Archive for October, 2012

Reading 5 – 7 Arsenal: The game that nearly broke me

617 comments October 31st, 2012

The first half was abject, then apocalyptic, then embarrassing. The second half was acceptable, then alluring, then astounding. Extra-time was just plain bonkers.

This was a match that defies analysis.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain quite how bad Arsenal were in the first half, nor what inspired the change that formed the basis of that incredible turnaround.  In that first 45, every time Reading went forward they looked like scoring.  We simply could not deal with their crosses.  Ignasi Miquel and Carl Jenkinson looked exposed and awkward at full-back, whilst Koscielny and Djourou looked anything but international class defenders in the centre.

First Jason Roberts outwitted Koscielny to dart to the back post and prod home.  Then, just minutes later, Koscielny’s nightmare half continued as his outstretched leg diverted the ball past Martinez and in to his own net.  The Argentine keeper wasn’t helping affairs; his inexperience was clear to see as he flapped at cross after cross.  It was his criminal error which led to the third goal. Mikele Leigertwood fired a fairly simple shot at goal;   Martinez could probably have caught it where he stood, but instead threw himself up and back in an acrobatic arc, playing for the cameras.  How humiliating then that his palm only pushed the ball lamely up in to the air, allowing it to drop in to the net behind him.  Twenty minutes gone; three nil to Reading.

Incredibly, it got worse.  Another cross drifted in, from the right this time, and Noel Hunt climbed highest to power home.  Arsenal were dreadful all over the pitch.  In the build up to the game the manager had made it very public just where this competition lies in his list of priorities.  Unfortunately, it seems the players took that as their cue to put in an entirely listless display.  We were second to every ball, and for the most part you felt glad that the majority of these players are nowhere near the first team.

And then, just before half-time, Arsenal were handed a glimmer of hope.  Andrey Arshavin split the defence with a cute through ball which Theo Walcott raced on to before clipping delightfully over the advancing Adam Federici.  Ah, Federici: with him, you always have a chance.

From the interviews with the players after the match, we can gleam that Arsene’s half-time team talk pulled no punches: this wasn’t good enough.  This was not Arsenal.  In the first half, the fans had been chanting “we want our Arsenal back”.  In the second, they got it.

The game hinged on the double substitution in the 62nd minute.  Olivier Giroud and Thomas Eisfeld were introduced for Gnabry and Frimpong, and suddenly Arsenal came to life.  Within two minutes of coming on to the field of play, Giroud had got on to the end of a Walcott corner and thumped a brilliant header beyond Federici.  Arsenal fans dared to hope.

There then followed a succession of near-misses which I couldn’t help but feel we needed to score to have any chance.  If we could get a third before the 80th minute, I reasoned, then we could have a real go at grabbing an equaliser.  But the clock ticked on, and no goal came.

Fair play to Arsenal; they kept going.  And, in the 89th minute, another Walcott corner found Koscielny, who’s eventful night continued with his second goal of the season.

The board went up, and the situation crystallised: Arsenal had four minutes to score an equaliser.  Reading did everything right.  They kept the ball in the corners, far away up the other end of the pitch.  The four minutes expired.  And yet, the whistle didn’t come.  Arsenal suddenly found themselves with one last tantalising chance. Eisfeld thumped the ball fifty yards in to the area.  Giroud did incredibly well to nod it down towards Theo Walcott, and he stabbed an effort towards goal.  And then, panic.  Replays showed the ball had crossed the line, but the referee didn’t spot it, instead not blowing his whistle until Carl Jenkinson of all people popped up to make sure and hammer the ball back in to the net.  Whoever scored, it didn’t matter.  Arsenal had done it: 4-4, in the 96th minute.

Some players thought their work for the night was done.  Olivier Giroud and Francis Coquelin threw their shirts in to the crowd, only to hurriedly retrieve them when they discovered they had to play extra-time.  Arsenal had the momentum now, and goal their fifth successive goal to put them ahead when Chamakh played a neat one-two with Giroud and fired low in to the corner from outside the box.  I wasn’t sure he had it in him, to be honest.

