Gritty three points

I don’t know why, but yesterday’s game with Crystal Palace felt like a really big result, in the context of our Premier League season.

There were many people I spoke to during the week who were pretty convinced that we were going to go to Selhurst Park and sweep aside a Palace side who have had a wee bit of resurgence under Alan Pardew, but who have stuttered ever-so-slightly in the immediate past, but I never really believed that the game would be anything other than a challenging 95 minutes (although where the referee worked out those five minutes of injury time was a bit of a mystery to me).

Last season when we played Palace it was anything but plain sailing, but so it was that the home team with their partisan home support, were able to influence the game much more than many would have predicted. Under Pardew you can see that they try to press hard and fast and at times we made it difficult for ourselves with some slack passing of our own, but you can always tell the difference between the top sides and those that languish further down towards the foot of the table. Crystal Palace may not be relegation fodder at this moment in time – nor it must be said do I think they will be come May – but you could tell there was a distinct lack of cutting edge in their forward line.

Pardew is no mug and knew exactly how he could potentially get some joy against our team, targeting Monreal with Zaha’s pace in the first half and looking to get Gayle isolated against Chambers too. In the second half Chambers was run ragged by Bolasie on our right hand side and it was on that side that Palace were able to get the goal they scored in injury time, plus the Murray header off the ball with seconds to go. But again, the fact we were able to take our chances and Palace weren’t able to make the most of the 22 attempts they have, perhaps shows why we are fighting at the top of the league. We have the players to make the difference.

That’s what Welbeck did in forcing the Palace full back to make a challenge on six minutes that led to the penalty we scored. And no Ray Houghton, no Robbie Savage, despite your clear desperation to find fault in decisions given to Arsenal, it was on the line and so is a penalty. Calm down and perhaps stick to playing golf in your retirement from the game.

That cutting edge in the final third means everything, and it was that with which we capitalised through the second goal, a fine through ball from Özil (I think) finding Welbeck and his shot fell kindly to Giroud to tap home. The Frenchman is developing a lovely habit of being in the right place at the right time and is doing it on a fabulously consistent basis at the moment. Long may his form continue.

Long may our overall form continue too, actually, because we’re stringing together a number of wins that are building some real momentum. With United losing, plus Southampton and Liverpool playing each other today, we find ourselves in third and with a run of matches in the league in which you would expect us to pick plenty of points up from. Victory against Everton next Sunday, followed by an away success to QPR during the midweek after that game, will see us firmly secure a good footing on which to build success in our season. Success for Arsenal would be a trophy and securing Champions League football. We still have a lot to do to get that trophy (I don’t fancy United away I have to say. They will be pants, but they’ve made it an art how they can perpetually skank us in every competition), but if we pick up 12 points from the next four games, I’d wager we’d be halfway there to achieving the Champions League objective.

We’re looking good at the moment. We’re grinding out games when we need to, like today, but we’re also adding the occasional bit of swagger to some of our performances. That’s the Arsenal that we want to see.

Now, bring on Monaco…

Santi or Alexis: player of the season so far?

Chelski, eh? A deplorable club with a racist captain and selection of racist fans. But did we expect anything else? It’s like somebody telling you that politicians don’t always tell the truth. No sh*t Sherlock.

Anyway, the less time spent on that odious team the better, so let’s talk about something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few days:

If you had to pick a player of the season right now, would you choose Santi Cazorla or Alexis Sanchez?

Good one, eh? I could have chosen one or two other candidates and, with his form looking very good at the moment Giroud might force his way in by the end of the season, but there’s no doubt in my mind (and if assume you’re too) that the stand out contenders this season so far are the tiny little Spaniard and the diminutive Chilean.

I really can’t distinguish between the two, which one has been the outstanding performer this season, which is a real positive in an otherwise ‘okayish’ season at best.

Cazorla has looked unplayable since December. He’s had the odd game in which he’s not been at his best, but those games have tended to see the whole team under-perform, so you can’t shift all the blame in his direction. At Momeychester City, plus against Middlesbrough this last weekend, he has been particularly splendid in his play.

