Sunderland preview: Breaking down a defence again

A lovely midweek game to keep us occupied tonight, how thoughtful of The Arsenal to get so far in the FA Cup and ensure this fixture was moved to a midweek, where we would have something to talk about. And that something appears to be how likely Arsene is to shuffle his deck a little bit against a Sunderland team who need a point to secure their Premier League status for 2015/16.

We need effectively just a point to secure our third place status and automatic qualification to the Champions League next season, so one could be forgiven for thinking this might be like that Champions League game about five years ago when both Porto and Arsenal needed a draw to qualify, so both teams played out one of the most drab 0-0s that ever existed.

However, I suspect Arsenal will want to get the job done today, not least to absolutely guarantee that we can qualify, but also because it helps to continue the momentum going in to the FA Cup in just over a week and a half’s time. Our last couple of games have seen patchy performances and for that reason, I think Arsene will be telling his charges that there needs to be a bit more swagger injected in to the performance tonight.

We need to see the Arsenal of three weeks ago, swashbuckling passing and sweeping movements that leave teams like Hull and Liverpool trailing in our wake, unable to respond to relentless Arsenal pressure and precision passing. We need to see the hunger and desire of the players manifest itself in more than the lacklustre game at home against Swansea just over a week ago. We need to see goals and three points for the home side.

That’s why I can understand why so many Arsenal fans are calling for a bit of rotation this evening. We’ve looked a little unconvincing in the last couple of games and whether that is due to a long season catching up with a few players, or whether it’s because tactically it has not quite worked out (i.e. Ramsey out wide right) I’m not 100% sure, but one thing I do know is that there will be plenty of players who haven’t been making the match day XI who should be chomping at the bit to put on a good show if they are chosen. Players like Wilshere, Gibbs and Walcott all spring to mind immediately and I’d be surprised if two out of those three don’t play tonight. Arsene won’t want to make wholesale changes to the side – it will disrupt the continuity of the team – but he might want to freshen things up a bit and I’m all for that.

We’ll already see Gabriel come in for Laurent Koscienly, who has the flu, so I think Arsene may not opt to rotate any more of his back four. Similarly in midfield, I think he’ll try to keep it looking and feeling like it did at Old Trafford, certainly in the last half an hour. So I wonder if Wilshere will replace Cazorla. If he wants to, he could look at Ramsey centrally with Walcott out wide, but I think he’ll keep Aaron out wide tonight. I don’t think he should, but I can see it happening because I just have a gut feel that one of Walcott or Wilshere miss out. I think Arsene wants to accommodate Rambo somehow and that’s why I don’t think we’ll see both of the England internationals starting, so we’ll either see Walcott out wide right and Rambo in the centre, or Rambo wide right and Wilshere in the centre. I’d personally rather see Ramsey centre, so that would be my preferred option.

Up top will most likely be Giroud and Alexis, particularly because with The Ox and Welbeck out, there doesn’t appear to be too many natural suitors for the role. Theo centrally doesn’t work, we all know that and with Mesut performing so much better at number 10 than out wide left, I hope that Arsene’s experiment with him playing out wide left has been put to bed long ago.

Sunderland will unlikely be going with three strikers like they did against Leicester, so I’m expecting them to flood the midfield with five and probably play Jermaine Defoe as the sole front man, hoping he can catch us on the counter with his pace. But at 32 he’s not as quick as he once was and unless isolated against Per Mertesacker, I’d hope we have enough to cope with the Mackems attack. I have seen Conor Wickham deployed in midfield before and so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him operating as a midfielder-cum-striker when Sunderland do venture forward, but I suspect they’ll come looking for a point like Swansea did and I would be surprised if they didn’t look to sit deep and soak up pressure. The difference between Swansea and Sunderland however, is that Swansea are built to counter a lot better than Sunderland, but also have the confidence of having had their best ever season under Gary Monk. Sunderland are down there and scrapping for their lives – which certainly means they’ll be harder to beat – but they also have a bit more weaknesses to expose as a result and I think that providing we’re not going to fire pot-shots down the throat of Pantillimon all night, we should have enough to score goals against this side.

It’s one of two of our final home games of the season and two wins would take us to a decent points tally and third place, putting us in a good position to go in to the cup final riding high. Come on Arsenal, you can do it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laterz.