That, of course, should have been that.  This, however, was no ordinary game, and with just four minutes remaining on the clock a deflect cross found it’s way to Pavel Pogrebnyak,who levelled things up at 5-5.

With Martinez in such worrying form, Arsenal didn’t fancy penalties, but time was and tiring legs were against them.  That’s why I was so shocked when it was a 120th minute forty yard sprint from Andrey Arshavin that proved the difference.  He scooted in to the box and ignored options in the middle to slip the ball under the keeper.  This time, Reading did manage to get the ball off the line, but only as far as Walcott, who smashed it in to give us the crucial lead.  Alongside Walcott was Laurent Koscielny, who had won the ball at the back and sprinted the length of the pitch in the search for the winner.

There was time for one more. A glacé cherry on this delicious cake of a game. Arsene Wenger was still admonishing Martinez for failing to run down the clock when Walcott launched a long ball forward. Chamakh chased it down and lobbed over the keeper (again from outside the box) to set the seal on the game and make it 7-5.

Yes, 7-5.  I’m going for another lie down.

Arsenal 1 – 0 QPR: Accentuating the positives

1,023 comments October 29th, 2012

Arsenal 1 – 0 QPR (Arteta 84)
Match Report | Highlights | Arsene’s reaction

Arsenal got the result they desperately needed…
After the drudgery of the last two games, I didn’t expect a flowing feast of football.  This was about securing three vital points – points that would leave us just seven adrift of league leaders Chelsea by the end of the weekend.

Mark Hughes was unhappy…
…and that is always a good thing.  I can’t stand Hughes, who seems to me to be one of the most over-rated managers in the country.  The way the media bleated about his thoroughly deserved sacking at City was pathetic, and I am enjoying seeing his expensively-assembled QPR side struggle too.  He was right to be annoyed: Mikel Arteta’s scrambled winner was plainly offside.  If I were Hughes, however, I’d be directing my ire at one of my own players: Stephane Mbia. Until he got himself sent off, QPR looked relatively comfortable.  Once they were down to ten men, however, the tide turned – although keeper Julio Cesar did his best to hold us at bay with a string of extraordinary saves.  Cesar looks like a very smart signing.  Mbia, it seems, may not be the brightest.

Jack Wilshere was every bit as good as I expected him to be…
I’d love to sit here and say, “I’d forgotten how good he was”, or “I did’t expect him to be quite so good quite so quickly”.  I’d be lying.  I did.

Jack Wilshere is very special.  Arsenal have lots of promising young players.  Wilshere is on a different level to all of those.  Arsene gets it right when he says:

“He is special. People who understand football understand that he is a good player. He has that typical thing where he can turn and take the ball forward, which is very difficult for a midfielder. He still lacks a little bit of ability to get away from people, but he will get that.”

Seeing him on the pitch gave everyone a huge lift, and it’s clear from watching Jack’s post-match interview just how much it meant to him.  The next few weeks will be crucial; he’ll be hoping to continue to play progressively longer whilst avoiding any set backs.  He’ll sit out the midweek Capital One Cup tie with Reading, but after such an impressive return surely he’ll have to start at Old Trafford?

Bacary Sagna is the best right-back in England…
There was a lot of talk about how it was “harsh” to leave out Carl Jenkinson.  I can’t help but feel that’s informed in part by sentimentality and our love for Carl as one of our own.  Don’t get me wrong: his improvement has been dramatic.  Bacary Sagna, however, is probably the best right-back in England, and one of the best in Europe.  As good as Carl has been, I’m staggered that I’ve read some fans saying that we might consider letting Sagna leave now we have Jenkinson in place.  With respect, that’s the sort of talk that leads to replacing Robin van Persie with Gervinho.  Sagna is one of the few truly top class performers we have.  Treasure him, and welcome him back.  Carl will still have plenty of opportunities over the course of the season.

