All about connections

I sporadically tuned in last night to watch Liverpool against Bournemouth in a match that was supposed to be so comically one-sided it wouldn’t seem fair. Instead I saw a hard working Bournemouth team treated to some rough luck as Liverpool scored a goal which, under the rules, should not have stood. Talking about decisions costing people’s lives may sound hyperbolic, but what happens if Bournemouth need a point to survive on the last game in May? 

I’m reluctant to have a chortle at the scouters and their performance, however, after our insipid first game of the season. They have six points to our three after all. But hopefully we can level the tally by beating them next Monday.

Hopefully too, we hear large swathes of the media talking about how lucky Liverpool were last night, a bit like how we were ‘lucky’ not to have Coquelin sent off. I wait with excitement and anticipation on that (sacrasm-o-meter is reading off the charts here folks).

As for us, we’ve learned that a good self talking to is its own reward, as Big Per has explained to in the aftermath of Sunday’s victory. The players coming together to have those conversations is important. It’s one thing to put negative results at the managers door, but sometimes you do need players to take responsibility for their own actions, which it seems like this is happening when you hear stories like this. I do find it infuriating when clichés are thrown around by TV pundits about ‘lack of leaders’ every time we don’t perform as we should. Big Per may not be the best defender in the world, he may not be the most exciting player in the squad, but on the evidence I’ve seen you can hardly say he isn’t a leader. He talks on the pitch, he encouraged his fellow pros and if you look back to the 6-3 defeat at City two seasons ago, it was him who berated Özil for not going to clap the fans after a humiliating defeat.

How is that not leadership? Just because he isn’t thumping his chest and shouting inaudible words when the cameras are in view, he’s not a leader? Those that talk up Arsenal’s deficiencies in leadership should try to get pitch side and watch him. I have. He is a leader and a good one at that.

Anyway, back to the football and the fact that we’re already starting to look at next Monday’s game against Liverpool. It’s difficult to read too much in to last nights Scouse performance in an Arsenal context, because you really do get the sense in these games that it’s down to just getting the fitness levels back, but confidence plays a big part. After that first 20 minutes at Selhurst Park it immediately felt like The Arsenal that we all know and love and not some sort of sabotaging monkeys in Arsenal player shirts with cut out face masks of the first team. The passing resembled the crispness of the end of last season and those players in which their accuracy of passing and ball retention need to be near perfection to show their grace and class, all showed up and demonstrated what elite football is at times. Both Özil and Cazorla were sublime and I hope Arsène realised that playing them both centrally benefits the other in games like that one on Sunday lunchtime. 

It’s about little connections all over the park. Big Per and Kos, Cech and his defenders, Santi and Mesut, Santi and Coquelin, Giroud and Mesut, fullbacks and wide players. The list goes on and on. Yes football is about operating as a team, but it’s also about forming small scale alliances and understandings between players who operate within your own ‘zones’ too. We are fortunate because the lack of a complete squad overhaul has meant that many of those small connections remain in tact from last season, but they still need to be re-established I think. The human brain works best when it can automate certain functions. Repetition of the same act allows us to master tasks. That’s why it’s important for the players to continue those small connections as well as the wider team connection, because it will enable them to understand where players playing parts of the park close to them, will be and then act upon certain situations (players closing down quicker, finding empty space to pass in to, etc) with more efficiency.

So perhaps that’s why some people still need to give Cech a little bit of slack after two games? I’ve seen a few people already blaming him for Palace and whilst it’s true he was at fault for the goals against West Ham, what Big Per says in the linked article above is also true: when you concede goals like we did there are usually three or four little mistakes rather than a massive one, that lead to conceding. So whilst Big Per is quick to point out the great communication between ‘keeper and defence, the need for the connections to be built up to an optimum level is still ongoing.

With each game I’m expecting it to get better, so let’s hope we see yet more improvement across all aspects of the team on Monday next week.

No complacency: title challengers don’t do that

Today is a very important game. Today The Arsenal need three points, because only then will we all breathe a sigh of relief and start talking about the possibility that last weekend’s defeat to West Ham was a ‘blip’ and this Arsenal team can challenge for the league.

Quite simply: Premier League winners don’t lose two on the spot to West Ham and Crystal Palace. You couldn’t see City or Chelski doing it, so if we truly harbour loftier ambitions than qualification for the Champions League, there needs to be a reaction at Selhurst Park.

We have players capable of it. The squad is strong enough and technically proficient enough to go to Selhurst Park and boss the game. But the Premier League is the best league in the world because of its unpredictability, so a defeat or a draw equally would t be unheard of.

Last weekend I was only thinking about ‘when we win’. The thought of us losing to West Ham on our own turf never entered my mind. Perhaps this was the same complacency that washed over the players themselves. If that is true, then I hope they are mirroring my pre-match thoughts this week too, because I am certainly not so blasè about beating Crystal Palace. 