Exploit the width against Hull’s formation

Today the good lord Bergkamp could see fit to bless upon us the day of St Totteringham, in which we celebrate the mathematical certainty that Arsenal will finish above the other team in North London in the Premier League. Ideally a draw yesterday coupled with an Arsenal win would have made this weekend just about as good as it can get – given the other event that happened at the weekend that I think i’ll just refuse to acknowledge its existence – but at least we now face Hull tonight with the prospect of all but securing Champions League football for next season. Winning will put us nine clear of Liverpool, 12 clear of Tiny Totts and 13 clear of Southampton.

But we still need to do the business because we want to finish second, maintain momentum and win the FA Cup, which won’t be easy. Hull have picked up a few wins lately to practically all but secure their top flight status for next season and I suspect that they will be a tougher opponent tonight than they might have been about a month ago.

We know them well enough from last season’s FA Cup final and they will want to get a bit of revenge on their home turf. They nearly did that to us on our own patch earlier in the season, when we came within but a few minutes of a 2-1 defeat to them, only for Danny Welbeck to pick up a point for us in the dying embers. It was a performance that was symptomatic of our early season start; we were lethargic, not very cohesive as a unit and conceded some pretty sloppy goals. It was at a period in the season in which we were dropping points like they were going out of fashion and at the time of all of those early season draws I have to admit I could not have envisaged that Arsene and his charges would have been able to turn it around so dramatically. But we must acknowledge their hard work to get us in to this positive position, because if any Arsenal fan would have been told after that Hull game that we’d be on track for second with an FA Cup final, after laughing ironically and then whimpering a little bit, we’d have said you were mad. But you wouldn’t have been mad, you’d have just had one of them crystal ball thingy’s, or a time machine. If you do, can you let me know if we win it at the end of May? Would make my disposition decidedly sunnier for the next few weeks.

Anyway, back to today’s matters and the game we have in store this evening. We know Hull will play with a back three, which is what they did in the cup final and is what we’ll see this evening, as well as a bank of five in midfield and two up top. Steve Harper will continue to creak his way around the goal line, which is an opportunity for us, but Olivier will most likely have his hands full with Dawson the most likely to be grappling with us. That will leave Chester and McShane to keep an eye on Alexis and whoever plays wide right. I know this is a little out of the trend, but I suspect Theo would be perfect for a game like today. His pace up against McShane will see him win every time and if Hull are playing wing backs with Elmohamdy and Brady, they’ll want to get forward more than play a defensive line. It could lead to pockets for our attackers and so I hope Arsene’s thinking is to play Walcott – or even Welbeck – in that wide position rather than Ramsey.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Aaron is playing well, but he likes to drift in field too much and if he plays wide right today that will – in my opinion – play in to Hull’s hands. They will sit Huddlestone deep along with Livermore and probably look to somebody like Meyler to also put in a shift. But it’s all in the centre and the net effect could be a level of congestion that doesn’t help any of our midfielders. Get width, exploit Hull’s formation and pick up the win that keeps us on track for second spot, that’s what I say.

To do that, I think we’ll see Ospina, Bellerin, Monreal, Koscienly, Mertesacker, Coquelin all make up the defensive third of the team. The creativity of Cazorla and Ozil will be retained, whilst I’ve already mentioned my preferred front three. Hull have won their previous two games and whilst I think they’ll stay up, their form at the moment – similar to Leicester – coupled with their still precarious position in the league, makes them a very difficult opponent. Apparently, we’ve won our last four Premier League away games by a one goal margin and if I was a betting man I’d put some cash on a similarly close encounter tonight. But we should have enough to beat the Yorkshire side. They are down the bottom of the league for a reason and we are towards the top for a reason – we win more than we lose and they lose more than they win. So we need to pick up the points. Liverpool have struggled there, Chelski relied on a ‘keeper error there to win them the game a couple of weeks ago, so let’s not be fooled into thinking this will be a stroll on a MOnday evening, but let’s make sure we pick up the points by hook or by crook.

Have a good bank holiday and hopefully let’s see it finished off with three-point loveliness.

Drinking in success and the different styles in which we adopt now

These are the blogs that I started this site to write. It’s victories like today that make the daily musings and nonsensical ramblings feel glorious in the extreme. Sometimes there’s nothing better than savouring victory against a highly ranked opponent on their own turf. Sometimes you just have to drink it in, savour every drop and let it linger on your tongue like a single Skip from a bag of the prawn cocktail flavoured crisps.

Sure, it wasn’t a cup final and sure, we still have a lot of work to do if we want to win ourselves ‘old big ears’ again for successive seasons, but by jove, if you can’t enjoy a night like last night (once the final whistle has gone, of course), then I pity you.