Andrey Arshavin made the telling contribution…
When substitute Gervinho was stretchered off, Andrey Arshavin was hurriedly called in to action without even being given a chance to properly stretch.  No matter: the Russian made a crucial contribution.  It was his dribble and cross that resulted in Olivier Giroud’s header at goal, eventually leading to Arteta nudging home the winner.  It showed Arshavin can still offer the odd match-winning moment.  Perhaps next time, at least, Arsene will send him out to warm up…

QPR Preview: Ready to (Re)launch?

379 comments October 27th, 2012

Today’s game sees a team full of potential match-winners take on a side desperately out of form.  The question is: which is which?

As poor as our form has been recently, QPR’s is worse.  They haven’t won yet this season.  Then again, neither had Norwich before they played us.  For the Canaries, Grant Holt posed a fairly singular threat.  QPR have a whole host of players who could cause us troubles.  Adel Taraabt is showing signs of transferring his blistering Championship form to the top flight, Esteban Granero looks like a quality signing, and Djibril Cisse loves goals almost as much as he loves getting sent off and preposterous haircuts.

Then there’s Bobby Zamora.  Whenever he comes up against Arsenal, and Thomas Vermaelen in particular, he gives us a torrid time.  Whilst he’s far from the perfect striker, he does have a phenomenal ability to hold the ball with his back to goal.  Vermaelen’s instinct is to nip ahead of the striker and win the ball early, but Zamora’s upper-body strength and neat first touch are like kryptonite on the Belgian.

Arsenal, of course, have players of their own who can do damage.  In recent the games the team’s dour performances mean that individuals, like Podolski and Cazorla, have suffered.  With that in mind, Arsene will be keen to freshen it up.  Bacary Sagna could be in contention to oust a jaded Carl Jenkinson at full-back, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has a “60%” chance of inclusion.  If he’s fit, I expect The Ox to start.  Gervinho was out of sorts on Wednesday night, so replacing him with the direct running and brio of Chamberlain seems a natural choice.

I’d be slightly shocked if the Ivorian started at all – surely Olivier Giroud must be primed to reclaim his central spot.  It’s time for the Frenchman to be bedded in now, and that means a regular run of games.  Whatever your reservations, he is surely the best option we have for the time being.

The big question surrounds Jack Wilshere, and whether or not Arsene will see fit to throw him back in to the fray after 14 months on the sidelines.  It would doubtless give the team and the crowd a lift, and the pre-game whispers are that Jack could be set to start.  Imagine the ovation he’ll get if he does.

The first goal today will be crucial.  Arsenal have picked up a nasty habit of falling behind in recent games.  If we do so again, then we run the risk of another disastrous result.  Go ahead, and things will look a lot sunnier.

Today could be the day when Jack relaunches his Arsenal career.  Let’s hope it’s also the day that Arsenal relaunch their season.

Couple of quick notes for Any Other Business:

  • Yesterday I put together some thoughts on the AGM.  They’re probably far too moderate for the likes of you, but give them a glance if you get the chance.
  • On the day Jack Wilshere makes his return to the Premier League, I found six of these bad boys and bunged them on sale.  Grab ’em quick.

AGM: Angst, Grumbles and Moaning

1,158 comments October 26th, 2012

Before you read this piece, I highly recommend the excellent write-up of the AGM by Hayley Wright for Arseblog News.  It gives you all the relevant detail on the piece, and makes sense of everything that follows this.

We’ll never know now, but if Arsenal had gone in to this AGM on the back of two victories rather than two defeats, I suspect it would have been a rather different affair.  Not in terms of content: many of the points raised by the shareholders yesterday would remain valid.  I can’t help but feel, however, that the tone would have been rather different.  Reports of yesterday’s meeting sound more like a stroppy teenager questioning a belligerent parent than any kind of constructive debate.

In the rather catty dialogue, both parties are at fault.  The heckling and jeering from the supporters who were present simply does not help.  Nor does the patronising and dismissive tone employed by chairman Peter Hill-Wood.  By the end of yesterday’s events things seem to have taken on a pantomimic tone, and the result is a plethora of headlines about “revolt” and “restless natives”.

