Nov 042012
 

That was painful.

On the face of it, a 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford isn’t something to get you too bent out of shape – they win the vast majority of their home games and the scoreline suggests a tight match nicked by the odd goal. Sadly, the scoreline today bore no resemblance to the pattern of the match itself, in which the two United scored should have been a few more, and the one we mustered was with the last kick of the game, and barely celebrated.

The teamsheets made for worrying reading. Aside from the sideshow that always accompanies former players making their return, the thought of Santos trying to combat Valencia was not a prospect many were looking forward to, while Mannone’s continued presence in goal is an accident waiting to happen. Ironically, Mannone was good throughout, pulling off an excellent save from Rooney in the first half and van Persie in the second, and along with Mertesacker is the only player that can hold their head up and say they played well. Santos, on the other hand, was every bit the weak link United were hoping he would be.

Better full backs than the Brazilian will struggle with Valencia’s power, pace and trickery, but the winger found life embarrassingly easy at times today, and dominated the flank all day. Probably the only foot he put wrong was in the early moments of the second half, when he miskicked a tap in that would have put them two up long before they eventually put the game to bed. That stemmed from a bad mistake from Vermaelen, who will not look back fondly on this game, having started by presenting the returning van Persie with a golden chance that he was never likely to miss, in doing so casting aside our entire game plan. It would be fair to say that captaincy has not enhanced the Belgian as we hoped it would – instead he has been culpable on a number of occasions so far this season, and were it not for the armband his position in the starting eleven would surely be in question, an unthinkable suggestion a year ago.

Following the early goal, our response was disappointingly flat. United’s tactics were perfectly simple – they harried Arteta, denying him the space to pivot and supply his midfield colleagues, and as a result Cazorla dropped deeper to get involved, thus putting him in an area of the field from which it is more difficult to create. Then, when they won the ball back, the spread it wide to Valencia and charged into the box. None of that was unpredictable, or even a new approach in our recent meetings, but it worked worryingly easily.

Mannone’s saves and United’s wastefulness were keeping us in it, none more so than on the stroke of half time, when Rooney put a gift of a penalty well wide. But while we improved after the break, they still created the bulk of the chances, and when their second eventually came, no-one could be surprised, even though Evra winning a free header six yards out tells a story of its own about our defending. The closest we came was when Giroud smacked an effort against the outside of the post, before Cazorla gave an already flattering scoreline a bit of gloss with a superb effort in the final moments.

Before then, we were down to ten men, when Jack Wilshere ignored the last chance saloon he was in and went in late on Evra, a red card decision that I don’t think anyone can question. I would argue that Cleverley should have seen red earlier – his challenge didn’t warrant the final warning he was given – but so one-sided was the match that it surely would have made no difference. The gulf between the sides was far greater than the 2-1 scoreline suggests, and United looked like they had plenty of gears to go through had the situation required it. It never did.

All in all, it was a very bad day at the office, and isn’t the first since the international break ended. There is, however, a danger of criticism going too far, as it certainly did on Twitter during and after the match. Every staff member at the club was vilified as a moron, every player dismissed as hopeless, even those who actually performed adequately. Suggestions were made that no-one cared, that it was all the fault of people not even in the stadium, and much more. I understand the frustration, I really do, but I wish the post-mortem didn’t include so much mud-slinging. It really helps no-one, and creates a poisonous atmosphere from which it is difficult to recover.

But, at the same time, these are worrying times, and Wenger has some serious issues to sort out, and quickly. November is packed with hurdles, and we need to stop tripping over them if those at the front are going to stay in sight.

Like I said, a painful day.

Sep 022012
 

Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2 (Podolski 31, Cazorla 68)
(Premiership)

There was a moment in today’s game where you sensed that something had changed with this Arsenal side. Lukas Podolski had just put us into the lead after an electric break involving Santi Cazorla, but up until then the match had been fairly even, so a response was expected. Pressure was certainly anticipated, given that we were up against a Liverpool team eager to impress their new manager, and backed by a supposedly raucous Anfield crowd, but as we awaited the reaction, a strange sense of comfort washed over many of us, the kind of comfort that a single goal lead hasn’t provided in years.

Liverpool looked bereft of ideas, certainly ideas that would cause the towering duo of Vermaelen and Mertesacker any serious issues, and they had no-one (bar Downing, so genuinely no-one) to threaten from the bench. The goal had already proven our potency on the counter attack, and with further pacy options waiting in the wings, we had plenty of threat if the home side pushed forward too far. And Liverpool knew it. One goal down at home, in the first half, against a side supposedly not at their best, and their belief was gone.

