Meritocratic selection sees off Stoke + Arsecast Extra 50

Arsenal v Stoke City - Premier League

Arsenal recorded their 13th consecutive home win over Stoke City, and in doing so put in one of their most cohesive performances of the season.

It was interesting to see that Arsene Wenger’s team selection was not swayed by the renewed availability of some big names. The manager chose to keep Mathieu Flamini, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott in reserve, giving the likes of Francis Coquelin, Tomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a chance to extend their run of impressive form.

I suspect that even if Kieran Gibbs had been fit, Nacho Monreal might still have got the nod at left-back. Gibbs was very poor at the Britannia, and Monreal has emerged as a rugged and reliable option at full-back. His last seven starts have all resulted in wins, with five clean sheets along the way.

It seems Arsene has adopted a meritocratic selection policy, rewarding those in good form and making some players accustomed to an automatic spot bide their time. That’s ostensibly a decent plan, but it’ll certainly be put to the test when Arsenal face the giants of Manchester City next week.

The one selection decision I was not entirely convinced was based on performance levels was the one that saw Wojciech Szczesny dropped for David Ospina. As much as Arsene insists that call was made purely on form, it looks to me like a clear disciplinary issue.

I’m generally more comfortable seeing Szczesny between the sticks, but that’s largely because I haven’t seen enough of Ospina to make a valuable judgement. My suspicion is that the Pole will be back in the goal before too long – read why over on Mirror Football.

The Arsenal fans’ joy at seeing off Stoke was capped by the news that their train home was cancelled. This was met by cheers from most, but a perturbed silence from the few who realised this meant that Stoke fans would be patrolling the streets of London for longer than was strictly necessary. Deeply unpleasant.

As you’ll have noticed from the big play button at the top of this piece, there’s a new Arsecast Extra out today. It’s the 50th of its kind, and the familiar beep of the Arsecast lorry makes a return to mark the occasion. Have a listen: we chat about Debuchy’s injury, the goalkeeping situation, and whether Morgan Schneiderlin really is worth £30m.

5 questions from Arsenal’s defeat at Southampton

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Will Arsenal win three consecutive league games this season?

We haven’t managed it yet. Arsene Wenger is quick to point out that consistency will be the key to making the top four, but it’s precisely that which evades us at present.

Every time we seem to be building some momentum, that nefarious handbrake slams down to foil us once again.

Nevertheless, six points from nine is more than I expected from our festive fixture list. Watching our defending at St. Mary’s, the victory at Upton Park began to look ever more miraculous.

I still think we’ll make the top four, but I think that case more about an absence of quality elsewhere in this league than any positive attributes of our own.

Is Francis Coquelin the answer to our defensive midfield problem?

Not for me. Coquelin’s tenacious displays don’t make me think we ought to anoint him as the long-awaited “DM” — rather, they convince me of how much better we’d be with a top class player performing in that role. However, Coquelin does look as if he will give Mathieu Flamini a run for his money until a superior player arrives.

At present, Coquelin’s certainly a better option in that role than Calum Chambers. According to Squawka, Chambers didn’t make a single tackle during his return to his former club.

That stat doesn’t necessarily mean quite as much as you might imagine — interceptions are just as important, and tackles can be a desperate last resort prompted by poor positioning. However, it was clear watching the game that the Englishman is a long way from ready to play regularly in central midfield.

Is Wojciech Szczesny good enough to be our number one?

I think so. He has the talent. Is it being properly harnessed? That’s another question (but, crucially, not one in bold. Got to stick to the five. #SEO)

Look at where David de Gea was two years ago and where he is now. That’s surely down to coaching. Has Szczesny made the same strides forward? Probably not. He relies on his instincts and his preternatural self-confidence. Technically and tactically there are still flaws in his game.

The identical errors made by Almunia, Fabianski and Szczesny can’t be mere coincidence. The problem must lie on the training ground.

What’s up with Laurent Koscielny?

