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.

United preview: play with width and stretch an average back four

United at Old Trafford. A game in which historically has had extreme significance, but in very recent times has not been as intense as the early Arsene Wenger years. Neither side is competing for the league for one thing, which inevitably results in a reduction of the pressure, but at least both teams have something to play for today. I remember watching the drab 0-0 draw about five or six years ago when United had won the league and I’m pretty sure we were just about there in terms of Champions League qualification. It was horrid to watch and felt more like endurance training than anything else.

It won’t be like that today though I don’t think. On that day United were just out not to be beat and have a stroll in the May sunshine before parading the league trophy. Where as today they are hunting us down for the automatic Champions League place. We too want that spot quite badly, so it won’t be an Arsenal side prepared to just lie down and take a beating. I hope.

We’re two points clear of United and so a draw would not be the worst result in the world as it would mean that probably a point – with our superior goal difference – should see us just scrape over the line, but we want to do more than that in our next three games. We want to win all three and set up a bit of a confidence booster before the FA Cup final. Just look at Aston Villa yesterday. They were a shambles at the back and it looks like, with Premier League safety secured, they were just coasting on the south coast yesterday. Another performance like that next weekend from them would hardly be the best kind of preparation for an FA Cup Final, so the same must be said about us today, on Wednesday and against West Brom on Sunday next week.

The positive news for us coming out of Manchester is the notable absence of Wayne Rooney. Injured last weekend against Palace, he won’t feature today and given he has a Drogbarian habit of getting goals against us, it can only be a positive thing. Of course the down side is that That Dutch Bloke is back and fit to face us and aside from the game at The Emirates earlier in the season, he’s already bagged a few goals against us in the short time he’s been at United. One has to just hope that he has as forgettable game against us as he did earlier in the season.

Which by the way, I have still not forgiven the footballing gods for. I know we won the FA Cup game at Old Trafford and so perhaps some parity has been restored, but given the nature of the domination we had against United at home, it still doesn’t feel like we’ve been given all of the revenge we deserve. We smashed United that day and they scored with two out of the three attempts they had that day. Oh, and one of those attempts from Valencia wasn’t even going on target!

Yes I’m bitter. I’m bitter because we had so many years of being inferior to United, that when we finally clearly had a better team, they relied on some sort of mega spawny counter attack to win the game. Ok, it wasn’t spawny in so much as it was one of Big Per’s ‘I think I’ll be a winger’ moments for one of the goals, but it just felt like we weren’t getting the rub of the green that day.

I want us to have all the green today. Each little corner of it. Slopes, dips and undulations, I want us to beat United at Old Trafford in the league and bring balance to the force. Arsene alluded to it in his presser – that the victory would represent a symbolic significance to the team – and I think as we draw this season to a close, a perfect way to lie the ‘big-game bottlers’ tag finally to bed will be to win in Manchester once more this season.

Who will be charged with that responsibility? Well I’ll be shocked if it’s anybody other than the team that played on Monday night. We laboured all evening against a Swansea team that didn’t really want to come out of their own half, but today’s game will be almost completely different to that one. I hope, anyway. So I suspect Arsene will charge his players with popping the ball around confidently, being difficult to break down like we were away to City and also to some extent against United in the FA Cup, whilst hitting United on the counter. Just like they did to us.

It’s their last home game of the season and they can still see the possibility of finishing third if we eff it up today and then against Sunderland on Wednesday night, so I’m not expecting anything other than a very difficult afternoon of football watching. I promised myself I wouldn’t have a jar or two this morning, because I’ve been drinking enough alcohol lately, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see an Estrella in my hand come 4pm.

