Confidence, concentration and waiting

It’s nearly here folks, time is almost upon us and although it’s not the FA Cup final but the seminar Wembley, I’m still mega excited. Imagine what I’ll be like tomorrow when it actually comes around to kick off?

We have already had the prologue from Arsène; possibly eager to cocoon the players in a hotel today so that they safe prepared well with him observing, so the pre match presser was bought forward to Thursday just like a normal away game. The good news from yesterday’s media briefing is that – Arteta and The Ox aside – the squad is fully fit, healthy and able ahead of the clash against Reading tomorrow evening. The headache – one I think I’ll ponder more on tomorrow than today – is who will start and what will be the key challenges we face. That’s one Arsène has admitted he hasn’t decided yet, other than Szczesny, but I suspect he’s scribbled down some of his options already despite what he’s been saying to the media. 

Arsène was at pains to stress that he has two competitive goalkeepers and that Wojciech had trained hard and needs to be kept fresh by playing in the cup games. I can see what he’s saying and he’s certainly staying consistent to his policy of ‘keepers in cup competitions (bar the Championd League,  of course), but it’s fairly obvious how much Szczesny’s stock has fallen since Southampton. Talk of his exit may have been fuel for the fan discussion online, but it’s not something Arsène would entertain and right it’s probably best if it’s parked until the season ends.

Right now the squad needs to prepare for Reading in a way that will see us get through. Again, Arsène was asked about how his team would approach the tie and sensibly enough, he spoke of needing focus, not understimating a Reading side with nothing else to play for and ensuring that they stay focused. The talk is right, the action needs to mirror it, because we have recent history of underperformance in the cup against lower league teams. You only have to look at last season’s FA Cup semi to see a case in point.

But we’re in a better shape mentally this season, in terms of league standing, confidence and playing staff. Arsène will have the pick of the litter tomorrow and he has admitted that it will be tough choosing, talking about the confidence and ‘luxury’ that a winning run gives all of the players, with that the hardest thing in football to maintain. He’s right and he’s also right when he says how quickly that can be broken. Defeat tomorrow – not beyond the realms of possibility – and the season may just feel like a laughing gas balloon full has just popped. I don’t even want to countenance that just yet. I’d rather focus on the hope of an Arsenal win, Villa win, then Arsenal cup final win. Yep, I’ll have that thanks, if you’ll please.

I was also hoping to read on the official site, a tactical breakdown of Reading from Le Coq, who played against them for Charlton during his loan spell. Unfortunately, like most footballers who have had all personality media-trained out of them, we got little else but a few generic sound bites (“in the FA Cup you never know”, etc etc), so there’s not really much more to gleam from what’s on the official site at the moment. Now we just have to play the waiting game…

…Are we there yet?

…now?

Title as likely as an eclipse?

Arsenal winning the Premier League this season is about as possible as a solar eclipse…

It’s Friday, we’re all hopefully feeling fine and good, plus we’ve got plenty of information that has been furnished on us from the club yesterday in the form of the pre-match presser from Le Boss.

Arsène must have as much of an inner smile as an outwardly projecting one at the moment. Sure, he won’t be happy that we’re out of Europe, but I used up all my anger in the first leg a few weeks back so I’m just looking at the fact we’ve won 13 out of the last 15 games and we’ve even had the ridiculous notion of winning the league thrust at us by the media.

Hey, it’s their job to make the dull more interesting and let’s be honest, with Chelski leading from the early parts of the season and all but guaranteed to win it, it will have been one of the most boring title races since the Premier League began, so I can understand why the hacks are trying a bit of the old ‘what if’ on Arsène. But he’s an old wiley dog and didn’t bite yesterday, preferring to maintain his current course with comments about the ‘security’ the scummers from West London have. Sensible enough. If there were 20 games remaining maybe we’d fancy it, but with only 9/10 left for the teams at the top, a monumental slip up like that is hardly likely.

