Mar 032012

Liverpool 1 (Koscielny og 23) Arsenal 2 (Van Persie 31, 90)

What a week it has been. After half an hour of last weekend’s North London derby, it appeared that the gap between us and Spurs would increase to a mammoth and surely unassailable thirteen points, with Chelsea and Liverpool taking over as favourites to pip us for fourth. Just six days later, the gap between us and our increasingly nervous neighbours is down to four, while we lead a dispirited Chelsea by three and Liverpool by ten. And it has been achieved in the most extraordinary fashion.

Much of Arsenal’s display today was actually pretty ordinary. Liverpool had plenty of the ball, countless excellent positions and a verve in the tackle. We had less of all of those, but we did have a critical factor – sheer quality at both ends of the pitch. In recent times, Liverpool have created much but converted little, and it was easy to see why when you watched them close up for ninety minutes. By contrast, we had Robin van Persie, who barely seemed to touch the ball all day, but buried his only two chances emphatically. And the same sense of opposite could be said of the respective goalkeepers – Szczesny was formidable, keeping us in the game, while Reina will be disappointed with the goal that ultimately decided it.

Szczesny had already come off his line to mop up a dangerous through ball when he became the hero in one of the game’s major talking points. Suarez exchanged passes with Kuyt before going to ground over the keeper’s challenge, and Mark Halsey pointed to the spot, a decision that was proven to be a complete guess when you saw the view (or lack of) that he had. Actually, saying Suarez went to ground is a slight morphing of the truth – the reality is that he did a double twist worthy of an Olympic gymnast before screaming in apparent and unwarranted agony.

Countless replays eventually showed that if there was any contact, it was a slight brushing of shins after the keeper’s challenge had been withdrawn. Sky, in their infinite wisdom, displayed a freeze frame graphic of the moment, with Jamie Redknapp claiming it as conclusive proof that the penalty was the correct decision. Oddly enough, they didn’t mention the fact that Suarez was already halfway through his melodramatic pirouette by that point. No matter whether there was contact of any sort, this was simulation at its most embarrassing.

What followed was remarkable – Kuyt’s weak penalty was well saved by Szczesny, but with the ball dropping back to the Dutchman, a goal looked a formality. Somehow though, the young Pole got up, flung himself across the goal again and palmed the ball to safety – it was a remarkable and inspirational display of agility.

Minutes later, he was beaten by the unfortunate Laurent Koscielny, whose attempted clearance sliced into the corner. But again, the young keeper showed a determination that endears him to all of us, dragging the distraught Koscielny back to his feet and getting him back in the game. Future captain material, perhaps.

The lead did not last long. We had barely had a sniff of the Liverpool goal before we did to them what so many have done to us in the past – score with our first chance. Sagna was afforded plenty of time out on the right, Liverpool perhaps confident that he could not find the killer cross. Unfortunately for them, he could, and Van Persie stole ahead of the lethargic Carragher to power home an equalising header. It was against the run of play, certainly, and we could easily have gone into the break behind again, with Suarez and Kuyt both hitting the post.

But this is exactly where Liverpool’s problem lies. Many will say they were unlucky not to score more, but I don’t buy it, and neither will many Arsenal fans who have witnessed similar struggles in our own team over recent years (particularly when van Persie has been out injured). How many times have we been denied by a stunning display from the opposition keeper? And how many times have we missed a hatful of chances and gone home feeling hard done by?

It is not bad luck. Keepers have fantastic games when you allow them to – clinical strikers don’t give them a chance. Szczesny’s double save from the spot kick was incredible, but a top striker would have struck the rebound cleanly and scored. Kuyt hitting the post was unfortunate, but not Suarez – he had plenty of the goal to aim at and it was no more difficult than rounding a keeper and scoring from an angle. You expect a goal from a player of his calibre, and hitting the post was not unlucky, it was a poor finish.

