Making life hard, but doing the job. Just.

Well we don’t half make life hard for ourselves, don’t we? I mean this was a Reading team who were 18th in the Championship, with a season of inconsistent performances, but very little to play for other than this game and so I suppose this was always going to be a little bit more difficult than we’d all hoped it would be. After the game I went for a curry with some of the lads I went to the game with and one Reading fan said to a member of my party that if Reading played with that much effort every week, they’d be chasing down a promotion spot, which pretty much shows how beyond their usual level our opponents were. 

As for us, I think it’s fair to say we were a little below our normal level, as we struggled to find any sort of rhythm. Perhaps that was down to squad selection, as Arsène decided he was going to opt for a wee bit of rotation for the game, replacing Bellerin and Monreal with Debuchy and Gibbs, as well as Welbeck up top. But that was it really, so I don’t think that level of rotation should have affected our fluidity as much as it did. Perhaps it did have an impact though. Take Gibbs for example. I’m always of the opinion that players need a string of games to be able to play at their optimum. We’ve seen that with Monreal and a consequence is that whilst Monreal is getting better and better, Gibbs looks to be suffering on the basis of this display. He looked a bit cumbersome in possession, was a bit better going forward, but was out of position for the Reading goal. 

Perhaps too the same can be said of Szczesny and the fact he isn’t playing, because it was his howler that bought Reading back into the game and he has hardly done his campaign for re-election into the first team on a regular basis any good. 

Up top I thought Welbeck had a tough afternoon. He’s a willing runner, but the way in which Reading sat deep at times suggested to me at half time that he was going to endure further frustration after the break. So it would come to pass in abundance after Reading equalised. They say deeper, content to let us have the ball and say ‘come on then, break us down, if you can’. We couldn’t do it enough in regulation time, but we had plenty of chances towards the end. Ramsey danced around the ‘keeper and hit the post, Gabriel saw a header saved onto the bar by Federici and Reading held on to take us to extra time.

The nerves inside the ground were palpable. The atmosphere was one of singing, but apprehensive singing, so it was all kinds of awesome when Alexis scored his second of the day. When you are finding it difficult to overcome a stubborn opponent, you need to have a special player that is the difference and Alexis was that yesterday. He megged Federici in the first half and not to be undone by Szczesny’s shocker in the second half, the Reading ‘Keeper was on hand to let Alexis’ shot slip through his grasp and into the net in extra time. So often cup competitions are ones in which goalies are made heroes. Yesterday was clearly not one of those days. We saw the match out after that, as Reading were clearly mentally and physically shattered by that point, so it ended with the result that we wanted, if not the way in which we wanted it. I’ll take it. I’m sure you’re feeling the same too.

And right now, that’s all that matters. Oh, and I got on the tele too in my yellow Invincibles shirt, so that matters too! 

See y’all tomorrow!

Arsenal cup keyword tagging: concentration and non-complacency

If I was to try to to do the keyword tagging and search engine optmisation of the Arsenal team manifested in physical form today, the one word I would lace throughout any team talk or mindset or thoughts going through each players mind would be: concentration, non-complacency. These are the two things that we must see for the duration of today’s FA Cup semi final against Reading. 

We are the overwhelming favourites today, there can be no doubting that, but we have all experienced the loss of seeing this Arsenal team believing it’s own hype and as a result imploding on a catastrophic scale. When they believe all that is needed is attendance in order to taste the sweetness of victory, we almost always seem to come unstuck, so I hope every player has a mantra in their mind of:

Be professional, treat the opposition with respect, but show why we are a league and 37 places above them.

The key to today’s game has to be to not get beaten by our mentality. I mean no disrespect to Reading, but with Arsenal in the form they are in and Reading in the form they are in, there should only be one result really. But we can roll out as many cup cliches as is needed to ensure that we still do the business this evening, because we’ve seen it before, in the Champions League this season (Monaco), the FA Cup last season (Wigan – although I know ultimately we went through) and against Birmingham in 2011. That was a horrible day because the odds seemed just as stacked against Birmingham as they have been for Reading today. 

Don’t bottle it Arsenal, please, because it feels like two victories in this competition and a continuation of our league form over the next month and a bit will see the entire Arsenal fanbase go in to the summer more excited to see what we can achieve the following season than for a long time.

