Archive for October, 2011

Arsenal get their swagger back at the Bridge

69 comments October 31st, 2011

Hello all.  I wrote this in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s game, but have only just found the WIFI signal required to get it up.

Chelsea 3 – 5 Arsenal

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

The early part of this 2011/12 season has been characterised by some extraordinary results. Arsenal fans know this better than any, having been involved in remarkable clashes at both Old Trafford and Ewood Park. Yesterday, for the first time, one of these bizarre scorelines fell in our favour.

The scoreline might have been freakish, but the result wasn’t. An Arsenal win surprised many, myself included, but it comes off the back of an impressive run of form – it’s now eight wins from nine games. Chelsea, meanwhile, had lost their last league game at QPR.

Despite that, I didn’t dare anticipate victory. But before the game, looking at our team it did strike me that we are looking stronger than we have in some months. Over the past eight weeks or so, a new team has begun to gel, and there is suddenly a degree of solidity and momentum behind them.

It was a sign of Arsene’s confidence that he was able to leave Thomas Vermaelen on the bench, opting to continue with Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker at centre-back. Johan Djourou and Andre Santos continued at full-back, with the first choice midfield trio of Song, Arteta and Ramsey restored. Gervinho and Walcott were the pacy outlets on the flanks, whilst captain Robin van Persie lead the line from the front.

One of the discussion points of the season has been the poor standard of defending. One has reluctantly come to expect that from Arsenal; from Chelsea it is more of a surprise. However, this season Andre Villas Boas has liberated his full-backs with perilous consequences. John Obi Mikel, meanwhile, is simply not a Champions League quality holding midfielder. Had the unreliable David Luiz started the game would have been even more open.

As it happened, it was a miracle the game got as far as 14 minutes at 0-0 – it could easily have been 2-2. I was particularly staggered by one miss from Gervinho – Walcott did brilliantly to skin Ashley Cole and crossed for what seemed a simple tap-in. Somehow, the Ivorian sidefooted wide. I was infuriated, and didn’t feel any better when Van Persie volleyed over an opportunity which, for a player of his equality, was relatively presentable.

When Chelsea took the lead it was through a header from Frank Lampard. Andre Santos, who had looked vulnerable in the early stages, was beaten too easily by Juan Mata, and when he crossed in to the box Lampard eluded Per Mertesacker to nod past Szczesny.

Arsenal were rocking, but before half-time had an equaliser. Aaron Ramsey, whose ninety minutes was typified by moments of enterprise and invention, played an exquisite through ball for Gervinho. This time, the winger knew better than to shoot, and squared to his skipper to tap in to an empty net.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t hold the lead until half-time, as John Terry bundled home a Frank Lampard corner at the near post. Again Mertesacker was at fault, and he and fellow new boy Santos were having a torrid time. As the half-time whistle blow, most of the talk among Arsenal fans was about replacing the Brazilian with Thomas Vermaelen.

Meanwhile, in the Arsenal dressing room, it seems Arsene Wenger was giving a speech to rival his rousing words at the AGM. With no substitutions made, Arsenal came out and attacked the second half with gusto. Within 4 minutes, we had our second equaliser of the game. And, of course, it was Santos who got the goal, racing on to a Song through-ball to tuck in to the near post and continue the fine tradition of left-backs scoring at the Bridge. From that moment on, he visibly grew in to the game, putting in several crunching tackles as well as marauding forward on the break.

Arsenal had momentum, and soon went ahead for the first time with the fifth goal of the game. Theo Walcott scooted inside from the right, tripped, fell over, clambered back to his feet, whizzed beyond two more defenders and thundered an effort in to Petr Cech’s increasingly vulnerably near post.

At this point, there were still 35 minutes to go, and I had little confidence in our capability to hold the lead. That said, when Chelsea did get their predictable equaliser, we were somewhat unfortunate. Andre Santos was fouled off the ball by Romelu Lukaku, allowing Juan Mata the space to crash in a phenomenal effort from fully thirty yards. At that point, it was easy to feel frustrated that we hadn’t paid the extra few million Euros to secure the Spaniard’s signature.

But there was still time for more late drama. John Terry, who looked at half-time as if he might prove to be the match-winner, inexplicably slipped when trying to reach a loose backpass from Florent Malouda. Robin van Persie raced on to the loose ball, and from then on there was only ever going to be one outcome. The Dutchman skipped past Petr Cech and tucked home to put Arsenal 4-3 ahead.

