Newcastle preview: makeshift defence needs protecting, attack needs closeness

Howdy there partners! Happy Saturday and hopefully one in which all of Goonerdom is blessed with that holiest of things: three precious points.

It’s the black and white stripes of Newcastle United that come to town and quite frankly, after last weekend’s abomination of a performance in the first half against Stoke, I’m looking for one heck of an improved performance from those available today. And therein lies the nub of us on this chilly winter’s day: can we patch together a team capable enough of winning a game against a resurgent Newcastle team that have won six of their last eight and one against Chelski last weekend. They were the heroes for us against Mourinho’s men not seven days ago, yet now we find ourselves facing them as the enemy.

It’s a tough one to call. Over the years, even when we haven’t been great, you usually look at these games as ones that we win. Despite all of our grumbles about not really competing at the top of the league on a consistent basis for a number of years, when you look back at the end of the season and see the ‘W/L/D’ columns, there’s more wins than defeats. So it’s why actually, we get to be happy more than most – because we’re usually one of the best four teams in the division. But this season has been different. There haven’t been any league games in which we’ve looked comfortable at all in the league. Even the Villa game in which we smashed and grabbed three goals in a matter of minutes had its moments both before and afterwards. So I’m not going to expect us to buck this seasons trend and put Newcastle to the sword in the first half like Stoke did to us last weekend. Especially given our makeshift squad at the moment.

So makeshift, in fact, that it looks like Francis Coquelin might even find his way back into the matchday squad by virtue of the fact that he still has all of his limbs, joints and muscles in one piece. The injury list is lengthy and the recall of Coquelin from Charlton has been hastened due to absentees such as Ramsey, Arteta, Wilshere and Ozil, in addition to Ospina, Koscienly, Monreal, Chambers through suspension and even Walcott, although I suspect he might be in the squad today based on Arsene’s comments this week. But it’s all looking a bit ropey defensively, isn’t it? As I said yesterday, it looks like it’s another defensive shuffle that will take place and I suspect we’ll see Debuchy slot in to central defence as the more experienced player in the squad. Mertesacker normally plays on the left of the two centre halves, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him shifted to the right to support Bellerin, whilst Debuchy plays next to Gibbs. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a worry for us defensively and given our recent transgressions in the league, i’ll be biting all of my fingernails every time a black and white shirt ventures into our half.

That’s why the responsibility of the midfield today will be essential. With Flamini back he’ll need to ensure that he gives as much protection to the two central defenders as he can possibly muster. With a side like Newcastle and the injuries they have, the temptation might be for him to venture forward more to support the attack, but that’s not his job and we really could do without some sucker-punching goals like we’ve conceded all season. He’s been quoted as saying that at times they like to win the ball back higher up the pitch, but if Newcastle play with pace on the counter with the likes of Cisse and Cabella, then we’ll need him to be a protector rather than a gallivanter in the opposition half.

I know Newcastle have been in form, but I suspect they’ll want to soak up pressure and not come at us too much. Pardew is not an idiot and will have seen how susceptible we are on the counter, so I think he’ll sit two holding midfielders in front of his back four and hope to hit us quickly on the break. That’s where the form of players like Santi and the Ox will be essential I think. Both will slot in to central midfield and I expect to see them the ones that will battle with Tiote and Colback in the midfield area. It will be on the likes of Sanchez and Welbeck to provide the support for Giroud, who will need a vastly improved performance from the game at The Britannia. He’ll be up agaionst Coloccini and probably Mike Williamson, so his role will be to hold off those two centre halves and bring our pacey wide men into play. We started to see signs of what these three could do together in the final third against West Brom, but today will be slightly different. Newcastle will try to suffocate the space around Giroud, so those little flicks around the corner and knock downs will need to see our front three operating very close together I think, if we’re to get any joy that is.

There’s no doubt we have the players that are technically capable of beating this Newcastle team later this evening, but the real question is around the confidence and mental fragility of this side. We’ve already drawn far too many games and every time we look to be stringing together some results we seem to come-a-cropper with a poor performance. At home it has tended to be draws when only a win will do. Away it has been the damaging defeats that have been hard to stomach.

I’ll be relegated to watching the game in the local pub, as I’m at a family event, but hopefully Ian and his boy (who have taken my ticket today) can bring the team some luck. We could do with it.

See you tomorrow. Hopefully i’m all chirpy because we’ve smashed the magpies. But I’m not expecting it.

