Archive for September, 2010

Koscielny the star as Arsenal drop two points

34 comments September 20th, 2010

Arsenal 1 – 1 Sunderland (Fabregas 12, Bent 90+4)
Highlights |
Arsene’s reaction

Due to a family engagement, I was forced to call upon the wondrous Sky+ to watch the Sunderland game on a five hour-delay.  There is only one thing more painful than a 95th minute Darren Bent equaliser, and that’s a 95th minute Darren Bent equaliser at 3am in the morning.

A draw, undoubtedly, was a fair result.  In the first half only poor finishing and set-piece delivery prevented Sunderland from blowing us away.  The same XI that started against Braga began the game, and there was a clear hangover as we struggled to keep pace with their energy levels.

Fortune, however, was on our side, as we took the lead with one of the most bizarre goals you’re ever likely to see.  Anton Ferdinand dallied on the ball about thirty yards from his own goal, with Cesc Fabregas hastily closing him down.  Cesc’s harrying won a goal against Braga when he dispossessed a defender, but even he would have been surprised by how successful this particular chase was.  Ferdinand’s attempted clearance cannoned off Cesc before looping perfectly over the keeper and in to the net.

The goal came at a price.  The impact of the ball against his knee seemed to tweak his hamstring, and he was withdrawn as a precautionary measure, with Tomas Rosicky replacing him.  Rosicky took over the armband, and would put in a lively, energetic, intelligent performance – with a rather unpleasant twist.

Despite the goal, we remained second best, with the odd threat on the counter.  The game, strangely, swung in our favour once we went down to ten men.  Alex Song was dismissed for the most blatant of second bookings – a clear shoulder charge right in front of the referee.  His first booking was harsh, but I think it was given as much for repeated fouling and dissent as any specific incident.

With Song gone, Denilson came on to replace the ineffective Arshavin.  Despite being a man light, we slowly began to dominate, as Sunderland tired and we made use of our intricate passing game.  It was just such a spell of intricate possession play that resulted in Samir Nasri being hacked down for a nailed-on penalty.

With Van Persie, Fabregas and Arshavin all off the field, Nasri was next in line to take the kick.  However, having been fouled himself, he abdicated responsibility and handed the ball to Tomas Rosicky.  I never fancied the Czech to score, and my worst fears were realised when he hammered the ball over the bar.

Once we had missed the penalty, there was a sense of inevitability about a Sunderland equaliser.  It was reminiscent of Man U’s game at Fulham a couple of weeks back, when Nani’s missed spot-kick allowed the Cottagers back in to a game that ought to have been dead.  In the Premier League, you have to kill off the opposition when you can.  Otherwise they’re liable to rear up like Rasputin and come at you again.

When the equaliser came, it was the result of a painfully panicked scramble.  Four minutes of stoppage time had been allocated, and just as the clock struck 94:00 a corner was swung in.  Chamakh headed it away, and I suspect our players thought the game was won.  Sadly not.  Bolo Zenden knocked a cross back in, Squillaci’s clearance struck Gyan, then Gael Clichy hammered the ball against Koscielny and it ricocheted perfectly in to the path of Darren Bent.  Goal.

Clichy has rightly taken some flack, with his error coming at the end of a game in which he was tormented by the impressive El Mohamady.  The central defenders, however, were outstanding – particularly Laurent Koscielny, who seemed to win every challenge he went for.  I was baffled that not once did the ESPN commentators mention how impressive the French pairing had been.  I suppose it’s not fashionable to talk about solid Arsenal defenders.  What a luxury it is for our to have genuine competition for places at the heart of the back four.

The rest of our performance was reminiscent of Anfield on the opening day – we didn’t really click in to gear.  On that occasion, we got a fortunate goal to spare our blushes.  We were due to pay that karmic debt.

Plus, this isn’t in itself a bad point.  We didn’t deserve much more.  Our goal was lucky and we played poorly.  But in the circumstances, with chances to extend our lead, most obviously from the penalty spot, it’s a definite two points dropped.  We’re now four points behind Chelsea, with that Stamford Bridge fixture looming ever closer.

A note on Arsene, who reportedly ‘pushed’ the fourth official: it’s poor conduct and he’ll get punished, for sure.  But I’m not sad to see it.  The fire is back, which suggests he knows this season is about more than transition.

We’ll have a look at that Carling Cup tie with Spurs tomorrow.

European Ex-Braga-ganza (sorry)

61 comments September 16th, 2010

Arsenal 6 – 0 Braga (Fabregas 9 (pen), 53, Arshavin 30, Chamakh 34, Vela 69, 84)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Let’s start by dispelling the “only Braga” agenda that certain sections of the media seemed determined to spin.  I’m not sure there’s a team in Europe who could’ve coped with us last night.

