Villa: Tougher than the pundits think

I was in a good mood at the start of the weekend. I still kinda am, actually, but there’s a few things that have made me ever-so-slightly ‘harrumph’ in the last 24 hours, if I’m honest.

The first was upon listening to the always excellent Arsecast, in which I heard that Antony Taylor will be taking charge of our game today against Villa, the consecutive game this season in which he’s taken charge. Quite why the Premier League has seen fit to punish us with, quite frankly the worst referee in the league by a country mile, is beyond me. But the fact that he made contentious decision after decision last season must surely have led to somebody at Premier League HQ making a note and saying “guys, let’s not pair him up with these two teams again, at least not for next season to let the dust settle.

But no, somebody has a sense of humour in Scudamore’s administration, so let’s expect a few absolute shockers for decisions this lunchtime, eh?

Anyway, that Premier League faux pa aside, there are more than a few warning signs for this Arsenal side entertaining the Villains today at The Emirates. For one thing, we face a Villa side who have had a recent history of upsetting us on our home soil. Ignore the details of how we’ve dominated teams, Villa have rarely come to The Emirates with fear, so I’m not expecting anything different this afternoon. Tough to break down and built upon a foundation of deep-lying defenders with little desire to press on, I’m not expecting an open game and if the game has an initial 20 minutes with no scorers, expect ourselves to have a frustrating afternoon.

Villa’s poor league position belies their defensive solidity. Their issue has been scoring goals all season. But teams always have the opportunity with scabby set pieces, so it will come as no surprise tomorrow if Villa are one up after rid only attack on goal in the first half. Less so if Antony Taylor has given a penalty when it clearly isn’t one…we have been warned…

In terms of our team today, the absence of Alexis will be a loss, but you’d hope that the replacements can more than make up for his effervescence on the pitch. I do hope that Rosicky is given a chance. After his performance against Brighton and his recent displays, I feel like he’s earned it, but he’s not as big a price tag as Özil. That shouldn’t make a difference but we all know it might. Rosicky – to my mind – is better on the left than Özil and it should be a straight shoot-out between Cazorla and Özil for the number ten role and right now, if we’re all honest, Santi wins it hands down right now.

The back four should be fairly standard and I’d be surprised if the same back four that played against Moneychester City weren’t preferred against Villa, so Bellerin should see his right back spot returned to him. It should also mean a return for Monreal and I think that’s the right thing to do. Playing players on form is how football should work, so I’m expecting to see our left-back Spaniard get another game under his belt.

As for Villa, I think we’ll see the usual brute force of Benteke being a handful, but I don’t expect us to be under the kosh, so it will be counter attacking football that will be the soups de jour for Paul Lambert’s men. Carlos Gil looks like he could be a bit of a threat after his wonder-strike against Bournemouth, but if we can maintain our high-tempo start to games like we have over the last few weeks, it should peg back some of their creative players.

I’d love to see a walk in the park against a Villa team who have struggle for goals all season, but this is Arsenal and we all know it’s never that easy, so I’m thinking this might be closer than the pundits would have us believe. For once, I hope their all right and we see a comfortable afternoon of football. We need to carry on the momentum with all of the other teams around us winning yesterday, so three points has to be the order of the day, however hard we are made to work for them.

Come on you reds!

Le boss in fine fettle and the club in form; what we all want, right?

Arsene took on the press yesterday and, as expected I suppose given our form and the announcement of a signing to talk about in the shape of Gabriel, he was in quite a jovial mood. I must say, it is much more preferable to me when everyone is a little bit more happier. I think there are some Arsenal fans out there in the world who seem to thrive on misery in some sort of footballing masochistic mindset, because some people only seem to get a thrill when we’re failing. But me, I like it when things are rosy in our garden. I like it when Arsene can have a joke with the press about giving them his address so they can send another signing his way if he is an ‘exceptional talent’.

