result doesn’t matter, but with Wembley on the horizon, the performance does

I really feel like keeping this blog to one line reading:

“For an analysis of last night’s game, see the Swansea game, only Sunderland didn’t have the killer touch that the team from Wales had”

It felt exactly the same, almost, didn’t it? I mean, you had a team who essentially decided that the perfect blueprint for a minimum point at the Emirates was to sit camped on the edge of their own box and throw as many bodies in front of the ball as possible. The result was a pretty boring game of attack versus defence in which we once again huffed and puffed with little to show from our efforts at the end.

We’ve now gone three games without a win and put in three pretty lacklustre performances, although one thing I will say about yesterday evening’s display is that at least we worked the Sunderland ‘keeper a bit more than we did Fabianski a week and a half ago. A bit like when we played United at home and made DeGea look superb by firing balls down his throat all night, Fabianski was also gifted a a relatively easy time, but yesterday Pantilimon put in quite a good display in between the sticks, knocking balls around the post and getting down to his side well on a few occasions from Giroud, Walcott and Alexis.

Sunderland also had the fortune of the post too, as Billy Jones could have scored an own goal, instead the ball rebounded off the cross-section between post and crossbar. At the time I thought it would only be fair given that Sunderland had come for a point and not really bothered to do anything other than defend.

I sound a little bit bitter about Sunderland’s defensive display, but in truth I can’t really complain as an Arsenal fan, because teams like Sunderland have always come to the Emirates and sat ten bodies behind the ball with one up top hoping to poach an odd goal. We have seen it this season and season’s past. My worry is that team manager’s will have seen those recent couple of home displays and will be thinking that there is clearly a blueprint for playing Arsenal and it’s the blueprint that has existed for many years. We thought that this team was kicking on to the next level, but in order to do that, you need to put games like this to bed against teams that really shouldn’t be sharing the spoils with you.

I worry that Timmy Sherwood watched that game last night with a smile and said to himself: “bit of pace on the counter and better finishers and we can play this style of football and catch Arsenal out”. If there’s a blueprint to frustrate Arsenal and pick us off – which Sunderland did on a couple of occasions with Defoe and Fletcher, you can bet Tim will look to emulate that. We can hope that Aston Villa try to play a more open and expansive style of football, but the reality is that why would you against Arsenal? When you know you can beat them by closing down hard and putting up a strong defensive unit whilst hitting on the break, you’re going to do it and I think that’s exactly what he’s going to do in just over a week’s time. I would.

Perhaps I’m being a bit over the top. Perhaps yesterday’s game was just one in which we knew only a point is really all we need, that’s what Sunderland needed, so we’re pretty much over the line. Only defeat to West Brom and a seven goal swing for Manchester United will see us drop down to fourth spot, so perhaps there was a bit of a motivational block in yesterday’s game? It didn’t feel like it though, did it? It didn’t feel like the players were taking it easy, which in a way almost worries me more, because if that was the case at least we could say “well, the game was almost a dead rubber, so what do we expect? They’ll raise it for the FA Cup final, when the game means something”. I really hope that’s the case, because if we play like we have done in the last few matches, I fear the likes of Benteke and Agbonlahor will be getting a few more counter-attacking successes than Fletcher and Defoe had.

I also thought we’d see some good performances from the players that were rotated back in to the team by Arsene. Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey in the middle, I thought did ok, but nothing really too impressive. It must be hard to stake a case for some of them for the FA Cup final. When Theo campaign on I thought he did well and made an impact, getting behind the Sunderland back 10, but his time on the pitch was limited to 20 minutes so he was always going to struggle to get straight in to the swing of the game and make a massive impact. But I thought he did give us a different dimension, he did give Sunderland something to worry about and he did play as a more orthodox wide man, which pulled them apart a little bit. Before that Arsene had gone for Wilshere out wide, rotating often with Ramsey and Ozil and again, much like when Ramsey plays wide right, we became far too central and tried too many intricate balls through a congested area around the Sunderland ‘D’. Playing a central player out wide right doesn’t work Arsene. Give Theo a go on Sunday and see if we have a more natural balance. If we do, you have your answer of what to do for the cup final.

