Thursday, 22 December 2011

Christmas bonus makes Villa victory even sweeter

Tonight's 1-1 draw between Sp*rs and Chelsea is further good news for the Gunners and leaves a top four berth looking increasingly achievable. Arsenal now lie in fifth, a single point behind Chelsea and only three behind Tottenham – whose only trump is the game in hand they've still got after the early season postponement that came about as a result of the N17 riots.

Arsenal kept up the pressure yesterday with a scrappy but significant 2-1 win over Aston Villa – the goals coming from a penalty and a set piece, both relative rarities in the roll call of Gunners goals so far this season. It was far from a vintage performance but nevertheless Arsenal got the job done.

The surprise on the team-sheet was the absence of Iggy Miquel. Most match previews had him down to reprise the left-back role, with Koscielny – 'the white Cafu' – taking up the right full-back berth. But Francis Coquelin was instead named at right back and Vermaelen was moved to the left, with Koscielny partnering Per Mertesacker in central defence. Frimpong started in front of this makeshift back four in the absence of the suspended Alex Song.

The disruption did the team no favours as Arsenal struggled to assert themselves, particularly in the first half. Given starting places both Coquelin and Frimpong had a chance to impress – and when called upon both have generally performed well in 2011/12. Unfortunately, neither covered themselves in glory yesterday. Coquelin, despite putting in a valiant effort, struggled at full back against the tricky Charles N'Zogbia, while Manny Frimpong was arguably the weak link in a midfield that was markedly less effective than usual. Ramsey was also guilty of some sloppy passing, probably born of fatigue – he looked leg-weary as the game wore on, and the return of Jack Wilshere in February to relieve some of the burden will be very welcome.

Despite being on the back foot for long periods, however, the Gunners still managed to take the lead. It came from a penalty, about which there could be few complaints. Theo Walcott was clearly tugged back by Ciaran Clark as he broke into the box and referee Jon Moss duly pointed to the spot. Robin van Persie's ensuing penalty kick was emphatic, as he blasted the ball into the roof of the net to notch his 20th of the season.

The Gunners held on to their single goal lead for the first 45 minutes, but there were numerous nervy moments. Arsenal looked particularly vulnerable on the flanks – and not only on the right, as Vermaelen also had his hands full against Marc Albrighton out on the left. Indeed the Belgian, usually rock solid, was not at his best yesterday.

Albrighton's equaliser, the 20,000th goal of the Premier League, was not a classic. It was fortuitous, stemming from a defensive error on Arsenal's part – with both Vermaelen and to a lesser extent Mertesacker being culpable. Nevertheless it put them on the front foot and the Gunners were now really under pressure.

Something needed to change, and Wenger obliged. After throwing on Arshavin and Chamakh against Manchester City to little effect, the manager looked to different options yesterday and substituted Frimpong for Rosicky and Ramsey for Benayoun. Admittedly the Russian also came on for Gervinho, but it was the Czech and the Israeli who had the greater impact. Rosicky immediately took hold of the game, retaining possession well and providing a stabilising influence.

Ultimately it was Yossi who was the hero of the night, however. In the 87th minute Arsenal won a corner – their 15th of the game. The delivery from set pieces has generally improved in recent matches, but frustratingly the Gunners seem singularly unable to direct many into the net – but this time Benayoun met Arteta's whipped-in ball with a strong downward header that left Villa keeper Brad Guzan helpless.

Ultimately Arsenal were not at their best yesterday. But they showed good application to grind out an important win, and that more than anything is the mark of a top four team; to win even when not playing well. As such, it was satisfying to get those three points – and in the light of tonights result their importance is all the more evident. The Gunners are back in action on the 27th rather than Boxing Day thanks to a tube strike, so until then a Happy Christmas to Gooners everywhere.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Does City defeat show Arsenal's strength or weakness?

