Arsenal’s FA Cup: a new dawn

Has there ever been a more comfortable and one-sided final? Have we ever seen Arsenal do it the easy away in a big game, with such verve and vigour? Does this happen to us? Arsenal are supposed to make our lives difficult, aren’t they?

Apparently not. Apparently there is an ‘easy way’ and all we needed to do was to have a gooner managing the opposition.

My day started with the usual routine of cereal and blogging, but when I was asked the usual question from The Management of ‘are you nervous?’, much response was a surprise to both of us. ‘No’ was the simple answer. And it was the truth. I could not explain why, I just didn’t feel as nervous as I sometimes do when we play teams like Stoke, or even when we played Villa away and home in the league. 

Clearly that comfort translated itself to all the fans and the players yesterday, because the atmosphere wasn’t of nerves, but of confidence. We utterly dominated from the first minute.

Arsène’s decision to start Theo ahead of Giroud could have been a gamble, but after the West Brom game it was clear he would be confident and so it showed, as he was the one to get us on the road to victory with a fantastic precision finish. He was good all day, running the channels and switching with Alexis to cause Vlaar and Okore a headache throughout the game. 

But Theo can only be good with the support of his colleagues and to a man they all stepped up. Szczesny didn’t really have much to do, but when he was called into action to catch or punch the occasional ball clear, he did. Bellerin and Monreal dealt with the few Aston Villa forays forward, but more importantly provided plenty of width and options for Ramsey and Alexis on the overlap.

In the heart of the midfield Santi pulled all the strings and was masterful in possession, deservedly picking up the man of the match award, whilst Coquelin dealt with every attack when called upon as the holding midfielder. Ahead of those two, Mesut Özil floated about the pitch, finding pockets of space and distributing the ball perfectly each time. When you had a player like that it must be a dream for the forwards, because you know he’s going to draw players out of spaces and give you pockets to move in to. Then he’ll find you with a pass.

The front three – perhaps the biggest surprise of the day for me as I thought getting Theo and Rambo into the same team would be nigh on impossible – were the epitome of movement and fluid attacking. Never stationery, always rotating and switching, Villa stood no chance. You only have to look at Theo’s goal as an example, as it was Alexis who won the header in the box and Theo arriving from the left to smash it home. For Alexis’ goal, he came from wide left and cut in field to unleash a thunderbolt, which would have probably have taken Given’s hand off if he’d have touched it.

This is two major trophies in two seasons. The players have tasted success twice and the Hull game last year has proven not to be a one-off. The team is growing. Mentally. The desire for more trophies and more success will only grow too now. The players will not accept that they can fall short and I think that will drive them on further.

It feels like this is a new dawn of success for Arsenal. Even more so than last year, because now the players will truly believe that they are winners. You can’t teach that, you have to learn it.

Today will be a soggy victory parade, but nobody in Arsenal’s world will care. We’re cup winners.

Job done in the league and a decent season overall

Well that’s it for the Premier League for another season and what a way to finish the season. A hat trick from an unexpected source, a wonder goal for Jack that hijacks goal of the season by Arsenal fans (don’t you just love our club’s online presence?) on Match of the Day, as well as a performance that is just the tonic ahead of what will inevitably be a tough cup final against Villa, no matter how poor they have played since securing their league safety and a cup final.

For me it was the perfect confidence tonic ahead of the FA Cup final. We’d gone three home games without scoring and were starting to look a little bereft of ideas when a team sets themselves up to defend in numbers, so my hope pre-game was that we wouldn’t see West Brom do the same and if they did, then we’d have an answer. If Timmy Sherwood studied yesterday’s game, it might just have been a bit of ‘back to the drawing board’ in terms of how to catch us out, because we answered our recent profligacy in front of goal in quite some style.

Timing of goals is always important when a team sets up to defend, so the fact that Theo scored within the first three minutes probably threw Tony Pulis’ game plan out of the window quite early. Had he managed to get his charges in at half time still sitting on a 0-0, we might have seen another afternoon of goalless agony, but as it was Theo’s superb finish merely set up what was eventually a first half rout.

We were totally dominant in that first 45 and with goals from Walcott shortly after the ten minute mark, it was almost a game that was dead and buried within the opening exchanges between the two sides. You could tell that there were some players that had a point to prove and were doing the schoolyard equivalent of a “pick me! Pick me!” moment on the playground to Arsene, because we saw Theo in particular bag three goals and look dangerous for most of the afternoon. He was looking sharp and looking like he’s ready to make an impact just in time for the cup final, so it’s good news for us that his confidence will now be sky high for Villa. Whether or not he gets to play in that central striker role remains to be seen. Personally I think Arsene will still opt for Giroud, but it would be a real shame if he doesn’t get a spot out wide right. Still, there’s plenty of time for deliberation over the next few days, so back to yesterday’s performance.

I haven’t even mentioned Jack’s goal yet, which was an absolute rocket of a half volley from just to the right of the D. It was the kind of finish that we’d expect to see from somebody like Alexis, or That Dutch Bloke, but it is something that jack too has in his locker. He just has to show it more often. He had a decent game too. Picking the ball up often and driving forward at the Baggies at every opportunity. The only problem he has in terms of playing next weekend is that there are many other form players in front of him. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be involved in some part and I’d be stunned if he doesn’t have some sort of role to play at Wembley.

