Archive for February, 2011

Carling Cup Final: Familiar Failure For Arsenal

151 comments February 28th, 2011

Birmingham City 2 – 1 Arsenal (Zigic 28, Van Persie 38, Martins 89)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

You have to credit this Arsenal team: they really know how to throw games away in style.  An 89th minute rick to gift Obafemi Martins an open goal for the winner is a hell of a way to go.

I think, in the cold light of day, the majority of Arsenal fans will admit to having expected to win yesterday.  And why wouldn’t they?  Fourteen league places separate the two teams, and Arsenal have already beaten Birmingham home and away this season.

More than that: Arsenal have an infinitely more talented team.  You could argue that from 1-11, we have superior players.  And yet we lost.  You can only marvel at our capacity to snatch defeat from the gleaming jaws of victory.

I have said that on paper we are better than Birmingham in every department.  I maintain that is the case, in spite of my reservations about the XI that Arsene selected yesterday.  He plumped for Tomas Rosicky over the likes of Bendtner and Diaby.  That was surprising in itself, but I found the fact he deployed the Czech in Cesc Fabregas’ central role whilst shunting Nasri wide absolutely staggering.

That position, which is essentially a ‘number 10’ role, demands a player who is efficient in the final third; a maker and a scorer of goals.  Cesc is perfect.  Nasri is a great alternative.  Rosicky, with one goal in a year and as much penetrative power as a bullet made of butter, isn’t.  He’s lovely, our Tomas, but rather pointless.  He can chase and hassle and harry and try the occasional backheel, but he doesn’t actually do very much.  I would have far rather seen some bulk and height added to the side in the form of Abou Diaby or indeed Nicklas Bendtner.

Regardless of my concerns, our team was still more than strong enough to win the game.  And Birmingham, let’s face it, aren’t very good.  Their team contains people like Stephen Carr, who has already retired from football once, and Nikola Zigic, who makes Peter Crouch look like the bastard lovechild of Jesus and Pele.

But they wanted it.  And they wanted it, much as it pains me to say it, more than us.  And that counts for far more in football than our club seem prepared to recognise.

The warning signs were there early on.  Lee Bowyer raced through on goal and rounded Wojciech Szczesny, only for the Pole to bring him down.  As I braced myself for a penalty and a red card, we were spared by an offside flag.  An offside flag which, replays show, was entirely incorrect.

Arsenal recovered and their attacking flair began to show, with Andrey Arshavin forcing a smart save from eventual man of the match Ben Foster.  But as I watched the game unfold, with Arsenal failing to take the initiative, a horrifying equation began to formulate in my mind…

Arsenal Defence + Set Piece + 6’8″ Striker = Disaster.

And as soon as Birmingham won their first corner, I was proved horribly right.  Roger Johnson leapt above Laurent Koscielny to nod the ball towards goal, where Zigic towered over three surrounding defenders and Szczesny to nod in to the net.  The defenders and particularly the ‘keeper could arguably have done better, but sometimes you just have to concede that there is little you can do to stop a literal freak of nature.

Conceding was a blow. But there was plenty of football to be played.  The goal in itself wasn’t decisive.  What gave me the greatest indication as to how the match would end, however, was our collective reaction.  There was no rallying, no jockeying, no encouragement.  Just sullen faces and bowed heads.  It was one of those horrible, horrible moments where that mindless pundit-talk phrase of “lacking leadership” genuinely seemed true.

We clawed our way back in to the game thanks to an outstanding piece of finishing from Robin van Persie.  Jack Wilshere tore through the midfield only to see his show crash back off the bar.  However, the ball rebounded to Andrey Arshavin who dribbled to the byline and crossed for Van Persie to hook home with his right-foot.  It was a goal fit to grace a cup final.

Either side of half-time, Arsenal were in the ascendancy.  Birmingham were resolute but increasingly ragged as fatigue took its toll.  Although van Persie had to be withdrawn due to an injury sustained whilst scoring, Samir Nasri was an increasingly influential figure in the game and Foster had to be at his best to deny both the Frenchman and Robin’s replacement, Nicklas Bendtner.

