West Ham: Let’s blitz the first 25

Right, plenty to get through today, so let’s crack on.

Firstly, the clubs announcement that they’ve received 25,000 tickets for the FA Cup final, which let’s face it, is nothing short of a travesty with 45,000 season ticket holders. I am fortunate enough that I have enough away points not to be affected by a ballot, but this farce is a perpetual joke that the FA consistently deliver to all fans of teams that get to the final of the competition. I’m not a fan of the semi’s being at Wembley, but when you have so few tickets available for supporters, I see it as at least a plus point for most to be able to get to go to Wembley. Will the FA change? Don’t hold your breath. 40,000 tickets going to corporates and fans not affiliated with the club (officially). And people wonder why there appears to be less atmosphere at some of these games…

Anyway, much like the mentality the players must adopt in the wake of an important game under the floodlights of the Emirates, as a collective body of people we must now forget the glitz and glamour of an FA Cup showdown with Hull and force our steely gazes towards the arriving East Londoners. It’s Sam ‘Clobbermesiter’ Allardyce who rolls himself into town today with a gameplan that will be so transparent that, if you were a fly, you’d spent your life trying to get through it only to be stopped by its tedium and invisible force-fieldiness.

My brother is a West Ham fan. Half my family hail from that area and I can assure you, if you didn’t already know, the natives are restless and impatient in that part of the world. They don’t like the brand of football he plays, we don’t like the football he plays, heck, even some of the West Ham players probably don’t like the football he plays. But unfortunately it’s a results business and that is what he’s good at.

Tactically, he’ll set up his side to be difficult to break down, catch us with set pieces and rely on our fatigue and fitness levels after a gruelling 120 minutes at the weekend to see if he can deliver a sucker punch in the latter stages. He practically said so in his press conference yesterday. So if that is his plan, we need to make sure that we’ve delivered enough jabs to the face and torso shots to render any random late left hook as a mere footnote. If it goes to points, we want that technical knock out to be comfortably in our favour.

Apologies for the over indulgence of boxing metaphors, but when you’re up against a manager like ‘Big Sam’, what else can you expect other than a physical battle that will more than likely leave us bruised and bloodied come Wednesday morning. They will play Andy Carroll up front, knock the ball long to him and hope that they can get enough support from the two Noble’s to furnish them with either: a) a scabby goal they can cling on to as we desperately find a way to respond for the majority of the match, or b) a scabby goal later in the game when there’s no time to respond. It’s like being asked which pointy end do you want hammered into your crotch.

The first 25 minutes will be all important tonight. If we start quickly and do to West Ham what Liverpool did to us, we can render the result irrelevant. I know you’re probably thinking ‘yeah right, when was the last time we did that’ and certainly our form doesn’t suggest that we will, but good form has to begin somewhere, so why not tonight?

Under normal circumstances this is a game I’d fancy us to get plenty of joy from. The performance on Boxing Day may have started off slightly sluggishly, but the introduction of Podolski and freshening it up a bit in the second half, swung it in our favour. The problem we have tonight is that ‘freshening up’ isn’t really an option we can draw upon with the depleted squad we have. Chamberlain looked like he needed a leg transplant by the end of the game and Rambo, having just got back from injury, ran himself into the ground until the 113th minute, so quite where we inject some pace from is a bit of a mystery to me.

I suspect Kallstrom might be given his first start in midfield and I’m certainly crossing everything in the hope that Rosicky is back fit. Thankfully we have Gibbs and Giroud who only made extended cameo appearances along with Kallstrom on Saturday, so I’m expecting to see that trio looking a bit more spritely, along with a return of Koscienly to give Per the option of a more mobile partner in the heart of the defence. If all of those players make it for tonight’s game, then hopefully it will have a positive impact and Sam’s ‘wait til they get knackered lads’ tactics will be negated somewhat.

This is one of those ‘take a scabby 1-0′ games if you ask my opinion. We are devoid of pace, we have ailing players and we’re up against a team that’s just had 10 days off. We need to get in, get out, keep the Champions League fourth place race alive and look to another big game on Sunday against Hull. Because if I’m honest with you, I can’t see Everton slipping up against Palace at home tomorrow night, can you?

The problem we have, as so many have already pointed out just about everywhere that I read, is that we’re too predictable with the way we set up. Allardyce is one of those men that studies the opponents rigorously and where their weaknesses are, so coupled with the extra rest his team have been afforded, he’ll really fancy an upset tonight. Dealing with Carroll will be the biggest challenge, but up against big men this season I’ve been impressed at how we’ve managed to deal with the pressure. I think to Spuds and Villa away and how both teams set up to get balls into the box to the front man, which were routinely hammered away by the Per/Kos axis. That’s why Koscienly’s re-introduction into the team could prove to be pivotal. There’s reasons to be cheerful, given that he was snapped by the club in training yesterday, but thankfully Arsene has admitted he will remain cautious on playing him unless he’s 100%. We need Per and Kos to be fit for the rest of the season. If we want to replicate ‘gritty Arsenal 2013′, built on a solid foundation and an ability not to concede goals, it is those two where it starts so I hope he makes his way back in to the team lineup from the start.

This West Ham team will pose us some troubles tonight I fear. But the hope, however, is that our need is greater than a team that should now be more than comfortably clear of a relegation dogfight, so I’m hoping on a West Ham team that is already planning their Maldives getaway in June.

How about this for some positivity? What price could you put on the team being reborn after the confidence boost of knowing you’re in a cup final? What if the knowledge that reinforcements are being shipped in like it’s our turn next to roll the dice in a footballing real-life version of ‘Risk‘, as Özil and Gnabry appear on the horizon ready for their part to play? Arsene himself seemed a little bit chipper about returning players yesterday, so let us hope that our nightmare form which has seen us not win a game (in normal time!) since what feels like 2008, is starting to dissipate and be replaced by an end of season charge to the top four.

