A tale of two halves: peanut butter and oranges

I am all about the result right now. Much like the blogs I write, I am a man concerned not with the intricate details, but the end game. That game is one in which three points are everything and anything less than that is like ash in my mouth. Or peanut butter. That stuff is rank.

So ultimately, yeah, I’m pretty happy that just over 72 hours after the players secured our route to the FA Cup final, we managed to overcome a West Ham team that fancied an upset under the North London floodlights.

Three points is everything to Arsenal right now and with the margins thinner than Kate Moss, we can’t afford to be slipping up against mid-table teams, which seemed a very real possibility after that first half display that we witnessed last night.

Sluggish in possession, devoid of pace in any areas of the pitch (apart from Sagna, who I thought was excellent tonight, sign him up please…), we started as if we’d played and finished the FA Cup semi final about half an hour before we actually kicked off. As if it was some cruel Sunday league under-12s ‘double header’ that was going down. My compatriot for the evening, Billy and I, were at a bit of a loss to explain the lethargy if I’m honest. Arsene had rotated a number of players and rested Gibbs for Vermaelen, Ramsey for Kallstrom and Rosicky for The Ox, yet we still never really looked remotely fresh. Perhaps the general malaise of our other Premier League performances had clouded the weekend’s exploits and exuberance of the team?

Whatever it was, it didn’t feel very ‘Arsenal’ and as West Ham pressed us slightly higher (clearly with the mandate to try and grind us down after our difficult cup tie against Wigan), whilst looking to hit Carroll as often as possible when in possession, we looked devoid of any spark to set us going. So when the West Ham goal came first, the apprehension in the stands was palpable, with many a contorted face wondering whether this season would sink further into the mire. As Billy and I turned our necks towards the big screen to relive the pain, it occurred to me for a fleeting second that Giroud’s flicked miss only a short while earlier when put through from Santi, had been our only real chance of the game and could possibly have been the last at that rate.

Sometimes though, when you’re not playing well, you need just a little flash of brilliance. So step forward that man Lukas Podolski. He is an absolute enigma. Put him inside the box with the ball at his feet and you could bet your house, wife, dog and kids on him. But anywhere else on the park he looks lost at times. If there was the ability to freeze play, bring him on as a specialist player – like a kicker in American Football – and put him in a dangerous position, he’d be worth a billion bucks. But as an all round footballer he leaves a lot to be desired.

Still, right now I wouldn’t change him for anyone, because it’s clinical finishers like that who make the difference in top flight football. Had the score remained at 1-0 going in to the interval, who knows how it might have affected the teams mentality, yet his timely finish just before halftime enabled the team to regroup, tuck in to some half time oranges and come out firing in the second half.

And boy did those oranges work. The team that trotted out to the field for that second half looked totally different to the one that we have become used to during the last few weeks. There was more zip about the play and almost instantly you could see that the passing had more purpose to it. If the first half had been an exhibition of our mental fragility, the second half was an example of the teams testicular fortitude, because they released the ball quicker when in possession, they fashioned a chance almost immediate with Giroud cutting in behind the left back and central defender and they seemed like a team determined to show they could replicate some of that early season swagger.

A Cazorla cut infield and snap shot fizzed the post, a Podolski free-kick stung the palms of Adrian, all precluded the second goal and, as much as Podolski remains a mystery to us, to too does Giroud. The goal he scored last night was more reminiscent to the type of control and finish we’ve seen Suarez tuck away this season, so to see our much maligned centre forward tucking it home with his weaker football was, well it was a surprise and a half I can tell you.

After that we looked more comfortable, the passing remained assured and we fashioned more chances. Giroud, in particular, suddenly looked like he could retain possession when it was knocked up to him. Perhaps being dropped against Wigan was his Szczesny moment from a couple of seasons back? We can certainly hope so and if the threat of rotating with a raw 19 year old and potentially losing your cup final place in a months time, is the jolt he needs to get back to his pre-Christmas ways, then I’m all for it.

The game was secured ten minutes from time with a fantastic finish from Podolski, but the header down from Ramsey on the edge of the box was what excited me, because it was perfectly weighted for Lukas to roll his man and smash the ball home.

It’s amazing what a difference a day makes. Arsenal pick up three points to arrest a worrying winless streak, Arsene confirms that players are returning including Özil for the weekend, plus we have a bank holiday weekend and a dress rehearsal for the cup final coming up on Sunday. Happy Days.

