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.

Which Arsenal Players Are Headed To Brazil?

The 2013-2014 season is beginning to wind down for Arsenal, which is now hoping to cling to the fourth-place spot in Premier League play. That alone gives supporters a goal to keep in mind over the last few weeks of matches, but many of us are already looking ahead to what promises to be a busy summer, not just in the transfer market, but on the pitch! I’m talking of course about the 2014 World Cup, where we’ll get the opportunity to see several of the Gunners’ top players competing for high-profile national teams all over Brazil. But which Arsenal players, specifically, figure to compete this summer?

Let’s take a look.

It begins with the English national team, which despite placement in what some argue is this year’s “Group Of Death”—alongside Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica in Group D—is expected by many to compete for a spot in the knock-out stages. The defence for England is all but set, with no Arsenal players to speak of. In the midfield, however, things get interesting. In addition to mainstay veterans Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain figures to play a prominent role even at just 20 years of age. Jack Wilshere is also a possible invitee from Arsenal, though his injury has certainly dampened his hopes, and there are other young midfielders ready and waiting. posted an articleon outsiders contending for World Cup spots and noted Liverpool’s young star Raheem Sterling as a possibility. It’s certainly possible that a player like Sterling could ultimately rob the recovering Wilshere of what once looked like a solid roster spot. Meanwhile, Theo Walcott will also miss the World Cup due to his devastating left knee injury, which could well mean that Oxlade-Chamberlain will wind up the only Arsenal star playing for England in Brazil.

Moving away from England, however, we should be seeing a number of prominent Arsenal stars playing key roles in the World Cup. France will certainly be a team for Gunners supporters to keep an eye on as it competes in the considerably softer Group E alongside Switzerland, Ecuador, and Honduras. In all likelihood, the French national team for the summer will feature Bacary Sagna (who, once thought to be on his way out, may be staying with Arsenal after all according to iSports Times) and Laurent Koscielny in the defense, and Olivier Giroud up front in the attack. And given the relatively easy outlook in Group E, we could well see this trio of Arsenal players advancing well into the World Cup.

Arsenal will also have a heavy impact on a German squad that many have tabbed as the strongest European contender for this summer’s World Cup. Like England, the Germans have a very difficult group to get through (featuring Portugal, USA, and Ghana), but they are still heavy favourites to advance, potentially as far as the final. And a few Arsenal stars will likely be there to help them do it. In the defence, Per Mertesacker is likely to receive a roster invite, though there will be competition in the backfield. Mesut Ozil will play one role or another in the German attack, likely seeing time at midfield but potentially playing up a bit as well to allow the veteran German midfield to stay intact. And then of course there’s Lukas Podolski, who is confident in his role despite some whispers that he may be left off the 2014 World Cup roster.


Ozil the talisman for Germany?

That essentially makes up the bulk of Arsenal’s potential impact on the World Cup. There are a few other possibilities, such as Nacho Monreal or Mikel Arteta breaking through for the Spanish side, but for the most part Gunners supporters should be focused on England, France, and Germany this time around. It’s been a disappointing stretch for a couple of months for Arsenal, but seeing the club’s best players on the world’s biggest stage is always a great deal of fun.

An open letter to the football gods on derby day

Dear footballing karma gods,

I am a good boy. I work hard, pay my taxes and generally try to build enough good karma in my life to make sure that it is a happy one. Yesterday whilst I was out walking I even picked up some litter in my town centre. It was a Robinson’s Fruit Shoot and somebody could have tripped on it.

Yesterday you saw fit to grant myself a small mercy in the watching of Chelski lose to Aston Villa and for that alone I was grateful, but you even thought you would deliver a couple of red cards to Chelski players too, which will ensure that both Willian and Ramirez won’t take to the field next weekend when we play them at Stamford Bridge. Thank you for that. Also, thanks to you for ensuring that Moneychester City’s best central defender won’t be playing against us in two weeks time as he serves the final game of a three match suspension, having been sent off against Hull. Again, I thank you and appreciate that you couldn’t go as far as having Hull win against the oil whores, I understand and appreciate that.

But today is a new day, a special day, a day in which I am beseeching you to grant me all of your cosmic karma powers and help to deliver Arsenal three points. I know that a lot of getting those points will be down to the eleven players on the pitch that play in red and white today, but if you can see fit to grant us any kind of luck on an important day in our season, I will express my gratitude by personally and publicly thanking you and for repenting any of my sins and curse words I have sent in your direction over the last seven months or so. I know I have cursed your hand of fate dealing us injury blow after injury blow, but if you seek to re-address the balance this afternoon I will happily ‘call it quits’ with you. How does that sound?