Catch you tomorrow.

Blog rising to a crescendo. (And I meant the full stop there for dramatic effect)

Nervous?

I’m nervous. But I guess that comes with the territory when so much season salvation relies on the outcome of one particular football match. It’s crazy actually, because even if we navigate today’s tricky fixture against Wigan, we still have more nail biting to look forward to in the form of a cup final, which we’ve shown we can implode against even the most relegation-foddery of opponents. So to be this way for a semi final seems a little over the top. But it’s because we’re expected to win today that it makes it more nervous. Had Moneychester City steered past Wigan in the last round, we’d be hopeful, but the expectation wouldn’t have been as high and as a result I’m not sure I’d be as nervous as I am typing today’s thoughts out for you.

Still, life could be worse, I mean, I could be rocking a pair of well worn Spliffy jeans like some sort of early nineties throwback. Or I could be made entirely of lead, which really wouldn’t be too conducive to any kind of movement. I’d also probably be an inanimate object incapable of any kind of emotion too, so y’know, swings and roundabouts and all of that jazz.

Anyway, I guess all of this pre-amble is merely an unnecessarily long prologue to today’s blog, mainly because I don’t really have any kind of inkling as to how today will evolve. Well, actually, that’s not quite true: I know exactly how my day will develop up until about 5.05pm, but beyond that I am a mere passenger being carried along the East Australian Current (“The EAC dude”) that Nemo’s dad hitches a ride when he’s trying to find him in that cartoon by Disney that I forget the name it’s called. I am hopeful that I – and by proxy as an Arsenal fan, you – will arrive at our destination (safe passage to the FA Cup Final), but who knows what kind of ensnarement might befall us by the time we get to 8pm this evening (dodgy defending? Own goals? Penalties?).

It’s either rapture or dejection: there are no middle paths to take here people. We’re either cup finalists or we’re bottlers on what feels like a never ending road of purgatorial trophy nothingness that we seem destined to tread. The media will have their way with us regarding of the result, we know that, but all the same we hope it’s the ‘plucky Wigan outdone’ headline rather than the ‘giant killers’ script.

I was never a fan of David anyway. Fluked himself a sweet spot against poor old Goliath in a match up that really should have had only one winner.

Again, the fact I have managed to rinse through a number of paragraphs of prose without actually having to delve into tactical analysis, probably shows my apprehension about today’s game all the more. I’m worried because we’ve got injuries. I’m worried because the spark in the team seems to have gone. I’m worried because I fear the players mental fragility if the worst were to happen. What happens if we go behind? What happens if after the first 15 minutes it becomes clear that we look as leggy as we did last weekend against Everton?

Yet there is a common saying from which I am attempting to draw strength from (if you’ve got to this part of the blog without dismissing me as a ‘Ned the Neg’, and no, you probably haven’t heard that phrase anywhere before because I literally just made it up):

It is always darkest before dawn.

Well, it’s pretty effing pitch black if you listen to most Arsenal podcasts, or read any other Arsenal blogs. There isn’t exactly a majority of the fanbase confidently predicting an Arsenal whitewash, which tells me that most of us are in ‘glass half empty’ mode, that’s for sure. So perhaps, just maybe, today is a time for a redeemer in red and white to appear from amongst the confidence rubble and see us over the line in the season. A hero, a star, a saviour, perhaps even coming from the strangest of sources. A man to throw open the curtains and let glorious and warming sunshine wash over us with goals and a victory.

Step forward Olivier Giroud (didn’t expect me to say that, eh?). He’s looked all kinds of toilet for the last couple of months. Not even a fancy toilet. One of those public ones that’s had the plastic white seat ripped from it, smeared in all kinds of bacteria and pubes that I dare not elaborate on, with four walls that have more ‘Sharpie’ inspired profanities that you can shake a permanent marker at. I have much maligned his inability to deliver on many occasions, but wouldn’t it be so very Arsenal, so very Giroud, to bag a winning goal today? It wouldn’t surprise me at all.

But he’s just one potential match winner. Santi, fresh from the newspaper comments about team mentality, has it in him to Ray Parlour the ball from thirty yards and in similar fashion etch his name further into our hearts. Or Rambo, who’s lung busting efforts coupled with some sound goals this season, have seen him propelled to superstar status in our minds.

Who’s fit? Who’s not? Who are Wigan going to play in their team? How should we approach the game? What will the first fifteen minutes of the game look like? All of these questions are ones that I am disinclined to debate and dissect, because right now I am focusing on one thing and one thing alone; preparing my pipes for an early evening of extreme working out. I am going to go – as my wonderful friend and fellow Suburban Goonerite Ben Leeder says – ‘full tropic thunder’ on the game. But not in a negative way, in a ‘if my levels of craziness can help the team team in any way, they’ll get a whole heap of Crazy-Chris today’ way. I’m up for this. And I haven’t even started the first pint of the day.

Today is, to all intents and purposes, a home game for us. London is our town. It houses our club and we will come together to see our team win. There’s estimated to be around 55,000 Arsenal fans today. That’s 5,000 short of the Emirates so we have to make sure it sounds like an Arsenal game.

Sing loud, sing proud, and sing Arsenal.

What are the ‘basics’?

Perhaps in a similar way in which many of us fans have wanted to ‘get this week over and done with’ after last weekends debacle, Arsene’s press conference was brought forward to yesterday, meaning he has more time to prepare the players today. That’s fine by me, because I’ve had enough of reflecting on what’s going wrong at Arsenal, and thankfully the FA Cup tie against Wigan gives us the opportunity to wash our mouths of the slightly bitter taste that the Premier League competition has left us recently.

Of course, the fact that we are in a cup semi final doesn’t banish the lingering thoughts of a funk at the club, which is the very reason why so many Gooners are approaching this game with trepidation tomorrow. Fearing a Championship team is not something we should probably be doing, but our form coupled with the ghosts of 2011 still fresh in the memory seem to remain in our minds eye, as clear as a high definition 46′ plasma screen picture.