So Arsène is rightly focused on the next game, which is Newcastle away and although we’ve had a good record up there, it’s pleasing to see that he’s still wary of their threat. I’ve been up to Newcastle every season for the last four and although we’ve had two wins and two draws, each one has seen us biting our nails a little bit to close to the cuticles for my liking. Yes they’ve got little to play for, yes it appears they only have a temporary manager and yes, it helps that Cisse won’t be around as their main goal threat. But I still forsee an afternoon of uncomfortableness for us.

We’re at the business end of the season now though and what with United and Liverpool duking it out on Sunday, the game tomorrow represents an opportunity to put more daylight between more of those teams just below us, so I hope we take it.

The good news is that it seems Arsène doesn’t have a host of bodies to patch together after Monaco. Everyone seems fit bar a few ‘knocks and bruises’ and even the return of Rosicky to the team means we’re plenty stocked with options. More on who I think Arsène will play from the start tomorrow, but I do wonder if he’ll rotate again after admitting that he’ll need to assess the levels of fatigue today. 

A quick one on the whole ‘away goals’ rule thing that Arsène has said he has long campaigned against. Le Boss has spoken of the rule as an outdated one from the sixties, that it was designed to stop teams from defending at home and football has changed, so the rules should reflect that. Whilst it’s hard to argue that football isn’t a different beast than it was 50 years ago, I can’t really get behind his argument I’m afraid. For one thing, we still seem teams in the league play defensively against us, so why wouldn’t that revert to type in cup competitions? Also, I don’t think that anyone would disagree that scoring away from home is harder than at home when you have you’re home fans behind you, so why shouldn’t a team be rewarded for their exploits on their travels? Finally, this kind of thinking only seems to get airtime when a big team goes out, as I suspect Arsène might have kept relatively schtum should we have been the beneficiaries on the night. So I don’t really think his argument washes with me on this one. We all know the rules and you have to adapt your football to ensure you win the competition within their parameters. Sorry Arsène.

What I’m not sorry about is the FA Cup semi final, for which I picked up my tickets yesterday and am thoroughly delighted to have been given front row again, so hopefully you’ll see me waving away on tele in a few weeks time! And on that cheery note, I shall bid you ‘adieu’.

Options in the squad, but still a very tough time with tough decisions

Arsene’s presser started with the bad news about Gabriel being out for three weeks, but injuries in an Arsenal squad – especially the infamous ‘three weeks’ ones – are as par of the course as an Arsenal player, as the new inductee song in front of the playing staff.

It’s a shame for Gabriel because he would probably have loved to have started to build a run in the side and having played two games in a row he probably would have fancied his chances for a third on Monday night against United. But that’s life at Arsenal, I guess, so he’ll have to recover, then hope his chance comes around again, which you’d have to think will only happen if there are plenty of games left to play. In other words, we’re still in the FA Cup, possibly still in the Champions League (although we know that fire is all but extinguished).

Monreal is in a similar situation too actually, having worked so hard to establish himself as the number one left back, he finds himself unsure of whether he can wrestle the starter jersey from Kieran Gibbs. Gibbs has had two good games against Everton and QPR and contributed heavily in both, so a follow up performance by him against United might probably mean that Nacho is back to square one when it comes to fighting hard to retain his place. Such is life in the modern game; squads have to be big and players lose out when competition is high, but at least we have that competition to give Arsene the lovely headache that we’d all prefer. Remember the dark days where the headache was “how do we avoid seeing Silvestre or Denilson today, given our injuries”? Depressing times back then, I can tell thee.