These were just two of a number of occasions where Liverpool could and perhaps should have scored. Henderson, who looked out of his depth throughout, wasted two glorious positions in the first half, and the worst came just after half time, when a chipped ball over the top found Downing sprinting beyond our back four, with Suarez alert enough to make a run in the centre. All Downing had to do was square it for a tap in, but he took an extra touch and then passed it far too close to Szczesny, who gathered. It was these instances that cost them, and makes the inevitable Match of the Day ‘unlucky’ claim a nonsense. They weren’t unlucky, they were wasteful. Replace Downing and Henderson with players that are actually worth the amount of money Liverpool paid for them, and they win that game. It says everything about Downing that you cannot see him putting in the terrific cross Sagna managed, despite that sole act being what he was purchased (expensively) to do.

Liverpool continued to waste positions, Van Persie continued to lurk threateningly at the other end, a constant reminder that we would not need the same number of chances to win the game. And in the second of eight injury time minutes caused by Arteta’s Henderson-induced concussion, we struck the killer blow. Song, as he has done so often this season, chipped a glorious through ball to Van Persie, who had stolen a few yards of space. There are very few players who could do what he did next, but after managing it at Everton already this season, our hopes were raised for the unthinkable. He duly obliged – as the ball dropped over his shoulder, he sidefooted a stunning volley past Reina (who should have done better) and the game was won. Liverpool knew it, and even the recent memory of coming back in injury time again us, there was to be no repeat.

After the game, the main man handed his champagne to Szczesny for keeping us in the game, just as he had given his North London derby prize to Theo Walcott the week before. Not captain material? My arse.

Sky chose not to analyse his brilliance, but instead his contract situation, with Jamie Redknapp again making a fool out of himself by declaring it to be all about the money. It isn’t, and it never has been, and frankly, we can all stop talking about it until the summer, where it will all be decided. Right now, he is showing as much passion for the club as anyone, and that is all I care about. Unlike our broadcasters, I prefer to focus on the actual football. Novel, I know.

It has been quite the week. Chelsea’s loss made the day even sweeter, and it remains to be seen what effect it will have if they remove Villas-Boas, as they surely will. Tomorrow we will be hoping for favours from United, who can keep Spurs within reach for us. But today was a victory for a wonderful triumvirate – a terrific young goalkeeper, a lethal striker, and the same opponent-bitchslapping karma that Gareth Bale suffered last week for his own pathetic dive.

Just as last week, we can walk into work on Monday with a grin that gives away just how much we can enjoy the day. And we will.

Feb 022012

Bolton 0 Arsenal 0

Last night’s clash at the Reebok was a classic example of a football match not being an isolated occasion, and not judged as such, but rather an act in a bigger play, with interpretations not purely taken from the ninety minutes of action, but from the wider context of both clubs.

Taken in isolation, this was a creditable draw away to a Bolton side we have struggled with in the past, at a ground Liverpool got comfortably beaten at recently. We created plenty of chances, hit the frame of the goal twice, saw the opposing goalkeeper have an impressive match, and defensively kept our own clean sheet.

Viewed from that angle, nothing too bad – a match we would usually win, let down by poor finishing and poor luck. One of those days, if you will.

The trouble is, we have a lot of those days, and this wasn’t an isolated occasion. It came off the back of three consecutive defeats, and with Liverpool and Newcastle both winning we found ourselves sitting seventh, being cut further adrift from the Champions League places we so crave. Moreover, the slew of chances missed is a commonplace feature – we are yet to win a Premiership match this season where Van Persie hasn’t scored. He needs help, and when he fails to find the target, the others are not chipping in. Seeing gilt-edged chances go begging is every bit as regular as a defensive mishap. As for the clean sheet, that was partly down to luck too – Ngog missed a sitter and they probably should have had a penalty at the end. We could have lost.

It is extremely frustrating to watch. We have long bemoaned the lack of alternative striking options for Van Persie to rotate with and play off, but not only do we have a serious shortage, it is clear that Wenger himself retains no confidence in those we do have. With Chamakh still absent, Park sat on the bench, and despite our chase for a winning goal, stayed firmly put. Here is a striker in the peak of his career, but unable to get minutes in a team painfully short of numbers in his position. Imagine how painful this is for him.

The race for fourth is an open one – Chelsea, Liverpool and Newcastle are our rivals for the spot, and all of them are dropping points on a regular basis. If we could string any sort of run together, we’d snap the position out of their hands, and generally be a lot happier for it. But we can’t string any sort of run together, certainly not a winning one. Every step forward is followed by a stumble. Can we turn that around and get the five or six wins on the spin that would lift us back above them all? In theory, yes. In practice? It doesn’t look likely.