I’m sure Arsene will do everything in his power to set up a team that is capable of beating our nearest (geographical) rivals today, to make your job a little bit easier, so I expect to see the back five of Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscienly and probably Monreal at the back. In midfield I think Arsene will go with a more defensively minded two of Arteta and Flamini and the three just sitting behind Giroud will probably consist of The Ox, Santi and Poldi. You might have seen The Ox against Bayern during the week; he was superb and at times looked unplayable. What am I talking about? Of course you saw the game in midweek, because you saw fit to take Mesut Ozil away from us for the next month or so. But I’m not angry, I’m not upset, I just hope that you can see it in your heart to give us three points today.

Three points this afternoon will give us Gooners hope. If we get it, it will mean we’re four points behind Chelski with a game in hand and level on points with Moneychester City (although they have a game in hand over us), with them still needing to come to the Emirates in two weeks time. We can speak about that on another day, because I’m probably going to be sacrificing a goat or some similar hillside creature to you around that time as well. Is that what this afternoon’s fixture needs? Do you need me to sacrifice some sort of creature in order to appease you? I’d love to, in fact I have a suggestion in the form of Mike Dean who is reffing the game today, but a) I’m not really the ‘killing’ kind, and b) it would probably end up with the game being called off. Ritual human slaughter isn’t my thing I’m afraid. I will wear my newly found lucky piece of clothing for the duration of the game, in the form of the flat cap I’ve had for about five years but never taken to the football. I wore it against Everton and it seemed to work its magic, so I’m prepared to wear it again today – inside my own house and look like a bit of a wally – if The Arsenal get three points today.

The Spuds are an unpredictable lot, your footballing karma godliness, you know. They have been awful of late and some of their new manager’s (he’s a Gooner don’t you know, so actually, if you think about it, he’s in a win-win situation from his side, so you can deliver us a victory without fear of making him as sad as he was last weekend against Chelski) team selections at times have been puzzling. That makes me even more nervous though, because I fear the unknown and we don’t know what sort of Tottenham team will step out on to the field today. Whoever does play, I know they’ll be massively up for it, so if you could grant us a bit of early luck for which the Arsenal players could capitalise on, i’d be forever in your debt.

Finally, before I bid you my goodbye, I’d just like to point out that we haven’t won at White Hart Lane since 2007 and so by granting us our first win in seven years, you’d be throwing one of those curveballs you so love to deliver. Like you did yesterday when you made Mourhino look sad.

Yours faithfully and sincerely


P.S. Come on you reds.

Everton: No Saturday sunshine stroll, but a very good performance overall

What a result that was, eh? Isn’t it classic Arsenal though that you’d look at the final score and think it was a comfortable afternoon in the sunshine for Arsene’s young gents, but the final scoreline belies the tightness of this contest and the mental hurdle Arsenal overcame yesterday. In last week’s Podcast that Ben, Steve, Kris (who incidentally I met in the Tollington afterwards – a lovely chap) and I talked about the pressure on the team should they lose the game and how the season could effectively hinge on the result yesterday, given that we’re looking less likely by the day to win the Premier League, as well as the Champions League challenge that I can’t see us getting through. So the fact we managed to get through against yet another quality opponent in the cup bodes well for the team and keeps the momentum going.

Thankfully, despite a number of concerned Gooners thinking Arsene might hit up the team with a plethora of rotational changes, he named his strongest available side barring the goalkeeper and centre forward positions. I could see the logic in giving Fabianski and Sanogo the nod if I’m honest. Both played well in the last round against Liverpool and both deserved another start, with Giroud dropping to the bench. Koscienly hadn’t overcome his hamstring and even if he was fit, I suspect that Vermaelen was always going to be given a shot, having not started for a couple of months because of injury.

I thought we controlled most of the first half and seemed dominant for most of it. Mesut Ozil was superb and dictating the play along with Santi and The Ox. Perhaps it gives an indicator of how well we played that after the game I asked around a dozen Arsenal fans who their man-of-the-match was and there was a 50-50 split between The Ox and Ozil. It may have been the former who got us underway with a smart finish into the bottom right hand corner after a through ball from Santi, but for me this was Ox’s day as he was at the centre of everything that was good. He created chances, was able to get beyond his runners and even on the couple of occasions he lost the ball cheaply, he worked his socks off to win it back. His re-introduction into the first team after the Theo and Ramsey injuries has been very timely and if he continues this form for the remainder of the season you can see us finishing strongly.