They have a decent team. Pardew has assembled a good selection of players with plenty of pace in attack and they will certainly trouble us at times today. Puncheon, Zaha and Bolasie all have speed and a trick or two, but I suspect we’ll only see two from that three start today, with Glenn Murray up top. What we have to do is to ensure that those attacking threats are nullified by isolating those players when they do have possession. That’s why I am hoping we go for a pacey forward line, because if we have plenty of pace of our own, it will force the Palace defence to drop deeper. If they do, then it will create either a greater gap between their defence and attack, or it will force their attacking players to drop deeper to collect the ball. That will hopefully reduce the risk of us being so painfully exposed by their attack play. 

So my forward three for today would be Walcott, Alexis and The Ox. Giroud is a handful, he has scored a few goals against Palace, but he is exactly the type of player that Dann and Delaney wouldn’t mind playing against. The negative of starting Theo is that he won’t press the ball like Giroud does. If Arsenal are to peg Palace back, the whole of the front three need to be pressing high, not just Alexis. 

Theo also has the tendency to go missing in games, but if that happens then you can rectify it by bringing on Giroud, so I’d still opt for the Englishman.

The big question seems to be whether Alexis is ready to start. He looked a little rusty coming on last weekend, as you’d expect, but he still offers something nobody else in the team does, so I personally want to see him come in. If that happens, a big question needs to be answered, because one of The Ox, Santi or Ramsey doesn’t play I don’t think. One plays alongside Coquelin and one plays wide right and one has to contend with a spot on the bench. Santi needs to resume his role as Distributor-In-Chief alongside Coquelin. That partnership works and the closer those two are together in the middle of the park, the better it is for us, so I wouldn’t hesitate to pick the tiny little Spaniard. Nor would I hesitate to pick The Ox ahead of Ramsey. Aaron is a better player than the Ox at this moment in time, but not as a wide man, so The Ox needs to start. I’m not sure he will though. Arsène likes Ramsey too much and I suspect we’ll see a return of square pegs in round holes with him starting on the right. It’s frustrating for me, but perhaps I need to trust Arsène’s judgement a little more, because as long as we get the three points that’s all that matters.

Today can be the reboot of the season, and climb back into the bookies eyes as a team who can win the Premier League title. Last weekend we looked sluggish and not clinical enough, which is why a little shuffle of the forward line wouldn’t do us any harm, I don’t think anyway. Conversely, despite the fact that we conceded two pretty shockingly defended goals, I’d expect a similar back four to last weekend. Bellerin may come in for Debuchy, but the rest of the side should probably be given the chance to redeem themselves, before any panic buttons are pressed about our back four needing a shuffle or two.

Whoever starts today, they need to show a lot more urgency and a lot more accuracy in finding other Arsenal players in space. No more Hollywood balls please guys, we need to retain possession with our short and quick passing. That’s how we’re designed to be effective and that’s how we’ll win the game – if we win the game -making a verbal offering to all the ‘complacency’ karma gods just in case here.

I’ll be at the Red Bull Air race today and so will be relying on Sky Go and quiet corners. I hope to be getting people to stare at me because I’m cheering at inappropriate moments from 1.30pm.

Come on Arsenal!

Accommodating the best Arsenal players unbalances the team

Hello hello you wonderful peers of mine. I hope you’re not too caught up in your own inner torment and moroseness as we hit the halfway point in the week. The bad taste of a weekend defeat may still be lingering like a little morning breath (despite having brushed your teeth to within an inch of their lives), but at least we’re getting closer to the weekend, in which we can rinse and spit out that taste and replace it with something far more satisfying.

I just hope the team reach for the mouthwash and not the toilet water on Sunday, because I don’t fancy having two weeks in a row in which Arsenal have stunk the place out.

I think it will depend entirely on where Arsène’s mind is at in relation to the team set-up. On Sunday he opted for Santi out wide and a middle of the park selection of Coquelin, Ramsey and Özil further advanced up the pitch. It didn’t really work. Santi came in field often and our balance was severely disrupted. Too many times Monreal was left isolated on the left and whilst the Ox was impressing on the right hand side (going forward at least), there was little on the left to get too excited about. which pulled Giroud into the space and as we know, left nobody in the centre on a couple of occasions.

That plays in to teams hands a little bit at The Emirates, because it means they can be more difficult to break down by being compact. All the technique in the world doesn’t allow for you to break through an organised, well drilled and relatively deeper-lying side, looking to hit you on the counter, when you set up as we did.

My worry is that Arsène might be tinkering with this formations and these players for a while though, because even if Alexis is fit to play from the start, Arsène will be mindful of overplaying him this weekend. He also needs to know what his options are if he loses players like Alexis through injury (ironically enough the possibility of that could increase if he doesn’t give him more rest time) for a sustained period of time, so I do wonder if we’ll start to see more of the accommodating of players in positions that are not as successful, like we saw last season towards the beginning of 14/15.

Last season we saw Arsène playing around with Özil out left, but we also saw Wilshere play in the wide positions, as well as Ramsey out on the right. In some games it worked, but personally I think that had more to do with the technical superiority of our players versus their opponents, rather than any kind of tactical master stroke. I’m old fashioned you see; players should play in their natural position.

