Thoughts on City from Benjy

Every time Thierry Henry pauses for dramatic effect. An angels heart skips a beat and one of those Lad accounts on twitter dies. I spent the early part of Sunday afternoon hanging off every word of what the delicious Frenchman had to say. It reminded me of having an new colleague at work. They have a fresh mind; they see things in a different light. Simple things that get over-looked get pointed out. Generally because you haven’t been tainted by the fog of expectation. Or Neil, who fucking continually does stupid things. Do one Neil.

The discussion pre-game was the typical narrative. Arsenal don’t defend, Arsène is tactically naive etc, etc. Insert your preference of choice reader. It does feel like media outlets prepare flash cards that they can quickly whip out depending on the outcome of the game. Opinions and perceptions in football are so instant and definitive. Which generally leads to misinterpretation of the situation or said individual. On several occasions on Sunday we heard the commentary team slip into that -“Vincent Kompany with a rare mistake”. “Arsène Wenger doesn’t usually set his team up like this” They are culprits of going along with the general consensus of football interpretation.

Even our gorgeous hero dropped a clanger before kickoff, or did he? Saying Alex Song is the sort of midfielder Arsenal need.

Disclaimer – Alex Song was ok at kicking a football. We can argue till the cows come home about having him in the current squad. But we were no better defensively with him in the side.

Back to Henry. He’s hedging his bets, he’s playing the game of life. We lose, and he can say *dramatic pause* “see” or “I’m pleased they’ve finally done what we’ve all been clamouring for”. It’s like betting against your team, they lose you win some cash, if they win, you can do a victory dance to Taylor Swift, shake it off. And we all know who the real winner is.

That said, I wonder if Thierry enjoyed his TV debut. I did. I wonder if he thinks he’s made the best choice for his career and brand Thierry. It can be easy, punditry, you don’t have to make any big calls, you can just end up looking very intelligent. Spouting some guff. Anyway, Good Luck, Thierry x

I have to say I’m not entirely convinced the way we set-up to play City was entirely new to Arsène. It was all about the execution. We tried to play the same way against Chelsea earlier on in the season. Unfortunately for us Chelsea have this marvellous player, Eden Hazard. You may of heard of him. The ball-boy kicking magician has attempted and completed the most dribbles this season. Key to breaking down a low block. Aguero has just come back from injury and not fully firing didn’t help their cause. I imagine they will try and fill that void in the summer.

I’m really tempted to write we were lucky with the result, but we weren’t. We deserved the victory. To put It in a very simplistic way – I thought we were able to take our chances. If you decide to play the way we did and concede first (i.e. Chelsea) you need to quickly change how you are going to go about things and for many reasons, that isn’t easy.

I’ve always felt Arsène (Emirates years) has been very good at containing issues rather than conquering them. That isn’t a dig at the big man, just the way he goes about things, hence the usual up and down nature to our seasons. Which kind makes this victory even more sweeter. To play a ‘perfect game’ is one thing, but the players have to execute the plan in order to get a result, which is another thing. It was incredible how cohesive we looked. It was exactly how it should be, a strong collective unit with fearsome counter-attacks. Maybe, fearsome isn’t the right word, but we’ll definitely get there.

The most pleasing thing was the framework we gave the entire team to work in. We made it easier for Coquelin to squeeze space between the lines. Coquelin had time, which allows him to anticipate interceptions and give him a perfect view of the whole pitch. Bellerin had enough protection from the resurgent Chamberlain. The young Englishman ploughed up and down the flank allowing the midfield three time to control the midfield areas. Monreal’s stint at centre-half has really appeared to change his outlook. Mertesacker and Koscienly combined perfectly, a pleasant reminder of how good they are together.

Alexis Sanchez was just as good as he usually is. Just traded his spectacular flair for industry but with the equally dazzling effect. He was like a Jack Russell, chased every ball. Perhaps he didn’t create as much as he’d like, but what did he offer was priceless. His and Chamberlain’s hard work allowed Cazorla, Ramsey and Coquelin complete control over the centre of the park, stifling Man City’s creative spark – David Silva. Whilst the trio we had maintained our attacking threat. The big advantage of playing a deeper 4-3-3 is that Santi becomes a viable out-ball from defence. He has ability to hold, turn and begin the transition. This will probably go down as his greatest performance in his Arsenal career.