What doesn’t help was the news that yet more players could be added to the ‘Inujured XI’ team that the medical department are treating right now. The Ox, Rosicky and Gibbs are all doubts, with Arsene giving The Ox the best chance of return at 50:50. It’s a concerning enough situation that we have so many players out already at a crucial stage of the season, but also brings in to sharp focus every little issue such as the suspension Flamini has for picking up yellow cards. More on the team news and my thoughts of a possible line up tomorrow.

Arsene spoke of the fact we’ll be respecting Wigan tomorrow and, in perhaps an echo of what Szczesny said earlier in the week, I think those words ring very true after what Birmingham did to us. That we are approaching this game with caution can only be a good thing in my opinion. We sauntered up to Wembley in 2011 wondering when we would actually get to lift the trophy, such was the expectation and probably arrogance of both fans and players. But if our more humble approach to the game tomorrow results in greater concentration and eventual success, let’s hope we use that between now and the end of the season.

Arsene mentioned that we have to ‘go back to basics’ yesterday again, reiterating his stance from the Everton game and whilst I agree with the sentiment, I’m not really see what that means for a top Premier League side if I’m honest. I mean, if you’re talking about a Sunday league side, then that might mean telling the team to always find a man, go to the nearest player with the ball to give him an option for a short pass, etc. In defence it means lumping the ball into touch when you are in defensive difficulty instead of playing out from the back. For a professional football team, I’m not sure exactly what the ‘basics’ are, but perhaps Arsene is talking about mentally.

Perhaps he’s talking about looking at the teams morale and getting them to do things that don’t require something special. Pressing is something that is very basic and easy to teach anybody, yet that seems to have disappeared from our play of late.

Of course, if the team is running on empty, then I’m not sure how you can achieve your ‘basics’ mentality that you want to instil into the players. Just thinking out loud here, don’t have any answers I’m afraid, but I certainly hope Arsene does.

Maybe ‘the basics’ are a simple case of reminding the players, as Rocky once said, of ‘who they are, what they are and who they represent’, plus ensuring that they are fired up enough to give that extra bit of effort that a cup semi final should demand. You can be damn sure that the Wigan players will do that, so it is imperative that the Arsenal players show infinitely more drive than they did against the Toffees. Maybe when Arsene talks about ‘the basics’ he’s also talking about his own ability to et the team fired up. The perceived lack of energy from the touch line on Sunday has been picked up by a few, so perhaps he knows he has to ensure his role is played by getting some sort of Churchillian message to the starting eleven come 5pm tomorrow.

For me, if you’re talking about basics defensively for a professional football team, you have to look at the way in which the team is set up. Leaving vast gaps of space in between defence and midfield, like the space Naismith occupied last Sunday, would be a basic bit of instruction that the manager would need to consider. With no Flamini available, that means that Arteta has to revert to his last season position where he almost exclusively holds his position in front of the central defenders. He is always the outlet from the back and so will need to forgo any desires to push further forward in pursuit of goal-y happiness.

In terms of attack, the ‘basics’ we need are clear. We need to populate the area around Giroud with players, giving him options for knock downs and runners. Ramsey provides one such individual willing to do that, but with him just returning from injury last weekend, is it too much to ask for him to produce his early season lung-bustingly awesome form? Again, I don’t really have any answers here, just musings I’ve plucked from by cranium.

Not long now until we step into that famous old-new stadium, so let’s hope that the players spend today with clear heads and are building their convictions for what will be a tough game tomorrow.

Laters.

Abject Arsenal are in trouble

Hold on tight, strap yourself in and mentally prepared yourself, because today’s blog isn’t going to be pretty.

Yesterday I sacked off a match preview because, after a night on a Monopoly bar crawl, I couldn’t really be arsed to write anything an hour or so before kick off. Hey, it happens, but the consequences of that are minimal to anybody.

Arsenal must have taken the same approach, because they couldn’t really be arsed yesterday either, the result of which was an all too familiar capitulation in a big game in which we needed to see a spark from the players. We got nothing. Literally nothing from the team. Actually, that’s not quite true, because we did get a fabulous dismally of misplaced passes, lack of pace and creativity and effort across all aspects of the pitch.

Let’s give Everton some credit first though. They hassled, pressed, hurried and looked hungry. They were hungry for a Champions League spot and had a clear line of sight towards what they wanted to get by putting an Arsenal side to the sword that quite frankly looked like they were all practicing for a ‘who can be the least arsed’ competition.

I’m getting tired of this. I think it was Le Grove that said on Twitter last night ‘let’s be honest, did anybody not expect this?’ and I have to echo those sentiments I’m afraid. Nobody does implosion like this Arsenal team. And, by golly, haven’t they had enough practice at it this season?

I’m getting tired people. I’m tired of talking about the same frailties. The defence which looked so solid for so long now looks like a rickety old fence that you could just give a nudge to before it falls over. It offers little protection to Szczesny and the result was a defensive lapse after defensive lapse. We lost 3-0 but there were plenty of other times that we were cut apart and you do have to wonder whether or not we were blinded by Vermaelen’s goals in his first season at the club, because his regression has been staggering over the last two years. He’s been ok filling in for Koscienly in the most part, but he was terrible at times yesterday, ball watching for the first goal, flailing a leg for the second and generally looking like a lost boy.

What makes me sad is that it doesn’t look like the manager can motivate the players any more. How else can you explain a game in which the team had a week off to prepare and yet still looked like they were running through treacle. We can talk about ‘tired lets’ and ‘fatigue’ until the cows come home, but I’ve seen a few teams over the last couple of weekends who have played just as many games as our players and yet they don’t look nearly as lethargic. A week! They had a week to be ready for this?