Should we be worried about the result yesterday? Of course not. Should we be a little more concerned about the performance, given what looms on the horizon in terms of silverware? Perhaps. But that’s what Le Boss has to work out how to fix and make sure we’re ready for Wembley.

If’s and but’s on rotation, the league and transfers

A little holiday away from work awaits yours truly here after today’s London grind, so apologies if the timing of the blogs get a little wayward, a bit like a loose Fabregas kick into the centre of a group of players inside a penalty box I suppose.

What a bit of madness that was, eh? But what I think it almost conclusively proves beyond any doubt, is that when you join Chelski you are inserted with an ‘evil serum’ that makes you at leat 25% more dislikable by at least a quarter and in some cases (Diego Costa, John Terry), 100% dislikable.

Oh well, thanks to tomorrow night’s game we can quickly forget about the evil in the world resonating from that part of West London, focusing on the purity of the dominant team in North London. It’s ours don’t you know.

Theo was quoted in the papers yesterday and this morning; saying that there can be no excuse not to challenge next season, that this season perhaps the believe was not quite there but next season with the squad and players we have we simply must challenge. I don’t think you’ll find many Arsenal fans arguing there. What we need is the start from 2013/14 welded together with the finish of 2014/15 and I reckon we’ll be up there. But a lot will depend on the ability to pick your best and most cohesive team and that, in some cases, requires a little bit of luck to avoid injuries for key players. We can all bemoan the hamstring and calf strains that might point to the medical team and/or poor rotation and fatigue of players over a long season, but if somebody decides to Shawcross Alexis, or Martin Taylor Özil, there’s not a lot we can do. Thankfully I believe the squad is capable enough to cover for losses of players from injury for a few games, but mass absences like we saw at the start of the season are not something any team can handle I don’t think, even the evil serum-taking Chelski team of this season. 

So whilst I agree that we need to be fighting better for the title, there’s a big ‘if’ in there depending on injuries.

There’ll be a press conference and some tam news at some stage today, but it will be interesting to hear what the manager might say about rotation. Szczesny perhaps? Gibbs, Gabriel, Wilshere, Walcott, Welbeck maybe? With third all but secured, perhaps you want those players that are desperate to prove themselves so they can get in the final squad and hopefully the first XI, so maybe we’ll get an insight into whether Arsène’s mind is edging towards a bit of rotation. 

Perhaps it is. After all, the team has been playing one game a week for a while and I’m convinced it’s helped with our form for the latter part of the season, so to rotate a little to keep players a bit fresher makes sense in my mind. After West Brom at the weekend we have a full week of recovery and so if Arsène wants to keep his players match sharp then he can do so at the weekend having given a few a rest from Old Trafford and a full week between games.

Anyway, we’ll know soon enough. In the mean time, how about we breathe a sigh of relief that we appear to have finally shaken off the ‘annual transfer saga’ tag that we spent five or so years worrying about, having finally handed it across to Liverpool, who will spend the summer worrying about Raheem’s movements in the off season. I’m not going to laugh, because I still remember what it felt like seeing our players depart, but the unsettling of Sterling could see something of a conversation starter between us and the scousers. Arsène is a known admirer and Theo is in a bit of a contractual dilemma, so if the noises from Camp Walcott are that this might be a difficult deal again, Arsène could decide to cash in. I know it’s not as simple as that and rarely do swap deals materialise, but stranger things have happened in football so you never know.

Besides, if Jose is opening the door to Petr Cech joining Arsenal – assuming Arsène’s keen – then Dick’ll probably have to spend most of the summer chasing Jose around London hotels, so his attention might be away from a nippy winger from Liverpool.

One things for sure; with all of these stories beginning to bubble away, you can tell the press are itching for transfer silly season to start.

United review: a better response to previous years

Yesterday’s proverbial ‘game of two halves’ gave us just what we needed – enough to effectively secure third on Wednesday night with one of two outcomes – but more importantly, showed a bit more resilience than I have seen in an Arsenal team at Old Trafford for a long time, FA Cup game a couple of months ago aside. 

