Poor tactically and defensively

After the winning streak that we’ve had in the last couple months, I find myself somewhat at a difficult place, because for all the criticism that I want to give the manager for what I believe we’re totally the wrong tactics to deploy against a Swansea team who came for a point and went home with three, the side he picked was the same side that had performed so well over the last month. 

So was Arsène right to pick the same time based on the belief that confidence would see us through against Swansea? Evidently not, but I can see why he thought the confidence of the team would see us over the line.

But herein lies the problem with Arsène. His unwavering belief in the spirit of his players trumps any other kind of reasoning or thought process for selecting any Matchday squad, or so it seems from where I stand, because his inability to look at the opposition and exploit weaknesses feels to me like it’s negated by his belief that the players who feel the most confident will win the game.

It feels a very ‘heart on the sleeve’ kind of management, which I find at odds with the way Arsène is portrayed at times.

Take yesterday’s defeat to Swansea. Knowing that they would look to frustrate and remain compact in the middle of the park, there was no acknowledgement from our manager that we might need to pull them around the pitch a bit to create space. An unchanged squad featuring Ramsey out wide right therefore saw the bulk of play concentrated on trying to wriggle our way through pockets of congested white and red shirts with no real resolution other than a pretty tame half in the first 45.

To Gary Monk’s credit, he executed his game to perfection. You could almost hear the teamtalk reverberating around the Emirates: 

“We’re not playing with a striker today boys, we’re going 4-6-0 and that’ll frustrate Arsenal, but as long as we stay compact we’ll get chances”

It was a perfect plan to play a manager like Arsène on his home turf. We laboured for the entirety of the first half and although we created chances in the second, they were all down the throat of Fabianski, who must have been grateful for the gifts presented to him. Particularly a tame Walcott strike which rolled into his arms as he was practically still on the floor. 

None of our forward line covered themselves in any glory. Ramsey did what he knows is his game and played too centrally throughout. Giroud had an early chance but then faded into anonymity, whilst Alexis too had an off night. Mesut was stifled by the congestion in the middle of the park, whilst Santi couldn’t really stamp any kind of authority on the game. It was a lacklustre performance from an Arsenal team who appear to have nothing to play for on this showing. Quite unappealing indeed.

As for their goal, well, let’s just say that Ospina won’t be winning over any floating voters any time soon. The chance Gomis had shouldn’t have fallen so easily on his head in the first place, but when it’s down to your ‘keepers left hand side and very saveable, you expect him to…well…save it. 

I have no major problem with Ospina. He seems a decent enough ‘keeper, but when you’re going for a Premier League title, you need more than just ‘okay’. When Almunia’s confidence wasn’t completely drained from him he was ‘ok’, but he never made saves you never expected him to make. He never managed to ‘save’ us games. Our two current ‘keepers feel like that. If we really do want to win the league, either one of them needs to be doing that little something more, or we need to find somebody who does, because in a game of fine margins these things matter.

Defensively the two full backs hardly covered themselves in glory either. Both Gomis and Montero are becoming quite a thorn in our side, but I have to admit I thought it was pace that did over Chambers, where as you can’t accuse Bellerin of lacking that can you? 

So there we have it. A disappointing defeat that means we head into the game at Old Trafford knowing another loss will see us drop back down into fourth. Having beaten Swansea just once at home since they came up, I think it’s fair to say that they are well and truly an Arsenal bogey team, which I thought we had managed to shake off those types of sides where we are clearly better but have some sort of psychological block.

Still, when I got home last night a pair of freshly arrived FA Cup final tickets were sitting on the kitchen table, so I guess that enabled me to get some perspective.

See you tomorrow.

Swansea preview: negate a high press and keep an eye out wide

Liverpool’s draw with Chelski mathematically secured the top four for us yesterday, but on a day where QPR were supposed to be giving it the last hurrah by at least holding Momeychester City to a draw at he Etihad, I was expecting better than a 6-0 thrashing. For us, in terms of trying to get second, it’s the worst possible type of score line, because it will probably mean that City’s goal difference is a little bit too far for us to catch up with. Before yesterday it was two – by no means insurmountable – but at eight and with just four to play, I can’t see us matching or beating them.