Last year, we all believed that the winning of the cup was the breaching of the trophy dam that had starved us from trophy watery goodness (I’m sorry for the terrible metaphor, but I’m getting excited now, so I’m obviously all over the place), so another FA Cup trophy this season will have us truly believing this team can kick on. But we still have a lot to do. It starts now and finishes at the end of May. 

Now that the apprehensiveness and caution has been articulated, let’s move on to the fun part, because WE’RE ONE VICTORY AWAY FROM A CUP FINAL!! This is awesome people. This is what we live for and the highs of seeing the Arsenal players lift trophies is exactly what we all tune in or turn up to see. The game this afternoon will not be easy, but we can lay down another important marker and maintain our momentum going into the Chelski game next week with a good win today.

Arsène’s choices are numerous and you have to feel for those that don’t make the squad this afternoon, because there will be some very good players who will have to make do with being suited and booted and that will make them gutted. But for us it shows the enormous level of quality we had and competition that will ensure those that do play are on their toes for every game. The back four will probably remain the same (Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscienly, Monreal), with only a change to the ‘keepers confirmed to take place. Hey, that’s fine by me because right now the difference between Szczesny and Ospina is negligible.

Midfield will no doubt see Coquelin breaking up the play with his “I love to tackle. Come at me bro” mentality being exactly what we need in a battle, but after that six it becomes a little harder to guess what the manager will do, because he could rotate a number of players. For example, would any of you be surprised to see Welbeck replace Giroud up top? Arsène did it in the game against United and last season’s match up against Wigan saw Sanogo ahead of the Frenchman. I know the circumstances were different on these two occasions – Welbeck having something to prove on his old stomping ground, as well as Giroud suffering on field last season as a result of off field shenanigans, but it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see that change. Likewise, I don’t know why, but I have a weird feeling he might start Walcott. I can’t really explain why and it feels like the England international has been frozen out since he returned from injuries, but he’s played in all of the cup games bar United and I wonder if Arsène will give him another crack. Especially as he was on the official site talking him up this week, plus the fact the papers have been awash with rumours of him wanting to sign a new deal. Stranger things have happened, you know?

Alexis will play wide left, but if Walcott is wide right, it means one of Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil miss out. Two of the three are FA Cup final goalscorers and the other one is a club record signing. Care to have a stab at who would miss out? I would guess Ramsey. Cazorla has been the most form player of those three and Özil will be perfect at finding pockets of space in between the Reading defence and midfield on that massive Wembley pitch. It would be harsh son the Welshman but that would be my prediction. Which if Rambo was reading this right now he’d probably be delighted with, because everything I predict usually ends up with the opposite happening!

As for Reading, from what I’ve read and heard, they will look to get the ball out wide and play with pace on the wings with McCleary and Robson-Kanu looking to get in behind our full backs and whip balls in to the giant Russian Pogrebniak. It’s why with the pace of Bellerin I would have thought we’ll see him instead of Debuchy, but perhaps there is a recall for the clearly more rapid Kieren Gibbs on the left? It’s an option the manager needs to ponder today.

The other fella to watch out for will be the on loan Chalabah, which sounds more like an Arabian war cry than a professional League footballer, but having spoken to my Burnley mate last weekend (he was on loan from Chelski to Burnley last season), I know that he is apparently a bit of a beast in the defensive midfield role and so might have something to say in this game.

We need to be up for this from the off. If we establish a high tempo possession based game within the first 15 minutes like we did against Liverpool, then I think we’ll be alright. Reading played an almost full strength team in midweek whilst our boys had the week free, so the can be no excuses for any kind of lethargy. Do the business in the first half Arsenal, then let’s finish it off in the second, please.

What did she wear?

Reading, Milner and Walcott

It’s the waiting that kills ya, I’ll tell ya that much, because this working week has already dragged and it’s only Wednesday.

With no Arsenal on during midweek, the footballing options were limited to listening in on how the Championship is going, versus enduring the Champions League. With no Arsenal representation there, there’s no way I’d want to watch Juve/Monaco, so I opted for a programme about calorie counting. See what no football midweek does to me???