I hope the players are feeling on top of the world today. I hope the win last night was the catalyst to us returning to our form that saw us to the top of the league and I hope that three points on Sunday will put us in the strongest possible position to secure top four.

Up The Arsenal.

A final by hook or by crook

How emotionally draining can Arsenal make our lives, eh? They couldn’t possibly do any more than the torture we sat through yesterday as we secured our place in the final of this year’s FA Cup on penalties against Championship Wigan.

Say that out loud. An FA Cup final. For the first time in nine years. Our first at the new Wembley.

Ultimately all that was needed yesterday, by hook or by crook, was passage into the next round and you have to credit the team for achieving that. In two weeks time it won’t matter that we huffed and puffed against a Wigan side that, despite their giant-killer status, offered little by way of a real threat to our goal and when I had a look at the match stats after the game I was left scratching my head as to how they managed to get seven attempts in the whole match.

Conversely, Arsenal battered down the door in terms of attempts at goal with 27 – nine of which were on target – and a mixture of the woodwork and good goalkeeping from Carson proved to be to our frustration until Per nodded in eight minutes from time to atone for his penalty concession earlier in the game.

We looked like a team that had been given a bit of a bruising and felt a little fragile, like we had been out on the tiles and we’re feeling the after-effects, with loud noises and not much movement other than from the bed to the sofa. Certainly in attack we looked a little sluggish at times and Poldi never really impacted the game at all out on the left. Sanogo tried to open his scoring account with a good header that was straight at Carson in the first half and he is definitely more mobile than Giroud, but as lone target man he was not really too convincing in my eyes and struggled to pull apart a capable but limited Wigan central defensive pairing. Again, I know we’re all bored of reading and hearing this, but a lack of genuine firepower to alternate or compliment Giroud could have made the difference in normal time yesterday. It’s something we have to live with and given that we have managed to reach a cup final I guess ultimately you can’t say we aren’t coping with it.

I should probably credit Carson for his world-class save from Gibbs, who nodded the ball goal wards in the second half and looked certain to be a goal. It was up the end I was in and for all the world looked like we’d scored.

So after being unable to break Wigan down over 90 and then a further 30, I was left with a numbing effect as I watched with my seven other compatriots on the day as we helplessly looked on in hope that this Arsenal team could drag us over the line in a shoot-out. They did and, although I got the specific person wrong in yesterday’s blog as I called on an ‘unlikely hero’, we had one nonetheless as Lukas Fabianski did his bit by saving the first two penalties.

Santi converted the winning penalty and cue a rush to the Polish ‘Keeper from his teammates. I heard afterwards that Roy Keane slammed the players for celebrating beating a Championship side, but if more fool him if he can’t acknowledge the pressure and relief that a penalty shoot out victory gives, so I don’t begrudge the players a celebration or two on a day like yesterday.

Our eyes may flicker over to the next game at Wembley this afternoon, but for those Arsenal players the focus has to be solely on West Ham on Tuesday night. There remains a job unfinished and after an extended period of time out on the pitch for those Arsenal players, with so many injuries and so few playing options available, it will be a case of ‘once more unto the breach’ for a number of those players that played yesterday. Thankfully we’ll have Gibbs and Giroud a bit fresher having played less than the full 120, so let’s also hope that there is a bit of freshness in the team that the manager can call on when we face the hammers.

Enjoy your Sunday, we’re on our way to Wembley.

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.>

Hmm…not sure how I feel about that

I’m not sure how I feel about yesterday’s result. I mean, I was happy to see us avoid defeat, as well as put in a good display with a depleted squad, but it’s hard for me to feel like we didn’t have another opportunity to get involved back in the title race. A frivolous fancy I know, but after Chelski made a bit of a balls-up against Crystal Palace, a win against Moneychester City could have seen us inexplicably back within reach of a title tilt.

As it is, I think we can pretty much rule out any kind of Shakespearian comeback for the league, but deep down I think most of us felt that any way. More importantly, we wanted to see something from this injury hit and beleaguered squad of Arsenal players, which I think we got.

I saw a team that were resolute defensively and gave Moneychester City very little in the way of attacking chances throughout the game. Sure, there was a few scary moments like when Toure rounded Szczseny in the second half, or the actual goal itself which unsurprisingly came from a loose bit of possession from Arsenal (Podolski), but by-and-large I thought we kept the Mancunians at bay for the majority of the match, whilst they still had to have Hart alert on a few occasions, most notably from a well struck effort that ricocheted off the ‘keepers boot.

