Ready, Set, Go: The Race for fourth is underway!

Arsenal 2 – 2 Swansea

Even the most wildly optimistic fan has forgotten about the title now…
With Everton making good ground behind us, all focus is on securing a top four finish. It’s a somewhat depressing reality at the end of an exciting season, but fortunately we still have the carrot of a potential FA Cup win dangling ahead of us. Without that, the fans would be in full-blown meltdown.

The defending on the first goal was far too casual…
Just as at Chelsea, Arsenal just weren’t switched on enough. That said, it was a terrific cross and a great leap from Wilfried Bony.

Watching Bony at close quarters was interesting…
Like Giroud, he lacks pace, but everything he does is done with real power, purpose and intent. He’s not the calibre of striker who could take our team to the next level, but someone of his ilk would definitely have helped bulk out the squad. Watching Olivier Giroud labour around the pitch wasn’t pretty.

Giroud looks drained of both stamina and confidence. Although he added to his goal tally in the second half, this was one of his poorest performances of the season.

At half-time I said on Twitter that Arsenal could win the game if they brought on Podolski…
When the German score and created a goal inside 66 seconds, I thought I might be be awarded a modicum of credit. Swansea’s late equaliser soon put paid to that.

As for Podolski, he is a curious case. He is undoubtedly efficient in the final third. He has a shooting accuracy of 67%, as compared with Giroud’s 41%. Only Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil have been more deadly in front of goal, and Ozil’s stats are somewhat skewed by his steadfast refusal to shoot.

However, defensively he remains something of disaster. From an attacking point of view, we seem to need him. And yet, defensively, we can’t seem to afford him. It’s a paradox, all right.

Bringing Sanogo on seemed strange…
Granted, Giroud was knackered, but I would far rather have seen either Nacho Monreal or Carl Jenkinson introduced. Wenger has employed his “all the full-backs” strategy to good effect on several occasions this season. Giving Sanogo a two minute cameo seemed like an unnecessary concession to Arsene’s latest pet project.

Mathieu Flamini didn’t deserve to score that own goal…
He was one of our better performers. In the second half, he marshalled Bony superbly. His display showed the folly of leaving him out at Stamford Bridge.

To end on a positive…
…Kallstrom looked good! Some commentators observed that he received a “good reception” when coming on for his Arsenal debut – in person, it felt more like the ironic cheers reserved for the likes of Nicklas Bendtner. Nevertheless, his passing was crisp and he showed a willingness to get involved in the physical aspect of the game.

 

Arsenal 1 – 0 Swansea: Jack Wilshere, Perfect 10

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

A few games in to Jack Wilshere’s comeback, I scoffed at those who had suggested it would take him a little time to get back to his best. His first few all-action displays suggested to me that Wilshere had hit the ground running, and was immediately playing at something close to full capacity.

How wrong I was; how right they were. Jack was merely finding his feet. In the last two matches, Wilshere’s development has accelerated dramatically.

This isn’t the Wilshere we remember. This one’s better.

This Jack Wilshere is armoured with months of gym work and a fierce desire to make up for lost time. He is physically and mentally stronger for the ordeal he has suffered, and it shows. Against City his courage and resilience saw him emerge as the heartbeat of this Arsenal side. Against Swansea, he took on a different kind of responsibility.

Ever since his return, Jack has worn the hallowed number 10 on his back. This, however, was the first time since his injury we’ve seen him play as a number 10. The position fits him as well as the shirt. Freed of defensive responsibility, he was a constant menace to the Swansea defence, and it was no surprise when his twenty-yard strike proved the difference.

I have no doubt that Wilshere will follow Cesc Fabregas in moving forward from a deeper role to play behind the striker. It may not be immediate, but it will be soon. In his mid-teens, Jack made waves in youth football as a scorer and creator of goals from midfield. The tools he has learnt playing deep will make him a better all-round player, but ultimately his future lines in the attacking third.

Deploying Jack there also seems to give Arsenal better balance. Behind him, the platform of Abou Diaby and Francis Coquelin looked relatively secure, and moving Santi Cazorla in to the front three did little to diminish the Spaniard’s influence, and added fluency and creativity to our forward play. Coquelin did particularly well on the night – I was heartened to see the team’s least experienced player cajoling his team-mates back in to position as we hold on to our 1-0 lead.