Ultimately it shouldn’t matter, because second or third means nought but a few extra million by finishing higher up by one spot, but still it would be nice to be seen to have out performed a side built on a foundation of refineries and dollar bills. 

If we do want that second spot it is still within our hands. We probably have to win all of our home games to finish level on points with City, starting this evening with Swansea at home. 

It’s an interesting one for the manager because if he chooses to keep the same XI he’s played over the last few weeks, you’d have to wonder about his desire to engage in any kind of rotation at all unless forced. Swansea represent a side that has performed well this season, have already beaten us on their own turf, but who should have a distinctly ‘end of season, nothing to play for’ look and feel about themselves. I’m not sure we’ll get that, but it’s what I’m hoping for anyway. 

I hope Arsène does rotate. I’d like us to be keeping players like Gibbs, Wilshere and Walcott topped up with match sharpness in case they are needed and that means they need to be given chances to show what they’re capable of from the start. I doubt Arsène will go for any extreme levels of rotation, like bringing in Szczesny, Debuchy, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Rosicky, Walcott, etc, but one or two of his deck shuffled should still give us enough to overcome the Welsh side.

We know that Swansea will try to retain possession and out pass us. They work on a higher press and try to win the ball back further up the field, where as when they have the ball they build from the back very patiently. It’s worked too. I remember seeing them Michu us a few years ago, then frustrate us last season with a late goal to nab a draw, so we cannot afford to show any kind of lethargy in our build up play tonight. It will be a warm summers evening but none of us want to see sloppy transition from defensive possession to attacking threat. 

To be fair to our current crop, I don’t think we’ll get that, because form and confidence should dictate that we are on it tonight. We’re playing well and all of the players know that competition is intense enough to see any of them lose their place and with an FA Cup on the horizon, there is plenty of motivation for them all.

Swansea will be reliant on Batefemi Gomis to be a threat on the counter and if they go with nippy wide men like Montero and Dyer then I expect them to look to counter us with pace on the flanks. If we are too hung ho in pushing our fullbacks forward like auxillery wingers rather than actual defenders, that’s where we may find an Achilles heel for ourselves.

In the middle of the park they will use Jonjo Shelvey to build up play and providing we offer him little space, it should stifle and frustrate him. If he’s trying pot-shots from 35 yards plus then Ospina should back himself to keep any rogue ones on target out, but it will mean we’ve stifled his supply line and that will do just nicely.

I am hoping for another masterful display from our midfield maestros Santi and Mesut, because these are the sort of games where they tend to do quite well. If Swansea press hard all over the pitch it will mean those players who can operate best in confined circles will be the most successful. So that’s why I’m looking for those two to potentially be the difference tonight. 

Let’s hope so and hope that three points are ours come the final whistle. Come on you reds!

Confidence is high with plenty still to play for

Securing the return of St Totteringham’s Day milestone was just the start. Now we enter the crucial part of the season in which when we look back over the summer we either go ‘this was the beginning of New Arsenal’ or ‘meh’. 

Progress has been made – the players all know that and have spoken about it – but the one thing you don’t get in this league is the footballing equivalent of a boxing points decision for being the best for most of the fight. It’s the game we all love because you can’t lose form at all, especially at the end of the season, in which even now after a superb run of form we still need three wins out of our last four to get close to finishing second.

But like I said, the players know this and we’ve heard from both Jack and Per talking up the importance of improving on last season and going at least one better than having to go through the Champions League qualifying stages. I think it’s more of a psychological thing more than anything else; we have won all of our qualifying matches when asked and I think even if we’d have qualified for the Group stages outright in previous seasons, we’d have probably have still left our business late, so I don’t think that had a major impact. But it’s a tater nonetheless and with four games to go it’s nice to have something to still be aiming for.

Mesut too has been speaking to the official site, talking up that first half and the team performance, specifically that of Alexis. As the two become more and more in sync throughout each game, the prospect of Özil feeding Alexis’ fire in the same way he did for Ronaldo is mouthwatering. The difference would obviously be that Alexis isn’t an attention-demanding, tanned, greasy haired w*nker, which I think we can all be grateful for.

