stern test importantly navigated 

That, like Crystal Palace before it two weeks ago, felt like a big three points yesterday. There will undoubtedly be those that will look at the score line and simply shrug it off with  an “it was only QPR”, but we were made to sweat a bit for those three points, both in the first half and the last ten (if you include injury time.

As I said with my pre-game ramblings in the morning yesterday, QPR will have had the time away to reflect, prepare themselves and get plenty of rest ahead of our visit to West London, where as we’d played two games since they’d even graced a pitch in competitive action. The net effect of that was that the first half saw a leggy-looking Arsenal come up against a pumped Rangers team who popped the ball around well and when they needed to, went direct to Zamora. 

The first half was watched by yours truly on a somewhat dodgy iPhone stream, but even with the slightly blurry yellow and blue images moving around the pitch, I could still see that we struggled for fluency. QPR however, looked to test us with getting the ball out wide and into the box, with Ospina thankfully on hand when Per or Gabriel, then laterly Koscienly (our new signing seems tailor-made for the Arsenal, after picking up a hamstring injury, replacing the injured Brazillian in the first half) dealt with most balls pumped in and around the penalty spot.

I do love it when Arsène remembers to bring the halftime oranges though. They provided an injection of vitamin C and energy and we looked more cohesive in the second half. In the first 45 Green had maybe two saves to make, but in the second we tested him more, almost within the first minute or two. 

So in hindsight today I can look at the game and see that the goal was coming. You just don’t see it at the time on account of all the fear and such. You know how it is.

Olivier was in the right place at the right time and as Gibbs – who looks to have won his place back from Monreal – rushed beyond Alexis in the box, the handsome Frenchman was the beneficiary with a quick swivel and finish. Loved it. Loved it because it was a real poachers goal. The kind that Eduardo or Wrighty used to love scrambling in. He’s on 13 for the season right now and you have to say that on current form he might just hit that 20 goal mark. Having missed a third of a season. How amazing would that be?

Alexis too got on the scoresheet and you have to say that if anyone should score it should be him. He hadn’t tucked one away for a while and even Arsène admitted afterwards that this sort of stuff plays on your mind when it goes on for a while. I am pleased he scored, but I have to say I was surprised he started, because to me he’d looked a little tired. His fatigue tends to manifest itself as misplaced passes or running into blind alleys with the ball, rather than the lack of running, but you could see that happening with increased frequency of late, so I did wonder if Arsène would save him for United. But ultimately, we should all be glad this morning that he didn’t. 

I thought Özil and Coquelin also had good games too. Arsène said all the midfielders had impressive performances but with those two I think it stands out more. That’s because Özil has been under the spotlight and in for criticism this season, so naturally we all want him to succeed, so when he does we’re all keen to emphasise it. As for Coquelin, he’s the archetypal ‘unlikely hero’ story that gets better and better each week. He got into the team with displays of energy and high intensity with the odd big tackle thrown in each game, but I’m starting to see more and more composure become obvious, with the more game time he’s getting. There was one moment – an innocuous one really – where he simply sheparded the ball out for a thrown in without touching the ball. That’s the simple intelligence that you need in a covering midfielder. Staying fit for the rest of the season will surely see him remain in the team – even when Arteta comes back. 

So we keep third, despite the fact everyone around us also won, but it’s one game closer to the end goal of Champions League football. Next week it’s the FA Cup but for now we can relax in the knowledge that we’re looking good, in form and players are still banging goals in.

See you tomorrow.

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.

Tasty three points and chances taken. This time

With The Management in situ, blue skies overhead, as well as the ability to share some of the amber nectar before the game after a month off it, Arsenal duly delivered exactly what was needed on Sunday lunchtime with a serving of delicious three-pointage.

It doesn’t really matter that it was closer than we would have liked. You don’t complain about a delicious meal being late when it arrives late (well maybe you do, but that’s more than likely to get any money off your meal rather than anything else) and tell them to take it back. You feast on it. Our footballing meal yesterday wasn’t the tastiest, but it certainly hit the spot and as I sit here this morning typing, all I can feel is the satisfaction that a 2-0 win against a good Everton side brings.

The Toffees set themselves up well. They’re poor league position belies their actual quality and in the first half I suspect they even had more possession and more of the ball in our half than we did in theirs. I have to be honest and say I expected Everton to look leggy and sluggish after their Europa League triumph, but they popped the ball around well throughout the game. 

Martinez’s game plan appeared to be to use the strength of his full backs going forward, to which we had to find an answer and you have to say that by not conceding, we had that answer. The defensive reshuffle of Gibbs keeping his slot and Gabriel stepping in for Per looked decent enough, although I do wonder if Gibbs was acutely aware of a break being on, because it didn’t feel like he got forward as much as he has done in recent games. That was more obvious to me in the second half, as Gibbs plays on my side when we’re attacking the North Bank, but he seemed a little reserved. That’s not so much a bad thing I suppose, because we’ve lambasted our defenders for their poor positional play and ability to be too easily caught on the break in the past. 