But herein probably lies the crux of the matter, the main area of focus and root cause of the problem: the manager. We all know he doesn’t look at the opposition and adapt his game to suit. We know he likes to send his players out with their own game plan and to play ‘Arsene’s Way’. But the trouble is, the only teams that could play that way were ones that had the best players in most positions, across the whole park. Intelligent players who had the ability to be given freedom of the park and express themselves. This Arsenal team isn’t good enough to do that. Sure, Arsene can rightly point to injuries and say that with those players fit we’d be challenging, but they’re not fit! So when you haven’t got the best players at your club available, you have to try something different, hence why looking at your opponents and changing your style to suit would make sense in light of so many first choice players being out.

But not Arsene, oh no, he sends his team out with the same instructions, the same expectations, yet expects different results. I believe Einstein famously said that is the very definition of insanity.

Arsene got out-tactic’d yesterday. Big time. He got shown that unless you have the 11 best players in their position in the league, you ignore the opposition at your peril. Martinez knew the joy Lukaku would get if he played out wide and so put him on the right and told him to wreak havoc. And he did. And there was no response from our manager, who is looking like he is showing his age from a footballing perspective. Modern football has moved on, Arsene, sadly hasn’t.

There’s not one player that started yesterday that can come out of the game with their head held high. The closest one that got to that was Sagna, yet he was guilty of dwindling on the ball too long and conceding possession which led to the third goal.

I don’t want to start singling out players, but after his woeful attempt at trying to look like a centre forward yesterday, I’m finding it hard not to mention a player who is called ‘the lamppost’ by some of the fan-base because when the ball hits him it bounces off in any direction. He was well into double figures of losing the ball when he was hauled off for Sanogo yesterday. Sanogo having that ‘X-Factor’ from the bench that we were looking for of course. Or rather, Sanogo being the only attacking player available because of the managers negligence to strengthen last summer or this winter.

Arsene said after the game that he cannot question the teams spirit. I hope that’s just talk for the papers, because I’m sorry Arsene, but that’s exactly what you should be doing right now. There was precisely 0% spirit in that team yesterday. We could have played for a week and we still wouldn’t have scored. There was a total lack of effort from the first minute until the last and I am just thankful that the Ox and Rambo came on and looked lively, because that will at least give us some home that there is some pace that can be injected into the side.

We’re on the ropes here people.

Heh, wouldn’t you know it, as I’m writing today’s blog my train has stopped outside Wembley Park station, as if to serve as more of a reminder of what lies in store next weekend. The players found it very difficult to motivate themselves for a Champions League spot showdown, so what makes any of us think they’ll be motivated for a cup semi one? Wigan fans, players and management must have been rubbing their hands together with glee having watched that shower of the proverbial yesterday, because now not only are they going into a game with nothing to lose, but they’ll be doing it against a team that looks as strong as a Rich Tea biscuit slam-dunked into a cup of tea.

If we lose next weekend, it will be almost impossible to argue a case for the managers defence, because if all we have to play for come May is another ‘fourth place trophy’, then all you can say is that he is now treading water with this team at best.

That’ll do for today. Perhaps some more thoughts tomorrow.>

I think we’ll be up for this tonight and so will the players

Yesterday I was walking back with Steve having our usual post work chinwag, when something he said struck a chord with me, in relation to how he’d been feeling about Arsenal all week.

Words like ‘tired’ were shuffled around the conversation between us both as we tried to make some sort of footballing premonitions for today’s game, but not used to describe our ailing squads, instead used for the feeling we had when defending – or trying to defend – The Arsenal against rival fans. Perhaps it isn’t only the players that are fatigued with this season? Perhaps we are feeling the emotional strain as much as the players feel their hamstring ones?

This lethargy had me thinking back to Tuesday night and the subdued atmosphere for the game. Even before Swansea’s early lead, the whole place seemed to be in a bit of a funk, which only erupted into life after we scored our quick-fire goals.

If the atmosphere could be called into question then, what will we see tonight, when the players take on league title favourites Moneychester City? Will we see the same lethargy from the fans (I include myself on this criticism as part of the collective) as we saw from the players when there is a big game and a chance to somewhat redeem ourselves as a club in the eyes of the watching media?

I think the Emirates will be rather noisy today, not just because of the added beer time that will have been afforded to us thanks to a late kick off, but because we will want to see a reaction and I think the crowd know they can play a part.

So it’s for that reason – the atmosphere and the ability of the home fans to turn up the decibel levels inside the ground – that I think the players will react too. They’ll hear us roar from the first minute and they’ll want to show that the tiredness can be abated with the benefit of adrenalin. If we can up our games as fans, why can’t the players, against vastly superior opposition?

I’m not going to try to sugar-coat it; our form compared to city’s doesn’t look great and as I said yesterday, nobody seems to fancy us, especially the bookies. But when you look at how the team has played against the big players at home in the league this season, there is cause for optimism, not least in the fact that of the current top seven teams, we’ve conceded one goal in the league at home. I’m sure that record will be tested tonight, but small mercies and all that…

What we will need to do is be better in taking chances. City has tightened up defensively, but they still have their frailties, so if we can capitalise on any mistakes then we simply must. Ollie G, I’m looking at you here kid, time to shake off those treacle-covered boots and show that you can show up in big games. Pretend it’s still the autumn of something.

I think Arsene will opt for a similar line up to the one that played on Tuesday, but I’d think long and hard about adding the end-product of Podolski into the mix, plus throwing in a Gnabry-shaped curveball. We need to try something different and I think the young German would give us that. With those two – both inevitably fresher because they haven’t played in midweek from the start – flanking Giroud up top, my hope would be that we’d see two players more willing to get beyond the Frenchman and therefore give him more options for his little flicks and touches. We all know that Giroud is a lay-off specialist, so let’s put men in and around him and even in front of him when he comes to collect the ball.

