Cazorla in pre-season was his remarkable two-footedness. He is genuinely ambidextrous, able to torment defenders by shifting on to either his left or right foot with equal ease. That two-footedness is a hallmark of the astonishing degree of technical excellence which Cazorla brings to all aspects of his game (with the disappointing and typically-Arsenal exception of set-piece delivery).

At the start of the season, Arsene understandably sought to build the team around the diminutive Spaniard, fielding him in a central playmaking role. As the campaign wore on, pragmatism took hold, and Cazorla was confined to the left wing. It is testament to his intelligence and versatility that his influence has not waned.

No player has had a more consistent presence in the first team: Cazorla has started 47 games this season. That underlines his important to the side. We simply wouldn’t know what to do without him.

Cazorla was the obvious candidate for me, although I’d also like to give a quick mention to two other players. Firstly, Per Mertesacker deserves credit for a hugely consistent year. Many expected him to fall behind Laurent Koscielny and Thomas Vermaelen in the battle for places at centre-back, but instead he emerged as the lynch-pin of our defence. I can’t help but feel Steve Bould sees something of himself in the lanky German.

Theo Walcott also warrants praise for his best season to date. In just 31 starts he amassed 22 goals and 15 assists. Our collective frustration with Walcott would be better exercised elsewhere: when we needed him, he invariably produced the goods, and his decision to stay with the club was undoubtedly one of the high-points of the season.

YOUNG PLAYER OF THE SEASON

Once upon a time the Arsenal team was full of striplings, and this category was hotly contested. Previous winners include the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song and Jack Wilshere. However those kids have either graduated, grown up, or been injured a lot.

The Arsenal team these days has a more grizzled look to it. The likes of Mertesacker, Sagna, Arteta and Cazorla raise the age profile of the side considerably, and even our Carling Cup side this term had an unusual degree of experience.

Of the remaining Arsenal tyros, there were high hopes for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but he struggled to meet the unfair levels of expectation. Carl Jenkinson had an excellent start to the season that saw him earn an England call-up and a new contract, and he’ll hope to challenge for a first-team spot on a more consistent basis next season.

I toyed with the idea of giving it to Kieran Gibbs, but decided that at 23 he was probably too old. I hate seeing the PFA dish out Young Player awards to the likes of James Milner when he’s well in to his mid-twenties.

However, at the start of this season, Aaron Ramsey was just 21. He was also something of a lightening-conductor for the Arsenal fans’ frustrations. If not every misplaced pass was met with a boo, they were certainly met with a collective tut of disapproval. By the end of the season, however, he had emerged as one of the team’s most important components.

Ramsey’s season mirrors Arsenal’s own. In the first half he looked out of sorts. He was trying things he didn’t necessarily have the skill or the confidence to pull off. In the second half, pragmatism took hold. Ramsey, like Arsenal, kept it simple and reaped the benefits. Alongside the efficiency of Arteta, Ramsey’s energy and effervescence has proved invaluable.

WORST PLAYER OF THE SEASON

There are some players who disappointed this season. Bacary Sagna fell below his previously immaculate standards, and Thomas Vermaelen’s performances lacked the discipline you’d expect of an Arsenal captain and centre-half.

Then there are some players whose contribution was plain poor. Our record signing Andrey Arshavin failed to make a single Premier League start, and even when called upon rarely looked like a player itching for 90 minutes of action.

Then there is Andre Santos. When it comes to this award, it’s impossible to see past the Brazilian – and that’s not just because of his expanding waistline. I actually think the stick he received for his half-time strip session with a certain Dutchman was way overblown, but it remains impossible to defend some of his performances on the field. Although his loan spell with Gremio is about to come to an end, it seems Santos’ Arsenal career reached its own conclusion the moment we signed Nacho Monreal.

GAME OF THE SEASON

There was a period before Christmas when Arsenal played with all the self-destructive madness of a radicalised lemming. The consequence was a series of unbelievable matches. The 7-3 with Newcastle is noteworthy not only for the unusual scoreline but also Theo Walcott’s breathtaking hat-trick.

Beating Tottenham 5-2 is hard to surpass, although seeing as it’s becoming an annual thing there’s no need to lavish it with another award. Like that swotty child in school, it can’t win the Maths prize every year.

I’m going to opt for Reading 5-7 Arsenal: The game that nearly broke me. This match had everything – even a Marouane Chamakh goal. Arsenal came from four goals down to win in some style. As I wrote at the time:

The first half was abject, then apocalyptic, then embarrassing. The second half was acceptable, then alluring, then astounding. Extra-time was just plain bonkers.

WORST GAME OF THE SEASON

This season managed to provide far too many contenders for this category for my liking.

The home defeat to Swansea was probably as volatile an atmosphere as the Emirates has ever experienced. I remember leaving the ground that day wondering if Arsene would be forced to resign. The players were apathetic and the crowd were apoplectic.

However, the cup defeats to lower league opposition take the biscuit. Blackburn was bad; Bradford was worse. To lose to a team in League Two, with effectively our best team on the field, was humiliating. The fact that defeat also robbed us of a fantastic chance to win a trophy merely rubbed salt in to the not inconsiderable wound.

Also, this:

HIGHLIGHT OF THE SEASON

I was so stuck for what to write in this bit that I opened it up to Twitter. As ever, there were some cracking suggestions: Per Mertesacker’s thumping header against Spurs; Tottenham fans celebrating an imaginary goal on the final day; Jack Wilshere’s long-awaited return.