I enjoyed it. I was down on my knees on the floor in my lounge with my fists clenched in front of me making a half-relieved, half-elated fist rocking movement. The Management, sat behind me wondering how on earth the fortunes of 11 fully grown men could over 250 miles away could have such an impact, simply stared with a smile on her face. She has become a surrogate Gooner and so is also happy for the win, but probably more amused at the clear joy it brought me personally.

This, in some way, has made up for the travesty that took place at The Emirates earlier in the season. United had been dominated that day but gave us two sucker-punches to nick the points when they really shouldn’t have. You cannot say we didn’t deserve to go through last night in the same way in which United didn’t deserve the points from us in November, but the most important thing for me is that we went through.

It feels like the spell has been broken. The curse has been lifted, banished to the deepest, darkest recesses of the corners of the world. It may not have. We may now go on another painful run against big teams, but for now we can all look at last nights game – as well as the one at the Etihad earlier this year – and realise that this team can go away from home and get a result.

And what a result. Victory against United has opened the way for a Wembley semi final against either Bradford or Reading and whilst Arsene rightly pointed out the difficulty of the Wigan game last season, you’d have to be a fool not to fancy our chances of progressing to the finals at this moment in time. We have momentum you see. We’re on a good run of form and are combining different styles of play depending on the team we are up against. We’ve played swashbuckling domination against the likes of Villa, we’ve played gritty and ‘dug in’ in games against Palace and QPR, we’ve been patient in facing a decent Everton side in which we needed to leave it late to secure the points and we’ve soaked up pressure and hit on the counter in games like Moneychester City and Man United last night. Suggestions thata this Arsenal team don’t have different tactics are clearly wide of the mark (and I appreciate that I too have been guilty of suggesting it on this blog a couple of times, I hasten to add).

The manager’s team selection showed that he now feels more confident than ever to rotate his team according to circumstance. Giroud dropping to the bench had us all stunned, but as Arsene admitted after the win, it was a psychological decision based on Welbeck’s desire to make a statement, rather than injury or form. That must also be the case for the goalkeeping situation. On a day in which we must applaud the victorious and pay tribute to the players for breaking their collective duck, i’ll keep any negativity to a minimum, but Szczesny looked a bit wobbly to me. His distribution nearly led to two very promising chances of scoring and his handling didn’t strike me as that of somebody who was on the verge of reclaiming the starting jersey in goal. Ospina certainly won’t be afraid of losing his place against West Ham on Saturday.

But, like I said, I’ll keep the negativity to a minimum. Now is the time for positivity and the back four certainly provided that. Both Koscienly and Big Per were resolute in dealing with the aerial threat of Fellaini and although Rooney got in between them for the United goal, in the main the back two were solid.

Likewise I thought Bellerin did well, although he was probably lucky to stay on the pitch with a slightly rash tackle having been booked by Michael Olivier early on in the game. In those opening stages I did wonder if we’d get a trigger-happy referee with the cards he would show, but the performance of the man in yellow turned out to be another pleasant surprise. Rather than bow to the significant home support for every decision, he stayed firm and got two big calls right – sending off Di Maria for a shirt grab on him and booking Januzaj for a clear dive. Di Maria’s dive was also noted and rightly booked and as I tweeted yesterday, it feels like the veil of injustice appears to have been lifted at Old Trafford finally. Thank heavens for that. Perhaps, like the players who say they no longer fear going to Old Trafford, the referees have the same mindset too? Won’t that make for some good games, if they are reffed equally between two teams? What must Howard Webb be thinking?

In midfield Coquelin picked up yet another man-of-the-match performance but beside him Santi was also pulling the strings. When you have a team that try and press every man as quickly as United tried to do in the first half and in patches in the second, how important is it to have a player like Santi who can retain the ball through his ability to dribble around players and distribute it? It takes a heck of a lot of pressure off the defence and his contribution cannot be overlooked in our return to form since just before Christmas. Play on little Spanish maestro, play on.

Mesut Ozil too had a different type of game. He was less involved in the build up play, but more involved in overall play and won three separate tackles yesterday evening. Those that accuse him of a lack of work rate will have been left scratching their heads at yesterday’s performance and our mercurial German has only done himself more favours with another good display. He’s putting together a string of performances that are showing his quality, regardless of the tired clichés trotted out from Danny Murphy on the BBC that Ozil hasn’t done enough since returning from injury. I’d wager that Danny hasn’t seen much of Ozil in the last few weeks. I have. You have. We know that his performances have been good for a few weeks now.