Gift horses for Alexis puts us up and running

You should never look a gift horse in the mouth. So when two come trotting into the stables, you lasso them both and drag them over to you as quickly as possible.

Yesterday’s away victory up in the North East to the Mackems was not comfortable, it was not free-flowing, but it was very welcome. Sunderland contrived to give us two absolute pearlers of defensive errors, the likes of which we’ve seen on a few occasions go against us over the years. The one man who was the grateful recipient of the gifts – Alexis Sanchez – was also the best player on the pitch by a millions miles, so perhaps it was fitting that he was the one who was afforded the luxury of a centre half and goalkeeping blunder, such was his hard work both on and off the ball.

Within a couple of games at the start of the season we could all tell that Alexis would be a hit in England. Fans reward effort almost as much as attainment in this country, so when you have a player who regularly achieves top marks in both, you are always on to a winner. Whilst the papers and pundits today will talk about the game in the context of the Sunderland self-inflicted implosion, I’d like to offer a different school of thought, one which suggests that it was the energetic Chilean also had a role to play in the errors. Last season we did not have a pairing like Alexis and Welbeck to push from the front as high as those two players do, so it is highly likely that we would not have profited from the mistakes of Messieurs Brown and Mannone, come the final whistle. But this season, we have that higher pressing that will lead to mistakes if players don’t have time to react when they receive the ball.

Let’s also recognise that for the first goal, Alexis still had a lot to do as he bore down on Mannone. Picking the ball up just after the halfway line gives you three or four seconds of running before deciding what to do, in which time there is often plenty of room to decide where you’re placing the ball and making a wrong decision. Such was the confidence of our tireless superstar, that he simple ‘dinked’ the ball over Mannone, setting us on the way to a well deserved victory.

And you can’t deny that our victory wasn’t well deserved. We dominated possession for large swathes of the match, we had the most clear-cut chances, plus we looked the more assured defensively. In the first half Welbeck and Cazorla both fizzed shots over and just wide respectively, whilst our midfield of Arteta and Flamini controlled possession with consummate ease. Last season there we’d many of us who bemoaned the double pivote, but having watched a stuttering start to 2014/15 and the 4-1-4-1 formation, it was good for us to go back to basics.

Perhaps Arsène recognised the make-shiftiness of of our back four and realised that they needed a bit more protection. It worked. We were hardly troubled defensively for the whole game and whilst some will argue that it was because we played a wounded animal in Sunderland, that sometimes works against you, as the opponents play with a point to prove. Thankfully from this Gooners perspective, the Black Cats never really showed any of that potential threat that I thought we’d come up against.

Which is just as well really, because our free-flowing football has yet to completely return, based on yesterday’s performance. Passing still went awry, we were still very static and laboured at times, and you can tell that this is an Arsenal team that is struggling to find confidence right now. But it’s a bit of a Catch 22 situation with confidence, because you only get it by winning games, so if winning games requires confidence, perhaps we should just be happy that we’ve managed back-to-back victories and a win in a weeks time against Burnley will see us looking like we’ve put together a bit of a streak to take into the rest of the season.

Some words on individual performances. I thought Monreal and Chambers had a good game, although both were relatively untroubled by a relatively toothless Sunderland side, so perhaps sterner tests are to come. In midfield I though Flamini played well and, one two-footed challenge aside (he does like to throw himself in to those), he was vastly improved in his performance compared to a few weeks ago.

Santi Cazorla didn’t have one of his best games. He’s quite good at pretending to be a rugby kicker, because he does like a skied ball high above the goalposts. He had a few really good chances yesterday and I’m sure he’ll be frustrated at himself for not at least working the ‘keeper.

Up top we had the effervescent Alexis, who’s 10 out of 10 performance I suspect might just become a more regular appearance as he gets to know his teammates each week. What a player we have with him. His tireless running even made me feel fatigued just watching him. He’s a star in the making and his energy does, I think, also rub off on other players. There were times yesterday where I saw Santi running down one of the centre halves after Mannone had distributed a short pass out wide to build from the back, to which I could only muse to myself that it was the infectious effort of Welbeck and Alexis rubbing off on our diminutive Spaniard.

Welbeck was quiet and The Ox showed patches of good play, but he was still a bit loose in some of his passing and with Walcott approaching first team fitness, he will be looking at his place in the team and wondering how long he has in the team. A front three of Alexis, Welbeck and Walcott is a mouth-watering prospect, so let’s hope we see a glimpse of that next weekend.