Although Szczesny was painted as the villain of the piece, Koscielny also endured something of a personal nightmare against Southampton. Aside from misjudging the run of Saido Mane on the opener, he also played a weak back-pass that ought to have resulted in a third for the Saints.

You know, it’s almost as if he’s being forced to play through a debilitating chronic injury. Tendinitis doesn’t just disappear. His is a condition that requires careful management. It’s been said many times, but Wenger has to buy a central defender with the ability to cover a prolonged absence for Koscielny. Relying on him is a risk we can not afford.

On the subject of the back four, much will understandably be made of how shoddy we looked with our first choice defensive unit in place. However, in their defence it was the first time those five players have played together this season. All change — even position change — can be disruptive. It will take time for that unit to click.

What sort of team will we see in the FA Cup?

Ideally, I think Arsene Wenger would like to field a rotated side after a demanding Christmas period. However, a glance at our subs bench at Southampton suggests he has very few options at his disposal. Theo Walcott should start his first game in a year, while David Ospina is guaranteed a game in goal. Other than that I expect it to be fairly similar team.

One man who may get a run-out, most likely from the bench, is Chuba Akpom. It seems clear Wenger is launching a charm offensive to convince the young striker to extend his deal beyond the summer. The development of Joel Campbell does not seem to be quite such a priority for our manager.

Arsenal 4-1 Galatasaray: Danny Welbeck’s pace and potential light up the Emirates

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Well, that was very enjoyable indeed. I’m on holiday at the moment, so forgive me if this entry is a little shorter than usual.

Thank God we got Danny Welbeck…

It hasn’t been the subject of much discussion, but Yaya Sanogo has missed every Arsenal match since transfer deadline day with injury. Had Welbeck not been secured at the 11th hour, Arsenal would have been strikerless for the entire month of September.

I felt Welbeck had enjoyed a solid enough start to his time with us. Last night, however, his Arsenal career exploded in to life. The England international notched the first hat-trick of his career to dispatch Galatasaray and earn us our first three points of the Champions League campaign.

After the Tottenham match, Wenger insisted that if our collective game was good then Welbeck would score. That hypothesis was validated last night, with Welbeck flourishing at the point of a slick Arsenal attack.

Welbeck is fast. Faster, it transpires, than any of us – including Arsene Wenger – initially thought. Ever since Welbeck signed, we’ve wondered how we might terrify defenders by partnering him with the equally quick Alexis and Walcott. Last night, we got an idea, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain performing admirably as Theo’s understudy.

Welbeck’s second goal was the one that sticks in the mind. Latching on to a loose defensive header, he raced away from his marker, showcasing speed and muscularity, before opening up his body to sidefoot in to the far corner. There was an audible gasp from the Emirates Crowd. For a split-second, the Arsenal fans thought they had seen a ghost.

He’s not yet at a level where he can produce this kind of performance every week. However, it’s a glimpse of what he can produce. It’s not what he is, but it’s what he might be. It’s very exciting.

In the week Olivier Giroud agreed a deserved new deal, Welbeck delivered a devastating demonstration of why I believe he could be a superior option as our centre-forward.

I’m not going to join the naysayers…

…who’d have you believe that our victory was down purely to Galatasaray’s incompetent. I’ve seen us fail to beat plenty of incompetent sides in the past – last weekend, for example. This win is significant because it was one of the few times this season that Arsene got our attacking alchemy right. The combination of pace up top and Ozil central is something we need to stick with.

There was one down-side…

Wojciech Szczesny’s sending off was silly. He didn’t need to go charging out at the feet of the attacker in such reckless fashion.

Tempting as it is to come down hard on Szczesny’s impetuous nature, it’s worth remembering that the great Jens Lehmann was guilty of similar moments of madness. That didn’t stop him remaining first-choice keeper throughout the unbeaten season. The best goalkeepers are often slightly eccentric. The balance between talent and temperament is a difficult one to find.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain deserves special mention…

Over the past month, The Ox has played himself in to the first XI. He is an example to any player currently out of favour. He made a positive impression with a series of energetic cameos, and when handed the opportunity to start games has made himself undroppable. Lukas Podolski & co could learn a thing or too from that.