Heads dropped on the pitch, and in the crowd. You could hear a pin drop in three quarters of the stands, with the away support gleefully going through their repertoire and banishing the notion that Anfield is an intimidating place to go. On the field, Arsenal chests puffed out, and an unprecedented level of control was taken of the match. For the rest of the game, Mannone was troubled only by a few crosses (that the defence dealt with) and a couple of late efforts by Shelvey, which came after Cazorla’s strike had put the game beyond Liverpool’s reach. It was bizarrely comfortable.

A lot of the comfort stems from the improved defensive solidity throughout the team, to the point where Liverpool lost the belief that they would ever break us down, an impact we’ve rarely had on opposition teams in recent years. Most are putting this down to the Steve Bould effect, and there certainly is a big element of that, but I don’t think it is all that simple. You also have to bear in mind that the defensive side of our squad is settled – our first choices and reserves in the whole of the back line are unchanged from last season, and that alone helps the cohesion.

However, you can see Bould’s influence on the organisation, particularly from set pieces. It is easy to overlook the fact that we already had plenty of coaches who were defenders in their day (including the outgoing Pat Rice), but ultimately fresh ideas rarely hurt, and a man schooled in the George Graham era is always going to have new wisdom to impart. In a way, we saw the merging of two Arsenal eras – Graham’s fearsome, physical and impenetrable back line and Wenger’s slick attacking units. For every body thrown on the line to deny Liverpool an opening, there was a beautiful thirty pass move dizzying them into submission. The defence was classical, the goals were counter attacks attributable to the best of Wenger’s ideals.

It was a potent combination, and far too much for a Liverpool side who were made to look extremely poor. When you consider that this was the same team that should have beaten the champions last weekend, it was a very creditable victory that should instill the squad with a great deal of confidence. The attacking unity was much improved, particularly between Podolski and Cazorla, and the improved barriers at the back mean that we shouldn’t have to go chasing a game over and over again (no more stupid 4-3 losses to Blackburn, please). And all this without Szczesny, Koscielny, Sagna and Wilshere. Not bad, not bad at all.

One of the most pleasing things about the game was that we didn’t just outplay Liverpool, we outfought them. Defensive responsibility was never shirked, most evidenced by the hugely impressive Podolski, who took it upon himself to protect Gibbs throughout the entire match, playing a box to box role from the flank. But while the whole team performance was impressive (Jenkinson’s second half shackling of the impressive Sterling, and Arteta’s efficiency throughout deserve special mention), the standout man was one who spent the match confounding critics in a big way – Abou Diaby. The guy was an absolute monster in the middle of the park, with power combined with incredibly quick feet, and Liverpool never got near him. Even when he suffered a Skrtel clattering in the second half, he just got up and carried on dominating those around him, providing the platform from which the likes of Cazorla could build.

Fitness will always be the worry when it comes to the Frenchman, but he served up a timely reminder of why we have stuck by him so long – he is a fearsome talent when fit and firing. He always takes a few games to get up to speed, and too often has then been cut down by another problem. He deserves better, and it would be a wonderful story for this to be his breakthrough year after so many seasons of strife.

Back to the present, and today could be a breakthrough match. Two goalless draws left many unsure whether to be optimistic about the clean sheets or pessimistic about the lack of goals, but the signs of improvement are now clear to see. Time to build on them.

A good day.

Apr 232012
 

Morning all.

Arsenal fans don’t take a lot of riling. Most football fans are a sensitive bunch, but it seems that our club has more than its fair share of the bipolar. One minute we are a signing or two away from seriously challenging for honours next season, the next we’re doomed to abject mediocrity. And often the difference is the width of the post. Literally (not in a Redknappian sense, but actually literally).

This post is going to require a preface, so here we go – one point from a pair of homes games isn’t a great return, and neither performance could be described as inspiring, or will live long in the memory. But I’m still left with the confused view of a man who seems to have seen a different couple of games from the most vociferous of supporters. The team were accused of things I don’t believe to be accurate, and the wrong players continue to be singled out for unnecessary and frankly pathetic abuse. Let’s start with Wigan.

Wigan

The general consensus from the Wigan game is that we were complacent. Lazy. Felt we just ‘needed to turn up to win’ (or whatever that ridiculous phrase is). It has become accepted fact that we breezed through the game without a care in the world, handing a victory to the opposition without putting up a fight.