Back to the man who needed a performance, Mesut Ozil, who I thought was great. He got the first goal, his square first time pass for Giroud’s second and Arsenal’s fourth was brilliant and he pulled the strings all afternoon. I also thought that we started to see a glimpse of the combination between Ozil and Cazorla that had us salivating at the beginning of the season. I lost count the number of times the two exchanged passes and it was fitting that it was Santi that drove at the Everton defence and slotted the ball to Ozil with perfect weight to get us one up within the first ten minutes.

We continued to create chances and Joel was forced into good saves from Sanogo and the Ox. But as always with The Arsenal there’s a fragility somewhere and we were given a kick in the nuts on the half hour mark when Barkley ran half the length of the pitch to put a ball to Mirallas who miskicked to Lukaku. Much will be made of the Barkley run I’m sure, but for me there were two elements that contrived to stop us from breaking down that passage of play. Firstly, you could see that Flamini was going to go towards Barkley but having already been booked moments earlier, was hesitate to do his usual ‘take one for the team’. Secondly, the positioning of Vermaelen was shocking and if I’m being kind, I’d say he’s a little ring-rusty. However, as Jamo pointed out after the game over a post-match pint in The Tolly, Vermaelen’s positioning has always been a weak part of his game and when Lukaku stroked the ball home for his goal, Vermaelen was marking fresh air between the penalty spot and the D. He made a ricket early in the first half too which let in Lukaku and it was only the profligacy of Barkley that stopped us from going behind. Again, let’s not take up today’s blog with too much negativity and suggest that it was just lack of match sharpness that was a cause of his drops in concentration.

The second half promised more of an even footing, with Everton retaining a bit more possession, but Fabianski wasn’t really ever called into any major action that I can recall. I thought we did very well in negating the width that I mentioned yesterday and I don’t remember Baines and Coleman getting in behind our fullbacks as much as they did at The Emirates in December. Perhaps that is because the outlets of The Ox and Santi on our attacking wings were enough to keep Everton occupied, as both were a handful all afternoon. In fact it was the Ox that won the penalty through his trickery getting beyond Barry and getting clipped. No question that it was a penalty. But with Clattenberg determined to give us a nervous afternoon, he decided that the penalty needed to be retaken because of Giroud encroaching into the box before it was kicked. I understand the letter of the law and why he blew for it to be retaken, but i’m afraid when you have goalkeepers rushing off their line and rarely you have a referee asking for it to be retaken, lack of consistency dictates that he should have let it slide. Either blow up for everything or nothing in my book.

Two-one up and still nervous, Giroud showed that he likes goals at The Emirates by getting two to round off the afternoon and give us plenty of reasons to be cheerful for the rest of our weekend. The first was very well taken actually, given how quickly it was pinged at him from Sagna and the second was a counter-attacking goal that just oozed Arsenal class. Santi out wide to Rosicky, in field to Ozil who without looking and without taking a touch, squared to an unmarked Giroud to slot home and send us off to Wembley. If Ozil needed his goal as a confidence boost, Giroud needed his two in equal measures.

So we’re off to Wembley and today we’ll find out who we’re up against towards the end of the afternoon when the draw is announced. I think we’ll be looking at Moneychester City in the semi’s and whilst I don’t agree with playing the semi’s at a venue that should be reserved for the final, it will be nice to head back there for some Arsenal-related football after a few tough years of late.

until tomorrow, where all eyes now turn to Mission Impossible in Munich.

Stoke; The return of ‘The Feeling’ is welcome

Happy Saturday to you, my fellow Gooners. I don’t know about you, but its first thing in the morning (had to drop the Management off at the airport – working in Dubai for a week :-( ) and I’m starting this blog with a little bit of apprehension ahead of today’s game. Don’t get me wrong, I think we can win it and I hope that we will, but I have ‘the feeling’ back. I remember it well. It was the ‘feeling’ I got when we were fighting for the league against United in the first half of Arsene’s reign. It was the nervousness and apprehension ahead of every single match leading up to the last ten or 11 games in a season, knowing that we were still in the race for the title and knowing that we have our own destiny in our hands. Silverware is still most certainly in our sights.

We do have our own destiny in our own hands. If we win all remaining eleven games we will be Champions. That’s a fact. That we have a host of extremely difficult matches in order to do that, as well as the probability that we will unlikely actually be able to win all of those games, still doesn’t detract from the pure cold, hard, facts that we are masters of our own destiny.

