Will this week drag on?

We’re on a countdown to a cup final week this weekend, which has been made a little easier thanks to the Bank Holiday in England, because it means a shorter working week. The day off also enabled me to fill my Monday with all manner of things to do, which meant I didn’t have to see a selection of people in West London gathering for some sort of event in which most of the world couldn’t give a monkey about, so at least that was something.

And anyway, today we can spend more time thinking Bout the truly greatest ever league triumph, as this day in 1989 was one in whic Arsenal pipped Liverpool to a league title in the most dramatic of fashion. People talk about the over-hyped Sky Sports era’s Moneychester City first title win a few seasons ago, but they didn’t have to go away from home and win by a two goal margin at the other team at the top of the league, so any real football fan who was alive for both of those seasons – and even those that have retrospectively seen the footage and heard the stories – will know what truly was the greatest ever league campaign (Invincibles aside).

But I digress, because we’re supposed to be looking forward, ahead to a week of excitement before a final curtain raiser.

It’s a bit of a weird week actually, because for most people the season is over, but for us there is still one final hurrah. I’d probably normally be doing a breakdown of our season as a whole and then each individual unit of the team, but with such a big game in the offing it’s very difficult to put any kind of context right now. It’s almost a bit sad really; our whole season now feels like it will be defined by whether we can beat Aston Villa at Wembley on Saturday evening. It shouldn’t really come down to one game determining the mood of a club, but I suppose that is the fine margins by which success in football is built. 

What it may mean is that this week feels like one hell of a drag, as we all have our own respective lives to lead, before we can truly start to salivate at the prospect of another FA Cup. It’s probably going to be an even longer wait for Theo and Jack, as they try and work out Le Boss’ thinking for the final during various training drills and practice sessions at London Colney. Theo was undoubtedly superb against West Brom and will surely be giving food for thought for Arsène, but both he and Jack will have worked with the manager long enough to know that nothing is guaranteed in his team. Last season Arsène gave Sanogo a cup semi final on Wembley turf, which surprised everyone, but he reverted to type in the final by sticking with Giroud. The striking debate is one which will most likely be one of the more contentious talking points during the week, but whilst I would be a fan of seeing Theo from the start, I would prefer it to be as a wide player with Giroud up top.

Theo has shown what he’s about by scoring a hat trick, but it’s easy to forget that he’s had other opportunities to play as a centre forward and it hasn’t always worked out. It’s true we play a different style when he is playing as a centre forward, because the emphasis is not on a central striker to hold up play and bring midfielders and wide men in as runners beyond like Giroud does, so I wonder if that will count against Theo. after all, Arsène loves what Rambo brings to the team and when you’ve got a striker who will look to run in behind defenders as opposed to holding the ball up to bring box-to-boxers in to play from midfield, to my untrained eyes it means you have a decision to make as a manager: Ramsey or Walcott. I don’t think Arsène will pick both.

More pre-cup build up tomorrow. 

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.

Fanciful transfer stuff from presser

Happy Saturday to you and your kin. My weekend started early due to some annual leave I’ve been soaking in for the last few days, but at least there’s been some football – albeit some pretty semi-shocking football on Wednesday – to keep me busy. I’ve been through my thoughts on the midweek action and I’m glad we’ve got another game coming up quickly, because the bad taste bought about by three games without scoring at home need to be readdressed, because it’s not exactly condusive to a positive preparation for an FA Cup final if we fizzle out at the end of the season.

Arsène spoke to the press and as we’d all probably expect with the season drawing to a close and our game tomorrow almost a dead rubber, the focus was on all of the millions of billions of players we’re going to sign, but having watched the presser on Arsenal.com it seemed like Arsène was in relatively good form. To be fair to him, he’s probably happy he gets a summer off from press conferences in which stupid questions are asked by the same people each week.

He can spend the summer answering stupid questions from people in other continents when the squad go on tour instead.

The focus was around Sterling and Cech and unsurprisingly Arsène was non-committal in what he was saying. I was actually more interested in his assertion that Tomas Rosicky would be staying at the club and not only that, but he’d be extending his current deal. That seems a bit of a surprise to me because like Flamini, he’s become a bit of a forgotten man since all of the squad has managed to maintain their fitness since the start of the year. It’s a shame because each time he’s got on I’ve seen a good performance by him, so I’d have thought he’d have been given a bit more game time. But competition is so intense at the moment in the middle of  the park, that Arsène is leaving out very good players on match days alone, so it gives us an indication of how hard it is for Rozza to break through.

I’d be surprised if he’s still at the club by the time a ball is kicked in the new season. I suspect Arsène is simply saying those expectations of him staying because he wants to keep everyone happy, but the one man who won’t be happy is Tomas himself.

As for his impact on signing Cech for us, somehow I don’t think that will impact the ‘keepers decision on where he goes, or whether Arsène wants to sign him anyway. I like that Arsène isn’t dismissing the signing of that of Sterling, but I doubt we’ll be signing either this summer. Sterling will want the mega bucks and so Moneychester City will probably throw a big wad of cash at it, so I can’t see that happening, if I’m honest.