The Reading game was interesting yesterday though. With not a lot to play for in the league, up against what looks like Champions Elect Bournemouth, I was expecting Steve Clarke to field a weakened Reading team yesterday. Instead he appears – although I couldn’t name the usual Reading first XI so perhaps I’m not the best point of reference for this particular set of assumptions – to have opted for a full strength team bar Pavel Pogrebniak. Reading have played plenty of games already this season (given the nature of the Championship) so to see their team playing whilst our boys would have been rested up ahead of this Saturday’s game, is certainly a plus point for me. Hopefully we benefit from a bit of fatigue from the Royals on Saturday. I know that even with a fully fit and rested squad we should still beat a Reading side who aren’t exactly pulling up trees form-wise, but as I’ve explained on this here blog before, I like to take comfort in any small advantage our team is afforded. Psychological or not.

As for what else is going on in the world, it all appears to be very transfer-heavy at the moment. I guess we’d all kind of expect it really. We’re in mid April, the season is winding down for some teams and as the number of games reduces for most of the top-flight teams, the papers need to fill their column inches. So stories of Milner to Arsenal and Walcott new deals to fend off Liverpool begin to take a more central stage. The Milner deal is a strange one. He’s a good player and has operated across a number of positions in Moneychester City’s team, but I’m not sure if he’s the type of midfielder we’re looking for, is he? After all, he has operated in a more forward-lying midfielder role every time I have seen him – where we are plenty stocked – where as what we are surely looking for is a longer term successor for Arteta and Flamini, to compete with Coquelin at the base of the midfield. I’m happy to be corrected, but I didn’t think that was a position that Milner occupied for City, especially given the signings of Fernando and Fernandinho. Perhaps Arsène will look to shift Milner’s recognised position to that like he did Arteta? Stranger things have happened and Milner does have that combative and snappy nature, so it’s not something that would be unheard of.

As for Theo, well your guess is as good as mine, because talk of new deals are almost irrelevant from a fans perspective if he doesn’t get on the pitch. With each passing game it feels more and more like Theo’s Arsenal career is a dwindling flame, a candle with very little wick left and unless something drastic happens and Arsène starts playing him more often after Walcott changes his game to become more of an all-round influence in matches, he’s not going to be part of the club’s long-term future. If he were to sign a new deal now, it really would be to ensure he’s still got plenty of spare change in his pockets, because it certainly won’t be for the position on the bench he’s occupying!

I hope it does get sorted out and I hope Theo does sign a deal. He may not command the regular starting spot he would have done 18 months ago, but when you have a player with the pace and ability to finish as he does, it is always an asset. The squad is looking strong all over the pitch at the moment and with the summer looking like the least disruptive to squad harmony in over a decade, this contract saga just feels like a bit of a blot on what should otherwise be a good period in Arsenal’s history.

Loanees show how fortunes change quickly in football

There’s still another three days before Matchday is upon us and, perhaps unsurprisingly, all is quiet. So quiet, that talk about Cazorla wanting to return to Spain has seen a ripple of interest across the tinternet. Santi grew up near Real Oviedo and has said he’d like to go back there one day before he retires. 

OUTRAGEOUS! ‘CAZORLA WANTS ARSENAL EXIT’ is the story headline I could fire across the blog to see if I can scoop myself a few thousand extra clicks. But we both know that what Cazorla said – he’d like to play for his boyhood club, but it will be difficult to do so in the short term – is something that shouldn’t really surprise anyone. If anything, it’s nice to see a player have an affection for a local team and express a desire to go back and appreciate his roots. I couldn’t imagine something like that being said by a mercenary like…oh, I don’t know…Samir Nasri or somebody like that. 

So let’s have Santi for another three years and then when his star is fading somewhat, but he can still light up his local club, let’s grant him his wish and let him go in peace. That’s my hope anyway. He’s got a few more trophies to try to help us win yet. Hopefully starting with this season.

So yeah, pretty quiet at the moment, so much so that I scrolled into the news archives on the official site this morning, to check out what’s happening with our loanees. The younger players appear to all be getting minutes under their belt, which is always useful from a development perspective, but some of the more senior players out on loan appear to be stagnating somewhat it seems. You know how people say a year is a long time in football? Well nine months is just as long it appears, as you only have to look at both Podolski and Campbell to see how rapidly your stock can fall. Poldi arrived in Italy with a big reputation for goal scoring and a fanfare from the Inter faithful. They had bagged an international champion with a loan deal from another top European team and he would help to steer them towards greater victory. Fast forward from January this year and Poldi is an unused sub against Hellas Verona. 