We don’t have one single superstar in the team and to be quite frank, I couldn’t be happier about that and I do wonder if Özil feels the same at Arsenal, because he’s one of an all-star cast rather than best supporting actor in what must feel like a one-man play at Madrid some times. I watched parts of the Juve-Real game yesterday and the way Ronaldo swanned around the pitch demanding the ball at every opportunity, only made me want an Italian team to win more, AN ITALIAN TEAM!! Crazy stuff. 

One person on that field who did impress me though, was Isco, who’s drive and willingness to run at players with the ball was a real plus point. Ben won’t thank me for the comparison, but he reminded me of what Jack Wilshere could be, if he could find the right place in his team. Jack has a similar running style to the Spaniard, but his ability to travel with the ball at his feet was also impressive and I do believe that if he can string together a season of consistent performances – like the game against City at home – we’d see him evolve into a player whose name is up there on the teamsheet first with Mesut, Alexis and Le Coq.

But he has to get there and right now, it’s hard to see how, because Arsène won’t change a winning team and whilst all of the current players are playing as well as they are, why should he? So Jack will just have to bide his time and like Theo and Gibbs, get to the summer and work their arses off in pre season to win back their places.  

Just a quick one on the Premier League winners. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve tried hard to subconsciously – and consciously – avoid the news, but I love the fact that not a lot has been made (where I have been reading, anyway) of the fact Chelski have won the league. It’s like even the Mourinho loving media aren’t particularly that fussed about the borefest that is that club. Long may it continue and hopefully by the time the FA Cup comes around, nobody will give a monkeys – or even remember – who won the league in 2014/15.

Anyway, I should probably call it a day, because I don’t really have much else to say and if you think I’m giving my thoughts on the royal potato lookalike, you can think again.

Ciao.

Blessed be St Tott with the gift of three points

Much like Easter, I do prefer it when St Totterigham’s Day is bought forward in the calendar, as it enables us to enjoy it more I think. It was nice for the authorities to see fit to grant a national bank holiday in honour of the occasion.

I spent my St Totteringham’s Day in the garden, doing classic bank holiday tasks of cutting the grass and pulling down ivy from the side of the house, hardly the most thrilling of days. But it was still an enjoyable one by the time my head hit the pillow.

Arsenal saw to that.

I looked at this game, at the form of Hull, wondering whether or not we’d face a side scrapping for their lives and having picked up six points in their previous two games, keen to catch us off guard with a quick start. But as a bit more of a natural pessimist, I vastly underestimated the level of confidence the team has right now, evident even before we scored our first goal.

Arsène named an unchanged squad from the Chelski game and although I had expressed a desire to see us play with more width and pace, I was hardly upset by any inclusion, because the form of every player playing regularly in the team is good now. So after the first ten minutes of near total domination of the possession, I knew that this was a Hull team that feared being overrun if they came at us too strongly, pushing bodies forward that would inevitably leave space for our creative players.

But despite trying to play deeper and not give us too much space, the form of players like Özil and Santi, meant that space was created by movement and quick-thinking. The way we popped the ball around in the first half was majestic. Cazorla – who is becoming the very definition of an American Football-style ‘quarter-back’ – sat deeper with the play in front of him and saw things that even watching on TV, with a better vantage point, I was unable to observe without a replay. To think that this is a little Spanish chap who many thought would not get in to the team this season. Madness.

In front of him an Özil who looks like he’s been sticking two fingers up to the critical English media since he came back from injury, was in fine form, cropping up all over the park and always giving a team mate an option. I haven’t looked at any heat maps, but he covered pretty much every blade of grass, also finding time to make some very good runs in behind the back three of Hull’s defensive line. Accusations of lethargy pointed in the direction of the German are so far off the mark they fall off the page. 

His little flick in the second half though, eh? Vision, composure and the deftest of touches, make him every bit the superstar at Arsenal. Thank goodness we have him.