The tinkering with player positions – putting square pegs in round holes because they’re a really polished and snazzy looking square peg – has never really worked 100% I think. I kind of get the tinkering with formations based on opponents, so at times last season when Arsène experimented with the 4-1-4-1 it looked a little clunky, but as players get used to a slight variation in playing style they adapt. But it’s the shuffling away from where they are at their best that I’m really not sure of.

Santi, for example, seems to only be shunted out wide when Arsène is accommodating another player and because he’s the most technically proficient at adapting. It happened a few years ago when Podolski’s Arsenal career was on the blink. But we’ve seen just how impactful he can be when he’s moved centrally and so for the life of me I can’t work out why he isn’t – clichéd as it sounds – the ‘first name on the team sheet’. Sometimes ball retention and having that guy in the centre of the park is vital to the success of a team, especially this Arsenal team, so what I don’t understand is why we didn’t have somebody in the middle of the field who can retain possession and release it without it going out for a throw in. In our team we have three players who just don’t seem to lose the ball: Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil and Mikel Arteta.

NB: I know that these players do occasionally lose the ball – nobody is infallible – but it happens with much less frequency with those three players.

So, if Santi and Mikel are not ticking things over in the middle of the park and Mesut is occupying a more advanced position, what is the outcome? Ramsey and Coquelin spraying balls around and the system not quite working. 

There are many who think that Arteta’s days are numbered, but I don’t necessarily think that is the case, especially when you look at games like the one at the weekend just gone.

So why doesn’t Arsène just go back to the successful formula of the end of last season and play Santi and Coquelin close together? I have seen some people on Twitter speculate that Ramsey might have been given assurances of a central role; that Arsène is accommodating him and trying to build a team around him. That’s a possibility, but we have so much quality around the whole team, that I just can’t see Arsène building a team around just one player. When you have so many quality players, it just doesn’t make sense. No, I just think that Arsène knows his best 11 footballers who have the best technical ability, and he’s trying to fit them in some how. It’s ironic because he talks so much about balance in the team, that when we try experiments like last Sunday, it just unbalances the team.

One player that will bring balance is Alexis, which is why it will be interesting if he starts on Sunday, because I suspect Arsène probably felt he had a bit more time to play around with his team than what has happened. It will most certainly mean that a tough decision has to be made by Arsène: Ramsey or Cazorla? I hope he doesn’t switch Ramsey to the right and Cazorla in the centre to accommodate both in the team, because that would not solve anything in my opinion. He needs to make a tough call and choose one to ensure we have more natural balance and proper wide players. 

Let’s hope he does.

Victoria Concordia Crescit – never been more applicable than now

The official dot com site must be as excited about the return to football as us lot, because despite the fact that Arsène’s presser isn’t until a little later this morning, we have a veritable smorgasbord of stories to pour over before Le Boss even takes centre stage.

Thankfully, they’re all positive, unlike the news on Jack’s injury yesterday. The team news appears to be good, with Welbeck and Rosicky back in ‘progressive’ training today, which I for one am thankful for because I’d probably recommend they refrained from ‘regressive’ training. Ahh Shad and his revolutionary fitness and condition ideas, eh?

The return of Alexis and his perpetual motion is also well timed and, whilst I’ve heard a few whispers about him being saved for the month of August, if he’s not at least on the bench by the time Liverpool at home comes around I’d be stunned. I mean, the guy was doing sprint work on holiday for crying out loud, so he won’t be able to be kept at bay for too long. He probably runs in his sleep. It’s a good job he’s got plenty of money and a small frame, because he could afford a bigger bed so as not to injury his lady friend or his dogs.

With or without our Chilean Energiser Bunny, we’ve still got a hatful of options, but the fact he has such desire to return really is pleasing to see. Last season the other players took note and I think they’ll all be trying to have some of his special mojo rubbing off on them, so if it means we’ll have players who are running that extra hard for feel that he’ll make them look bad, then I’m all for it. That’s what competition does for players; they all want to up their game and in a season where one or two pundits are even tipping us for glory, we need all of the drive and determination from the players that we can get.

We also need unity. Arsène had another say about the signing of Theo and Santi and the video was released on the official site yesterday with him talking about the continuity and importance of it to a team. You only have to look at Sven Goran-Erikson’s City, or AVB’s Spuds, or Brendan’s Scousers to see how bringing about root and branch changes to a squad comes with complications. Players don’t know what runs are being made, there might be confusion over positions defensively and sometimes partnerships just don’t work, so I’ll be if you asked ten managers in the Premier League they’d all tell you they’d prefer a settled squad above any amount of transfer dealings. 

Santi and Theo’s signatures were vital to show that The Arsenal is now a collective of people all in it ‘for the long haul’ and wanting to grow together to be successful. Victoria Concordia Crescit folks, Victory Through Harmony. Both seem really pleased too. Whether it’s Theo talking about Arsenal as his second home, or Santi talking about how Arsenal is the perfect place for him, the sense I get as an Arsenal fan is that all of the players are pulling in the same direction. With characters like Gallas and Bendtner six years ago, how can you say that was true for us back then, eh? You can only build friendships, partnerships, understanding and a collective bond with time. It’s only in the last couple of seasons that this kind of comradeship has had the opportunity to grow. The seed was planted three years ago and it’s taken a while for the flower to grow and show its colour.