Poor old Stevie Gooner Oaf, he who so resolutely stood by a player with a fantastic goal scoring record and clear eye for goal, but with little else to warrant his inclusion in the Arsenal or Inter team, is surely on the verge of a return back to Germany in the summer. I’d be surprised if Arsène even sent him a plane ticket as far as London if I’m honest. It’s clear – as the Arsenal team goes from strength to strength – he will not see action in a red and white London shirt ever again. Unless he fancies rocking up at Brentford or Charlton.  It may have seemed a strange move at the time, but it’s hard to argue Arsène’s very sound logic right now. 

We all loved him for his personality and ability to connect with the Arsenal fans, but with each passing match week it appears Lukas is looking more and more like a busted flush.

So too, it appears, does Joel Campbell. Remember how he was the saviour of our offensive problems in the first couple of months of the season? Much gnashing of teeth and exasperated hand gestures were thrown Arsène’s way when he refused to give more game time to the Costa Rican – a player who had excelled during the World Cup – yet he too finds himself an unused sub for Villareal and is at a stage now in which each passing week looks like he’ll probably be moved on permanently. And will there be any return of the gnashing teeth? Doubtful. That new deal he signed was clearly one designed to ensure maximum return on investment from a revenue generation point of view from Arsenal, but once again I doubt you’ll find too many Arsenal fans tutting in the direction of Le Boss methinks, because as Arsenal (actually top flight football fans in general, but we’re only concerned with ourselves so, y’know, what-evs) fans we’re all amateur accountants and a bit of cash for a player out on loan whilst the team is doing fine without him is fine by us.

That’s what victories and success affords you I suppose. Rather than the very convenient “well there’s an option on loan that we’re not even taking advantage of” being used as a sharp stick to beat the manager with, talk turns to how much cash we might get from players out on loan and how that might be invested in the team.

Football is very much a creature of the ‘here and now’ and the old cliches of ‘you’re only as good as your last game’ just serve to emphasise how quickly things change. It’s why the rewards are so high, as are the risks, I suppose. You only have to look at the seemingly inevitable departure of Pelligrini at Moneychester City to see that. So predicting the next generation of talent, of when a player has fulfilled his potential and is ready to become a first team success, is so hard. It’s easy for me, with my ability to forget what I have said six months ago and to seem like the managers decisions are baffling, but for Arsène everything is on record and his mistakes are recorded and replayed by a million eyes. The rise of Francis Coquelin seems obvious now to me (perhaps you too), but if you’d have asked me at the beginning of the season who would make a bigger impact on the first team – Coquelin, Campbell or Podolski – even I with my affection for Le Coq, couldn’t have placed him top of the list. He might not even have made the top two.

Still, at least I’m not the Arsenal manager, eh? Otherwise we’d all probably be in trouble!

That’s enough from me for one day. I have a beautiful sunny day ahead of me that I won’t bother taking advantage of thanks to my role as an office desk jockey. 

Cheerio for now.

Sick sense of football gods humour; fitting the most confident players in

With all the hubbub surrounding our win against Burnley, followed by the hope killed by another Chelski scabbing of three points at the hands of a goalkeeper, I haven’t even thought about the defeat of the Spuds to an Aston Villa team managed by Mr Gilet and all-round footballing genius Tim Sherwood. Super Timmy’s charges have – with that victory – bought us to within two wins and a draw of St Totteringham’s Day. It would be nice to celebrate it with a few games to go this year. 

I am of course trying to be positive in light of the fact that Chelski will almost certainly be winning the league now. That’s two weekend’s in a row in which they’ve been gifted points and you just have to accept that sometimes the footballing gods smile down on teams. I can understand it. After all, this is a team that has worked so hard to get in to the position they are in over the years, being self sufficient, having good and honest players, as well as a very likeable manager who everyone appreciates. Oh, no, wait a second, they are none of those things, they are in fact the antithesis of a team who should be granted fortune. Ever. They should have had all of their fortune quota used up when they skanked their way all the way to the Champions League trophy. Thank you very much footballing gods. Thanks a bunch. 