Le Boss told the assembled hacks that Gabriel was ready, fit and will go straight into the squad, which is lovely to hear and something that will be a great boost to the squad as a whole. He may not speak enough English yet, but his fellow Spaniard’s in the team will give him enough support and I suspect that if we can get ourselves a comfortable lead on Sunday (which I don’t think will happen by the way; I suspect Villa will be hard to break down and it will be a tighter game than the pundits are suggesting, but more on that tomorrow), we might see Gabriel as a sub appearance to ease him in to the team.

The only downer that you could possibly have on the presser yesterday was the confirmation from Arsene that Alexis is unlikely to be risked. He’s picked up a knock and as a result I think Wenger will play the cautious game. It’s a sensible option and one that is made all the easier for the boss by the form of other players, as well as the fact that we have somebody like Rosicky who, in my opinion, deserves another run in the team after the Brighton game. Of course, the options are such now, that Rosicky may not even start, and with Ozil back you wonder if it will be a combination of Santi/Ozil or Santi/Rosicky for that left wing position. My preference would be Rosicky out wide left because I think the best players who are in the best form need to play and Santi is in the best form so he has to play centrally. Ozil out wide left hasn’t worked as much, but Rosicky has more experience in that position, so I’d give him the nod. But second guessing Arsene is like trying to break the Enigma machine, so I’ll not bother trying with that just yet.

Welbeck, Jack and the Ox are still out, but with the sheer volume of quality players we have at the moment – something Arsene confirmed when he spoke yesterday when replying to whether there would be any more signings – means that we have plenty of options to cater for our massive injury list. You just watch: now that we seem to have found solutions to the troubled positions that have been rocked by injury, we’ll end up having the whole squad fit and players getting unhappy because they’re not playing as much. I guess we’d all rather have that than the other end of the spectrum though, i.e. no players fit so we go back to putting square pegs in round holes!

I do wonder with the Welbeck situation, whether Arsene is being ‘ultra cautious’ because he has other players that he wants to play who are in form over recent weeks, hence why he won’t be featured this weekend. Arsene has said that in the past he’s told the press that a player is injured, or has a ‘little bit knock’ of varying degrees, but with the form post Moneychester City and Brighton, Welbeck doesn’t just walk straight in to this team. It saves his, as well as Arsene, a job of fitting players in if one is a bit ‘short’. I know I’m going all conspiracy theory-esque on you now, but it just seems convenient that Welbeck is back on Monday and, after Rosicky will have played the last few games back-to-back, Arsene might then have a get out by saying ‘look, he is 34 and he cannot play every week, so I have to be able to rest him’. I know, I know, I’m getting way to hypothetical here – especially if Rosicky doesn’t play tomorrow – but given that I saw somebody on Twitter speak about how they had met Welbeck and he’d said he is fit, it feels like Arsene is keeping players back to save their own face as he tries to fit in so many talented footballers into his matchday squad.

But hey, I’ve wanted this for so long (squad rotation) so please don’t mistake my comments as a literary bashing at the manager- they’re really not supposed to be. If you’re going to have a big squad of talented footballers, you’re also going to have a lot of bruised egos when they’re not playing, so the best thing to do is to protect them in the public eye and I’m sure they will appreciate that too. So I say ‘bravo’ to Arsene. It feels like his mindset is shifting and he’s starting to manage the fitness of the players better; rotating them on a regular basis, keeping the competition for places realistic and at the same time ensuring that the infamous ‘red zone’ is this evil thing that is way off into the distance somewhere.

We’re in good spirits right now. A win tomorrow will give us yet more momentum and with a trip to Spudsville on the horizon, it will be good to see that we are in the kind of ‘positive spiral’ that could help us to put on a show and potential collect three points at our nearest and certainly not dearest rivals.

Until tomorrow.

The best results-based weekend we could hope for

I’m in a surprisingly good mood for a Monday, don’t you know, and let’s not pretend it’s not anything else than one of the greatest ‘during the season’ Premier League weekends that any Arsenal fan could have.

Why? Well not only did The Arsenal emphatically put away an in-form Villa team, but every single other team that will most likely finish in the top seven, dropped points of some regard. Liverpool went down to Wessstahhhhhm, the Spuds were defeated at home to West Brom, United were torn apart by Leicester (as quickly as they were ‘back’, they’ve gone ‘back’ on being ‘back’), Everton lost at home to Palace and then Chelski and Moneychester City shared an oil-whoring point between themselves.

