Back to School + Arsenal move for Niang

The Arsenal squad recommence training at London Colney today, and they’ll be buzzing with the usual ‘back to school’ excitement.  What’ve they been up to over the holidays?  Has Mikel Arteta’s hair shown any sign of moving?  What cool new pencil case has Andre Santos got?

Of course, not everyone will be in attendance.  Term might have started, but most of the boys are still absent.  Anyone involved in the European Championships will not return to training for a week or two yet.  Another absentee will be Yossi Benayoun, who has returned to Chelsea after the end of his loan spell.  Clearly, no-one told Andre Santos:

Oh dear.  The cuddly Brazilian will be gutted about the departure of his pointier Israeli chum.  I am a little too: Benayoun’s commitment to the cause last season was greater than many on far longer-term deals.  Whichever club ends up signing him will be very lucky indeed.

Another man unlikely to be at Colney is Aaron Ramsey.  The Welshman flies to Spain this week to train with Team GB ahead of the Olympics.  He has, however, spoken briefly about the situation with another absentee, Robin van Persie:

“I don’t know and we as players don’t know what is happening so we will just have to wait to see what happens.”

Basically, he doesn’t know.  With Arsene Wenger now back doing his day job as opposed to commentating at the Euros, I think it’s highly likely he’ll be asked to comment on it sooner rather than later.  When he does, it should make interesting reading.

Unsurprisingly, since the RVP news broke we’ve been linked with a few forwards.  I actually don’t think that his departure would prompt a major signing: Olivier Giroud would simply be hurried in to action more swiftly than Arsene had envisaged.  However, the likely departures of Marouane Chamakh and Park Chu-Young, along with the fact that Joel Campbell has joined Real Betis on loan, mean we could have room for another striker in the squad.  Someone like M’baye Niang.

Reports in France suggest 17 year-old forward Niang is about to join up with Arsenal for a trial period.  His club, Caen, were relegated from Ligue 1 last season, and would be keen to cash in on their prize asset.  Niang is a phenomenal athlete, who started playing top level football aged just 16, and would clearly be an exciting capture for Arsenal.  You can read a fuller profile of him here.  Of course, even if he did sign there’s every chance he’d be loaned out again, so I wouldn’t rush out and get your shirt printed just yet.

Pre-season training is upon us.  The players will be suffering, but for me it’s sweet relief.  The season creeps ever closer.

Wolves 0 – 3 Arsenal: Theo dances past Wolves

Arsenal 3 – 0 Wolves

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

This was a perfectly satisfactory night for Arsenal…
Three goals, a clean sheet, and no injuries.  The game was won inside 12 minutes, and we were able to coast for the remainder.  I had the ill-fortune of listening to one Tony Gale on commentary, as he insisted the ‘professional’ thing to do was to attack a ten-man Wolves side and look to score five or six.  I disagree: the professional thing to do was keep the ball, conserve our energy, and focus on greater challenges ahead.

Theo Walcott was electric early on…
Wolves made a strange decision to play a high-line, and Walcott punished them, twice flying beyond the defence.  The first time he was brought down, culminating in a penalty and a red card, and the second he finished superbly.  Afterwards he faded, and may have been a little thrown by the boos he received from the Wolves crowd.  He should embrace that sort of reaction: from opposition fans, a boo is almost always a compliment.

Robin van Persie was magisterial…
His impudently chipped penalty was the highlight of an exemplary display.  He dropped deeper than usual, happy to let Walcott roam further ahead, and was involved in all three goals.  He’s now equalled a record held by Ian Wright by scoring against 17 different Premier League teams.  The Footballer of the Year elect simply must stay at Arsenal.

Szczesny shares a trait with all great goalkeepers…
Concentration: he has the ability to make important saves having been inactive for long portions of games.  The young Pole has had an outstanding debut season as first-choice keeper.  The main thing he needs to eradicate from his game is a tendency to roll or kick the ball out to players under too much pressure to retain it.

Yossi Benayoun has been a vitally important squad member…
He’s been used similarly to the way in which Alex Ferguson uses Park Ji-Sung – brought in to bulk up the midfield with his industry in the big games.   He’s also chipped in with a few good goals, and last night’s was no exception, thumping home in to the near post from the edge of the box.  Despite his impressive displays, I’d be surprised if Arsene were to sign him permanently – with the emergence of Chamberlain, as well as the likely additions to next seasons squad of Podolski and Miyaichi, opportunities on the flanks will become increasingly hard to come by.