Yes, the Portugese team made a grave error in not employing the normally ubiquitous ‘defensive midfielder’.  The likes of Cesc Fabregas, Andrey Arshavin and Jack Wilshere were all allowed too much space between the opposition’s midfield and defence.  But whilst a better strategy might have kept the scoreline down, it wouldn’t have denied us victory.  We were irresistible.

An early goal was always going to be crucial, and the team knew it.  They started with a frenzy of action in which saw the Braga goal under siege.  After nine minutes, reward arrived in the shape of a penalty for a foul on Marouane Chamakh.  A Fabregas through-ball found Chamakh’s willing run, establishing a pattern that would reoccur throughout the game, and as he swerved around the goalkeeper the Moroccan striker was clipped and tumbled to the ground.  Fabregas duly stepped up to power home the penalty and his first goal of the season.

Opportunities came and went – one Jack Wilshere strike was ruled out for offside, whilst another was parried by redemption-driven ‘keeper Felipe.  After thirty minutes, the lead was eventually doubled, and again Cesc’s contribution was the most telling.  The Spaniard sidestepped two challenges before slipping in Andrey Arshavin to his left.  Frustrated by his goalless outing on Saturday, the Russian was playing with most zest than usual, and capped his performance by firing low in to the near post for his third of the season.

The best goal of the night arrived just four minutes later.  A zig-zagging move up the pitch ended with Arshavin clipping the ball unconventionally on to Chamakh’s chest.  His control was immaculate, and his one-two with Jack Wilshere exquisite, the teenager back-heeling the ball back in to Chamakh’s path for the striker to stroke home.  The stadium rose as one to applaud the simply stunning football.

At half-time I reflected on our 3-0 advantage, and realised just how much I love watching this team play.  We all treasure the great Arsenal sides – particularly the Invincibles – and they were certainly a better, more complete outfit than the current crop.  That said, we’re blessed to watch a team as entertaining as the this one.  Yesterday the undoubted star was Cesc, but he was joined by a glorious supporting cast including Arshavin, Nasri, Wilshere and Chamakh.  When you consider that the likes of Van Persie, Rosicky, and Walcott weren’t even involved yesterday you begin to appreciate the sheer depth of talent at our disposal.

Any hope of a Braga comeback was extinguished after just ten minutes of the second half, when some sterling work from Fabregas won the ball high up the pitch.  His pass found Arshavin, whose perfectly flighted cross was nodded home by the captain for a rare headed goal.  The interplay between Spaniard and Russian characterised the early part of the second-half.  Both came close to more goals – Arshavin closest with a firm drive against the post – and were clearly enjoying the benefit of each other’s movement and vision.

At this point the match could have drifted in to irrelevance, but the introduction of Carlos Vela as a substitute prevented that.  His movement and finishing were exceptional.  First he collected an eye-of-the-needle pass to produce his much-beloved chipped finish, before taking a pass from the unselfish Cesc and sidefooting calmly in to the near post.  He now has more goals than he managed in the entirety of last season.  There’s no doubting his talent, and his composure in front of goal is Eduardo-esque.  Perhaps he’s better suited to the central striker role than being stuck out on the wing.  Problems may arise when he finds himself behind Van Persie, Chamakh, and Bendtner in that particular queue.

Six nil it finished, and it really was six star performance.  The French centre-back pairing of Koscielny and Squillaci looked more comfortable under the Champions League lights than they did on Saturday, whilst the rest Clichy and Sagna had clearly benefited them: they were quick both in the tackle and getting forward.

The attacking trio did their jobs: Chamakh continues to suggest he’s exactly the sort of player we require upfront, linking the play and creating space with his tireless movement.  Arshavin was erratic everywhere but in the box, where he was ruthless and efficient, scoring one goal and creating two more.  Samir Nasri got ninety minutes under his belt on his return from injury, and whilst he’d clearly prefer to be playing in the middle, exhibited the close-control and intelligent approach play we’ve come to expect.

It was in midfield, however, where the game was won.  Our new shape of two holding midfielders allows both those players the occasional opportunity to bomb forward.  Not only has it added an attacking string to Alex Song’s bow, but it’s allowed Jack Wilshere the opportunity to stake his claim for a first-team place.  The diminutive midfielder was excellent on his first Champions League start, showing the discipline to hold his position when required, as well as the skill and imagination to be a threat in the final third.

We shouldn’t be surprised by his progess: he’s learning from the best.  Judging by his performances against Bolton and Braga, Cesc Fabregas has stepped up a gear.  It’s almost as if the travails of his summer have left him with an objectivity that allows him to be even more clinical in the way he picks teams apart.  Watching him yesterday was like watching Neo in the second Matrix film, when he’s fully harnessed the power to bend reality to his will.  Braga, meanwhile, were a bit like the agents, all dressed the same and with uninteresting names like ‘Alan’.