It could perhaps be argued that it was Johan Djourou's inner thighs that essentially cost us three points against City yesterday. The groin strain he picked up late in the first half that necessitated his replacement on 47 minutes caused a defensive reshuffle, which saw Miquel introduced as left-back, while Vermaelen moved to the central berth to partner Mertesacker and Koscielny moved to right-back. Five minutes later David Silva bundled home an uncharacteristically scruffy goal from a questionably onside position on the edge of the six-yard box. That proved to be the winner, and in large part it came from a momentary lapse of concentration and poor Arsenal positioning as the back-line still looked to be adjusting to the new positions.

On such fine margins are games won and lost, but overall it was an excellent performance from the Gunners for most of the rest of the ninety minutes, as they put up stiff resistance against the expensively-assembled talents of Silva, Nasri, Balotelli, Aguero and Dzeko and caused the City defence numerous problems themselves. Only a superb performance from Joe Hart kept Arsenal from getting on the score-sheet, although to be fair at the other end the safe hands of our very own Wojciech Szczesny kept us in the game on more than one occasion.

In one sense, the fact that this was such a close-fought exchange makes the defeat all the more frustrating. If we'd had any of our full-backs fit then it may well have been a different story; similarly if we'd been able to call on a pair of more consistent substitutes than Andrey Arshavin and Marouane Chamakh then we might have been able to nick a goal to restore parity and come away with a deserved point.

Does the fault lie with Arsene Wenger then? We're certainly entitled to question why it is that the Gunners are forced to play centre-backs in wide defensive positions – arguably there should be more options in the squad, even a dedicated utility man to fill the gaps. Perhaps our current crop of injuries can be attributed to sheer bad luck, but then such bad luck has hit us on regular occasions in the past and Arsenal rarely seem to be able to find satisfactory solutions when it matters. Similarly, when we need impact subs, why did Wenger turn to two chronically out-of-sorts players when Benayoun and Rosicky were both on the bench, and Oxlade-Chamberlain is fit and raring to play first-team football?

The looming January transfer window means that such questions will now be asked more often and more vociferously in the coming weeks. With an opportunity to strengthen the squad just around the corner, can Arsene justify his apparent reluctance to buy despite the shortcomings of the squad in terms of quality and particularly its lack of strength in depth? Surely bringing in players would make the job of ensuring a top four finish easier, even if Manchester City are now out of sight, as he has said today.

Today's injury update brings the grim news that Djourou now faces three weeks on the sidelines, which only exacerbates the unfortunate defensive situation, as Wenger has admitted. Miquel, an excellent prospect but without much in the way of Premier League experience, looked out of his depth yesterday, but it's basically either him or Squillaci for the Villa game, and I know who I'd rather have. Referee Phil Dowd also awarded Alex Song a booking against City – his fifth consecutive yellow card, which means he also misses out on Wednesday. The combined defensive work of Song and Arteta did much to break up the City attacks; Diaby if available is an adequate replacement but Abou's seemingly endless cycle of injuries means that it is doubtful whether he'll ever be able to stay fit enough for long enough to get a regular run in the team.

Moreover it is not only shortages at the back that are uppermost in the manager's mind, judging from an interview conducted earlier today:
We hope to have Wilshere and Diaby back so in midfield we have the numbers required. But at the moment we are short at the back and if Gervinho and Chamakh go to the Africa Cup of Nations we are short up front more than midfield.
The fact that Arsene clearly acknowledges the current problems and anticipates future problems but still seems reluctant to commit to January spending is genuinely concerning. His coy attitude may be merely a case of keeping his cards close to his chest prior to making any moves – Arsenal have been linked with everyone from Köln's Lucas Podolski to Anderlecht's Matías Suárez, but as always whether any of these rumours are anything more than speculation is debatable.

So, a commendable performance from a depleted Arsenal team shows on the one hand that at full-strength the Gunners should have more than enough to compete with the league leaders – and certainly with any of the other teams in the top four – which is pleasing in itself, but also shows just how far we have come in a very short space of time since the disastrous start to the domestic campaign. Part of that resurgence is undoubtedly down to the impact of new players like Gervinho and Arteta – both were excellent yesterday – as well as the restored sense of team spirit that Arsene continually praises. So if the new players have been instrumental in changing the course of the season so far, why does Wenger seem unwilling to buy again in January? It is frustrating that Arsenal seem to be struggling with limited resources due to player injuries, and are similarly aware that they will soon have to cope with the loss of African players to the Cup of Nations, but do not seem willing to help themselves by bringing in a couple of extra additions to the squad. Arsenal were a couple of quality players short of beating Manchester City yesterday, and they're a couple of players short of mounting a sustained title challenge. Let's buy them in January.

