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

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

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

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

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

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

Caz-ozil is not yet working as anticipated…
Arsenal fans waited for six weeks to see Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil play together. Thus far, the combination has failed to live up to its understandably starry billing.

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

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

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

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

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

Arsenal needed a win today…
Our next four fixtures see us face off against Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund and Manchester United. This clash with Palace was all about getting three points – by any means.

It’s often said that winning while playing poorly is the mark of a title-challenging side. I’ll hold off from such proclamations until we are able to assess Arsenal’s performance in the difficult games ahead.

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.

Sunderland 0 – 1 Arsenal: He’s Bac

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

This win was absolutely essential…
With Chelsea and Spurs both picking up wins, it was vital that we maintained the pace in the race for Champions League qualification. The next month or so sees us face both Tottenham and Everton, sandwiched by cup ties with Blackburn and Bayern. We are entering the period that will define our season, and momentum is crucial.

In the first half, Arsene’s tactical tweak worked a treat…
I was very surprised to see Lukas Podolski on the bench again, with Aaron Ramsey handed a start. However, Arsenal’s midfield dominated the game, and there was a slightly different shape in evidence too.

Ramsey sat in a deeper role alongside Arteta. Jack was playing as the advanced midfielder, with Cazorla ostensibly starting from the left-wing. In truth, Cazorla spent almost the entire game playing inside, combing with Jack and the strikers. It was a less a midfield three and more of a four, replicating the ‘magic square’ that the Brazil national team have been known to use.

Wilshere’s injury changed the game…
Jack’s combination play with Santi had been mesmerising. When we lost Wilshere, we also lost our way a little bit. It was noticeable too that Sunderland improved significantly when they replaced the thuggish Cattermole with the more technical Larsson.

This game highlighted the gulf between Bacary Sagna and Carl Jenkinson…
I appreciate that Carl only knew he was playing 15 minutes before kick-off. I also appreciate that we came across a referee who seemed only too happy to hand out cards to our players while letting their Sunderland equivalents get away with (attempted) murder.

Despite that, Carl Jenkinson’s sending off was very silly indeed. Having picked up a booking inside the first ten minutes, he was always walking a tight-rope. When walking a tight-rope of any kind, it is not advisable to make any sudden lunges. Unfortunately, Carl did just that at Stephane Sessegnon, and a second yellow duly followed.

By contrast, Bacary Sagna was a rock at centre-back. Like Jenkinson, he didn’t know what role he’d be playing until shortly before kick-off. Unlike Jenkinson, he excelled.

I think some of the criticism aimed at Sagna in recent weeks has been extremely harsh. Yes, his recent performances have fallen below his own impeccable standards, but he remains one of our best players.

The idea that Jenkinson is ready to displace Sagna is nonsense. I for one hope that we keep the Frenchman by giving him the long-term deal he craves. If he leaves this summer, as appears increasingly likely, we’ll need to bring in someone with the requisite experience to fill that spot.

I love Carl, but a few good games earlier this season do not make him an international class defender.

The whole defence deserve credit…
Nacho Monreal coped well, Per Mertesacker organised an unfamiliar defence, and Wojciech Szczesny had his best game of the season. Aaron Ramsey also deserves enormous credit for filling in superbly at right-back when required.

Our finishing…
…ought to have been better. Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla both squandered glaring opportunities to seal the game on the counter. Fortunately, we were able to fall back on an outstanding defensive display to get the three points.

Some thoughts on Andre Santos…
As I write this it seems the “false three” is on the verge of joining Gremio on loan. It’s remarkable to think that on the final day of last season, he was preferred to Kieran Gibbs and scored a crucial goal in our ascension to the Champions League places.

His fall since then has been spectacular. I can’t help but feel that the infamous shirt swap incident with Robin van Persie was a huge catalyst towards his departure. On that day, he lost the fans, and it’s almost impossible to come back from that – just ask Emmanuel Eboue or Nicklas Bendtner. Every mistake is highlighted; every indiscretion scrutinised. I’m not sure that Santos has been more error-prone than many of our other defenders, but the tide turned against him on that November day.