Andre Santos looks a long way from fully fit…
…but that is only to be expected after so long on the sidelines.  At times last night he made my heart jump up in to my mouth, but I’m sure that as his fitness improves he’ll regain the form he showed prior to Christmas.  In any case, Kieran Gibbs should be fit to return to the side at the next available opportunity.

Wigan on Monday will be a test…
I watched their game at Stamford Bridge and they were outstanding.  It seems they were in similar form last night, beating a subdued Man United.    Hopefully a third performance like that on the trot proves to be beyond them.  We now face Wigan and Chelsea before Spurs play another league game, giving us the opportunity to open up an 11 point gap.  Indeed, 4 wins from our last 5 games (3 of which are at home) would guarantee third spot and Champions League Qualification.  Keep the focus, and it is within our grasp.

The decision not to punish Mario Balotelli…
…is, of course, ludicrous.   The rules and systems simply must be changed to prevent further miscarriages of justice.

You can hear me discuss all this and more on tomorrow’s Arseblog arsecast. Be sure to give it a listen.

Thoughts on Arsenal’s festive sandwich

festivesandwich

‘Tis the season to be jolly. And then less so.
Arsenal have just completed a festive sandwich of fixtures. On the one side, a wholesome and thoroughly rewarding victory away to Aston Villa. On the other, a rather stale draw at home to Wolves. In the middle, of course, was a big fat Christmas. Hope you had a great one, wherever you are and whatever you might be celebrating.

Alex McCleish is the enemy of football.
Anyone who watched our game against them on Wednesday last will surely concur. This man must be stopped: he seems to suck the joy out of any club he takes over. His Villa are a horrendous side – seemingly as dull on the eye as the Birmingham City team he led to relegation last season. On Boxing Day, Sky sought to outdo Scrooge himself by screening just one game: Stoke vs. Aston Villa. It was apocalyptically bad.

Yossi Benayoun deserves more opportunities.
His headed winner at Villa Park was a rare example of an Arsenal player coming off the bench and making a genuine different to the game. Supporters are tired of seeing the uninspiring sight of Marouane Chamakh or Andrey Arshavin preparing to take to the field. Benayoun guarantees hard work and, of late, real quality. His display at home to Wolves was another example of what he can offer the side.

Arsenal were denied by Hennessey’s brilliance rather than their own incompetence.
A point at home to Wolves is a frustrating result, particularly when the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool have both dropped points in similar circumstances, but on this occasion I think arseblog has it right: we have to offer congratulations to an outstanding performance by the goalkeeper rather than blame ourselves. These freakish results will occasionally occur – it’s only when they become regular that there is genuine cause for concern.

Four points from Villa and Wolves is not a bad return.
If we go on to beat QPR and Fulham, which is not an unrealistic target, 10 points from 12 available will look even healthier.

Whisper it quietly, but Spurs don’t look likely to collapse anytime soon.
Whilst of course we ought to try and pursue and overhaul them, I’m increasingly of the belief that the real battle for Champions League qualification is between us and Chelsea, and for fourth rather than third place. Spurs look very strong indeed, and I don’t perceive Liverpool to have the strength in depth to mount a sustained challenge – particularly in light of Luis Suarez’s ban.

Thierry Henry could be the best available option to strengthen the squad.
Of course there are better strikers out there than a 34-year old who plies his trade in the MLS, but how many of them are available in January? Very few. It’s not worth investing millions of pounds in a substandard player who will make a limited impact – you could argue we’ve already done that with Chu-Young Park. Bringing in Henry would give us a viable option from the bench as well as providing a lift to everyone at the club. If it happens, however, it’d have to be soon. No point waiting to look at other options until the end of January then letting Henry go back to the states after a fortnight.

Right. The next game is QPR at home on New Year’s Eve, after which we’ll be able to put a very rocky 2011 to bed.

Man City Preview: Diaby prepares for his latest comeback

A draw against opposition of Man City’s calibre in the Quarter-Finals of the Carling Cup presented Arsene with something of a selection dilemma.  Arsene may have been toying with the idea of including some of the first-team in tonight’s tie.  A somewhat lacklustre display against Fulham at the weekend will have banished that thought from his mind.  He’ll want to give the regulars a rest, so it’ll be a combination of reserves and youngsters on display tonight.

At his press conference yesterday, Arsene said:

“I believe that some players are on the fringe of being really limited.  I will rest some players but I still want to play a team that has a chance to win the game. For example, players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Emmanuel Frimpong will play but I consider them to be first-team players. I have 90% decided. There is still 10% flexibility.”