Up top Welbeck got his reward – nay, his revenge – from Louis van Gaal and the celebration when he scored was majestic. All too often returning players play the ‘respect’ card. Do the fans want it? Not that I know. If you don’t play for Arsenal and you score against Arsenal I don’t really care what you do. You’re the enemy and I look more at why my own team gave you the opportunity to score in the first place. So to see Welbeck celebrate was brilliant. It was clear joy at possibly securing a semi-final place for his new team. And he did. He is progressing and will be walking out at Wembley in a few weeks time. His former teammates, will not.

The Ox was also good in the first half, which is why his hamstring injury was clearly a big blow in the second, but whilst he will be sad waking up today facing the prospect of a few weeks out (hopefully not longer), at least he can be happy in the knowledge that his valuable contribution has directly led to our progression, through his slalom-like run that tee’d up the excellent Nacho in the first half.

What a great day. A fabulous win, a semi-final to look forward to and a hoo-doo undone.

Thank you Arsenal.

Leicester: restart that run Arsenal

No time for losing ourselves in a metaphorical cave of melancholy made by a weekend derby defeat, as it’s bottom of the league Leicester who make their way to The Emirates this evening.

It’s a game that you’d say should be the perfect type of match for us to play in such quick succession after seeing the team put on such a dismal display up the road on Saturday. Leicester seem in disarray; bottom of the league and with a manager who probably doesn’t know whether he’s coming, going or strangling.

But this is The Arsenal here. Rarely is life simple and whilst you’d think we should have enough to swat aside Leicester with consummate ease, it would not be too far fetched to see Leicester arrive with a game plan to frustrate us all evening. I’m expecting a deep-lying defensive side looking for a point and with that in mind, the manager has some decisions to make on what he does with his first XI. I’d say particularly when it comes to the attack-minded players.

It would be easy to suggest that some rotation of Giroud, Özil and Welbeck could take place, but with the promise of a campsite of Foxes on the edge of their own box I do wonder if Arsène needs to look at technical ability rather than rotating on physical grounds.

Take Theo, for example. A pacey player who can be a dynamo against a team with a high line. Give Theo plenty of grass to run into and he can punish teams by playing off the shoulders of the last defender. But when the last defender plays so deep that the ‘keeper can act as an auxiliary sweeper, his pace is negated somewhat. To some extent, Welbeck is the same, as there are technically better players in the team than the two England Internationals. That’s why I’d choose Giroud, Özil and Alexis as the key forward players. Behind them, the zip and energy of Rosicky must be considered alongside Santi, whilst Coquelin completes the midfield.

Defensively Arsène could probably afford to shuffle his pack for the first time this season and it not be through enforced changes. Leicester will not have as much going forward and I’d expect a quiet evening, so I’d be tempted to give Gabriel a go. Perhaps even Chambers at right back too, although Bellerin would be a better option in terms of getting forward. I’m not sure who would partner Gabriel, but you’d expect Monreal and Ooooooospina! to keep their places.

The first 15 minutes will effectively dictate the manner of this game. Start like we did against Brighton and Aston Villa and you’d expect it to be a rout. If it gets to halftime and we’ve seen no Arsenal goals, there will be some nerves, but even then you’d expect us to win. It just wouldn’t be a comfortable evening. That’s if Leicester don’t score, of course.

Nigel Pearson will probably want to load his team with a couple of pacey players, so I wonder if Vardy and Judd Schlupp (is that the kids name?) will be used as counter attacking outlets, because they are both quite quick players. I haven’t seen anything of this Krameric chap (again, might need to check that name, because I’m not inclined to bother wasting my data charges on him), but if he’s still acclimatising to the league there will be an element of the unknown that we’ll have to watch out for.

This is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. I don’t fancy the Spuds getting a win tonight (famous last words, eh?), which means a victory on our own turf effectively renders their NLD win irrelevant, so I’m hoping for two positive results come 10pm tonight. I said it in the aftermath and I’ll reiterate again this morning; we have an opportunity to win five on the bounce in the league and, if we start tonight, then we’ll put ourselves back on track. Get yourself back on that horse and in the saddle n’all that.

But we have to do the business. We have to be professional and we have to win tonight.

Come on you reds.

