Archive for November, 2010

Arsenal banish a few demons at Villa Park

65 comments November 28th, 2010

Aston Villa 2 – 4 Arsenal (Arshavin 39, Nasri 45, Clark 52, 70, Chamakh 56, Wilshere 90+3)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

A few years ago the BBC carried out an experiment where they attached heart monitors to several Premier League managers to measure their stress levels during the game.  If they did the same with a selection of English fans, one imagines the machine attached to the Arsenal supporter might just overheat.  I’d say that we don’t like to make things easy for ourselves, but it sounds a little trite.  So instead I’ll say that we like to make things very difficult for ourselves.

And it had been so easy.  The first half was an absolute stroll.  We dominated throughout, almost scoring through Marouane Chamakh inside the first minute, but weren’t able to find a breakthrough until the 39th minute.  A Lukasz Fabianski goal-kick drew Luke Young out of position.  When neither Young nor James Collins cleared the ball, it left space for Andrey Arshavin to zoom in to the Villa half.  He still had plenty of work to do, but he did it in exemplary fashion, cutting in from the left and firing low in to the bottom corner.

He almost created a second just moments later, slicing open the Villa defence with a pass that Samir Nasri took around Brad Friedel.  Unfortunately, his balance was off and his shot on the turn hit the side-netting.

No matter – our advantage was soon doubled.  Friedel produced a stunning save to deny a Chamakh header, but from the resulting corner Arshavin looped a pass to Nasri on the edge of the box.  The Frenchman’s volley was true, and a deflection off Young made it all the more unsaveable.

So, 2-0 up at half-time and seemingly in complete control… WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG???

Being Arsenal, plenty could go wrong.

The problem with throwing a game away in the manner we did against Spurs is that it gives future opponents the belief that they can always come back.  Villa should have been dead and buried, but had an undue amount of confidence derived solely from our capacity to throw away the match.

Not that we did much to dissuade them, conceding within seven minutes of the restart.  Ciaran Clark’s volley was superb, but should never have happened for two reasons: the first being that Gael Clichy should have taken the opportunity to close him down, the second that John Carew was stood in an offside position right in front of Lukasz Fabianski.

Fortunately, unlike against Spurs, we were able to respond, with Tomas Rosicky weighting a perfect through-ball for Chamakh to poke under the advancing Friedel.

We weren’t finished of course, allowing Clark to score again from a corner before Jack Wilshere sealed it in stoppage time with his first Premier League goal in an Arsenal shirt.  He celebrated with some badge-kissing, and from him you really believed it.

A big win, and an important one too.  Hopefully they way we recovered from a couple of set-backs will remain with the players over the crucial coming months.

In the absence of Cesc Fabregas, it was important that other senior players stepped up, and they did.  Alex Song and Jack Wilshere dominated in midfield, but it was the front three who were particularly impressive: Arshavin, Nasri and Chamakh.

Whatever Arshavin did in his week off (probably a few extra fitness sessions with Tony Colbert) certainly helped him.  His goal was his sixth of the season – not a vast total, by any means – but his assist for Samir Nasri was, according to ESPN soccernet, his seventh in the league and tenth in all competitions.

Speaking of Nasri, what a season this man is having.  Fewer assists – just the three – demonstrate a newfound single-mindedness in front of goal.  He now has nine in all competitions.  He’s in such a rich vein of form that I just hope he manages to steer clear of injuries.  Yesterday there were some moments of exquisite skill – one in particular where he lobbed the ball over a defenders head before storming on towards the penalty box.  On a day when we were united with Robert Pires, a passenger until he was withdrawn at half-time, Nasri gave further evidence that he could emulate Bobby’s goals from midfield.

Marouane Chamakh, meanwhile, moved in to double figures for the season, which is a fantastic tally for a player still supposedly in a period of adaptation.  Chamakh came in for criticism from some fans after he failed to capitalise on a couple of opportunities against Spurs, but their jibes are complete nonsense.  He’s been a fantastic signing, and is now our first choice striker.  Robin van Persie has a lot to prove if he wishes to reclaim his place.

The win took us top of the table, but only briefly.  If there was any suggestion Villa’s poor performance was down to Gerard Houllier’s decision to lie down for his ally Arsene Wenger, Sam Allardyce determined to go one better and allowed his Blackburn team to capitulate at Old Trafford.