The only real blot on the copybook was the goal we conceded yesterday, which hardly covered David Ospina in glory, as he disappeared in amongst a group of players only for Macauley to head in a consolation goal. Sure, it didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things and West Brom never really looked like ‘Newcastling’ us, but that’s a couple of times in the last few matches that the Colombian has looked less than impressive in between the sticks for a few moments. In the Swansea game he probably should have saved Gomis’ header and, even though it didn’t result in a goal yesterday, there was a shot – I think from Morrison – that was straight down his throat that he misjudged and was fortunate that it hit the top of the bar. Sure, there was a bit of a dip on the ball, but you expect those kind of shots to be dealt with a little bit easier.

I feel for Ospina a little bit, because I get the impression that arsenal fans (me included, perhaps) are not entirely convinced and we’re just nervously waiting for the first rick that causes us big time in goal by the man with no neck. He hasn’t really done anything wrong as such, he just never really does anything spectacular and so looks to me for all of the world like he’s a very good number two, rather than a world class number one. We’ll see where Arsene’s head is at over the next couple of months I suppose.

For now, we can be in positive things about more things than negative about a few niggles we have with the team. I think i’ll save a fuller season review for after the cup final, as so much of our season appears to be defined by that and whether we win the FA Cup, but from a league perspective I think we can call that a decent season, given the way it started out. With a football season lasting nine months, it’s easy to forget where we were in November with our form and the numerous injuries that we had, but having corrected the early season blip with a fantastic winning run in 2015 it looks as though we’ve clicked and we can all be a little bit more hopeful about what 2015/16 might entail. Signing off your league season with a win is exactly what you need to send the fans home happy and hopeful of success and with a belief that despite over a decade of financial doping in the league, we can finally start to look at a team that is going to have a real go at the title next time around.

result doesn’t matter, but with Wembley on the horizon, the performance does

I really feel like keeping this blog to one line reading:

“For an analysis of last night’s game, see the Swansea game, only Sunderland didn’t have the killer touch that the team from Wales had”

It felt exactly the same, almost, didn’t it? I mean, you had a team who essentially decided that the perfect blueprint for a minimum point at the Emirates was to sit camped on the edge of their own box and throw as many bodies in front of the ball as possible. The result was a pretty boring game of attack versus defence in which we once again huffed and puffed with little to show from our efforts at the end.

We’ve now gone three games without a win and put in three pretty lacklustre performances, although one thing I will say about yesterday evening’s display is that at least we worked the Sunderland ‘keeper a bit more than we did Fabianski a week and a half ago. A bit like when we played United at home and made DeGea look superb by firing balls down his throat all night, Fabianski was also gifted a a relatively easy time, but yesterday Pantilimon put in quite a good display in between the sticks, knocking balls around the post and getting down to his side well on a few occasions from Giroud, Walcott and Alexis.

Sunderland also had the fortune of the post too, as Billy Jones could have scored an own goal, instead the ball rebounded off the cross-section between post and crossbar. At the time I thought it would only be fair given that Sunderland had come for a point and not really bothered to do anything other than defend.

I sound a little bit bitter about Sunderland’s defensive display, but in truth I can’t really complain as an Arsenal fan, because teams like Sunderland have always come to the Emirates and sat ten bodies behind the ball with one up top hoping to poach an odd goal. We have seen it this season and season’s past. My worry is that team manager’s will have seen those recent couple of home displays and will be thinking that there is clearly a blueprint for playing Arsenal and it’s the blueprint that has existed for many years. We thought that this team was kicking on to the next level, but in order to do that, you need to put games like this to bed against teams that really shouldn’t be sharing the spoils with you.

I worry that Timmy Sherwood watched that game last night with a smile and said to himself: “bit of pace on the counter and better finishers and we can play this style of football and catch Arsenal out”. If there’s a blueprint to frustrate Arsenal and pick us off – which Sunderland did on a couple of occasions with Defoe and Fletcher, you can bet Tim will look to emulate that. We can hope that Aston Villa try to play a more open and expansive style of football, but the reality is that why would you against Arsenal? When you know you can beat them by closing down hard and putting up a strong defensive unit whilst hitting on the break, you’re going to do it and I think that’s exactly what he’s going to do in just over a week’s time. I would.

Perhaps I’m being a bit over the top. Perhaps yesterday’s game was just one in which we knew only a point is really all we need, that’s what Sunderland needed, so we’re pretty much over the line. Only defeat to West Brom and a seven goal swing for Manchester United will see us drop down to fourth spot, so perhaps there was a bit of a motivational block in yesterday’s game? It didn’t feel like it though, did it? It didn’t feel like the players were taking it easy, which in a way almost worries me more, because if that was the case at least we could say “well, the game was almost a dead rubber, so what do we expect? They’ll raise it for the FA Cup final, when the game means something”. I really hope that’s the case, because if we play like we have done in the last few matches, I fear the likes of Benteke and Agbonlahor will be getting a few more counter-attacking successes than Fletcher and Defoe had.

