We fear the players’ fear of failure. But we shouldn’t

It comes to something when even the Wigan Athletic manager is trying to ‘out mind game’ Arsene, doesn’t it?

Uwe Rosler has already begun to turn the pressure screw by claiming that Wigan are already winners – regardless of the result – and that Arsenal can only lose it themselves. To an extent he’s probably right; we’re the Premier League ‘big boys’ with the expectation of the whole world that we’ll roll over ‘plucky Wigan’, but as we all know that tag of favourites will count for nothing come 5.07pm. The whole world will be behind the Latics and we have to expect that.

And look, under normal circumstances, if this week were a Premier League game against Wigan at home, we’d expect to win, right? Even if it was at the DW Stadium we’d expect to win. So why, given that it’s going to be played in London with vastly more Gooners than Wigan fans (effectively turning it in to a pseudo home game anyway), are we all so worried?

Fear of failure. The implosions this season have hit us and hit us hard. The team has shown a mental fragility that we thought had been consigned to the history books. We fear the players’ fear of failure and freezing up against a team that will undoubtedly be weaker than us technically, but will attempt to combat that with drive and pressure on Saturday to even the score.

Failure is not an option and because the margins are…well…there aren’t any margins, this game feels like it’s all or nothing for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Of course we know that’s not true, we know there are five league games remaining and an opportunity to secure Champions League again for the nine millionth time, but I would guess that if we lose on Saturday just about every Gooner will be looking to Stephen Hawking to manufacture us lots of regional black holes to be swallowed up in. There will have to be a media blackout of millennium big proportions for Arsenal fans and Twitter will certainly be a ghostly place. Well, I certainly won’t be venturing there for a few days afterwards if the worst happens.

It’s that fear of mental freezing the players could experience that we are worried about, so when an article which features Santi Cazorla supposedly saying that he’ll re-evaluate his position in two years time because he wants to win trophies comes out, you raise your eyes at the timing.

Of course, I don’t doubt that he probably undertook the interview a few weeks back and it’s been saved until Arsenal seem at their lowest ebb, but it doesn’t help the fragile feeling many of us have and the current emotional state we’re in when it comes to The Arsenal. And of course, as a Spaniard, it’s natural for him to talk about returning home one day. He comes from a large Spanish family and his time in England, to my mind anyway, is always going to be more of an extended stay than a permanent lifestyle change. But ideally you’d rather players kept those things to themselves. Actually, although we like hearing from them, half the time I do wish that the media weren’t allowed to interview players at all.

Santi also talked about the mentality of the players improving and that we have to believe we can win more, which if we’re all honest we’re questioning ourselves right now, but hearing it from a key player doesn’t fill me with the greatest of glee. Of course, the press have hyperbolised the situation as is their remit, the article itself not really being as damning attack on his club as they would have you believe. But there are some snippets in there which suggest that all is not right. I’m sure Cazorla is probably going to get himself in Per Mertesacker fine territory, but we’ll not hear anything from the club, hopefully they will respond in the best possible way. On the pitch.

That’s what Santi has to do now. If he leathers in a 30 yard screamer to set us on the way to a comprehensive victory sending us into the final, then has a huge contribution to the final himself and helps to win it for us, then he will be the master of his own destiny when it comes to winning silverware and his own questions about mentality and trophies will have been answered. If he under-performs like he and many of his teammates did against Everton last Saturday, he can only look at his own failings and see why he hasn’t won anything at The Arsenal.

Anyway, time for a bit more positivity before I knock off for the day, and that is we’re just two days away from a welcome return to Wembley. Come on Arsenal!

Santi and Aaron add continuity and confidence ahead of Chelski

Continuity breeds consistency and yesterday we had another example that mistakes of the past made by the upper echelons at Highbury House appear to be becoming a thing of the past, as two key players committed their future to the club in the shape of Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey.

It’s fantastic news for two players that have become an integral part of the first team this season and I for one am glad that we’ve tied down another two players on long-term deals. It’s good to see the club reacting to the success that players make on the pitch, rather than the potential that could be shown in seasons to come.

I think it also shows how far Ramsey’s stock has risen, because he only signed a new deal just over a year ago as part of that ‘British core’ but perhaps this is just reflective of the importance he has had on the team this season. The hope is that after three months out injured he can return to his lung-busting pre-Christmas self and guide us towards some silverware come May. If we’re going to be successful in our secret quest (you know, that one that involves two trophies that absolutely nobody is talking about us for), then we need him back quickly and we need him to be bagging some goals in the absence of Theo.