Friday, 16 December 2011

A draw with the Rossoneri...

2011-12 Champions League last-16 draw

Lyon v Apoel Nicosia
Napoli v Chelsea
AC Milan v Arsenal
Basel v Bayern Munich
Bayer Leverkusen v Barcelona
CSKA Moscow v Real Madrid
Zenit St Petersburg v Benfica
Marseille v Inter Milan

The draw for the next round has just been announced, and the Gunners have a tricky tie to negotiate with the mighty AC Milan. The two games, surely, will prove to be the highlight of the draw, but it promises to be a very interesting set of fixtures. Chelsea have an equally difficult tie against Napoli, for example, while Real Madrid and Benfica both travel to Russia – never easy trips, and I wouldn't be surprised if an upset was on the cards for one of those two teams, despite their European pedigree.

From a red-and-white perspective playing the rossoneri is not the easiest way through, by any means, but Milan are certainly beatable – indeed, Arsenal won 2-0 last time they played Champions League football at the San Siro in the 2007/08 season, and became the first English side ever to beat Milan at home. We had a rather fetching white and redcurrant away strip that season, if I remember correctly, and two late goals from Fabregas and Adebayor secured the win – one of the more illustrious European nights in Arsenal's recent history.

With the away leg coming first we have a decent chance of going through, and furthermore as the BBC pointed out on their live blog, AC Milan have actually gone out to English clubs at the last-16 stage in each of their last three Champions League campaigns. Time for the Gunners to take on another Italian job then...

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Outflanked? Gunners injury crisis hits hard

In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, or perhaps it was Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams; 'If you build it, they will come'. That's certainly the case with Arsenal's much-vaunted new medical complex at London Colney, which opened in October. As well as a gym, an 'Olympic-style' strip of running track, screening equipment and exercise machines, it boasts a range of state-of-the-art technology including an anti-gravity treadmill.

Supposedly the centre is intended to help with preventing new injuries, as well as with treating current ones. So far, that first bit seems to have been a resounding failure, since Arsenal's already lengthy injury list seems to be growing longer by the week. As well as long-term absentee Jack Wilshere, the Gunners have also lost Bacary Sagna, Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, and Abou Diaby – yep, he pulled a hamstring against Fulham. Even Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone are both out after picking up knocks against Olympiacos. That match also proved to be a game too far for Andre Santos, who, it was revealed today, has sustained ankle ligament damage and will be out for around three months. The medical centre will certainly be full in the coming weeks, then – it was built, and lo and behold the crocked and the knackered have hobbled in to queue up for a go on the space-age anti-gravity toy.

Let's hope it proves its worth by assisting the speedy recovery of the less seriously injured players. Unfortunately that doesn't include our Brazilian – his injury is significant and will require surgery, apparently, and he is flying back to his native country to have the operation. Santos was only playing in that (utterly meaningless) fixture because he was our only fit left-back; his injury was frustratingly predictable and meant that against Everton Wenger was forced to play a string of centre-backs in front of Szczesny, with the left-sided Vermaelen filling in for the Brazilian. That's a line-up that is now likely to be retained for the crucial away games against Man City and Villa – and possibly longer, since neither Jenkinson nor Gibbs are expected to return before Christmas.

The makeshift back four are all good defenders, and held their own against Everton, but Djourou looks a weak link – not altogether his fault, since through necessity he is being played out of position – and against the multi-million pound forwards of City we may well come unstuck. To be fair to Wenger, the situation is only really attributable to incredibly bad luck, but it comes at a time when Arsenal are making a concerted effort to break back into the top four, and this is therefore a period that could have a big impact on our ambitions for the reminder of the season.