In behind that three I’d give the nod to Rosicky, Flamini and Cazorla. Rosicky is the elder statesman of the team and has played a lot of football recently, but Arteta has looked the most leggy of the three and so I’d be inclined to sit Tomas alongside Matthieu. Of course, the challenge might be that Rosicky might want to get forward more than Arteta and against a team with the attacking threat of City it may be more suitable to have two holding midfielders sitting to stifle the play in front of our back four, but Rosicky is that player that knows how to tackle and can inject a little bit more pace in move the ball on quickly from front to back.

As for City, well, where do you even start? Smashing in goals for fun and the Premier League Title in sight, they know that a win today could be vital. Pellegrini can play it down all he likes: if City win tonight I fancy them for the title. I wouldn’t mind seeing City lift the title ahead of Chelski and Liverpool, but I’d rather they win every single game after tonight between now and the end of the season, because the priority is always Arsenal and seeing Arsenal succeed. If we do manage to fashion a win at home, imagine what it will do for the confidence? Points-wise it will probably not mean a lot because Everton are sure to beat a shocking Fulham team, but it would keep breathing distance between us and the toffees and means we could all but seal a Champions League spot with a victory at Goodison, which in turn would put us in a great position to really have a go at the FA Cup the following week. Players would be returning and the place would seem a little rosier than it has these past seven days, so I am extremely hopeful that we’ll see a strong Arsenal performance and a win against a team with the reprehensible Samir Nasri.

Anyway, that’s it from me today, I’m off to find my lucky flat cap which I realised is only lucky when I wear it inside the stadium, rather than at home on my parents sofa like I did last week.

Peace out.

Swansea (and our own panic button) show how far away we are

(Stewart) Houston, we have a problem*.

We have a problem of our own making. It was a problem forged in the fires of Stamford Bridge, exacerbated in the supposed comforts of our home, and most certainly entirely of our own making.

Tonight I saw a bang average Swansea team rock up with little to play for, comfy and cosy in mid table, happy to sit on their one real attempt of the first half and wait to see what an emotionally battered Arsenal could do by way of retribution for being given a humbling at the hands of a supposed rival.

Let’s all be clear at this juncture: as much as we believed Chelski and City were our rivals, as the dust settles on this latest setback, I’m sure we can all acknowledge that a title assault was always a long-shot at best. It was a forlorn hope born out of a fantastic initial run at the beginning of the season that was never going to last. You can’t go into a season with a decent – albeit limited – centre forward as your only choice. You can’t go into a season with a squad that, with a few injuries will look threadbare, and expect to come up trumps. And more than anything else, you can’t go into a season where the manager overuses players so that when the new year approaches we are left to lick our wounds because we’ve run players into the ground.

This was an Arsenal performance devoid of any real drive and desire to make amends of their wrongdoings at the weekend. We were lethargic in attack, ponderous in defence and vanilla in midfield. At halftime I turned to Ian and asked where the next goal was coming from. The response? “If I had a gun to my head, I’d say Swansea”. It was a damning indictment of a team that showed no real desire to show the world that there is fight, spirit and that gawd awful ‘mental strength’ that became a parody of Arsene’s teams of three or four years ago.

Today’s blog may sound overly negative, for that I can only apologise (I’m hurting, you see), but as a fan you expect more after a performance like the weekend. I said to Ian during the first half that I’d feel better if we’d have dominated play, forced saves from Vorm and ‘knocked on the door’ to show a response and had been suker-punched with a goal, but after that first half all I can really remember is an early Ox shot that was well parried away. We got nothing as fans. No fight in that first half. But do you know what, I still sang up for The Arsenal, despite the lethargy. Whether the players deserved it is another matter for another day, but I still put my effort in, which was at least partially rewarded in the second half. Two quick goals put a lovely glossy finish on what was a poor performance, but it was probably inevitable that our meandering through the game was punished by Swansea with a typically Arsenal implosion.

Let me ask you a question. Of the following teams, how many do you see fall apart as easily as Arsenal: Chelski, Monechester City, Liverpool, Everton? I’d wager you can’t remember as many times as has happened to The Arsenal. Do you know why? Because we are not capable of consistent success. We are an accident waiting to happen at times and in typical Arsenal fashion we couldn’t hold out against a Swansea team that were dispatched against Everton at the weekend.

I’d love to say that we have an opportunity to readdress the balance against City this weekend but, if we’re all honest with ourselves, does anybody see that happening at the moment?

There’s no point in complaining about individual performances. We know that far too many players gave a 6 out of 10 yesterday, but what was really needed was eight’s and nine’s and we just didn’t look capable. This was in no way near the pain of the weekend, but the end result makes Saturday even more palatable.

Arsene needs to have a word with the players and ask them where the drive is going to come from. We’re already in a dogfight for fourth, so there is no way we can afford too many performances like we’ve been having, so we need him to step up and show why he’s paid the REALLY big bucks.

That’s it from me today.

*DISCLAIMER: in no way do I advocate the return of Stewart Houston, I just wanted to make a funny at a time in which there is little to laugh about.

Fullbacks are key to winning football matches

Morning you wonderful people, Chris here, but taking a back seat today to give Ben the floor. I know you’ll be extra nice to him, for no other reason than he’s an extra nice bloke, which he is.

Since I started watching Arsenal we’ve always had very good fullbacks. I’ve seen a number of formations, setups – from 5-3-2 to the current 4-2-3-1. As time passes football develops and roles progress, which ends up putting more emphasis on tactics. We’ve seen football clubs change and create a new football philosophy – Everton being the prime example. Which brings fresh ideas and leads to upping the performance levels of the given league they are operating in.

We’ve seen a shift in responsibilities in the fullback position from being a more solid, dependable (i.e. Lee Dixon) type, to a player with pace and being a lot more positive with and without the ball (i.e. Kieran Gibbs). Also, we’ve seen the modern day fullback needing the intelligence and ability to read the game, especially the offensive side.