Gabriel had one sticky moment in the first half where he allowed for the ball to bounce rather than Row-Z it, but perhaps that was his La Liga self forgetting where he was and the amount of time you get in the Premier League, so we can forgive him that particular transgression. Anyway, he steadied himself well thereafter, making a good last-ditch tackle when it looked like Koscienly was beaten by Lukaku and through on goal. He’s a ‘no nonsense’ defender that will only get better and he’s certainly got more pace than Per, which I’m sure will give peace of mind to Kos that he has somebody else who can challenge attackers in a foot race.

I was also surprised to see Ospina start in goal, as I thought after Wednesday’s indifferent performance he would be losing his place to Wojciech, but I think Szczesny has a bit of a problem now. If Ospina can’t be deposed after a slightly poor game in between the sticks, can he be deposed at all? Unless he picks up an injury, I think Wojciech will see out this season on the bench. Ospina did a good cover job as a sweeper and made a couple of really good saves yesterday too, one in particular which was a fingertipper which would have bought the game level. I still remain to be entirely convinced by him as a long-term option, but he’s doing ok at the moment.

We struggled for fluency at times and half of me wonders how much that was down to Evertone playing well and the other half being down to us looking nervous after the Monaco game. The Ox was both hero and villain on Wednesday with the late show and, whilst he worked a couple of good positions in the first half, he like a few of the players was a little off I felt. His replacement was Rosicky and if the guy doesn’t get a starting spot on Wednesday night I’ll be shocked. He was full of energy, ran his socks off for 15 or so minutes – admittedly everyone else would have been tiring from that time – but got the second goal in injury time, which secured the points and gave us a good seven minutes of injury time which was less stressful than it could have been. Thankfully.

Let’s also be thankful that Ollie G was on the scoresheet too, eh? I did have fears that he’s the sort of player that will let a performance like last Wednesday’s get to him, so he more than anyone else needed to respond with a performance and ideally a goal, which is what he got and we can all be thankful. He’ll take confidence from that and hopefully bag plenty more between now and the end of the season.

Francis Coquelin had a good game too. He was feisty in the tackle and got the reward his game deserved; our adulation and no, not the broken nose! I hope he’s ok for Wednesday because he’s now an important defensive cog in our team.

The only concern Arsène might have is whether he should give Alexis some time on the bench. He was carrying us at the beginning of the season but has gone off the rails slightly of late. He must be knackered because he’s run himself ragged all season and whilst you can’t tell he’s tired through his effort levels, it’s other things like misplaced passes, or running in to blind alleys, that suggest to me that he needs to be given some time to recharge and refresh. Perhaps the QPR game this week offers that opportunity for the manager to rotate.

That’s all I’ve got for today. It was a tough encounter against a good Everton team who created a couple of chances, but unlike us, didn’t take them. Which is the perfect way to respond to the Monaco debacle.

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.

Gritty three points

I don’t know why, but yesterday’s game with Crystal Palace felt like a really big result, in the context of our Premier League season.

There were many people I spoke to during the week who were pretty convinced that we were going to go to Selhurst Park and sweep aside a Palace side who have had a wee bit of resurgence under Alan Pardew, but who have stuttered ever-so-slightly in the immediate past, but I never really believed that the game would be anything other than a challenging 95 minutes (although where the referee worked out those five minutes of injury time was a bit of a mystery to me).

Last season when we played Palace it was anything but plain sailing, but so it was that the home team with their partisan home support, were able to influence the game much more than many would have predicted. Under Pardew you can see that they try to press hard and fast and at times we made it difficult for ourselves with some slack passing of our own, but you can always tell the difference between the top sides and those that languish further down towards the foot of the table. Crystal Palace may not be relegation fodder at this moment in time – nor it must be said do I think they will be come May – but you could tell there was a distinct lack of cutting edge in their forward line.

Pardew is no mug and knew exactly how he could potentially get some joy against our team, targeting Monreal with Zaha’s pace in the first half and looking to get Gayle isolated against Chambers too. In the second half Chambers was run ragged by Bolasie on our right hand side and it was on that side that Palace were able to get the goal they scored in injury time, plus the Murray header off the ball with seconds to go. But again, the fact we were able to take our chances and Palace weren’t able to make the most of the 22 attempts they have, perhaps shows why we are fighting at the top of the league. We have the players to make the difference.

That’s what Welbeck did in forcing the Palace full back to make a challenge on six minutes that led to the penalty we scored. And no Ray Houghton, no Robbie Savage, despite your clear desperation to find fault in decisions given to Arsenal, it was on the line and so is a penalty. Calm down and perhaps stick to playing golf in your retirement from the game.

That cutting edge in the final third means everything, and it was that with which we capitalised through the second goal, a fine through ball from Özil (I think) finding Welbeck and his shot fell kindly to Giroud to tap home. The Frenchman is developing a lovely habit of being in the right place at the right time and is doing it on a fabulously consistent basis at the moment. Long may his form continue.