Chelsea were then left with no choice but to go for broke, and inevitably Arsenal created chances on the break. When Tomas Rosicky headed away an inswinging free-kick, Arsenal were able in break in numbers. Even so, when Van Persie received the ball from Mikel Arteta on the corner of Chelsea’ penalty area the outcome was far from certain. However, the Dutchman unleashed an unstoppable shot which flew past Cech at his near post. It was his hatrick, his tenth league goal of the season, and the eighth of a quite unbelievable game of football. One which we had won.

The celebrations for the fifth goal and the final whistle have have looked a little over-the-top to the neutral. They were more befitting of a side winning the league than a mere three points. However, for Arsenal fans, they require no explanation. After the horrors of Old Trafford, this game provided a necessary and hugely cathartic fillip. For the first time since the victory over Barcelona in spring, Arsenal fans are able to feel unapologetically proud of their team.

Granted, we weren’t perfect – in the first half the defending left much to be desired.  But we played with a swagger that has been sadly absent since the summer.

Supporters and players alike seem to be slowly regaining faith in the potential of this club and team. Winning at Stamford Bridge was a slap in the face to those pundits who said Arsenal wouldn’t even challenge for the top four this season. We’ll certainly be there or thereabouts – the sheer brilliance of Robin van Persie alone ought to be enough to ensure that.

I can’t wait to see what the atmosphere is like at the stadium when Arsenal take on Marseille tomorrow. I hope the fans give the players the raucous welcome they deserve. And should the first goal go against us, I hope they remember the way in which we were able to twice come behind with such stunning effect over the weekend.

I think we’re all agreed that our season only started on September 1st. This weekend, it finally burst in to life. Let’s consign the pain of August to the past, and start enjoying it.

Bolton Report: Arshavin takes centre-stage

288 comments October 26th, 2011

Park celebrates bending home the winner against Bolton

Arsenal 2 – 1 Bolton

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsenal went through to the Quarter-Finals of the Carling Cup for the ninth successive season with a 2-1 victory over Bolton.  It wasn’t televised anywhere in the world, so the 56,628 or so lucky enough to be in the statdium are, thus far, the sole witnesses to another encouraging victory.  If you haven’t seen the game at all, you might have an interest in this audio report I put together in the match’s immediate aftermath.

The team was the expected mix of youth and experience.  The headline inclusion was Thomas Vermaelen, though it passed almost without notice that his partner on the night, Sebastien Squillaci, was making his first appearance of the season.  Lukasz Fabianski kept goal, with youngsters Ignasi Miquel and Nico Yennaris (a debutant) at full-back.  Coquelin and Frimpong patrolled the midfield, with Benayoun, Arshavin and Chamberlain pulling the strings behind Ju-Young Park.

Arshavin had not originally been intended to play, with Tomas Rosicky pencilled for inclusion.  However, a slight injury to the Czech midfielder saw the far from slight Arshavin handed his central playmaking role.  It would prove to be the game’s crucial factor.

The first half was a relatively quiet affair.  Yossi Benayoun flashed one effort over, and on a couple of occasions Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed to try and do too much when released on the right.  It wasn’t a poor performance from the young winger, but it was his certainly his least eye-catching in an Arsenal shirt.  Perhaps he is feeling the pressure of expectation.

The second half started ominously, with former Gunner Fabrice Muamba side-footing in to the roof of the net to give Bolton the lead.  It was at this point, however, that Arsenal’s experienced players began to seize control of the game.  Arshavin was the key figure.  First he picked up the ball on the right, skipped infield, and fired a fizzing shot in off the far post.

Within three minutes, he’d created the winner, scooting inside from the left before playing in Park in the space that had been created.  The Korean’s finish was exquisite, opening his body and bending a first-time shot around the goalkeeper and in to the far corner.  Thierry Henry would have been proud.

Afterwards, the manager spoke in glowing terms about Park’s performance:

“He had a very, very good game. His movement was exceptional and his finishing is absolutely fantastic.

He is ready to play in league games.”

Park battled well against two experienced Premier League centre-backs in Gary Cahill and Zat Knight, and considering Marouane Chamakh’s terrible form in front of goal, is bound to get his chance sooner or later.

Arshavin, however, was the undoubted man of the match.  There were still errors in his game, but in the final third it’s hard to question his efficacy.  However, listening to Arsene post-match, we’re unlikely to see him in his favoured position again anytime soon:

“You cannot play with two wingers and two offensive players like that, you are too short in midfield. He is normally a wide player but he wants to grow in a role behind the striker.”

Whether or not that growth takes place at Arsenal or elsewhere remains to be seen.