Not 1-1 at Newcastle (again)

Newcastle 0-1 Arsenal
Match report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Big points…
Apart from in the Emirates Cup, all wins are worth three points. Some, however, feel a bit special. Maybe it’s because the win put us back on top, maybe it’s because we were under the cosh for so long, or maybe it’s just because it’s Christmas, but these points feel significant.

I’ll dip in to my big bag of cliches to state that these are the sort of games that eventual champions win. Six points away from home inside three days is an impressive feat. With matches against strugglers Cardiff, Villa, Fulham and Palace to come before the end of January, we have a great chance to build up a head of steam in the league.

Games that promise goals seem to rarely deliver…
Newcastle had scored in 15 of their last 16. Arsenal are Arsenal. It seemed for all the world that there were goals lurking in them there hills.

However, this was a game of few opportunities. Rosicky and Cazorla buzzed around but with little tangible end product. Tempting as it is to pin the blame on our plucky playmakers, Newcastle also deserve credit for some resilient defending.

Arsenal missed Ozil & Ramsey…
Of course they did. They’ve been our most creative players this season. Against Newcastle, we mustered just 11 attempts on goal. Against West Ham, with Ozil and Ramsey in action, we clocked up 29.

Giroud’s goal was invaluable for two reasons…
First and foremost, it won us the game. However, it’s also a vital goal for Giroud’s confidence. I’m not optimistic about Arsene signing a striker in January, so we need Giroud at his very best if we’re to have any chance of holding off City and Chelsea.

Theo Walcott’s technical improvement is often overlooked…
Theo takes a lot of stick for his failure to apply himself defensively and an occasional lack of composure. However, his technique really has come on leaps and bounds. I remember when I didn’t trust him to control the ball, let alone kick it cleanly. However, in this game he delivered a wonderful whipped free-kick to create the winning goal. Once upon a time, I would not have believed he was capable of anything even as seemingly simple as that. Arsene Wenger is right: never put limits on a player’s potential.

Per Mertesacker was a true giant…
I love seeing Mertesacker with the captain’s armband. For me, he is the team’s true leader, and he truly led by example at St. James’ Park with a dominating defensive display.
His performance against Newcastle really cemented his transformation from giant mutant bambi to defensive rock. The Toon threw everything at us, but Mertesacker resisted, making a phenomenal 16 clearances along the way.

Arsene’s decision to switch to a back five was a big gamble…
With 10 minutes to play, Wenger withdrew Theo Walcott and put on Carl Jenkinson, shifting Bacary Sagna inside as a third central defender.
With the benefit of hindsight, it looks like a wise move. With Sagna, Koscielny and Mertesacker all in the middle, Arsenal were well-placed to deal with Newcastle’s aerial onslaught.
However, at the time the move made me anxious: in substituting Walcott, we lost our main threat on the counter-attack and essentially surrendered the momentum to Newcastle, inviting pressure. Fortunately, we now seem to have a defence capable of coping with that kind of siege warfare.
The gamble paid off. That, I expect, is why Arsene is the manager and not me. Also, I’m pretty busy with all the blogging.

It’s a matter of time until Wojciech Szczesny gets caught out…
On this occasion, his attempted clearance struck Loic Remy in the face but bounced just wide of the goal.
It seems to happen in every other game, and yet Szczesny is yet to have been punished. What we really need is for him to make a calamitous, Artur Boruc-style error when we’re already out of sight. That’ll give him the wake-up call he needs without costing us any points.

2013 has been a pretty good year for Arsenal…
No side won more Premier League points than us. Unfortunately, titles are won between August and May rather than January and December, but it’s a great testament to our consistency.
Long may it continue.