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.

FA Cup countdown begins – an analysis of Arsenal’s key decisions

It’s Friday, the week has nearly met its maker, but more importantly we’re less than 24 hours until FA Cup final Matchday.

Much like when Arsène said that he still gets the same buzz as last year and every other time we’ve won a trophy under his tenure, the cup tomorrow feels as exciting and new as it did last year. I feel as nervous as I did last year and I didn’t get much sleep last night so I expect it’ll be the same again.

You know how when you’re a kid the prospect of Christmas is so exciting you can’t get to sleep? Then, as you get older, it becomes less exciting to wake up early in the morning to scramble downstairs? Well I don’t know if you feel the same as me, but as I’ve gotten older the reverse has happened with The Arsenal. Each time we get to the eve of an event like tomorrow’s, I feel more excited than I did last time. Christmas has well and truly been usurped by The Arsenal. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Yesterday I did ‘The Arsenal Discussion’ with Giles and Robbie from Arsenal Fan TV, and it’s pleasing to see so many other people who have the same experiences as me. I’m not alone in the week-long run up to the cup and that is somewhat comforting. However, as Tim Stillman said in his excellent blog that I read yesterday about cup highs and lows (sorry, on the iPhone typing this so no link. Just visit Arseblog and have a look), by the time I’m walking up Wembley Way it will feel like I’m the only person going through this, so I’ll become insular and sullen until a five goal advantage has been established, or the whistle blows and we’ve been declared victorious. Of course defeat will merely continue my melancholy for the following week at least.

One of the key themes for yesterday’s discussion was on how Villa would set up, with the congregation of assembled Gooners not quite 100% sure how Tim will approach the game. Does he go with a style to frustrate and counter like Swansea? Or does he opt for a more expansive style by looking to have a go at Arsenal with more creative players pressing higher up the pitch?

Both will have merits as well as drawbacks. A defensive style with bodies behind the ball and looking to counter quickly will work only if Aston Villa’s back line hold firm. It will mean reliance on the pace of N’Zogbia and Agbonlahor to quickly counter with Benteke from deep in their own half, like Montero and Gomis a couple of weeks ago.

Alternatively, Sherwood could – and has suggested he would – play a more attacking brand of football like he did against Liverpool. In that game, Aston Villa concentrated their efforts predominantly on Liverpool’s right hand side, giving Grealish, Delph and Benteke the freedom to drift into that area of the pitch. If Theo starts tomorrow (and I don’t think he will for this reason), then Bellerin won’t get that same level of cover as Ramsey, so Arsène has a decision to make there. I can’t see a way Theo and Rambo get in to the same line up, not with Santi and Mesut fit, so I suspect it will be the Welshman who will be granted the starting journey.

Another interesting point flagged yesterday was the goalkeeping situation, in which again everyone was divided, but I stand firmly in the Szczesny camp. I don’t know if he’s the long-term solution any more, but Ospina continues to raise doubts in my mind, regardless of the fact he’s been playing regularly and has done ok for us.

I just think Szcseny is the better ‘keeper overall. I think he can be more commanding in the box and yes, whilst he does have a rick or two in his game, I also think he’s more likely to have an outstanding performance than the Colombian. And as I said yesterday on the debate, if Villa are going to look to take advantage of Benteke’s obvious aerial threat, who do you think is best positioned to snuff out any danger by repeatedly coming to collect balls placed deep in to the back post? Wojciech did that all day long against West Ham back in December, but I haven’t seen Ospina from image his area as much as yet, so for me it’s difficult to argue a case for him.

Anyway, why not have a listen for yourself before the game (again, apologies for no link), by having a virtual wander over to Arsenal Fan TV on YouTube and searching for ‘The Arsenal Discussion’.

I’ll see you tomorrow!

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. 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must maintain competition in the Arsenal squad

It’s Election Day here in the UK and with most of the country can’t honestly tell the difference between the parties duking it out, the winner of this popularity contest will probably be the person with the greatest personality. 

Arsène Wenger for President people.

It’s quiet on the Arsenal front. Quieter than a fox in a back garden wearing socks and mittens. Quieter than you’re average van Persie when watching the FA Cup final. Quieter than a Spud in a library.

Quiet.

With the team not playing until Monday night, there’s absolutely no need whatsoever to stir up any issues either, so we’re having to contend ourselves with the prospects of watching other teams in Champions League action. I started to watch the Barca v Bayern game and whilst it wasn’t too cagey in the first half, chances being at a premium as they were, I decided to catch up on a bit of Game of Thrones in the second. More fool me, it appears, as Messi once again stole the show. 

He’s often the difference – much like Ronaldo, I must admit through gritted teeth – for Barcelona and given that it’s widely accepted that those two are very much ‘one offs’ I do find it humorous how dependent both teams are on those two. Sure, there are plenty of quality players in the team, but those two stand out. Which is why I crease a smile when I see people in the media talk about Giroud and a team not being capable of winning things unless they have a ‘world class’ player in their team. From what I’ve seen over the last 48 hours, there are players in all four Champions League semi-finalists – three of four who will be Champions of their respective leagues within the next few weeks – who I would class as not quite ‘world class’. So does the logic that you need to have world class players only applicable to English teams.

Yes, some would have you think, particularly when no English team is in the semi finals of European’s premier competition. For that is how the media judges everything. Not based on practicalities of performance, but on whether you’ve navigated a knockout comp. Chelski under Roberto Di Matteo were clearly the best team in Europe when they won it. Ha!

Still, at least we all do our best to drown out the hum-drum of the English press as best we can, with the help of Arsène and the team. Starting at some stage today with some sort of team news. Hopefully Ramsey has overcome his ankle knock and is available, but if not it will be a fine opportunity for Theo to ask the manager if he can have a go.

It’s funny, as we near the end of the season I am hoping we start to see some more rotation, because we want all of the players feeling like they can win their place back in to the team next season. There have been numerous accounts of players talking about how everyone is trying extra hard to win a place in the first XI in the wake of stiff competition, but Arsène does need to get the balance right, so freezing out some players isn’t really something I think should be considered and I do think he should rotate a few players where he can. I may be derided for what I’m about to say, but Chamakh and Jenkinson – when afforded time in the first team – were able to show that they were decent players. It was only when they were left out of the team for a prolonged period of time that they looked like weak links in the team.

Form and regular game time breeds confidence, as Jenkinson for West Ham and Coquelin for us have shown this season, which is why Arsène needs to strike a blend of giving players continuous game time to build momentum and rotating so that other players can hit the ground running if called upon through injury or suspension to others.

We’ve had problems in the past where the starting XI was the starting XI and as a result the squad players knew they didn’t stand a chance of staking a claim in the side even if they played and played well. We don’t want to go back to that. We need to keep players thinking that they can play in this Arsenal team and that if they string together a run of good performances, that they will get in the team, and stay there.

That’s why I hope to see a bit of rotation in the league. Let’s keep the momentum, but also keep a squad of players who are all fighting and motivated come August.

Catch you later alligator.