As for today’s presser, no doubt Arsène will once again be asked about Benzema, no doubt he will once again dismiss it, but I hope we get more positivity about the balance and harmony in the team. That’s what I want to hear from today’s presser, because ahead of the new season, I’m one excited Gooner.

We’ll get victory through harmony – the players believe it

Stability is a place called Arsenal these days. With the announcement that Theo Walcott and Santi Cazorla have both renewed their contracts with a four and three-year deal respectively, we have seen two of the recently unanswered questions be unequivocably dealt with by the club. In terms of keeping the continuity of the squad together, only the inking of a new deal of Nacho Monreal is left to ensure that this is – in theory (because we all know that contracts can be exited via buy outs from other clubs in the form of transfers) – a collective of players that we should be able to grow together for many years to come.

I’ve been saying this for quite a bit of this summer, but this is a squad that I personally feel very happy with. They have not been taken apart through transfer saga’s or contracts being run down, instead Arsene and the Arsenal staff have augmented the team with better players. World class players. Whilst many clubs like Liverpool have been overhauling their squad for a couple of seasons, we have seen relatively little player inwards movement, because we simply haven’t needed it. You build a beautiful and delicious cake with time and a careful hand, not by chucking all of the ingredients into a blender and hitting warp speed four.

This is a squad who are going to grow together. I feel it. Silly videos like the one in the swimming pool when they were all together heading it may all look like nothing, but I’m sure they give us a window into squad harmony and morale. Everyone seems to be pulling in the right direction. Everyone wants success.

Theo knew that. That’s why this contractual saga of his hasn’t lasted very long at all. He’s at an age where ambition is essential. He needs to feel like he can win things and the apparent ease in which this has happened (although I’d bet the negotiators on both sides will probably say that it wasn’t that easy when you were on the inside!) shows that he feels he can. He’s 26 years old and having spent 10 years at Arsenal, he probably feels like this is the best possible time to be picking up medals. I hope he’s right. We all do.

We’ve all got the bug you see. We’ve had two year’s of the FA Cup and now we want more. Our thirst has not been quenched, it has only been abated. We want bigger. We need better. The players are the same and you can sense it in what they are all saying. The way they are talking about the club has the sound of those that really believe it and in sport belief is as important as experience, confidence and technical ability. The players all have technical ability. We’ve got a squad bristling with it. But perhaps over the last ten years the belief has not been to the level it is now. That belief has come with trophy wins in the last two seasons and with those trophy wins we also have players who know how to win things. They know how to get over the line.

Cazorla too has been rewarded with a new deal. He’s thirty years old and the club have signed him up for another three years I believe. That shows you just what an impact our tiny little Spaniard has had. I think he still had a year or so to run on his deal and so Arsenal could have got to next summer and given him a one year extension, but they have decided that he’s a guy that we should keep around for a few year’s to come. Let’s not forget that Santi was a player who has been linked with moves back to Spain even as soon as a few weeks ago. He’s always said he would like to go back and finish his career in Spain, but his style and the way he plays probably means he could be playing well in to his late thirties, so him sticking around for another three years can only be a good thing. Like Theo, he has probably seen the potential of this team and is hungry to realise his dreams by picking up more medals with Arsenal.

It’s a commitment from Santi in his belief, but it’s also a commitment from the club too, which I think has to be applauded. The club recognise what an impact he has. His close control, his ability to retain possession, his new-found position of a deep lying playmaker, all of this last season was a vitally important cog in the machine that was churning out victory after victory post-Christmas 2014. His resurgence in the team (let’s not forget that people thought it might be the end of his time this time last year) has coincided with the team’s performance and if we’re going to win the league this season, we’re going to need Santi in the team.

What his and Arteta’s signatures does, is do something that perhaps Arsenal have been accused of not doing in the past, which is successfully pairing the need for youth, players in their prime and those with experience that can take the younger players under their wings. Balance. Harmony. Victory through it all. That’s what The Arsenal’s successful history has been built on and that is how we can win that Premier League trophy again.

I’m excited. Bring on the Premier League. Let’s see how far this team can take us.

Arsenal blitz Lyon, showing the importance of a decent preseason

Well how about that for a performance from the players yesterday, eh? Six goals, none in reply from Lyon and a table-topping performance at The Emirates Cup 2015.

The trophy’s in the bag, folks, the trophy’s in the bag.

Of course we all know this is a friendly and if we were to face Lyon in the Champions League we’d most likely see a different game with a different result, but what I’m noting from all of the preseason games so far, is that the team are looking sharp, fresh and ready to hit the ground running in two weeks time. That is what we will all be taking from these preseason performances. The better a team looks whilst building up their fitness, the more likely it looks like they will get off to a flyer when the real thing happens.