But it starts with today’s game against Stoke. Lose or draw today and not only is it more than likely not going to be in our hands any more, but with the run of games we have coming up thereafter, it won’t exactly have Gooners shouting that ‘I believe’ from rooftops, will it? The margins when you get to this stage of the season are so fine that, if you’re going to lift that Premier League trophy at the end, you really do need to take advantage of every opportunity. Today is an opportunity to keep the pressure up on an away ground in which we’ve won once in six attempts. Stoke – aka The land of Mordor, birthplace of Orcs and Goblins – represent a very real and very difficult threat to our assault on the league. They have already dispatched United (admittedly less of a feat these days), as well as picked up draws against Chelski and Moneychester City and have always been difficult to beat. Indeed, the bookies reflect that in their assessment of the odds. Arsenal are of course seen as favorites, but I’d expect slightly shorter odds from a team that sit just three points off the relegation spaces, so clearly history has played its part in the thinking of the bookmakers.

Will history play a part in today’s game? It’s hard to tell actually. The local Stoke regional rag has certainly been doing its level best to try to mask the deficiencies of this current Stoke sides form this season. Nobody likes a Tony Pulis, but it’s hard to imagine that he would have a well-drilled Stoke side in the same position they currently occupy under Hughes. The need and requirement of the locals in Orcsville was for a more expansive style of football, which they have, but it looks at times as though that has been at the expense of what is at the core of this team – built up over a number of years – and I wonder if that straying away from what they know i.e. longer-balls, target men receiving and relying on set pieces, has been a cause for them not picking up as many points as they probably would have imagined. History too seems to have played its part in trying to rile up both Stoke and Arsenal fans, with Stoke chairman Peter Noakes talking yet again about the Ramsey incident, as well as a quite ludicrous article from Danny Higginbotham about how Arsenal have ‘no character’. I am pretty sure Arsene isn’t the type to stick up a copy of articles in the dressing room before the game, but I hope comments like that filter through to the Arsenal team, because we have character and we’ve shown it on numerous occasions this season.

Anyway, regardless of that, there’s a job that The Arsenal need to do today and if the team plays to its full potential, then we should be able to pick up the three points. The team have had a week to prepare and recharge their batteries in preparation for today’s game, so there can be no excuses on ‘tired legs’ and we have to see a pumped Arsenal team. I think we will. There might be questions about who plays at left back, but the rest of the defence should remain relatively settled. In midfield I wonder if Arsene will offer to reinforce the two anchored midfield roles with Flamini and Arteta, with a three sitting in front of them of Cazorla, Ozil and I hope Rosicky. If you read my pieces regularly, you might have come across my Rosicky ‘love-in’ during the week, so I’m advocating that we thrust our ‘Little Mozart’ into the front line and see if he can’t make music in amongst the snarling Stokies. Up top I’d expect a Giroud hopefully buoyed by his two goals against Sundrland, as well as a full week in which to recharge.

For Stoke they’ll most likely welcome back German clobbermeister Robert Huth, as well as Ireland and Etherington, but thankfully we’re spared that bloke Assaidi, who loves a wonder goal. I hate wonder goals scored against us. Not least because they get replayed in adds again and again, so I hope there is nobody in the Stoke team that pops up with one of those today.

Anyway, I shall be watching the game from a pub in Ware with my fingers crossed hoping that we don’t have to go through hell and back to collect the points we need to stay level with Chelski who, let’s face it, won’t drop points against a terrible Fulham team.

Catch y’all tomorrow.

Jose wants his ball back; we need club solidarity

That Jose Mourhino’s a funny fella, isn’t he? He reminds me of the kid back in primary school that thought he was popular, but everyone really hated him because he was a total hypocrite and couldn’t take it when somebody dished it back to him. Or in secondary school when there was this small kid who was playing for Charlton’s youth team who, when he had the ball would dance around you and you couldn’t tackle him because he’d get the hump and want to start a fight, yet when he didn’t have the ball in the playground he always went in a little to late and a little too hard.

Yesterday, Arsene did the Premier League equivalent of rob him of the ball on the playground and start dribbling with it, as he tried on a bit of the mind games for size and yes, unsurprisingly Jose didn’t like it and accused Arsene of being a ‘specialist in failure’. I’ve got no problem with the Portuguese running his mouth off, much like I have no problem with Arsene spicing it up a bit, although yesterday was another classic example of Le Boss being asked a question and giving his opinion. As opposed to the Irritating One who will venture an opinion that suits his agenda whether or not he’s been asked a question designed to illicit a spicy response or not.

I do have a problem with his hypocrisy though. ‘If you can’t take it, don’t dish it’ my mum used to say and the Chelsea manager should probably have his wife tattoo that motto on his forearm to remind him every day.