I don’t know whether it’s this deeper-lying playmaker role that he’s carved out for himself in the absence of other midfielders due to injuries, but he has been able to dictate play so much better when starting from deeper in our team. I love how he can retain the ball from opponents, shifting it from one foot to the other in a seemingly never-ending spiral that dazzles midfielders on the other side. The run he made – irregardless of whether it went anywhere – at City to give breathing space to our defence by taking on about five players before having the ball smashed at his face whilst on the floor, was everything that makes him exciting to watch. In that game in particular, we saw how important it is to have a player who can retain possession and also still find a teammate with a pass. Against the Spuds he wasn’t able to impact the game and coupled with the poor retention of the ball across the whole team, it contributed massively to our downfall, as we weren’t able to provide that same breathing space for our under siege back four like we did in Manchester.

It’s why I think that this possible new game plan of the team – score the early goal and soak up pressure – is one that can only be successful when you have players on the pitch with the technical ability to hold on to the ball. The immediate names in my mind that immediately spring up are Giroud, Özil and Cazorla. If those three can relieve a defence constantly soaking up pressure, by holding on to the ball longer, we have a greater opportunity to be successful in those types of games.

But what about Alexis? Shouldn’t be get the nod against a resurgent Santi? After all, he’s been a one-man match winner at times this season and the fact that he’s bagged so many goals in his first season, just shows how important he is. He’s still getting used to playing in the English Premier League and he’ll not have experienced too many challenges like the robust tackle he got from Upson against Leicester just over a week ago.

Like Cazorla, his dribbling ability is fantastic and matched with lightning pace, he’s been a godsend for us this season. The goal he scored at home against City was one that emphasises his overall technical ability and he has shown that he’s a natural finisher when he gets the chance too.

His goals haven’t been as prolific in coming over the last few games, but he has been injured and he still looked a wee bit rusty against Middlesbrough, but the speed of thought he showed with Özil with some of their quick interchanges of passes was a delight to watch. With it widely recognised that Özil struggled after the World Cup and was then injured, I am hoping that this weekend’s displays from both of our big money signings was the start of something beautiful, because both are capable of big things at Arsenal.

Arsène has spoken to the official site about how quickly Alexis has settled in, citing the fact that he’s played in different leagues, his desire to play for Arsenal, as well as the many Spanish speaking players in the league, as a key to his instant success. But I think – and hope – that this is the start of a glittering career at the club. His energy and drive is an inspiration to some of our players and, perpetual Arsenal injury crisis aside, with someone like him in the team and a more consistent squad for Arsène to choose from, I do get the sense that he can help the players to elevate their own games more and more as he gets used to the language and his teammates.

I still haven’t given an answer, have I? That’s probably because I really can’t pick between the two. If I had a gun to my head I’d probably go for Santi, but that’s mainly because I love a ‘resurrection’ story and the idea that Santi wasn’t going to get games this season with the talent we have available was always going to be a ridiculous notion, because he’s that talented that he was always going to force his way into the managers plans.

My mind may change of course, as there are plenty of games still left to play, but right now keeping those two fit for the remainder of the season seems like the best possible chance we have of Champions League football and winning a trophy.

Who’s your pick?

Santi the quarterback dominates Boro

Arsenal are a funny old team, eh? After labouring in the North London Derby, then huffing and puffing against a Leicester team with bodies behind the ball, they faced a confident Middlesbrough team and simply swotted them aside yesterday.

I have to hold my hands up and admit I didn’t see that coming. I assumed – wrongly it seems – that we would be in for more of the same as the Leicester game. I thought Boro would be organised, hard to break down and we’d have to scrap right until the last minute.

That it was the score line that flattered to deceive the North Easterners, should tell anybody who didn’t watch the game just how comfortable an afternoon we had. Indeed, it felt like if we really wanted to, I mean really wanted to, we could have won that game by about five or six, something Dave had assured me would happen yesterday before a ball was even kicked. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to his narrative; the Blackburn blip a few seasons ago aside, we don’t tend to get beaten in the FA Cup at home, especially to lower league opposition.

You could tell how in control we were within the first five minutes. The tone of the game was set when Santi drifted into acres of space at least three times in the first five. He had yet another exemplary performance in the ‘quarterback’ role sitting deep and picking passes, but Boro’ simply didn’t pick him up at all at times, which set the tone for the day. Karanka said afterwards that he thought his team perhaps underestimated how difficult repeating the feat of the Etihad was, but I think yesterday’s canter was as much down to Middlesbrough not performing, as it was Arsenal playing superb.