If we’re going to win this game, we need more from Giroud, Alexis and Ramsey. If we’re going to counter we need to do so with Ramsey actually adopting more of a wide man’s role, because if we flood the centre of the park I think it will slow us down and make us too lop-sided. We need to have a good balance going forward to stretch the United back four, a back four that really isn’t that great. But if all of our counter-attacking play is spread to the wide left position where Alexis is, then it will be easier for the likes of Valencia, Smalling and Jones to double up on the Chilean and stifle us. So having width gives us options when breaking out from the back. It gives Mesut and Santi the ability to spread the play to either flank and divide the defenders, giving the opportunity to isolate players like Rojo and increasing our chances of getting in beyond them. That’s where I see us getting joy and that’s where I hope Arsene will be telling Ramsey to be spending a bit more time doing today.

If you’re going, have a good one and I hope the weather holds up for you, if you’re an armchair gooner like me for today, see if you can hold out without resorting to booze. I bet you can’t. I probably won’t.

Laterz.

Ribena soaked Gerrard love is sickening, but not as boring as boring questions asked to Arsene at his pressers

Very quick rant: when do you ever see such an over-reaction to a player leaving a club like Steven Gerrard? He’s been a wonderful player for Liverpool, but the fact every manager in the Premier League has been asked a question about him, the fact there has been interviews everywhere on his story, as well as the fact it’s Liverpool, seems to have stoked some of the most ridiculous sycophantic hyperbole I’ve ever heard from the media. Forget the cake, forget the player and his legacy, this is becoming over the top now. He was great, but he’s moving on, just like Cantona, Giggs, Zola, Bergkamp, Le Tissier et al. Did they all get the same nauseous treatment when their carers finally wound down? Of course not. Because the media are obsessed with this ridiculous notion of the ‘romance’ of Liverpool, perpetuated with the fact that football punditry is littered with ex-Liverpool players who have seeped through our media like cup of sticky Ribena on your nice new material sofa. More than a minute of his presser spent talking about him. Eugh.

Anyway, rant over, let’s have a talk about The Arsenal shall we? After all, Arsene was in front of the media yesterday and was asked the usual idiotic questions like “is having Danny Welbeck out injured a blow?” or “Are you close to signing anybody Arsene?”, but at least he gave us a bit of useful information when prompted by a semi-useful question. For example, the team news, which has been firmed up from the ‘Who’s fit?’ news item that appeared on the site on Thursday evening. Essentially, it’s ‘as you were’ from Swansea and although I’ll do more of a stab at the team tomorrow, I’d be surprised if Arsene doesn’t keep it exactly the same as it is. Debuchy, Arteta and the Ox are all still out, which means the main players you’d expect him to potentially bring back in for some rotation won’t be available. But as I said yesterday, we have the players to cope with those losses so I don’t think there’s many of us going in to this game on Sunday afternoon with our fingers chewed down to stubby ends.

It will be tough on Sunday, we all know that, which Arsene alluded to by talking up the ‘symbolic’ nature of the result. A draw would be perfectly acceptable in our race for third, but I just wonder how the game beforehand will shape how we come out, because if Swansea pick up anything at home to City, it means that a win for us puts us back in the driving seat for second. Finishing second and potentially winning the FA Cup would be a remarkable season given the start, so I think the team will be up for it and I think Arsene – whilst cautious in his presser – will be thinking about whether he goes a little bit more aggressive against the Mancs.

Arsene also spoke about the Champions League play-offs and the pressure of not qualifying. It’s always interesting because it’s often been cited as a reason for us not being able to sign players early, but Arsene admitted that the consistency of our qualification that makes it easier for players and I think he’s right, because a player will know Arsenal’s Champions league record and will be pretty confident that he’d be in the group stages if he was at Arsenal. You can say a lot of things about the club, but you can’t argue with the Champions League record. So why do we sign players so late? A question that was never asked and one that probably a lot of us would really like a truthful answer to. Even if it had of been asked, we would probably not have been given a truthful answer from Le Boss, but at least if a journo is asking those types of questions then they’re giving it a chance for Arsene to open up. I suspect that Arsene doesn’t gamble in the conventional sense – with cards and a roulette table – but likes a flutter in the transfer market and that’s why we get our last-minute signings so often in the window. We’ll probably see the same at the end of August this year too.