I’ve got to say though, I hope that the war of words doesn’t offer any kind of distraction, or that we end up falling foul of those annoying Chavs by seeing them win the league. We don’t normally have football karma falling on our side like they do, so I don’t like tempting fate by hearing that Arsene is having a bit of a poke at some of the other playground kids, because we usually end up with the bloodied nose that, in this instance, would be a trophyless campaign.

Anyway, Arsene extols the virtues of focusing only on ourselves and I should take his lead for the rest of today’s blog, focusing on Arsene related news, because that’s all we ever want to talk about, right? The man himself had his press conference yesterday and spoke about the return of the Flamster, who I think will play against the scousers tomorrow, as well as the fact that Santi was ill in bed and might be a doubt for Sunday. If that does turn out to be true it will be a blow, but hopefully it will give Podolski an opportunity to get some game time in a big match. To my mind he’s a big game player and, whatever Arsene’s reasons for not favoring him any more, you can’t help but think that if he plays he’ll have an impact at some stage. With every passing game it appears obvious that the manager doesn’t fancy him and he’ll be shipped out in the summer, but when you have such a clinical weapon in your team, you’d be foolish not to use him.

His press conference also brought a little bit of information about Sagna too. And when I mean ‘little’ I really mean ‘little, because all Arsene said was ‘no he’s not close to signing. IT’s an ongoing process’. I think it’s fair to say that ‘ongoing process’ includes some succession planning for next season, because we’ve seen this before and the story only ends one way: an exit from the club. I just hope that Sagna doesn’t get a call from United, City, Liverpool or any other English based club, because I think we all still believe that Sagna has a good couple of years in front of him and it would be very difficult to watch him play for an opponent week-in, week-out in the Premier League next season.

I also thought the rhetoric from Arteta was interesting yesterday, as it appeared on the official site, with Mr Lego-hair calling for all players, management, directors and fans to stick together at this time. It was interesting because, off the back of the United draw, there was some booing that took place inside the stadium – reaction to the frustration of not turning over an average United team of course – but when senior players like tricky Mickey are making comments like that on the site it shows that the reaction of the crowd clearly plays a big part in the mentality and response of the team. Indeed, I saw some people on Twitter state that Big Per looked visibly disappointed when the game finished and he was clapping the home support, yet getting that reaction. Hey, I’m not going to pretend that I’m ‘holier than thou’ and that I’ve never booed – I have and it’s always in the heat of the moment to which I usually regret a few hours afterwards – but I think our Spaniard is right and we need to show solidarity if we’re going to get through this season with silverware.

Arsene also made comments about the importance of the fans too, but did temper his comments by saying that the players need to justify the faith that the fans put in. I don’t know why, but I’ve said a few times now that the atmosphere has changed over the last year. It was as if the Bayern home game left us all so deflated, so rock bottom, that we all took a long hard look at ourselves and said ‘well, it can’t get any worse, we might as well cheer our hearts out even when the team is playing shocking’. Thankfully, that mentality seems to have remained over the last year (with the help of some remarkable consistency too, mind) and was recognised by Le Boss when he admitted that the fans were behind the team even at 4-0 down against Liverpool last weekend. I think those kind of moments have a big impact on the players and I suspect they’ll want to repay the faith on Sunday afternoon.

Let’s just wait and see.

NLD preview: nervousness with a wee dram of confidence

Hooray, hooray, it’s Derby Day!

Nothing better than the feeling of anticipation that envelopes you before a local derby. And what with today being an FA Cup affair, it seems to have a little bit more intrigue about it today, so I am an excited Gooner going into a home tie against the old enemy. Today is an opportunity to make another statement in our season. Today we can end the Spuds hope of a domestic trophy (although I realise they are still in with a chance of European success). Today we can take a hammer blow to their confidence.

But what makes the NLD more exciting – in a cack your pants kind of way – is that this fixture could go any way. Yes, we’ve got used to having the upper hand in terms of our league finishing position, yes we’ve beaten them more times than they have us, but rarely do you get an easy afternoon and that all adds to the feeling in my stomach which makes this match all the more intriguing.

It’s a game that has bought about 75 Arsenal wins, 45 draws and 54 wins for ‘them’ which, when you consider the number of trophies we have won, plus the fact we’ve finished above them for so many times particularly in the most recent couple of decades, the win ration between the two clubs seems quite close. It’s a cliché, but that stat clearly shows that anything can happen in the NLD and quite often, it does.

