Archive for April, 2009

“You will see a different Arsenal next week” – We’d better…

Add comment April 30th, 2009

It's a kind of magic

Manchester United 1 – 0 Arsenal (O’Shea 18)
Highlights here; Arsene’s reaction here

By the end of the game, I was somewhat hysterical.  As each United chance came and went without adding to their one goal lead, I found myself not cowering behind the sofa, but sat back, relaxed – laughing even, in sheer disbelief.  How was it only 1-0?  I felt briefly invcincible, like a man stood atop a skyscraper in a storm, daring the lightening to strike him:

“Go on, Ronaldo, have a shot.  It won’t go in.  It can’t.  See?  It hit the bar.  What did I tell you?”

On Tuesday night, Chelsea protected their goal with a performance full of tactical nous and committed defending.  Last night, we protected our goal with a combination of chance, voodoo, and the incarnation of a goalkeeping god in the form of Manuel Almunia.

Magic, of course, is a flawed science, and that’s my principle explanation for how United managed to score at all.  That and an abominal defensive mix-up which saw Adebayor, Toure, Silvestre and Song all charge away from three un-marked men at the far post, allowing John O’Shea (oh the O’Shame of it) to volley home.  At that point, I can’t have been alone in fearing the worst.  United had started like a house on fire – a house that was really good at playing football.  We, on the other hand, looked like we had expected United to go about playing us in a far more polite fashion.  “Why all the high tempo nonse?  It’s only the first half.” etc

In that first forty-five minutes, Almunia fade three fantastic saves to deny Rooney, Tevez, and Ronadlo, whilst our solitary effort on goal was a Cesc Fabregas drive that was too close to Van Der Sar.  When the whistle finally blew for half-time, we looked like a boxer on the ropes who’d been saved by the bell.

No personnel was changed at half-time, but we did manage to get more of a foothold.  We kept the ball significantly better, but still didn’t manage to create any chances of note.  United, meanwhile, became a threat on the break – rather than the red tide that had swarmed over Arsenal in the first half, it was just the occasional counter-attacking tsunami.

And yet the scoreline remained 1-0.  It could have got even funnier, had Nicklas Bendtner applied a more gentle touch with a header in the dying minutes.

Plenty went wrong – the deployment of Cesc Fabregas in an advanced role meant he just didn’t get into the game, Samir Nasri failed to thrive in a holding position, Theo Walcott had no service, Diaby appeared clueless on the left, and Emmanuel Adebayor was the undesirable combination of isolated and lazy.

At the back, meanwhile, we were disorganised (as typified by the United goal) and too often left exposed.  Whilst Almunia, Gibbs, Silvestre and Song put in decent individual shifts, as a unit we were too ofted vulnerable to United’s attacking power.

After the game, Arsene Wenger had the look of a man who had got away with murder.  Multiple, mass, horrible murder.  He said:

“Manchester United started stronger than us and if you look at the clear cut chances they were on top, of course, tonight. The positive is that we are only 1-0 down and we are still to play at home. I am convinced you will see a different Arsenal at The Emirates.

I believe we still have a chance to reverse the result. Football can be like this. We could play tomorrow and you would see a different game. That is why I still believe at home we can do it. The tie is still very open. United could have regrets because they could have scored a second goal, and it is up to us to make them regret that.”

From relief to belief in the time it took him to get from the dugout to the press conference room.  We ought to be out of it by now.  Hell, I’m not sure we even ‘ought’ to be in the semi-finals given the disastrous season we’ve had.  And yet we’re still breathing, and that in itself is a blessing.

Of course we need to see a different Arsenal next week – one with determination and imagination in equal measure.  But we also need to hope we see a different Manchester United – they were excellent last night, and must be wondering if they can muster that kind of performance again to put the tie beyond us in the second leg.

It ought to be over, but it’s not.  We’re still stood atop that skyscraper, bawling at the Gods, and who knows – the storm may be about to pass.

May 5th, 2009.  It’s going to be huge.

United Preview: It’s only the first half

Add comment April 29th, 2009

As massive as tonight’s game is, it will pale in comparison to the return leg at the Emirates.  A first leg is like the first-half of a ninety-minute game: indicative, but never decisive.  Just look at United’s game with Spurs at the weekend.

That said, there are some results that would strike a real psychological blow.  2-0 to Manchester United would leave us with a very difficult task next week, and I suppose three, four, and five nil would do likewise.

Seeing as it’s extremely unlikely we’ll hold United to a 0-0 in the manner of Chelsea’s performance at the Nou Camp, we are probably going to need to score.  A 1-0 defeat would not be insurmountable, but a 2-1 defeat would be infinitely preferable.

So now we’ve established what would and would not constitute failure, it’s time to decipher what exactly we would term success.  The answer, I suppose, is to approach the game like a one-off encounter, and play to win.

