Thoughts on Sanogo, Sunderland + Win a Bergkamp Canvas Print

I’ve been away…
…in Amsterdam. Working. No, not like that. I did manage to catch all our games while I was there, but given the demands of the job I was doing the Liverpool, Bayern and Sunderland matches had to remain blogless. I’d apologise, but I know that in this day and age you’re spoilt for choice. I’m sure you all got your fix elsewhere.

The Yaya Sanogo thing…
…caught me somewhat off-guard. I was mildly surprised to see him start against Liverpool, and truly shocked that he played against Bayern. It’s clear his opportunity has come about primarily due to non-footballing issues. Giroud’s off-field misdemeanours are well-documented, while Nicklas Bendtner is finally beginning to be frozen out.

Having been thrown in at the deep-end, Sanogo did enough to stay afloat. However, to continue the swimming analogy, I’m not yet convinced he’s the next Ian Thorpe. Nor Eric The Eel. Basically, he’s quite good at swimming. And football.

The criticism of Mesut Ozil…
…was way over the top. Anyone can miss a penalty.

That said, some people are more likely to miss than others. I have to say, I would never choose Ozil as a penalty taker. He simply doesn’t have the requisite ruthlessness in front of goal. He’s now missed two out of two for Arsenal. I’d be surprised if we see him take another.

Nevertheless, you can read about my hopes for his return over at ESPN.

Arsenal were excellent against Sunderland…
…and Tomas Rosicky rightly took plenty of the plaudits. Some argue we look better with just one of Ozil or Santi Cazorla in the team. I’d suggest the truth is that we simply look better because Rosicky is invariably the replacement for either player. We’re better with the Little Mozart in the team. It’s just a shame he’s not ten years younger.

Stoke away doesn’t hold as much fear as it used to…
Given the fixture list we face, this is actually one of our easier games. Three points is a must.

Competition time…
As you’ll know, last weekend Dennis Bergkamp’s statue was unveiled outside the Emirates Stadium. Obviously I can’t start giving away full-size bronze replicas of the non-flying Dutchman. However, thanks to the guys at Canvasartrocks.com, we have got one of these excellent Canvas Prints to give away.

Winning one is pretty simple. All you need to do is Tweet the answer to the following question, including the hashtag #DB10canvas.

Q. Against which club did Dennis Bergkamp score his last Arsenal goal?

The winner will be chosen at random and announced in the weekend’s post-Stoke blog. If you don’t fancy your chances in the competition, you can buy this and many other Arsenal-themed canvases here – use the discount code ‘GUNNERBLOG’ to get yourself  10% off any purchase.

Good luck!

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.

Arsenal 0 – 0 Sunderland: Cazorla could be the signing of the season

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

I suppose it was inevitable.
The day after Robin van Persie departed to join Manchester United, Arsenal failed to break down a resilient Sunderland side. There’s a painful irony about the fact that the Dutchman is capable of just the sort of incisive, efficient penalty-box play that Arsenal plainly lacked. We had all the possession you could ask for, but our final ball and finishing was not up to scratch.

Olivier Giroud should have won the game.
On as a substitute for Lukas Podolski, the Frenchman was set free by Santi Cazorla, only to skew his shot wide with his right boot. Would Van Persie’s chocolate leg have fared better? We’ll never know.

Arteta looks most likely to inherit the ‘Song’ role.
In an unfamiliar-looking central midfield trio of Arteta, Diaby, and Cazorla, it was the more senior Spaniard who played the deepest. With Song on the verge of completing his move to Barcelona, it’s likely Arteta will continue in that role for most of the season. It’s not a dramatic change from last year – he tended to have a deeper starting position than his counterpart from the Cameroon anyway. The bigger question is whether or not we’ll be able to cope without Song’s considerable physical presence. I’ll have plenty more to say about Song’s departure – and his likely replacement, Nuri Sahin – once those deals are confirmed.