Are you nervous today? I am, but it’s a nervousness with excitement. It’s a nervousness with a wee dram of confidence, because we have once again found form after a mini blip the other side of Christmas and we find ourselves going into the game off the back of three victories. We might have a bit of an injury conundrum or two that need overcoming, but any player that takes to the field today will be confident, so we should too. Some have suggested that playing  a resurgent Totteringham now is possibly not the best time to be rocking up against the lilywhites, but I liked Arseblog’s comments yesterday about Theo’s response to the question about whether or not it was a good time to play them. He’s right, it was a stupid question, Theo’s right about it perhaps not being a good time to play us and Arseblog’s right about the football brain fart that seems to have clouded the journo’s memory that funnily enough, we’re actually top of the league.

But league form goes out of the window today, and unfortunately they are quite capable of getting the win or taking us back to their gaff for a replay, so hearing Arsene say this gets treated as a league game was music to my ears yesterday. We need to be on it from the start because they will want to carry on from their decent win at Old Trafford by taking another big club scalp. And of course, it would just happen to be that time of the year when Greedybayor actually decides he wants to get a few goals, having been told there could be another contract up for grabs for him. He’s still getting wages paid by Moneychester City at the moment, so if he wants the Spuds to go anywhere near half the wages he currently gets, he’s going to have to put in some shifts, which is why we’re seeing such a resurgence from the Emmanuel the Mercenary. If I sound bitter, it’s because I have a nasty feeling that he’s going to do what he seems to have done nearly every time he plays us and score. There’s no doubt he’s a handful when he wants to be, but he seems to reserve his best football for us and by the sounds of it he’s managed to recover from being stretched off in midweek to play again today. That’s why I hope Arsene keeps his normal back four and we see Big Per and Kos at the back, flanked by Sagna and Monreal (with Gibbs still injured).

In the midfield I look at the possible Spuds line up of Capoue and Dembele and think that our three should include Arteta to marshal the Belgian’s movement, plus Arteta who can push forward if Capoue is sitting deeper. If they play the same team that lined up against United, it means Erikson will want to drift across the park and not operate as a natural winger, so with both Flamini and Arteta operating in front of the defence I think that works. Just in front of them, providing he’s fit – and the pictures of him training yesterday suggest so – I think we’ll see Ozil. On the left we’ll most likely have Cazorla and on the right will be Theo, with Poldi up top. The only position I think might be up for question will be if Arsene decides to insert Rosicky into the team, because Arsene does like playing the effervescent Czech in our big games when he’s fit. Plus, Arsene did admit that Tomas and NIcklas made a very positive impact against Cardiff, so I wonder if he will look at that game and decide that perhaps Santi should be dropped to the bench with Rosicky in from the start. Actually, now that I think about it, what about Jack? He’s had a couple of really good games and in my opinion was the best player against Cardiff, so relegated to the bench seems a little harsh, but I suppose it will depend on how Arsene feels over his bowl of cornflakes this morning. The important thing is that we’ve got options. And if we need to, we can change things around a bit, so there is plenty to be cheerful going into today’s game.

I hope we’ll be able to give them lot a tonking, but I suspect this will be a close encounter under the floodlights, so strap yourselves in, and get ready for the rollercoaster ride that is The Arsenal Vs Spuds.

Cardiff could prove to be a banana skin with injuries playing their part

Hello there pop-pickers, and a Happy New year to you and all you know, love and drink with. It’s 2014, it’s the halfway point in the season and if you’re anything like me you’ve woken up this morning with a little recollection of the previous nights festivities, but more than anything else you’re feeling a little bit tired, having woken about five or six hours since you went to bed. Yes folks, in honour of this time of year I’ve decided to try to replicate the ‘fatigue’ factor we hear from Premier League managers, but through sleep deprivation rather than physical endurance like the players we all worship.

Today managerless Cardiff come to town to try to remove the bad taste of having a victory at home snatched from their grasp against struggling Sunderland at the weekend. They will see this game as an opportunity to try to steal some points themselves, because let’s face it, they are big underdogs today and so are not expected to pick up anything. I hate it when that happens, i.e. all the odds appear to be stacked against our opponents and nobody gives them a cat’s hell chance in winning the game, because usually the football fates conspire to deal us an unlucky blow. We’re The Arsenal after all – we don’t benefit from flukey ricochet’sor at least it doesn’t ever feel like it) or dodgy penalties in injury time to preserve a home record. Oh no, we get punished by the footballing gods because we didn’t sell our souls to the devil in favour of money, power or an odious manager who wants everything to revolve around himself.

The news after yesterday’s presser wasn’t grand from an Arsenal perspective. It turns out that Lee Probert was not content with trying to give Newcastle just about every foul they could muster, after the game he ordered a firing squad to ‘take out’ most of our players. Thankfully we got the boys on to the bus in super-quick time, so there was just a few surface wound bullet-hole injuries, which means we’ll have to see what happens with the fitness tests for Jack, Tomas, Theo, Thomas and Nacho.It would be a real surprise if all of the players missed the game today, but it’s not unheard of and if there are any risks on any players then Le Boss can’t take any chances. So It may be the most make-shift of teams that take to the field. You can obviously tell that topping the league on New Year’s Day wasn’t enough for the Footballing Gods: they must have us top the injury league table too now.