I have this weird thing that I’m only truly happen with an Arsenal win if I know that at least one ‘rival’ has dropped points during the weekend. It means we’ve put a little bit of distance between an opponent each time. So when you have weekend’s like this, under my weird logic, it almost feels like we’ve been granted six points this weekend.

To top it all off, we get to be positive about performances like Mesut Özil’s, or Santi Cazorla, or Danny Welbeck. Heck, even Arteta was steady and assured enough at Villa Park, such was the comfort afforded to the team through a quick-fire round of three goals in four minutes. The questions that exist about his ability to boss the bigger games will still remain, but for matches such as this weekend we have a more than capable captain.

Such is the manner and fast-paced nature of football at the moment – with the games coming thick and fast – there is little time to bask in the reflective glow of our awesomeness and everyone else’s inferiority, as the gazes will already be cast towards a Capital One Cup game at home to Southampton. There will be more over the coming days regarding who we might play, but I did have a bit of a chat with a fellow Gooner follower on Twitter yesterday about wholesale changes to the team, as I am most certainly in favour. In fact, with the NLD at home on Saturday, I am hoping that there isn’t one player that will play in that game that rocks up on Saturday early evening. We need a clean and fit bill of health for that match up, so changes to give some of the other players a place in the side will be essential to us having a proper go at the Spuds.

Plus, let’s not forget that the squad is big enough now that we could feasibly see a team made of first team players rather than youth prospects, so it’s even more reason to push for a major reshuffle.

I think there’s almost an inevitability that Welbeck and Özil will be rested, which is just as well given Le Boss talked up their combination play with Mesut playing through the centre. The first goal at the weekend was somewhat of a role reversal for both players against Villa, with Welbeck providing the ball in behind the defenders for Özil to slot home, showing that the fluidity of the team is paramount for the system that Arsène wants his team to play to work.

It is interesting that Arsène has talked up that link play and hasn’t spoken yet of the link up play between Alexis and Özil. Perhaps it is because they haven’t been deployed as a traditional number ten and a striker as yet, or perhaps it is because Alexis is still finding his feet in terms of making those runs in behind defenders, but I suspect we’ll see a bit more between all of that three attacking players as the season wears on. What you can say about all three players is that they are very good at bringing other players into play. They move the ball well, keep retention of the ball well too, which allows for more fluidity and movement of runners in beyond the person that might have dropped deeper to receive the ball like Welbeck did for the first goal.

Welbeck himself has spoken about how he feels there is more to come from him now that he is off the mark and you suspect he’s right. As with Alexis, getting that all important first goal means everything for the confidence and so let’s hope that it means he’ll be slotting home a few chances on Saturday evening against the old enemy too.

That’s all there is from me today. You stay super.

The return of Mesut: Villa review

I remember when I was a wee nipper, Arsenal were away to Liverpool and we hadn’t lost to the scousers for our four years. I was at football training on the Saturday morning and I spent the whole time gloating, so much so he got a bit wound up and left training early to cry. When it came to game time, Robbie Fowler scored a four minute hat-trick and it was me that was the cryer, so when listening to yesterday’s three-goals-in-three-minutes-a-thon at Villa Park made me happy but reflective of the feeling that the Fowler hat-trick did to me that day.

Thankfully I can talk about yesterday’s events safe in the knowledge that a tricky away trip to Villa went exactly to plan for The Arsenal. Three goals, three points, players picking up morale-boosting performances.

Arsène finally listened to his own heart and decided to play Özil through the middle, to wonderful effect, as the German had by far the best game he’s had all season. He dictated play, he got a well taken goal (still had a lot to do when he slotted the ball home, so he should get credit for that), managed to get himself a decent assist and generally looked like the player of this time last year. It’s exactly the type of performance he needed and I’m sure when the final whistle went he was one of the happiest on the pitch. The belief this will give him is important, very much so given our opponents next weekend, so there isn’t a Gooner around that isn’t waking up with a smile this morn.