This was a well deserved victory, which would have been much more comfortable but for some poor finishing from Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud. Despite the likelihood of the former signing a new deal, and my growing affection for the latter, my one hope for this transfer window is that we bring in a goalscorer. With each passing day, however, that hope diminishes.

This is no time for negativity, though. Arsenal have maneuvered past a difficult draw with Swansea and are still in the cup. What’s more, I saw enough tonight at the Emirates and Stamford Bridge to think that we might be able to give an imploding Chelsea side a very good game on Sunday.

If we do, you can bet that Jack Wilshere will be at the heart of it. Thomas Vermaelen is Arsenal’s captain in name alone. That armband, just like that number 10 role, is Jack’s destiny.

My bet is on him to fulfill the role permanently one day. Are you interested in doing some betting on an upcoming Premier League fixture? Make sure you head over to www.bwin.com and check out their fantastic odds!

Swansea 2-2 Arsenal: Podolski shows the value of having quality in reserve

Swansea 2 – 2 Arsenal
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I think arseblog called it right when he said this was a game we could have lost and yet should have won.  For a long time, it looked as if this was going to be one of those games for Arsenal: we had plenty of possession without doing very much with it.  Swansea, however, were typically efficient, and looked a threat every time their passing game developed in to a full-blown attack.

The first half was a tepid, turgid affair.  This Arsenal team seem to have an ‘all or nothing’ approach to fluidity; when they fail to click, it’s like milking a rottweiler: painful for everyone involved and ugly on the eye.  The game only exploded in to life with the introduction of Michu.

The Spaniard came on as a 56th minute substitute.  By the 58th minute, he’d scored.  He looped the ball over Per Mertesacker, sprinted past the off-form German, and held off Laurent Koscielny to score his fifteenth goal of the campaign.  Just as at the Emirates a month or so ago, I was hugely impressed by his movement, strength, and technical ability.  Come the start of next season, he ought to be playing for a Champions League club.

The goal came against the run of play.  Arsenal had begun the second half with considerably more purpose, with the tireless forward momentum of Kieran Gibbs a key feature.  It was a substitute of our own who would help bring just reward: Lukas Podolski.  He himself had been on for less than ten minutes when he turned to volley home after Swansea failed to clear a Theo Walcott corner.

It was a stunning finish: for all the talk about Theo Walcott, the German is the most clinical man in front of goal at the club.  Some supporters seem frustrated by his habit of disappearing in certain games, but I’d suggest that pattern is typical of a forward in a side struggling for fluency.  When we’re off our game, his movement goes unnoticed and he can be very quiet.  When we’re in the groove, however, there is no player I trust more to make the most of opportunities to score or create.  His goal yesterday takes his tally for the season to 10; impressive for a player at the halfway point of his first season in English football.

Having grabbed the equaliser, Arsenal had all the momentum, and there was a touch of Podolski about their second goal too.  Kieran Gibbs played a one-two with Olivier Giroud to meet his clipped pass with a sumptuous volley that had more than a hint of Poldi’s against Montpellier about it.  It was just reward for a storming performance from Gibbs.  Whilst I appreciate he is prone to the occasional defensive lapse, his energy, stamina and positive running from left-back make up for it on balance, and I was delighted for him to get a deserved goal.

Having taken the lead with just seven minutes to play, most teams would expect to hold on for the victory.  N.B. : ‘most teams’.  Arsenal had other ideas, and their static zonal marking came a-cropper again when Danny Graham was left free at the far post to thump in a late equaliser from a corner.  Mikel Arteta will be particularly disappointed with his failure to close the striker down.

All in all, I’m content with the draw.  It meant Arsenal went in to the hat for the fourth round, when for 83 minutes that looked dubious at best.  The impact of Podolski from the bench was a lesson in the value of having quality in reserve.  The problem Arsenal have going forward is that Podolski was only on the bench to save his tired legs.  Ordinarily, they wouldn’t be able to turn to someone of that calibre to bail them out.

You can see where I’m going with this: with loan departures for Marouane Chamakh and Johan Djourou now confirmed, it’s time for Arsenal to take advantage of that space in the squad and bring in some new players.  Arsene repeated his post-match mantra of being on the lookout for “one or two” additions; I hope he’s bluffing and that those targets were identified long ago.  A month is not as long as he seems to think.

Arsenal now face a replay with Swansea on the 16th of January.  The winner of that game will travel to Brighton in the FA Cup fourth round.  Along with the rescheduled game with West Ham, it means Arsenal have a pretty hectic month ahead, and any reinforcements will thus be all the more welcome.