The weird thing is – I don’t blame the players. The team is pretty solid, all told, but the squad is thin. Our 25 man squad contains seven or eight players that, for one reason or another, Wenger doesn’t trust enough to rotate in and out. The result is that the first team players feature more often than they should, they get tired, and they get injured. Ramsey is the classic example – he is copping a lot of flak this season, but for me, his poorer performances have come when he has been visibly weary. If he were asked to play less often, I really think he would be shining more regularly.

So once again, we are looking forward, hoping that the next match will be the one in which we can gain ground on our rivals. And it should be – with Chelsea, United, Liverpool and Spurs all playing each this weekend, points will be dropped. Meanwhile, we have Blackburn at home. A confident Arsenal side would brush them away, but this is not a confident Arsenal side. Would it really surprise anyone if we struggled?

All season I have been absolutely convinced that we would recover, and go on the run we needed to claim fourth, overtaking sides who, frankly, aren’t that good. But now, I am finally beginning to waver.

Roll on Saturday.

Jan 232012

Arsenal 1 (Van Persie 71) Man United 2 (Valencia 45, Welbeck 81)

The bare facts make for grim reading. Defeat to United leaves us fifteen points behind them, and eighteen off the pace set by their city rivals. Our own neighbours remain ten points above us despite their loss earlier in the day, and that critical fourth spot is still an elusive five points away. Perhaps more damaging than the numbers is the psychological aspect – a new low between fans and manager erupted in the wake of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s substitution moments after he had set up Van Persie’s equaliser, and the inevitability of their winner made many stop and reassess our own expectations. Anticipating a home defeat is not a happy place to be. Watching it unfold wasn’t much fun either.

I have no doubt that by the morning, or perhaps even by the time you read this, the story will be centred around a couple of flashpoints, and I will get to them in due course. But while Arshavin will be the inevitable fall guy for many, he wasn’t on the pitch in the first half, a forty-five minute period in which we were largely outplayed by a United side that saw our weakness at full back, and attacked it time and time again. The returning Vermaelen was a boost at left back, and as such less targeted by the opposition, but even so he isn’t as dominating there as when he marshals the centre of defence. The other flank was the main issue – poor Djourou was forced to deal with Nani and the overlapping Evra almost single handedly, a job even Sagna would have found difficult. For a reserve centre back, it was too much.

United were uncomplicated in the opening period – they spread the ball wide, overlapped, and swung in whipped crosses time and time again. Largely, Koscielny and Mertesacker dealt with them well, although there was a last ditch nature to some of the defending. But the more often Nani got into crossing positions uninhibited, the more you felt he would pick out a decent delivery in time. Szczesny pulled off a good near post save from the winger, and saw another cross flash past his far post. But on the stroke of half time, the inevitable occurred – Djourou stood off Giggs, allowing him all the time in the world to pick out Valencia at the back post, who stole in ahead of Vermaelen to put the visitors in front. It had been coming.

There were murmurs of dissent at half time, which at the time I didn’t consider to be particularly helpful – it was clear that the team was nervous early on, and booing was hardly conducive to giving them the boost they needed to come out in the second half and take the game by the scruff of the neck. Of course people are entitled to voice their opinions, and it was hardly a majority – the trouble was that the crowd were so oddly quiet at times that even a smattering of boos became the dominant noise.

At half time, Wenger made a brave switch, introducing young Yennaris at right back for the ailing Djourou, and by and large it was vindicated – he wasn’t overawed by his Premiership debut, and handled the occasion well. At the same time, Oxlade-Chamberlain switched wings with Walcott, allowing the more senior of the pair to help his young colleague. While Theo frustrates many with his inconsistent performances going forward, he did show a measure of responsibility in protecting Yennaris, which should not go unnoticed.

We should have been gifted an equaliser early in the second half, when Smalling slipped, allowing Rosicky to burst past him. Perhaps aware of his recent goalscoring record, Rosicky chose not to take the chance himself, squaring instead to Van Persie, who danced inside his man to slam into the barely guarded net. Except, remarkably, he fired wide. Minutes later, the Ox set up Ramsey for a rising drive that flew inches over the bar.