You could tell that we were a tentative side in the first half, wary of conceding a là Stamford Bridge, playing within ourselves and not wanting to be too exposed. It felt like we were not really threatening in that first 45, but it also felt as if we were keeping City at arms length – the goal aside.

The second half we inevitably looked more adventurous and when the neat Flamini finish came I have to say I felt – completely biased of course – as if it was deserved. We looked a lot more confident in that second half and if any team were going to win it, it would have been us.

Again, I go back to the first comment I made at the top of the blog, which is that I’m not sure whether I’m happy with the result or not. I suppose many of us would have taken it before kick off (certainly the majority of Gooners I spoke to pre-match in the Tolly would agree), but in the warm light if day (thanks sunshine for reading your head!) I think I’m more disappointed than anything else. I don’t know why; we played a City team missing only Aguero from their squad, yet we have a list of players out so long that if you tattooed their names along your arm you’d probably need to be some kind of shaven super-monkey just to get all the letters on you.

The point may prove pivotal in securing fourth, but it would not seem as disappointing had we done our job against Swansea, so my overriding thought over these past seven days is not one with any kind of silver lining I’m afraid. We’ve slipped up midweek which was probably the most disappointing thing, recovered with a decent enough display yesterday, but ultimately are still looking precariously over our shoulder.

A few other points that stick out from yesterday. Mike Dean really is a reprehensible character. It’s often stated that the best referees are the ones that are not seen or heard, but I can’t say that any game with him in charge (regardless of whether it’s Arsenal or not) falls into that category. He’s the type of person that revels in the spotlight and I am sure that – like Graham Poll before him, when he is forced to retire, he will find a way to slither himself back into the public spotlight. He’s like the old-school headmaster type that has a massive inferiority complex and so takes out his own insecurities on the players he has 90 minutes to control each week. I haven’t seen the Rosicky penalty incident yet but many tell me it is one of those ‘seen them given’, but in classic Dean style he not only refused to budge (I’m not so sure he’d have been as stubborn had it been against us at the Etihad), but made quite a gesture of pointing to a goal kick. He is a character the game will not miss when he is gone.

And subs. I know this is a bit of a mute point, because we’ve always known this about Arsene, but sometimes I do wish he’d roll the dice a bit earlier than he does. He waited until just over ten minutes to go before making some changes when I thought we could have done with freshening it up a little earlier. Some of the players did look like they were dipping physically on about the 65-70 minute mark, yet Arsene left it a little bit too late for the incoming subs to make an impact. With City pushing forward a little bit more I’d have liked to have seen the Ox on earlier and perhaps even Gnabry. Having said that, we’ve all chastised the team this season for ‘going for it’ when they should have realised that settling for a point may have been good enough, so perhaps we can’t have our cake and eat it with attacking subs designed to win the game.

We now have a week off to recharge the batteries in prep for Everton away which, depending on results tomorrow, could be another anus-clenching afternoon as we make it as difficult as possible for ourselves to secure Champions League football next season.

But we wouldn’t have it any other way, right?

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.

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.

Everton: No Saturday sunshine stroll, but a very good performance overall

What a result that was, eh? Isn’t it classic Arsenal though that you’d look at the final score and think it was a comfortable afternoon in the sunshine for Arsene’s young gents, but the final scoreline belies the tightness of this contest and the mental hurdle Arsenal overcame yesterday. In last week’s Podcast that Ben, Steve, Kris (who incidentally I met in the Tollington afterwards – a lovely chap) and I talked about the pressure on the team should they lose the game and how the season could effectively hinge on the result yesterday, given that we’re looking less likely by the day to win the Premier League, as well as the Champions League challenge that I can’t see us getting through. So the fact we managed to get through against yet another quality opponent in the cup bodes well for the team and keeps the momentum going.

Thankfully, despite a number of concerned Gooners thinking Arsene might hit up the team with a plethora of rotational changes, he named his strongest available side barring the goalkeeper and centre forward positions. I could see the logic in giving Fabianski and Sanogo the nod if I’m honest. Both played well in the last round against Liverpool and both deserved another start, with Giroud dropping to the bench. Koscienly hadn’t overcome his hamstring and even if he was fit, I suspect that Vermaelen was always going to be given a shot, having not started for a couple of months because of injury.

