Post-Everton thoughts on Ospina, Gabriel, Walcott and more

Give David Ospina his dues…
Would I pick him over Wojciech Szczesny? No. Am I convinced he’ll be Arsenal’s long-term number one? Not even nearly. However, credit where credit is due: he was excellent against Everton.

As anticipated, Arsene Wenger dropped Per Mertesacker for Gabriel. However, what was arguably more intriguing about his team selection was the players who retained his trust. Ospina and Olivier Giroud, both disappointing in midweek, kept their spots.

In Giroud’s case, that wasn’t a huge surprise. Arsene has a longstanding admiration for the striker, who has established himself as the club’s undisputed first-choice centre-forward at the club.

Ospina is a different case. Although he has been a regular in the team since January, Arsene has never publicly declared him the new “No. 1”. There has been a lingering suspicion that the manager was simply waiting for Ospina’s first substandard display to reintroduce Szczesny.

The Monaco debacle made this an easy time to justify a change, yet Wenger stuck with the Colombian. That’s a significant show of faith. It begs the question: if the boss didn’t see fit to change after Monaco, does that suggest Ospina is likely to retain his place until May? And if so, what does that mean for Szczesny’s future?

Gabriel had a decent game…
I think there’s a danger that assessment of his performance falls victim to hyperbole. He made a couple of outstanding tackles, but those eye-catching contributions were balanced out by some glaring errors.

His decision to let the ball bounce in the first half, allowing Romelu Lukaku to steal in and run at David Ospina, was particularly bizarre. There was also a wildly misplaced pass and a couple of mistimed jumps for headers. Perhaps nerves were a factor for a guy making his first start in the Premier League.

There’s a lot to like about Gabriel, but he looks very much like a player still adapting to the demands of a new league. Koscielny suffered from plenty of teething problems; Mertesacker too. It may be next season before the begin to see the best of the Brazilian. His adaptation will certainly be accelerated if he retains his place ahead of the jaded German.

Theo Walcott must be worried…
If he can’t get off the bench in a game like this, when the manager has made a definitive decision to rotate his squad, he’s in trouble.

For weeks debate has raged about which of he or Danny Welbeck is more deserving of a first-team place. That dichotomy was a disservice to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was one of few bright spots in the first half of the campaign.

It now feels as if both Welbeck and Chamberlain are more prominent in Wenger’s thoughts. Some have suggested a connection with Walcott’s contract situation — when he stalled on a new deal in the Autumn of 2012, Walcott was excluded from the XI until form and fitness forced Wenger’s hand.

However, I believe it’s more to do with Walcott’s lack of defensive contribution. Speaking before the Everton match, Wenger said:

Offensively we have lots of solutions. We have to find a team balance. It is more about team balance than any individual.

When you have the ball in the modern game you have to attack, when you don’t have the ball you have to defend. All the players who can’t do that, cannot play.”

Until Walcott’s all-round contribution improves, it seems he will be confined to the sidelines.

Win a 1955 shirt signed by 4 Arsenal players!

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I get bombarded by a lot of potential giveaways at Gunnerblog, but this one is genuinely cool.

Arsenal partner Citroen are celebrating the 60th anniversary of the launch of their DS brand, and have managed to get some Arsenal players in on the celebration.

Laurent Koscielny, Mathieu Flamini, David Ospina and Theo Walcott recently took part in an exclusive photo shoot, posing in an Arsenal shirt from 1955 — the same year the DS was born. 

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Now, Citroen have kindly given Gunnerblog one of those retro shirts to give away, signed by all four players.

Winning couldn’t be easier. All you need to do is tweet me including ‘#DSis60′ and providing the answer to the following question:

In what position did Arsenal finish the 1954/55 league campaign?

I’ll announce a winner at midday UK-time on Friday. Good luck!

Arsenal 2-0 Middlesbrough: Olivier Giroud is answering all his critics

Olivier Giroud is showing you don’t have to be young to improve…
Giroud now has 10 goals from 12 starts this season, the most recent a thumping volley from Alexis Sanchez’s quick-thinking corner.

It seems to me as if he’s answering almost every criticism of his game: he’s become more prolific, he’s scoring against big teams, and he’s responded to stiff competition for his central striking spot. Admittedly he hasn’t got any quicker, but fortunately the personnel around him have.

I think fans are sometimes guilty of confining the capacity to improve to young players. There’s a misconception once you hit about 24, your attributes plateau. Giroud turns 29 this year but is developing at a more impressive rate than many young strikers, including those at our own club. It seems that technical potential and exposure to elite competition are bigger determining factors than age.

This is a different Mesut Ozil…
Some have suggested that since Ozil’s return we’ve seen what we missed. I’m not sure you can miss something you haven’t had before.

This Ozil is certainly different to the one we saw this Autumn. Whether deployed on the left or through the middle, there’s a fresh swagger to his game.

I don’t know what’s brought about this change. Perhaps he doesn’t either – confidence is a difficult thing to unpick. Aitor Karanka put it best when he said in his post match press conference, “Ozil is an amazing player. And now he is happy.”

The Arsenal fans are pretty happy too.

There’s an intriguing battle shaping up between Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott…
When Danny Welbeck was signed from Manchester United, most fans anticipated he’d be locked in a duel with Giroud. However, with Welbeck increasingly being fielded on the flank, he instead finds himself in a direct rivalry with Theo Walcott.

It’s obvious what they both bring: pace. Despite that shared speed, in some respects they’re polar opposites. Welbeck is all about hard work and cohesive team play but lacks end product, whereas Walcott can go missing for long spells but then get a goal out of nothing.