With extra-time approaching, Arsene threw Chamakh on to join Bendtner and attempt to exploit the limping Roger Johnson, who was playing on through a calf strain.  Despite the switch, we could not put together any sustained pressure.  Despite the fact that Arsenal were on the verge of silverware, we somehow played without any great sense of urgency.

As we moved in to the last ten minutes, it was essentially “next goal wins”.  And the next goal, of course, was Birmingham’s.  And, as we all now know, they won.

A ball launched in to our box fell harmlessly between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny.  The proper Pole appeared to call for it, but the semi-Pole seemed to go for the ball anyway only to pull out at the last moment.  The ball bounced off the keeper’s chest and fell perfectly in to the patch of Birmingham City’s veteran striker Obafemi Martins, who couldn’t miss.  And didn’t.

There’s a bit of a debate raging between who exactly is to blame: Szczesny or Koscielny.  The vast majority blame Koscielny, and I can understand the logic: if the defender goes for the ball, he has to clear it.  Either that, or leave it completely.  As it was, he did neither one nor the other.

I don’t think Wojciech is entirely blameless.  His call might have been late, or weak.  He could have come through Koscielny and cleared him out himself.  Just because the ‘keeper is young and promising doesn’t make him exempt from criticism.  Only by making mistakes will he learn.

At that stage, a team lacking Vermaelen, Fabregas and Van Persie, it’s three most obvious leaders, stood no chance of coming back in to the game.  The final whilst sparked raucous celebrations from the Birmingham end, and an evacuation of those in red and white.

Arsenal fans were left to reflect on a day that promised much, and delivered little.  The funny thing about yesterday was that we were such clear favourites that winning would have brought relief, not joy.  Defeat promised humiliation, and it’s the anguish of the latter that we’re left with this morning.  Losing this final, after all the talk of ending the wait for trophies, was downright embarrassing.

But the truth is that we didn’t deserve any more. Birmingham had other chances, striking the post and feeling aggrieved that a one-on-one fell to Zigic rather than a player capable of kicking the ball rather than just heading it.  On the day, they were outstanding.  Every single one of their players overperformed.  Most of ours underperformed.

It’s extraordinary that this team can beat Barcelona and lose to Birmingham.  But that is symptomatic of the consistent arrogance this squad displays.  There are certain games where we turn up and expect to win based merely on our talent.  See the recent draw against Orient for evidence.  If we had played with half the urgency we showed against Barca, we would have battered Birmingham.

That message should be coming from the top, and by that I mean the manager.  It’s a point that’s been made before, but these are his players and he has to take responsibility for them.  There weren’t enough characters out there who knew what was required to secure victory.  The lad in the picture at the top of this article was one of the few.  Jack was devastated at the final whistle, but he will hopefully have many more opportunities to set this right.

Yesterday was Birmingham’s day.  Let them have it.  We might not have won anything for six years, but for them it’s approaching fifty.  We could yet win another prize in May.

I can get over failing to win the Carling Cup. What will upset me far more is if this is beginning of the end of our season.  There’s still plenty to fight for – above all, pride.  The fans have a right to expect better.  Let’s see it.

Carling Cup Final Preview: The end of one journey; The start of a better one

111 comments February 27th, 2011

Arsenal vs Birmingham City, Sunday 27th Feb, 4pm, Wembley Stadium

Around the inside of the Emirates Stadium, Arsenal’s silverware haul is honoured in a series of banners denoting each trophy win. When the stadium was erected in 2006, a gap was left next to the FA Cup win of 2005 for future glories.

Since then, that gap has become a source of some embarrassment. As the years have rolled by, it seems to have widened in to an eyesore.

We’ve had chances to increase Arsene’s hoard since that FA Cup victory, and fallen at final hurdles. A couple of league campaigns ran out of steam, whilst we were cruelly denied in finals in both Paris and Cardiff. Now, in a season in which we’re still competing on four fronts, we are closer than ever to ending the wait.