I also thought we’d see some good performances from the players that were rotated back in to the team by Arsene. Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey in the middle, I thought did ok, but nothing really too impressive. It must be hard to stake a case for some of them for the FA Cup final. When Theo campaign on I thought he did well and made an impact, getting behind the Sunderland back 10, but his time on the pitch was limited to 20 minutes so he was always going to struggle to get straight in to the swing of the game and make a massive impact. But I thought he did give us a different dimension, he did give Sunderland something to worry about and he did play as a more orthodox wide man, which pulled them apart a little bit. Before that Arsene had gone for Wilshere out wide, rotating often with Ramsey and Ozil and again, much like when Ramsey plays wide right, we became far too central and tried too many intricate balls through a congested area around the Sunderland ‘D’. Playing a central player out wide right doesn’t work Arsene. Give Theo a go on Sunday and see if we have a more natural balance. If we do, you have your answer of what to do for the cup final.

Should we be worried about the result yesterday? Of course not. Should we be a little more concerned about the performance, given what looms on the horizon in terms of silverware? Perhaps. But that’s what Le Boss has to work out how to fix and make sure we’re ready for Wembley.

United review: a better response to previous years

Yesterday’s proverbial ‘game of two halves’ gave us just what we needed – enough to effectively secure third on Wednesday night with one of two outcomes – but more importantly, showed a bit more resilience than I have seen in an Arsenal team at Old Trafford for a long time, FA Cup game a couple of months ago aside. 

I say this because at half time, having been pretty much dominated for the opening 45, I felt resigned once again to the ‘same old story’ in which we lose to United in the league with barely any kind of fightback at all. To me, our defeats of the previous nine years have by-and-large been ones in which we’ve gone down with barely a whimper. We’ve fallen behind and never really looked like getting back in to the game, to which when then concede a second which effectively kills the game off. That’s what happened when I watched from a Barcelona bar about three seasons ago, when Vermaelen was gifting That Dutch Bloke a comfortable start to his United career.

But yesterday, whilst starting in a similar fashion, ended in a way in which I can take comfort in a point gained. We played poorly for an hour and Arsène was unsurprisingly angry at half time, according to Monreal, but we grew back in to the game and dominated the final 30. Pegging a United side back in their own half so they resort to long kicks up field gives you an idea of how in control we were towards the end of the game. That shows progress to me.

We needed that point because, if I’m honest, pre-game I was hoping that we would not fall into a bit of a confidence nose-dive with back-to-back defeats. We’ve avoided that and now, with Sunderland on the horizon on Wednesday, we have the opportunity to get back to winning ways quickly enough.

Performance wise we had a few players who just didn’t get close to clicking. Santi Cazorla was very off-key and in a team where competition for places is so tough, I do wonder if Arsène will have a think about who he plays on Wednesday night, because he was completely nullified by the quick press of Fellaini and Mata and spent more and more of his time in the first hour as another holding midfielder in front of our back four. In the opening minutes of the second half, I genuinely wondered whether Martin Tyler had forgotten any notes on Santi, because he just wasn’t saying his name. I put his performance partially down to his own display – when you’re as good as Cazorla you should be able to create space for yourself with movement – and partially down to the fact that United had clearly realised that if you choke the supply of Özil and Cazorla, you can negate a lot of Arsenal’s flow.

I make suggestions of rotation for Wednesday because when you compare and contrast the performance of Cazorla to Ramsey – again out of position for most of the game – you see a player who would quite happily slot in and play as a central midfield player. As you will no doubt be aware by now, I’m not a fan in the slightest of us playing Ramsey out wide right, but I am a fan of Ramsey and so is Arsène so it’s obvious that he wants to fit him in. But it really surprises me because for a guy so obsessed with the natural balance of his team, his recent formation decisions leave us quite unbalanced, as Ramsey continues to drift in-field all game.

It’s no surprise that it was the last 20 minutes – with the changes of Walcott and Wilshere coming on – that we looked more threatening going forward. Walcott’s width was enough to stretch United who then also had Alexis (who also had a poor game by his standards) on the opposite flank to contend with. This also enabled Ramsey and Wilshere to find more pockets of space and on a couple of occasions the Welshman got in to some good positions, one of which saw him lob the ball over De Gea, only for Rojo to clear over the line.

The goal came through Theo being isolated on the right against Blackett and was a classic example of what Theo gives you: end product. Alright, so he can’t in all honestly claim what was clearly a heavily deflected goal, but he’s the sort of player who gets in to those positions and I think he offers us an option in the squad that others don’t. He may not have shown it as much through his cameo appearances of late, but Theo is a valuable asset and showed it yesterday by being the chief protagonist in rescuing a point for us. 

So we’re nearly there. Almost over the line for a third place finish and that will represent progress. We aren’t going to get second but right now, I’m happy with where we’re at. 

Roll on Wednesday.

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.

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.

Making life hard, but doing the job. Just.

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

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

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

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

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

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

See y’all tomorrow!