I thought we controlled most of the first half and seemed dominant for most of it. Mesut Ozil was superb and dictating the play along with Santi and The Ox. Perhaps it gives an indicator of how well we played that after the game I asked around a dozen Arsenal fans who their man-of-the-match was and there was a 50-50 split between The Ox and Ozil. It may have been the former who got us underway with a smart finish into the bottom right hand corner after a through ball from Santi, but for me this was Ox’s day as he was at the centre of everything that was good. He created chances, was able to get beyond his runners and even on the couple of occasions he lost the ball cheaply, he worked his socks off to win it back. His re-introduction into the first team after the Theo and Ramsey injuries has been very timely and if he continues this form for the remainder of the season you can see us finishing strongly.

Back to the man who needed a performance, Mesut Ozil, who I thought was great. He got the first goal, his square first time pass for Giroud’s second and Arsenal’s fourth was brilliant and he pulled the strings all afternoon. I also thought that we started to see a glimpse of the combination between Ozil and Cazorla that had us salivating at the beginning of the season. I lost count the number of times the two exchanged passes and it was fitting that it was Santi that drove at the Everton defence and slotted the ball to Ozil with perfect weight to get us one up within the first ten minutes.

We continued to create chances and Joel was forced into good saves from Sanogo and the Ox. But as always with The Arsenal there’s a fragility somewhere and we were given a kick in the nuts on the half hour mark when Barkley ran half the length of the pitch to put a ball to Mirallas who miskicked to Lukaku. Much will be made of the Barkley run I’m sure, but for me there were two elements that contrived to stop us from breaking down that passage of play. Firstly, you could see that Flamini was going to go towards Barkley but having already been booked moments earlier, was hesitate to do his usual ‘take one for the team’. Secondly, the positioning of Vermaelen was shocking and if I’m being kind, I’d say he’s a little ring-rusty. However, as Jamo pointed out after the game over a post-match pint in The Tolly, Vermaelen’s positioning has always been a weak part of his game and when Lukaku stroked the ball home for his goal, Vermaelen was marking fresh air between the penalty spot and the D. He made a ricket early in the first half too which let in Lukaku and it was only the profligacy of Barkley that stopped us from going behind. Again, let’s not take up today’s blog with too much negativity and suggest that it was just lack of match sharpness that was a cause of his drops in concentration.

The second half promised more of an even footing, with Everton retaining a bit more possession, but Fabianski wasn’t really ever called into any major action that I can recall. I thought we did very well in negating the width that I mentioned yesterday and I don’t remember Baines and Coleman getting in behind our fullbacks as much as they did at The Emirates in December. Perhaps that is because the outlets of The Ox and Santi on our attacking wings were enough to keep Everton occupied, as both were a handful all afternoon. In fact it was the Ox that won the penalty through his trickery getting beyond Barry and getting clipped. No question that it was a penalty. But with Clattenberg determined to give us a nervous afternoon, he decided that the penalty needed to be retaken because of Giroud encroaching into the box before it was kicked. I understand the letter of the law and why he blew for it to be retaken, but i’m afraid when you have goalkeepers rushing off their line and rarely you have a referee asking for it to be retaken, lack of consistency dictates that he should have let it slide. Either blow up for everything or nothing in my book.

Two-one up and still nervous, Giroud showed that he likes goals at The Emirates by getting two to round off the afternoon and give us plenty of reasons to be cheerful for the rest of our weekend. The first was very well taken actually, given how quickly it was pinged at him from Sagna and the second was a counter-attacking goal that just oozed Arsenal class. Santi out wide to Rosicky, in field to Ozil who without looking and without taking a touch, squared to an unmarked Giroud to slot home and send us off to Wembley. If Ozil needed his goal as a confidence boost, Giroud needed his two in equal measures.

So we’re off to Wembley and today we’ll find out who we’re up against towards the end of the afternoon when the draw is announced. I think we’ll be looking at Moneychester City in the semi’s and whilst I don’t agree with playing the semi’s at a venue that should be reserved for the final, it will be nice to head back there for some Arsenal-related football after a few tough years of late.

until tomorrow, where all eyes now turn to Mission Impossible in Munich.

Stoke: the day the title started slipping away?