That’s not what I saw.

I saw a poor performance. I saw players making the wrong decisions in the final third, players not quite connecting with their efforts on goal as they would like, players who occasionally mislaid crucial passes. And of course, I saw a shabby opening fifteen minutes that ultimately cost us the game.

However, I did see effort. I saw a team desperately looking to break down an impressive Wigan team who defending manfully and skilfully. I saw players making passes that were inches away from being perfect. I saw tracking back, and determination going forward. In essence, I saw what I wanted to see – a team who wanted to win and were willing to put in the hard yards to do so.

Sometimes, you don’t win football matches, and it isn’t always because you were complacent. I feel people are too quick in their efforts to find snap explanations for draws and defeats – it always has to be because we were lazy, or that at least three players were a disgrace to the shirt. You never hear anyone say ‘sometimes, shit happens‘. Look at United yesterday – 3-1 and 4-2 up against an Everton side who have struggled for goals, and they blew it, drawing 4-4 and letting City back into the title race. Were they complacent? Were they cocky? Or was it just one of those days?

Hats off to Wigan, by the way. They were brilliant on the night. We all stayed behind to applaud them off, which felt like a nice touch (well, when I say ‘all’, I mean those that remained – around me I reckon only about one in three seats were still occupied at the final whistle, which I hated). I hope they stay up, I really do.

Chelsea

And so to Saturday lunchtime, and a home game against a Chelsea side who made some changes and parked the bus ahead of their second leg with Barcelona on Tuesday night. Last time we watched Chelsea on a Saturday lunchtime, they played out a bore draw with Spurs, and this was no different. Calling it attritional would be paying it a compliment. Yet we still had the best chances – Van Persie would normally bury at least one of his, hitting the post from Walcott’s free kick and firing straight at Cech later on, while Koscielny was also unlucky to see his header crash back off the crossbar. In a week where the woodwork favoured Chelsea enormously, they could and should have lost to us and Barcelona, but escaped on both occasions. That isn’t to say that we were complacent, poor or lazy, or even that Chelsea defended that well, but sometimes you get matches were the narrow margins go against you.

Consider this. For about three years, Chelsea beat us routinely, both home and away. And what’s more – we got used to it. We went into games hoping for a result, but secretly preparing for the inevitable defeat. Now, they come away from the Emirates delighted with a fortunate point that doesn’t even help them that much, while we look on, disappointed. How times change.

Players

Not only did I feel that some of the reporting of the team performances this week was inaccurate, but I felt the assessment of some of the individual players was off kilter too. I think most of us would accept that Arsenal fans have particular targets when things aren’t going well, and while some of that is borne out of a succession of poor displays or poor attitude (read: Eboue), some of it is less warranted. The usual suspects bore the brunt again this week, none more so than Aaron Ramsey, who I will return to in a moment.

Do you know which players I thought were poor this week? Van Persie had two sub-par games, Song was below par too, Sagna was unusually shaky against Wigan, while Walcott did little in either game. Even the Ox was anonymous. Now, reading that list, I’m pretty sure I can gauge many of your reactions, and they will be angry. How dare I criticise those players, you may ask? Well, here’s the thing – you can say a player has had a poor week without abusing them, without saying they are crap or should be sold. There is a middle ground, which is this – each of the players I have listed, to different degrees, have had excellent moments this season, and I value every single one of them as a crucial part of this Arsenal team. But sometimes, players have poor games, and chances are, they are honest enough about it to admit when they do, and don’t seek to blame less culpable members of the team. So why do we?

Ramsey didn’t set the world alight in either game, but he did ok for me, particularly against Chelsea. We praise Rosicky for his endless running, yet conveniently ignore that Ramsey does the same thing. He is frequently compared to Denilson, which is among the worst links I’ve ever known. Denilson’s problems were two-fold – he didn’t try to create much, preferring the safe options, and he didn’t work hard enough to win the ball back when we lost it. Ramsey cannot be accused of either. He loses the ball precisely because he tries things, and he works his bollocks off trying to regain possession, particularly after his own mistakes. On Saturday, he copped abuse when he lost the ball to a man he never saw, and never got a shout about. Surely we should be criticising the lack of communication from his teammates?

I’m not saying Ramsey is on form. He isn’t. But when a player is off colour, all we ask is that he works hard to get himself back to previous heights, something that Arshavin, Denilson, Chamakh and others have failed to do. So why, when a player shows us the desire we’ve been crying out for, do we vilify him anyway?