I think it is possible to ask probe and even pressurise, to drive at the heart of the matter, and ask the questions that sorely need to be asked without resorting to the bitter register adopted yesterday.  I think that a man standing up and asking how he is supposed to explain to his ten-year old son that Robin van Persie has left is adopting emotive language that adds little to the debate.  His ten year old son will cope.  There are plenty of men entering their forties now who survived Liam Brady’s departure for Juventus, and most of them seem to have escaped any lasting damage.

Whilst I don’t doubt that some of the fans present at the AGM are experts in football finance, I do feel that the majority of our fanbase seem very quick to forge opinions on the economic policy of our club without the necessary expertise to undertake such a role.  I would refer such fans to the Q&A with Tom Fox and Mark Gonella, our Head of Marketing and Head of Communications respectively.  From my unashamedly ill-informed perspective, this new team do seem to know what they’re doing.  Granted, their appointments could have come sooner, but it’s better late than never, and news of a forthcoming £25m kit deal with Adidas is evidence of the work they’re undertaking.

I have to say that as a rule I’m far more interested in events on the field of play.  It’s when economic matters impact upon our performance on the pitch that my interest is piqued.

In general, I’m a fan of the “self-sufficient model”.  It is not just admirable – if FFP does come in to play, it will swiftly become necessary.  However, I do understand some fans’ concerns that our penny-pinching is leading to stagnation.  The question has to be asked: Self-sufficiency is all very well, but what exactly are we sustaining?  A competitive team?  Not really.  The status of the club?  Barely.  We’re sustaining a very functional, very well run business.  We won’t be going under any time soon; everyone gets paid on time; debt is minimal.  But all the while we tick over, trophyless in fourth spot, our stock falls just a little.  Talismanic players continue to leave, and we’re perceived as a feeder club to Europe’s giants.

Arsene, of course, would argue that we’re not truly ‘trophyless’.  In an intriguing speech, he said:

“For me, there are five trophies – the first is to win the Premier League, the second is to win the Champions League, the third is to qualify for the Champions League, the fourth is to win the FA Cup and the fifth is to win the League Cup.

I say that because if you want to attract the best players, they do not ask: ‘did you win the League Cup?’, they ask you: ‘do you play in the Champions League?

I say that as well, because recently we had a meeting in Geneva about when a manager is in some situations, what does he do? For example, a guy came out with a problem. He said ‘I played the semi-final of the Europa League at home and three days later, I played the decisive game in the championship to qualify for the Champions League.

And I was thinking ‘what do I do?’ Do I go for the semi-final of the Europa League? Or do I go for the qualifier in the Champions League?’ And the whole meeting was about that decision.

What came out as a 90 per cent conclusion, is that all the managers said ‘if you take care of you, you go for the semi-final of the Europa League. If you take care of the club, you go for the Champions League position.’ And that’s what we do, always.”

It’s an interesting debate – one that’s almost too big to open within this blog.  In Arsene’s defence, I’ll say this: every so often, such as in the light of Wednesday’s defeat to Schalke, I’ll hear fans saying: “Maybe it’d be better if we didn’t qualify for the Champions League one year.  That’s shake things up at last; show the board.”

Let me tell you now: no good would come of such a thing.  Would you rather win the League Cup and miss out on the top four?  Really?  I’ll give you one last chance to rethink that before I hit you with this: that’s what Liverpool did last year.  It got Kenny Dalglish sacked.  It meant the players they bought in the summer were from clubs like Swansea and Heerenveen.  They missed out on a player from Fulham – to Spurs, of all people.  They currently sit 12th in the table.  It is not a recipe for success.

Top players want to play in the Champions League.  And we need to top players in order to win a trophy.  The problem we currently have is that there are three sides in Britain who are comfortably better than us.  No Arsenal player in his right mind would move to another club other than that Chelsea, United and City.  From this position, we need to move up once more in to those echelons, not down to join the Liverpools of this world.  I think we’re one disastrous season away from that happening, and it doesn’t bear thinking about.