Not just him though. Thank goodness we have a lot of our players. They entertain us all season and at the moment they do it with a swagger and technical ability that far outdoes any other more ‘pragmatic’ teams at the top of the table. Alexis was on form last night too. The first goal may have been fortunate in the deflection it took, but it was the least his performance merited. He was his usual effervescent self, but it also felt like some of that rubbed off on the other players too. Ramsey will always be Ramsey and will always close down the space to pressurise opponents, but Özil was nicking the ball away through the higher press too, with he result of his interception leading to the free kick from which the first goal came.

The second goal may have also had a slight tinge of fortune to it in the deflection from Brady off Ramsey’s shot, but again the ball from Cazorla and the running from the Welshman to create the space was sublime, so it’s hard to deny such a fabulously worked goal some credit by dismissing it as a bit of a ‘fluke’.

Goal number three had no such hint of fortune though and again the pass to set it up was brilliant from Ramsey to find Alexis in between the defenders and then beyond Harper to touch the ball into an empty net. 

We may have conceded in the second half (a questionable one given that Meyler fouled Koscienly in the build up) to make for a five minute period of a wee bit of jitteriness immediately after the goal, but it is a marked difference in this Arsenal team in comparison with some of its predecessors, that the ship was steadied and the three points secured as we tuned the remainder of the game into a bit of an exhibition match by limited Hull’s chances and retaining possession. As I’ve said on previous blogs, it feels like we’re building for next season, which means that maintaining momentum by winning games is vitally important. Winning yesterday all but guaranteed a Champions League spot next season, but that’s not the benchmark now, we need to be going for more. We need to be picking up enough wins to make others take note for next season, but more importantly we need the players to go into the summer believing that they will win the league next season.

Tis’ the season to be jolly and on this St Totteringham’s Boxing Day we must give thanks to those that made it possible. 

Catch you tomorrow.

Exploit the width against Hull’s formation

Today the good lord Bergkamp could see fit to bless upon us the day of St Totteringham, in which we celebrate the mathematical certainty that Arsenal will finish above the other team in North London in the Premier League. Ideally a draw yesterday coupled with an Arsenal win would have made this weekend just about as good as it can get – given the other event that happened at the weekend that I think i’ll just refuse to acknowledge its existence – but at least we now face Hull tonight with the prospect of all but securing Champions League football for next season. Winning will put us nine clear of Liverpool, 12 clear of Tiny Totts and 13 clear of Southampton.

But we still need to do the business because we want to finish second, maintain momentum and win the FA Cup, which won’t be easy. Hull have picked up a few wins lately to practically all but secure their top flight status for next season and I suspect that they will be a tougher opponent tonight than they might have been about a month ago.

We know them well enough from last season’s FA Cup final and they will want to get a bit of revenge on their home turf. They nearly did that to us on our own patch earlier in the season, when we came within but a few minutes of a 2-1 defeat to them, only for Danny Welbeck to pick up a point for us in the dying embers. It was a performance that was symptomatic of our early season start; we were lethargic, not very cohesive as a unit and conceded some pretty sloppy goals. It was at a period in the season in which we were dropping points like they were going out of fashion and at the time of all of those early season draws I have to admit I could not have envisaged that Arsene and his charges would have been able to turn it around so dramatically. But we must acknowledge their hard work to get us in to this positive position, because if any Arsenal fan would have been told after that Hull game that we’d be on track for second with an FA Cup final, after laughing ironically and then whimpering a little bit, we’d have said you were mad. But you wouldn’t have been mad, you’d have just had one of them crystal ball thingy’s, or a time machine. If you do, can you let me know if we win it at the end of May? Would make my disposition decidedly sunnier for the next few weeks.

Anyway, back to today’s matters and the game we have in store this evening. We know Hull will play with a back three, which is what they did in the cup final and is what we’ll see this evening, as well as a bank of five in midfield and two up top. Steve Harper will continue to creak his way around the goal line, which is an opportunity for us, but Olivier will most likely have his hands full with Dawson the most likely to be grappling with us. That will leave Chester and McShane to keep an eye on Alexis and whoever plays wide right. I know this is a little out of the trend, but I suspect Theo would be perfect for a game like today. His pace up against McShane will see him win every time and if Hull are playing wing backs with Elmohamdy and Brady, they’ll want to get forward more than play a defensive line. It could lead to pockets for our attackers and so I hope Arsene’s thinking is to play Walcott – or even Welbeck – in that wide position rather than Ramsey.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Aaron is playing well, but he likes to drift in field too much and if he plays wide right today that will – in my opinion – play in to Hull’s hands. They will sit Huddlestone deep along with Livermore and probably look to somebody like Meyler to also put in a shift. But it’s all in the centre and the net effect could be a level of congestion that doesn’t help any of our midfielders. Get width, exploit Hull’s formation and pick up the win that keeps us on track for second spot, that’s what I say.