The Santi signature is also a welcome one for a player who almost instantly slotted in to the team and has made himself a star at the club over the last couple of seasons. His vision, his passing, his close control – all sublime at times and with our £42million playmaker Özil out injured, it says a lot about him that many (me included) have been upset but not devastated, because Santi can fill in that role just like he did last season. My favourite Santi moment is a pretty innocuous one actually, as it came in the 6-1 hammering of Southampton at home last season, where the wee Spaniard was surrounded by a few Southampton players as the ball was booted high into the air. He watched it all the way, saw it come down an Velcro-like controlled and spun away from two players. Absolutely sublime and there were audible gasps around me as a number of fans realised we had some player on our hands here. More of that to come please, Santiago!

With the potential for a number of exits happening in the summer (Sagna, Vermaelen, Bendtner, perhaps even Poldi?) it is vital that the club make statements about the core of the team and by rewarding those players that have had such a meaningful impact on our season, it’s also a public statement made by the club that we have no intention of having a mass-destabilisation of Arsenal by a number of high-profile players disappearing over a couple of transfer windows. It started with Theo, but the club is now showing that they aren’t to fond of summer transfer sagas and don’t want a repeat of players winding down their contracts – Sagna aside that is!

Hopefully these announcements will also provide a suitable confidence boost to add to the existing pile following the win at the local neighbours on Sunday. Chelski expectedpy got through their Champions League tie with minimal fuss against Galatasaray and with at least three days to rest up before we play them, I don’t expect them to be too fatigue when they take to the field on Saturday lunchtime, so any additional positives we can take from this week are welcome in my book.

In other news, the youth side lost out in what sounds like an absolute belter of a game to Barcelona in the UEFA Youth League, 4-2 at the Camp Nou. It’s always nice to see any Arsenal side progress in any competition, but first and foremost we want to see some impressive displays for the future and by the sounds of it Serge Gnabry impressed, bagging the first Arsenal goal to bring the teams level. Of course, we all know that ‘The Arsenal away’ of playing football is drilled into the teams across all age groups, as it is with ‘The Arsenal Penalty Taking Way: by Mesut Özil’ with Kris Olsson missing a spot kick early in the game. You can’t teach this stuff you know!

On a serious note, I think it’s good that the team is getting this international experience and it’s great to hear there were some good performances to speak of, even if I’ve had my questions before about the purpose of buying in young players to blood them into potential cash cows in years to come. It’s not unquestionable that a couple of players might break through into the first team over the next couple of years, but it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see any more than three players break through, so I always take these types of game with a pinch of salt and look to see one or two stand out performers that could be rocking up at an Emirates Stadium near you sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Anyway, that’s all I fancy mustering today, but in true marketing fashion, I’d like to leave you with a teaser for the weekend, as Ben is putting together a special ‘mega blog’ for your viewing pleasure. More to come over the coming days.

Southampton: was always going to be tough, but we don’t help ourselves

Yesterday’s game is a difficult one for me to pass comment on, given that I was unable to actually watch the action against Southampton, on account of having a rubbish computer that never streams properly. Oh, and being slap-bang in the middle of a shopping centre when the match kicked off, of course.

I did catch pieces of the game on the radio which, by the sounds of it, I tuned in at the right time having missed almost all of the first half. It sounds as if the Arsenal players did the same. Barely any shots registered in anger, some kamikaze defending (Monreal the key culprit by the sounds of it) and a sloppy goal conceded at the back post by Jose Fonte.

The team must have clearly have had a stern talking to for. The manager, ‘angry’ Steve and probably amongst themselves, because the post-halftime oranges did the trick and we were level within three minutes of the restart. Olivier Giroud with a neat finish after Sagna cut back to him inside the six yard box. Minutes later Santi put us ahead and, perhaps this is because we have been used to the team showing that they can close out matches, I thought that we would ‘kick on’ and notch another impressive away win.

But the game was not one that sounded like The Arsenal we have become accustomed to, because Lallana bought Southampton level minutes after that and the match turned into a slug fest. Özil hit the bar, Szczesny kept us in it, Flamini went mad and got himself sent off for a reckless two footed tackle. He does like those (always has throughout his career), does the Flamster, so I must admit I have been expecting him to get a red for a challenge like for some time. In modern football you simply can’t tackle with two feet and this one silly act will see us miss him for all of the big upcoming games. Right when we need him most. The thing is though, isn’t it his terrier and slightly crazy personality on the pitch that makes him what he is? So do we really want him to change into a shrinking violet?

Looking at this from the cold light of day, as well as the fact the we didn’t lose against a tough opponent, I can’t feel as despondent as some of the people that I watched mope their way across my Twitter timeline yesterday. You’re not going to go through the whole season winning eery game and every team experiences tough matches where they’re just not at the races. But the important thing for The Arsenal is that we respond on Sunday against Crystal Palace. If we pick up three points against The Eagles at the weekend then we still set ourselves up in a good position to go back top, because one of City or Chelski will drop points against each other.