The natter before the game was who is the better player, Alexis Sanchez or Sergio Aguero. The funny thing is, it’s Santiago Cazorla.

If you believe it was a tactical masterclass, or a perfect execution of tactics we’ve attempted previously, I don’t think it entirely matters. The performance was a massive achievement. Bask in it, and the potential of this squad.

Ben

Anything’s a bonus today

It’s Sunday, the time of prayer in the Christian world, to which I too am offering up some prayers to the football gods for this afternoons game. I am praying for a win or even a draw, because let’s face it, our chances seem slim giving our history, the form of the champions, our patchy form, plus more news that we’ve lost more players to injury this week. Yet more blows to the team.

Yet despite the injury problems, despite the opportunity to address that by signing somebody in January and despite the bookies and most pundits expecting this to be a routine home win today, the good thing about pre-match run ups to the game are that there is still hope.

I still hope that we will turn up and surprise City. I still hope that we can put in a performance more like the one at home to Stoke rather than the one away to Stoke. And I still have hope that Alexis Sanchez will win the battle of the big stars against Sergio Aguero.

In the reversal of this fixture it was Alexis who put us ahead with a stunning volley that was worthy of winning any match, but as usual our defensive fragility came back to haunt us, conceding from a corner allowing an unmarked Demichelis to nod home. City could have had other goals that day and we rode our luck, but a draw was probably a fair result, so given that the oil whores are on home soil today, I would expect to be punished more than we were at home if we defend like we have done at times this season.

The manager has a decision to make on who plays in goal and, whilst Ospina has done nothing wrong, I just wonder if Arsène will bring Szczesny back into the team today. Wojciech has gone on record before to say that sometimes he needs that bit of competition to push him and improve him. Well Woj, now you’ve had it because you’ve lost your place, so what are you going to do? Arsène might just have that in his mind and he might have used a relatively safe game like Stoke at home to scare Wojciech into thinking he could lose his place into the side. So if he starts today, I fancy him to be quite motivated indeed, so I do.

Defence picks itself I think. Back two because we don’t really have any options, with Monreal still playing instead of the returning Gibbs, plus Chambers on the right hand side rather than Bellerin. Hector has done nothing wrong, but he’s a young and inexperienced player who has struggled at times away from home, so I’d be surprised if he was in the team from the start against City.

Midfield and attack is where it gets interesting, because Arsène does have a choice, so I think he’ll find it tough deciding who starts today. I think Coquelin has done enough to retain his place, but the role of the other two midfielders is a tough one. I suspect he’ll start Cazorla from the beginning in the middle, because he’s been so effective of late, but does he go with Ramsey or Rosicky as his box-to-boxer? Or does The Ox get the nod, with Theo wide right and Alexis wide left? That pace would certainly give City something to think about and if they play a high line against us then you have to hope that we can capitalise if both those two are flanking Giroud up top.

One things for sure, if those two do play, we need to get Santi or Özil on the ball as often as possible. They are the two best passers at the club and if we’re going to go direct with pace, then those two need to be given the ball any time we break down a City attack. Ramsey and The Ox’s passing range is not great at all, but Santi and Mesut could drop the ball on a pin head, so you want to see them giving Alexis or Theo the ball from deep.

We also have the option of hitting Giroud with the ball and, with his ability to be such an effective link up man up top, one suspects that the two wide men need to be as close to him as possible for the big Frenchman to have an effective afternoon.

Whatever side we put out, the odds are stacked against us and with all of the teams around us winning yesterday, I don’t hold out much hope. Defeat today isn’t the end of the world, because all of the other teams that visit the Etihad around us will drop points there, if they haven’t done so already, so it’s a strange situation where I’m looking at this game and thinking a single point would be a bonus.

Keep those fingers crossed and let’s hope for some positive news come 6pm.

Searching where we need; Santiago the Spanish Prince

So it appears as though the club are finally shifting gears in the transfer market, with Legia Warsaw publicly announcing that they have rejected a bid from us for their highly rated youngster Krystian Bielik, no doubt in an attempt to sound out other teams and engage in a bidding war. Whether or not that is enough to have Arsène and co. running for the hills remains to be seen, but it is perhaps positive that the club are looking to strengthen.