Attention now turns with an unusual degree of focus to Tuesday night’s Carling Cup tie with Wiga, with starts expected for the likes of Nicklas Bendtner, Van Persie, and Theo Walcott.  A win would take us in to the two-legged semi-final, and one step closer to winning a trophy in February.

For now, however, I’d just like to quote the Backstreet Boys and plead with Arsenal: Quit Playing Games With My Heart.

A day for reunions and resuscitation at Villa Park

711 comments November 27th, 2010

Today’s game is massive.  As painful as the past week has been, victory at Villa Park would take us top of the Premier League.  Even if it only lasted a few hours, the boost that would give the both the fans and the team cannot be underestimated.  Lose, however, and it’ll be a third consecutive defeat and yet another dent to our diminishing pride.

For Arsene, there is probably a degree of personal rivalry at play too.  Today he comes up against his friend Gerard Houllier.  Whilst there is clearly a great bond between two kindred spirits who have carried out parallel careers, you cannot doubt the desire of either manager to get one over such a close contemporary.

Houllier and Wenger’s will not be the only reunion.  Robert Pires is available for Aston Villa, and whilst he is only likely to start on the bench, you can guarantee there’ll be a rousing reception for Le Bob from the Arsenal end if he does venture on to the pitch.  Pires is a proper Arsenal legend, who deserves the reverance he’ll certainly be granted.  His return to the Emirates

Arsenal will be without one familiar face in Cesc Fabregas, although Andrey Arshavin and Robin van Persie return to the squad after being rested in midweek.  Of the pair, Arshavin is likeliest to start, in a front three with Marouane Chamakh and possibly Tomas Rosicky.

Samir Nasri will make up Cesc’s playmaking role, supported by Jack Wilshere and Alex Song.  At the back, Laurent Koscielny could come in for Johan Djourou, whilst Sagna and Clichy will replace the injured Eboue and Kieran Gibbs.  Manuel Almunia is fit to return to the squad, but I don’t expect him to supplant Lukasz Fabianski.

With a bench featuring the likes of Van Persie, Bendtner, and Walcott we certainly have enough strength in depth to leave us bereft of excuses for failing to beat an injury hit Villa.  Even without Cesc.

That said, Villa won’t be a pushover.  Only a positively Arsenal-esque collapse prevented them from beating previously unbeaten United, and in Gabby Agbonlahor and Ashley Young they have two players capable of threatening in the fashion to which Arsenal seem most vulnerable: on the counter-attack.  We’ll need to be vigilant when piling forward not to leave these two untracked.

At the top of this piece I made a point of outlining just what is at stake today.  A draw is no disaster – United and Chelsea have both dropped points at this ground already.  Victory would be excellent, but defeat is unthinkable.  As I said last week, fans are tired of making excuses for this team.  It’s up to the players to make sure we don’t have to.

Ramsey can flourish at Forest + Fabregas is hamstrung

19 comments November 26th, 2010

Yesterday saw the loan deadline for the Football League come and go, with the undoubted headline being Aaron Ramsey’s move to Nottingham Forest until January 3rd.  Personally, I think it’s a move that makes plenty of sense.  Ramsey will get a few games in a very competetive league, and his return at the start of January will be, to quote the familiar phrase, “like a new signing”.

The talk on twitter yesterday was of concern for Ramsey’s health amid the hurly-burly of the Championship.  I understand wanting to err on the side of caution, but I would say this: the ‘softly softly’ approach didn’t exactly help Eduardo or Diaby.  Both of these players were reintroduced gently, and both suffered from all sorts of complications.  Perhaps the benefit of regular football will provide an effective alternative.  I’m not a physio; I have no scientific basis for these assertions.  I’d merely say that it’s worth a go.  You can be sure that if Arsene isn’t happy with the way Ramsey is being used, he’ll be recalled immediately.

Ramsey is eligible for a maximum of eight Championship games.  If he can clock up a few starts towards the end of that spell, he’ll be returning to us in good shape.  Best of luck Aaron – and do look after yourself.

Henri Lansbury has also gone out on loan, joining Norwich.  If further proof were needed of our determination to take the Carling Cup seriously, it’s there in the fact that we’ve let these youngsters go, and will now be forced to use the senior playing staff.

Aside from Ramsey’s move, the other surprise yesterday was that Jay Emmanuel-Thomas remained with the squad.  Arsene had suggested he’s be on the move, saying:

“Jay Emmanuel-Thomas will go out because he needs to play.”