I remember a couple of seasons ago when we started brilliantly in preseason. I saw an interview with John Cross in which he had mentioned how well Ramsey was playing and how cohesive we appeared as a team during the summer. Low and behold, we started with a rip-roaring first half to the season and Rambo was banging in goals left, right and centre.

That’s what it feels like to me at the moment. It feels like we’re ready to have a proper go at this league. And it’s exciting.

What’s also exciting is the prospect of getting goals all over the park. Arsène mentioned it in his post match press conference yesterday, but the fact that we had six different scorers bodes well for us. He’s spoken of the need to have more goals spread across the team and it looks like the team are responding. Cazorla and Özil (both also scoring in the Asia Trophy) are picking up goals from midfield, Rambo had a really good toe-poke yesterday which was well picked out through a sumptuous pass from Mesut, as well as Iwobi finishing smartly on his left foot after Rambo himself turned creator and found him with a neat pass.

That Iwobi fella looked alright, didn’t he? Very composed, spraying the odd ball left and right, he certainly looks to be one to keep an eye on. The key to his rise to prominence, however, will most likely be how he reacts to a loan spell. Hopefully that put him in the shop window for a few clubs, despite what the manager says. I like the idea that Arsene is saying he’ll stay with the team and has hinted that he’ll potentially be used, but I can’t really see it other than the Capital One Cup and I do wonder if that is the best route for a player, if another Premier League club were to show interest, for example. Surely it’s far better to give Iwobi 30 games in a season playing for a Championship/Premier League club, like we did with Wilshere at Bolton, than to have him kicking his heels until the League Cup comes around (which we’ll play a round less than some Premier League teams because we’re in Europe)?

Hey, what do I know, I don’t know the players personally, I’m just a fan and Arsene will know what’s best for the boy so I’ll not get too worked up. He’s in safe hands.

But anyway, back to yesterday, in which I think a lot of fans will have watched the game and thought that we’re ready. We are. Just look at who played in last seasons Emirates Cup. Our scorers were Sanogo and Campbell on the day we beat Benfica 5-1 and although you look at those two and question how deep our squad was, these days you look at the line up and realise that even with rotation – which Arsene will do again today, there’s no doubt – we have a deep squad. No more littering the team with youngsters who won’t get near the first team, like we were doing four years ago. This competition shows that we have to switch things around and when we do, it’s first teamers and internationals that are playing.

In truth the second half became even more of a testimonial affair than anything else, because we’d stunned Lyon like the pray of a poisonous snake who strikes and then takes its time to devour its prey. Four goals in nine minutes just before half time saw to that. We set up aggressively and it paid off against a Lyon team who will no doubt chalk it down to pre season rustiness, but the same can’t be said of Arsenal. The passing looked composed, Mesut kicked on from where he left last season and pulled the strings and it was great to see The Ox back on track and firing, because if he can have an injury-free season he can be a big player for us I’m sure.

We didn’t see Petr Cech but Martinez did well enough in goal, beating away a few chances and he’s looking all the more like a ‘keeper and not a kid. I’m fairly certain that he’ll be one to go out on loan when Ospina comes back. He has to be, because he’s at an age now where he’ll want to play more regularly and we need to see if he’s going to be the player the club hopes he can be. Or at least do enough to secure a permanent move. Let’s face it, his route to number one is pretty choca-block right now.

So all-in-all a very good performance that underlines the importance of a decent preseason that isn’t interrupted by international competitions, injury or other disruption. Next weekend’s Community Shield should be fun. I can’t wait.

Speak tomorrow.

dominant Arsenal display and selection based on opposition – love it

First bit of silverware of the season sorted. Lifting the Barclays Asia Trophy is apparently a good omen for a team as both City and Chelski have clinched the pre-season friendly competition in the past, so whilst we have to take such superstitions with a pinch of salt, as this is a time in the year in which hopes are high and expectations are higher we can certainly read more in to this victory. Heck, I’m chalking it down as a cast iron guarantee of a marker that we’re winning the Premier League next season.

The side Arsène put out was a strong one too, with Cech making his debut alongside a back four of Gibbs, Chambers, Koscielny and Bellerin. In front of them Arsène opted for a Santi-Rambo midfield and Özil floating in his usual number 10 role. Having talked up Jack as a wide man he played with Theo and Giroud up top and I have to say it was a pleasing and utterly dominant performance. Whether or not that is because we have players that are further ahead in their preparations than Everton, or whether or not the fact it was essentially a home game given the amount of support we had compared to Everton, I don’t know. 

What we do know, however, is that Arsenal looked in control and very confident against a Premier League opposition who have always caused us a few headaches. Santi was in sparkling form as the deep lying playmaker and his goal was one of jinky delightfulness, weaving his way one way, then the next. He was the man with which a lot of the good stuff flowed and it augurs well for the season ahead that we have him looking like he’s in such good form.