But we have options now and the squad goes to Old Trafford with a strong team to take on an average United side that have the psychological edge over us, if not the technical one, that they might have had in seasons past. Arsene talks about our own recent confidence in the league and the importance it will have, which is great and I think he’s right to emphasise it, but to suggest that history plays no part in this fixture I think is folly on his part. Of course history will have an impact. The players may not have all played in the many defeats stretching back to 2006, but they will know full well of the record, they will have seen the media talking about it and they will know that it will have an impact should they go one down at Old Trafford. I’m not going to suggest that they’ll simply shrugh their shoulders and say “oh well, we’re screwed again” and give up, but I do think when you have a mentality in a club and a record like we have – similar with Chelski and us I think – the thought that goes through people’s heads is “how do we beat this lot?”. It’s worse when the team isn’t as good as it used to be or, as the game at the Emirates showed in November, gets themselves a fair old slice of luck in their victories too. I’ve been joking all week to United fans that they’ll probably only have three shots on goal and win the game with a deflected goal off Phil Jones face and a four-man ricochet that ends up scrambling over the line off Valencia’s arse. That’s just what it feels like with United.

Anyway enough of my negativity, let’s start to build up to the game with a little more positive vibes, eh? Like how Danny Welbeck will want to shove the lack of appreciation he had from Louis van Gaal right down his robot sounding throat. More on who I think will play on Monday, but initial thoughts are that we simply must go for pace, which Welbeck, Alexis and Walcott offer. That will complement Giroud and so whoever does start has to have a big game.

Ozil will also play I’m sure and it was good to see Arsene Wenger dismiss the criticism from media attention-seeker Paul Scholes. I read Scholes’ article yesterday in the London Evening Standard and I have to say I haven’t read such a clear attempt at trotting out populist cliches as Scholes did yesterday. It was like he’d had a look at some of the articles floating around historically, then decided he wanted to carve himself out a career as an ‘edgy’ pundit. But the biggest irony of his article was that the very same ‘laziness’ that Ozil gets labelled with, was used with Scholes’ article. He might as well have said “can Arsenal do it on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke”, or “they don’t like it up ’em”. It had no real insight, just a bit of click whoring/paper reading. I guess that’s what he’s paid for, but it’s still annoying to read such research-lite reading from a player who’s football career was clearly more relevant than his current attempt at punditry.

Right, that should probably do me for today, so I’ll take my leave and catch thee in morrow.

Ollie’s recapturing of form good for us

Much like Chelski and Tiny Totts are to us all metaphor ally speaking, I have a real pain in my neck this morning, which caused me no amount of irritation when trying to get to sleep last night. Honestly, it’s like Jose Mourinho himself had pulled up a chair and started jabbing me in the back whilst complaining about everything he could possibly complain about. And we all know just how much he can complain.

We’ve still got just over 24 hours before we’ll know who’s starting against QPR in West London tomorrow night, but I expect Le Boss will be on hand to make his usual pre-match assessments on the proceedings at Loftud Road, in today’s press conference. Hopefully he’ll be in more jovial mood than he will have undoubtedly been in before Friday’s presser, but unlike the pundits, I’m pretty sure he will be more than acutely aware of the potential threat that QPR pose. 

After all, they’ll be fresher than a spring daisy after their eleven or so days off, so I expect them to be a feisty opponent for us to take on. But more on that tomorrow. For now, we just have to be happy that the bad taste in our mouths – like when you have particularly horrible mouthwash that leaves a metallic flavour lingering on your tongue – from the Monaco defeat has been partially rinsed by three points at home to Everton. 

One man who will be particularly happy will be Giroud. His goal against the Toffees has enabled the Monaco performance to not become a ‘thing’. We’ve seen how badly Arsenal players have been affected in the past by ‘things’. Just look at Eduardo and his injury form after leaving us. He was never the same again. So I’m pleased that Giroud got his goal because that will ensure that he is given the self belief to give the first leg of the Monaco game the old Gallic shrug and move on. He’s credited the manager and I think rightly so. It could have been all to easy for Arsène to ‘rest’ Giroud and against a decent opponent like Everton you’re hardly guaranteed a hatful of chances to make amends. But he did and we’ll be in better shape with him feeling better as a result.