As for Cech, I suspect Chelski are simply publicly playing the PR card, because I can’t see why they’d sell to either Arsenal or Man United. Jose is a man who couldn’t countenance selling/loaning us Demba Ba, so why on earth he would change his tune now is beyond me. It also remains to be seen as to whether Arsène even wants another ‘keeper. It’s all very well you and I talking about it, but we thought we needed a striker a year and a half ago, then another defender in the summer, but Arsène didn’t see it that way. So we do have a precedent.

The team news looks fairly samey from Wednesday night, with Arsène needing to decide how he’s going to rotate based on tired legs. It’s the last chance to impress before the cup final so I think we’ll see a few rotated, but whether Arsène goes the whole hog and swaps his entire team around I suspect is unlikely. More on that particular guessing game tomorrow. For now, I think I will enjoy my Saturday and hope that Middlesbrough make it to the Premier League, because I want to see three Notth East teams and three chances of heading up there next season.

If’s and but’s on rotation, the league and transfers

A little holiday away from work awaits yours truly here after today’s London grind, so apologies if the timing of the blogs get a little wayward, a bit like a loose Fabregas kick into the centre of a group of players inside a penalty box I suppose.

What a bit of madness that was, eh? But what I think it almost conclusively proves beyond any doubt, is that when you join Chelski you are inserted with an ‘evil serum’ that makes you at leat 25% more dislikable by at least a quarter and in some cases (Diego Costa, John Terry), 100% dislikable.

Oh well, thanks to tomorrow night’s game we can quickly forget about the evil in the world resonating from that part of West London, focusing on the purity of the dominant team in North London. It’s ours don’t you know.

Theo was quoted in the papers yesterday and this morning; saying that there can be no excuse not to challenge next season, that this season perhaps the believe was not quite there but next season with the squad and players we have we simply must challenge. I don’t think you’ll find many Arsenal fans arguing there. What we need is the start from 2013/14 welded together with the finish of 2014/15 and I reckon we’ll be up there. But a lot will depend on the ability to pick your best and most cohesive team and that, in some cases, requires a little bit of luck to avoid injuries for key players. We can all bemoan the hamstring and calf strains that might point to the medical team and/or poor rotation and fatigue of players over a long season, but if somebody decides to Shawcross Alexis, or Martin Taylor Özil, there’s not a lot we can do. Thankfully I believe the squad is capable enough to cover for losses of players from injury for a few games, but mass absences like we saw at the start of the season are not something any team can handle I don’t think, even the evil serum-taking Chelski team of this season. 

So whilst I agree that we need to be fighting better for the title, there’s a big ‘if’ in there depending on injuries.

There’ll be a press conference and some tam news at some stage today, but it will be interesting to hear what the manager might say about rotation. Szczesny perhaps? Gibbs, Gabriel, Wilshere, Walcott, Welbeck maybe? With third all but secured, perhaps you want those players that are desperate to prove themselves so they can get in the final squad and hopefully the first XI, so maybe we’ll get an insight into whether Arsène’s mind is edging towards a bit of rotation. 

Perhaps it is. After all, the team has been playing one game a week for a while and I’m convinced it’s helped with our form for the latter part of the season, so to rotate a little to keep players a bit fresher makes sense in my mind. After West Brom at the weekend we have a full week of recovery and so if Arsène wants to keep his players match sharp then he can do so at the weekend having given a few a rest from Old Trafford and a full week between games.

Anyway, we’ll know soon enough. In the mean time, how about we breathe a sigh of relief that we appear to have finally shaken off the ‘annual transfer saga’ tag that we spent five or so years worrying about, having finally handed it across to Liverpool, who will spend the summer worrying about Raheem’s movements in the off season. I’m not going to laugh, because I still remember what it felt like seeing our players depart, but the unsettling of Sterling could see something of a conversation starter between us and the scousers. Arsène is a known admirer and Theo is in a bit of a contractual dilemma, so if the noises from Camp Walcott are that this might be a difficult deal again, Arsène could decide to cash in. I know it’s not as simple as that and rarely do swap deals materialise, but stranger things have happened in football so you never know.

Besides, if Jose is opening the door to Petr Cech joining Arsenal – assuming Arsène’s keen – then Dick’ll probably have to spend most of the summer chasing Jose around London hotels, so his attention might be away from a nippy winger from Liverpool.

One things for sure; with all of these stories beginning to bubble away, you can tell the press are itching for transfer silly season to start.

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.

Glass half empty or full?

Thank some sort of deity that it’s Friday. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’ve had a shocking week – Arsenal result aside – I’ve just had enough of the proverbial stuff thrown at me work-wise that I’ll be grateful for a few days off. 

Plus the league have deemed it acceptable for us to finally have a game on a weekend instead of a Monday night, so that gives me something right at the end to look forward to, Arsenal-wise. Or dread, depending on how full your glass is.