The way the game is developing fullbacks are being used as auxiliary forwards. We’ve seen a lot of the major forces in European football get rid of the so-called ‘traditional winger’. You could argue the winger has lost it’s place in the modern game. Since the current adoption of the inside-forward, and the attacking playmakers, there has been a tendency of a lot of teams narrowing their forward line.

The way Arsenal and the majority of Europe’s top teams play has been transformed – two strikers are rarely used anymore. The second is dropped in between the lines to help link up attacking play and help flood the midfield for possession reasons. Midfield shape has also changed. This has shifted the focus of play onto the fullbacks and a lot of teams play with three in midfield. Barcelona and Ajax are good examples of this, their full-backs are so far up the pitch that the defensive midfielder – Sergio Busquets and Daley Blind respectively – become a third centre back. This leaves the fullbacks as the only players on the pitch with any real space.

If you add that to the wingers playing on opposite wings, i.e. Robben and Bale (when he was at Spurs) and things can become very compact. To ensure width isn’t lost, full-backs are licensed to get forward and support the attack, therefore creating space for others.

As we’ve seen recently, the main benefit of adventurous fullbacks is to allow teams to have two extra players in attack. Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona and now Bayern Munich utilised this well as have Spain throughout their recent domination.

It’s seen in the way he likes his team to build the play, he overloads and isolates the opposition fullbacks with the ‘winger’ in possession of the ball (or vice versa), and the fullback goes flying round the outside. At times it’s simply impossible to defend against.

Certain players are being instructed with various responsibilities within their standard duties. Some of these are fresh in my mind because I’ve been lucky enough to see them live – Pep Guardiola used Victor Valdez as ball playing option at the back. Javi Martinez at Bayern has a very disciplined role but he needs to be able to play through the lines as a third centre back or in midfield. The level needed for each players is slowly creeping up.

We saw from Thomas Vermaelen in the second leg against Bayern who defensively did very, very well. On the other hand, offensively, he offered little to nothing. The modern fullback has many duties to perform. It is no longer enough to leave an opposition winger battered and bruised on the floor.

A modern fullback must offer a huge attacking threat. He must have the ability to make a pinpoint pass, or deliver a perfect cross. He must possess pace, he must have discipline and most importantly, superb positional sense. This is also needs to be complimented by endless stamina to continually get up and down the pitch.

Steve McManaman famously said the first bit of Spanish he actually learnt when he moved to Real Madrid was ‘cover me’ as Salgado, his fullback, flew past him.

Arsene Wenger has always seen the importance of the fullback. He inherited two of the best in the business – Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn. He eventually replaced them with Ashley Cole – who started out as a centre forward in the youth side, and Lauren, a ball-playing midfielder he signed from Spain. From the outside looking in it seems he opted to put more offensive players into those positions, which demonstrates how important the role is.

It will be interesting to see how a team will successfully counter this within culling their attacking threat.

One thing for sure is that the attacking fullback will be a constant but the role is ever evolving. Top sides field their most creative players in wide attacking positions and there is perhaps a need for full-backs to be strong(er) defensively, but only time will tell.

Arsène will have a very tough decision to make in the summer (If Sagna leaves). He has Jenkinson who is a decent player but not near Sagna’s standard. If he can have a good run of games he could be good player. Will he settle for good? He has Bellerin who offensively is very good and, in my opinion, the epitome of the modern fullback. Although question marks will remain over his defensive stability until he gets a run of games in the first team to prove otherwise. If Arsène does go into the market for a new addition, then spending a lot money on one will be completely justified in my opinion. It is a major part of the modern game and needs to be respected.

As things stand, Bacary Sagna seems to be closing the curtain on his Arsenal career. You know how these things work, as soon as I press the publish button, things will change. If he does leave then it’s going to leave a massive hole in our lineup. He’s been marvellous for us and I wouldn’t begrudge him a move after all the wonderful service he has given us. Whatever he decides, all the best Bac. Up The Arsenal!!

Cheers for reading,

be happy,

Ben

Herculean defensive effort keeps title hopes simmering nicely

Yesterday the footballing Gods were obviously listening, because in addition to charming our goal to ensure that the little round thing with Nike logos on didn’t cross our goal line, they saw fit to grant us a selection of Demi-god like performances from a defence that I immediately took to Twitter after the game and call ‘Herculean’.

It was a performance and a half from our defenders and specifically the central defensive pairing of Per and Laurent who allowed literally nothing past them, despite a barrage of crosses and long balls into the Arsenal penalty area, as well as a number of harem scarem Moments that no Gooner really wants to have to go through again.

We’d all talked about the desperate need for a result. The media had talked about a desperate need for a result. And on the occasion of Arsene’s 999th game, there was no need for any of the emergency services to be called out, because that back five were superb for the majority of the game. I say majority of the game because Szczesny gave us a couple of heart-in-mouth moments, particularly one where Chadli should have scored, but once again he was saved by Per and Kos throwing their bodies on the line.

The day started off in the bet possible fashion with an early goal and a screamer at that. Bounding down the right, the apparently ageless Tomas Rosicky exchanged passes with the Ox and his finish on the right hand side was majestic. Even he looked surprised when celebrating the goal that eventually turned out to be the match winner. It was befitting of winning any North London Derby and as we recorded last nights SG Podcast (link in the menu section), I quipped that at the very least it should mean Sky can stick that stupid Rose goal a few years back into the archives and wheel out Tomas’ pure class strike on their TV ads.