Despite being in the ascendancy, we still had cause for alarm. Welbeck could have gone down under pressure from Mertesacker, but instead ran through to clip past Szczesny, only for the big German to reach out his long legs and clear off the line. Koscielny then brilliantly dispossessed Welbeck before starting the move that would lead to the equaliser – eventually the Ox would cut inside, before finding Van Persie with a clever reverse pass. One swing of his left foot and the match was all square.

And then came the moment that many will remember the game for. With the crowd in full voice, the momentum in our favour, and a spring in our step, Wenger withdrew Oxlade-Chamberlain and put Arshavin on his place. Boos immediately rang out, followed by cheers for the Ox and renewed jeers for Arshavin on his entry. Hardly the sort of reaction that makes a player eager to perform.

Wenger has since said that the Ox had been ill, and was beginning to feel his calf, so was withdrawn as a precaution before he did himself an injury, which seems perfectly reasonable, and backs up something I said on Twitter at the time:

“You know when you’re playing Football Manager, and you take a player off because his energy has dropped, even if playing well? I’m pretty certain we can track these things.”

Having said that, and having accepted that the move had basis in logic, the timing was questionable at best. A young player, who has just set up a goal against United, can run on adrenaline alone for at least five more minutes, a period of time in which we could push home our advantage. Instead, it stopped the game mid-flow, and allowed the opposition to regroup. It also took away the elation in the stands, replacing it with something far more poisonous, an atmosphere that could only give United a lift. A decision based on scientific reasoning backfired because of pure emotion.

Our captain didn’t like it either, although despite the inevitability of his ‘No!!‘ reaction being a huge story in the papers tomorrow, that is something that will surely die down quickly enough within the club – Van Persie will have asked Wenger why he took the Ox off, and the manager will have told him. I suspect that, away from the heat of the moment, it will have been accepted. I highly doubt that will stop a new flurry of ‘Disillusioned Van Persie to leave‘ stories over the next week, however.

It certainly didn’t help that, aside from offering nothing going forward, Arshavin was badly at fault for the eventual winner, turning his back on Valencia as he jinked into the box, and then failing to put in any sort of challenge as he laid it back for Welbeck to bury. The game was up in that moment, and we knew it.

And so to the reaction. Wenger is getting a pasting in some quarters, and while I (and everyone else, to my knowledge) have no problem with a bit of healthy criticism, there are too many out there who are using this as another opportunity to divide the fanbase. You are either for the manager, or against him – there is no middle ground.

Which is frankly ridiculous. Of course there is middle ground. While that substitution can be questioned, along with our first half display, he should be credited with two brave decisions – starting the Ox in the first place, and making the half time switch to bring Yennaris on. For me, there was some good, some bad – as ever, all is not black and white.

What is killing us at the moment is our lack of full backs. Often an undervalued position, it is only now that we are completely devoid of options thanks to an extraordinary sequence of injuries that we realise how crucial they are. They nullify wingers, break forward and allow us to counter at pace and with options, and add to our midfield when in possession, giving us the ability to get through well drilled defences at speed. Without them, we aren’t stopping crosses, and the midfielders are having to drop further back to collect the ball, isolating Van Persie up front. It doesn’t work.

I don’t expect any signings in January – Wenger has already said that we’ll have a couple of players back in ten days, which coincides with our next league game, at the Reebok. But playing four centre backs isn’t the answer either, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Yennaris follow up today’s debut with a few more appearances. If he doesn’t get crocked in the meantime, of course.

If there is a small crumb of comfort to take, it is that the other results spectacularly went our way. Chelsea drew, while Liverpool, Spurs and Newcastle all lost. In the race for fourth, nothing has really changed, which is something we should all be relieved about – it could have been so much worse. I suspect many would have taken the status quo at the start of the weekend.

We now have a week before our next game, a cup tie against Aston Villa, before February brings our next league fixtures. Three defeats on the spin have been damaging, and we need to put a run together to claim that Champions League spot we so crave. It is very much up for grabs – the teams we are up against look pretty woeful, and a run of four or five wins would surely lift us back up there.