Thomas Vermaelen departed with a solid 85 minutes behind him and whispers of a calf strain, but the man himself has taken to Twitter to dispel those fears and confirm his availability for Saturday’s game with Chelsea.  With so little match practise behind him, I don’t expect him to start, but simply having him around the squad is a positive boost at the moment.

Tonight I fly to Spain for a week of exile from, among other things, the internet.  If I happen to stumble in to a WIFI-furnished cafe I will update while I am there – if not, you’ll have to cope without me for a week.  Chins up.

Poacher RVP benefits from Gervinho wizardry

582 comments October 24th, 2011

Arsenal 3 – 1 Stoke

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Imagine, if you will, that Arsene Wenger had been dismissed following Arsenal’s defeat at Blackburn on September 17th.  It’s not beyond the realms of possibility – certainly, a large proportion of the fanbase were calling for just that to happen.  Now imagine that the new manager – some idealistic lovechild of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, conceived in a bout of passionate hate-sex, had achieved exactly the same results Arsene has in the last seven games.

It’s six wins from seven games, with 15 goals scored and just six conceded.  It’s a run that’s taken us to the top of our Champions League group, and within three points of both Liverpool and Tottenham in the Premier League.

Had these results been picked up by a new manager, divorced from the stigma that Arsene has collected in his 15 years at charge, he’d be being praised for the impressive and pragmatic turnaround.  Arsene, too, deserves that credit.  I want to stear clear of cliche and avoid claiming that we’ve turned round any corners or over any leaves, but there is an increasing confidence in this Arsenal squad – a confidence underlined by the fact that Arsene felt he would be able to start Robin van Persie on the bench yesterday.

As we know, the Dutchman eventually stepped on to the field to resume his customary role as match-winner.  He is now just one off double-figures for the season, and has a staggering 25 goals in 26 league games in the calendar year of 2011 (thanks Orbinho).  His evolution in to a central striker has been fascinating to watch.  He arrived at Arsenal as a lanky teenager who had, like another great Arsenal striker, Thierry Henry, spent most of footballing career on the left-wing.  Unlike Henry, Van Persie was not blessed with blistering pace, and so was ear-marked by many (including Arsene) as a potential successor to Dennis Bergkamp in the support-striker role.  When we made the necessary switch to 4-3-3, however, Arsene needed a centre-forward who could receive the ball with his back to goal and bring the midfield in to play.  He needed someone with an immaculate first-touch, and Van Persie was that man.

What he and others could never predicted was that the Dutchman would unearth in himself such a goalscoring instinct.  Both finishes yesterday were instant near-post strikes – real poacher’s goals.  If he somehow manages to avoid injury, he promises to have his highest scoring season to date.

For both goals yesterday he owed a huge debt of gratitude to Gervinho.  The Ivorian winger had his best game in an Arsenal shirt, scoring the opener after a lovely clipped pass from Aaron Ramsey, and then setting up the second and third with darts to the right and left byline respectively before cutting the ball back in to Robin’s path.  Whilst his first touch and finishing can be erratic, he does seem to possess that burst of pace over five yards than allows him to get past a man in the tightest of situations.  And, unlike Theo Walcott, he seems to be able to take the ball with him when he does it too, and find a pass at the end of it.  Hopefully his goal yesterday marks the start of a scoring run – we need the likes of Gervinho and Walcott to take the pressure off Van Persie.

Finally, I wanted to speak in praise once more of our centre-back pairing of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, who (for the most part) coped admirably with Stoke’s aerial bombardment.  Stoke’s goal was the unfortunate product of a lapse on concentration – I think fans and players alike thought they’d hoofed their free-kick out of play, only to see it catch in the wind and turn out to be a perfectly clipped pass to the near post.

Koscielny has been getting a lot of praise of late, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that having the giant German alongside him is helping him enormously.   It means that Thomas Vermaelen will have a genuine battle to get back in to the side when he returns from injury, which is a luxury we couldn’t have dreamt of a few months ago.  While we’re on the defence, I also though Andre Santos and Johan Djourou performed very ably in the full-back positions.

Right, Carling Cup tomorrow, and another chance to look at Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, among others.

A toast to Arsene & other bits

58 comments October 22nd, 2011

There’s only one place to start today, and that’s with wishing a very happy birthday to Arsene Wenger. Our manager is now 62 years old, and has dedicated almost a quarter of his life to serving Arsenal Football Club.  It’s a debt of service and a body of work that leaves me in awe.  Here’s to you, Professor.

I was struck by a quip from Arsene to French TV last week.  He said:

“When I arrive at the gates of Heaven the Good Lord will ask ‘what did you do in your life?’

I will respond ‘I tried to win football matches.’ He will say: ‘Are you sure that’s all?’ But, well, that’s the story of my life.”