When I hear the groans from the stands, when I hear the disgusting abuse some of these guys face from a minority of their own supporters, I find myself fearing what we could lose. We have some precocious talents at the club that have everything they need to have tremendous futures. I just hope they want to have that future with us. Sometimes, I wonder why they would.

Apr 092012
 

Arsenal 1 (Arteta 87) Man City 0
(Premiership)

Sometimes the scoreline doesn’t even close to telling the full story. It looks like we pinched a tight game in the latter stages, but in reality this was one of the best and most passionate performances we’ve seen from Arsenal in recent years. From the first minute we were first to everything, running City ragged down both flanks with a series of incisive moves, only to be denied by last ditch defending (usually from the excellent Kompany), the occasional poor decision with the final ball, and on a couple of occasions, the frame of the goal.

Before each of those instances, however, we contrived to do our own goalline defending for City – Van Persie’s goalbound header striking the back of Vermaelen before bouncing up on to the crossbar and away. Remarkably enough, it wasn’t to be the closest we got to scoring without actually putting the ball in the net – that was reserved for a second half moment where Walcott’s shot was pushed on to the post by Hart, Vermaelen slipped and sliced his tap in, but the ball still fell to Benayoun two yards out, only for his shot to deflect off Lescott, then the other post, before going behind for a corner. It was a proper jaw drop moment.

Earlier in the second half, Van Persie had already struck the woodwork, heading another delicious Song chipped pass on to the base of the post, and with Kompany snuffing out the rest of our chances, the game was heading for the most unfortunate of nil-nils, until Arteta snapped into yet another tackle in the centre of the park, advanced with more purpose than any of the City defenders coming to meet him, and slammed a fierce drive beyond Hart’s despairing hand with minutes to go. Joy unconfined.

To say that we deserved it would be a massive understatement. City looked flattened by United’s earlier win, and came into the game with body language that betrayed their inner admission that the title had already gone. We were winning the battles all over the park, and in the first half an hour in particular were showing City exactly why we’d let Clichy move to them – Walcott and Sagna were tearing him apart. All that was missing was the goal, but no player could be faulted in their application or quality – we were far superior in every department, and 3-0 or 4-0 would not have been flattering.

In the end, it was a victory for a team that fought for each other, against a team that fought each other. I’ll come to Balotelli in a moment, because there are some important things to touch on there, but City showed a clear division between members of the defence (Hart, Kompany, Lescott) who were desperate to win, and the creative players (Nasri, Balotelli, Aguero) who offered nothing positive to justify their enormous salaries and apparently lofty ambitions.

By contrast, we were fighting for each other, covering the spaces brilliantly, with Koscielny and Song particularly imperious once again. Koscielny will miss two games after picking up his tenth booking of the season, but that really was the only downside of the day.

However, we are enormously lucky that Koscielny’s suspension was the worst moment. Thanks to the sustained idiocy of Mario Balotelli, we could easily have seen a repeat of Diaby/Eduardo/Ramsey, and the permanent damaging of a player’s career. From the word go, the Italian was petulant both in his approach to the game and his attitude to his teammates, who never hid their frustration with him. But the worst aspect was his tackling, if you can even call it that.

Alex Song is lucky that his leg is still in one piece after Balotelli thundered into a studs up challenge at knee height, sending him spinning away in agony. Had Song’s leg been planted, it would have snapped like a twig. Incredibly, the officials missed it, and although Martin Atkinson can claim a poor view, the linesman was unobstructed just ten yards away. It was the clearest of red cards, and he can certainly expect a call from the FA (which would result in five games being added to his ban for the red card he later received, thanks to a series of previous violent conduct suspensions). That Song got up was an enormous relief – on another day we could easily have been analysing another shattered leg and wrecked career.

It makes me angry that we let players get to this stage. Balotelli is set up to be the pantomime villain, but there is nothing remotely funny about him. He is an idiot, plain and simple, an immature child who throws his toys out of the pram when things don’t go his way, and as shown today can put the careers of his fellow professionals at risk without concern. Despite getting away with his shocking challenge on Song, he went into three more awful challenges on Sagna, the second and third of which saw him pick up yellow cards, yet he still had the temerity to show incredulity at the decision to dismiss him in the final moments of the game.