The question is – can we? Come back Bacary.

Jan 032012

Fulham 2 (Sidwell 85, Zamora 90) Arsenal 1 (Koscielny 21)

It is always difficult to write a match report after a game like this. I was tempted to pen my thoughts in the immediate aftermath, but decided to let the game settle a little and write in the morning. In truth, my thoughts haven’t really changed. Given that both sides played superbly for one half, and pretty abysmally for the other, and given that both sides missed some golden chances in their good half, a draw would probably have been a fair result, even though it would have been a source of frustration for us, as the equaliser came so late. A loss, on the other hand, is hard to take.

It had started so well. We were carving Fulham up from the first minute, and had Gervinho or Walcott had their finishing boots on (or their ‘final ball’ boots, at least), we could have been out of sight after half an hour. As it was, we led through Koscielny’s header, after he was left alone to turn home Ramsey’s deflected cross from eight yards. Moments later, Stockdale pulled off a pair of remarkable saves to keep the lead at one, and despite slicing through the opposition at will, we couldn’t add to our tally. It is a familiar script, and given the nerves that it creates amongst the fans, the players must feel it too.

Fulham had their moments, particularly through the dangerous Ruiz, but were a changed team in the second half, showing a greater sense of urgency and more discipline at the back. As they improved, we regressed, energy seeming to drain away from the majority of the players, and Fulham began to peg us back. Senderos and Dempsey both missed glorious chances to level the match, and at the other end our previously incisive passing was going further and further astray.

With ten minutes to go, we went down a man. Djourou, already booked (and unlike Wenger, I thought his first yellow was warranted), put his hand on Zamora’s shoulder, who went down in all his Heskey glory. The dive was bought, and Lee Probert, who had previously kept his whistle down and his cards in his pocket, often to ridiculous extremes, produced another card. After that, an equaliser was almost inevitable, and when Szczesny flapped, Senderos headed the ball across goal to Sidwell, who buried the chance. That two former Arsenal men combined for the goal just added a bit of salt to the wound.

At that point, I was frustrated, but aware enough to accept that Fulham had done enough to warrant a point. Not three, though, but that’s what they got in the dying seconds when Squillaci’s defensive header fell to the unmarked Zamora, who finished emphatically. I’ve seen many blaming Squillaci for the goal, but he did his job in the build up more than many – I’d question why Zamora had so much space, ten yards out, when the ball dropped.

It was a cruel blow, and doubly frustrating given that we should have been out of sight in the first half. We wasted so many glorious positions that we really only have ourselves to blame. Having said that, we were once again the victim of some atrocious refereeing at times, and I don’t even mean the penalty shouts, of which there were two – Gervinho tripped early on and Van Persie unceremoniously shoved over in the second half. On first viewing, I thought neither were spot kicks, and required replays to indicate that my initial assessment had been wrong, so I don’t level too much at the referee for those, as they don’t get that benefit. Nevertheless, we have now been denied five penalties in three games, which is bringing back concerning memories of the six months following Eduardo and Celtic.

But more than that, Probert’s display was just home-friendly in the extreme. After a reasonable first half (aside from the Gervinho penalty), he allowed Fulham to get away with a wrestling display in the second. I rewatched the second half again after the match had finished, to see just how many times Van Persie was dumped to the floor having gained possession, and I counted seven. Seven occasions our captain was hauled down, and not once did he get a free kick. It was bizarre to watch, and you could see him getting more and more frustrated. Elsewhere, Riise sent Walcott flying into the advertising boards with a clear two handed shove, and then calmly carried on as if nothing had happened. Probert wasn’t quite Atwell of last week, but it is getting annoying to be talking about referees every single game. Wenger was visibly angered after the game, and understandably so – to see Djourou get a second yellow for an offence far lighter than what he had allowed Fulham to get away with throughout was mind boggling.