To do that, I think we’ll see Ospina, Bellerin, Monreal, Koscienly, Mertesacker, Coquelin all make up the defensive third of the team. The creativity of Cazorla and Ozil will be retained, whilst I’ve already mentioned my preferred front three. Hull have won their previous two games and whilst I think they’ll stay up, their form at the moment – similar to Leicester – coupled with their still precarious position in the league, makes them a very difficult opponent. Apparently, we’ve won our last four Premier League away games by a one goal margin and if I was a betting man I’d put some cash on a similarly close encounter tonight. But we should have enough to beat the Yorkshire side. They are down the bottom of the league for a reason and we are towards the top for a reason – we win more than we lose and they lose more than they win. So we need to pick up the points. Liverpool have struggled there, Chelski relied on a ‘keeper error there to win them the game a couple of weeks ago, so let’s not be fooled into thinking this will be a stroll on a MOnday evening, but let’s make sure we pick up the points by hook or by crook.

Have a good bank holiday and hopefully let’s see it finished off with three-point loveliness.

Sorry Thierry. You’re wrong.

On Sunday it appears that, post the 0-0 stalemate between the forces of good and evil, Thierry Henry took the time to make suggestions that:

A) Arsenal could never win the league with Olivier Giroud

B) Arsenal would need to bring at least another goalkeeper, central defender, central defensive midfielder, before they would be able to realistically compete with Chelski or Moneychester City.

Having not seen the post match ‘analysis’, I am perhaps not 100% appropriate to fully comment, but as this is my blog and you’re somewhat of a captive audience I thought I’d give you some musings anyway.

First and foremost, to Thierry, who has been my hero and still remains one to this day. That status will oat likely not change and although he may say things I disagree with, I cannot help but smile when I hear that chocolatey smooth voice, so please don’t think that any Sky Sports conditioning will put me off the great man.

Having said that, it was surely clear to everybody that he’s been told to crank up his controversy gauge, by perpetuating the standard stock phrases when it comes to Arsenal. Common phrasings that include “they need more leaders”, “they need to be stronger and not be bullied in the middle of the park” and my personal favourite “they need a whole new spine in the team”. I love that phrase because it is symptomatic of the English media and the need for root and branch change every time a team like ours has any kind of set back – no matter how small.

Oh, hello and Smith, how are you? You’re backs still aching? Hmm. And the herbal teas I suggested didn’t work? Ok, let’s put you down on the waiting list for a new back, for that’s the only real option I think we can offer now. Chiropractor? No, no, no, it’s a spinal transplant for you I’m afraid.

I simply can’t abide comments when they are clearly made to drum up some interest down a clearly trodden path and were it not from Thierry, I probably wouldn’t have given the comments a second thought, because I am acutely aware that I am adding fuel to the fire by talking about it – giving Sky exactly want they want.

His points are, as you’ll probably have guessed by now, incorrect by my reckoning. Olivier Giroud, for example, has an excellent scoring record this season and we have suffered the most in the three months out in which he had broken his leg. I’m not going to suggest that his scoring record this season will have continued throughout if he’d have stayed fit, but I think we’d be in a stronger position if he’d have been available for three quarters of the season, as opposed to two thirds of it. 

It’s not all about scoring goals Thierry, you know that, right? That being the case, surely you and everyone else can see what Giroud brings to the team in addition to his goals, no? He’s an excellent link up man and can provide a perfect attacking pivot point to bring others – like Alexis – in to play. His impact during the FA Cup semi final was very obvious in the second half and he has been providing that focal point for two years now.