If it’s half-empty, then you won’t have been too encouraged with the news that The Ox, Debuchy and Arteta are all out for the weekend, whilst Rambo and Welbeck are uncertainties. It’s a shame if neither of the latter pull through and it undoubtedly weakens us somewhat, but if you’ve got a half-full glass, you’ll be happy that we have the depth in the team to make these absences appear minimal. Bellerin for Debuchy, Coquelin for Arteta are familiar swaps, so it’s just the Ox that I think we’re really missing out on.

Not least because I’m convinced it would give the manager a serious decision to make with Ramsey. The Ox is a more naturally suited player out wide right and I think he’d definitely be playing if he was fit, but this ongoing injury which seems to have no return date appears to continue to linger, so much so that I’m starting the think we won’t see him again this season.

Who knows? Arsène’s squad selection decisions may be so numerous that he’s decided a normal six week injury layoff gets an additional two ‘just to be safe’ but also to avoid a difficult decision and cheering a player off. That’s probably what I’d do if I was in Le Boss’ position. So maybe we will see if the same happens with Ramsey and his knock from the Swansea game, or Welbeck too.

The only difference with Welbeck is that he appears to be Arsène’s only real preferred choice to Giroud up top, which I’m sure is why we’ve seen a slight tailing off of Giroud’s form in the last couple of weeks, as his competition in the squad is reduced. It’s not the sole factor; as has already been pointed out the shunting out wide of Ramsey probably has had an impact as he has one less wide man to get in behind defenders and put the ball in for him, or the fact that he’s a confidence player and when ex-stars like Thierry Henry say you can’t with the league with him in the side who knows how he will react? He’s a confidence player and if that gets knocked you can see the impact.

I think it might have a small effect, but competition from Welbeck and the position of Ramsey have had more of an impact than anything else.

So I wonder if Welbeck is rushed back to the first team ahead of the other players, especially if he is given the extra incentive of another opportunity to prove Louis van Gaal wrong by playing well against his old club. 

All of this and there’s not even the slightest mention of Walcott who, I have to admit, I find it staggering that his stock has fallen so much in 18 months. He’s gone in the summer, almost certainly, but I hope that he keeps his Arsenal legacy by moving abroad. I’m sure it won’t happen and he’ll be bound for an English side, but it does feel like a sad way for a player who was once a lynchpin of the team, discarded like an old Cornetto wrapper.

That’s football I suppose. Eventually it will happen to every player. Just ask Rosicky how he’s feeling at the moment.

Laters.

Players out with positive responses

The phrase ‘let your football do the talking’ has never been more obvious than after a defeat like Monday’s one to Swansea, because the website is littered with post match fallout from Wenger, Wilshere and Mertesacker. It’s kind of funny actually, because in the last six weeks or so there’s been practically nothing from the players by comparison, so to see a few talking about the performance does make me think back to the dark old days when Johan Djourou practically had his own midweek press conferences.

So in a way, it’s kind of a positive thing, because I’ve been able to contextualise Monday’s result a bit more. I’m able to say ‘hey, we’ve been on a great run, we’ve got ourselves into a good position to qualify automatically for the Champions League (which a lot of ex-pros said we wouldn’t make at all), as well as an FA Cup final on the horizon’ and that is not something to be sniffed at.

Perhaps it’s because we’ve developed a taste of success last season with the cup final and this season with that amazing winning run, that I have developed an appetite that attitude for success that means even the slightest blip results in me being even more disappointed? After all, there were times over the last couple of seasons in which rather than the frustration I felt yesterday, I had only apathy setting in. So maybe I – and you if you feel similarly to me – need to just take back, take a breath and appreciate that it ‘feels’ like we’re on the right track. I’m glad it’s under Arsène’s watch too. It does feel like we’re steadily improving and that he is starting to look more like Arsène Wenger: The Dominant Years, rather than Arsène Wenger: The Financially Pragmatic Years. It will have been painful to see him walk out the door without at least looking like we’re going to go ‘Once more unto the breach’ under his stewardship.

Anyway, thankfully and positively, the comments from the players on the official site are more ‘we need to bounceback on Sunday’ style fighting talk comments, rather than bland, generic ‘we know we must try harder for the fans’ that we were getting five or so years ago from players who were clearly not up to it. I actually believe it when players like Big Per talk about a response, which is testimony to the way in which this season has turned around.

I do hope Arsène takes some time to consider what the best option might be for Sunday though, tactically speaking I mean, because the defeat gives him a chance to analyse what went wrong and perhaps make some tweaks to his side based on form and how United might play. The game will be a totally different one to Swansea and so we need to be mindful of that, as Per says when he talks about winning the midfield battle. There can be no time for fallen heads and sloping shoulders. A response must be given. Not just because we want to put daylight between us and the Mancs, but because we need to make sure our confidence and form isn’t spiralling in the wrong direction before we get to the FA Cup Final. That is the big game that above anything else I am worried about if we’re beaten by United to make it two defeats in a row. The league form is fine, but we want the players to go in to the cup final on a high, which you’d question if we fall back down into fourth again this season. 

Anyway, enough of my dealing in hypotheses and other such events that have yet to transpire, I should just worry about the here and now. The ‘then’ and ‘what if’ can wait.