It is because of all these injuries, that it becomes really difficult to try to predict who will start come 3pm, but today will certainly be a chance for some of those players that haven’t played as regularly to get themselves some game time. I’d be surprised not to see Poldi and probably Bendtner start-up top and if Theo doesn’t shake off his knock, then expect to see Gnabry get a chance as well. That’s not a bad front three when you consider the walking wounded we have, but it is a three that hasn’t played together this season, so will need to get an understanding of one-another’s movements pretty sharpish. Sitting behind that possible attacking trio will be a midfield that I hope includes Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta. I haven’t picked Flamini because unless we hear otherwise, we’re looking at him potentially deputising for Monreal and Gibbs – both of whom might be injured – which is unfortunate timing to say the least but not unexpected in the Arsenal world. ‘It never rains, only pours’ is a phrase that comes to mind in that regard (injuries to players in the same position).

The back five – left back aside – could remain the same, which is the good bit of news, but I wonder if Arsene doesn’t give Big Per a rest today. I guess a lot will depend on how many other players we’ve got out, because he won’t want to change things around if he doesn’t have to, so whether Vermaelen and Koscielny take to the field today (if Thomas is declared fit), will probably depend on other positions more than anything else. I know there will be plenty of you telling me that Vermaelen and Koscienly doesn’t work as a central defensive pairing – and you’re preaching to the converted on that I assure you – but if there are times where we can give Per a little breather then I think we should try to do so.

As for our opponents today, well, unless Vincent Tan has decided that he’s going to take the reins (not unfeasible given the personality of the Cardiff City owner), Cardiff will have their assistant manager Dave Kerslake (I remember him from my Premier League sticker album in the 90s – had about 15 of him) picking the team and I believe they have no new concerns since the weekend. Thankfully, there will be no Craig Bellamy to irritate us, but their potency going forward will be through the handful that is Fraser Campbell and possibly a recall for Odemwingie. They will flood a five man-midfield and attempt to stifle us through their defensive bulldog Gary Medel, so it will be important that we are spreading the ball quickly and keep our heads in probing, because I think they will set out to frustrate today and hit us on the counter attack.

This is a game that we have all of the tools to win, regardless of who starts, but that doesn’t mean we will, as there is most certainly a banana skin ready to be thrown down by the Welshmen today.

Come on you reds!

How much rotation can we afford?

It’s a tough one today. I’m up North with The Management’s family for Christmas who are all based in the North East, so it’s been a perfectly timed away match in terms of my attendance, but in terms of the opposition it’s not really the perfect time to play Newcastle. Flying high with seven wins out of nine, plus a comprehensive victory against Mark Hughes’ Stoke on Boxing Day, it makes for quite a challenge for The Arsenal to come away with three points come 4pm this afternoon.

What also doesn’t help is that Newcastle could afford to play in third gear after they dispatched their third goal of the game on Thursday. I watched the whole game on Boxing Day and the two sendings off allowed the Magpies to pop the ball around knowing they could wear down their opponents without much worry of running out of steam themselves.

Where there is hope, however, is the way that Stoke broke in amongst the defensive ranks of Newcastle before they lost their first man. Stoke were very bright and Newcastle looked leggy. There was also space for Charlie Adam to dictate the play in that midfield, so my hope is that Mesut and Santi – should they both play – get the same space with which to orchestrate proceedings. If that does happen, then we will create chances, hopefully we’ll also score enough goals to secure the three points.

I don’t know if Newcastle missed the defensive nature of Tiote, but they won’t have to worry about that today, as he returns from suspension to probably have another match of his life no doubt. He loves a game against Arsenal so I suspect he’ll be fired up and running his arse off for the whole game, probably steaming in to tackles, which we will need to be mindful of. Not least because of the last three times I’ve been up here to watch Newcastle, we’ve had players needlessly sent off for silly offences, so the hope is that we can avoid giving a man advantage today and make sure we punish those Geordies. Although after the referees we’ve been given in the last few weeks, I’m having expecting Mertesacker to be sent off for being drop-kicked in the head.