The other questions I expect Arsène to be asked tonight is who will be rotated after the game on Sunday? I am quite anxious to see whether Coquelin has found his nose underneath all of the blood that appeared on Sunday, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see that he’s given some recuperation time so he can be ready for the battle against United Monday week. As I’ve said before, rotation is an important part of modern day football, but Arsène will be wary of rotating too much and if his hand is forced into changes through injury to players, I’d expect other players to miss out who might normally have been rotated for this game. 

Still, at least we won’t have to face Joey Barton trying to cheat his way through games trying to get players sent off, so hopefully that doesn’t mean we lose more players to suspension or injury in the immediate future. In fact, we’re due to receive a boost of Ramsey and Flamini today from Arsène, if the rumours are true. That’s probably just as well, because with Arteta, Wilshere and perma-crock Diaby all still out, missing Rambo and the Flamster with Le Coq possibly out too, would probably leave Arsène scratching around searching for Chambersesque square pegs for round holes. 

More on the game tomorrow. For now, I’m going to look like the weirdest man on the Metropolitan Line by shaking my head side-to-side slowly like I’m dramatically disagreeing with somebody in a Hollywood courtroom drama scene from a movie.

Cheerio.

An arm around the shoulder or slap around the chops?

Arsene faced the media yesterday and, probably as you’d expect, he was reasonably defiant after an appalling game in midweek. He didn’t rule us out of a ‘miracle’ as Big Per has put it, but equally he didn’t retract some of the criticism for the team from Wednesday. It’s the right thing to do, because they all need to know and be reminded of how poor we were, if nothing else than to fuel the fire in their bellies to pick up more wins over the coming weeks and months.

I really hope we do get a response. I hope we get a response of anger, rage and destruction over an inconsistent Everton team, but one that will be riding high after going through in the Europa League. Is it still called that? Or have they reverted back to calling it what it should always have been called, the UEFA Cup? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I just want Arsenal to pick up three points tomorrow.

Hopefully we can do that and with the news that we have no fresh injury concerns to speak of, it seems as though Arsene has a choice of players that he can pick for his starting eleven. In his presser yesterday he did say that we will have to rotate, certainly with a game against QPR to come in midweek, so I think there might be one or two players given some bench time. You’d like to think it was because of their poor performance, but he can’t drop the whole team, so who should he opt for?

This is a mini debate I had on Twitter and a couple of people made some really good points. You could take the hard line against the players and completely rotate. Ospina, Bellerin, Mertesacker, Cazorla, Ozil, Alexis, Giroud all had particularly poor games and could in theory be replaced by Szczesny, Chambers, Gabriel, Rosicky, Walcott and Akpom, but I doubt we’ll see that many changes. For one thing large-scale changes usually lead to a disjointed approach to a game. Players may train with each other a lot, but they haven’t all got the actual live game experience of playing together under their belts, so it’s usually too much to ask. This is especially the case against a decent Premier League Team like Everton. If we’re lining up in the cup against a team like Brighton, or Walsall for example, you can afford to rotate on a larger basis and expect the quality of the squad to shine through. But Everton are too good to take that chance.

So who gets dropped? This is where you have to put your trust in the manager, because I think it becomes about assessing who needs the motivation, and who needs the arm around the shoulder. For example, I would think a player like Alexis would just be more pumped to prove a manager wrong if he was dropped. But I suspect dropping Giroud could see a fragile confidence fall even lower if he isn’t asked to play himself in to form. So I think he’ll be given another chance for a reprieve. I know that sounds a little bit like we’d be mollycoddling a professional athlete who should be able to motivate himself rather than need a kiss and a cuddle every time he has a bad game, but football is as much about winning psychological battles as much as anything else sometimes, so the best managers in the world are the ones that know when an arm round the shoulder is better than a slap around the chops.