But perhaps most shockingly of all, he plays in a position in which we actually need cover for, as a defensive midfielder. Now, I’m not going to suggest that he’s a player that can saunter straight into the first team, as he would clearly be earmarked as a long-term successor to Arteta. But at least we’re going after defensive midfielders. You never know, we might even be able to muster enough courage to pick up a defender in this transfer window, rather than our usual tactic of buying players where we already have an abundance of talent (anybody for a Sissoko?). You there at the back, stop laughing…

So at least there’s been some early movement there. Now, let’s park the shitefest that is the transfer window, taking some time to admire a certain Santiago Cazorla, who I think has a first name that has been massively underused since his arrival to this country. It makes him sound like a Spanish Prince who will come and steal your wife with his good looks, tall and strapping physique and long, flowing hair. Thankfully, he has none of those physical attributes, but he is a remarkable footballer and has stepped up in a big way since we had The Great Arsenal Injury Crisis of 2014. Which was way worse than The Great Arsenal Injury Crisis of 2013. Or 2012. Or 2011. Or perhaps it wasn’t. Perhaps it should be renamed The Annual Great Arsenal Injury Crisis?

Anyway, I’m digressing my main point, which is to heal much of the praise I have for today onto our diminutive Spaniard, who has been a revelation over the last month to six weeks. He has relished his role as the ‘Playmaker-In-Chief’ and has been central to the good football we have seen (in patches) since the beginning of December. The way in which he has been able to find those killed balls in behind defences has been joyous to watch and on top of that, he’s also added more of a goal threat to his play, which has spread the burden away from Alexis and the other forwards.

With a host of players returning over the next few weeks, including a certain Turko-German number 10, it will be pleasing for Arsène to know that he has options and in-form players that mean that it won’t be easy for Mesut to win his place back.

It’s the same with Theo. The form of Alexis and the role that Giroud plays, effectively means that Walcott is fighting with The Ox, Welbeck and to a lesser extent Campbell, so whilst he gives us something that others do not – direct running in behind defenders with great pace – we’ve already seen that he’s not going to be fast-tracked into the first team and his inclusion from the start is far from a foregone conclusion. Arsène has already said post-Hull, that the fans should not expect too much from Walcott, having been out for so long. But perhaps it is a positive sign that I look at our forward options and I have less of a concern or pressing desperation to see Theo thrown in and banjaxed so quickly because we’ve had to rush him back.

Hey, perhaps this will show Arsène that when you have enough cover in certain positions, you don’t have to rush players back or run them into the ground because there are no other options? Nah, you’re right, probably not.

Anyway, that’ll do for one days incessant rambling, I think. See thee tomorrow.

Requirements met against Hull, midfield particularly dominant

A close family bereavement enforced a bit of a blogging hiatus on me over the weekend. Somehow the loss of a loved one makes anguishing about why Arsenal aren’t winning all games all of the time seem a bit irrelevant in the grand scheme of life. But ‘life must go on’ must be the mantra for myself and the family right now, so I’m returning to work via the usual TfL methods and find myself musing about Arsenal again after safe passage to the next round of the FA Cup was secured once more.

Thankfully there was to be no repeat of the nerve-jangling FA Cup final result of last May, as a makeshift Hull team could never really muster enough to trouble an equally makeshift Arsenal team, although ours was out of less choice and more necessity with the lengthy injury list that still engulfs the squad.

In truth, despite not securing the game until the last ten minutes with that fine Alexis goal, we looked (with the benefit of hindsight) like we were always in control and David Ospina will probably have both pleasure and irritation as his overriding feelings as he awakes this morning. With Szczesny being rightly questioned after a dismal display on New Year’s Day, this was Ospina’s chance to stake a claim as the number one, but with barely anything to do all afternoon he will probably once again resume his position on the bench on Sunday against Stoke.

I thought we might even see a rout after the first 15 minutes though, because Campbell was put in, Harper saved from Alexis a couple of times and Walcott just couldn’t get the final touch to steady himself enough to put the ball away in the opening exchanges. That it took a corner actually beating the first man to open the scoring should have been less of a surprise than it was. We’ve all collectively bemoaned our inability to make use of set pieces pumped into the box, but here again was another case for the prosecution when it comes to working more on our set piece delivery. Swung high and to the back post, Mertesacker nodding the ball into the net is a sight that should not be as rare as it is, but I am thankful nonetheless. Mainly because these types of games are those in which the opposition team grows stronger and stronger with each minute that the game remains at 0-0. So to go one up in the first 20 minutes normally draws out the opposition to come and play.