I say this because at half time, having been pretty much dominated for the opening 45, I felt resigned once again to the ‘same old story’ in which we lose to United in the league with barely any kind of fightback at all. To me, our defeats of the previous nine years have by-and-large been ones in which we’ve gone down with barely a whimper. We’ve fallen behind and never really looked like getting back in to the game, to which when then concede a second which effectively kills the game off. That’s what happened when I watched from a Barcelona bar about three seasons ago, when Vermaelen was gifting That Dutch Bloke a comfortable start to his United career.

But yesterday, whilst starting in a similar fashion, ended in a way in which I can take comfort in a point gained. We played poorly for an hour and Arsène was unsurprisingly angry at half time, according to Monreal, but we grew back in to the game and dominated the final 30. Pegging a United side back in their own half so they resort to long kicks up field gives you an idea of how in control we were towards the end of the game. That shows progress to me.

We needed that point because, if I’m honest, pre-game I was hoping that we would not fall into a bit of a confidence nose-dive with back-to-back defeats. We’ve avoided that and now, with Sunderland on the horizon on Wednesday, we have the opportunity to get back to winning ways quickly enough.

Performance wise we had a few players who just didn’t get close to clicking. Santi Cazorla was very off-key and in a team where competition for places is so tough, I do wonder if Arsène will have a think about who he plays on Wednesday night, because he was completely nullified by the quick press of Fellaini and Mata and spent more and more of his time in the first hour as another holding midfielder in front of our back four. In the opening minutes of the second half, I genuinely wondered whether Martin Tyler had forgotten any notes on Santi, because he just wasn’t saying his name. I put his performance partially down to his own display – when you’re as good as Cazorla you should be able to create space for yourself with movement – and partially down to the fact that United had clearly realised that if you choke the supply of Özil and Cazorla, you can negate a lot of Arsenal’s flow.

I make suggestions of rotation for Wednesday because when you compare and contrast the performance of Cazorla to Ramsey – again out of position for most of the game – you see a player who would quite happily slot in and play as a central midfield player. As you will no doubt be aware by now, I’m not a fan in the slightest of us playing Ramsey out wide right, but I am a fan of Ramsey and so is Arsène so it’s obvious that he wants to fit him in. But it really surprises me because for a guy so obsessed with the natural balance of his team, his recent formation decisions leave us quite unbalanced, as Ramsey continues to drift in-field all game.

It’s no surprise that it was the last 20 minutes – with the changes of Walcott and Wilshere coming on – that we looked more threatening going forward. Walcott’s width was enough to stretch United who then also had Alexis (who also had a poor game by his standards) on the opposite flank to contend with. This also enabled Ramsey and Wilshere to find more pockets of space and on a couple of occasions the Welshman got in to some good positions, one of which saw him lob the ball over De Gea, only for Rojo to clear over the line.

The goal came through Theo being isolated on the right against Blackett and was a classic example of what Theo gives you: end product. Alright, so he can’t in all honestly claim what was clearly a heavily deflected goal, but he’s the sort of player who gets in to those positions and I think he offers us an option in the squad that others don’t. He may not have shown it as much through his cameo appearances of late, but Theo is a valuable asset and showed it yesterday by being the chief protagonist in rescuing a point for us. 

So we’re nearly there. Almost over the line for a third place finish and that will represent progress. We aren’t going to get second but right now, I’m happy with where we’re at. 

Roll on Wednesday.

Glass half empty or full?

Thank some sort of deity that it’s Friday. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’ve had a shocking week – Arsenal result aside – I’ve just had enough of the proverbial stuff thrown at me work-wise that I’ll be grateful for a few days off. 

Plus the league have deemed it acceptable for us to finally have a game on a weekend instead of a Monday night, so that gives me something right at the end to look forward to, Arsenal-wise. Or dread, depending on how full your glass is.

If it’s half-empty, then you won’t have been too encouraged with the news that The Ox, Debuchy and Arteta are all out for the weekend, whilst Rambo and Welbeck are uncertainties. It’s a shame if neither of the latter pull through and it undoubtedly weakens us somewhat, but if you’ve got a half-full glass, you’ll be happy that we have the depth in the team to make these absences appear minimal. Bellerin for Debuchy, Coquelin for Arteta are familiar swaps, so it’s just the Ox that I think we’re really missing out on.

