Archive for February, 2010

Arsenal must win at Stoke today. We simply must.

Add comment February 27th, 2010

I deliberately waited until after Chelsea’s game against Man City before writing any sort of match preview.  Our game at Stoke was a big game before City’s 4-2 victory – it’s even bigger now.

We’re not in the best of form, having lost three of our last five games.  Stoke’s a ground where we struggle, with defeats on our last two visits.  On each of those games we’ve fallen victims not just to Rory Delap’s long throw, but the entirety of Stoke’s direct and hard-working approach.  Today every single player in an Arsenal shirt will have to show the fight to match their flair; the graft to match their class.

I’d imagine the team will be something like:

Almunia – Sagna, Campbell, Vermaelen, Clichy – Fabregas, Song, Ramsey – Walcott, Bendtner, Nasri

XI men with a massive responsibility: the chance to put us right back in to the title mix.

Live updates over on twitter.

The Week At Arsenal

Add comment February 26th, 2010

It’s been a slow few days.  Unusually we haven’t had a midweek game, with the reconfiguring of the Champions League meaning that the knockout rounds are spun out over a month rather than the usual fortnight.  Instead, Arsenal fans have sat back and watched a veritable circus of footballing nonsense.

Monday saw a few sites competing for the cherished ‘most absurd headline of the week’ award.  I think claimed the crown in the end by stating in a matter-of-fact way that we had beaten Barcelona to a signing.  The signing they referred to of course, was not that of a global superstar a la Ribery, but teenage striker Benik Afobe – who, I ought to point out, has joined Arsenal from… Arsenal.  I hope Sport are proud of the integrity of their journalism there.

Meanwhile, Arsene Wenger left reporters astounded at his phenomenal internal calendar, stating:

“The World Cup is not today.  It is in June.”

The man is omniscient.

On Tuesday Manchester United beat West Ham 3-0 at Old Trafford.  In doing so, they moved five points clear of us, though we have a game in hand – United will not play in the Premier League this weekend as thy face Aston Villa in the the Carling Cup.  As an aside, it strikes me that many of the players we field in that competition are probably not legally entitled to drink Carling.

Wayne Rooney is scoring a lot of goals for United, with two more against the Hammers taking him to 27 for the season.  When he moved there in August 2004, it was a relatively unchallenged deal.  Newcastle made a bid which forced United in to action, and that was that.  Just a month before he moved, Arsene said:

“I dream at night of bringing him to Arsenal, but that’s all it is, a fantasy. We cannot compete with the money he would cost so I just have to accept he is out of our reach.

I think Rooney will be a United player next season. They know they have to act because Chelsea will do something big and they cannot afford to be left behind. I cannot remember seeing anything like it before. I knew he was very good but I didn’t think it was possible someone so young could dominate so much. You have to say he is amazing.”

Six years on, you have to say that from United’s perspective it’s £25.6m very well spent.  With Bergkamp’s career on the wane, the possibility of a Rooney/Henry partnership was tantalising, but as Arsene said, never realistic.

Wednesday was all about The Special One: Emmanuel Eboue.  The Ivorian went to visit Hargrave Park Primary School in Archway.  On his return to the training ground, Arsene was said to be delighted with the dramatic improvement in Eboue’s colouring in.

Thursday was injury news day.  Arsene was on top form, dashing hopes all over the place.  He kicked off by stating that reports that Robin van Persie could be back in early April were premature, before saying that of Eduardo, Gallas, Diaby and Arshavin only the Croatian is in contention for the weekend.  Kieran Gibbs, meanwhile, has only a “little chance” of being fit before the end of the season – but Arsene isn’t overly worried as he expects Gael Clichy’s form to pick up:

“He was out for a long time and like every player at the start he was not completely back 100 per cent but I felt in the last two games he was very convincing.”

Significantly more convincing than these hilarious claims from Clichy’s predecessor.  I didn’t mention them at the time, but these are some of the worst lies ever recorded.

Today is the day Portsmouth became the first Premier League side to enter administration.  Seizing on the opportunity to make themselves look brilliant by comparison, Arsenal immediately released their half-year financial results.  I’m not even sure a club is obliged to make those results public – it seems odd, like celebrating a “six month anniversary” with your girlfriend.  There’s a video interview with Ivan Gazidis, which I haven’t watched yet, but I presume consists largely of him going:

“haha Peter Storrie + Pompey lookz like u iz well fucked but we got dolla hahah jokzlol”

whilst Peter Hill-Wood and Ken Friar do a triumphant version of the Soulja Boy dance in the background.

I do feel deeply for Portsmouth fans.  Arsenal supporters complain frequently about the lack of silverware, but seeing a club disappear down the financial drain puts a lot of things in perspective.  We are continuing to compete at the highest level of club football – the Champions League – without endangering an institution we all love deeply.  At this precarious time for the world’s economy, it is undoubtedly the most sensible policy.