There is a sense of disappointment that we’ve essentially wasted an entire half of football where, had we been at the races, we could have put ourselves in a good position to pick up all three points. It’s a worry that we just didn’t click and there have been a few warning signs of late that Arsene will be keen to iron out I’m sure.

One thing a number of people seem to be pointing out, which is the Flamini-Arteta base of our midfield doesn’t see to be working. I could see why Arsene went for it – especially if you’re playing a team that presses high from the front and you need outlets for your midfield to provide to the back four – but we definitely seem to miss a player that can travel with the ball or move it front to back quicker. Rosicky, Wilshere and Rambo all fit that category and so you have to wonder what difference it would have made if all three (or at least one) would have been fit. It sounds ominous that Ramsey had a ‘little setback’ as Arsene declared after the match, but the noises coming from the journos close to the Arsenal camp seem to suggest that it will only be a week or two extra he is out and not one of those six weeks jobs. We just have to wait and see on that one.

A quick note on Podolski, who got six minutes of injury time to make an impact, which is no time at all if we’re all completely honest with ourselves. As each match passes, it’s hard not to accept that there is something going on there. His impact for the last twenty minutes of a game has already been telling against West Ham, so why is he being ignored? Perhaps Arsene already has his replacement lined up, as last night he made a vague comment about us maybe surprising a few people over the next couple of days. As always, we seem to be leaving it to the last minute, which does make you wonder if Arsene has decided to emulate ‘Arry now that he’s not in the league. I hope he’s got something up his sleeve, because we’ve seen what a Reyes, Arshavin and Özil can do to the team.

That’s it from me I’m afraid. Like I said – I haven’t properly watched the game yet and so will have to save further thoughts for another time.

Speak tomorrow.

C

Mean Arsenal end Coventry dreams

Is it going to rain for every game between now and the rest of the season? Because right now it feels like I’m being punished for my Arsenal habit. I’ve watched four games over the last month and only one of which has actually seen me arrive to my destination without the desire to wear wellington boots after each match.

So it was to come to pass that I had to endure another evening of torrential rain underneath the floodlights at the Emirates. Still, never let it be said that we Arsenal fans don’t have a sense of humour; after all, when the floodlights went out just before halftime all that could be said was that Arsenal needed to pay the bill, amongst a cacophony of third generation+ phones lighting the proverbial way as The Arsenal sauntered to the most routine FA Cup fourth round display that you’ll witness. Perhaps the Coventry fans were expecting an FA Cup response to the plight they faced in League One with no home ground to call their own, but the reality of the situation was that there was little offered by our opponents throughout the game, save for a spurious outside of the box effort that clipped the edge of Fabianski’s left hand post. It was all that Coventry could expect against an Arsenal team that was not prepared to suffer the slings and arrows of a lower league defeat for two years running.

I must admit, I was a little surprised to see the starting line up take to the field that Arsene had chosen. Picking the likes of Özil, Gibbs and Wilshere said that Arsene was taking this competition more seriously than perhaps seasons past against lower league opposition, or perhaps it was a case of ‘fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me’ when it comes to David vs Goliath.

Thankfully David never really mustered a half-hearted lob at our side, so speculating over a giant-killing was left to the ITV morons that will occupy tomorrow’s live football slot.

I thought we were mean yesterday. Mean in the sense that we never even gave our opponents a glimmer of hope. By halftime w had dispatched our lower league compatriots through two Podolski goals and by the final whistle we had doubled the tally through Giroud and Cazorla. The quality of our team was evident throughout and as I mused to Mr Leeder, we were never going to lose this game, not really.

Individual performance-wise, I thought we had some definite positives to take away from the game. The usual suspects performed well (central defence, Gibbs, Jack, Özil), but I was pleased at the confidence that Jenko exhibited. He looks a more than able deputy to Sagna – given the room to grow and flourish – and he was a constant thorn in Coventry’s side throughout the game. So too I thought, was Gnaby, who looked lively and ‘showed’ for the ball constantly. We’re in the midst of a title race here folks and, with the need for players to ‘step up’ and show their credentials, the young German is looking every bit the part.

Heck, there was even a bit of time to see a little bit of Zelalem to brighten proceedings, and he looked composed and calm on the ball. Amazing when you think he’s just 17 years old.

Look at me; I’ve spent the whole blog talking about the positives and haven’t once mentioned the goals. Podolski finished smartly after 15 minutes and then roughly 15 minutes later he nodded in his second from a good cross in from the corner. It was game over at that point and Coventry never really threatened. The second half was much of the same, with Arsenal controlling possession and the Sky Blues (in yellow) never really able to retain the ball for more than a couple of minutes.

Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla with two decent strikes gave the score line more of an accurate reflection of the gulf in class and we go marching on into round five.

A word on Podolski, before I clock off for today, because I thought he was impressive and did exactly what his game was all about: end product. He’s a lethal finisher and a vital asset in what will be a fascinating last third of the season. Last night he showed exactly what he is capable of and, unlike the game against Chelski in the Capital One Cup where we huffed and puffed but never really looked like scoring, I can’t help but wonder if Lukas had played that evening, would the result have been different?

Anyway, that’s it from me today. Enjoy your weekend folks.

Santi’s adaptability could spell trouble for Lukas

Hello there person for which I do not know your name, nor what you look like, yet am pleased to call you ‘friend’.

I’d like to tell you that there has been a cacophony of interesting and fantastical Arsenal-related stories that have permeated through the inter web airwaves and landed on our laps for our own consumptive pleasures.

But there isn’t.

Even the official site is running with stories which are kind of interesting, but not really, if you know what I mean? Those kind of stories that you can spot a mile off as ‘fillers’. So we’ve got a couple of snippets from Arsene about how there is an ‘interesting’ gap developing in terms of the points tallies at the top of the league (the most ‘paddy’ of ‘Padding’ stories there), plus how Szczesny has improved in his consistency since hitting the 100 club for The Arsenal. In addition on the site, there is Santi Cazorla telling us about how he loves playing with the midfielders that Arsenal have, how they all compliment each other with their own assets that they bring to the team, which is why we are in the position we are in challenging for the league (at the moment, anyway).

I think it’s the Cazorla interview which offers the most insight into the structure of the team and the roles they are being asked to play at the moment. Santi speaks about how he, Mesut and Rosicky are all very similar and like to play in confined, tight spaces. Where as Jack is somebody who likes to ‘take the game by the scruff of the neck’ and is a stronger player. He goes on to talk about Rosicky’s directness too.

It’s interesting because he likens himself and Mesut as very similar players, but with a difference that he prefers to play out wide and cut in whilst Mesut occupies the central territory in a free-roaming capacity. I say it’s interesting because that is pretty much what Santi did last season – free-roam in the centre of the park – and so to hear him talk of a preference for being out wide makes me wonder whether he is just saying what people want to hear, or whether he actually does prefer it. Because last season he spoke of how he relished the freedom he was being offered in the team.

I suspect that it is more of a case that when you get great players who are so flexible like Santi, you can pretty much play anywhere and they’d enjoy it, because they just want to play football. And let’s face it, if you and I had a left and a right foot as sublime as he does, we’d probably just love to play football too, wherever you played us on the pitch. He is a quality player and quality players find it easy to adapt. If it’s true that the tiny little Spaniard sees himself as that left-sided player, then whilst it bodes well for those of us that wanted to see the full extent of a Cazorla/Özil partnership, I do wonder what that does to the long-term future of Lukas Podolski. He has yet to demonstrate his prowess as a central striker (although he will probably get a chance on Friday with the FA Cup tie against Coventry) and if Cazorla continues his upward trajectory in terms of his form, I think the loveable Germans game time might be limited. If Cazorla starts to demonstrate more of a goal threat in games, like he did with Fulham at the weekend, it will become difficult for Arsene to justify Podolski’s inclusion in the starting line up. Poldi is an impressive impact player; scoring goals and offering a directness at goal, but there’s no doubting that technically he is nowhere near Cazorla’s level. And we all know that Arsene values a technically gifted player above all else – it’s how he has managed to impose his football philosophy on the club throughout his tenure.

I worry for the long-term future of Podolski, I have to say, because he’s not getting the game time we or he expect. On the ‘A Bergkamp Wonderland’ Podcast last week they touched on there being something not quite right, with Tim Stillman in particular saying that he felt there is something going on with Podolski, and I think he’s right. The Ox has come back into the side from a lengthy layoff and already seems to be getting more involved, where as Lukas has been back over a month longer and yet he is still supposedly ‘finding his fitness’ to get back into the team. I am starting to wonder if Podolski’s impact on games is being questioned by Le Boss in the light of the plethora of midfield and attacking options he has.

We just have to hope that Lukas finds some form, some goals and helps drive us forward to a league title come May.

Catch you tomorrow.

Eddie Hapgood up front? Santi teaches? Arsene signs?