Those two are likely to be joined by fellow Young Guns Francis Coquelin and Ignasi Miquel.  Experience will come from the likes of Lukasz Fabianski, Johan Djourou, Sebastien Squillaci, and Park Chu-Young.

Yossi Benayoun will also be afforded a rare start, and the manager has moved to praise a player whose opportunities have been limited by competition:

“He has been absolutely fantastic but we have so much choice in midfield and we play with three strikers.

The chances for the midfielders are not so big and that’s why he has not played as much as he deserves.”

Benayoun’s versatility and work ethic make him a really useful option both from the bench and when Arsene sees fit to rotate.  His age and pay packet mean he’s unlikely to be offered a permanent deal at the end of this season, but that only makes his professionalism in the mean-time all the more commendable.

Abou Diaby will also play, making his first start of the season.  We’ve been here so many times before that it’s difficult to get too excited about his latest comeback.  One feels that a good performance would only signal another false dawn before his problematic ankle returns to plague him.  I think we just have to accept that his will be a career dogged by injuries, and enjoy the fleeting glimpses we do see of a player who is undeniably talented.  If we use him sparingly he could be an excellent option over the winter months, and allow the likes of Arteta and Ramsey a well-deserved rest.

UPDATE: I’m being told Diaby is in fact already injured again.  So more his latest setback than latest comeback.  Dear dear.

City will rest players too, but their absurdly bloated squad will mean that they’ll have plenty of talent at their disposal.  The likes of Kolo Toure, Nigel De Jong, Adam Johnson and Edin Dzeko were all on the bench on Sunday and should start tonight.

In other matters, Matt Law of The Express says Arsenal were scouting Lukas Podolski at the weekend.  Podolski’s versatility makes him an intriguing option, and he’d provide more prolific back-up for Robin van Persie than either Chamakh or Park.  However, Raphael Hongistein swiftly pointed out that confirmed Arsenal target Marco Reus was also playing in the game, so perhaps he was the main object of our attention.

Finally, thanks to Charlton Athletic (featuring Ian Wright’s son, Bradley) for beating Huddersfield last night and thus ending their unbeaten run at 43 games.  Our 49-game streak remains intact, and the Invincibles remain immortal.

Right.  Very little would be funnier than seeing our Reserves beat moneybags Man City.  So Come On You Gunners.

Shrews tamed by the Ox

Chamberlain & Coquelin

Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

You can hear my thoughts as I left the ground by clicking either of the links below, depending on which one actually works in your browser.

Shrewsbury Report (mp3)

If neither work, try this.

In the end, it was an enjoyable night out – apart from the fact I managed to tumble down about three rows of seating when trying to make a quick escape by hopping over the man in front. If you saw a tall man in a blue hoodie go tumbling with kind of pirouettes and spins more commonly associated with a fouled Cristiano Ronaldo, then I confess that was me.

The spins and flicks from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were far more impressive.  After a quiet first 45, he came to life in the second half, thumping home a crucial goal from range as well as terrorising the opposition full-back with some searing sprints to the byline.  The difference between Chamberlain and Walcott could not be more clear: the newer addition is much more prepared to drift inside and get involved with build-up play, spraying thirty and forty yard passes effortlessly across the pitch.  He’s far less reliant on pace, and possesses far greater technique.  Undoubtedly, a huge prospect.

And yet, his Man of the Match award was possibly a little generous: across he ninety minutes, the performance of Francis Coquelin probably warranted recognition. Since arriving in 2008, the holding midfielder has always looked a neat tackler with tidy ball-skills. Yesterday, in a 4-4-2 formation alongside Emmanuel Frimpong, he demonstrated that some time playing at full-back and a spell on loan in Ligue 1 have seen him add power and energy to his game. Yesterday he charged from box-to-box, winning the ball back and using it simply and efficiently. It seems the Old Trafford mauling has not scarred him.

Honourable mentions also go to Kieran Gibbs and Yossi Benayoun, who grabbed their first Arsenal goals, and Ignasi Miquel, who looked far more assured than his experienced defensive partner, Johan Djourou. Lukasz Fabianski, too, won’t have worried compatriot Wojciech Szczesny with an unconvincing display.

Ryo Miyaichi got twenty minutes but didn’t have time to make a notable impression, whilst the game may well once be remembered for the Arsenal debut of the giant Chuks Aneke. Chuks is, in every sense, a huge star at U-18 and now Reserve level, with that exciting combination of technique and tallness that draws inevitable comparisons with Patrick Vieira. He’s more of an attacking player than the Frenchman, and an enormous prospect. He only got a few minutes in stoppage time last night, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we see him again before long.

Right, must dash. Tata for now.