Whatever happens (well, almost), the return leg will be the biggest in the history of our new stadium.  Although we may have slipped from regular contention for the league title, the rivalry with Man Utd is still the one that will define this period in the club’s history.  The press have tried to build up Ferguson versus Mourinho and Benitez, but it has never come close to matching the intensity of competetive spirit that existed between the Scot and our own Arsene Wenger.

However shaky United have looked of late, this is a season in which they were crowned World Champions.  If we’re to get a result tonight, everybody needs to perform.  We need the experience of Almunia, Toure and Sagna to help out the juvenile but talented Djourou and Gibbs.  We need Alex Song to continue his excellent form and be vigilant in his patrol of the central midfield.  Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, and Theo Walcott need to be at their thrilling best, and Emmanuel Adebayor needs to justify his lazy twenty minutes against Boro with an explosive performance in the lone striker role – after all, Beyonce might just be watching.

The Champions League is a competition that has caused us plenty of heart-ache in the past few seasons.  But as Arsene says:

“It is part of a career as well to swallow your disappointment and be a winner and come back afterwards. That is what we will try to do.”

The tie with United is an opportunity for these players to ammend for their sins in the first half of the season, and re-write history.  Alex Ferguson says this has the potential to be the “perfect” semi-final.

I’ll be the judge of that.  But not until May 5th.

“This is the moment we have waited for”.  COME ON ARSENAL.

Four decisions for Arsene ahead of tomorrow’s game

41 comments April 28th, 2009

We’re now just a day away from one of the biggest ties of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal reign – a Champions League semi-final against Manchester United.

With the majority of the team picking itself, today’s blog focuses on the few decisions Arsene does have to make it:

Mikael SilvestreMikael Silvestre vs Johan Djourou
We’re still waiting for news on whether or not Silvestre will be fit to join the squad for tomorrow’s game.  If he is, it leaves Arsene with a conundrum about who will partner Kolo Toure – the experienced Frenchman, or Johan Djourou, who is only just recovered from injury.  Djourou made a somewhat shaky forty-five minute appearance against Middlesbrough, but has not been a regular in the side for some time now.  Silvestre has more match-practise, but has arguably a weak link in our back-line in recent weeks. 
For me, whatever happens in Silvestre’s fitness test, Djourou ought to get the nod.  When Kolo’s form went off the boil, the lanky Swiss filled in alongside William Gallas with some distinction, particularly in the excellent victory at Stamford Bridge, when he recovered from an own goal to help keep Anelka and others at bay.  The key advantage he has over Silvestre is pace – with the threat of Rooney or Ronaldo getting in behind, that could be crucial.
Verdict: Johan Djourou

Mikael Silvestre vs Kieran Gibbs
If Silvestre isn’t my choice to start at centre-back, perhaps he might sneak in at left-back.  The argument for it is simple – Djourou and Gibbs would form a fairly naieve left side of the defence, and Silvestre’s experience could help provide some solidity.  However, if there is one thing that terrifies me more than the idea of Cristiano Ronaldo rampaging against young Gibbs, it is the idea of Cristiano Ronaldo rampaging against old Silvestre.
Verdict: Kieran Gibbs

Samir Nasri
Samir Nasri vs Denilson
After being rested at the weekend, I reckon it’s fairly certain that Alex Song will start as one of a pair of holding midfielders in our 4-2-3-1 formation.  Until last week this would almost certainly have been Denilson, but of late he has had competition from an unexpected source: Samir Nasri.  With the Brazilian struggling at Anfield, Arsene switched Samir Nasri into the holding role, where the Frenchman’s work-rate and passing allowed him to excel.  He played ninety minutes in the role on Saturday, and showed an increasing positional familiarity with the position.  Denilson, meanwhile, appears to be tiring as the effects of a long season finally take their toll.  Much like Cesc playing behind the striker, I don’t see this as a long-term role for Nasri, but he’d be my man for tomorrow night.
Verdict: Samir Nasri

Samir Nasri vs Abou Diaby
Fielding Nasri in defensive midfield frees up a spot on the left-wing, and I think that might be handed to Abou Diaby.  The injury to Robin van Persie means that there aren’t many options, to be honest.  I think it says a lot  about Diaby that I trust Samir Nasri in a defensive position more than him.
Verdict: Abou Diaby

So there we have it – I have us lining up with Almunia in goal; Sagna, Toure, Djourou and Gibbs across the back four; Nasri and Song holding; then Walcott, Fabregas and Diaby playing behind Adebayor.

It’s not our strongest XI, but it’s certainly good enough to cause United problems.

More tomorrow.

Boro Review: All too easy for Cesc & Co

Add comment April 27th, 2009

Arsenal 2 -  0 Middlesbrough (Fabregas 26, 67)
Highlights here; Arsene’s reaction here

A routine 2-0 win was to be expected in this game.  Coming into it, Arsenal were nineteen games unbeaten and in their best form of the season.  Middlesbrough, meanwhile, had absolutely nothing to play for…

What?  They’re battling relegation?