I found it interesting that Arsène decided against having Coquelin sitting in front of the back four yesterday and whilst we can’t read too much in to a pre-season friendly, I hope this is the start of us seeing Arsène pick his first eleven based on the strengths of our team in countering the strengths of other opponents. If we’re playing Moneychester City away, for example, you just know that we’re going to have to do a lot more defending than an Everton or Stoke away. So it makes sense to set your team up to negate the oppositions strong points by playing somebody like Coquelin in games where you might have somebody like David Silva set up to run the show.

Yesterday Everton were on the back foot from the start and so sitting a defensive midfielder alongside a back four who are having little to do is a bit of a pointless exercise. So with all of Santi, Rambo, Jack and Mesut in the starting XI, we were able to control possession more and dominate the ball in the middle of the park as well as the zone in front of the attacking players.

The other goals we scored were an indication of Theo’s sharpness but also him at his best; running in behind defenders and finishing quickly. That’s what we missed for a lot of last season and that’s what I think we’ll see more of next season. Should Walcott stay fit of course.

Mesut’s goal was perhaps an indication that he is going to find himself in more forward lying positions this season and is going to try and take his chances more, with a good finish inside the box.

Overall we have to be happy with the game and although it had the air of a pre season friendly, we still dominated and did what was needed, so we’ve got to be glad of that. What should also be filling you with excitement is the depth of the squad too. Yesterday’s starting XI was missing Monreal, Mertesacker, Gabriel, Debuchy, Coquelin, Arteta, Rosicky, Welbeck, Alexis, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gnabry. We have such depth that it really is quite staggering and it’s why I’m really not stressing too much over the summer about transfers. And neither should you. Let’s enjoy this time. Next week we go for trophy number 2, The Emirates Cup!

Jack to make his own position at Arsenal?

It’s the first of a two day week for me, before I disappear off into the distant and sunny shores of Portugal for ten days, so you’d hope that Arsenal could grant me a bit of news, right?

Wrong. The only real talking point on the official site is Aaron Ramsey’s goal of the season against Galatasaray. What a strike that was, eh? He’s been quoted as saying it’s one of the best goals he’s ever scored and from a ‘purity of strike’ perspective, it’s hard to imagine. On his weaker foot, from about 30 to 35 yards, it was one of those that was scored from the second the ball departed from the Welsman’s laces. A fitting and worthy goal of the season winner, in a season where we’ve certainly had our fair share of them.

Perhaps Jack checked in on the official website for some inspiration yesterday, because he decided that he’d get his England goalscoring account underway with two absolute pearlers against the Slovenian’s yesterday. I didn’t watch the game (why would I? It’s England) yesterday, but I did hunt out his goals afterwards and with those two notched up along with the one against West Brom at the end of the season, has Jack found his range all of a sudden?

It’s a shame we have to wait until August to find out, but since he returned to injury towards the end of 2014/15, he has looked to have an extra bit of spark in his game. He’s displayed some very effective cameo appearances when coming on in the final weeks of the season and when he has started he’s been good for both club and country. With Jack there has always been a question as to whether he can shake off what has become a bit of an ‘injury prone’ tag, but having seen what we’ve all seen from him over the last month/six weeks, my thoughts are moving away from ‘can he stay fit’ and more towards ‘who does he replace to secure a first team spot?’.

I put a thought out on Twitter last night about whether Jack could eventually replace Santi in midfield. Cazorla has reinvented himself as an excellent deep-lying playmaker and his vision and ability to see a pass where others cannot means that it’s worked well for him sitting alongside Le Coq. But he’s 31 now I believe and although I have no desires to see him moved on in any way, shape, or form, I do wonder if there is an opportunity for Jack to take that role.

What does he need to improve on in terms of replacing Santi though? Well, his ability to pick a pass as consistently as the little Spaniard, would certainly be one area. The question I intimated online was whether or not ‘vision’ or the ability to spot a pass is something that can be taught, or whether it is natural, to which the next question in relation to Jack is whether he already has that in his locker. I think – and some also concurred via social media too – that he does, but it is more a question as to whether he can ever do it on a regular basis. In his defence (again, as was pointed out to me via social media), Cazorla has a few years on Jack in terms of honing his radar, so there is time for him to develop. But if he wants to be the type of world-beater we all think he can be, then he’s going to need to up his consistency levels fairly soon, because Arsenal are the type of club now who can’t afford to blood a player in the hope he reaches the highest high.

Another train of thought that came from my discussion was whether he needs to replace Santi as a like-for-like at all? After all, he has different attributes and can carve his own style on the team if he is good enough and has enough impact. Footballers should not be shoehorned into certain types of positional demographics. Sometimes you have players that evolve their own position in a team and do so because they are effective, contribute successfully for the team and occasionally you get one player lucky enough to have the team built around them. 

Gone are the days when footballers are pigeon-holed into a 4-4-2 formation. Fifteen years ago I’d never heard the phrase ‘defensive midfielder’, ‘deep lying playmaker’ or ‘false nine’, so maybe there’s a position out there for Jack to carve his own?

Who knows. Certainly not me. That’s why I’ve just busted out half a dozen paragraphs or so and still haven’t really come to any concrete conclusion. What I do know, however, is that we have a very talented midfielder who could be on the brink of something very good indeed.