We were superb too. I could reel off the names of players who had good games yesterday and it would just look like I’m writing down a team sheet. Gibbs at left back was great. I noted to my colleague Tom yesterday (up in the gods of the Clock End for a different perspective does give you a better vantage point of tactical set up) that Gibbs was playing very wide – almost hugging the touchline – and it gave our players the ability to stretch the pitch a bit more than when Nacho plays. Monreal is worthy of his starting berth at the moment, so I don’t begrudge him that, but Gibbs playing counter-balances our tendency to be a little narrow when Özil is playing on that side and when Alexis drifts as he likes to do. There was a few occasions yesterday when Gibbs was waving his arms about with a heck of a lot of space and perhaps it was telling that it was his run that was key in the first goal. Santi (natch) found him with a delightful pick out and his ball to the near post was perfect for Giroud to steer under Meijas.

So next to Giroud, who bagged both goals and was the quickest to spot the freedom of the penalty box on a corner to double the advantage just a few minutes later, this time picked out by Alexis from the corner. It was quick-witted and clever but Karanka won’t be too happy about the marking for the second goal.

Giroud has been superb since returning from injury. I haven’t looked up the goals tally for him for this season, but if he doesn’t surpass his season’s best at this rate, I’d be surprised. And let’s not forget that’s including the fact he’s missed a few months due to a broken leg. He’s looking every bit the quality centre forward we need and this season has added big-game goals to his repertoire.

But it wasn’t just the Santi, Gibbs and Giroud show, because a number of players had good games. Take Mesut Özil for example, having scored and assisted in every one of his games since coming back from injury (I think – don’t quote me on that!), he showed once again that he’s coming back into force as one of the stars of the team. His movement, ability to retain the ball and link up play was wizardry at times, to which you can only watch and applaud. He was outshone in midfield by the little Spaniard yesterday, but his performance was still sparkling and yet another good game under his belt will have done his confidence the power of good, important as we enter the business end of the season.

A good solid debut was had by Gabriel alongside Koscienly, who won nearly every header all day, and coupled with Chambers looking decent at right back and Flamini marshalling the midfield, we didn’t give Middlesbrough a sniff until the dying embers of the game.

Arsène can be rightly happy this morning. He’s seen us navigate a potentially tricky tie against a team at the top of the Championship, with a quarter final now awaiting, most likely at Anfield or Old Trafford knowing our luck. I don’t see it being anything else other than that. There’ll be a couple of heated up balls in the pot tonight to make sure it happens. Mark my words.

But who cares? We can go to Anfield or Old Trafford and get a result. We are The Arsenal and with the way those two sides have played this season, even one of those toughest fixtures in the competition, we’ll have to do it eventually against one of those teams.

All eyes now turn toward preparation against Crystal Palace. They may be licking their wounds after an FA Cup exit to Liverpool, but by the time the game on Saturday comes around, I’d expect them to be fired up for us and I think we’re going to have a really tough afternoon in South London. More on that as the game draws near.

For now, I’m going to bask in the glory of victory, dreaming of another FA Cup final in the sunshine.

Form throughout the squad will serve us well

Don’t really know what I was worried about yesterday. Perhaps I’d read too much into the various pre-game tactical analysis about Villa, coupled it with the reappearance of the worst ref in the league Antony Taylor, then rebooted a few old memories of past discrepancies against our Midland opponents yesterday.

I probably should have looked more closely at the stat which said that Villa hadn’t scored for something like five Premier League games, then worked my confidence up from there, because yesterday was a rampant Arsenal that were in control from start to finish.

It is funny though, because when you’re there and you aren’t influenced by the chatter of pundits or fellow fans on Twitter and other social networking sites, you do tend to be a bit more nervous inside the ground. At halftime the talk should have been about us going on a finishing this game off, but inside the ground my peers and I found nothing but worry that we were going to get sucker-punched. Let’s not forget that our only defeat at home since we last lost to Villa was a sucker-punch from a pretty average United side, so we have recent memories of how it can happen.

But my natural sense of pessimism which has been forged in recent times as an Arsenal fan, also impedes my ability to see the world’s easiest accumulator contributor, because with the form we’re exhibiting at the moment we were always going to win this. Oh hindsight, you can be such a valuable ally.