That said, we can only control our performance, and we had enough opportunities to put the game to bed long before that. I actually feel a little for Gervinho, who I think comes in for a lot of unfair stick – his final ball and finishing was pretty woeful yesterday, but that was only exacerbated by the number of times he got into great positions. It always frustrates me that players who have exemplary off the ball running skills (as he does) are lambasted more than players who never make those runs in the first place. You always hear ‘give X those opportunities and he would score‘, which is disingenuous as X doesn’t make his excellent runs. Of course I am frustrated by his end product, but I’d rather he got into those positions and fluffed them than was anonymous. It means he is halfway there.

Elsewhere, there were other positives. At the back, Koscielny put in another masterclass, but I’d like to give a hand to Coquelin, who filled in at left back and was targeted by Fulham as our weak link (understandably). Despite being up against the bright Ruiz, he did very well, his only blemish being his positional error for Zamora’s winner. A costly blemish, sure, but one you cannot blame a right footed midfielder for.

Despite the late goals, I was more concerned about the attack yesterday, but not the individuals themselves. Van Persie and Arteta in particular look exhausted, so the issue is not so much their quality as the paucity of their replacements. Were our injuries to clear up, Coquelin and Wilshere could bolster our central midfield options, but despite the imminent loan re-signing of Henry, Van Persie needs support.

But more than that, some of those players need a rest. With seven days before a Leeds tie that will see further rotation, they will get it.

Not the best start to 2012. But we move on.

Dec 192011

Man City 1 (Silva 53) Arsenal 0

Rarely do you feel so positive after a defeat. Improved form, a greater sense of team spirit and unity, and perhaps a slight readjustment of fan expectation has mended a lot of the bridges between the club and the supporters since our last trip to Manchester, and despite tasting defeat in the league again there yesterday, none of that will have been sullied thanks to a terrific performance that deserved more than it got.

Most of the recent clashes between the clubs have been dull affairs, and even the Carling Cup tie a few weeks back was devoid of real entertainment. But yesterday was entirely different – a basketball match played out between two teams attacking at will, and with an intensity that ensures that both should end the season in decent positions. City again came out on top, but they had to work far harder for it than in the majority of their games this season – remember this is the team that put six past United and five past Spurs. They average around three a game, but despite our patched up defence, packed with centre halves, we held them at bay valiantly.

They had chances of course – aside from Silva’s winning goal, Zabaleta struck the post, Szczesny saved superbly from Balotelli and Aguero missed a great chance early on. And with the chance to seal the game with a simple pass for a Balotelli tap in, Nasri woefully overhit an assist even Eddie McGoldrick wouldn’t have got wrong. Thanks for the millions, fellas.

But we caused plenty of problems too – Hart was forced into a couple of terrific saves from Gervinho and Ramsey, and later Walcott and Van Persie stung his fingers. Late on, Vermaelen had two terrific efforts that could easily have seen us snatch the point we probably deserved, and were it not for a marginal (but correct) offside flag, Van Persie would have levelled.

We also had a strong penalty appeal when Richards handled in the box, but to be honest I didn’t think it warranted a spot kick. The rule these days seems to be all about arm position, and his were firmly down by his side, so despite the phrase ‘seen them given‘ being tailor made for the incident, I think it would have been a soft one. The trouble is that the handball rule has become a little like the offside rule – the laws keep changing, no-one knows what they are and every referee applies them differently.

Phil Dowd, as ever, had a mixed game. His yellow cards were often bizarre, both in their presence and how he followed one up by ignoring the exact same foul by someone else, but in fairness the big decisions were correct. He also resisted City’s attempts to get Song and Arteta sent off when first Richards and then Barry realised they were going into challenges with carded players and flung themselves to the ground. It was a tactic that does City no favours – an excellent side they are turning out to be, and a club that I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for (largely because of a good mate who suffered through every moment of their yo-yoing through divisions), but since gaining riches they have also developed a cynical side. Not pleasant, but perhaps inevitable.

But credit where it is due – not many teams would have kept a clean sheet against us yesterday, or indeed beaten us, and if they continue that form they could well lift the league title at the end of the season, no matter what that means for the soul of football.

As for us, we still have some work to do – Djourou’s injury means we’re struggling even more for fit defenders, and with Arshavin and Chamakh continuing their struggles, our options from the bench are sadly limited at the moment – but we should take an enormous amount of encouragement from what was a terrific display.

Continue in that vein, and we’ll be absolutely fine.