Anyway, I’ve got a patio set to put together and some ivy to chop, so i’ll take my leave and wish you all the best until tomorrow.

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.

Profiting from the final; Arsene happy to ditch the hierarchies for form

Howdy gooners. What’s cooking?

How about a big bowl of ‘shut the hell up’ for Cristiano, eh? I must admit I didn’t bother watching too much of the game last night, but hearing that Real were ahead through a dubious penalty was pretty much all I needed to hear as motivation to do a bit of catching up on Game of Thrones, so to then flick back on and find that Alvaro Morata – who wasn’t good enough for Real – had chipped in with his second goal of the two-legged tie, felt absolutely delicious. I have no love for the Old Lady, nor any of Italian football for that matter, but the idea that they have sucker-punched the arrogance of Real Madrid and their free spending ways is enough to make any man chuckle.

I then read an article this morning that said that Barcelona were due to pay us 4million Euros as part of the deal for Thomas Vermaelen agreement that was signed last summer if they win the Champions League and I actually did L O L, because he hasn’t even played in the competition this year. I suspect they’ll be a few pig-sick Catalan’s at the club who will be wondering why they agreed to that part of the contract. So even with no involvement in the Champions League, Arsenal are still making a pretty penny from it if Barcelona win. It’s enough to make you want to cheer on even the most irksome of football clubs, isn’t it?

They will probably win as well.

As for all that’s happening in the Arsenal world, I suspect we’ll either get a bit of an Arsene overview of who’s fit at some stage today, or he might just go the whole hog and do his press conference early, given that the team are heading up to Manchester to play United on Sunday. I suspect we’ll be told about Welbeck and it is my hope that he was given a precautionary game off for Swansea because Arsene wants him to repeat his heroics again come 4pm on Sunday afternoon. Giroud didn’t exactly sparkle for us against the South Wales side, so the door could be left slightly ajar for another return for him.

There’ll be more on who plays over the weekend I’m sure, but before then we’ve heard from Hector Bellerin, talking about how fast he is. Surely that should have been the world’s quickest article to write up for the official site, no? After all, isn’t the answer “because I was born like that. Fast-twitch muscles, you see”. Apparently not. Apparently you have to work on your speed, so says Hector, which I guess would be true, but I’m pretty sure my GCSE PE teacher Mr Polkinghorne (yep, real name) said something about people being born with either slow-twitch muscles for sprinting or fast-twitch muscles for long distance. Mind you, he also said that rugby was by far an infinitely better tactically, physically and all-round entertainment-wise better sport, so his comments are clearly not without flaw.

It’s interesting how Bellerin has kept his place in the side. Much like Monreal, I did think that when Gibbs and Debuchy were both fully fit, that we’d see them both returned to the starting line up with relative ease. In a way it’s pleasing that they haven’t, because it shows the whole squad that the manager is prepared to give more players a chance and rely less on the experience of the player and the number of international caps that they’ve won, than how their form is at present. That is how every successful squad should operate, so the longer Bellerin plays well, the more chance he’s got of becoming the first choice. I have previously said that Arsene loves his hierarchies in the team and it has felt like that with Arsenal squads of days gone by, but I can’t help but look at some of the players that have forced their way in to the managers thinking and be pleased that he has either changed his mind on having hierarchies of players within the squad, or he’s comfortable enough with the squad that he has that he feels happy to keep players in the team for prolonged periods of time knowing that they are in form and won’t let him down. Perhaps that has been the difference between this current team and Arsenal teams of seasons past.

All of which is to say that I – like many of you – feel relatively comfortable with the squad as it is. Even with no new additions in the summer, I’d still go in to next season expecting us to be competitive and do well, which is a mark on how far I think the team has come in unearthing players who are capable of nailing down a more regular first team slot.

Anyway, that’s enough from me, I shall catch the in the morgen.

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.