Arsène too will feel vindicated, because there was a certain air of surprise that he hadn’t benched his Turko-German playmaker, given his recent form. But whilst Arsène changed the line up yesterday – partially to freshen and partially because he had no choice through injuries – he also changed the style slightly with Özil being asked to play through the middle. I’m not sure why being given the role in the middle made a difference, because Wenger has said that he has licence to roam the whole pitch (which heat maps have shown over the last couple of games), but perhaps there’s a psychological element to being in the middle that allows Özil to feel more comfortable.

Whatever the theory behind it, the practice worked, so whilst I/we all chastise Arsène when he gets things wrong, you can’t say anything else other than he got things very right yesterday. So I tip my cap to Le Boss.

Welbeck too popped up with a very well taken strikers goal and, with some important games coming up, it’s important that he is off the mark, because the longer a new striker goes without a goal the more the monkey on his back grows. Let’s hope for more of the same next Saturday.

The game itself was won and lost in the space of five minutes which makes most of the match review element of this blog largely irrelevant, but there should be a shout out to Szczesny, because the Arsenal ‘keeper made a very good save from a Clark header before we scored our quick-fire goals, so we must be thankful for his intervention on the goal-bound effort. Villa had started brightly and they’ve already proven that they can hold on to leads by sitting deep when one up this season, so had that have gone in then today’s narrative might have been quite different.

What else is there to say? We did what was needed and picked up three points at a tricky place to go. We now have Southampton in the COC and then an NLD to stir the passions even more on Saturday evening.

Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Villa: a reaction is essential

Aston Villa is always a funny game. And by funny I mean in no way ‘ha ha’ funny. Rather, I mean peculiar, because despite having a clearly superior team over the last five to ten years (and beyond but I’ve wiped my memory banks of all except the happy memories beyond ten years ago), we’ve found ourselves unstuck quite a few times against the Midlanders both home and away.

So under normal circumstances I’d look at the Villa team and expect us to win comfortably. However, there are rarely ‘normal’ circumstances with The Arsenal, so I recognise that anything could happen come 3pm this afternoon. Indeed, when you look at the form of the two respective teams, it will be Aston Villa fans who will probably be more buoyant than The Arsenal ones. Having smashed and grabbed three points last weekend against Liverpool and having not conceded in their last three games, Villa sit second in the league and will be full of confidence.

What will be interesting about today’s game is how Villa approach the game. With a few wins and momentum under their belt, as well as a home crowd that will be looking for more points and something to cheer about, you could be forgiven for thinking that Villa will come out and attack Arsenal today. However, Villa got their victory against Anfield by defending deep, leaving little space and hitting on the counter. As the home side, they may feel that the onus is on them to press higher up the pitch, which is what I hope happens today because that will play into our hands.

Against Palace and Leicester, Arsenal struggled with a team sitting deeper, so there wasn’t a lot of space for the attacking players to get in behind. That changed with City, who came out and attacked Arsenal more and made for more success for the pointy end of the team, so a higher pressing Villa team will hopefully mean more of the same.

Regardless of how Villa set up, there needs to be a marked contrast in the lethargy of the performance against Dortmund, which is the least we’ll all expect today. Everything was off in Germany, from the passing, to the pressing and the desire too. We looked like rabbits in headlights. I’ll have none of that today please boys.

The selection choices the manager must make today must be questioned. One would expect him to shuffle his pack slightly in midfield certainly, but Arsène will not want to ruin the confidence of someone like Özil, so I still think he’ll play. I also think he’ll carry on with his captain Arteta and Ramsey too. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to see an unchanged team (minus Bellerin for Chambers) from the one in midweek. Personally, I’d rather see The Ox given a chance in the front three along with Sanchez and Welbeck, which would mean a place on the bench for Özil. Jack’s form dictates that he should still start and Rambo has already scored goals this season, so that’s the main change I’d like to see. I’d be surprised to see it happen though. Arsène has been on the Özil defensive this week, which would be at odds with his rhetoric, so I expect he’ll keep his faith in the German.