Arsene might be worried about 8 games in four weeks, but for supporters it means a veritable feast of football.  Bring it on.

Arsenal 0 – 2 Swansea: Arsene’s Swan-song?

Arsenal 0 – 2 Swansea (Michu 88, 90)
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction | Audioblog

Arsenal fans are often berated by the media for their supposed impatience.  The truth is that at any club other than Arsenal, the pressure on Arsene Wenger would be approaching unbearable.

From 15 league games – almost half a season – we have won only five.  We’ve lost four; as many as 17th place Sunderland.  We’re 15 points behind the league leaders Manchester United.  Distressingly, we’re now as close to United as we are to rock-bottom QPR.  We’re just one league place ahead of Liverpool; a club whose mid-table mediocrity we are in serious danger of emulating.

Before the game I talked about us entering a series of very winnable matches.  We’ve kicked that sequence off with a resounding defeat.  Arsenal are falling well below the standards that even the most measured and reasonable of fans expects.

I don’t want to take anything away from Swansea, who were fantastic yesterday.  They played the sort of football Arsenal aspire to play themselves: intelligent, consistent pressing coupled with incisive, intricate passing.  They are quick, direct, and relatively ruthless.  I was seriously impressed.  Don’t let the late timing of Michu’s goals fool you in to thinking this was any sort of sucker-punch.  Arsenal’s best player on the day was probably Wojciech Szczesny, who kept the Swans at bay by saving brilliantly from three one-on-one opportunities.

On the day, they were the better side.  I accept that much.  But on paper, even the most vehement of Swansea fans would accept that they’re an inferior team.  Try to build a composite side out of the two squads, and in all probability only Michu would survive from the Swans.  Possibly marauding right-back Angel Rangel.  It’s hard to contest the fact that Arsenal’s XI, however flawed, is comfortably superior to that of the Welsh side.  I’m not for a second suggestig our team is perfect – if I never saw Gervinho in an Arsenal shirt again I’d be delighted – but we’re packed with internationals and multi-million pound players.  They, on the other hand, are a relatively rag-tag bunch of Championship graduates and bargain Spaniards.

You wouldn’t have known it yesterday.  Nor is it suggested by the league table: Swansea’s win moved them above us, where they now sit in a group that includes Stoke City, West Ham, and West Brom.  It does not make for pleasant reading.

And yet, to continue my point, we have a stronger team than all of those sides.  We have a stronger team too than Aston Villa, Sunderland, Norwich and Fulham, but it didn’t help us beat them.  Arsene talks with conviction about how we’ve come through some of our toughest fixtures already this season, yet our achilles heel remains picking up sides against teams we should be able to beat.  Our problems are not ‘on paper’ – one look at the balance book confirms that.  They’re on grass.

The only possible conclusion is that the team are not performing to their potential.  And then the only possible question is ‘Why?’.  Assuming the problem is not personnel, it has to be one of two things: tactics and motivation.  Both, I’m afraid, directly implicate the manager: Arsene Wenger.

The question of tactics is an interesting one.  It’s long been said that Arsene is no tactical chess-player.  He just makes sure he has the most powerful pieces in play, and secures victory that way.  Sadly in Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, he’s lost his Rook, Bishop and Queen.  The power-players are gone, and Arsenal’s collective unit seems to require a greater degree of organisation to make up for the lost ability.

Motivation, however, is an even bigger concern.  Yesterday, watching a pedestrian Arsenal stroll to defeat, I couldn’t help but feel that this is a side that isn’t playing for their manager anymore.  You’ve seen it other clubs: group of players who clearly have ability, hiding on the pitch and glumly accepting defeat.  At these ‘other clubs’, it’s what gets managers sacked.  That won’t happen at Arsenal, and I suspect the players know it, which reduces the stakes even further.  Even if they lose, things will still stay as they are.  We’re locked in stasis, and it’s going stale fast.

Although the team aren’t playing up to standard, I won’t pretend there aren’t issues with the quality of the squad.  The lack of depth and options means that our best players are being over-used, and subsequently fading fast.

Santi Cazorla and Mikel Arteta were unusual signings for Arsene Wenger.  Both in their late twenties upon arrival, they were educated elsewhere and hired in to add experience and quality to a youthful squad.  There are some members of his squad of whom Arsene Wenger is hugely protective – these are typically youthful academy types like Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.  Cazorla and Arteta do not tend to fall in to this category.  Both have the potential to be Rolls Royce players; at the moment Arsene is using them like second-hand bangers that he doesn’t mind getting scratched and bumped.  With Arteta in particular it feels like he’s concluded, “this guy is old, his knee is screwed anyway – I may aswell run him in to the ground”.  Rarely have I seen a player so desperately in need of a rest denied it.