Incidentally, I’d be surprised if Alexis was dropped, because he’s been one of the stand-out performers this season. But I do wonder if Big Per could be given a temporary Spanish Archer from the starting eleven. Perhaps Ozil too will be given time on the naughty step to think about what he’s done, with the Ox in prime position to take up his spot in the middle of the park.

It’s tough making the right decisions in professional football, but that’s why you’re paid more than I will earn in my lifetime in just a year, so hopefully Le Boss makes the right ones and we win tomorrow. Motivation is  massive part of professional football and knowing when to ‘hairdryer’ it, or when to talk up your team, is what makes the best managers the most successful. It’s not just about picking the team and dropping or playing players, Arsene needs to get them fired up in the right way with his pre-match talk too. Does he leave them to say it and trust they are hurting enough, or does he give them a Churchillian war-cry and send them out to battle? We’ll never know. We’ll only know if what his choice was, actually worked, by the way they perform tomorrow.

The injury news seems quite good too, actually, as Rambo and Flamini start training again and I’d expect with a week under their belts they should be back again for the United game. The Wilshere ‘setback’ is only temporary – so says Arsene – so if it’s just a case of removing some pins from his ankle you’d expect him to be out for a week as the cut they use to get to the pins re-heels. Don’t hold me to that though, as my medical knowledge goes as far as watching Doogie Howser in the earlier nineties with my mum and dad. So probably as much as our medical team then! I kid, I kid…

That’s pretty much all there is for today. I don’t really want to go into an exact line up for tomorrow, as I’ll have nothing to talk about then, so I’ll take my leave and see thee in the ‘morrow.

‘Obvious’ klaxons, Giroud’s award and Welbeck’s form an issue for Theo

It’s all rather quiet on this Tuesday morn, which is lovely given that there’s a big game tomorrow and no doubt Arsène’s presser at some stage today, so we’ll get an update on who’s available.

We’ve already had Arsène’s thoughts ahead of the visit of Monaco, in which he really goes out on a limb, describing the game as ’50:50′ in terms of our likelihood of success. Wow Arsène, mind those splinters buddy!

Champions League games are always cagey affairs when you get to the knockout stages of the competition though, so I can see why he’s trying hard not to give the Monaco team any motivation ahead of the tie, but it should be one we should be looking to win over two legs. I was at The Emirates Cup in August and we looked leggy and lethargic and the difference even then was a Falcao header. With him now firmly established in the Manchester United dugout as one of the coaching staff, Monaco have lost a massive asset, but will still be a threat so Arsène is right to be cautious. More to come on Monaco tomorrow though.

The other news is that Olivier Giroud is up for a fans player award by the PFA. Ok, so it’s only for February, but with goals and solid displays under his belt for the whole month, it will be a good confidence booster if he wins it. And let’s face it, we have the largest football fan community online at Arsenal, so I’d expect us to vote in our handsome Frenchman with consummate ease.

The hope is that he wins it and the subsequent confidence boost will propel him to being even better than he has been of late. His form is sparkling and with each game that he scores, I remain convinced that he will hit the 20 goal mark for the season, which would be quite some feat indeed given his lengthy absence last year.

That man Welbeck has also had his say on the Champions League, talking up our desire to go far in the competition which aside from the fact that ‘state the obvious’ klaxons appear to be sounding all over the place at the moment, is the sentiment and the attitude we need. No talk of advancing and who we might face in the next round, just respect for our opposition we’ve currently got and the professionalism to do the job, home and away.

You’ll all be acutely aware of the shattering feeling that Alex gave us when knocking us out of the competition after we conceded a late goal against PSV a few years back I’m sure. We need no repeat of that upset and if it means the players and coaching staff have to make obvious statements about the game then so be it.

Welbeck himself has also looked good since returning, actually, so much so that there aren’t many people calling for an instant return for Walcott. Given that we’d have chewed each other’s arms off to have him available this time last year, that’s quite a turnaround and it’s the high intensity pressing that Welbeck and Alexis give us – as well as their end product (which in Danny’s case has been assisting in build ups rather than actual goals) – that has meant Theo is an increasingly bit-part player at the moment. The long-term future for him is something that can be debated for another day, but I don’t see him being wheeled out in the immediate future and that’s a positive testament to how well Welbeck is playing, especially when you consider that Theo is scoring plenty of goals when he’s given the chance.