The boring thing to say is that both have their uses and will that Wenger will enjoy the luxury of choice. However, I’m intrigued to see who will get the nod in the very biggest games. My hunch is that Wenger might prefer the continuity and protection offered by Welbeck.

Gabriel made his debut…
…and there’s subsequently been a rush to either write him off or hail him as the best thing since Mr. Hovis decided his loaf was a bit too spatially coherent.

In reality, there wasn’t enough evidence to make a call either way. Gabriel made one excellent last-ditch challenge, picked up a classically cynical ‘South American’ booking, and was caught under the ball for Boro’s best chance of the game in stoppage time.

The only thing you can really say about Gabriel with any confidence is that he looks like a defender. Fortunately, that is exactly what Arsenal happen to need.

We’re three games from another party…
When you put it like that, another FA Cup triumph feels tantalisingly close.

We’re now one match from Wembley, two from the final and three from retaining the cup. The domestic cups always represent the most direct route to glory, and I’m glad we’re taking this one with the seriousness it deserves. It would be beyond lovely to wash away a horrendous first half of the season by toasting another trophy.

Arsenal 2-1 Leicester: The fixtures favour Arsenal + Theo thoughts

Arsenal edged past Leicester on a nervous night at the Emirates Stadium. Our performance wasn’t much better than the one we produced at Spurs, and a side equipped with better finishers would surely have punished us. However, coming off the back of that defeat, this game was all about getting the points.

It’s our capacity to grind out those kinds of wins that has seen us regularly finish in the top four. Looking at our upcoming schedule, I’m confident we’ll repeat the feat this season. I’m grateful to We Are The North Bank for putting together this handy fixture list for the major top four contenders:

fixturesAfter this latest round of fixtures, we will be the only team in the race with seven home games. Given our impressive record at the Emirates, that’s a notable advantage. In fact, Johnny from Prague emailed me to point out that we don’t even leave London until the middle of March.

Looking at that list, a significant proportion of our games would have to be categorised as very winnable indeed. Only Southampton have a comparably straightforward set of fixtures, and they have a far weaker squad and lack experience of these tense climaxes to the domestic campaign. A third-place finish is a definite possibility.

Our performance against Leicester was not one particularly worthy of in-depth analysis. However, I did think Arseblog’s examination of Theo Walcott’s performance was interesting.

As regular listeners to the Arsecast Extra will know, I have doubts about how Theo will fit in to this team and squad moving forward. Taking his delicate contract situation into consideration, I think there’s a decent chance he could be sold this summer.

Over the past 24 hours I’ve been mulling over his general contribution (or lack thereof). I’m not entirely convinced that his tendency to run away from the ball is cowardice, it’s merely a constant desire to get in behind the back four. When his team-mates have the ball, his instinct is not to run in to a position to receive a sideways pass, but to put himself in an area where he can create a goalscoring opportunity. It may be selfish, but it may also be necessary. Unlike Lukas Podolski, his pace and movement stretches defences and offers a different kind of threat.

If Walcott was played as a conventional No. 9, would we interpret his habit of drifting out of games differently? I don’t remember Ian Wright or Nicolas Anelka contributing significantly to our combination play. Pippo Inzaghi could barely play a pass over six yards, but it never really mattered.

Although Walcott starts as a right winger, he plays much more like an out-and-out striker. With centre-forwards who drop deep and combine with midfield like Giroud, Alexis and Welbeck, that’s probably a luxury Arsenal can afford.

It’s not so much a defence of Theo, more an attempt to redefine the debate. He might line up on the right wing, but he’s a striker through and through.

WBA 0-1 Arsenal: Is Arsene Wenger trialling a formation to suit Theo Walcott?

Arsenal celebrate after Danny Welbeck's goal at West Brom

I was intrigued by Arsenal’s starting XI at West Brom. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was afforded a rest, so Danny Welbeck and Alexis Sanchez both started on either side of Olivier Giroud. It was a proper front three, with the two wider forwards frequently rotating and drifting in to the centre to join the Frenchman.

Welbeck performed extremely well in what’s a familiar role to him. He created the most goalscoring opportunities of any Arsenal player, completed the most sprints, and racked up the third-highest passing accuracy in the opposition half. More importantly, he got the winning goal with an excellent header to end his brief barren run.

However, his long-term place in the team is far from guaranteed. Debate has recently focused on the duel between Welbeck and Giroud. Watching him at West Brom, I wondered if his real competition might yet come from Theo Walcott.

The fluid front three system Wenger trialled at the Hawthorns seems ideally suited to Walcott’s attributes. He could switch wings with Alexis Sanchez, roving infield to play off Giroud when appropriate. He doesn’t offer as much defensive cover as Welbeck, but is historically more productive in the penalty area. Welbeck will have to improve his goalscoring ratio if he is to see off Walcott on his return to fitness. My hunch is that, as last season, Wenger sees Giroud as a crucial cog in his first-choice XI.

Having Giroud and Laurent Koscielny available certainly makes the squad feel a lot stronger at both ends of the pitch. It might be a strange time to say it after Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal both picked up knocks at the Hawthorns, but I’m almost wondering if strengthening the midfield might become a bigger priority than adding to the defence come January.

With Debuchy getting closer to a comeback, we do at least have Chambers and Monreal who can offer a measure of cover at centre-half. At present, Mathieu Flamini is the only fit holding midfielder. Impressive though he was at West Brom, his erratic form this season suggests he’s not the reliable alternative to Mikel Arteta we require.

Our next opponents are a lesson in the importance of that ‘DM’ role. With Morgan Schneiderlin anchoring their midfield, they’ve had the best defensive record in the Premier League this season. It was telling that all three goals Manchester City scored against them this weekend came after his withdrawal with injury. Let’s hope it keeps him out for Wednesday too.