When Cesc’s move to Barca fell through, some idly suggested he might be disinterested this season.  It appears they’re wrong – but even if they’re not, I don’t care as long he continues to play like this.  His performance was the crucial component in an outstanding team display.

The rest of Europe will hopefully sit up and take notice.  Arsene’s kids might just be ready to graduate.

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The day we launched it Arsenal won 6-0, and if that’s not proof of its awesomeness then I don’t know what is.

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Hasta La Vista, Braga – Get your Verminator t-shirt Now

114 comments September 15th, 2010

Last night saw Tottenham make their Champions League debut. Fortunately it was very much a case of ‘new competition, same old Spurs’ as they let slip a two goal lead in Bremen. Mikael Silvestre played at left-back against Aaron Lennon, and actually did quite well. On a night that made entertaining viewing for Arsenal fans, Manchester United also came away with just a point after failing to break down a stubborn Rangers side.

Still, this is only the group stage, and no one result can derail a campaign. I think all four English sides are quite likely to make it through to the knockout rounds – and our bid for qualification starts tonight, at home to Braga.

Whilst they have players capable of springing a goal on the counter-attack (watch out for the long-range shooting of Luis Aguiar), we ought to have enough to see off the Portugese runners-up. An early goal would be ideal, but we may have to show patience. They will be niggly and hard to break down.

At the back, concentration will be vital. Sagna and Clichy have both been rested, so should be sharp. With Thomas Vermaelen still out, Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny will be entrusted with protecting Manuel Almunia’s goal. They have varying degrees of experience in the competition: Squillaci has reached a final with Monaco and played regularly for both Lyon and Sevilla. For Koscielny, however, this will be his Champions League debut. Hopefully the more senior Frenchman will be able to coax him through the task.

In midfield, About Diaby will be out – and it’s unclear just when he’ll be available again. Arsene says he’s deliberately being cautious due to Diaby’s horrendous record:

“I’m vague [about the length of Diaby’s absence] because it’s the ankle on which he had surgery.

I was very anxious because he had a scan yesterday [Monday] and with Diaby there are always bad surprises on the scan. But the scan looks quite promising.

We don’t know how long he will be out as we don’t know how long the inflammation will take to go down.”

Knowing how canny our manager is, it wouldn’t surprise me if the ambiguity of his statements about the severity of Diaby’s injury is a deliberate move to highlight just how bad Paul Robinson’s tackle was. Having lost several key players to injury already this season, he won’t want to see many more challenges of that ilk.  Unfortunately it sometimes takes a serious injury to get people to take notice of these incidents.

In Diaby’s absence, Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas will be joined by one of Jack Wilshere, Samir Nasri, or Denilson. I suspect it might be the Brazilian, who has yet to start a game this season.

Nasri could then come in to the front three in place of Tomas Rosicky, who might struggle to start two games inside four days. Andrey Arshavin is likely to line up to the left of Marouane Chamakh, whose adaptation has impressed the manager:

“He has done very well.  I believe he has a love for the physical game, a love for challenges. He loves contact, he is good in the air and when you jump high, no matter if it is in Japan or England, if you jump higher than your opponent then you get the ball with your head.

Off the field he adapts well [to England] but he is a guy who loves to be with the team, with his team-mates. He can be happy everywhere.”

I have to say the signing of Chamakh looks certain to be a success. His work-rate, movement, and aerial prowess are already evident. If he can add composure to his game, just as Emmanuel Adebayor and Didier Drogba have done since moving to the Premier League, he could become an even more complete player. His form only makes me wish we’d signed him twelve months ago, and spared ourselves the farcical situation we faced last season wherein Arshavin was forced to plough the lone furrow.

The key to getting through the group stage is to win your home games. Do that, and you can afford to drop a couple of points on your travels. With some tricky away trips to come, three points tonight would be more than welcome.

I mentioned earlier that Thomas Vermaelen will be absent. Some would have you believe he’s injured. Nonsense: The Verminator is merely undergoing repairs.

Since arriving at Arsenal a year ago, Vermaelen’s performances have been nigh-on impeccable. Doubts were raised when he first signed, mainly about his height, but a combination of an unnatural spring and a burning desire to win the ball and vanquish his opponent banished those almost immediately.

It is those qualities, as well as his steely glare and a conveniently-rhyming syllable in his surname, that earned the Belgian the nickname ‘Verminator’; qualities that Gunnerblog has joined forces with Arseblog to celebrate with the launch of this exclusive new t-shirt:

Click to buy

Last season Gunnerblog produced a set of ‘Cesc We Can’ shirts that proved very popular. This shirt, like the Cesc one, is designed by David Rudnick and made of 100% ringspun cotton. As ever, the ambition is to create high-quality Arsenal stuff, made for fans by fans.