It only took us eight minutes to get on the scoresheet and when Ollie G flicked the ball over Guzan for the first, it was thankfully the start of things to come rather than the end of all that was good. Everyone seemed up for it yesterday. Mesut Özil was in sparkling form (the flick for the first goal will have had Cristiano smiling, remembering the ‘good old times’ had he been watching, I’m sure) but he was joined by Santi too, who showed once again how undroppable he is right now. Those twinkle toes of his are something to behold and Villa just couldn’t handle him yesterday.

But it wasn’t just Cazorla they couldn’t handle. Giroud won most of his aerial duels, was composure personified with his goal and showed why he is first choice at the top of our formation. He’s been brilliant since returning from injury and suspension and the very fact that we see few online keyboard warriors bemoaning his existence, shows how well he is playing, so long may he keep it up.

Theo and Rambo may have had moments in which they looked rusty, but they both still impacted the game with the former scoring a well taken side-footer to make the game safe at 3-0, whilst the former worked tirelessly and showed that even when some of the stuff that makes him amazing didn’t come off, his work-rate and attitude helps him to come through well.

I haven’t even mentioned Coquelin yet who, with the kind of display that looked like he’d been a first team regular for the last three years, broke up Villa play perfectly and formed the perfect anchor weight for the rest of the creative players to build on. As Nigel behind me noted, he’s got ‘legs on him’ which whilst sounds like the world’s most redundant statement, anybody who watches football and knows it’s lingo will understand what it means. His anticipation is superb and he loves a tackle. In England, the sort of floor-sliding, ball-winnery will always get the fans cheering your name and Francis has become as undroppable as Santi in my opinion now.

But the good news doesn’t stop with the attack and midfield. Defensively we looked like we could have held our goal untouched for days. I don’t know whether that’s because Villa have no real cut and thrust about them, or whether we are just too good at the back right now. That’s four clean sheets in five now I believe and with new signing Gabriel and Calum Chambers able to spot in should the worst occur, we also have options at the back for rotation.

Yes, you read that right: we have options at the back.

We have options everywhere, actually, because let’s not forget that Monreal is keeping Kieren Gibbs out of the side at the moment. Nobody would have seen that coming this time last year, would they? He, like many in the team at the moment, is in form and keeping his place on merit. Much like Bellerin. Given his age and his rawness when he first started appearing in the first team this season, it was natural to assume the Chambers would take the right back spot, but Hector had another fine display and one that will have the manager wondering who will be his first choice right back next season if he maintains this trajectory. He even chipped in with a composed side foot planter right into the bottom corner in injury time.

I’ve started, so I’ll finish with the praise in the team, so step forward David Oooooossssspina! I don’t know if you can see it on the TV, but after we were awarded the penalty on Chuba, I happened to look down the pitch at the defenders. Ospina was out of his goal and talking to Monreal, Per and Kos and looking authoritative and organised. He did that all day. He marshalled his defenders, then when called into action, caught balls into the box, claimed crosses and made a couple of very smart saves. Again, there on merit and whilst I’ve always been a fan of Szczesny, I just can’t see how he’s going to get back into this team right now.

The arrival of Gabriel, coupled with the form of so many players, is making this current moment in the season an enjoyable one. We still need to win more games and next weekend’s North London Derby will be crucial, but our squad depth at the moment looks frighteningly good. No Alexis, Welbeck, Ox, Debuchy, Wilshere or Arteta, yet we still smashed an admittedly ailing Villa team to pieces. People in the media keep asking Arsène how he is going to fit in all of these players into his team! I remember four years ago we were bemoaning the leeching effect of the deadwood in the team, but now we look like we could field two sides, such is the strength of the side Arsène has built.

Hopefully this bodes well for the remainder of the season. We are putting together the sort of run that we had last season at the start of 2013/14, so it ‘feels’ to me like we are ready to really cement our Champions League credentials. The games will start coming thick and fast after Saturday’s game, so rotating a big squad will be essential and having players in the squad that are in form, is the sort of thing that you see from sides that win trophies.

We still have a long way to go, but we’re playing the right way at the moment. We’re winning, with swagger. Let’s have that next weekend please, boys.

Le boss in fine fettle and the club in form; what we all want, right?