It was a strange feeling after the full time whistle yesterday, because rather than spiralling into a pit of depression, I felt like some wool had been lifted from my eyes (by the way, apologies if today’s blog seems a bit defeatist) because it feels like that defeat was the marker for which it became clear that we aren’t going to win the league this year. What probably made me feel this way to a greater degree was the fact I had to watch the game in a pub which was showing the Chelski demolition of Fulham.

So whilst we laboured to an utterly uninspiring 1-0 defeat against the Orcs, the Chavs extended their lead at the top of the table by three points. Hell, even Liverpool swatted aside Southampton, so we find ourselves third in the table today and when City play their two games in hand, we will most likely be fourth.

The display from Arsenal yesterday was abject. Far too many players gave a six out of ten and league title contenders simply don’t not turn up to games like we did at the Potteries. Passing went awry, the intensity was non-existent (even after we wet behind) and we looked like each player was running around with lead weights on their feet.

Let’s ignore the dubious penalty decision, because it clearly was dubious, because we simply weren’t good enough anyway to warrant a victory.

Our attack was the most feeble of the areas of the park. Olivier Giroud looked to be more concerned with complaining every time he was touched and, despite the fact that Charlie Adam should have been sent off from a horrendous stamp on the Frenchman, before and after that incident he was hardly firing us to three points. On a day where our rivals all swept aside lesser opponents with their firepower, it was perhaps telling that ours looked like it had been doused with a bucket of water. I don’t want to labour the already well worn point, but we are clearly a world-class striker shirt of going for the league title this year, which is why every Arsenal fan I speak to is so disappointed at the moment. This feels like it was the year that we should be taking advantage of the instability of our rivals, yet we are discussing the same problems yet again, like some sort of grim Groundhog Day.

It wasn’t all Giroud though, because Podolski was pretty much anonymous, Cazorla was quite, Wilshere misplaced pass after pass and Arteta just didn’t seem like his usual self. Even in defence we looked wobbly at times. I said before yesterday’s game that ‘the feeling’ of nervousness before each game had returned because we are in a title race, yet it feels like a familiar numbness has swept over just as quickly as it arrived. I know we’re only four points from the top of the league, but tell me honestly, do you believe with the next four league games that we have, that we’ll make up ground on the Chavs? I don’t. Like I said at the start of this blog, apologies for sounding defeatist, but yesterday was a game we simply couldn’t afford to drop points given our schedule, yet we rolled over and had our bellies tickled as if it was an end of season game with little to play for but pride. If that was even the case, we didn’t even play for that either.

It’s a sad blog today I’m afraid. I can’t offer any comfort and with every word I type I’m becoming more irritated, so perhaps I should hold my tongue for now, because the players have a week to sort themselves out before what is increasingly becoming our only chance of silverware this season against Everton.

Catch you tomorrow.

Bayern – What a game of football

On Wednesday night last week Ben and Chris frequented the Emirates to watch the Bayern Munich game. Ben said he wanted to write a blog on the evening, but didn’t bank on Chris and his ‘scheduling’, so we’ve had to wait until now to give it to you. Anyway, less chitter-chatter and more Ben. Take it away boyo.

The Bayern fans had great humour and wit. Signing ‘footballs coming home’ after the second goal, did make me chuckle. But a huge thanks and congratulations has to go out to Red Action for the marvellous card display. Proves hard work and endeavour can work wonders – well done.

I’d been excited for this game since the draw but I had my ‘dark thoughts’ about an absolute N5 murdering, who wouldn’t? I wondered how the night might pan out and I’d thought about every possible scenario in my head – How we’d track runners? The dribbling ability of Gotze and Thiago? Lahm in midfield? Martinez at centre back? Funnily enough, I forgot to incorporate ‘football magic’ into my thoughts. A red card and two penalties later, the game was well and truly dead and buried. Not what I hope for at all – I didn’t expect a win but I hoped for a valiant draw.

I have to be honest, I felt frustrated how the loss occurred rather than the loss itself. From an Arsenal perspective, the first 20 minutes went very well and we created a few very dangerous chances and exposed Bayern’s high-line.

Unfortunately for us that quickly changed and as soon as Szczesny saw red, the tie was over. It must be remembered, yes we lost, but it was deservedly so. Bayern are the best possession footballing side on the planet and demonstrated their superiority. That said, I enjoyed to see Guardiola’s take on possession football – He’s bloody good.