He was a disgrace throughout the match, and his teammates knew it. Joe Hart was shown calling him unspeakable names that I’m sure he followed up in the dressing room, but while the press laud him for being so entertaining, he will continue to relish the spotlight, and will maintain his crazy antics until someone gets seriously hurt. Then, of course, those who have delighted in giving him the headlines he craves will protest their innocence and condemn.

He should never have been allowed to get to this point. He is, put simply, a tool and a liability, and showed today that he has little regard for his fellow professionals, whether they are on his team or not. Today is one of the reasons I don’t believe a ‘ban a player as long as their victim is out‘ rule works – yes, it would mean Shawcross etc would have been suspended for a long time, but equally Balotelli would get away unscathed. Personally, I advocate simply slapping players who commit these atrocious challenges with enormous bans, irrespective of the damage they cause. Why wait for a broken leg first?

And what of the officials? As a team, they put the players at risk today by allowing Balotelli to stay on the field (a charge that can also be levelled at Mancini for not withdrawing him). Had Sagna been hurt by any of Balotelli’s subsequent X-rated lunges, they would have been equally culpable.

I’m just relieved that Song and Sagna got up each time, and we don’t have that situation. I hope Balotelli gets the book thrown at him, but I still don’t believe his inevitable suspension will sufficiently match the crime.

But enough about one of the biggest idiots in our game today – back to us, and a display of unity and team spirit that anyone will find difficult to match. There are now combinations all over the field clicking together – the midfield trio of Arteta, Song and Rosicky (who was again outstanding) are intertwining superbly, while the back five are becoming increasingly difficult to breach. It seems to have gone unnoticed that our form is still excellent despite Van Persie’s mini goal drought, and while there have been moments in the season where we were a little reliant on him, the team as a whole have really stepped up of late.

How crucial today could be. Enjoy your evening. Unless you are Mario Balotelli. Or Samir Nasri. Or….

Mar 082012
 

What an incredible match, what an incredible night. Glorious, heroic failure is such a clichéd notion, but sometimes there are few other ways to describe what is going on in front of your eyes.

We wanted fight, we wanted pride, we wanted to at least give Milan a scare. I suspect even those suggesting a remarkable comeback had parts of their tongue in their cheek. But what seemed a dead rubber ended up being a spectacle that reunited players with disillusioned fans, and despite not being enough to progress to the quarter finals demonstrated many of the qualities so valued (and missed) in recent years. Speed, precision, bravery and a refusal to give up were all in evidence, and as the players battled, the crowd roared their approval. For ninety minutes, there was no criticism, no exasperated sighs, just sheer unadulterated support for a set of footballers willing to leave every ounce they had on the lush green grass of the Grove.

Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to overturn the horrors of the first leg, but it may yet prove a pivotal night in the careers of many – players and manager alike. Maybe it will turn into another false dawn, or maybe it could be the night when everyone got back on the same page, put aside their differences and grievances and noted that we are us, they are them, and they will forever be the enemy.

The last ten days have been remarkable. Two goals down to Spurs and a mutiny was on the cards, yet three enormously impressive wins (all for different reasons) have given us all the momentum. We are the ones raising our game as the others slip under pressure. There have been some miraculous individual performances, some from unexpected sources – Rosicky proved last night that his superb display against Spurs was not a one-off, while young Oxlade-Chamberlain is proving too good to ease into the team at the rate Wenger would have undoubtedly wished. As for the main man up front? Four more goals in those three victories, it is also his captaincy that is impressing – under his leadership the team seems more united that any we’ve seen since the middle of last decade. Long may it continue.

What made the victories so impressive is that in each of our last three games, I feel we’ve had comfortably the worst of the officiating. But on all three occasions, we have triumphed, and for those who say that last night was not a success, I would strongly disagree. We just beat the current Serie A leaders and in-form team, and we beat them well.

I’m not going to go into a detailed match report – you all watched it after all. Suffice to say that the very fact we had our hopes raised so high by half time was evidence enough that this Arsenal team is capable of really pushing on. And push on we must – a run of performances like that and third is ours for the taking. With it comes the guarantee of Champions League football without a pesky qualifier in August, and means we can plan for the season ahead knowing exactly where we stand. And of course, it enables us to celebrate the annual St. Totteringham’s Day gigglethon.

Last night made many proud. It made me proud. I envy those that were there, but also tip my hat to everyone who went along and sung at the top of their lungs, helping the players nearly achieve the seemingly impossible. You were awesome.

We’ll be back. In the meantime, Spurs, we’re coming to get you.