Rotation is the name of the game at this time of year, so I am left pondering what team Arsene will pick for his starting eleven this afternoon. Does Monreal deserve a recall into the side? Should the effervescent nature of Rosicky be called into action? Does Poldi’s impact surely mean that he makes it from the subs bench to the starting line up? As usual this season, there are lots of questions about who should start, but I do think we’ll see a bit of shuffling, but not much. Giroud looked a little off the pace against West Ham, but his inclusion in the team is a no brainer; if he’s going to be rested, it must surely be at home, so Cardiff on New Year’s Day would be a better option for the Frenchman to sit one out.

Either side of Olivier there must surely be a start for Theo and, with the display of Podolski a couple of days ago, I hope Arsene gives him the nod. In the middle of the park I wonder if Mesut should be given a rest, with Santi being given the option of playing in a more natural free role, like he was able to do last season. Sitting behind them I would opt for the defensive screen of Flamini and Arteta to protect the back four, as I think Arsene will be wary of the threat of Ben Arfa, Gouffran, Sissoko and Cabaye. Those four like to operate just behind a main striker like Cisse, so we’ll need players that can sit and control possession in midfield.

I think Kos will return today – we need our best central defensive pairing and that means Big Per and Laurent.

There’s no doubt we have the players and ability to beat Newcastle, but as with all games like this one today, I think the first 15 minutes will set the tone of the day. If we get at Newcastle and were even to score in that time, it quietens the crowd and allows us to take hold of the game, but if we allow them to dictate play initially then we could be in for a long day.

Come on you reds!

No sleep for me as Per plays Gandalf

This may end up a short one today, it may also end up more rambly and nonsensical than usual, because I’ve had about four hours sleep and been awake since 4am this morning. Morning birds, dustbin men, colds; you’ve all made my ‘list’.

Today we’ll get an indication from Le Boss on who will be fit to face the toughest of domestic challenges this season and I think I speak for everyone in Goonerdom when I say:

Please let Sagna be fit.

Jenkinson has done a fine job filling in for the last three games, but this is the next level, to which we need our best back four. We’ll be up against the most free-scoringest of attack lines and I want to see us show the world how far we’ve come defensively which, unfortunately for Carl, means that I’m praying that the hair-braided one is back in contention.

It’s the best defence against the best attack this weekend and big Per knows what confidence a stellar showing can do for the team. He’s urged that the team stay united, together and show that they are ‘strong enough’, which we can all wholeheartedly endorse. He’ll be integral to that and we’ll probably need him to continue his impression of Gandalf the Grey by telling Aguero et al that they shall not pass. His positioning and those long, leggy blocks of his are becoming somewhat of a trademark, so hopefully he can strengthen his reputation against a team that will test us on more than one occasion. As far as I’m concerned, forget Suarez and Sturridge, Moneychester City’s front line at home has been the most potent weapon, but we have the blunt instruments to take the sting out of their sails. I couldn’t really decide which metaphor to go for then, so I though I’d just mesh a load together, in case you think I’m going do-lally. Which I probably am to be fair. Sleep depravation does that to a Suburbanite don’t you know.

Big Per has also been speaking about how a tough European draw can be a good thing for the team. He thinks that it’s better to have an opponent you can really concentrate on. That sounds a little churlish personally, but I can see what he’s trying to say, i.e. Focused minds means they will go into each game knowing that there is no room for slip ups. I would have preferred to save our focused games for the latter stages, but hey, we did it the hard way when we got to the final (Madrid, Juventus, Villareal), so perhaps that is just how we have to do it. Let’s also not forget that we have a big squad that I believe is capable of big things.

Anyway, Per’s partner Lolo has also had his two penneth worth and spoken of the need to keep the lead we have in the title and be ready to fight at all games. All fairly obvious stuff, but it’s interesting that the official site and some of the papers today are picking up on stories from the defenders, because it’s clearly felt that we’re going to be under the kosh for long periods of the game tomorrow. That may be true, but to dismiss our attacking and creative players would be foolish in my opinion, and when you look at how City’s side have hardly been a bastion of defensive fortitude this season, I think we’ll get chances. More of a preview tomorrow.

Finally for today, Tricky Micky has been talking up our chances against any team in Europe and, the. Napoli defeat aside, you can see where he’s coming from. It was a disappointing red card for him which means he’ll miss the first leg of the next round, but with the need to get goals going into a tricky away game (whoever it is) for the second leg, it may prove to be a blessing in disguise. It will force Arsene into playing a more creative midfielder and that can only be a good thing when you’re at home. I suspect he might have a big role to play tomorrow along with the Flamster, although I’ll save any of my team line ups for tomorrow.

As for now, I’m off to consume a sugar free energy drink that has red animals on the front of the can, that shall remain nameless until the day that they send me lifetime supplies to consume at will.