Another injury, this time to Gibbs, prevented the day from being an overall success and you wonder when we’re going to catch a break. Arsène was obviously non-committal on how bad the injury was, but we’ve seen that kind of limping off all too often with Arsenal players, so I’m fully expecting to hear during the week that we have a three of our first choice back four out until after the international break in a few weeks time. It does feel like we’re cursed at the moment, but it’s exacerbated by our own making, of which I’m bored myself of talking about it, so I’ll move swiftly on.

So what did we ultimately learn from yesterday? Well, I suppose firstly it’s that we’re still not at our best and there should be more we can expect from Arsenal. But it feels like we’re underway in the league now and so what we’ll all be hoping to see in the coming months is a series of wins that puts us in contention for those top four spots.

See you tomorrow.

Nervy about form, but a reaction is needed

Matchday! The bestest day of the week! Today it’s Sunderland away and the best thing about football is that it very quickly offers the chance of redemption, so after a number of really poor performances, the Arsenal players could wash away the bad taste left in the mouth from the home draw to Hull or the smash and grab in Brussels.

I’m oop Norf for today’s game with The Management’s family and if I’m completely honest, whilst I’m excited to be popping along to the game this afternoon, I’m also really apprehensive. There are a lot of factors which could mean that this afternoon is not as enjoyable as I’d hope it could be.

For starters there’s our own form. Sure, we picked up a win in midweek, but we haven’t really kicked into gear all season as yet. Perhaps the Galatasaray game was the only exception, but even the Villa game had some scary moments before the match was effectively over at half time and turned into a testimonial in the second half.

We are not playing well and going forward we were quite toothless on Wednesday and on Saturday too. If we are going to win the game today, we can’t afford to be so lethargic in our passing. Our good football is about movement. It’s about pulling teams apart by quick interchanges of possession and willing runners. It’s not about static sideways balls from one side of the pitch to another via three midfielders all in a line. The only way we will win today is if there is energy in the performance.

And that’s the second reason why I’m nervous, because I think we’ll see a Sunderland side with a lot of energy today. They will have spent a whole week stewing on an 8-0 performance and so their players will be pumped today. They will be running their arses off in front of their home fans and so if we are not at it from the first second, I think we’ll be in trouble. Where we were appalling last season was when teams blitzed us in the first 15 minutes. It wouldn’t surprise me if Poyet tells his players to do the same. The first opening exchanges of today’s game might just require us to dig deep and play well defensively. Which leads me to the third reason why I am worried about today…

Defensively we had nothing to do against Hull and we still were masters of our own downfall with the second goal. Forget the first, that was an anomaly and should have been a foul, but there can be no excuses for the second goal. Likewise in midweek, with what felt to me like a carbon copy of the second Hull goal (caught under the flight of a ball and opposition player nods beyond the ‘keeper), we can’t really have any complaints. Today Sunderland will be looking to exploit our defensive frailties by testing our back four with balls in to Fletcher through the channels, most likely delivered by either Wickham or Buckley, or through set pieces from Larsson or Johnson.

If Arsène chooses to field the same side as he did on Wednesday, with Monreal in the heart of the defence, I fear what the repercussions will be. Monreal is not a centre half and so I have no beef with him, but more I have beef with the boss if he continues to choose him. I hope Arsène sees sense and puts Chambers in the heart of the back four, bringing Bellerin in at right back, because I think that gives us more balance than the team that played in the Champions League. Bellerin was impressive against Hull and I certainly think he deserves another shot at playing against a Sunderland side that might give us a bit more space going forward.

Which leads me to trying to finish up today’s match preview blog by being a bit more positive. Defensively Sunderland have the same problems with lack of numbers that we do, and whilst they will be massively up for this game today, they are still the same side that conceded eight against Southampton. If Sunderland aim to come at us and catch us off guard by pressing higher up the pitch, it will give room for Welbeck and Alexis to do their thang. Alexis was awesome against Anderlecht and another performance like that will most likely go a long way in giving us the win. Bellerin might also profit from Sunderland pushing forward, because he did look good going forward against Hull and he is very rapid so he might get a bit of green grass to run into today. If he does, he’ll need the support of the midfield runners like Ramsey and the vision of Cazorla, to support him in finding an outlet in our final third.