At a time when opinion over the manager is more divergent than ever, you cannot question his dedication to the Arsenal cause.  The quote above underlines the paradox of Arsene: he is a fiercely intelligent man, who has spent his life pursuing something as absurd as football.  At times he has transcended that, turning sport in to art.  At the moment, he goes game to game, trying to claw three points from each fixture.

That process continues tomorrow against Stoke.  The team news sees Carl Jenkinson added to our injury list.  Arsene says that one of Johan Djourou or Laurent Koscielny will fill in at right-back.  I’d be inclined to choose Djourou, simply because I’d be cautious to split up the increasingly effective partnership between Koscielny and Per Mertesacker.  Arsene has been speaking about the teutonic titan:

“I brought him here for more than this type of game [Stoke] because I feel he is a good player. He is a good organiser, he understands the game, he is an intelligent player and physically he is getting sharper and sharper in every game.

He had no real preparation for the season and now you can see that we look less nervous at the back and he contributes to that.”

Arsene also says he’d like to see the German get more goals from set-pieces, but for that to happen the delivery from the likes of Mikel Arteta and Robin van Persie needs to improve dramatically.

Stoke will be a significant test, and hopefully I’ll be able to furnish you with a full preview tomorrow.  I unexpectedly have to dash, but why not spend the afternoon raising a glass to our manager, and enjoying some of his finest turns of phrase here.

Last-minute magic in Marseille

761 comments October 19th, 2011

Aaron Ramsey netting the winner against Marseille

Arsenal 1 – 0 Marseille

Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

You know what, Chelsea?  You can keep your 5-0 romps.  Truly, there is no sweeter way to win a football match than with a solitary last-gasp goal.  More than ninety minutes of turgid entrenchment punctured by one sweet strike from substitute Aaron Ramsey.  Cue much air punching, back-slapping, and (in my house at least) spilling of tea.

To say it was an average game would probably be generous.  After a promising start, it fizzled out, which felt a little like seeing Joey Barton on fire, and then having some jobsworth health and safety officer throw water over him.  The closest we came to goalmoath action was a shout for handball at either end, with Carl Jenkinson and Souleymane Diawara the men lucky to escape censure.

Andre Santos also carlessly handled the ball having already been booked, and was probably lucky not to be sent off.  If you knew nothing of Santos, just five minutes watching him would enable you to guess he was Brazilian.  Plenty of skill and imagination on the ball, but a tendency to overplay and take some quite insane risks.  Needless to say, he is fitting in perfectly at Arsenal.

The basic problem was a lack of quality in the final third.  Marseille lacked ambition; Arsenal urgency.   Andrey Arshavin had been selected ahead of Gervinho but was having a nightmare of a game.  At least he would occasionally find himself on the ball – the same could not be said for Theo Walcott.

The second-half introductions of Johan Djourou and Gervinho for Carl Jenkinson (injured) and Theo Walcott (AWOL) threatened to bring our right-flank to life, but it looked for all intents and purposes as if Arsenal were playing out a creditable 0-0 draw.  I even began composing a blog, now thankfully discarded, which reported the result as fact.

There were positives to be drawn.  Laurent Koscielny was quite outstanding at centre-back, with Per Mertesacker equally assured alongside him.  Ahead of them, Alex Song added to what is becoming an increasingly impressive portfolio of performances this season.  He breaks up the play well, and uses the ball intelligently.  Next to him, Mikel Arteta showed more graft than craft with a number of crucial and crunchy challenges.  The advantage of signing players with Premier League experience is that they usually know how to scrap.

The frustration was that Marseille were clearly there for the taking, if only Arsenal could up their game.  In the end, the man to release the figurative handbrake was subtitute Aaron Ramsey, who collected a Johan Djourou cross, miscontrolled by Gervinho, and fired low in to the near post – the perfect way for him to prepare for a game with Stoke at the weekend.

And so it finished: 1-0 to the Arsenal, with our first clean sheet away from home in Europe since Milan ’08.

Afterwards Arsene said:

“We left it very late but we had a difficult start. We lost some balls in the first half due to the fact Marseille pressed us well.

They didn’t find their fluency but in the second half we took over and I don’t think Marseille were dangerous at all [after half-time]. Marseille defended very well but you could see in the last 15 minutes we created some chances and were rewarded because we kept going and got an important victory.”

It leaves us top of the group, and a win in the return fixture would all but guarantee our qualification to the knockout stage.

Quietly, without anyone taking much notice, Arsenal have won five of their last six games.  It’s not quite a resurgence, but it’s certainly a relief.  Long may it continue.

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