Cazorla could be the signing of the season.
I’m not particularly prone to hyperbole, but this guy has everything. Apart from height. And the ability to fly. I mentioned in a previous blog, but his two-footedness is quite extraordinary. Whether passing or shooting, it is genuinely difficult to tell which foot is stronger (for those who want to know, it’s his right). He’s creative, dynamic, and looks like he’ll score goals too. In fact, he reminds me of Cesc. As compliments go, that’s a pretty big one.

The balance of the front three will be essential.
Arsene said after the game that he felt the attacking trio of Gervinho, Podolski and Walcott had lacked a little creativity. He sees all three as ‘strikers’ – players whose game is typified more by movement off the ball than incisive passing on it. In future, against teams who park the bus as snugly as Sunderland did, he may look to deploy someone like Cazorla, Rosicky or even Arshavin in the front three to provide a bit of variation.

Stoke is a massive game just two weeks in to the season.
Lose there, and we have just one point from six. With Van Persie and Song, two of our best players last season, heading through the exit door, it won’t take much for talk of a ‘crisis’ to begin. Indeed, if you watch or listen to Sky’s Sunday Supplement, we’re already in the midst of one. To be fair, I don’t think that programme has considered us ‘out of crisis’ since 2005, so I’m not sure that counts. A creditable result at the Potteries, however, and wheels of positivity will begin to turn.

Thoughts on Song tomorrow.

Fourth place is everything now

Shell-shocked Arsenal players after the defeat at Sunderland

Shell-shocked Arsenal players after the defeat at Sunderland

Sunderland 2 – 0 Arsenal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

It’s been a bad week for Arsenal fans. A crushing defeat in Milan, followed by a comprehensive loss at Sunderland, and the evaporation of any remaining hopes of bringing home silverware. Arsene clearly broke a mirror in 2005, and good behaviour has not granted him any time off fortune’s sentence: it will now be seven long years without a trophy.

Yesterday Arsenal were beaten on a ground where just one week earlier they had been victorious. The matchwinner on that occasion, Thierry Henry, was conspicuous by his absence, and a succession of defensive injuries stacked the odds against us. Nevertheless we were outrun, outfought, and occasionally outplayed by a fresher and patently more motivated Sunderland side.

There is no point masking our disappointment. The FA Cup represented our most realistic chance of glory this season, and the draw could certainly have been more cruel, but this is an Arsenal side showing early yet familiar symptoms of the annual end-of-season collapse. We have played ten games since January 1st, losing five. Injuries are mounting fast and belief is fading faster.

There were some fans declaring that yesterday marked the end of our season. They could not be more wrong. To be out of the cup is tremendous blow, but Arsenal still have their biggest prize to play for: fourth place.

I have never subscribed to Arsene’s view that a top four finish is equivalent to claiming silverware. It’s nonsense. There is no explosion of joy, no entry in the record books, no trophy. But it remains absolutely vital. As bad as things are, falling out of the top four would be disastrous. It’s not a prize – it’s a necessity.

I’m gutted about the defeats to Milan and Sunderland, but if I had to choose between going out of the cups or suffering two league defeats, I think I’d choose the former. To win the FA Cup would be fantastic, but I’m not sure it’d be enough to keep Robin van Persie, or attract major talent to augment (or indeed replace) him. Fourth place might.

I don’t see the point in discussing the future of Arsene Wenger now – whatever your opinion, everyone is surely unanimous in their agreement that, for better or worse, he will be here until the end of the season. If he and the club decide to part ways then, I’d far rather we were able to offer a new a manager a brief to rebuild with the economic support and talent-tempting allure that Champions League brings.

In the light of recent results, some supporters have declared that we have “no chance” of achieving a top four spot. They are, of course, wrong. Take a glance at the league table – we’re the present incumbents. Arsenal have been incredibly fortunate that in a year when we’ve spent much of the time in disarray, our closest rivals (Liverpool and Chelsea) have conspired to be similarly calamitous.