The blueprint for our struggles this season has been when teams have sat back and let us pass ourselves to death. I’m not sure Sunderland will do that today. They might do, I could be wrong, but I think their fans will get on their backs if they set themselves up for a draw at home. So them coming at us like Villa did could end up being a blessing.

Keep those fingers crossed Gooners!

Get out of Birthday Jail Card used

Last night Arsène Wenger must have played his invisible ‘Birthday Get Out Of Jail’ card, because after what we all watched in Belgian last night, there are not many people who have a physical or emotional stake in the club that will argue that we didn’t get quite fortunate, by picking up the 2-1 win.

I suppose the counter-argument is that fortune would be a back pass that the ‘keeper shanks into his own net, where as our goals were entirely of our own making through our play, but if you watched the game in the same way I did I’m sure you’d agree too that we were fortunate.

We never ever really got going. Perhaps the warning signs were there early on, when Santi was fed a delightful ball by the stand-out performer Alexis, only for the Spaniard to shin one right into row z. In the opening exchanges of a game you think to yourself as a fan “that’s ok, it’s good we’re getting into those positions, so we’ll get another chance”, but you don’t expect to see the opponent ‘keeper not worked for the vast duration of the game thereafter.

Some way through the second half, it occurred to me that this felt very much like the Hull game, which was a real worry. We were laboured, lacklustre and lethargic all rolled into one and the quick interchanges of passing between players that has typified Arsène Wenger teams done the years just wasn’t there. I pointed out to The Management how static we were part-way through the second half. As if to help me prove my point, I was able to show her six passes in a row that were to players standing still. Successful football teams move into spaces, create gaps, pull teams apart and work at creating openings to fashion chances. I saw none of that for the duration of yesterday’s match from Arsenal players. Paul Merson had said at half time that it was as if none of the Arsenal players wanted the ball. For a change, I agreed with him.

The goal we conceded felt to me as if lessons had clearly not been learnt from the weekend. Another floated ball into the middle, another defender caught under the flight (this time it was Chambers), another half-decent header from a half-decent attacking player. DeJa Vu and Arsenal another goal down to a side that we really should have been out of sight against.

Let’s be honest, I don’t want to seem like I’m being disingenuous to our opponents of the evening, but that was a distinctly average Champions League side that we came across yesterday. You could tell from their build up play and potency in the final third that they were not a side that would trouble 95% of teams in the competition. But they troubled us. They troubled us quite a lot actually.

Midfield was virtually anonymous I have to say. Yes, the defence was at fault for us going behind, but our midfield had an evening to forget. Jack and Rambo hardly impacted the game at all and, whilst he has come back from injury only recently, I hope that it was his lay-off that caused another average display from Ramsey and not a sign of a dip in form. We want to see the Ramsey from last season, not a regression into the player that tried flicks and long passes to the frustration of everybody. Again, let’s put it down to regaining his fitness for now, but I didn’t see any real penetration from the midfield. There are a lot of people in the media world that wonder what Özil does, but without wanting to put an injured player on a pedestal, that is exactly the sort of game we needed him in. I saw about three or four very good forward runs throughout the game in which it only needed a good pass from a player with vision to see, but instead we chose the simple five yard sideways pass and chose to build up play slowly again. Mesut Özil is a great player because he sees those types of passes, and it was that cutting edge from a player with vision that we missed last night.

But for all of this anguish, for all of my assertions in other blogs recently that we have not ‘clicked’, perhaps I should give a smidgen of credit to the players for ultimately securing a vital victory that one hopes is essential in rebuilding what appears to be a fragile level of confidence amongst the players. The goal from Gibbs was an absolute pearler and Lukas Podolski showed exactly what he is – an absolutely deadly finisher – Benjy and Steve had to be virtually broken apart via Whatsapp last night!

So the job is done and the wounds are minor and repairable. But there needs to be a vastly improved performance against Sunderland on Saturday afternoon.

See you tomorrow.

 

Get back to last year’s success story Arsene

What did I say yesterday? When everyone tips The Arsenal to steamroller a top seven side, fates invariably conspire against us to ensure that we don’t pick up maximum points.