Hull certainly did push a little more in the second half and there was a spell in which our passing was pretty terrible actually. Not only that, but there seemed to be no real attempt to press the man on the ball by the Arsenal players, which enabled Hull to get more possession and despite the fact they didn’t really do anything with it, as an Arsenal fan you’re always nervous when you’re only a goal up.

Perhaps in defence of some of the players, they did look bloody knackered though, particularly Walcott who you could understand why he kept the afterburners switched firmly off with his first game back. He needs more games and yesterday was a prime example of that. Flitting in and out of the match, his contribution was what I would describe as ‘partially threatening’. Once or twice he nearly got on the edge of some balls out through from the midfield, but by-and-large he was almost invisible at times. It’s fine, it will come and he will get fitter, so you can’t really get too irritated. He’s human after all.

Where I thought the game was really won for us was in midfield, where the balance of Coquelin, Rosicky and Cazorla worked well. Rosicky was his usual direct self and always looking to move the ball forward quickly, Cazorla pulled the strings as his form continued to flourish, as does Coquelin’s, who put in another dogged display protecting our back four. That’s three in a row for the Frenchman, who looked for all of the world a lost cause being cast away to Charlton before an eventual transfer in the summer, but the fast-paced nature of the footballing world means careers can quickly be turned around and you can’t help but think another couple of games like he has this festive period will do no harm in forcing his inclusion into the team from the manager more often.

I am still not 100% sure that he is the long term option at the club, but I’d like to once again reiterate that I’ve always felt his Arsenal playing time had been kept unfairly short for the talent he possesses. He might just be a younger version of Matthieu Flamini, but remember how he evolved from flexible squad player to first teamer in 07/08. That pretty much came from nowhere so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Coquelin step up too.

So all in all it was a case of ‘job done’ more than anything else. We were alright, weren’t really tested and with players coming back into the side, the manager will be able to make choices on his starting XI rather than rounding up whoever is left at London Colney three days before a game.

Now, if both Burnley and AFC Wimbledon could do us a hilarious favour and knock out the Spuds and Liverpool respectively, that would be grand.

Catch you tomorrow.

Belief lacking, game plan found wanting

Well we didn’t get spanked like last year, did we? So that’s a plus point. Am I right?

That’s all I’ve got today, because yesterday you like I, will have sat through a performance that was both ‘un-Arsenal’ like and ‘very Arsenal’ like. In the way that we contented ourselves to have the least amount of possession and passing stats it was not like The Arsenal that we’re used to seeing. But the way in which we capitulated at the end of the match with a man advantage was so like modern day Arsenal it’s crippling beyond belief.

Heh, ‘belief’, feels wrong even saying that word today because, let’s face it, this team doesn’t look like it believes in itself. Yesterday was a classic case of a superior Arsenal team on paper, being outplayed by one of the most beatable Liverpool teams in a generation. Heck, we scored two goals with our first two chances on target, but that was more to do with a shocking Liverpool defence than anything else.

In November we ripped apart a United team and lost. Yesterday Liverpool ripped us apart yet, for all of Wenger’s assertions on the belief of this squad and their mental strength, we have once again showed that we are incapable of seeing out a game. Let’s also not forget that this was a Liverpool team so profligate up top that they missed guilt edge chance after guilt edge chance yesterday. They were playing with Sterling up top and until he was moved out wide later in the game, it looked like the same as when we were forced to play Arshavin up top because there was nobody else available. Yet we still managed to gift Liverpool two goals.

The first was a neat finish from Coutinho, but the fact it game because Giroud was trying to be too clever with a first touch in our half is hardly surprising. We all know the pro-Liverpool commentary in this country seem to get mesmerised by the ‘history’ of that club, but when Martin Tyler said they deserved their goal, I doubt there was a Gooner alive that couldn’t disagree.

Thankfully our response was swift and, for as shocking a game Flamini had (I’ll come to that in a second), it was a good leap and head back into a dangerous position for Debuchy to equalise on the stroke of half time.