Anyway, it’s probably best if I pretend that the whole ‘Chelski winning the league’ thing isn’t happening, just focusing on our form. Our form in which I hope is being prepared as a prologue to an amazing 2015/16 season. That’s what happened in 2002/3 after the league title had gone. It felt like we had to start again from scratch and rebuild confidence and momentum and it was those games towards the end of that season that begun our fantastic 49 unbeaten game run. I am hoping that this rich vein of form we’re in at the moment is our precursor to glorious things next season. 

It feels that way at the moment, anyway, especially when you look at the squad. Arsène feels it too, you can tell from some of his words. After he was interviewed post-Burnley, he spoke about having to leaving players like Arteta at home and Debuchy not even being given a try yet, so as we draw to the end of this season he must be looking at his squad and thinking that we’re almost there. A few tightening of a couple of loose screws and we’ll be purring like a V8. 

Everything is working well at the moment, even the stuff that people have questioned the manager on historically, like Rambo in the attacking positions. I mentioned it yesterday, but nobody is batting an eyelid at the fact that he is in a position in which Arsène has been chastised for playing him in. I am guilty of said criticism too, so I certainly can’t hold myself exempt from any tutting and shaking of heads, but what it does show is that it doesn’t really matter if some players are played in a position which is not regarded their optimum. There just needs to be enough confidence in the team to play their swaggerific best. Longer term it may not be ideal, but you do get the feeling that Arsène is playing players who are in the purplest of purple patches, in the shape of Cazorla, Özil and Ramsey. None of them deserve any time on the bench and as a result, Arsène is finding a way to accommodate which to be fair, as long as their confidence is as sky high as it is at the moment, I don’t think anyone has a problem with, so I do think he’ll continue with this same XI next weekend. It’s too early to be getting excited about that just yet, so I’ll hold fire on pre-FA Cup semi tickets until later in the week.

So that’ll be it for now. Have at a good Monday. 

Play the game and not the occasion

Today’s game is certainly an interesting one. One the one hand you have an Arsenal team in a rich vein of form, coupled with a Burnley team in 19th position and having scored just 14 goals all season.

But on the other hand you had an Arsenal team that have made a nasty little habit of thinking a match is a foregone conclusion (see Monaco at home for most recent of examples), as well as a Burnley team that have picked up points against both Manchester clubs, the Spuds and Southampton. So much like in any Premier League game, it’s difficult to predict what the outcome of the Turf Moor encounter will be.

First and foremost, Arsène needs to work out who the bloody hell he’s going to start with as his first XI. We all probably have a pretty good idea and, if we’re all honest we’ve all seen enough of the team and the manager to know he’ll opt for a consistent side if he can, but with the squad at the moment it really is a tough one choosing his entire team.

I listened to the excellent Arsecast yesterday and one of the comments that stuck out for me was when discussions turned towards who would be picked. Rather than the usual ‘any man still alive’ train of thought that we all joke about, what with our perpetual injury crisis usually extending from one season to another, talk was focused on the possibility of Arsène selecting his side based on the opposition we’re playing.

The discussion was aimed more at games like Chelski and United away, but outings like this evening should also represent an opportunity to try to play to the oppositions weaknesses. For example, as I said yesterday in the blog, a Spud has told me that Burnley will try to press us hard and catch us cold for the first 15 minutes. If that is true, then perhaps having plenty of pace in the attack will pin them back and create gaps for players like Özil and Cazorla to exploit. A deep lying Burnley defence coupled with a high press Burnley attack, will give the creative players in midfield more licence to influence the game. So perhaps a front three of Alexis, Giroud and Welbeck would be the best option? I’d suggest Theo, but right now he’s too far down the pecking order to suggest he’ll get a start. 

Defensively we’ll have a similar set up as last weekend I would have thought, with the only question mark being whether Laurent Koscienly is definitely 100% fit and able. The good news is that Gabriel looks like a tidy bit of business and so there’s no need to risk our Frenchman at the back. 

Midfield will see Le Coq assume the usual position, but if Wenger does opt for pace in the front three, then one of Özil, Santi or Rambo misses out. 

Of course, that’s what I’d do, but I suspect Le Boss will have different thoughts, almost certainly ensuring that Özil, Santi and Ramsey all get on to the starting teamsheet. What do I know, eh?