It’s hard to be pleased about a home draw to what has been the poorest Spuds team that we’ve played in quite a while. Tottenham came to The Emirates with one goal – not to be defeated – and the Mushroom Man Pochettino ended the day yesterday the happier of the two managers after the 1-1 draw. His was a plan better executed than Arsene’s, as the Spuds were content to sit deeper than we’ve ever seen them before and try to catch Arsenal on the counter attack. And why not? If anyone has watched Arsenal this season they will have seen that we are susceptible to the sucker punch, as this game proved in the second half when the Spuds scored against the run of play. It was a goal entirely of our own making as Flamini was caught out easier than a John Terry testimony.

I don’t know if I am the only one here, but I’m starting to get a little bit concerned with the propensity with which we seem to be conceding first. Not only does it give our opponents something to hold on to, but it puts us in a position where we need to take risks and that isn’t something that’s good for my health. Arsene and Bouldy need to have a think about how we are set up, because it was much more fun last season when we were winning every game 2-0 and being defensively solid. But once again, almost as if to prove some kind of belligerent point, Arsene reverted to the style that we’ve adopted all season and played Ozil on the left. We saw with devastating effect the success of Mesut through the middle, but not only that, we also saw last week how Ramsey was more effective whilst sitting deeper and breaking forward from a deeper lying position. Yesterday was back to the old Ramsey, trying little flicks that didn’t come off and then capping off a torrid day by getting himself injured through a busted hammy in the first half. That problem was also compounded by Arteta who went down with a calf strain and the two will now not be available for next weekends loss to Chelski.

Tactically, Arsene needs to go back to basics too. The most basic principle being winning games. Three all season in all competitions is mid-table mediocrity form and we’ve already dropped far too many points this season with draws. Unbeaten runs may sound good out loud, but if you draw every game in the season you get 38 points and probably avoid relegation by a point or two, so should be taken with an extreme pinch of salt. To be honest, from the Gooners I talk to and follow, none are particularly over the moon with the fact we’re unbeaten, especially when you consider that the record will be dead and buried by next Sunday evening. I’m treating it as a forgone conclusion because, unlike Arsenal, when pundits tell the world that Chelski will roll over us, that is what usually happens.

Arsene needs to recognise who his best players are and play them in their best positions. Alexis’ best position – last time I checked – wasn’t sitting on the bench patiently waiting for the 75th minute to come when Arsene makes his customary substitution. Why on earth he didn’t start yesterday is a mystery. Actually, I don’t think it is a mystery at all. I think that Arsene is trying frantically to have a formation that affords Wilshere a space in the team. To Jack’s credit, he did ok yesterday, but with Rambo and Arteta having established the hierarchy last season of being on the teamsheets first and foremost, Arsene won’t drop them or Ozil, which is why Mesut is being shunted out wide. The hamstring injury to Rambo will allow Wilshere to sit alongside Flamini in the coming weeks and give Jack licence to be that box-to-boxer that we all want. It will also force Arsene into playing Ozil centrally, something that I’m pretty sure would have come to a parliamentary petition by all Arsenal fans at Ten Downing Street, had Arsene pressed ahead with his ‘Ozil out wide’ experiment. Ozil actually had a good game I thought, but he will only be so effective out wide, so needs to be sitting in that hole so he can feed Welbeck those killer balls we’re all craving.

When Santi came on I thought he was really good. He gave a bit more purpose to our attacking play and having him on the left with Ozil through the middle and Ox on the right instantly changed us into more of a threat. We should have had more than the one goal we had to show for our performance yesterday, but for some smart Lloris saves and a deep-sitting Spuds defence.

I really hope this doesn’t end up being a season of draws. Last year I don’t think we picked one up until late November and, when you go on long winning streaks it effectively sets you up for a title charge when you reach the halfway point. At this point now, with the tinkering Arsene is doing to the team, it’s hard to think we’ll be doing anything else than staring down the fourth place trophy. Sadly, just before the Ox scored his goal, I was starting to ponder whether or not a defeat today would at least give us the reality check that would be needed to know that it will be another season where fourth place is the target rather than lulling us into the false sense of hope that we’re good enough to win the league. I immediately hated myself for thinking that in the midst of the game and whilst we could still feasibly pick up two goals and win the game, but I can’t shake the feeling that come December our expectations will have been decidedly altered.

Le Boss has some work to do now. He needs to find his best team, not have them injured, get them back to playing what they did last season, plus get us on a winning streak that builds momentum and confidence. The good news is that after we lose to Chelski, we’ve got a run of winnable games until we then play Man United at home towards the end of November. We have to start clicking and clicking now.