That’s confused me.  I always thought sides battling relegation tended to scrap and fight for survival, rather than just rolling over with their legs in the air sighing, “take me now”.  The only possible explanation for Boro’s lifeless performance I can muster is that football’s obsession with ‘MIND GAMES’ has reached such absurd heights that this careless display from Boro was a bizarre attempt at a form of ‘reverse psychology’.

On this evidence, Middlesbrough are instead reversing down the pyramid of English football, starting with relegation to The Championship.

Still, we shouldn’t complain – from the minute we scored our second goal (the sixty-seventh minute, to be precise) the pace of the game slowed to testimonial level.  Andrey Arshavin, for example – who had clearly worn himself out with his exploits at Anfield and a terrific first half – simply wondered about the top end of the pitch, occasionally deigning to torment the Boro defence further.

The game also gave Arsene an opportunity to trial the system he chanced upon at Anfield, with Cesc playing behind the front man, and Samir Nasri operating alongside another holding midfielder from deep.  I think that in some ways it says most about our options at defensive midfielder that a ‘Number 10’ like Nasri can slot in there and look arguably the best of the bunch.  Whether or not he’ll play that role at Old Trafford remains to be seen – personally, I have my doubts.  Nevertheless, Arsene is certainly considering it:

“Usually Fabregas plays deeper with Nasri higher. I wanted to test how it would work the other way round. It could be reiterated that we will do it again because it was quite convincing. But that is open; we have 48 hours to study that then make a decision.”

The goals we scored were lovely things to look at, principally because they continued our rediscovery of the lightning counter-attack as a means of expression.  The first saw some terrific interplay from Bendtner and Cesc release Arshavin, who tore down the left before cutting back to Fabregas, who thumped in only his second league goal this season.  Boro argued that Nicklas Bendtner was blocking the goalkeeper’s view from an offside position, and it was hard to argue with that, but the officials didn’t give it and the goal stood.

Cesc grabbed the second too, latching on to a fantastic pass from Emmanuel Eboue to round Brad Jones and slot home.  Boro did muster a couple of threatening moments when Stewart Downing burst into life, but the returning Manuel Almunia was more than equal to anything they had to offer.

Johan Djourou also returned as a half-time sub for Mikael Silvestre, who has picked up a back strain.  Whether Silvestre is fit or not, I’d start Djourou at Old Trafford over him without a thought.

We were also able to give Cesc and Theo Walcott a twenty minute rest, whilst simultaneously allowing Emmanuel Adebayor a run-around – though I’m not convinced that “run” is the right word.  The game was dead by this point and Adebayor certainly seemed to know it, with a lacksadaisical display that will hopefully bear no resemblance to what we see at Old Trafford.

Big game on Wednesday.  Big big big game.  I’m buzzing already.

Boro Preview: A weakened side will face a weaker side

Add comment April 26th, 2009

Arsene Wenger is, for my money, the brightest and most erudite manager in the Premier League.  Can you think of another football manager who could discuss the economic downturn and its potential effects on football with such articulacy and accuracy?

However, in the football world, a working knowledge of the global economic crisis is worth next-to-nothing alongside The Champions League trophy, and that’s what Arsene will be chasing between now and the end of the season.  His focus on the upcoming Champions League tie with Manchester United will go some way towards determining the side he picks to face Middlesbrough today.

Manuel Almunia is likely to make a welcome return to the side to get some match practice ahead of midweek, and the same could well be true of Johan Djourou.  The rest of the defence (Sagna, Toure, and Gibbs) probably picks itself.  Ahead of that there are many options – the only certainty is that Andrey Arshavin will start (mind you, I said that ahead of the FA Cup semi-final), and I also expect Nicklas Bendtner to play.  Emmanuel Adebayor is fit again, but with Robin van Persie definitely out of the midweek game, I’d be very surprised if he were risked.

The incentive tomorrow is simple – with Villa and Everton failing to win yesterday, victory tomorrow would put us within just three points of ensuring our place in a Champions League qualifier.  I don’t expect us to have it all our own way, though – ‘Boro are fighting for their lives at the bottom of the table, and a point would be invaluable to them.

Finally, a couple of things I never thought I’d see: Alex Song climbing aboard The Showboat (1:15 seconds in), and Arsenal preparing to take the field in a green shirt once again.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t see that it’s a wise decision to get players to wear shirts that are green when they will be playing on pitches that are, almost invariably, green.

I’ll hopefully muster a few twitter updates before/during/after the game.  After taking part in the Arseblog 5-a-sides yesterday (my team came second) I was absolutely knackered, but my good friend Tom will learn the true meaning of exhaustion when he runs his first marathon today.  I’d just like to take this opportunity to wish him the absolute best of luck.  I’ve told him I expect him to win.

I expect Arsenal to win against ‘Boro too.  Come On You Reds.

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