Olivier Giroud was given a sixty minute reprieve after starting on the bench – presumably he had moved beyond Arsene’s precarious “red zone” in to something approaching a purpley-black.  However, that meant that the trio of Theo Walcott, Gervinho and Lukas Podolski was asked to fill the gap, with the latter two rotating in the central berth.  None of them convinced, and despite the desire of the entire trio to play more centrally, I’d have no hesitation in saying that Podolski and Walcott are best suited to the wings, and Gervinho to the reserves.  I don’t want to go overboard about Giroud’s ability – I still think he’s a significant step down on Arsenal centre-forwards of the past, but at the moment his presence is absolutely crucial to the team, because we simply don’t have an adequate alternative.  Resting Giroud is not in itself a crime; failing to have a single player capable of deputising for the Frenchman, however, is.

With every dropped point, pressure increases on Arsene to amend the situation in January – and not just with the stingy solution of a 34-year old striker on loan for six weeks from the MLS.  I’m sure he will endeavour to add a couple of players to the squad.  The difficult truth is that the lack of quality is probably the easiest problem to solve.  We’re fast approaching the point when any signing, whether it’s Henry, Falcao or anyone you may care to mention may prove to be just a sticking plaster.

Arsene Wenger has never lost faith in his players.  The signs are there, however, that they may be beginning to lose faith in him.

Swansea thoughts: Ramsey does too much and Theo doesn’t do enough

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

I am not a fan of blaming referees for poor results…
…especially in a match like this, when Arsenal had ample time to get back in control of the game.  Slow-motion replays may have shown that Nathan Dyer was guilty of simulation, but in real-time it looked very much like a clumsy tackle.  When you become the first side to score twice at the Liberty Stadium this season and still conspire to lose, the signs suggest our major flaw was a familiar one: a feeble defence.

Still, I’d rather have Sagna back than a substandard signing…
Inevitably, there will be calls to strengthen the squad.  I understand why: Miquel and Djourou struggled at full-back against the pace of Dyer and Sinclair.  But with the likes of Sagna and Gibbs now just a few weeks away from returning to action, I’m just not sure if players of the requisite quality are available in this window.

If I thought Arsene could buy or loan a better reserve full-back than Djourou or Miquel, I’d be all for it.  But none of the names I’ve seen so far – Wayne Bridge, for example – meet that criteria.

Aaron Ramsey was suffering from acute Gerrard-itis…
I don’t doubt Aaron Ramsey’s work-rate.  I have more faith than most in his technical ability.  Where I do think he has plenty of room for improvement is on the mental side of the game.  That’s understandable: he is only just 21.  Unfortunately, after the departure of Cesc and with Wilshere’s injury, he has been a handed a huge responsibility as the main creative midfielder in our team.

Ramsey’s problem is that he tries to do too much.  I’ve always said he reminds me of a young Steven Gerrard, in part because they occasionally seem to share a desire to win games on their own.  Yesterday, on Welsh soil and with the crowd on his back, Ramsey’s head wasn’t quite right.  A footballer can try too hard.  Sometimes he would benefit from keeping his cool, and keeping it simple.  He will learn.

Theo Walcott has regressed in the last few weeks…
In the early part of the season, Walcott was one of our few commendable performers.  Since the win at Chelsea, however, his form has dropped off considerably.  His goal yesterday was his first since that game in October, and a rare moment of quality in another average performance.  I have never bought in to the claims that he is a “good finisher” – for every good goal there is a horrendous miss.  In his brief cameo yesterday, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showed that he already has more awareness and technical ability.

Thierry Henry…
…impressed me on and off the pitch.  I thought he looked sharp and dynamic when he came on with half an hour to go.  Unfortunately, few of his team-mates seemed to be on the same wavelength.  Henry passed the ball with more speed and urgency than almost anyone else on the field – but often no-one had anticipated or made a run to match his vision.

As for him having words with an Arsenal fan who had booed his own team, I say that’s fair enough.  Robin might be the captain but Henry is probably the most obvious link between the fans and the players, and if he is prepared to take on that sort of responsibility then I’m all for it.