However, there is a danger that we try to win this cup merely to appease others. The media snipers have trotted out the “no trophies for six years” line with increasing regularity. Let me tell you now: if we win today, that kind of jibe won’t disappear. The same journalists who said Arsene had to take the League Cup seriously to end the wait for a trophy will quickly revert to their “only the League Cup” attitude.

Frankly, who cares. We’re not going to Wembley today to get the press of our back. We’re doing it for ourselves. The players owe the fans this day. We have waited long enough

Amid the squad, too, there is a burning desire to begin to accumulate the baubles that their talent deserves. Take a guy like Bacary Sagna – in my opinion, the best right-back in the country by a distance, but as yet undecorated. Sagna is 28 – he hasn’t got forever – now is the time to realise his potential with prizes. Today he celebrates the second birthday of his son. Let’s hope it’s cause for a double celebration.

The Carling Cup has always been a breeding ground for future success. In the past, Arsene used it to blood youngsters before their graduation to the first team. Now, it is seen as a stepping stone trophy – a platform from which we can go on to greater things.

Today is potentially the start of a second Arsene Wenger dynasty. If we claim this prize, it will exponentially increase our chances of taking a second trophy home in May. If we do that, then the culture of success will ferment and grow and this team could explode.

Lots of “ifs”, “maybes” and “coulds”, I grant you. I’m taking nothing for granted. Today won’t be simple. In Cesc Fabregas, Theo Wacott and Thomas Vermaelen we’re missing three key players, whilst Birmingham have the defensive resolve and aerial ability to provide us with a stern test.  They have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and that makes me the midlanders dangerous.

Arsene will pick the strongest team he has available. I suspect it will look something like this:

Sagna Djourou Koscielny Clichy
Song Wilshere
Bendtner Nasri Arshavin
Van Persie (c)

The only role that’s up for debate is the one currently allocated to Nicklas Bendtner.  There are several other options: Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby, Denilson and even Emmanuel Eboue could all stake a claim for a place in the XI.  The reason I’ve gone for Bendtner is two-fold: firstly he gives us an aerial threat to counteract the likes of Ridgewell and Zigic, and secondly he allows Samir Nasri to play in his preferred central role.

I’ll be lucky enough to be there today, and if we win I’ll celebrate with gusto.  Today might “only” be about the league cup.  But I’m thinking of tomorrow.  If we win, I’ll be able to say I was there not when it ended, but when it started.

Follow me on twitter for updates throughout the day.

Come On You Gunners.

Costly but crucial victory

3 comments February 24th, 2011

Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke (Squillaci 8)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

1-0 to the Arsenal…
…is a refrain that rang around the Emirates last night, and with some gusto.  Whilst the customary flurry of departures happened with around 85 minutes gone, an unusually large number of fans stayed to support the team through five minutes of stoppage time and to three valuable points.

We started with real urgency…
Arsene had obviously send the team out to score early and force Stoke to abandon their deep defensive line.  Theo Walcott hit the post inside the opening minute, and his pace, like unruly clay, was clearly giving the Potters problems.

Our early goal was Stoke-esque…
A corner to the far post, knocked back across goal by Bendtner, and nodded in by Squillaci.  Not a typically Arsenal goal, but then this was a far from typical Arsenal display.

Cesc’s injury derailed the performance…
When the skipper went off, we looked to lack not only leadership, but someone to spring the early passes to release Bendtner, Walcott and Nasri which had been integral in our good start.  The remainder of the first half was something of a drab affair, with the crowd as quiet as both goalkeepers.

The second half was similarly bitty…
We had a couple of half-chances, mostly thanks to a rejuvenated Andrey Arshavin, but for the most part it was a question of holding what we had and seeing through all 95 minutes without losing concentration.  We didn’t quite have to deal with an ‘onslaught’, though the number of set pieces pumped or thrown in to our penalty area was a concern.

However, Djourou and Squillaci stood form…
Credit to both players for dealing with the burly John Carew & Co.  Behind them, Wojciech Szczesny never panicked.  Last night was the first time I have heard “Arsenal’s Number 1” chanted at the young Pole.  It won’t be the last.