Lots of different clubs were linked with the powerful man, so perhaps the decision to stay with the squad was one the confident Emmanuel-Thomas took himself.  Either that, or we’ve suffered an injury to a front-man that Arsene hasn’t yet announced.  Probably that, eh.

Speaking of injuries, Cesc Fabregas is expected to miss two weeks with his hamstring problem.  It’s clearly something that is causing some long-term concern at the club.  Arsene says:

“We have analysed his body and it is not fatigued and he is not tired.

He is a guy who just has a little bit of a hamstring problem but where does it come from? Does it come from his back, from the fact that he is naturally not flexible?

We are investigating as much as we can. The problem [is] before when you were injured you waited at home and when you could play again you played again – today you can have ten scientists around you but you still get injured.”

The fact Arsene is discussing the injury problems in similar terms to those suffered by Michael Owen and Ryan Giggs tells you that this is not your average niggle.

Again, I’m not a physio, but it seems to me that rushing Cesc back over the next couple of weeks wouldn’t be helpful at all.  I’d rather give him a month off and bring him back refreshed and reinvigorated.  That said, a rest won’t stop his hamstring from pinging again if, as Arsene suggests, the problem is deeper-rooted than merely fatigue.

Come January, a fit Aaron Ramsey could certainly help lighten the load on Cesc.

Sorry Arsene, but ‘turning points’ come before the 77th minute

25 comments November 24th, 2010

Braga 2 – 0 Arsenal (Matheus 83, 90)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Like arseblogger, I had planned to watch this game on a delay.  Only on the way home from work, I accidentally looked in to the window of a pub, whose giant screen revealed to me that it was 0-0 with twenty minutes to play.  Guessing, correctly, that I probably hadn’t missed all that much, I sat down to watch the remainder of the game.

Obviously I have a skewed impression of the match, but it does seem as if all the significant action took place in that closing quarter of the game.  Emmanuel Eboue and Cesc Fabregas were withdrawn with injury, leaving us down to just ten men.  Then Carlos Vela was wrongly booked for diving when in fact he should have been awarded a penalty.  And, of course, Arsenal conspired to concede two goals on the counter-attack, and lose the tie.

I think the main reason we lost the game was our team selection.  I’m surprised Arsene’s decision to leave out the likes of Sagna, Clichy, Song, Nasri, Arshavin, Van Persie and Chamakh hasn’t provoked more discussion.  This team was of almost equivalent strength (or weakness, rather) to those we’ve sent out in the Carling Cup.  You can’t take that kind of risk away from home in Europe and expect to get away with it.

You can blame ill fortune or individual errors for us conceding the crucial goals, but it’s not as if we had the Braga goal under siege before that.  Arsene’s focus on the penalty incident is a knowing distraction from the fact that we barely created a chance in the game.  Arsene called it the ‘turning point’ – I’m sorry, but the pivotal points around which the dynamic of an entire game revolves don’t tend to occur so late in the game.  Being denied a penalty was no excuse for what followed.

Both goals were poorly defended.  We were caught high up the pitch, with Denilson covering in the centre-back role and not covering himself in glory on either occasion.  Whilst both Matheus finishes were impressive, he ought never to have been afforded the opportunity.

Not that I think the defeat matters all that much.  A win at home to Partizan Belgrade will take us through, and if we can’t manage that then frankly we don’t deserve qualification.  Many will point to the fact that finishing second in the group would mean we’d come up against some tricky opposition in the next round.  Well, this is the Champions League.  You can’t win it by playing a series of micky mouse teams.  If you can’t get past a decent team in the quarters or semis, you might aswell go out now and focus on the competitions you can win.

Speaking of which, it’s time to try and refocus on domestic matters.  It’s been a horrible few days, but if we can win at Villa Park on Saturday afternoon we’ll go top of the Premier League.  The following week, beating Wigan at home will take us to a Carling Cup semi-final.  It’s not all bad.

We’ll probably have to try and win those two games without Cesc Fabregas, who I suspect will be missing for at least a fortnight.  It might be no bad thing.  So far this season, he hasn’t quite looked himself.  Samir Nasri, meanwhile, has been in blistering form.  Let’s use this opportunity to give Cesc the rest he seems to require, and deploy Nasri in his favoured central role.  Personally, I happen to think that at the moment Cesc’s lack of fitness and form is denying him the half-yard of pace he needs to make a success of that number ten role.  Nasri currently has no such problems.