So, to Flamini, who has deteriorated quicker than I’d ever thought possible. We’ve always known his limitations, but the guy looks like the epitome of a headless chicken in football terms. Gary Neville had called it in commentary, but the amount of times he was out of position and leaving an acre of space in front of our back four, that was really criminal. He’s supposed to be our man protecting our back four, yet he looks increasingly like a player who has no idea what his primary role is in the team. Yesterday I tweeted that I thought defensive midfielder was one of the easiest roles to perform if you have a few basic ingredients. 1) Be able to win a tackle, 2) be disciplined in your positioning, and 3) be ready to distribute the ball instantly to a nearby teammate. It really isn’t rocket science. Yet Flamini seems to be struggling. I have no idea why. Is he operating differently because of instructions from the bench? Which leads me to my next gripe I’m afraid…

Arsène Wenger. I am finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile his actions with any kind of logic I’m afraid. He is a great man. He has given us great highs. He should be respected and appreciated. But what we have seen this season has the hallmarks of a star whose brightness is fading. Yesterday morning I wrote about how Liverpool will look to exploit us by getting players like Sterling and Coutinho on the ball and feed in to Lambert up top. I got the personnel wrong, but the game plan was not and we saw time and time again, Coutinho and Markovic pick the ball up deep and run at our defence. I have never managed a game in my life, I am nowhere near as qualified as Arsène to lead a football team, but if I can see what Liverpool are going to do, why can’t he?

Because he is incapable? I don’t know, but what I do know is we saw a team that were outplayed, out thought and out fought. And it was painful at times. I don’t know if The Ox was too injured to play, but he was terrible, given the ball away, travelling with it too long without passing it (I call it ‘non-injured Diaby syndrome’) before losing it and generally looking out of sorts. Santi faired slightly better, but he was too quiet to be really affective for any length of time. I’ve mentioned Flamini, so all in all that makes a three man midfield that at times, might as well not have been there.

Why do we have these problems in midfield? Is it the managers fault that we have so many injuries? Of course not, but he is the one that should be setting those up who are available, in a way that negates the opposition and plays to our strengths. Did any of us see that yesterday? I certainly didn’t. For that, you have to look at the manager and I’m afraid not for the first time this season, he was found wanting.

Defensively too, we were terrible, with poor old Calum Chambers looking like he was running through treacle at times. He had a torrid afternoon at right back and, whilst I can see Arsène’s logic playing the quicker Debuchy at centre half with Sterling up top, it meant Chambers suffered in a position that looks like it is increasingly more difficult for him to be a success at. Let’s not forget we’ve got Carl Jenkinson out on loan to fourth placed West Ham right now. Hopefully that decision to play Debuchy as a centre half and Chambers on the right is a short term issue and we’ll see the two swap for QPR at home on Boxing Day. But again, we go back to the fact that a lack of depth in the squad – bought on by the managers own inaction in the summer – is forcing square pegs into round holes and we look like we are suffering as a result.

I can’t believe we’re not actually beyond sight of the top four spots. For that we can at least be grateful and look, if we win all of our games over the Christmas and New Year period, we’ll be sat in a good position coming in to 2015. But despite this, does anybody really feel confident we can go into games – especially away games – and get a result? Yesterday I used the word ‘cowards’ to describe the Arsenal players. It’s an extreme word and I did think to myself whether I would regret using it come the next morning. I am a passionate fan and prone to ‘heat of the moment’ style outbursts like we all are, but I’d like to think that my friends recognise I’m not a person who can’t consider any football situation with a bit of reflective logic. So do I still think my phrase ‘cowards’ is relevant? Yes. I saw a group of players yesterday who ‘wanted it’ more and they played in red. That annoys me. It annoys me because it seems to happen too much with Arsenal. Too often we are the technically gifted side who feel we need to turn up to win games, too often we come out of these games with egg on our faces, yesterday was no exception.

I haven’t even mentioned our front three. Probably that’s because we saw little of any of them all afternoon, although I must acknowledge a fine goal from Giroud which should have seen us pick up all of the points. It’s because of that though, and the manner of the last minute goal, that this feels like a defeat and not a draw. Had it been the reverse, that we’d have scored in injury time, I certainly would have more relief this morning, but I would not be able to take any comfort in the performance.

What also really cheeses me off too, is that yesterday we could have gone some way to remove this weight around our necks of not being able to win ‘big’ games away from home. Not only are we failing to do that, again, but we haven’t even been winning at home this season.

Oh, let’s also through some petrol on this sh*t bonfire by finding out The Ox will be out until the New Year too, shouldn’t we?