Arsene took on the press yesterday and, as expected I suppose given our form and the announcement of a signing to talk about in the shape of Gabriel, he was in quite a jovial mood. I must say, it is much more preferable to me when everyone is a little bit more happier. I think there are some Arsenal fans out there in the world who seem to thrive on misery in some sort of footballing masochistic mindset, because some people only seem to get a thrill when we’re failing. But me, I like it when things are rosy in our garden. I like it when Arsene can have a joke with the press about giving them his address so they can send another signing his way if he is an ‘exceptional talent’.

Le Boss told the assembled hacks that Gabriel was ready, fit and will go straight into the squad, which is lovely to hear and something that will be a great boost to the squad as a whole. He may not speak enough English yet, but his fellow Spaniard’s in the team will give him enough support and I suspect that if we can get ourselves a comfortable lead on Sunday (which I don’t think will happen by the way; I suspect Villa will be hard to break down and it will be a tighter game than the pundits are suggesting, but more on that tomorrow), we might see Gabriel as a sub appearance to ease him in to the team.

The only downer that you could possibly have on the presser yesterday was the confirmation from Arsene that Alexis is unlikely to be risked. He’s picked up a knock and as a result I think Wenger will play the cautious game. It’s a sensible option and one that is made all the easier for the boss by the form of other players, as well as the fact that we have somebody like Rosicky who, in my opinion, deserves another run in the team after the Brighton game. Of course, the options are such now, that Rosicky may not even start, and with Ozil back you wonder if it will be a combination of Santi/Ozil or Santi/Rosicky for that left wing position. My preference would be Rosicky out wide left because I think the best players who are in the best form need to play and Santi is in the best form so he has to play centrally. Ozil out wide left hasn’t worked as much, but Rosicky has more experience in that position, so I’d give him the nod. But second guessing Arsene is like trying to break the Enigma machine, so I’ll not bother trying with that just yet.

Welbeck, Jack and the Ox are still out, but with the sheer volume of quality players we have at the moment – something Arsene confirmed when he spoke yesterday when replying to whether there would be any more signings – means that we have plenty of options to cater for our massive injury list. You just watch: now that we seem to have found solutions to the troubled positions that have been rocked by injury, we’ll end up having the whole squad fit and players getting unhappy because they’re not playing as much. I guess we’d all rather have that than the other end of the spectrum though, i.e. no players fit so we go back to putting square pegs in round holes!

I do wonder with the Welbeck situation, whether Arsene is being ‘ultra cautious’ because he has other players that he wants to play who are in form over recent weeks, hence why he won’t be featured this weekend. Arsene has said that in the past he’s told the press that a player is injured, or has a ‘little bit knock’ of varying degrees, but with the form post Moneychester City and Brighton, Welbeck doesn’t just walk straight in to this team. It saves his, as well as Arsene, a job of fitting players in if one is a bit ‘short’. I know I’m going all conspiracy theory-esque on you now, but it just seems convenient that Welbeck is back on Monday and, after Rosicky will have played the last few games back-to-back, Arsene might then have a get out by saying ‘look, he is 34 and he cannot play every week, so I have to be able to rest him’. I know, I know, I’m getting way to hypothetical here – especially if Rosicky doesn’t play tomorrow – but given that I saw somebody on Twitter speak about how they had met Welbeck and he’d said he is fit, it feels like Arsene is keeping players back to save their own face as he tries to fit in so many talented footballers into his matchday squad.

But hey, I’ve wanted this for so long (squad rotation) so please don’t mistake my comments as a literary bashing at the manager- they’re really not supposed to be. If you’re going to have a big squad of talented footballers, you’re also going to have a lot of bruised egos when they’re not playing, so the best thing to do is to protect them in the public eye and I’m sure they will appreciate that too. So I say ‘bravo’ to Arsene. It feels like his mindset is shifting and he’s starting to manage the fitness of the players better; rotating them on a regular basis, keeping the competition for places realistic and at the same time ensuring that the infamous ‘red zone’ is this evil thing that is way off into the distance somewhere.

We’re in good spirits right now. A win tomorrow will give us yet more momentum and with a trip to Spudsville on the horizon, it will be good to see that we are in the kind of ‘positive spiral’ that could help us to put on a show and potential collect three points at our nearest and certainly not dearest rivals.

Until tomorrow.

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.