Hello there my fellows and fellowettes, hope all is well? Last night I had a strange dream that Eddie Hapgood was bought back to life by my cousin Mark and he was going to go and play for Arsenal and solve our striking crisis. It was strange for many reasons. Firstly, because he played as a left back for Arsenal, so signing as a centre forward would hardly have solved our striker situation. Supposedly he was quite the robust fellow. Which brings me on to me second reason as to why it was strange, because nobody actually said it was Eddie Hapgood, I just knew it was him. Even though I can’t remember seeing his face anywhere. Thirdly, and most bafflingly of it all, my cousin Mark is a Spuddite, so why he would have any interest in bringing a post World War I Arsenal and England left back into this world from the land of the dead, is quite peculiar indeed.

I never did find out if Arsene took up Mark’s offer of resigning him.

Anyway, back to the real world, which is full of transfer rubbish that I’ll swiftly navigate around and move on, it appears Santi has caused a bit of discomfort to those Spuds fans by holding up a piece of paper asking what the viewer thinks of Tottenham, also questioning what the reader thinks of faecal matter (in slightly more colourful language). Of course the answer is those pesky spuds, but much like ‘Learning to count with Theo’ failed to amuse the lilywhite supporters, ‘Learning to read with Santi’ has caused some distress. Santi, being the thoughtful gentleman that he is, immediately took to his Twitter account last night to apologise for holding up the sign along with Robert Pires.

I guess you could call all of this a bit of a storm in a teacup, but in today’s social media world with pictures, videos and comments going viral quite easily, it is almost par for the course that some people feign some sort of vague disgust at a footballer being asked to hold up a piece of paper that he clearly doesn’t know what is on it. Perhaps the Spuds are just a little bit touchy at the moment, on account of them finding out that actually, they aren’t the greatest team that have ever lived. But whatever the reason, expect ITV to comment on yet more insightment of those poor innocent coin-chucking mongrels from the wrong section of the Seven Sisters road.

In other news, we’ve appointed a new head of high development with a name that is sure to tittilate the younger Arsenal players, as Andries Jonker has been announced as a new arrival from Wolfsburg. He’s headed up Ajax’s youth academy before and will replace Liam Brady. It sounds like a very good appointment, but he’s going to have to get over a few sniggers from some of the boys with that surname I’m sure. Personally, I’d go for a bit of “Rodney you Jonker!”, but I’ve always put a cheap laugh ahead of my football career, which is probably why I never made it. Oh, as well as the fact as I didn’t have the talent and fitness, but mainly the joking thing.

The talk about Arsene signing a new deal is also hotting up, especially after some of his cryptic comments in his pre-match presser on Friday, so most media outlets appear to be upping the column inches with the news that Silent Stan is in the UK to broker a deal for Le Boss.

Perhaps I’ve missed something, but isn’t that the sort of thing Stan put his son on the board for, so that he could get involved in that sort of stuff? Or perhaps Arsene is a ‘special case’ and so needs to be treated as such? Let’s face it, if Arsene gets a call from Kroenke Jnr asking him about his deal, he’d probably tell the young lad that he’s got sleeping bag jackets that are older than he is, so to go and get his dad because the adults need to talk.

Of course that didn’t happen in real life, but in my head Arsene is a ruthless Michael Douglas in Wall Street type character, with Kroenke Jnr being a naive minion.

I think Arsene will sign a new deal and with the team looking like it’s taking shape for the next few years as a side that can compete at the very top, he’d be mad not to want a couple more years at least to see how far he can take them. I think what it does show you, however, is that most people aren’t fussed about being labelled an ‘Arsene Knows’ or ‘Wenger Out’, but are concerned more with a competitive team and, providing Arsene still has fire in his belly for success and we’re competitive, I’ll always get behind him.

Rotation of form, consistency from front to back, that’s what can win us the title

Howdy Gooners, are you feeling chipped today? Apparently today is supposed to be called ‘Blue Monday’ because it’s the most depressing day in the year. It’s a load of old tosh, of course, unless you’re a United fan that is. I dunno, all these years spent routing for whatever team plays against them, yet now we have to hope they even vaguely resemble the Champions of last year or previous incarnations under Fergie. Yet alas, no favours were handed our way from the men from Manchester, as Mourhino was once again left happy with his irksome record in tact.

I guess we shouldn’t concern ourselves too much of what is going on elsewhere and should just look to our own performances for sources of enrichment. After all, we remain top of the league, regardless of how the media are continuing to perpetuate the invincibility of Moneychester City. We continue to pick up points home and away and our consistency and efficiency in picking up points is a cause for much optimism in The Arsenal camp. Santi has been the latest to voice his pleasure on such matters, asserting that our consistency has been a key facet of our game this season.

