Reading 1-2 Arsenal (AET): No semi-final flourish but Gunners get there

To be perfectly honest, I’d rather look forward to an FA Cup Final than back at a less than inspiring game.

Just like last year, we made hard work of Championship opposition at the semi-final stage. From around the hour-mark, this game really could have gone either way. There was something miraculous about how we navigated the two ties at Wembley last season, and there were times during this match where I wondered if our luck had finally run out.

In my opinion, we underperformed just as badly as Liverpool did in the other semi. Fortunately, our opposition did not have the quality to punish our sloppiness. Pavel Pogrebnyak running at you does not pose quite the same threat as Christian Benteke.

Our disappointing display is in part explained by Arsene Wenger’s decision to rotate the team. That’s not a criticism — I felt the introduction of Wojciech Szczesny, Mathieu Debuchy, Kieran Gibbs and Danny Welbeck made sense. Wenger kept the midfield intact and thus ought to have preserved the core of the side.

However, that theory overlooks quite how integral Olivier Giroud has become to our style of play. Without him as a focal point, our attack looked disjointed. Danny Welbeck took some stick for his performance, but it seemed to me he suffered from playing in a team that had forgotten how to use him. We’re utterly reliant on Giroud at present, and were unable to adapt to a different style of striker.

With the fall-backs faltering, the changes made for a substandard performance. One only hopes there’s not more to it: this extraordinary winning run has to end at some stage. After another drab win at Burnley, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that our form peaked against Liverpool and is now on the wane.

That we made it to the final is largely down to Alexis Sanchez. This was reminiscent of our performances in the first half of the campaign, when we were regularly bailed out by the Chilean’s individual brilliance. Although he was quiet for long periods against Reading, he was still able to provide the two telling moments. When you pay £35 million for a marquee forward, it’s in the hope they’ll deliver when the crunch comes. Sanchez did not disappoint. The Americans would doubtless call him a ‘clutch’ player. I’ll settle for calling him bloody brilliant.

And so it’s Villa in the final. I’m delighted with that: Steven Gerrard’s farewell party would have cast a sentimental shadow over proceedings had Liverpool progressed.

However, Villa also worry me, for one simple reason: I can’t bear the thought of making Tim Sherwood happy. I’ve gone on record in the past stating my belief that Sherwood has the glass-eyed star of a man with more gilets than brain cells. To lose to him would be the ultimate humiliation. Spare me that, Arsenal. Please.

Ps. Listen to this week’s Arsecast Extra for discussions on Szczesny, Debuchy and the game.

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.

Arsenal 4 – 1 Reading: Arsenal win on Gervinho roulette

Gervinho shows off his Paolo Di Canio impression

Arsenal 4 – 1 Reading
Match Report | Arsene’s reaction | Highlights 

Fair play to Arsene…
I raised my eyebrows when I first saw the line-up he’d selected, but the result redeemed him. The two surprise inclusions were Gervinho and Bacary Sagna at the expense of Carl Jenkinson and Lukas Podolski, but both players demonstrated their worth with impressive displays.

Let’s celebrate Gervinho when he’s good…
…because we’re certainly quick to criticise him when he’s bad. The Ivorian was terrific in the wide attacking role usually occupied by Theo Walcott. Like Walcott, he was clearly encouraged by the manager to dart inside and support Olivier Giroud whenever possible. While the Englishman is undoubtedly a better finisher, Gervinho’s movement and dribbling ability is probably superior, and provided a constant headache for the Reading defence. We’re used to seeing Gervinho cause chaos on the pitch, but rarely for the right reasons.

I don’t expect this performance to mark any kind of pivotal moment in Gervinho’s Arsenal career. I don’t think he’s about to embark on a long run characterised by reliability and consistency. The goals and assists will always be accompanied by glaring moments of miscontrol. The flaws in his technique mean he will always remain unpredictable and erratic. However, every so often it will click and work out for him. When it does, we should be grateful and gracious.

Santi Cazorla was far too good for Reading…
Watching him, I began to worry that if we continue our gradual decline he will soon be too good for Arsenal as well. Since moving to England, he has been selected for the Spanish national team with increasing regularity. Among that group of players he represents something of an anomaly as he does not play for either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Not yet, anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if Arsenal were eventually tested by a bid from one of the La Liga giants. Cazorla is a rare gem, and the twin powers of Spanish football know it.

Regardless of what happens down the line, I’m determined to enjoy him while I can. If you love football, you love Santi.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s form is on an upwards curvature at last…
Until recently his season had been full of frustration. His potential is undoubted, but we’ve only seen flashes of his ability during this campaign. However, after an ebullient performance for England against San Marino, this cameo was full of the powerful running and energetic effervescence which built Chamberlain’s reputation as one of the brightest young talents in European football.

The table…
…is a little misleading, due to our game in hand. Currently, Chelsea are just two points ahead, with Spurs a further three in-front.  However, our North London rivals have played a game more.

It’s incredibly close, and all we can do is continue to win our games and hope for more slip-ups from Tottenham and Chelsea. Both clubs are competing on more than one front, while Arsenal are have the advantage of a single and solitary focus. We know what we need to do. Yesterday was certainly a step in the right direction.

Reading Preview: Is this thing on?

One-two… one-two… is anyone out there? Is this thing on?

Football is back. It feels like it’s been away for an eternity. We had that international nonsense, but that’s not ‘football’ as I understand it. It’s essentially an elaborate cover-up for a conspiracy to maim as many members of our squad as possible.

This time round we lost Theo Walcott to an injury picked up while away with England. Fortunately for Theo and Arsenal, it’s not too serious and he should be back in the next couple of weeks.