An early goal within the first couple of minutes was never going to be the end of the game and sometimes can be a hindrance to way a team is set up in games like this, which is why I wasn’t surprised to see the Tiny Totts have more of the ball in both halves. We had our lead and could pick the Spuds off on the counter if we needed to. And we did pick them off. Oxlade-Chamberlain had a number of chances, but to this Gooners eyes, it looked like the one where he was through on goal and bearing down on Lloris was one in which he was caught in two minds between chipping over the ‘keeper and playing it sideways to Podolski who could have tapped into an empty net. Thankfully we weren’t made to pay for the miss, but again I thought The Ox had a decent enough game.

Our midfield’s afternoon was clearly one spent grinding more than creating, no more typified by the fact that most of the time I recall seeing Santi pick the ball up was when he was within 15 yards of our own penalty box.

The deep midfield line – probably as a result of the deeper defensive line – meant there were huge gaps between midfield and attack and left Giroud cutting a lone skulking figure on his own at times yesterday. I’m going to try and keep the criticism on a low heat today, so as not to mar the fact we picked up a first win down the road for seven years, but Giroud was poor it has to be said. Perhaps that was down to him being isolated and not having any options, but I am not seeing the same drive that saw him be so effective at the beginning of the season. His early season form was supported by his boundless energy and desire to chase down loose balls, yet yesterday their were a number of times in which I saw him ambling, not really seeming interested in putting pressure on from the Spuds defence. That was disappointing. We know he has limitations as a striker, but I expected him to at least put a bit of a shift in, and I felt he didn’t look like his early season self.

But anyway, enough negativity from me, I’ll leave that to Paul ‘doom and gloom merchant’ Merson. Three points was all that was required yesterday and that’s what we got. But we didn’t just get that, did we? We also got more daylight between us and the chasing Champions League contender pack which, despite some thinking I’m being a little negative looking down rather than up, was always a worry from my perspective if we’d have lost yesterday.

What the game will do for the teams confidence now we don’t know, but I tell you what I do know, I know that having seen those players celebrate with the Arsenal fans yesterday they know what a local derby means on away soil and they know that they still have a shot at the title. Next weekend games on more significance because of yesterday’s results, but it’s something we all wanted, because if if was a bit of a dead rubber then that would likely mean our title chances had all but been extinguished.

The media are looking at Liverpool and that’s fine by me, because providing we can keep in touch with the chasing pack for the next two weeks, then we’ll be in the hunt for the league and that’s all we’ve wanted this season. We are still fourth favourites and it may all come tumbling down, but afternoons like yesterday show how far we’ve come as a team and bode well for the future, especially when you look at the players we have missing and the squad we’ve built.

It maybe Monday, I may have a full week of work ahead of me, but The Arsenal have made it a shinier week and for that I’m grateful.

Munich: glorious equality?

If pride comes before a fall, then Arjen Robben must be the most delusional person on the planet, because if he’s proud of his efforts in falling to the floor every time he is touched then he’s going to get labelled and receive nothing from referees. Let’s hope that happens because yesterday was a shining example of what nobody wants to see in football.

I thought the penalty awarded was softer than a new-born babies hind and the decision not to book him when there was the most obvious dive inside our box was farcical. But then again, we can hardly expect anything else from European referees, can we?

As for The Arsenal, well, I think we can certainly use the word ‘proud’ to define our performance. Up against the best club side in the world, two-down from the first leg, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a dead rubber and mentally the players might treat it as such. But far from it, I thought we put on a solid and impressive defensive display against a team who’s form has more ‘W’s in it than Porkie Pig trying to say “Well Why Won’t We Win When We Want to?”.

Perhaps there was an element of Bayern trying to keep us at arms length and ensure safer passage to the next round, which inevitably led to a more cautious approach than the battering they gave Wolfsburg at the weekend, but I like to think that’s because they gave us respect because they know what a threat this team can be. After all, we’ve scared them before, so they were always going to fear the second striking of lightning.

As for the side that lined up, Thomas Vermaelen coming in at left back performed admirably I thought, whilst Podolski on the left was an interesting one given that it had seemed as if Arsene was beginning to freeze him out of the side before an inevitable departure in the summer. Thankfully he hasn’t and it was our clinical German that gave us hope on the night with a fine finish at the near post. I don’t buy the ‘Lahm was fouled’ quotes I’ve heard, because I’m pretty sick of seeing players feel even the tiniest bit of contact and falling to their feet. Martinez was a master of that yesterday, yet the emperor of all that is ‘divey’ was of course Robben.

I thought the gameplan was pretty well executed by Arsenal actually. We clearly wanted to keep it right until half time and see if we could nick one to put the frighteners on Munich. A sort of ‘European Anfield 89′ if you like which, up until Schweinsteiger wasn’t tracked by the central midfield duo and chipped over Fabianski, we had executed well as a defensive unit. Having watched the replays again you do wonder if a Flamster in the side would have seen that runner and tracked him, but let’s not be too harsh, given that Bayern have quality all over the pitch that can hurt you.

Specifically, the Ox was immense yesterday, as he weaved in between and through Bayern player after Bayern player and on a number of occasions was cynically brought down. He is starting to put together a run of games that are making for a very impressive footballing CV of late and the importance of him to our team dynamic and the success of this season can’t be underestimated. He has a fabulous engine, he’s a very good runner at defenders and he has pace. He’s shown an eye for goal and at a time when we seem to be losing players left, right and centre to injury – Özil being the latest with a hamstring injury – if he can replicate performances like last night on a regular basis it will go a long way to demonstrating that this squad is not as week as many would have you believe.

How about our injury problems though, eh? It’s as if Arsene walked into a house of mirrors in the summer armed with nothing but a machete and a twitch. There were some people that we’re arguing once again that this was, in some way or other, the medical teams fault that we keep picking up injuries like this. I don’t see how personally, given that Ramsey, Walcott, Podolski, Cazorla and Özil injuries have all been picked up this season through game time. Sure, you can question the overplaying of players leading to them eventually breaking down, which has some legs to it as an argument (no pun intended). But some of the longer-standing injuries that were picked up were at the beginning of the season. Theo’s first injury was at the beginning of the season and he wasn’t long back before he was injured again, so you can hardly call that overplaying.