Well I do know that the game will probably most likely not be won by three clear goals. Dyche may have the most technically limited team in the league, but what they lack in application, they make up in perseverance and perspiration. Danny Ings will be trying to continue his ‘in the shop window’ end of season efforts, so could be a threat, whilst George Boyd is the long-haired hippie that will try to trouble us from midfield. 

What we have to do is not to underestimate our opponents. We can be patient and rely in the (hopeful) gulf in class, but we have to play the team and not the occasion, which what I mean by that is try not to let an impassioned home support be given too much to scream about. Keep them quiet, play our game and get the three points. Then, assuming we can do that, hope QPr do us a favour and keep an impossible dream alive.

Come on you reds!

Make my Easter Arsenal, re-write the media narrative

Happy Easter Saturday in which let’s all be completely honest with each other, unless we get a win this lunchtime, won’t make this festive season a fun one.

Liverpool come to town and it’s a Liverpool team in which Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana will no doubt have miraculously recovered from the injuries that conveniently left them out for the duration of the England matches played over the last ten days, but not any Liverpool matches at all. I’m pretty sure if Arsène Wenger tried a similar stunt he’d be metaphorically hauled over the coals by the media, but I guess one of the advantages of ‘Being Liverpool’ is that the media either fall over themselves to edge an unspoken bias about that club, or they completely sweep things under the carpet.

Still, it is what it is and whilst Liverpool will have the collective threat of Sturridge and Sterling to concern us with, at least they are weakened defensively with the absence of Skyrtel. Whether Gerrard would have played is questionable, but in Lucas they have a combative player who is a dirty little scummer, so I’m sure Brendan is happy that he has more than enough to give us an uncomfortable afternoon. And no matter what anyone thinks, it will be uncomfortable for both sides I think, because United at home a fortnight ago aside, Liverpool were in great form and you’d probably say it was almost as good as ours. They’ve been picking up clean sheets and winning on the road and their home form has stabilised too. This is a massive game for them because three points keeps them well in the hunt, so much like we were desperate for a good performance against Monaco away, I think Liverpool might just try to take the same approach against us come 12.45.

For us it’s a chance to continue our momentum, but also put some very real daylight between us and the scousers, so we have to be massively up for it. Our returning players coming back from internationals all appear to be ok and when you look at the form of some, it’s hard not to fancy us from getting something in the game, although I’ll not go as far as pronouncing our victory just yet. Far from it, actually, as I still have the same old big game nerves I usually do.

The manager has an almost entirely fit squad to choose from, so needs to make some serious decisions about who his best XI are, as I’ll be darned if I know. I can have a stab at it, but it’s just as likely to be bailed on as it is a totally different side altogether.

I think Ospina starts in goal, with a back four of Bellerin, Mertesacker, Koscienly and Monreal. Three of that four in defence haven’t played any internationals and so would be fresher for today’s challenge. Having said that, Gabriel offers more pace than Per and there are two pacey attacking players in Sturridge and Sterling, so it wouldn’t be unthinkable to see the Brazilian from the start.

Midfield simply has to have Coquelin at its base. Arteta may have returned to action in a friendly against Brentford, but Le Coq has been superb and his ability to break up the play will come in handy when creative players like Coutinho are on the ball. Ahead of him you’d expect to see the form player of the season, Santi Cazorla, whilst Özil’s displays also warrant inclusion I think. 

I’d be surprised if Alexis and Giroud don’t start, but who will get that third spot? Theo may have been unimpressive against Italy, but in games like today, with opponents that are a little bit weaker defensively, I just wonder if this might suit him. Welbeck picked up a knock and The Ox is still injured I believe, so Theo may just find himself given an opening to the first team. If he is, he needs to take it with both hands, which means goals, threat going forward and work rate. 

Whoever is left out, at least we had a mighty strong bench to choose from, with some very good players that won’t even make the squad.

We can’t afford to be timid today. Liverpool may well try to catch us cold by getting at us quickly with a high pressing game, so we have to be able to react, either with our own high press, or containment for the start of the match. The last time we played Liverpool for a Saturday kick off we were smashed to bits and the narrative that seems to have been built is that we don’t prepare properly for early kick off games. We need to re-write that media rhetoric. We need to win on our own soil and move on towards the goal of a top three finish.

Come on The Arsenal!