In the end, I’ve simply had to plump for the end.

This was not a vintage season for our club. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad to see the back of it. We celebrated on the final day, but it was more an escape than an achievement. Fourth place is often compared to a trophy, but for a club of our stature it’s more comparable to surviving a relegation scrap. We felt relief rather than joy.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE SEASON

There were so many – and sadly, so many that are now horribly familiar. Our utter failure to contest the major trophies is something that is becoming soul-crushingly customary.

For the sake of variety, I’ve decided to opt for an unusual choice: the plight of Abou Diaby.

When scrolling through our statistics to make my choice for Player of the Season, I was genuinely jolted by seeing Diaby’s name: I had forgotten he played for us. That rapid decline is all the more remarkable when you consider that at the start of the season he was turning in man of the match performances against the likes of Manchester City.

Sadly, since then he has succumbed to another major injury.  I’m not sure how many more there will be in his career.

Arsene Wenger has shown enormous faith in Diaby throughout his struggles, and Diaby himself has shown tremendous courage to fight back from a succession of blows. However, after this latest blow I can’t help but feel that Arsene’s faith and Diaby’s courage will be wearing as thin as the cartilage in the Frenchman’s knackered ankle.

So there you have it. Tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at the season as a whole through the prism of the blog. Till then.

Fulham 0 – 1 Arsenal: Thoughts on red cards, Giroud, and Suarez

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

This was a dismal display from Arsenal…
…but it really doesn’t matter. At the end of a season, you’ll often hear managers saying they face “five cup finals”, or some such guff. And here’s the thing: no-one remembers who played well in a cup final. They remember who won.

Arsenal’s record in the seven games since the North London Derby reads six wins and one draw.  It’s a remarkable run. Prior to Spurs, we’d won just 46% of our league games. Since then, it’s 83%.

Steven Sidwell couldn’t really argue with his red card…
Partly because a card is an inanimate object incapable of discourse. Also because the tackle was more clumsy than calculated, but it was still dangerous. Arteta was lucky to escape without injury, and Sidwell had to go.

Arsenal failed to impose themselves upon the ten men…
The attacking trio of Giroud, Walcott and Cazorla were particularly poor. Walcott spent much of his time charging in to crowded central channels when he would have been better off stretching an outnumbered Fulham defence by providing width on the overlap.

It was satisfying to finally score from a set-piece…
Our failure to convert more of our corners and free-kicks is inexcusable. If the brain-dead orcs of Stoke can manage to rehearse and execute a few set-pieces, we should be able to as well. Watching Santi Cazorla fire a corner in to the first defender is like watching Picasso fail to draw a stick man. In this instance, Theo Walcott’s lofted free-kick was neatly converted by the combination of Koscielny and Mertesacker.

Giroud has little chance of an appeal…
Even though his tackle had all the force of a Gervinho shot at goal, his foot was clearly over the ball. Even if Arsene Wenger goes back on his post-match assertion that a red card was fair, Giroud has little chance of being let off.

Perhaps Arsene’s readiness to accept the referee’s decision is borne out of concern that Giroud may be burning out. The Frenchman was particularly poor at Craven Cottage, and taking him out of the firing line may be no bad thing. It is maddening, however, that we have no obvious replacement for the central striker role. I will forever regard Arsene’s reluctance to bid for Demba Ba as one of the most baffling decisions of his reign to date.

Results elsewhere…
…didn’t go exactly as we hoped. With Spurs facing City and Chelsea at Liverpool, this was a weekend on which we could have reasonably expected both of our rivals to lose. Instead, Tottenham came from behind to comprehensively beat City, while Chelsea were pegged back to earn a point at Anfield.

It makes the race for the top four incredibly tight. It’s important to remember that Spurs and Chelsea’s game in hand is against each other, so they can’t both take maximum points. At this stage, my gut instinct is that Chelsea’s fixture list is simply too tough to navigate without dropping points, so the North London clubs have the advantage for now. Three wins from our remaining four games will probably be enough for us, barring an extraordinary sequence of results from the other two.

The first of those games is against Manchester United, who could well be Champions by then. I’d certainly rather face a side hungover from a title-winning party than a side on the verge of winning the league at the home of a rival club.

On Luis Suarez…
Luis Suarez is a despicable human being. We’ve known that for some time.

In the aftermath of his latest transgression – biting Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic – he has been widely criticised by the football media. The same football media who have spent much of the season praising him and may have already voted for him as the Football Writer’s Footballer of the Year.

Gary Lineker has begun a campaign last night to see Suarez removed from the PFA Player of the Year Shortlist. I can’t help but think: isn’t it strange that it’s his behaviour today that has precipitated this reaction, rather than Suarez’s past behaviour?

Don’t exclude him from a shortlist because he bit someone. Exclude him from all shortlists – exclude him from English football entirely – because of his racist behaviour. It’s a thousand times worse; a thousand times more significant. I’ve been sickened and disappointed by how easily English football seems to have forgiven Suarez for his proven abuse of Patrice Evra.

Pundits will queue up to ask what kind of example Suarez biting Ivanovic sets to kids. I’d ask them instead what sort of example their season-long praise of a man guilty of proven racist behaviour sets.

I recognise that Suarez is a fantastic footballer. But that, like the biting, is something of a red herring.

This season, some Premier League players chose not to wear t-shirts that bore the slogan ‘Kick it out’. It saddens me that the stark and important message of that campaign seems to have been forgotten.