Fingers crossed re. Cesc & Theo…
Losing both players made last night a costly victory.  I don’t want to talk about the potential repercussions until we have a full diagnosis, but suffice to say I’ll be gutted for Cesc if, as looks likely, he’s not able to lead Arsenal out at Wembley on Sunday – let alone at the Nou Camp in a couple of weeks time.

Arsenal stumble whilst Orienteering

4 comments February 21st, 2011

Leyton Orient 1-1 Arsenal (Rosicky 53, Tehoue 88)
Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

On Wednesday night, Arsenal shot for the moon and battered the stars, beating the world’s greatest team 2-1. Yesterday, the gravitational pull of reality saw us crash back through the atmosphere and firmly down to Earth.

The draw at Orient is no disaster. Let’s not forget that only the width of the crossbar presented Man United from getting the same result in a home tie with a non league club.

The Os, however, were understandably delighted with the result, but not many of their fans will be booking their trips to Old Trafford for the Quarter-Final. A replay at the Emirates will be ample reward to appease both Orient’s fans and book-keepers. The return fixture is an inconvenience for Arsenal, but one they should be able to navigate without too many complications.

The biggest concern, then, is perhaps not the result, but the continued unreliability of our second string.  Arsene Wenger rotated, meaning that of our current ‘first XI’ only Alex Song and Bacary Sagna started. Andrey Arshavin, Wednesday’s matchwinner from the bench, was also included.

Elsewhere, it was a mixture of deputies (Rosicky, Denilson, Bendtner) and a debutant: teenage Spanish defender, Ignasi Miquel. Miquel was one of the positives from the game – his composed display suggested a player of both of poise and potential.

The full line-up was: Almunia © – Sagna Squillaci Miquel Gibbs – Song Denilson – Bendtner Rosicky Arshavin – Chamakh. That side contains players with more than enough ability to dispatch Orient. And yet…

It’s a perverse situation. You’d expect the understudies to be the ones chomping at the bit, fighting for every ball, and showing the urgency born out of a desire to supplant their first-team superiors. Not so. Whilst our best XI play with heart and high-tempo, this line-up are remarkably casual.

They were completely dominant yesterday. With about ten minutes to go, the stat for completed passes read Arsenal: 658, Orient: 169. However, once Tomas Rosicky nodded us in front (his first goal in more than a year), we didn’t show any real desire to go on and kill the game. A second goal for Arsenal would have made the remaining minutes an exhibition. Instead, we left a glimmer of hope for the League Two side.

You have to credit Orient. The sat deep, clung on, and the gambled late on with a couple of attacking substations. One of the men brought on, Jonathan Tehoue, scored what will surely become a famous goal, side-stepping between two feeble challenges from Miquel and Gibbs to fire under Almunia.

Suffice to say, the existing hierarchy remains undisturbed. The majority of these players – like the prospect of a replay – remain far from Arsene’s first choice.

Get your Jack Wilshere: Arsenal DNA t-shirt now

1,010 comments February 17th, 2011

In the aftermath of last night’s game, I posted this as a retort to Xavi:

Thanks to some very helpful production people, I’m delighted to say we’re now able to launch the design as a t-shirt. Starting… well, now.

Click here to get yours.

Please form an orderly, online, metaphorical queue.

Having already done the Cesc shirts, we’ve completed the midfield trio with Alexandre Song.

Song has come a long way from the teenager once infamously described by Paul Merson as a “fish up a tree”.  In celebration of Song’s miraculous evolution from fish to man to demigod, you too can now harness Song’s mysterious and unknown powers, by wearing his face on your torso with this spiffing t-shirt.

Both of these fantastic designs are the work of long-time friend of Gunnerblog and fan of Wagon Wheels and other biscuity goods, David Rudnick.

Don’t forget, we’ve also got a couple of free desktop wallpapers for you, one depicting Jack Wilshere and his ‘Arsenal DNA’, and another in Praise of Songs.

Simply click the image above and then download from the link at the bottom of the page.

Right, that’s all from me.  Continue enjoying your day, folks. It doesn’t get much better than this.

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