The horizon of hope (and less injuries)

Well what have we hear? Good news and returning players from injury? Is that cause for optimism I see galloping over the horizon, heading towards us at a rate of miles per hour? Sort of, I guess, because until we win some back-to-back games, which seems as likely as a Ched Evans apology right now, I don’t think that Black Beauty will neigh its way past us for a few weeks. We have a game against Stoke tomorrow with which you’d hope we can pick up a victory, but the following week see’s us go to the Etihad to pick up yet another loss to continue our dreadful away form against the big teams.

But stop this, Chris, because you’re being positive today so get back on track for today’s blog. Think positive thoughts, think positive thoughts…..3-2-1 you’re back in the room…

So we have the return of Mesut Ozil to all get excited about. Missing since October, his patchy form of the beginning of the season belied his natural ability and I think – as does Arsene if you believe his presser yesterday – that we’re going to see the best of our German for the second half of this season. Arsene spoke about the ‘hunger’ that he has back in his belly and that’s a-ok for me. He’s a man who see’s things that nobody else in our team can do. We may have bemoaned the lack of Cescyness in our team this season, but you only have to look at the sheer volume of assists he made for us last season, as well as for a number of year’s with Ronaldo, to know what we’ll get in our team.

This is the thing you see. Ozil has never had someone at Arsenal with the pace and the ability to get in behind defenders. Ronaldo may be one of the most skilful players on the planet, but he is also a pacey one, getting in behind defenders and relying on his teammates as much as he relies on his own ability. Mesut spent the first half of this season either injured or shunted out wide, with only a handful of games in the middle. Arsene has already admitted that he saw his World Cup players look like they had a bit of what he called ‘artificial hunger’, but with Alexis out wide on the left, Giroud through the middle and one of Welbeck/Ox/Walcott occupying the other position, if Arsene is going to get Ozil in this team it will be in that number 10 role that we’re all craving him to play in.

It will however, mean the end of Santi’s spell in that position and as a result you have to feel for the Spaniard. There are plenty that will – rightly – call for Ozil not to come in until he has earned his place or until Santi’s form has dipped, but I reckon we’ll see Ozil slowly drafted in to the team regardless of how well Cazorla played. That’s just the way he is. He has his favourites. Always has, always will. But hey, at least we now have enough options to be genuinely having a discussion about who has earned the right to play, eh? Much better than looking at a squad and repeatedly reciting the word ‘deadwood’, right?

With Ozil’s arrival we also find more positive news on the injury front, as both Ramsey and Flamini have been declared fit, so it means we finally have more options for the manager to choose from. Competition is important to at the top of professional football, as we’ve seen with Szczesny, so to have Flamini and Le Coq now fighting it out, as well as Ramsey, Ox, Cazorla, Ozil and Rosicky all vying for a starting slot, it augurs well for the players’ desire in the latter part of this season.

That’s why I don’t think Szczesny should be dropped right now, actually, because I think the knowledge that his position is under threat might just spark the kind of hunger we want to see from him. I have always been a fan of his, but with Ospina now fit and the press even questioning whether or not he should start along with some Arsenal fans, you do wonder if that is exactly what the Pole needs to recapture his form on amore consistent basis. Just think about what happened to him when the very real threat of Fabianski suddenly materialised after a few years of him clearly not challenging Wojciech for the gloves? It made him a better player and he even admitted it.

So I’d be inclined to make a public statement if I was the manager and start him tomorrow, but with a private sentiment that he’s a game or two away from losing his place on a longer term basis.

By the sounds of it Arsene was in fine form yesterday, making the odd joke and even being slightly coy with his response about the whole smoking thing and there being someone who leaked information into the dressing room. I bet Stevie Bould is shifting a bit awkwardly in his seat today, because John Jensen did him up like a kipper by leaking the info about the smoking a few weeks back. Anyway, water under the bridge, or water out of the showers and onto a Benson & Hedges, I guess you could say. Everyone will move on and hopefully we’ll do the business tomorrow.

I could talk a little bit about the transfer stuff, but I really can’t be bothered if I’m honest with you. There will be plenty of time to be looking at that sort of stuff when the football isn’t on, so let’s just be happy in our Saturday activities, safe in the knowledge that for the first time in a long time, we’ve got a squad that is looking more impressive week-by-week.

So long, you wonderful lemon flavoured popsicle sticks.

Grinding out victories at a crucial time in the season

I am a happy Christmas Gooner today, I can tell you. There may be a slight frost in the air, I may have over-eaten myself to within an inch of my life, but waking up knowing you can read the papers, look on Sky Sports News and generally not get worked up is a very good feeling. And It’s down to that team we all love.