Our little wee Spaniard talked up the way the team is able to hold on to leads, as well as the summer signings, all of which have contributed to the team. There’s little to really argue with there and this season, more than any for a long time with The Arsenal, it has felt like the team can switch off the tap and shut up the shop to close out a victory when needed. That comes down to a mean defence, but what it also does is afford the attacking players more leeway when it comes to scoring goals. You don’t need a maths degree to work out that needing to get just one to see out a game is a lot easier than four because you’ve conceded two. It’s why I’m holding out a hope (a slim one) that our defensive stability will stand us in better stead than City’s relentless scoring. From a Gooners perspective, you’d like to think that the sky blue Mancs won’t keep scoring at this rate all season, so when they do have an off day it will be the strength of their defence that will salvage results for them. In that sense, we have to hope that it is where we have the advantage against all those millions.

Santi is right that as a team we have been consistent and, in the wake of the number of injuries we’ve had this season (top of most injury league tables out there that have been produced), it makes the success of our consistency all the more remarkable. To have so many players coming in to form at the right time has proved a perfect foundation for a title tilt. When we lost Theo at the beginning of the season, Aaron Ramsey was scoring more goals to compensate. When Ramsey went down against West Ham, Jack and Tomas stepped forward and both have put in some impressive displays. When we lost Walcott this second time a couple of weeks back, Gnabry has stepped up. When Mesut’s form has supposedly dipped, Cazorla has started banging in goals, like the player we saw last season. It augurs well for our hopes of silverware and it also emphasises that the strength of our squad is a little bit more robust than many would have us believe. At any one time so far this season, we’ve had at least three players ‘bit form’ each game, which is why we’re so ruthless in getting results. We may not be swashbuckling our way to 100 goals, but I’m almost a bit happier that we’re more convincing as ruthless three point machines, which the majority of champions of ever era have had. You only need to look a couple of blogs over, at Mr Seagar’s analysis of how many teams have won the league whilst conceding goals left, right and centre to see that it’s not a formula that usually works. See Newcastle’s mid nineties implosion for a case in point. I’m not saying it’s not going to happen – City have amazing firepower after all – I’m just saying that history favours those who have consistency at both ends of the pitch.

It’s why I’m a bit more concerned with Chelski. Under that manager, they will play the most turgid football imaginable, but he knows how to set his teams up not to concede and it is a real cause for concern.

A quick ‘aside’: I’m on the Victoria Line (staying at my parents with The Management in Dubai on work) hurtling towards the City and there is a bloke in front of me with a Sky Blue Manchester City scarf. I forgot they played in London this weekend….oh, wait a second….THAT is what is wrong with money in football. People like that. He could very well be a London based Mancunian, but I severely doubt it, and I wonder if he supported City five years ago, or whether he had a United scarf on. Pfffh.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes! Consistency. At both ends of the pitch. That’s what will (hopefully) win a league and that is what we have to hope brings the Chelski bandwagon to a grinding halt, whilst the Moneychester City one (fingers crossed) will implode on itself through lack of keeping clean sheets.

That’s probably about all I gots time for today folks, so I shall see thee in the morrow. But before I go, a quick plug for the latest SG Podcast from the boys, myself and Daniel Cowan. You may remember him from such blogs and pods as The Goonersphere Podcast, North London is Red and Goonersphere.com. You can download the latest version from ITunes, or click here for a link to the direct feed.

Fulham review: one word – routine

If you were to describe yesterday’s game in one word what would it be? For me? Routine.

More possession (59% – 41%), more attempts both on and off target (22 to 8), more chance of us scoring than Fulham, exactly what we deserved on a balmy January afternoon at The Emirates. We came, we saw, we dispatched with little fuss. Oh if only every opponent that rocked up at The Emirates had the same lack of desire to get into our half. ‘Twould be a nice easy stroll to the Premier League crown and that’s no mistake.

Nothing summed up Fulham’s lack of creativity going forward than Dimitar Berbatov who, when not shrugging his shoulders or holding his arms out in frustration, cut a relatively solitary figure alone up front for most of the game. Fulham fans may have been happy to see the re-arrival of Clint Dempsey to their team, but on yesterday’s display they are in trouble and no amount of returning hero-worship will keep them from being embroiled in a serious relegation scrap.

The day started in usual fashion for this here Gooner, a trip to the Tollington to meet Brock, one of the founder members of the Official Arsenal Supporters Club of Charleston, South Carolina. He was an Emirates virgin until yesterday so it was nice to be able to play a small part in a unique first experience for somebody in the world of The Arsenal. As we pondered over the expected team line up, the news quickly filtered through that Monreal was starting ahead of Gibbs and that despite his lack of visibility in training on Friday, Jack was fit to start alongside the Flamster. Welcome news indeed given the fact we’ve had players breaking down with injuries left, right and centre since Christmas. Up top the sharp end of the team featured the direct running of Gnabry, the close control and twinkle toes of Cazorla, the vision and craft of Ozil and the hold up and link play of Giroud. Expectation of a high scoring match was high and within the first ten minutes we were offered a glimmer of the cricket score I’d asked for on Twitter hours before the match. Great interchanges of triangle passing set Ozil away on the right and as he got into the box and flicked the ball beyond Stekelekerlekerlekerlekenberg I thought it was only a matter of time before we opened the floodgates.