Long may our overall form continue too, actually, because we’re stringing together a number of wins that are building some real momentum. With United losing, plus Southampton and Liverpool playing each other today, we find ourselves in third and with a run of matches in the league in which you would expect us to pick plenty of points up from. Victory against Everton next Sunday, followed by an away success to QPR during the midweek after that game, will see us firmly secure a good footing on which to build success in our season. Success for Arsenal would be a trophy and securing Champions League football. We still have a lot to do to get that trophy (I don’t fancy United away I have to say. They will be pants, but they’ve made it an art how they can perpetually skank us in every competition), but if we pick up 12 points from the next four games, I’d wager we’d be halfway there to achieving the Champions League objective.

We’re looking good at the moment. We’re grinding out games when we need to, like today, but we’re also adding the occasional bit of swagger to some of our performances. That’s the Arsenal that we want to see.

Now, bring on Monaco…

Palace: negate the pace out wide and play the more technically gifted

So we’re back in league action today and it’s a tricky game at Selhurst park in which the media seem to be all voting for us as their picks for victories this weekend. It’s nice to know what supposed ‘neutrals’ think when looking at games and who should win, but as usual I’m not as blase about the ease of our victories as the pundits.

Under Alan Pardew Crystal Palace have got more belief and have picked up enough results to suggest that they will be comfortably safe for next season. They’re 13th on 27 points and despite the league being so concertina’d in from the bottom to the middle and from the upper positions (Chelski aside), I think they will be fine, but I still think they will be very pumped for this game. Against Liverpool last weekend they were ahead and then looked to sit back on their lead which was never a good thing with a team of Liverpool’s quality. Pardew recognised that and so today I think they will approach the game with a different game plan. I suspect they will look to be compact defensively and with Jedinak back in their midfield it will provide more stability and cover in front of the back four of Dann and Hangeland. Out wide they’ll have the pace of Gayle and Bolasie and Pardew will probably look to isolate Bolasie and Gayle  against Monreal (assuming he plays) and Bellerin respectively, one because of his lack of pace and the other because of his still relative inexperience at the top flight. If they are to be successful against our defensive line you’d expect their joy to come from those wide positions, so it’s important that both of those wide players are negated somehow today.

So much of football is about timing. We played a Palace side last season away from home in a bit of turmoil as Holloway had just left the club. They battled well and although we had a man sent off and still won the game, it was anything but a comfortable afternoon, so I’m not expecting anything other than that today. In August this year they had the ongoing Pulis issues and despite the fact he wasn’t there they were still set up disciplined enough for us to find it very tough to break down. It was only that last-gasp Ramsey goal that saved our blushes on the opening day. We’ve caught them in a bit of turmoil a couple of times since we’ve played them and finally they seem to be coming into a game against us on their own turf in which they have some stability, so I don’t think we’ll find the going good-to-soft today. Based on the games we’ve had against them since they returned to the Premier League, i’m not expecting anything other than a difficult game today with a side that will try to build from a foundation of defensive stability and try to use the flanks to hit us on the counter. Hopefully that is minimised for the sake of my, and your, health!

For us, the importance will be of the technical players and their ability to unpick the Palace defensive line. If the Eagles do sit deep, then I can only see success for us if Arsene names a team filled with players who are technically more able on the ball and can beat a man. Last season Serge Gnabry had a good game and he is an example of why we will need thata type of player. Had the Ox been fit, i’d think he’d be a shoe-in to start. But his injury means that Arsene has some decisions to make. I suspect given the form of Alexis, Ozil and Santi, they should all play. Perhaps Arsene will go as attacking as he was against Middlesbrough and name a very offensive line up which includes those three, Alexis, Giroud and Welbeck. If Palace do sit deep, then it would make sense to try to overload their capacity to go man-for man in their own half of the field. If he does decide that caution is more prudent, however, then I’d expect to see Welbeck sacrificed in that line up first. Perhaps for Rosicky in midfield, pushing Ozil out to the left and Alexis right. Rosicky is the sort of player that can see that threaded pass better, so in a game of fine margins where there might be a compact Crystal Palace side, that type of player is key.

Notice how I haven’t even mentioned Theo yet? I just can’t see how he gets in to the team in a game like today. Palace won’t play a high line, they’ll flood that area of space in front of their own penalty box and Theo just won’t be able to make those runs in behind the defence he likes to do. well, actually he will, but he’d probably find himself too close to Speroni all day I’d expect. I’ve said it enough on this blog that I’m getting bored of my own rhetoric, but Walcott is a player that needs to play where there is plenty of grass to run in to. The games against teams that come out more are perfect and if Palace play the way I think they will today, I don’t see how he will get any joy.

But hey, I’m not the manager, I don’t know what is best for the team so if he does start then perhaps he’ll score and win us the game. As long as that happens, then I’ll be happy and pleased enough to admit i was wrong-diddly-ong.

Fingers crossed we get what we want from the game. They’ve already beaten the Spuds relatively recently so we can’t take anything for granted. If we do win, we then have Monaco midweek, and Everton on Sunday. I said before the Leicester game that we had an opportunity to start turning the proverbial screw in the league with the run of fixtures we have. That can continue today. Nay, it MUST continue today, if we’re going to secure our longer-term Champions League future.

Until tomorrow.