To move up, of course, requires investment.  I still believe we have the right manager.  I still, just about, believe we have the right board.  But whichever of those two entities truly holds the purse strings (and my firm belief remains that the reluctance to spend comes primarily from Arsene) needs to loosen up a bit.  Cazorla and Podolski show you don’t have to spend crazy money to get quality players.

If the AGM had been a month or so ago, it might have been a very self-satisfied affair.  The new signings looked inspired, we were defensively solid, and being talked about as genuine contenders.  That AGM would have been misleading: it would have overlooked some of the crucial issues that it was essential to raise yesterday.  But by the same token, a couple of bad results shouldn’t cast an ugly light across the entire club.  Arsenal don’t need saving: they just need to get a bit better.  Starting tomorrow.

Pssssst.  I found a few (a very few) of these in a cupboard.  Half a dozen, to be precise.  If you missed out on them last time, grab yours quickly.  But don’t talk too loudly about it.  We wouldn’t want to jinx anything.

Arsenal 0 – 2 Schalke: More of the same

700 comments October 25th, 2012

This would have been a difficult game even if we were in good form
As it was, off the back of that dire display against Norwich, I fancied Schalke from the off. The German side have some very good players, and came in to the game off the back of a morale-boosting victory over Dortmund: a side good enough to beat Real Madrid last night.

I make that 180 mins without creating a decent chance
Last night, our first shot on target came in the 93rd minute courtesy of 17-year old substitute Serge Gnabry. By my count, that makes for one shot on target mustered in each of the last two games, neither of which you would even stretch to calling a ‘half-chance’. The defensive frailties are nothing new, but this lack of attacking threat is unfamiliar and alarming. The last time I can remember an Arsenal side looking this impotent was just before the January transfer window in which Arsene pulled his finger out to sign Andrey Arshavin.

Andre Santos had a stinker.
If you head down to Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning, you will occasionally catch sight of me taking to the field as a leaded-footed, positionally naive left-back. Alternatively, you could just watch reruns of Andre Santos’ performance last night, as he huffed, puffed, and struggled his way though a truly torrid 90 minutes. I was alarmed to see that he repeated his trick of standing several yards behind the defensive line, allowing Huntelaar to be played onside just as Grant Holt was on Saturday. In the first half, Per Mertesacker kept us in it, but eventually the weaknesses of those around him were exposed.

I don’t see the sense in dropping Giroud.
I know he hasn’t set the world alight, but I really don’t think there’s any point in persisting with Gervinho as a lone striker. Last nights horror show showed that ‘Goalvinho’ is not a viable long-term option. Why not play Giroud and at least allow himself a chance bed in? Rotating him in and out of the side simply harms his confidence, and right now we haven’t got a better option than the Frenchman.

Gervinho is not consistent enough to play for Arsenal
Every so often he will do something fantastic. More often than not, he will run in to blind alleys, away from his team-mates, and give the ball away. Gervinho is a maverick. He is not capable of cohesive team play. His head goes down, and one has the impression that he himself barely knows what he is going to do with the play. Players like him have their place in the game, but it is generally in mid-table. Sides who see little of the game, and require a game-breaker to do the unexpected. Arsenal are an intelligent, possession side. That is not Gervinho’s game.

Arsenal desperately need to sign a striker.
See previous two points. I’m not sure this requires much expansion. In a world in which Demba Ba is available for just £7m, there is no excuse for Arsene not bringing in a reliable front man in January.

The AGM will be a feisty affair.
Already last night there were chants of “6%; you’re having a laugh” and “Ivan Gazidis: What do you do?” (albeit with inferior punctuation). One can understand why, especially when you face the unavoidable question: Did we really sell Robin van Persie to play Gervinho up front? I don’t think it’s all bad. There were signs just a few weeks ago that this squad has plenty of ability. Arsenal don’t have the familiar excuse of inexperience to trot out; this is a mature side that should know better. Get back to where we were on Saturday and the picture won’t look quite so ugly.

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