Catch you tomorrow.

Season success for the midfield

Howdy friends, hope you are full of the happiness of summer, unless you’re in a part of the world where it’s pissing it down like me. But whilst the weather might be grim, the spirits of Arsenal fans everywhere are still high. We’re not just riding the crest of success of recent silverware, but also celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Arsenal’s famous victory against Liverpool at Anfield in 1989. For some listening pleasure, I’d suggest that you take a saunter over to the GoonerGirls Podcast, as they have run a special pod with Micky Thomas and David Hillier on that wondrous night. Or, if you prefer your Arsenal via the medium of online print, I’d recommend having a gander at Arseblog today. He’s retelling the wonderful feeling of that last-minute goal and as always makes for good reading.

As for me, I was still only a wee nine-year old nipper and so being able to properly take in the gravity of the whole situation was beyond me, so I don’t feel I could be an accurate commentator on the magic of that day that will I’m sure never be repeated by any football match. Ever.

So instead I’m going to turn my attention to the season review and look specifically at the midfield performance that we saw this season just past.

When the transfer window slammed shut at the beginning of September and we all knew what the squad would be looking like for the immediate future, I don’t think there were many that couldn’t argue that our one area of the field we weren’t quite under stocked with was our midfield. The acquisition of Flamini added a little bit more bite from a defensive midfield perspective, the ever-improving form of Ramsey was to get better and better, the purchase of Ozil added that star quality and there was to be the return from injury of Wilshere. Added to that the guile of Rosicky and the consistency of Arteta, you could hardly argue we weren’t well prepared in those roles in the centre of the park. It seems that Arsene had also developed a bit of an addiction to purchasing central midfielders, because January also saw the arrival of yet another in the Swedish shape of Championship Manager 2001/2 Kim Kallstrom legend Kim Kallstrom. Hindsight may be described as a wonderful thing, as we rarely used the tall Swede when another pacey attacking player might have helped us get closer to a league title, but let’s park that a discussion for tomorrow when I’ll give some thoughts on our striking performance over the course of the season.

To analyse the improvements made in the midfield area it’s hard not to look at the return on goalscoring investment made from that area as a very rough blueprint for whether it was a successful season. So when you consider that in 2013/14 those in Arsenal’s midfield contributed to 44 goals of the teams play, yet in 2012/13 it was 26 goals in total in all competitions, it shows you that there were definite strides made in the right direction. And what better way to see those strides than in the stand out player of the season: Aaron Ramsey. Sixteen goals in all competitions in just thirty games started represents an amazing return for a midfielder who has gone from being a hard-working, but perhaps frustrating player at times, to an integral part of the successes of this season. It was so fitting that he was the player to hand us the FA Cup because his displays have been deserving of a player who should be picking up silverware. His transformation – which started in the 2012/13 season towards the back-end but continued in last summers pre season – has been so magnificent to see and I have to say that he has been just “like a new signing” to the team. The goal against Liverpool stands out for me as the most memorable of the season, but what has quickly become his trademark has been the marauding ‘late into the box’ style goals, the type that (apologies for the reference) Frank Lampard has made a career out of scoring. No more important was his impact to the team seen than when he picked up his injury over Christmas and from January onwards we were starting to look a little bit leggy.

But it’s not just Aaron that stepped up this season I thought. Despite much criticism of him – the kind that I guess you can expect from a big money signing – Mesut Ozil has had a good season if you are asking this here blogger. Seven goals and twelve assists in a maiden season is not something to be sniffed at and whilst some moronic journalists accused the German of ‘nicking a living’ without a hint of irony in their pathetic prose, Mesut’s impact on our team has been successful. Much like Arshavin’s arrival, the Ozil capture gave a boost to the squad at the perfect time for us to drive forward our early season form, rocketing us to the top of the table and providing us with that extra creative guile that we need. Had Ozil been furnished with more pace throughout the side in attack this season we might have seen his assist numbers even greater than they are, but as it is I think we can still count this first season as a ‘job done’ from him. The Napoli goal stands out for me as his best of the season, but the performance against Everton in the FA Cup is one in which I think he showed just what he is capable of.