Stoke preview tomorrow.

Arsenal 2 – 0 Sunderland: The formation has changed again

Add comment February 21st, 2010

Bendtner celebrates Arsenal's opener

Arsenal 2 – 0 Sunderland (Bendtner 27, Fabregas pen 90)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Three points was crucial after United slipped up.
Yesterday was one of the days in which United probably had to drop points if we’re to have any chance of overtaking them.  Realistically speaking, Chelsea were always likely to win at Molineux, but yesterday’s round of Premier League fixtures keeps us within six points of the leaders, and within just two of United.  The suggestion that we’re by any means “out of it” looks unduly pessimistic.

That said, it ought to have been easier.
We had 17 attempts at goal, 10 of which were on target.  Better finishing would have seen us three or four goals to the good by half-time, but without the class of Arshavin and Rosicky we lacked a cutting edge.  At the back, the partnership of Vermaelen and Silvestre was split too easily, and Manuel Almunia twice made important saves from one-on-ones to help maintain the one goal lead we held for a full hour.

Emmanuel Eboue is definitively a right-back.
It’s oughtn’t be surprising, therefore, that when played as a right-back he is more impressive.  His real ability is attacking the opposing full-back from deep, and getting to the byline with his balance and quick feet.  In games such as yesterday, when there is less onus on the full-backs to defend, selecting him over Bacary Sagna can give us another dimension going forward.

Theo Walcott has started out on the long road back to form.
He wasn’t half as good as this Times article suggests, but the young winger is certainly going in the right direction.  On a couple of occasions his pace embarrassed George McCartney, and whilst the final product was lacking, that could come with composure and confidence.  He’s still miles away from the form he was showing in 2008, but there were signs of the that spark slowly returning.

Samir Nasri looked a £13m player.
Sharp turns, pace, skillful dribbling and incisive passing: this was the Samir Nasri who impressed us so much when he first arrived from Marseille.  His withdrawal for Tomas Rosicky was met with bemusement; it can only have been due to exhaustion.  This was Nasri’s best performance in months – possibly of the season.

The formation has changed… again.
Since the defeat to United, we’ve been watching a new iteration of 4-3-3.  At the start of the season, Song played in the holding role, with Fabregas and one other (most often Diaby) ahead.  After we were so cruelly exposed by United’s counter-attacks, Arsene has changed it.  Now, two players sit deeper.  On Wednesday it was Denilson and Diaby; yesterday it was Song and Ramsey, with Cesc alone given license to roam ahead.  It’s still a 4-3-3, but the pedantic among you might call it a 4-2-3-1.  In a period where points are all that matters, it could prove to be more efficient.

Stoke next week is a huge game now.
It’s a weekend on which United don’t play at all, and Chelsea face a test in the form of Roberto Mancini’s Man City.  We’ve been defeated on both recent trips to the Britannia – it’s a ground on which all sorts of clichés about this teams frailties have been held up to be true.  Overcome that, and people will start to take our challenge seriously again.

And another thing…
As some of you might know, The Observer relaunches this weekend, and as part of that I’m helping them out with a project called The Observer Conversation – each week we’ll speak to different people with an opinion on whatever that week’s topic happens to be, and make a film about it.  Unsurprisingly, the opinionated internet dictators more commonly known as ‘bloggers’ will feature heavily.

The first one was all about the health of English football.  I am the invisible man asking the questions in the following film:

I think we ought to be proud that almost all the contributors to the above film singled Arsenal out as a viable and successful alternative model.  When you look at the mess at the likes of Portsmouth, Liverpool – even United – then it puts the club’s achievements into rather flattering perspective.

Check out the paper today for more – including a soundbite from an Arsenal representative: the venerable arseblogger.

Sunderland Preview: Away games for United and Chelsea means another opportunity for us

Add comment February 20th, 2010

Ten days ago, it was a victory for Everton over Chelsea that provided the defibrillation for our title chances.  Today, they host Manchester United.  On that same night a couple of weeks back, Wolves picked up a quite hilarious victory over our London rivals Spurs.  Today, they host Chelsea.  From now on until the end of the season, any away game for the top two has to be looked on as a possible opportunity for them to drop points.

To that end, whatever happens at Goodison Park and Molineux, it is essential we take three points from an out-of-sorts Sunderland.  Team news suggests that Manuel Almunia and Alex Song could be fit to come back in, but Abou Diaby has joined an injury list that also includes Eduardo, Arshavin, and William Gallas.

The team is likely to be comprised of Almunia behind Wednesday’s back four – assuming, that is, that Campbell is fit enough to play two games in a week.  In midfield, Song can step in to the holding role, with Cesc and one of Denilson or Ramsey ahead.  Bendtner will lead the line again, most likely supported by Nasri and Rosicky – though Eboue and Walcott are both pushing for starts.