Arsenal season review: midfield surplus

hello there you. Are you pleased it’s a Friday and not a Tuesday? I am. It means I get a bit of a lie in tomorrow. Plus my dad promised me a BBQ at his house in the evening on Saturday, so it will be a full day of rest, just got to get through this full day of work.

And what better way to do so than have a bit of an earlier morning ponder on our midfield for the 2014/15 season, eh?

It’s a blog that could probably take me the whole day if I really wanted to go into the minutia of detail on each player, because much like last season, it’s an area of the team in which we’ve had an abundance of players going into the start of the season. Wilshere, Flamini, Ramsey, Cazorla, Arteta, Rosicky, Coquelin, Özil and The Ox; it’s not an area that i’d have told you we needed to worry about too much in August. Plenty of depth there.

Yet Arsenal have an uncanny knack of finding a way of looking a bit threadbare, don’t we, and by Christmas we were all scratching our heads wondering how it had come to this that we were recalling midfielders from loan spells just so they could make up the numbers. Or so we thought.

Step forward the single most ‘surprise package’ player of the season, Francis Coquelin, who has shown the footballing world that sometimes it just takes the right mix of application and fortune to turn a player into a star. He was there for us exactly when we needed him. Hard-tackling, screening the back four and within a couple of games of starting, he was looking every bit the fabled ‘DM’ that we’d all been crying out for since Alex Song decided he was an assist maker and didn’t need to do any ‘dirty work’.

Le Coq loves the dirty work. His ability to win a tackle is brilliant and although many of us still want investment in that area to ensure competition, in my mind he’s earned the right to start the season as number one. Santi rightly picked up the plaudits in the game at The Etihad, but Coquelin was just as important in my eyes, protecting a defence under siege and doing so with a strength that no other player in the squad can do. Think Flamini, version 2007, only Coquelin has better distribution. The Flamster has been reduced to less than a bit-part player this season, which is probably just as well because when he has played he has looked a little bit like a headless chicken with a bit of a chip on its shoulder. We’re beyond the stages of Flamini’s persistent fouling and bookings being funny now; we needed a cultured defensive midfielder and we have one plucked from a loan in South London who does that.

But this season’s midfield story has been more than just that of an unlikely hero in defensive midfield. Step forward another unlikely hero, albeit playing in a different position rather than being unknown, and that guy is Santiago Cazorla. 

When I looked at our midfield at the beginning of the season, I honestly couldn’t see how Santi was going to displace some of the other players in the squad, because Alexis had been bought and was clearly going to take up the wide left position, which Santi has spent quite a bit of time occupying in the last couple of seasons. Jack and Rambo were surely duking it out as the box-to-box midfielders and Arteta and Flamini were the natural choices for the holding role. Santi wasn’t better than Özil as the number 10, was he? Nor does he have the same energy in his play as Rosicky. So he was the player I thought would struggle.

I needn’t have worried too much though, because excellent players can also be adaptable, so I would come to pass that Santi would carve a new role in the ever-evolving Arsenal team as a deep-lying playmaker. And boy, did it ever work. 

Santi is like the Football equivalent of American Football’s quarterback. When he picks up the ball with the players we have in attack in front of him, he can drive us forward, with either a quick shimmy and dribble away from an opposing player, or a sumptuous long ball across the field with pinpoint accuracy. A perfect example of this is the assist he got for Ramsey’s goal against Hull. That long defence-splitting pass perfectly weighted to the Welshman’s feet, dispatched to secure the game but born from the ability in the Spaniard’s feet. I can’t even remember which foot, because both deliver the same result, such is the artistry in those tiny feet.

He’s also shown a defensive side to his game too which plenty of us didn’t know existed. He can get stuck in and even wins the odd tackle and then if there isn’t a quick counter attacking ball on, he can just dribble around half a team single-handedly himself anyway, a lá Moneychester City away.

Ahead of those two we’ve seen patches of form from all other players. Most recently Jack has looked hungry since coming back from injury, but his performance at home to Moneychester City was a thing of beauty and showcased his ability to dictate a game if the circumstances allow. Often those circumstances are injury related and you have to think that – despite saying this every year for the last two – his season next season is an important one as he tries to find his place in the team. Much like Ramsey, I feel like Arsène is desperate to fit Jack in to the team, but unless he can sustain his fitness for longer than a few months, he might find his passage blocked by other players. Just look at Abou Diaby. He is a forgotten man. So much so I didn’t even mention him as an option in our bulging midfield selection at the start of the blog. 

Right now, particularly since Ramsey has reconnected with his 2013/14 form as the season draws to a close, it’s hard to see Jack getting ahead of Aaron in the pecking order if there was a straight shootout between the two. So much like Santi, does Jack have to re-invent himself in order to nail a starting spot? Perhaps. He’s been tried in that deep-lying playmaker role for England, but whether he could displace Santi remains to be seen, because Jack’s a dribbler and I’m not sure he has the same vision as Cazorla.