I really couldn’t call this one today. I’d like to this that Villa will come out and leave space for our pacey front men, but as we saw against Dortmund, that doesn’t mean we’ll change our style and fire more long balls in behind the Villa back four, so if we play our way out from the back when pressed high again, we’ll be in trouble. But I hope that there is a reaction from the players today. I hope they have been wounded from the Champions League defeat and that they’re massively up for it today.

We shall see.

Up the Arsenal!

Arsène and his cassette, they won’t countenance freebies

I wonder why Arsène hasn’t had his pre-match presser yet? He normally does these things on a Spursday when we’re away from home at the weekend, so to leave it all until the last minute, is a bit strange.

Mind you, given his love for a last minute deal – see any of the last four or five transfer windows for an example of that – perhaps he’s developed a penchant for leaving everything in his world to the last minute. When he needs to go the the loo (the one where you have to take a paper or your 5110 to play snakes on), I bet he waits until he is touching cloth before he heads to the throne room.

Perhaps he’s waiting for some good news on Jack and Debuchy. Maybe he thinks that if he waits a little longer he’ll be told that Debuchy will be out for two weeks whilst Jack will be ready for the weekend, but come on now Arsène, we are Arsenal. We’re masters of the worlds longest ‘three-weeks away’ injuries and unlike Chelski, who I’m convinced also sold their souls to the devil every time I see them get away with something (like the Costa lengthy injury that turned out to be a week), we aren’t afforded any kind of good fortune when it comes to injuries.

Maybe he’s just decided that he can’t be arsed with the journos any more. That would be funny. Seeing them all eagerly waiting for his arrival and which words they can seize and re-shape to their own agenda, only to be greeted with one of the PR team quietly walking in with a life-size cardboard cut out of Le Boss and a tape player – a full on old fashioned one that you have to put a cassette into – to which they hit play and all they here on a continuous loop for ten minutes is Arsène saying “congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations!” and so on and so forth.

All this is to say that there really isn’t much to say about The Arsenal today. The players have been speaking to the site about how they must learn from their mistakes, not be naive, yada-yada-yada, but we’ve all heard it before. And besides, none of us like reading or talking about the spoken response from poor performances on the official site, we like talking about how they went away from home after a tough midweek game and gave Aston Villa a right old tonking.

Obviously that’s highly unlikely, but I’d be over the moon with any result that can get us three points come 5pm on Saturday. Villa has always been a tough place for us to go, so I’m not expecting anything less that a really close game, but more on that tomorrow with a match preview I think.

There’s nowt really else going on I’m afraid. Unless you countenance the rumour that Arsenal are in for Lassana Diarra, a free agent after leaving Russia, but I’m not really buying that one I’m afraid. Firstly, he left in slightly acrimonious circumstances, bemoaning Arsène and the lack of game time he got. Secondly, he would probably represent a very Flaminiesque-style signing, to which we already have Flamini so one would have to wonder what the point would be. Thirdly, like it or not, Arsène loves Arteta and he’s his captain so I don’t think he’ll be benching him regularly this season. Do you?

So I suspect that those of you who are wondering about the free transfer market, should probably cast your gaze elsewhere, because this is the squad we have for the next three and a bit months and we need to hope that Arsène finds a solution from within to the shoddy start to the season we’ve had.

As for me, I’m going to go to work, look forward to the weekend and put up some curtains. That’s not metaphorical, I literally am putting up curtains tomorrow, I’m that rock and roll.

Catch you tomorrow.

Formations aren’t the problem, form is

Hello fellow Arsenal supporting friend. I am glad you made it. Shall we converse about the only real team in London worth talking about? Why not, eh? But before we do, I must say, I’m looking forward to the pasting that Chelski receive today from the media after they could muster only a 1-1 draw at home to a Schalke team that are currently languishing towards the bottom of the Bundesliga.