So far I’ve looked at the success in the sharp end of our midfield, but the success of our midfield hasn’t just come from the attacking triumphs, as defensively we’ve seen an improvement too. That’s where you have to give credit to Arteta and the Flamster. His arrival in the summer was seen as a little bit ‘meh’ from some sections of the Arsenal support, but it now looks just as shrewd a bit of business as the Ozil capture, as Matthieu has been able to take some of the burden from Arteta, providing the defence with a strong ball winner to have sat in front of them when it’s needed. Flamster’s stand out moment, unsurprisingly perhaps, has to be a booking the North London Derby in September, clattering Chadli (I think) to ensure there was not a break away. That just sums up him in a nutshell right there, as he promptly received the first of his eight Premier League yellow cards and one red. We’d cried out for a nasty piece of work ever since he left, so perhaps it’s good that we got him back, because having someone in the team that you know is going to stick up for his teammates and will happily do the dirty work is just as important as the goalscorers in any team.

Mikel Arteta probably deserves his own para too, if we’re honest, as he’s had another solid season in which he’s proven his capabilities as a decent – if not spectacular – regular contributor to the team. I do feel for Arteta some times; there have been some fans that have questioned his impact on the team ahead of Flamini, or when Flamini plays alongside him have wondered why Wilshere or Rosicky haven’t started ahead of him. But I have seen why Arsene favours the Spaniard so much. He brings balance, consistency and is an outlet for the defence to play the ball out from the back time and time again. You know exactly what you’ll get from Micky and that must be very reassuring from Arsene’s point of view. He may be a year old, he may have looked a little bit more tired towards the end of the season, but he’s been a very important player in our team and I expect he’ll continue to be so next season too.

Football is a squad game and that is why the depth of our midfield has been so important, so you can’t have a good season without the contributions of players like Rosicky, Wilshere or Cazorla. I’m in two minds to give Santi a shout out in my ‘attackers’ section because his versatility has seen him spend a good portion of the season out wide on the left of the attacking three, but he’s also performed in that Ozil role behind the striker and it’s players like that who are so important to winning competitions. When he has been asked, Rosicky has played very well I think. It’s really hard to step in and play well when you’ve not been able to get a series of games under your belt, but Rosicky has been able to do that and score important goals too. That break away goal against the Spuds stands out for me. Mainly because he had so long to think about what he was going to do when through against Lloris that he could have fudged it. But a calm head on those Czech shoulders delivered. The same can be said with Jack who, despite injuries hampering his season again, still managed to be the key contributor in the best goal of the season by a country mile against Norwich at The Emirates. Hopefully next season he can get a steady run of games and begin to recapture some of his form before he had his lengthy spell on the sidelines.

I’ve racked up over 1,500 words so far talking about the midfield and could probably go all day, so I’ll draw today’s blog to a close, but for me the midfield has been a success story like our defence. Sure, we’ve had some poor games, and sure, we’ve had our injuries, but by and large we’ve come through them and still looked a very good midfield outlet. I’d argue the best in the league.

Catch you tomorrow.

The most fun blog I’ve written – FA Cup Winners 2014

I woke up this morning with a big smile on my face. I switched on the TV this morning with a smile on my face. I am writing today’s blog with a smile on my face. I’ve been writing blogs for about three years now and I have to say, this is the one blog that I was wondering whether I’d be writing any time soon, so I am thankful that it has come. It has been worth the wait.

Arsenal are 2014 FA Cup Winners. The nine year ‘drought’ has ended. The years of media sniping can restart at zero and we can revel in what has, we can all say with relative comfort, been a successful season for The Arsenal.

Drink it in. Football is about special moments that are captured over a short period of time like yesterday and today. We as fans go through all of the lows, all of the pain, frustration and sadness just for the adrenalin highs like yesterday. To see the relief on the players faces as the final went, to see them fall to their knees and to see the visible relief etched on Arsene’s face was something that will stay with me forever.

Players play for clubs like Arsenal because the want to win trophies. It is what drives them and yesterday’s game does not just provide us with a platform for celebration on a hot May afternoon, it also gives us hope that we are that extra little bit attractive to top players. All of those players that have spoken of winning trophies at the club, all of those people who question whether Arsenal can drag themselves over the line, well now we can say that they can. They can achieve their greatness with Arsenal and much like the players we have had the taste of silverware and will become all the more hungry for more of it in future.

We are the joint most successful FA Cup team that has ever existed along with Manchester United. We like that cup and we’ve done it again for the eleventh time in our history. Savor that folks, savor that.