Basically, the Gunners have just about run out of options when it comes to full-backs. Wenger's critics might say that reflects the paucity of the squad, but then, who could have predicted that both first choice and second choice full-backs on both flanks would get injured simultaneously? When we lost Clichy and Eboue both were replaced, and although some have suggested that we need to sign a left-back in the January transfer window, it's unlikely that will happen. Miquel, Yennaris and even Sebastian Squillaci could all be called upon to help out if necessary – and if we are to sign a player then there are probably more pressing issues in the striking department to attend to, given our almost complete reliance on the prolonged fitness of Robin van Persie.

Let's hope the new Arsenal Medical Centre has its own prayer corner devoted to the God of Glass Ankles, where Colin Lewin and his team of Arsenal-tracksuited physios are praying daily that our captain stays injury-free for the season. If any one of Vincent Kompany, Joleon Lescott, or – more likely – Nigel De Jong scythe down our mercurial Dutchman on Sunday I'm going to go as mental as this Gooner did after the 4-4 with Newcastle last season.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gunners shoulder the weight of history to record 1-0 win over Everton

I'm a bit too young to remember the Arsenal centenary, but I'm fairly sure it was a more low-key affair than the various celebrations and events that have marked the 125th year – the climax of which came with today's game. Back in '86, I suspect the club stretched to a 100 years video (yep, one on ebay if you want it) and a few ribbons, before getting on with the football – which was actually pretty good, as December 1986 saw wins over QPR, Luton and Southampton, and 1-1 draws with Norwich and Leicester. Appropriately, Everton won the league that season, while we finished fourth.

These days, things are very different in so many ways, which I suppose simply reflects the state of modern football. That's not to say that certain aspects of the celebrations haven't been both genuine and merited; but others, it has to be said, are little more than marketing fluff. I like the new player banners inside the ground, I don't mind a bit of decoration to the crest (hence the site background, although to be honest I would still prefer a return to the classic cannon design), and if we must have an anniversary kit then so be it, as we'd inevitably have a new home shirt anyway, but whether we really needed three giant statues or guff like the 'Nike 125 project', I'm not so sure.

Not that I don't support the idea of permanent memorials to legends like Adams, Henry and Chapman. I just wish they were a bit more tasteful. Like the marble bust of the latter that used to sit proudly on display in Highbury's marble halls, which was understated, with a quiet dignity. The bronze statues, on the other hand, are a bit of an eyesore. Also, they're not very well sculpted. Admittedly it is hard to get statues right, especially football statues (the first Ted Bates one at Southampton springs to mind ), and I wasn't expecting Michelangelo's David – besides, big Tony with nothing on but an Arsenal fig leaf doesn't bear thinking about – but a vague resemblance is surely not too much to ask for. As it is, Herbert Chapman seems to have a very small face and a tiny chin for such a big man, while Tony Adams doesn't just not look like Tony Adams, he doesn't really look like a human being at all, and Thierry Henry, while the best effort of the three, looks faintly demonic. Moreover, and again I'm all for celebrating the club's fine heritage, but how much did these things cost? I don't know what the market value of bronze is at the moment – I'll have to get my broker to check for me – but I wouldn't imagine that 600 kilos of the stuff came cheap. Still, I suppose I shouldn't moan too much. After all, it could have been worse – just look at the monstrosity that Fulham have got.

The best aspect of the day was the fact that plenty of Arsenal legends were in attendance. I noted Bob Wilson, the ever-present Charlie George (does Charlie live at Emirates these days?), Lee Dixon, Wrighty, Ray Parlour, Bobby Pires, Thierry of course, Frank McLintock, Anders Limpar, Paul Davis, Lauren and Jens Lehmann. The most conspicuous absentee was Mr Arsenal himself, Tony Adams, who apparently couldn't make it as he had a prior engagement in Bucharest. Seems very odd – like some sort of Cold War era spy drama – but then Tony's whole managerial career to date has been a bit strange anyway.