Our next three league games see us face Tottenham, Liverpool, and Newcastle. As painful as our experiences at Milan and Sunderland were, I’d happily accept those defeats if fate were able to trade them for nine points from those forthcoming fixtures.

If, however, we lose, to Spurs next week, all hell could break lose. The day before, Chelsea and Newcastle both have relatively easy home games, and defeat to our rivals could leave us in sixth place and coming off the back of three consecutive defeats.

There have been big London derbies before. For Arsene Wenger, there has never been one quite as big as this.

Sunderland 1 – 2 Arsenal: Thierry’s Fabulous Fond Farewell

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SUNDERLAND 1 – 2 ARSENAL

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

When I last filed an entry on this blog, Arsenal had just beaten at home by Manchester United, to the audible irritation of a mutinous crowd.  It got worse.  In the next game, an FA Cup Fourth Round tie at home to Aston Villa, Arsenal found themselves two nil down at half-time, and staring down the barrel of a fourth defeat in five games.  Since then, there has been a remarkable upturn in our fortunes.  An upturn which, I should add, has coincided with my enforced absence.  Perhaps I should stay away.

First off, Arsenal fought back to beat Aston Villa 3-2, scoring a trio of second half goals inside eight minutes.  Then a 0-0 draw at Bolton was followed up with a stunning 7-1 victory over Blackburn – a game memorable for the first Premier League goals from the emerging Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and a stoppage time strike from Thierry Henry on what could be his final Emirates appearance.

It was not, however, to be the last contribution of Henry’s loan stint.  On Saturday, in the final Premier League appearance of his farewell tour, the man who writes scripts with a swish of his right boot rather than a pen emerged from the bench.  There was just half an hour to play in our game against in form Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.  After Aaron Ramsey had clawed back an equaliser to James McClean’s opener, Henry’s expertly volleyed home a stoppage time winner to hand Arsenal a vital three points.  229 Arsenal goals and, with a game against AC Milan to come, still counting.

It was a massive result on a day which saw Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle all succumb to defeat.  As things stand we’re currently in fourth place, which is invaluable considering that we are about to enter a period of fixtures that will almost certainly define our season.  We return to Sunderland in the FA Cup and face Milan in Europe, whilst our next three league games see us come up against Tottenham, Liverpool, and Newcastle.

It looks like we’ll have to do without Per Mertesacker for that period, after the big German was stretchered off in the North East.  He’s actually been a very consistent figure in the Arsenal side – of the outfield players, only Laurent Koscielny, Theo Walcott, and Robin van Persie have started more games this season.  The one saving grace is that his injury comes at a time when we are able to welcome back Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs on the flanks, giving Arsene a rare opportunity to pair Vermaelen and Koscielny in the middle.

Another player we’ll soon be welcoming back in to the fold is Gervinho, who is expected to return to London on Tuesday.  His African Cup of Nations campaign ended in unceremonious fashion as he missed the crucial penalty in the shoot-out which saw underdogs Zambia take the title.  The players lack of confidence in front of goal was underlined by the fact that, despite being an attacker, he was Ivory Coast’s ninth penalty taker, even refusing to take the eighth and sending defender Kolo Toure up instead.  If you haven’t seen the penalty, it’s about as bad as you imagine it to be.  Gervinho has undoubted qualities, but for a man whose tax return reads ‘footballer’, he is surprisingly bad at the actual ‘kicking the ball’ bit.  Nevertheless, one has to feel sorry for any player who is the victim of a shootout, and let’s hope it doesn’t knock his confidence too much for the remaining period of the season.

It’s nice to be back and blogging again.  It’s also nice to be able to write positive things.  There’s nothing like a few decent results to ease any tension among the fanbase.

An exciting trip to Milan looms large, and Thierry will soon be back in the San Siro.  Would you bet against one final magical moment?