Not least because I’m convinced it would give the manager a serious decision to make with Ramsey. The Ox is a more naturally suited player out wide right and I think he’d definitely be playing if he was fit, but this ongoing injury which seems to have no return date appears to continue to linger, so much so that I’m starting the think we won’t see him again this season.

Who knows? Arsène’s squad selection decisions may be so numerous that he’s decided a normal six week injury layoff gets an additional two ‘just to be safe’ but also to avoid a difficult decision and cheering a player off. That’s probably what I’d do if I was in Le Boss’ position. So maybe we will see if the same happens with Ramsey and his knock from the Swansea game, or Welbeck too.

The only difference with Welbeck is that he appears to be Arsène’s only real preferred choice to Giroud up top, which I’m sure is why we’ve seen a slight tailing off of Giroud’s form in the last couple of weeks, as his competition in the squad is reduced. It’s not the sole factor; as has already been pointed out the shunting out wide of Ramsey probably has had an impact as he has one less wide man to get in behind defenders and put the ball in for him, or the fact that he’s a confidence player and when ex-stars like Thierry Henry say you can’t with the league with him in the side who knows how he will react? He’s a confidence player and if that gets knocked you can see the impact.

I think it might have a small effect, but competition from Welbeck and the position of Ramsey have had more of an impact than anything else.

So I wonder if Welbeck is rushed back to the first team ahead of the other players, especially if he is given the extra incentive of another opportunity to prove Louis van Gaal wrong by playing well against his old club. 

All of this and there’s not even the slightest mention of Walcott who, I have to admit, I find it staggering that his stock has fallen so much in 18 months. He’s gone in the summer, almost certainly, but I hope that he keeps his Arsenal legacy by moving abroad. I’m sure it won’t happen and he’ll be bound for an English side, but it does feel like a sad way for a player who was once a lynchpin of the team, discarded like an old Cornetto wrapper.

That’s football I suppose. Eventually it will happen to every player. Just ask Rosicky how he’s feeling at the moment.

Laters.

Poor tactically and defensively

After the winning streak that we’ve had in the last couple months, I find myself somewhat at a difficult place, because for all the criticism that I want to give the manager for what I believe we’re totally the wrong tactics to deploy against a Swansea team who came for a point and went home with three, the side he picked was the same side that had performed so well over the last month. 

So was Arsène right to pick the same time based on the belief that confidence would see us through against Swansea? Evidently not, but I can see why he thought the confidence of the team would see us over the line.

But herein lies the problem with Arsène. His unwavering belief in the spirit of his players trumps any other kind of reasoning or thought process for selecting any Matchday squad, or so it seems from where I stand, because his inability to look at the opposition and exploit weaknesses feels to me like it’s negated by his belief that the players who feel the most confident will win the game.

It feels a very ‘heart on the sleeve’ kind of management, which I find at odds with the way Arsène is portrayed at times.

Take yesterday’s defeat to Swansea. Knowing that they would look to frustrate and remain compact in the middle of the park, there was no acknowledgement from our manager that we might need to pull them around the pitch a bit to create space. An unchanged squad featuring Ramsey out wide right therefore saw the bulk of play concentrated on trying to wriggle our way through pockets of congested white and red shirts with no real resolution other than a pretty tame half in the first 45.

To Gary Monk’s credit, he executed his game to perfection. You could almost hear the teamtalk reverberating around the Emirates: 

“We’re not playing with a striker today boys, we’re going 4-6-0 and that’ll frustrate Arsenal, but as long as we stay compact we’ll get chances”

It was a perfect plan to play a manager like Arsène on his home turf. We laboured for the entirety of the first half and although we created chances in the second, they were all down the throat of Fabianski, who must have been grateful for the gifts presented to him. Particularly a tame Walcott strike which rolled into his arms as he was practically still on the floor. 

None of our forward line covered themselves in any glory. Ramsey did what he knows is his game and played too centrally throughout. Giroud had an early chance but then faded into anonymity, whilst Alexis too had an off night. Mesut was stifled by the congestion in the middle of the park, whilst Santi couldn’t really stamp any kind of authority on the game. It was a lacklustre performance from an Arsenal team who appear to have nothing to play for on this showing. Quite unappealing indeed.