Shall I talk about the game a bit? I guess this is a match review of sorts, but the match itself seems slightly inconsequential compared to the gravity of what has been achieved. Because this Arsenal team weren’t just fighting Hull City, they were fighting history or more specifically, the burden of past failures and expectation for a club like Arsenal. The pressure on the fourteen players that played yesterday was immense and, although it took a superb Aaron Ramsey extra time goal to secure the victory, they were in control and outplayed Hull for about 110 of the 120 minutes in my completely biased opinion.

Unfortunately, it was in those first ten minutes that it felt at the time that a lot of damage was done. By the time we had hit the ten minute point in the game we were two down through a real bit of smash-and-grab set piece football from Hull. First it was a miss-hit Huddlestone shot that I’m convinced just ricocheted off his foot rather than what the commentators suggested that he’d cleverly steered it in. That was after four minutes and it felt like the world should just swallow our half of the stadium up when Curtis Davies slotted the ball in from another ball into the box that was knocked on to the post by one of the Hull centre backs. I didn’t think it could get any worse, so when Kieran Gibbs headed a ball off the line from a corner it really did start to feel like it wasn’t going to be our day. We were shell-shocked and on the ropes through a quick start. It’s how we’ve been undone in all the big games this season and is certainly something I think should be looked at by the team for next year.

But for all of their faults, for the ability to be caught out so early, you cannot criticise the team too much on a day like today, because the response was exactly what was needed. Having got back home and re-watched the final last night, it struck me how dominant we were in possession. Sure, there weren’t very many chances created over the ninety minutes, but when I re-watched it was clear that we deserved to get the two goals back. The first, a sumptuous free kick from Santi, was well placed and superbly struck. The fact that Hull had scored two so early left us with time to respond and so when Santi scored on 18 minutes, we knew that it left us with enough time to re-group and go again in the second half. And we did. We were the team in the ascendancy, we were making all of the forward plays and we were the most likely to score in that second half, so when Koscienly tapped in from a knock down in the box we went absolutely nuts behind the goal. The comeback was well and truly on.

The second half ended by grinding a bit to a halt, as I think both teams didn’t want to do anything silly that could lose them the game in dying embers, but Kieran Gibbs had his chance of glory but blazed the ball over from just outside the six yard box. So it was extra time, and much like the majority of the match, it was Arsenal who looked more likely to score. Olivier Giroud had a header knocked on to the crossbar in the first half of extra time. But perhaps the most fitting scorer to win us the FA Cup was destined to write his name into Arsenal history. Aaron Ramsey will feature heavily in post-season reviews and analysis, because he has rightly been the stand out performer this season, but his finish was that of a player who has elevated himself to such a lofty position this season, that it seems almost unthinkable that he won’t be our main man to spearhead us towards another title challenge in 2014/15. After the heartbreak of losing the cup final with Cardiff in 2008, after the devastation from his leg break, after an injury that has kept him out of the season, this was his reward for the hard work and effort. The fabulous first time finish after another really good lay off from Giroud was one of those goals that only when you watch again you see how good it was. It was millimeters away from the post.

I’m not surprised that there’s already talk about Bayern Munich and Pep being interested, but with the stature of Ramsey and the fact that he signed a new deal very recently, I’d be surprised if that isn’t anything other than a bit of mischievous gutter press tittle-tattle.

There was still time for a classic Arsenal ‘heart-in-mouth’ moment though, as a long punt up field was chased down by Aluko but covered by Per, until he slipped, Fabianski inexplicably came rushing out of his box and didn’t get the ball and thankfully the angle was too tight for him to touch into an empty net.

The final whistle went, Arsenal had done it and the players lifted the trophy, with them coming on to the pitch afterwards to greet the fans. I got myself a Jack Wilshere high-five and a Lukas Fabianski gloved high-five and we left the stadium in a fit of delirium.

Today the team are embarking on the trip around North London to parade the trophy and the news emanating from the club is that Arsene will announce his new deal over the next couple of days. There will be the cynical ones that will question the timing given we’re riding high on emotions right now, but after leading the league for so long, after improving on our league points total and bringing silverware back to the club, it’s hard to not think that he doesn’t deserve perhaps one more stab at seeing if he can win that Premier League and/or the Champions League. He said ‘judge me in May’ and we can judge him now. It has been a successful season and I hope we get a couple more ends to the season like this one between now and when he does eventually hang up that massive coat of his for good.

Until tomorrow. Up the Arsenal