See Arsenal? That’s all you have to do to make me happy. I’m a simple man with simple desires. I desire to see you win every game and when you do it – whether by playing well or not –  then I remain happy. I don’t care about personal feelings for individual players, the manager or other fans that search for the utopia of perfect football, I just want to see results. That’s what this time of the year is exactly about. So when you see Arsenal go to an in-form West Ham and come back with a result, it brings a smile that reaches from ear to ear.

Let’s not forget that this was a West Ham team that have already dispatched Manchester City and Liverpool and were a point clear of us before the game. With the Spuds and United dropping points and Southampton picking up a point, a defeat yesterday would have further sent us all spiralling into a mire of disappointment that would hardly have set us up for an excited first game of 2015, would it?

I don’t know why, but yesterday’s game feels like it was a really important one. Arsene had spoken before the start of the Christmas period about how it was and important time in the year to be able to quickly change things around by picking up points in quick succession and thankfully, having gone two for two in the league over Christmas, we now find ourselves level with Southampton on 33 points and another victory against them on New Year’s Day will see us start the year in fourth and almost certainly see us as favourites for that ‘fourth place trophy’ that Arsene covets so much.

As for the game yesterday, for me the first half was a stutter one. Not just because of the performance – in which we never seemed to get going until the last ten minutes of the first half – but also because I had picked up one of the worst and most irritating live streams imaginable. Thankfully though, we managed to show enough quality to get ourselves a quick blitz of goals in the last four minutes of the half and at the interval it felt a lot more comfortable than it should have been. Because let’s face it; that Alex Song goal should probably have stood. I can kind of understand why the referee ruled it out, but if that would have been an Arsenal player I too would be raging, like Allardyci was yesterday. It’s a shame really, because it gives Fat Sam an excuse as to why his team weren’t able to put us to the sword in the first half, because they did edge that initial 45 and you felt that the goal might be coming. Usually it’s off somebodies shins, or arse, but thankfully it never came.

Then Santi glided through the West Ham defence and for the second time in two days we had a spot kick. Cazorla was as cool as a cucumber and you have to hope that Alexis was thinking that he’ll be handing over penalty duties to the diminutive  Spaniard from now on. I thought Santi had a cracking game. He’s strung together about four or five of those in a row now and I cast my mind back to his first season and how instrumental he was for us then, and it’s pleasing to know that he’s found form at a time where all around him are the battered and bruised bodies of his other Arsenal midfield teammates who are taking up space in London Colney’s medical centre.

With Arsenal you always know we have to at least score two in games to stand a chance of winning thee match, especially away from home, so when The Ox was able to wriggle free of Cresswell on the right hand side and slide the ball to Welbeck to tap home, there was an instant sense of relief from me, at least for the halftime interval. It was two goals scored very close together and I have to say the game felt a little bit like the 3-0 smash and grab we had against Villa earlier in the season. On that Saturday afternoon we were under pressure from the home team, but goals in quick succession effectively killed the game. It’s a shame we couldn’t have managed another one before halftime (how greedy am I?), because I think we might have seen the same testimonial style atmosphere in the second half if we’d have managed it, but given that we hadn’t played amazingly up until that point, you’d have to say taking a two goal lead going in to the second half was good enough.

Except it rarely is for Arsenal. Two goals always gives the opposition hope and when you have a game plan like West Ham did of playing a little bit more direct in the first half and trying to put our back four under as much pressure as possible, you know that a) we’ll concede and b) in order to win the game we’ll need some decent ‘backs to the wall’ defending to secure all three points. thankfully we had more of the latter than the former and with Koscienly back alongside Mertesacker and a screening midfield of Coquelin and Flamini, I thought we coped very well with the aerial bombardment that we got.

I think I should single out Szczesny too, because he was a lot more aggressive in coming out for the balls pumped deep into the box. You could clearly see that he – and arsenal – had done their homework and decided that an aggressive strategy in punching and claiming balls was the only way they could avoid putting themselves under extra pressure. And hey, there were a few moments in which it didn’t work (like in the last few seconds where Demel probably should have scored at the back post), but by and large it did and when Szczesny buggered it up there was always a defender on hand to pump the ball away.

So we’ve finished 2014 on a high and in a good position to make 2015 more fruitful. We are starting to look like there is some form being put together and at a time in which the games start to intensify, that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Well, the doctor ordered plenty of rest and less injuries, but we don’t need to get into that right now!

Until tomorrow, you sexy bitches.

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!