I just wonder if the football gods just don’t like us very much. Either that or toiling away and seeing the despair of Gooners amuses them more than fans of other clubs, particularly Chelski who seem to get more fortune than a factory of Chinese cookies.

Anyway, I digress, so I’ll redirect my route back to the game last night. Defensively we were sound, but where we were lacking – yet again – was undoubtedly in the attacking positions. Against a team like Bayern you’re never going to get lots of chances and so it’s hard to be too harsh on the forwards, but I thought Giroud struggled all night. He had trouble holding the ball up and when he did, there was so much space between him and the next yellow shirt that he was on a hiding to nothing for most of the game. Having said that, in the latter stages of the second half he did get a couple of chances, but never really looked like scoring. Games like yesterday aren’t designed for big target men like Olivier, they are designed for pacey forwards who can expose defenders on the counter. Just look at the opening minutes when The Ox found himself running at Dante, only for the funny haired bloke to chop him down in a ‘take one for the team ‘ yellow. Even after that yellow, you suspected that he wouldn’t be tested that much by a pacey attacker for the rest of the game, which is exactly how it transpired.

We’re all disappointed today because we’re out again in the second round, but what these two legs have shown us is the fine margins that separate teams in knock out competition. We were undone at home by a harsh sending off and it was effectively the end of the tie from the moment Szczesny was sent off.

So that’s European football done for the year, to which we turn our attention to purely domestic matters, the smallest of which begin this weekend with a trip along the Seven Sisters Road.

Catch you tomorrow.

This ones a freebie in my eyes

Hopefully I can approach today’s match preview blog in a slightly different manner to that of my online Gooner counterparts when I say:

We’ve already won tonight.

The victory may not be tangible, it may not see us into the quarter finals of the Champions League, but after the whole world and most of Goonerdom has written the team off, anything else other than a 6-0 thrashing will be a moral victory of sorts I believe. Nobody expects us to turn over a two goal deficit against a Bayern Munich team who appear to have found a glitch in the game, a quick FIFA style cheat if you will, that has seen them absolutely rip apart the German league like it was the Scottish Premier. So if defeat does indeed hit us tonight, then the whole world will just shrug and say ‘move along’ as if it would be expected. If it happens, hopefully the Arsenal players will be able to do the same, because there are still a plethora of massive games in the coming weeks that they can make amends for any cup exit tonight.

There’s no doubt the FA Cup victory at the weekend has also totted up some goodwill points amongst Arsenal fans as well. Exit at the weekend, followed by defeat over two legs and exit tonight, would have left us all in a pretty gloomy place. But knowing that silverware is still in our grasp whatever the consequences of defeat tonight should be used as an instant confidence adrenalin shot should we drop out to the reigning European Champions.

So I’m approaching today’s game as a ‘freebie’. The damage was done at the Emirates with a sending off that really shouldn’t have happened and as a fickle football fan, I’m using that ‘get-out’ to shrug off any exit. We were shafted by referees again dontcha know?

As for the team, there was some good news and some bad news delivered by Le Boss yesterday. I’d have loved him to have delivered it in that fashion, asking the assembled hacks which one they wanted first, but the upshot was that whilst Koscienly is fighting fit again, Gibbs unfortunately has succumbed to an ankle injury. Again, in the spirit of my nonchalant nature towards this game, I offer a simple ‘meh’, but where the ‘meh’ becomes an ‘oh no’ is whether or not he makes it back for Sunday’s trip to Spudland. We will need a fully fledged left back available for the trip to ‘them’ and with Nacho still not close to fitness, I’m going to be doing all kinds of voodoo shizzle in the hope that he can make it at the weekend.

The question for tonight remains which of the current square pegs has the most rounded edges for Arsene to pick at left back? Does he opt for left footed Vermaelen, who clearly has more experience than putting Jenkinson at right back and telling the versatile Sagna to give it a go at left back? Last season Jenkinson played in the Munich game I believe and he performed well. Given Vermaelen is clearly a bit rusty and has shown he’s uncomfortable at left back, it’s hardly a ‘no-brainer’ to put him in, although if we do need a bit more experience and strength in defending set pieces and corners, you’d think his role in the team could come in handy.

It’s a dilemma that is Arsene’s to ponder, but, I guess that is why he’s paid the VERY big bucks.

The rest of the team will probably line up as a full strength unit. With the Spuds playing Benfica on Thursday, I’d be surprised if Tim ‘the Gooner’ Sherwood didn’t pick his strongest team, which means that Arsene could probably do the same knowing they’ll be just as fatigued at the weekend as our players are. So I’d expect to see a midfield of Flamini, Arteta and Özil, with Cazorla, Giroud and the Ox taking the attacking and flanked positions. Perhaps he’ll opt for Gnabry as that unknown factor and a player who’ll want to show what he’s made of in the attacking positions, but I think the form of the Ox and Cazorla carried over from Saturday warrants their inclusion.

If some sort of miracle is to be achieved, we’ll need to see another performance where there are four or five options for man-of-the-match tonight. Against arguably the best team in the world, you wouldn’t have thought it would happen, but stranger things have.

As for Bayern, well, take your pick from the array of world class talent they have. Ribery is now fit to play and so I’d expect he’ll get a start, so with Robben on the other flank, Guardiola just needs to decide who in midfield should play out of Garcia, Goetze, Kroos, Muller, Alcantara, etc, etc, the list goes on…suffice to say he’s spoilt for choices!

Anyway, wherever you are, however you watch the game, try to enjoy it. It’s why we want to be in competitions like this and not lining up against FC Dnieghausgdindbavxgskakxbsjskdb of Haifbrhskxnslsndi like them other lot along the Seven Sisters Road.

Catch y’all tomorrow.