I wish him all the best. He seems like a very decent guy, if not a great defender.

I also have to question our policy of continually weakening our squad. When Arsene signed Nacho Monreal, he suggested it was because he needed two left-backs at all times. Why has that changed in the space of ten days?

The fact we’re playing Sagna at centre-back suggests that loaning Djourou out probably wasn’t the smartest move. I hope we don’t pay for allowing other players to leave at a time when it’s impossible to replace them.

Barton, Brawls & Babies on the Bench

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Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

In some respects, this game was much like the equivalent fixture last season.  Arsenal dominated the first half, fell away in the second, and had a French-speaking black man sent off for a spat with Joey Barton.

Missing were two key ingredients: a stomach-turning, apocalyptic sense of despair; and goals.  A 0-0 is quite an unusual thing for an Arsenal team, and suggests two things.  1) We were surprisingly assured at the back – 2) we were surprisingly lacklustre in attack.

The team was as I expected, with Laurent Koscielny and Andrey Arshavin picked ahead of Johan Djourou and Theo Walcott.  From our existing crop of centre-backs, Koscielny and Vermaelen is clearly Arsene’s preferred pairing.  Walcott, meanwhile, is only just returning from injury, and with Cesc and Nasri both absent the manager was always likely to plump for Arshavin’s craft.

In the first half we dominated without actually creating too many clear-cut opportunities.  Tomas Rosicky had a good opportunity early on but, having gone 34 league games without a goal, never looked convincing.  Gervinho was lively, exhibiting some direct dribbling and elusive moment, but all too often his final ball was inaccurate.  The closest we came was through Laurent Koscielny, who beat a hesitant Tim Krul to Rosicky’s corner, only to see his header cleared off the line.

Newcastle barely threatened, and when they did Wojciech Szczesny was in dominant form, showing great confidence to come off his line and punch the ball away whenever the opposition put a threatening ball in to the box.

Newcastle’s 4-4-2 formation meant they constantly found themselves outnumbered, so at half-time Alan Pardew introduced Gabriel Obertan, who played from a little deeper than Demba Ba.  Newcastle improved, particularly defensively – it would’ve been impossible for them to play much worse – and as a spectacle the game dropped off.  The second half will live longer in the memory, however, because it was punctuated by two very unsavoury incidents.

It will not surprise you to know that Joey Barton was involved in both.  First off, he lunged in to an untidy tackle on Alex Song.  It wasn’t particularly pleasant, but it didn’t warrant what followed, as Song maliciously stamped down on Barton’s unguarded ankle.

It was an incredibly stupid thing to do.  For one thing, Song was already walking a tight-rope having been booked.  As it is, the fact that the referee missed it means he’s likely to be pulled before the FA and handed a three-match ban for violent conduct, missing games against Liverpool and United in the process.  With Jack Wilshere also a doubt due to an achilles injury, that’s the last thing we need.

The incident clearly riled Barton, who stormed off the pitch to ask why the fourth official hadn’t communicated what had happened to the referee.  God knows what he’d have done if the fourth official had answered honestly: the batteries on his walky-talky had run out.

With fifteen minutes to go came the game’s second major talking point.  Gervinho, who had switched flanks throughout the contest, darted down the left in to the penalty area, and skipped inside Cheikh Tiote.  As he did so, he went to ground.

The first question is: was it a dive?  Match of the Day’s Alan Shearer, who is as quick as any pundit to throw out the ‘Johnny Foreigner’ cliches, felt it wasn’t, and I’m inclined to agree.  Whilst Gervinho undoubtedly left his foot in and went to ground easily, there was contact.  The referee didn’t blow for a penalty, but nor did he go to give Gervinho a yellow card for simulation.  In fact, he turned his back on the incident, and waved play on.

And this is when Barton saw fit to get involved.  Charging up to Gervinho, he dragged the Ivorian to his feet, and in the resulting melee Gervinho reached a hand out and slapped Barton on the side of the head.  The debutant was sent off, and Barton booked.