The one bright spot in a dark few days has been the return of Aaron Ramsey, who played 45 minutes for the Reserves last night.  Manuel Almunia also began his comeback, though to be honest I don’t expect to see either in the first-team for quite some time – admittedly, for very different reasons.

Right.  Enough for now.

Younes, Hubris, and The Nightmare Derby

69 comments November 22nd, 2010

Arsenal 2 – Spurs 3 (Nasri 9, Chamakh 27, Bale 50, Van der Vaart 67 (pen), Kaboul 86)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

So we’ve arrived at the cold hard reality of Monday morning, and Saturday’s result remains the same.  No amount of water-splashing, face-slapping or child-sacrificing can erase the horror of that second half.  For those who walk in to London offices this morning to sit opposite Tottenham-supporting colleagues, it will feel all the more devastatingly real.

Arsene said the cause of our collapse was a “mystery”.  Whilst many are disappointed by his refusal to point fingers and grab lapels, he has a point.  The manner in which we lost is mystifying, especially when you consider that at half-time, the game seemed won.

Within ten minutes we were in front.  Going in to the match a lot of the talk was about Samir Nasri – it was his name that was being sung most often in the build-up to kick-off – and he lived up to his billing by scoring the opening goal.  When Gomes hesitated to sweep up a Cesc through-ball, Nasri got there first and finished from the most improbable of angles.

As Spurs were forced to push out, we found space on the counter-attack, and that’s how we scored our second goal – a swift move ended with Andrey Arshavin taking advantage of an Alan Hutton injury to get at his man and cross for Chamakh to poke home.

For the entirety of the half, we dominated.  The mesmeric passing of Nasri, Arshavin and Fabregas resembled a matador, teasing a bull.  Only this bull was drugged, dazed, and uninterested in any kind of conflict.  Tottenham were terrible in the first half, and it lulled us in to a sense of security as false as Bacary Sagna’s hair extensions.  Carelessness was beginning to creep in: Chamakh could have been more clinical when set free by Fabregas, but dallied, and the ball was lost.

It was a mistake he’d repeat on a couple of occasions in the already infamous second half.  Harry Redknapp knew he had to change things, and did, introducing Jermaine Defoe and switching to a 4-4-2.  The key, one hopes Arsene would have insisted at half-time, was to keep it tight and kill off any Spurs hopes of a comeback with an authoritative and robust start to the half.

Instead, within five minutes, we’d conceded.  It was at that moment that the entire game turned on its head.  There was a gnawing inevitability about Spurs’ comeback, from the moment that the diminutive Defoe was allowed to win a header and Van der Vaart played in Bale to finish calmly across Fabianski.  With that, our two goal advantage was cut in half, and our confidence even more significantly damaged.  As composure disappeared, so did quality.  We had chances in the second half (Laurent Koscielny was guilty of one particularly glaring miss), but the course of our hubristic decline was already set.

The manner in which Spurs got their equaliser was a microscomic of the turnaround in our performance.  In the first half, Cesc had been imperious.  In the second, he was idiotic.  His handball to concede the penalty was inexplicable and thus unjustifiable.  He’s only young, but he’s experienced, and he should know better.

Drawing 2-2 would have been bad enough – it brought back painful memories of being pegged back to 4-4 just a couple of seasons ago.  We, of course, managed to go one better, allowing Younes Kaboul to get across his man and nod home a gut-wrenching winning-goal.

Spurs’ second half performance was as excellent as their first half was poor.  I’m not sure if our performance was that much worse, or if the fact that they went at our backline more simply exposed faults that had been there all along.  Whichever way you look at it, we choked, big time.  A 1-0 defeat to Newcastle can be chalked off as a one-off, but it is this sort of capitulation that has the pundits shaking their heads gravely and saying we can’t win the league.  And whilst Chelsea’s defeat at Birmingham means that mathematically we still have every chance, losing three home games in the first half of the season is hardly the mark of Champions.

When we surrendered a two goal lead at Wigan at the back end of last season, it was incredibly painful.  But to do so at home, against your most bitter rivals, was just nightmarish.  To lose from that position borders on the plain unprofessional.  If you’re doing your job correctly, it shouldn’t happen.

We are tired of making excuses for this team.  They simply have to step up now.  Arsenal fans are disappointed, but more than that they are hurt.  Let’s hope the players are hurting too, as it might give them the motivation to respond in the required fashion.

Till tomorrow.

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