As for their goal, well, let’s just say that Ospina won’t be winning over any floating voters any time soon. The chance Gomis had shouldn’t have fallen so easily on his head in the first place, but when it’s down to your ‘keepers left hand side and very saveable, you expect him to…well…save it. 

I have no major problem with Ospina. He seems a decent enough ‘keeper, but when you’re going for a Premier League title, you need more than just ‘okay’. When Almunia’s confidence wasn’t completely drained from him he was ‘ok’, but he never made saves you never expected him to make. He never managed to ‘save’ us games. Our two current ‘keepers feel like that. If we really do want to win the league, either one of them needs to be doing that little something more, or we need to find somebody who does, because in a game of fine margins these things matter.

Defensively the two full backs hardly covered themselves in glory either. Both Gomis and Montero are becoming quite a thorn in our side, but I have to admit I thought it was pace that did over Chambers, where as you can’t accuse Bellerin of lacking that can you? 

So there we have it. A disappointing defeat that means we head into the game at Old Trafford knowing another loss will see us drop back down into fourth. Having beaten Swansea just once at home since they came up, I think it’s fair to say that they are well and truly an Arsenal bogey team, which I thought we had managed to shake off those types of sides where we are clearly better but have some sort of psychological block.

Still, when I got home last night a pair of freshly arrived FA Cup final tickets were sitting on the kitchen table, so I guess that enabled me to get some perspective.

See you tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real ballot, some squad rotation and babies with beretta’s

Regardless of where any bodies political allegiances lie after the UK general election, for a big chunk of Arsenal fans, they’d probably have given up voting rights for the most important ballot success this week: the FA Cup Final ticket allocation allowance today. Good luck to all of you who are in it to win it today, I hope you are made happy.

For me, the only ‘fallout’ from ‘Fallout Friday’ is the announcement of who’s fit to face Swansea on a Monday night. Much like the exit polls for yesterday evening, there appear to be differing opinions that are circulating last night and this morning. Some are suggesting, for example, that The Ox is fit despite Arsène saying on the official website that he is not available. Apparently he trained with the first team last week and so Le Boss’ comments are somewhat confusing. That is, unless you are aware of the context of the current competition in the squad, as well as Arsène’s widely known assertion in the past that he sometimes has held players back citing injury just to protect them from the media sensationalism of saying they’ve been dropped.

I don’t think that is the case with The Ox, but I do wonder if Arsène has told him that with the team playing the way it is at the moment and winning games, he’ll have to ‘get in line’ like Gibbs and Wilshere. In that sense, if he’s unlikely to make the bench for Monday night, there’s no point in telling the press he is available and then leading them to concoct a story about a falling out if he doesn’t make the Matchday squad.

Ramsey is a minor doubt to make that squad, but with Swansea comfortably in mid table and our players high in confidence, I would hope that Arsène feels he doesn’t need to take any chances and gives rotation a try in a few days time. I saw a few guys talking about Theo effectively being given a ‘last chance’ by playing against Swansea at home, and if he were to not be picked for that type of game, then he’s almost certainly got no future at Arsenal. I can see the logic there. There is no such thing as a ‘safe’ game in the Premier League, but a team with little to play for at the end of the season, is the closer you’re going to get. If Theo can’t be trusted there, when, and where can he be trusted at all in the managers eyes.

Welbeck still remains sidelined, which is a shame because I do wonder if he too might have been fancied to start up top, but we can speculated more on that over the coming days. 

As things stand, a draw at Stamford Bridge for Liverpool would secure top four mathematically and a draw for Palace at home to Man United would see third place guaranteed if we can beat Swansea, so we could be in the charming position of automatic qualification once this round of games is completed. This pleases Chris very much. It also means we at least have some vested interest in the weekend’s action, so at least we all won’t be completely bored!

Finally, how about the news that Tony Adams fancies running Villa, eh? Him and Tim arm-in-arm, it’s a soundbite-salivating wet dream for the British media. It’d be like giving a loaded gun to a three year old, which is why I’d be well up for it! 

Anyway, I’m off to find a beretta, so you have fun doing whatever you like to do.