Sadly, the same can’t be said for Abou Diaby: Arsenal’s worst injury news was reserved for a player who hadn’t actually gone away on international duty.

Diaby has torn his left anterior cruciate ligament while training at London Colney, and will subsequently miss the remainder of 2013. It’s unsurprising, but still terribly sad. There’s no doubting Diaby’s talent, but it seems injury problems will prevent him from ever fulfilling it. I don’t want to write him off prematurely, but even if he recovers from this injury and is fit and healthy for the remainder of his career, the years he has lost mean he will never be the player he threatened to be.

By the time he returns from this injury he will be 27. He should be at his peak, and yet his career has never really started. I would curse his luck, but I’d far rather curse Dan Smith: the man responsible for the horror tackle that precipitated his decline.

Arsene Wenger had previously earmarked Diaby as someone who could player an important part during the run-in. However, the manager will now have to do without his French midfielder, starting today against Reading. Despite an intervening fortnight gap, I expect the line-up to show some continuity from the ones which triumphed over Bayern and Swansea. That means the defensive trio of Lukasz Fabianski, Carl Jenkinson and Laurent Koscielny should continue at the expense of messrs Szczesny, Sagna and Vermaelen. In midfield, Arteta and Ramsey will provide a defensive platform for Santi Cazorla to weave his magic. Olivier Giroud should keep his place upfront, and Arsene will then have to choose two wingers from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gervinho and the fit again Lukas Podolski. I’d like to see a recall for the German, who was devastatingly efficient in the reverse fixture back in December.

This is a game Arsenal must win. It’s also, with respect to Reading, a game Arsenal should win. Tottenham travel to Swansea who are certainly no pushover. The right results today could see Arsenal within a point of their North London rivals with a game in hand. After the derby defeat, it catching Spurs felt unthinkable.

Now, Arsenal fans everywhere are wondering: is this thing on?

Come on you Gunners. Let’s make it happen.

Why I’m not convinced Olivier Giroud is the right striker for Arsenal

Reading 2 – 5 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I considered writing this article several weeks ago, but was temporarily dissuaded of my view.  After the Fulham match in which he scored a brace, Olivier Giroud was briefly flavour of the month at Arsenal.  He followed that  impressive performance with a goal in the North London Derby, and all seemed well in the world.  At long last, Arsenal had a centre-forward again.

I had slated Giroud early on.  His lack of goals seemed to be me to be down more to poor technique than ill fortune.  I’d been a bit harsh, no doubt, and when he began to score I was relieved and delighted that I appeared to have been wrong.  I, like the rest of the Arsenal fanbase, have been willing him to succeed.  He’s French, he’s handsome, he works hard.  We paid a fair bit of money for him, and he’s got a cracking song.  Naturally, you want him to do well.

Since that derby game, Giroud has made six appearances without scoring.  He is starting to feel the pressure again, as his heavenward glances and angry reaction to not being allowed to take a penalty against West Brom show.  It’s not entirely his fault: he’s been benched on a couple of occasions, and hasn’t had fantastic service.  But therein lies the rub: without good service, Giroud offers very little attacking threat.  And it’s also a very specific type of service he seems to thrive on.

Whenever Giroud is on the pitch, I find myself willing us to cross the ball in to the box.  Of his seven goals this season, four have been headers.  Six have been from crosses.  It’s an impressive conversion rate, but I’m not sure that we’re set up to play as a team with a traditional target man.

Arsenal’s best team performances this season have come when they’ve played with a fluid front three based on pace, movement and dynamism.  Take, for example, the games at the Etihad, against Southampton, or Monday night’s thumping of Reading.  On those occasions it’s been one of Gervinho or Theo Walcott in the central striking role.

It’s a team game, you see.  Giroud might benefit from a style based around crosses, but I’m not sure anyone else does.  I’m not even sure we have the type of wingers who are prepared to get to the byline and swing it on a regular basis.  Podolski can cross, but he’s far happier making darting runs inside to try and get in to goalscoring positions.  Giroud is a significant aerial threat, but Arsenal would have to change their entire playing philosophy to get the best out of him.  The simple fact is that he isn’t good enough to justify that sort of sweeping philosophical shift.  It is rarely wise to mould your tactics around one player.  Admittedly, last season Arsenal did evolve a style that was built almost entirely to provide ammunition for Robin van Persie, but he responded with almost forty goals.  Giroud can not be expected to emulate that kind of efficiency.

I’m not saying he’s a bad player.  I think he’s a very good one.  I’m just not sure he’s the right one.  For years, people talked about Arsenal needing a target man as a Plan B.  Finally, they have one.  Giroud looks twice the player of Chamakh at the moment, and will doubtless become an important part of the squad.  There are times when we will need him.  But his style is opposed to that of the team.  He doesn’t fit Plan A.

Watching the Reading game it was impossible not to be struck by how the selection of Theo Walcott, a far more mobile player, at centre-forward immediately helped restore the buccaneering swagger of old to the Arsenal side.  But don’t be fooled: Walcott does not represent the long-term solution, largely because I suspect he won’t even be here in six months.  The very fact he’s being selected in such a crucial position when his future is in doubt shows that Arsene Wenger is having to be pragmatic to ensure results.  He cannot afford to take a stand.

Unless, of course, he brings someone in.  If I had the key to the safe at Arsenal, I’d be plying all the resources I could in to bringing in a top drawer centre-forward.  As Manchester United showed when they got Van Persie, sometimes it’s worth paying big money to secure that extra cutting edge.  We need someone with electric movement, frightening pace and lethal finishing.  There are goalscorers out there, it’s simply a question of showing the will and commitment to bring one in.  I genuinely believe it could transform the fortunes of this team.