Sunderland haven’t won in their last six games, and even that victory came against minnows Barrow Town.  They’re now just three points off the relegation zone.  This ought to be a fantastic time to play them, so there can be no excuses.

I have to say that a 3pm Saturday kick-off at home has a certain novelty to it these days.  I’m going to head down to the ground early and enjoy it.  Come On You Reds.

Porto 2 – 1 Arsenal: A scoreline that should cost Fabianski more than Arsenal

27 comments February 18th, 2010

FC Porto 2 – 1 Arsenal (Fabianski og 11, Campbell 18, Falcao 51)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

There was, I suppose, a fair amount of pressure on Lukasz Fabianski last night. After all, it was the knockout stage of the Champions League: Europe’s premiere club competition.

Not only that, but he has spent much of the season being hyped as the superior alternative to an out-of-sorts Manuel Almunia. It’s a truism that with every game Almunia played, Fabianski got better. A mistake against Stoke in the FA Cup did little to dislodge the conviction of many: Almunia’s time was up, and as soon as Fabianski got a chance in the side, the number one shirt was his for the taking.

Fabianski must have felt the same, having been frustrated that mistakes from the goal’s current incumbent never led to a first-team opportunity for him. When a finger injury ruled Almunia out of an appearance in Porto, Fabianski will have been desperate to impress.

Arsene Wenger didn’t shy away from adding weight to the expectation on the Pole, stating in the build-up:

“He has exceptional talent, he’s a very intelligent goalkeeper and he will have learned. Don’t forget that one of the greatest goalkeepers ever in England, David Seaman, made mistakes at 22 or 23.”

By the time the game kicked off, the stakes had been built so high for Fabianski that his performance was always going to be one of extremes. Unfortunately, as we now know, those extremes were not at the good end of the scale.

There are men who are exceptional athletes, with extraordinary technical ability. To get this far in the English game, Fabianski must be counted among them. However, there is a tier above these types, whose personnel is dictated principally by the force of their personality. These are the the players who would have responded to such pressurised situation with the performance of their lives. On last night’s evidence, Fabianski will never inhabit this group.

On the precipice of first-team pre-eminence, he stumbled and fell. It is now a long way back. At many other clubs, he wouldn’t be forgiven. Ben Foster has made less high profile mistakes at United and finds himself third in the pecking order and close to the exit door. As it is, Wenger’s commendable faith and misguided lenience will probably see Fabianski back in goal as soon as Saturday’s game against Sunderland.

The mistakes, when they came, were horrendous. First Varela’s tame cross from the right-wing was palmed pathetically in to his own net. Then, in the second half, Sol Campbell was shepherding a ball back towards his own goal, hoping Fabianski would come and deal with it emphatically. When he didn’t, Campbell (possibly inadvertently) prodded the ball back to the keeper. Fabianski picked it up, and the ref blew for an indirect free-kick inside the penalty area. According to the rules, he can only blow if he is sure Campbell’s pass was deliberate. According to common sense, Fabianski cannot take that risk. Deal with the ball – get it out of play.  These are the basics.

What transpired afterwards was arguably even more calamitous. Instead of holding on to the ball to slow the Porto momentum, Fabianski handed the ball back, allowing them to take a quick free-kick which Falcao tapped in – his celebration comprised a mixture of joy at scoring and amazement at having been gifted the opportunity.

It was, as Cesc called it, schoolboy. There is no defence for… well, no defence. However, in the interest of balance I will demonstrate to you that whilst allowing the play to continue, the referee very clearly blocked off Sol Campbell and prevented him from cutting the ball out:

The ref blocks Sol Campbell against Porto
The ref blocks Sol Campbell against Porto

Throw in the fact that he also denied Tomas Rosicky the clearest of penalties and Martin Hansson becomes a deeply unlikeable man.

Campbell was understandably furious on what was a bitter-sweet night for him. He had headed an equaliser to rack up goals in consecutive Champions League games – the last being on that fateful night in Paris four years ago.

It was a classic Arsenal goal – and when I say that I mean the Arsenal of Graham, not Wenger. A Fabregas corner was flicked on by Thomas Vermaelen, Rosicky nodded it back across goal, and Campbell powered it in to the top corner. I have to say I’m really enjoying the big man’s comeback. If I had to give either him or Silvestre a new deal in the summer, I’d certainly let Sol’s renaissance continue a little longer.

Campbell’s header could prove a vital goal in the return leg: a 2-1 defeat is significantly better than losing 1-0. Our away goal means that a 1-0 win at the Emirates will take us through, though the chances of us keeping a clean sheet have to be slim to none. What’s frustrating is that last night could have been so much more productive – for about an hour in the middle of the game we played rather well, and only idiotic mistakes account for us trailing the Portuguese side. The saving grace is that last night could prove more costly to Fabianski than it does to his team-mates.

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