But it never really seemed to happen in the first half after that. We never seemed to get going. Some of the passing was a little bit lackadaisical and although Fulham had spells of popping the ball around, it felt to me like a bit of a non-event in the first half. Sidwell did force Sczcesny into a smart save, but having watched the Match of the Day commentator call it a brilliant save last night when I got home, I couldn’t help but wonder if the overreaction from the commentator said more about the chances and overall action of both sides, rather than the actual difficulty of the save.

But whilst the first half was tinged with frustration, I never really felt like this was a game we weren’t going to win, especially after the first ten minutes of the second half. It almost felt as if the players knew that they could turn it up a gear in the second half and really only wanted to play one 45 of football, so they saw the first half out before upping it in the second, for which the reward was a goal from Santi almost on the stroke of the hour. It had been coming to be fair, because Gnabry had forced a smart save from and Koscienly had a point blank shot saved too, so when Jack cut the ball back to Cazorla almost on the penalty spot for the diminutive Spaniard to prod home, the game was all but done and dusted now we look back on it.

But, as with all things in football, you have to make the game safe and we did so just five minutes later. A ball in from Monreal was headed away by one of the Fulham centre backs, but only as far as the edge of the D where Cazorla took a touch and stroke the ball home. I don’t know about you, but it seemed to take an age to actually reach the net, but nobody in red and white will be complaining, because at 2-0 and with the defence that we have as strong as they’ve been, the game was sewn up. We saw out the rest of the game and picked up a deserved three points to keep us top.

That’s two out of two of the key games that we’ve got through with maximum points and next up in the league will be Southampton away, which will be a real tough one, but if we can win that and Palace at home then hopefully we’ll have built a cushion for when we visit Anfield in February.

A couple of individual performances and thoughts on specific players. Firstly, Lukas Podolski. He came on with about 20 minutes to go and had an almost immediate impact, crashing a ferocious shot against the post, but other than that I thought he seemed on the periphery of the game for his whole appearance. I know it’s sacrilege to seem to criticise a player that is clearly so well liked by everyone involved in the club, but I would have expected him to be a bit more direct and trying to get into attacking positions in and around the box. But he seemed to just drift out wide and when our central attacking players picked up the ball in the middle of the park, he didn’t look to make any kind of darting run but instead just stood static. It was the first time I’ve understood perhaps why Arsene isn’t giving him as much game time as Poldi would like. If you consider who the experience German replaced in Gnabry, Arsene could have quite easily deployed Santi on the right and played Podolski on the left, but he chose to go with Podolski’s younger compatriot. Who, by the way, had another really good game. He worked the Fulham keeper, offered a decent outlet on the right and his direct running at Richardson gave him something to think about all game.

A bit of praise should also be reserved for Santi too. He’s struggled for form and fitness after an amazing first season last year, but there are signs – including yesterday – that we’re starting to get our tiny little Spaniard back. Much like I said about Wilshere on the blog a few days ago, it’s coming at the perfect time as well.

Anyway, that’s it from me today, so enjoy your Sunday safe in the knowledge that we are top of the league, say we are top of the league.

Routine NLD shows just what this squad is capable of

Today’s blog is partially written in the heat of the moment, because I’m stuck on the Tube and the chances are that I’ll want a lie in tomorrow, having drunken my own body weight in Carling Extra Cold (if the makers of said drink feel like sending me any free samples of said beverage, feel free to drop me a line for the free plug) before the game, so will undoubtedly be inclusive of all of the passion and hyperbole that a victory against ‘them’ can bring. Sure, we know we are a better team than that lot – a top of the table position doesn’t need to tell us any more – but it felt all the more special ensuring our name was in the hat for the fourth round after today’s victory, what with a potential winner dispatched and the confidence further enhanced with a compelling victory against the old enemy.

Come on, don’t tell me that you’re not walking a little bit taller today, eh? I know the league is ‘priority number one’, but ensuring that Spudsville isn’t steeped in silverware is pretty darn hilarious, isn’t it?

There are so many reasons to be positive today as well, isn’t there? After all, we saw an Arsenal team missing Big Per, Gibbs, Flamini, Özil, Poldi, Giroud, Rambo et al, yet we still managed to dominate the majority of the North London Derby (NLD) against a Totteringham side that were supposed to be full of a Tim Sherwood revival. Turns out Tim Sherwood’s a Gooner. Perhaps Daniel Levy should have done his groundwork. Or at least dropped a call to The Arsenal and asked if there are many season ticket holders with that surname. He was obviously too busy planning his next £100million on a new team and new superstars to bring in.