Only 250 have been made, so click here to get yours now and avoid disappointment.

If Arsenal are to achieve anything this season, Vermaelen will be there at the steely spine of this new Arsenal side. He might not be on the field tonight, but one can be sure he’ll be stood in the tunnel with a chilling message for our Portugese opponents.

Hasta La Vista, Braga.

I knew it was too good to be true

23 comments September 14th, 2010

When Abou Diaby limped off against Bolton following Paul Robinson’s horror challenge, many feared the worst.  Arsenal players are not famed for their powers of recovery.  What could mean a week or two out for most footballers can result in amputation at Arsenal.

Imagine my surprise and joy, then, when stories emerged that Diaby was set to miss just two games: tomorrow’s match against Braga, and Sunderland at the weekend. Turns out, it’s far too good to be true.  The journalist in question have merely mangled Wenger’s quotes in to the implausible story.  What Arsene actually said was:

“Diaby is out with an ankle problem following the tackle from Robinson and I do not know for how long.

He will not play tomorrow and certainly not at the weekend.”

Ad infinitum.

Thomas Vermaelen is also still out, so Squillaci and Koscielny will continue the partnership they established on Saturday.

We don’t know a huge amount about Braga, but the manner in which they’ve arrived in the Europe’s premier club competition is impressive.  First they finished above Porto, who beat us in last season’s competition to claim second place in the Portugese Liga. Then the qualification rounds saw them dispatch Celtic and Sevilla in impressive style.

They’re a defensively mean outfit, who conceded a miserly 20 goals in 30 league games last season, so it’s no surprise their intended strategy at the Emirates is the counter-attack.  Michael Cox of Zonal Marking has posted an interesting tactical analysis of the game over on ITVFootball.

Finally, I landed myself in hot water with some readers yesterday when I expressed ambivalence at the return of Denilson. For those who missed it, I said:

“Had you noticed he was missing?  Me neither.  He has some value as a squad player, but hopefully the emergence of Wilshere will mean his days as a regular starter are behind him.”

Well, for the Denilson fans who were upset by my estimation of his talents, have a read of this excellent defence of the midfielder by GingersforLimpar, who makes the point that his ball retention skills are a critical part of the modern game.

Whatever my feeling about Denilson, his pure statistics are impressive.  But I stand by my original point: he does have a role to play in the squad, either as a late substitute to help see games out, or in matches in which we aim to play more defensive-minded keep-ball.  However, for two seasons now he’s been close to a permanent fixture in the Arsenal side, and I don’t think he offers enough to justify a regular starting place.

With Diaby out tomorrow, however, he might just get an opportunity to prove me wrong.

Weekend thoughts: Almunia solid, Vermaelen clubbing, and Denilson the forgotten man

57 comments September 13th, 2010

Hello all.  I’m actually writing this on Sunday afternoon, but have delayed posting until Monday morning as I’ll be otherwise engaged then.  If something momentous happened on Sunday evening that I’ve failed to mention, then I apologise for its absence from this blog.  My powers of prediction have deserted me.

Assuming it’s all still “as you were”, how about a few more thoughts from Saturday’s win over Bolton?

Manuel Almunia was perfectly solid throughout.
The willingness of some fans to blame him for the Bolton goal baffles me.  It was entirely due to Koscielny’s misplaced backwards header.  Almunia has had a solid start to the season, and needs the fans to be back at his back, not on it.

I wasn’t overly impressed by Koscielny and Squillaci.
I’ve read a lot of praise for the French pairing, but to my mind there were a few nervy moments, and Squillaci seemed to be struggling with the pace of the game at times.  That said, they grew throughout the game, and facing Kevin Davies will only help their adjustment to the English game.

The boss doesn’t want to take any risks with Johan Djourou.
Although he’s been on the bench this season and played in the Reserves, it’s plain to see that Arsene doesn’t feel Djourou’s knees are ready for the strain of Premier League football.  He should get a run-out in the Carling Cup game against Spurs next week.

Thomas Vermaelen can’t be too badly injured.
He was out clubbing with Cesc Fabregas on Saturday night.

Denilson made his first appearance of the season.
Had you noticed he was missing?  Me neither.  He has some value as a squad player, but hopefully the emergence of Wilshere will mean his days as a regular starter are behind him.

Abou Diaby is lucky not to have snapped his leg.
Again.  The ‘tackle’ from Paul Robinson (picture here) was as ugly as they come.  Hopefully he hasn’t suffered a major injury – by all accounts, his form for France during the international break was quite exceptional.

Bolton underestimated the pace of Arsenal’s front-line.
With Theo Walcott missing, Bolton elected to play with a high-line.  They clearly hadn’t done their research, however: both Chamakh and Arshavin have the pace to get in behind, and did so on several occasions.

Enough from me.  Have a good Monday, all.

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