Or how about Moneychester City, whose opponents Bayern managed just three shots less than Dortmund, but who ultimately came away with the same amount of points as us from Germany? I’ve already seen the Metro today, who talk about how City put in a gutsy performance. It would be interesting to see what the response had been had City conceded in first half stoppage time. Media narratives and all that jazz…

That’s not to excuse The Arsenal. We were dreadful and there needs to be a reaction this weekend when we rock up against The Villans in Birmingham. The players have already come out with their apologies, but it’s not that which we seek, it’s victories.

But two wins from seven is hardly title contending form, so Arsenal fan amongst Arsenal fan is currently trying to dissect why we have started so poorly. Injuries? Perhaps. But we have a squad and players with quality enough to put on better displays than we’ve seen. Injuries are part and parcel of the modern game, regardless of the frequency with which they seem to happen to our beloved team. Mathieu Debuchy took to social media yesterday to tell his public that he will find out tomorrow if he needs ankle ligament surgery. One suspects the answer, given the side that he plays for, is almost certainly going to be ‘yes’. That will most likely keep him out until November and the exact problem we didn’t want when the window slammed shut has befallen us earlier than expected. But expected nonetheless.

But I’ve spoken enough over the weeks about the injury curse. Lord knows, you’ve probably read enough from everyone who has something to say about Arsenal, so you don’t need me rabbiting on about it. Instead, I wanted to talk briefly about this change of formation we’re supposed to have had this season.

Now I’m no expert, able to tactically dissect each Arsenal game and offer insight and intelligence that will make you say out loud ‘huh, interesting’, so I can only comment on what I see. There seems to be a general consensus that Arsène has changed the formation of the side this season from last year’s 4-2-3-1 to a 4-1-4-1 formation. This is, according to some, having a detrimental effect on the way in which we play our football. We are being overrun in defensive midfield and we are not looking as fluid as we did this time last year. So this widely held view is that we should ditch 4-1-4-1 and return to the 4-2-3-1 formation.

As I said, I’m no tactical genius, but I don’t really see that our formation has changed at all from last season. Last season we had one player at least dropping deep to cover defensive space (usually Arteta), with one player operating in that all action ‘box-to-box’ role (usually Ramsey) and the creative playmaker in front of them (usually Özil). Then in front of those there was your two wide men and a forward.

Given that Özil is afford licence to roam the pitch as he pleases, that Arteta is still sitting at the base of the midfield and that Ramsey’s role he’s been asked to perform, how has our set up in the middle of the park changed at all? Even the front three hasn’t really changed that much in style, just in personnel, with Alexis out wide and Welbeck up top. Özil’s free role has been shifted further forward to accommodate Wilshere, but that hasn’t really changed us that much, has it?

I’m no Arsène apologist – he frustrates the hell out of me with his actions sometimes – but this perception that he is failing tactically because of the change in formation is a misnomer to me. It’s a convenient school of thought for those that want to use the ‘Arsène doesn’t do tactics, that’s why he should go’ brigade, because I don’t think much has changed tactically from last season. Besides, the players who are asked to do the attacking part of the team are given licence to be fluid in their positioning anyway, so saying that we have defined players for each part of the pitch is a fallacy anyway. It’s the fluidity of the side that made us so successful in the first half of last season, to which I remember blogging about at the time, so I’m certainly not going to suggest Arsène goes all Mourinho on us (shuddering at the thought) and asks his players to be very precise in their role in the team. That is not conducive to the attacking and exciting football we can produce.

So if we have a strong squad (except defence), and the formation and style hasn’t changed, then what has goner wrong that has stopped us from clicking just yet? In my opinion, it’s something as simple as form. Mesut is out of it, Ramsey is failing to replicate it from last season and the back two aren’t showing it (we’re conceding at set pieces again and Dortmund’s two goals were preceded by some very laboured defending I must say). Too many players haven’t clicked in to gear and we have to hope they can. And quick.

You can’t train form. You have to play your way through the bad stuff. That’s what turned Rambo into last seasons world beater and is looking like it’s starting to have the desire effect with Wilshere. We just need a few more players to show form and I think we’ll be back on track.

Anyway, that’s just my uninformed opinion, but what’s yours?