It was reminiscent, of course, of last season, when Abou Diaby was dismissed for reacting to a horrible tackle from Barton.  There’s no doubt in my mind that Barton was out to get an Arsenal player sent off as ‘revenge’ for the Song incident.  Barton is the type of player who gets involved purely to induce that sort of outcome – it’s not coincidence that these incidents follow him around.  Pundits will sometimes call these players ‘great wind-up merchants’ – Wise, Savage, Bellamy – everyone else calls them horrible little shits.

The way he reacted to Gervinho’s tap on the face, falling to the ground as if he’d been shot, with Steven Taylor (who has a history of that kind of thing himself) miming an elbowing motion was rather embarrassing.  After the game Alan Pardew defended Barton’s attack on Gervinho by saying “no professional likes to see diving”.  But it’s OK to writhe around on the floor after being caught by what is essentially a pat on the head?

Gervinho was, I hasten to add, no angel.  He didn’t make much contact with Barton’s head, but that was largely because he was off-balance.  Let’s be honest: he wasn’t reaching out for a tender stroke, or to gently replace the preposterous fringe Barton was sporting.

I can understand why Song and Gervinho reacted the way they did to Barton’s provocation, but I’m still disappointed.  It’s no excuse to say, “he started it”.  Barton is a twisted individual whose consuming anger has forced him to seek medical and psychological treatment.  He is someone whose consistently aggressive behaviour makes it difficult for him to exist peacefully in wider society.  He is no barometer by which we should judge our own players.  Part of their responsibility, as professionals, is not to respond to idiots like him.

I think Arsene called it right when he said post-game that the referee should have given Gervinho and Barton equal punishments.  There is nothing in the rules that says that “raising your hands” is an automatic sending off.  The definition of violent conduct is employing “excessive force or brutality against an opponent”.  I’m not sure either Gervinho or Barton were guilty of that, and if anyone was excessively forceful it was certainly Barton.   Amusingly enough, what Barton did to Gervinho should probably have resulted in a spot-kick being rewarded anyway, as play had continued.

The frustrating thing is that the referee didn’t actually see what took place, but having booked Barton there is no chance of him being punished retrospectively.  I expect Gervinho’s ban to be upheld, and for him to be joined in a three-game sin bin by Alex Song.

After that brief drama the game petered out.  Arsene brought on Johan Djourou and debutant Emmanuel Frimpong to shore things up, and despite a couple of late chances to release sub Theo Walcott, the match ended in a 0-0.

And so, we kick off our campaign with a draw, which I probably would’ve taken before the game.  Credit must go to our defence, who coped well with an admittedly tame Newcastle attack.  I thought the back four of Gibbs, Vermaelen, Koscielny and Sagna looked composed throughout, and it was particularly great to see the Belgian back, even embarking on a couple of trademark marauding runs up the field.

Further up the field, however, we lacked precision in our passing in and around the box.  As Arsene might put it, we “lacked a little sharpness”.  Despite dominating possession, we barely created a single clear-cut chance from open play.

What distressed me most, however, was how little flexibility we had to change from the bench.  Our substitutes were:

Fabianski – Jenkinson – Djourou – Frimpong – Chamberlain – Walcott – Chamakh

Of the outfield players, only Djourou, Walcott and Chamakh have any kind of Premier League experience, and with Chamakh looking out-of-sorts a rusty Walcott was the only real option.  When you consider that there was only one player excluded because of injury – Jack Wilshere – the squad begins to look incredibly thin.  The suspensions for Gervinho and most likely Song are only going to make that situation worse.

If Eboue, Nasri, Fabregas and Bendtner really do depart, as seems certain, then Arsene simply has to bring in at least three players to replace them.  Anything less will leave us with a squad that is, in my opinion, unlikely to qualify for the Champions League.

Watching us on the pitch yesterday suddenly brought home the significance of losing Cesc and Nasri all the more clear to me.  These are huge, huge players.  Aaron Ramsey is a talented and characterful kid, but he’s not even close to their level.  Replacements are necessary if we’re to achieve our minimum aim of a top four finish, let alone challenge for major honours.

Anyway.  There will be time to talk about that.  For now, we have to concentrate on preparing for Udinese on Tuesday – by which time, our coffers could be significantly swollen.