After our initial pressure, Bayern regained possession. We almost lined up with a 4-4-1-1. Özil kept drifting to the left and right to try and expose the full backs. At times, Bayern lined up in a 3-5-2 with Robben tucking in next to Mandukic and Martinez becoming a third centre back. This is where Mesut found a lot of joy creating all the early chances. We showed a lot of pace and physicality which is something we’ve missed in recent weeks and the Bayern midfield didn’t know how to cope.

The first 20 minute saw Mesut Özil at his best. Our catalyst, running with the ball, fast flowing possession and variety, simply keep Bayern guessing. The penalty miss threw him completely, and he seemed to become very nervous. He tried to take charge, but Munich completely blocked out our attacking zones of play. Mesut (AND OTHERS) were getting isolated when in possession and Bayern strangled out the tie like a python. We couldn’t even muster an attack, that’s how good Bayern were. You try and put out a chip pan fire with a bucket of water.

Also a side note – Özil was switched to the left because Santi wasn’t tracking Lahm efficiently enough and Pep switched the focus of play. Brought on Rafinha (Who was Dani Alves advanced) to put pressure on Mesut and Monreal. Pep was vindicated in his decision.

As expected, Bayern simply controlled the game and possession. I enjoyed to see Peps take on possession football. They didn’t press as hard to get the ball back as Heynckes Bayern did, but, as Arsene says about Özil, we saw Bayern demonstrate ‘shear quality of passes that just wear the opposition down’, and it did.

Bayern penned us back working the ball in triangles on either wing trying to slide either ‘winger’ to get in and behind our defence. The quality and precision on each pass was magnificent. Bayern really came into their own in the second half as we began to tire. Gotze who was on the left (He started on the right – Part of the switch of focus) tucked in, which encouraged Alaba to get round him. Thiago and Kroos worked the space for Robben and Gotze to try and break us down and It seems Pep sees Gotze as his Iniesta card. It would have been interesting to see how much damage Ribery would have done to us – scary stuff.

20140221-205615.jpg

With Bayern camped out in our half, they lined up with an almost 2-1-3-4. We simply couldn’t cope with the number of players Bayern had in advanced positions. Kroos and Thiago had acres of space and time. Late on, Guardiola brought on Pizarro to try and nick another goal. Muller and Pizarro were taking turns dropping between the ’4′ and the ’3′leaving Koscienly and Mertesacker guessing which eventually led to a goal. The German forward darted into the huge void of space that was meant to be our defence and killed the game. Another tactically brilliant move.

Lahm and Kroos

Your’re going to have to listen to me wax lyrical about Lahm and Kroos. They were magnificent and to think Bayern haven’t offered the latter a new deal (yet) seems like utter madness. Two technically perfect players. I was utterly in awe of their vision and their ‘football common sense’ – let alone they’re quality on the ball. It’s strange to see a player(s) provide that much penetration but be as equally as efficient. They are both steps ahead of everyone and the epitome of what we all think a German footballer should be.

I think it was very fitting that Lahm set up Kroos for his phenomenal goal. It was so good, It was heading towards Highbury before eventually bending in and behind Fabianski. I could honestly watch it on a loop.

Martinez – a lesson should be learnt Arsene

I found myself staring at the Javi Martinez the entire time. He dictated the tempo of play and made it a Bayern paced affair. His positioning was out of this world and perfectly placed himself between the attack and midfield. He is a piece of the puzzle who has taken Bayern to that uber level.

I was reading Four Four Two on the train on the way to the game. They had an in-depth and very fascinating article on all things Bayern Munich, and a little snippet that caught my eye which was they’re decision to sign Javi Martinez.

The Bayern board (who consist of ex German stars) sat and debated the transfer for what seemed like an eternity. They all deemed Martinez ‘too expensive and overpriced’. But they asked themselves, ‘Would Martinez add that little bit of quality needed?’ and they all agreed he would, so they decided to pushed the transfer through.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the Martinez transfer was fully vindicated for Bayern. The Spaniard played a starring role in their run to Champions League glory – Especially against Barcelona. Top level football is all about small margins and if you can try and help swing those in your favour, football can be made a lot easier.

I really hope Arsene backs his judgment this summer and gets the players he feels can move this Arsenal from a team in transition (Transition maybe a little harsh, slightly further forward that transition I’d say) to the uber force we can be.

I’m very excited for the second leg and hope the football gods sprinkle their ‘Football magic’ on Bayern, instead of our beloved Arsenal. Keep the dream alive…Stranger things have happened…

Up the Arsenal!

Cheers for reading,

Be happy,

Ben