Can we win the league with him leading the line? Absolutely. Can we win it with him alone like we tried to do last season? Certainly not. We tried it and our lack of squad depth made for painful viewing as we hit March 2014. I hope that was what Thierry was getting at; that we need another like-for-like for when Giroud isn’t available.

Squad depth. That’s what we need in order to win a league. Have we had that for the whole of the season? Nope. Do we have it now? You betcha. Gabriel, Chambers, Bellerin, Coquelin. All players who were not really in contention or in any of our thoughts at the beginning of the season. Chambers, the only player who was in the first team squad in August, was supposed to be our right back cover! But all of those players have kicked on a gear or two and each one has ensured that the Arsenal team that finishes the season is a darn sight stronger than the one that started it.

Do we need a bit more fine-tuning? Of course. But let’s not forget that without the above mentioned players I the side and playing as well as they have done, we suffered an autumnal injury crisis that during one week we had no fewer than 15 first team players injured.

So no, I can’t be having the comments that we need a complete overhaul, because as a fan I feel we’re closer to the best team in the league than we’ve ever been before.

Sorry Thierry, you’re wrong fella.

Context more frustrating than the result

On the face of it, with the other results which all went in our favour this weekend barring Moneychester City, a draw against the eventual champions isn’t the worst result in the world. However, as I find myself composing my thoughts the morning after the game, I can’t help but be somewhat frustrated with the result.

It’s the context you see, rather than the result which on the balance of play over the 90 minutes, neither side probably deserved to win. But as I’d said in my blog yesterday, beating Chelski would have been more symbolic of progress at the club, rather than open any doors of a potential title win.

That mother-funkin’ context is what is driving my frustration this morning.

The game itself had just the one surprise thrust upon it in terms of team news, with Bellerin coming in for Debuchy which again, you probably have to say was the right call as the Spaniard was able to get forward more. Who knows, perhaps Debuchy wouldn’t have had the pace to get back from Oscar’s lobbed effort in the first half, so ultimately and with hindsight firmly in mind, Arsène made the right call with team selection.

And so, you’d have to begrudgingly say, did Chelski. They set up not to concede and they got exactly what they came for. They had a spell in the second half where they came on to us a bit more, but you could tell that there was less desire to put too many bodies forward, something I couldn’t really understand given our lack of pace in the counter. There were a few instances yesterday that I thought we didn’t capitalise on. They happened mainly in the second half and it was only really when Chelski were drawn out. But we couldn’t find that final ball and on a couple of occasions it was wasteful and not even resulting in any kind of chance. I know Theo has hardly played and when he did he has looked distinctly anonymous, but somebody like that could have been perfect for yesterday’s game when Chelski started to push more bodies forward. He occupies wide positions and as good as Rambo was yesterday – and I do think he had a good game – he does have a tendency to drift in field and that does leave us narrow at times. Özil had a decent game but on a couple of occasions he cropped up on our right hand side and you could tell he was looking for that forward wide man to slip the ball in to, but Rambo had come in field and so the German had to check and then come in field. It’s the little things that make the difference in these games, you know? Those fine margins and yesterday it felt like both teams were playing the percentages, not wanting to expose themselves too much, which probably resulted in the bitty game that we got.

I thought Alexis struggled a bit yesterday. His turnovers in possession are well documented, but for some reason it felt to my eyes as if this was enhanced because chances were always going to be at a premium, so when he did get the ball in a promising position, when the move broke down it was frustrating. 

Frustration. That was the overriding word of the day, wasn’t it, but mainly because we have another season in which we’ve failed to beat that disgusting excuse for a football club. The record we have against that lot is one you’d expect to see from a team yo-yoing between the Premier League and the Championship, not one that has consistently finished in the top positions since Chelski hit ‘reboot’ on their own history 11 years ago. It does feel like this record is going to go on forever. That’s what makes this all the more annoying. 

But hey, let’s end this blog on a high, because we’re still on course for an improved league position and the chance of picking up an FA Cup. If we were to finish second and win the cup then you’d have to say it puts us in a great position to have a proper go next year. And guess what? You only have to play Chelski twice a season, so we can still win the league next year without having to score against those scummers anyway!

Catch you tomorrow.