The day started off with plenty of optimism. I met a host of Gooners in the Tolly who had plenty of belief; the protection of The Emirates was surely enough to ensure that safe passage to the next round of the cup was secured, wasn’t it? Everyone thought so. So we drank, made merry and saluted the New Year whilst patiently waiting for kick off. The weather had threatened earlier in the day to be a nasty one, so I wasn’t taking any chances. After my painful shin experiences of Chelski and Cardiff, I boy-scouted myself up with protection on my shins in anticipation of a downpour.

shin pads

Essential Protection for the NLD

Thankfully it never came, much like the Adebayor and Spuds onslaught that we were supposedly going to get now that the Tim revolution was underway along the wrong side of the Seven Sisters Road, which didn’t so much explode as much as ‘pfffft’ with a whimper. I must say it’s grand watching The Arsenal dispose of our noisy neighbours. Actually, after hearing the limp “support” in The Emirates yesterday, it is hard to assign our Lilywhite cousins with the term ‘noisy’ if I’m honest. We get a bit of stick for being quiet at home and there is this myth that the Spuds fans are quite vocal, but I didn’t see any of that. They even had most of the Clock End to get into full voice as well!

I know I sound extraordinarily ‘crowy’ today (is that a word??), but it’s hard not to be the most chirpy of Gooners; we’ve dispersed our rivals in a cup competition, hopefully dented their confidence after a good win at United, plus we’ve further added to the credence that this Arsenal team has the minerals to compete on multiple fronts.

Serge Gnabry; ladies and gentlemen, Serge frigging Gnabry. I thought he was superb throughout and the fact he hasn’t featured much for the last few months owes more to the fact that we’ve got a plethora of great options in attack more than his own form. He came in, played superbly, and did exactly what you want for a player vying for the first team: terrify the opposition. He assisted for Cazorla’s goal, had a good shot fizzed over and rarely lost possession of the ball. He’s 18 years-old and he looks like he’s going to be a star for us.

I love beating the Spuds. More than anything else, I love beat if the Spuds and leaving egg on their faces, so step forward Tomas Rosicky, purveyor of fine NLD ‘egg-on-face’ distribution’ since 2010. Having robbed Danny Rose (remember him, he’s the ‘wonder boy’ that scored that goal on their turf against us and disappeared), he bore down on goal and sumptuously lobbed a stranded Lloris to effectively seal the game, despite the fact there was at least 25 minutes to go. It was a grand goal and the fact it game at the fault of the old enemy made it all the more delightful. Tomas was once again superb and is making a real habit of putting in some brilliant shifts in the middle of the park. I said yesterday that Arsene loves a bit of Rosicky for big games and he proved me right again. The goal he got may have had an element of fortune to it, but it was just reward for a fine performance.

But where are my manners? How about the first strike to put us on the way to victory? Oooooooh Santi Cazooooorla. You may not have captured the form of 2012/13 just yet, but we still love you, and you still know how to smash home a derby goal. It was the superb Gnabry’s pass that made it all possible, but the wee little Spaniard still had a lot to do, so when he hammered the ball into the net, there was a hell of a lot of relief and rapture, I can tell you. In fact, as my mind wanders back to the game, although I was nervous for the vast majority, hindsight allows me to comfortably ask why, because the Spuds rarely threatened our goal. The FA Cup deputising Lukas Fabianski had never had such a comfortable afternoon, and with the back two taking turns in keeping Greedybayor in their pockets (Soldado not being relevant given the lack of penaltyage), it was as routine an afternoon as you could hope for under the floodlights.

This was our day and we made sure of it. But sometimes there is always something that spoils it, so I need to mention the Theo incident. Having gone down with a knee injury over by the corner where the away fans sat, there was a reaction from Spuds fans almost straight away, thinking that he was feigning injury. Having then been stretchered off by their away fans, the lovely human beings that ‘they’ are decided to start throwing coins, hitting some of the stewards in the process. Theo reacted by smiling and pointing out the score. Perhaps he shouldn’t have done it, as it did incite the fans to yet more coin and missile throwing, but when you have been insulted, attacked with missiles and abused, what human wouldn’t react? I thought the reaction was very mild, yet there’s talk today of a ban or fine for Walcott. It wouldn’t surprise me, but then again, nothing does with the football authorities.

Anyway, let’s not end on a sour note, because we’re in to the next round and the confidence that this win would have done will prove vital in the wake of a tricky run up into February. See y’all tomorrow.

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!