So we’re in a good place right now. There are plenty of form players, we’re winning games and we currently sit third in the league, which is ideally where we want to finish. We have a big European night tomorrow, with which victory be a healthy margin would help to foster yet more belief and confidence in the team, as well as the possibility of That Dutch Bloke being a longer term injury to United. He’ll develop some sort of miracle recovery time so that he can play us in about 13 days time, but for now let’s all just keep ourselves content in the knowledge that all is looking roadt in the Arsenal garden.

See you tomorrow.

A door opening for Chambers and Jack?

With the Crystal Palace game about 30 hours away, all of the focus turns back towards the Premier League today with Le Boss’ press conference ahead of the trip to Selhurst Park.

We’ve already had an injury update from the manager, confirming that Ramsey is three days in to a three week rehab programme, as well as doubts over Flamini and Bellerin. The Flamster is probably a loss we can absorb in the squad quite easily, as Coquelin will slot in to his recently acquired position, but Bellerin has established himself as first choice at this moment in time so his injury might be more difficultly felt. Especially as Chambers – whilst very good against Boro – has found it hard going when matched up against pace this season. Or, if I’m going to be a little more positive, I could argue that this kind of opening will give Chambers the opportunity to win his place back in the team. He’s been sitting on the sidelines for a few weeks and I reckon he’d have seen Nacho win his place in the side and will fancy a bit of it, so I’m hoping that this mentality in the squad of fighting for all positions, will have a beneficial effect on players like Chambers.

Still, Palace will surely look to exploit the apparent lack of pace if Hector isn’t available, but more on the actual nuances of the game tomorrow, I think.

Jack will probably see some bench time tomorrow and whilst the loss of Flamini wouldn’t be a like-for-like replacement if he wasn’t fit, at least we have another midfield option, which is good considering that the Ox, Rambo, Arteta and Diaby (!!) are all out and unavailable this weekend. It’s the toe of game where you’d hope we’d see more possession and a player with close control like Wilshere might just be useful for unlocking a resurgent Palace under Pardew.

The other story on the official site saw Arsène talk about the draw as an ‘interesting one’. Not for me it isn’t. It’s a bloody horrible one. Away from home, at a ground where we haven’t won in nine years, against a team in which we have beaten twice since what feels like 1977? Nope, to me that sucks and if I’m honest, I’d rather have had Reading at home and let other teams knock United and Liverpool out so we don’t have to be faced with it. But it is what it is, so we have to overcome them to get through to the next round. Come on Arsenal!

Not really sure what else there is that’s Arsenal related today. As always, I shoot my load too quickly when it comes to blogging, as I do this first thing in the morning whilst heading into work on the tube, so I can’t really tell you about Arsène’s presser, or what he thinks about racist Chelski. Of course, I don’t believe that all Chelski fans are racist, but they seem to have a more chequered history than any other English club. They maybe be irritating, fickle, general scummers because of the team they support, but on the whole I don’t believe they foster a culture of racism within the club or the stadium. How could they? Much like all football teams, their fanbase is a diverse mix of people, from the poorest scrotes to the most affluent of idiotic Chelski morons, but they don’t all get memos before games to bring their white cloaks and pointy white hats.

Perhaps it’s a cultural thing that a small collective have passed on to their offspring, which is contributing to the terrible reputation they have, but there’s not really a lot that club can do in that regard other than the banning orders they’ve already looked to enforce. Well, I guess they could neuter all of those fans, but the European court of human rights would probably have a field day. Even if it is the best thing for the world and the future.

Anyway, I’ve taken up enough of your time for one day, so I’ll take my leave.

Happy Friday.