But hey, the modern day game is about a squad, so that’s what you need in order to compete on all fronts and that is why Jack and the other midfielders will all get an opportunity during different stages of next season.

One player who id love to see more of, but I’m not sure how, is Super Tom Rosicky. Indeed, I’m actually quite surprised he signed a one year extension, because his game time towards the end of this season has been minimal so I’d have thought he’d want to go somewhere to get regular football. He’s good enough. His performances in the FA Cup earlier stages showed that. His goal in the fourth round against Brighton was replayed last Sunday on Arsenal Player and it was a reminder about just how technically sound he is. A cheeky ‘look away’ pass that had Phil Neville frothing at the mouth, then a superb strike a few seconds later to back up his audacity. He’ll play some part in next season, but I’ve got no idea when.

I’ve almost run out of time on the tube this morning and like I said at the start of the blog, I could probably talk until tomorrow about the different players, but before I go I’ll make room for one more:

Mesut Fricking Özil.

Lambasted at the start of the season, accepted as a maestro by the end, our German Number 10 has had the cliched ‘game of two halves’ this season. What clearly now seems to have been a bit of a World Cup hangover that carried in to his early season form, the injury layoff until the new year was a god send for him. He recouped, bulked up and was brilliant until the end of the season. He sees space and passes that no other mortal sees. He draws players near them, then weaves away to find a teammate having given them more room to do their stuff. He was integral to Walcott’s first goal last weekend and an Arsenal team with him in it is an Arsenal team that will always create chances. I love that we have Mes in our team. 

Do we need replacements in midfield? Perhaps. But even if we don’t go out and buy a beast like Kondogbia this summer, I’d still be pleased with our midfield going in to the 2015-16 season. 

Swansea preview: negate a high press and keep an eye out wide

Liverpool’s draw with Chelski mathematically secured the top four for us yesterday, but on a day where QPR were supposed to be giving it the last hurrah by at least holding Momeychester City to a draw at he Etihad, I was expecting better than a 6-0 thrashing. For us, in terms of trying to get second, it’s the worst possible type of score line, because it will probably mean that City’s goal difference is a little bit too far for us to catch up with. Before yesterday it was two – by no means insurmountable – but at eight and with just four to play, I can’t see us matching or beating them.

Ultimately it shouldn’t matter, because second or third means nought but a few extra million by finishing higher up by one spot, but still it would be nice to be seen to have out performed a side built on a foundation of refineries and dollar bills. 

If we do want that second spot it is still within our hands. We probably have to win all of our home games to finish level on points with City, starting this evening with Swansea at home. 

It’s an interesting one for the manager because if he chooses to keep the same XI he’s played over the last few weeks, you’d have to wonder about his desire to engage in any kind of rotation at all unless forced. Swansea represent a side that has performed well this season, have already beaten us on their own turf, but who should have a distinctly ‘end of season, nothing to play for’ look and feel about themselves. I’m not sure we’ll get that, but it’s what I’m hoping for anyway. 

I hope Arsène does rotate. I’d like us to be keeping players like Gibbs, Wilshere and Walcott topped up with match sharpness in case they are needed and that means they need to be given chances to show what they’re capable of from the start. I doubt Arsène will go for any extreme levels of rotation, like bringing in Szczesny, Debuchy, Gabriel, Gibbs, Flamini, Rosicky, Walcott, etc, but one or two of his deck shuffled should still give us enough to overcome the Welsh side.

We know that Swansea will try to retain possession and out pass us. They work on a higher press and try to win the ball back further up the field, where as when they have the ball they build from the back very patiently. It’s worked too. I remember seeing them Michu us a few years ago, then frustrate us last season with a late goal to nab a draw, so we cannot afford to show any kind of lethargy in our build up play tonight. It will be a warm summers evening but none of us want to see sloppy transition from defensive possession to attacking threat. 

To be fair to our current crop, I don’t think we’ll get that, because form and confidence should dictate that we are on it tonight. We’re playing well and all of the players know that competition is intense enough to see any of them lose their place and with an FA Cup on the horizon, there is plenty of motivation for them all.

Swansea will be reliant on Batefemi Gomis to be a threat on the counter and if they go with nippy wide men like Montero and Dyer then I expect them to look to counter us with pace on the flanks. If we are too hung ho in pushing our fullbacks forward like auxillery wingers rather than actual defenders, that’s where we may find an Achilles heel for ourselves.

In the middle of the park they will use Jonjo Shelvey to build up play and providing we offer him little space, it should stifle and frustrate him. If he’s trying pot-shots from 35 yards plus then Ospina should back himself to keep any rogue ones on target out, but it will mean we’ve stifled his supply line and that will do just nicely.

I am hoping for another masterful display from our midfield maestros Santi and Mesut, because these are the sort of games where they tend to do quite well. If Swansea press hard all over the pitch it will mean those players who can operate best in confined circles will be the most successful. So that’s why I’m looking for those two to potentially be the difference tonight. 

Let’s hope so and hope that three points are ours come the final whistle. Come on you reds!