What a way to start a week of Christmas over indulgence. Still, at least I’ve got enough booze to drown my sorrows over the next few days, I recommend drinking to forget. Then we can pretend we’re not in dire straights right now.

Finally!

Finally! It may have taken us until mid December this season, but we finally have a Premier League game in which we were dominant from start to finish, never really looked like we weren’t in control of the game and got the required number of goals that our performance warranted.

I thought we were brilliant yesterday. From the first minute until the last. We started off with an air of authority and control over a confident Newcastle team that looked like the Arsenal of last season. I feel like a wandering desert nomad who has finally been given a glass of ice cool fresh water. I have been waiting so long to drink from the cup of ‘comfortable Premier League victory’ that i’d almost forgotten the tast. I’ve become accustomed to have a hard afternoon. There was nothing hard about yesterday, unless of course you count trying to understand Lee Mason’s refereeing decisions. He was the only negative on a lovely early evenings football. To my mind, he missed a clear boot to the chest of Alexis by Tiote, a couple of penalty decisions, plus he decided to penalise Danny Welbeck for being too close to Janmaat when a gust of wind knocked him over in the box and Welbeck finished superbly to make it 2-0 within the first 15 minutes. Or at least it should have been. Like I said, that gust of wind was a real doozie and Welbeck’s goal was rubbed from the scoreboard.

It all seemed to work yesterday. From back to front we were on it. You only have to look at our first goal, in which the passage of play was started by Hector Bellerin biting in to a tackle and then giving the ball to Giroud. The Frenchman then fed Alexis and took his position in the middle of the box to head home an excellent cross. It was brilliant stuff and no more than we deserved. Before that even big Per was in on the action with a looping header that hit the bar.

We popped the ball around with purpose and poise and how the scoreline was still 1-0 at half time is anybodies guess. I can say it now, because we were comfortable all afternoon, but at half time you’ve always got that worry that we’ll conceded and then end up ‘backs to the wall’-ing it as the opposition fight to come away from The Emirates with a point. But the second half saw us up it another gear and Santi’s little dink over Alnwick to make it 2-0 had the hallmarks of a player in form. He could have even been given a penalty had he not scored, because Coloccini had almost taken him out inside the box. But the diminuitive little Spaniard did what every one wants to see; he stayed on his feet and got the goal that his performance warranted.

Four minutes later it was game over, as Giroud got his second of the night and what a second it was, with the outside of his boot and with the tightest of angles. He really can be quite some players on some games. It’s amazing how we seem to have a player that can blow so hot or cold during the course of a season. But I supposed he is an example of this Arsenal team. They can go from the sublime to the ridiculous in the space of a week.

We’ve now had two 4-1 victories and it’s looking like we’ve recovered a bit of that fragile thing called confidence. Which is just as well really, because next week we return to the location of our humbling last season and face a Liverpool team who will – regardless of what happens today – be massively up for this game and so we need all the help we can get through our levels of confidence and remembering performances like that.

Individually, it was good to see some systems worked. I thought the front three rotated well and were a handful all afternoon. Arsene said in his post match report that we looked dangerous every time we went forward and he’s right. I thought we could have scored every time we went forward and as I reflected afterwards, to friends and family members that would listen, the 4-1 scoreline flattered Newcastle in fairness. The fact that they even scored was a cause for irritation, because the defence probably deserved a clean sheet. Debuchy was good at centre half, although that might have been because he wasn’t troubled as much, but I thought he attacked balls lumped forward well, looked like he was confident, then positionally was assured enough too.

In midfield, The Ox gave a couple of balls away, but in the main he was good with the ball at his feet and he is an able deputy for that box-to-box roll role that Ramsey normally occupies. Santi Cazorla has found his ryhtm too, putting in another great display and getting himself in the goals too. I have seen some people (not Arsenal fans, obviously) who have said he was a little disrespectful with his little dink of a penalty. But if we score every time, we can be as disrespectful as we like as far as I’m concerned, because all I care about is Arsenal scoring goals and winning games. The rest of the football community can ‘do one’.

So that’s it for another weekend. A victory, three points, a good performance, some players looking like they’re hitting form, plus a week to rest and recuperate for when we play Liverpool on Sunday next week.

Come on you reds!

Newcastle preview: makeshift defence needs protecting, attack needs closeness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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