The match itself, inevitably, didn't quite live up to the fanfare that surrounded it, although it was by no means a bad game or a bad performance. Arsenal were handicapped by a frankly unbelievable full-back injury crisis, as the curse that had already accounted for Sagna, Gibbs and Jenkinson struck down Santos this week, and in the absence of any other options Wenger was thus forced to play a string of centre-backs; (from left to right) Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Djourou. Most Gooners can probably work out, on current form, which was the weak link in that foursome, and so it proved. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov had evidently been given a brief by David Moyes to put our Djourou under pressure, which he did to great effect – playing the role of the archetypal tricky Russian with aplomb (looking every inch the sort of player, in fact, that a certain Andrey Arshavin used to be).

The rest of the Everton attack was somewhat disjointed, however, and as such it was a stubborn first-half performance from the Toffees, who are finding goals hard to come by at the moment. A defensive approach was perhaps to be expected, but the Gunners nevertheless worked hard to break down a disciplined back four – further consolidated in the second half by Sylvain Distin – and backed up the ever-dependable Tim Howard. Arsenal showed some skilful football, with plenty of deft touches and fancy footwork to penetrate the Everton penalty box, playing a now-trademark style that would have, by all accounts, been unknown to the original Arsenal (or 'Dial Square', as they were back then) of 125 years ago, grubbing about in old Nottingham Forest shirts on Plumstead Common. Ye Olde Gunners soon gained themselves a reputation as a pretty uncompromising side, it seems; indeed, many football histories tend to portray them as having been the Wimbledon of their day.

Today's Gunners play a very different brand of football, although many feel that a bit more hustle and directness now and again would be no bad thing even in this enlightened modern age. To be fair, both of those traits are more in evidence these days, mostly down to the influence of two new signings, Arteta and Gervinho. Both played well today, Gino should really have scored and Arteta – playing against his old club for the first time since his deadline day transfer – again demonstrated his worth, with plenty of snappy tackling and bite in midfield.

The Gunners didn't manage to unlock the Everton defence until the 70th minute, just when Arsene was preparing to throw on some late (too late?) changes, as is his wont. The wait was worth it though, as Alex Song played a ball over the top which was exquisitely finished with a first-time strike from Robin van Persie. Even the watching Thierry stood up to applaud, despite the fact that his 34-goals-in-a-year record now looks to be there for the taking.

A late scare from substitute Conor McAleny was Everton's best chance of the game and nearly spoiled the party but fortunately his effort fizzed past Szczesny's left-hand post.

So in the end the Arsenal were able to secure another three points through a 1-0 win that would have been more in keeping with an Arsenal of a different era. But that is now seven wins from our last eight Premier League matches, and 22 points from a possible 24, which is a tremendous turnaround that, however briefly, sees Arsenal climb to fourth in the table. Conversely, Newcastle are slipping down the table – unlucky against Chelsea but well beaten by a spirited Norwich today – and the Spuds have a tough away game at the Britannia tomorrow. Then the Chelsea-City showdown on Monday night guarantees that at least one of those two teams will drop points, so the top of the table may still look look fairly promising from a red-and-white perspective as we head towards Christmas. Onward and upward then. Or should that be 'forward'?

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Meaningless defeat might prove costly as Santos suffers injury blow

A disappointing result against Olympiacos last night; admittedly in a dead rubber match, but one that seemed to highlight the lack of strength in depth of this squad – a worry compounded by the injuries to Fabianski and Santos, the latter of whom now looks likely to be unavailable for the Everton match and possibly even longer. This could prove to be costly, as it essentially leaves us without a recognised left-back.

In the game itself Arsenal started fairly positively, but even early on a couple of prominent mistakes were made. These unfortunately heralded the start of an awkward and uncomfortable night. Squillaci and Djourou were both beaten by Olympiacos players in the opening ten minutes, while Fabianski's kicking also looked nervy.

The Gunners were unable to consolidate possession in a fast-paced opening period, but despite that, initially this looked to be a fairly even if rather open match. Olympiacos did threaten regularly though, and with deafening home support behind them they were clearly encouraged to go on the offensive.

Their first goal was a prime example of the sort of mistake that Arsenal had hitherto seemed to be slowly eradicating from their recent displays. It came on the quarter-hour mark as Djebbour took advantage of sloppy play from Arshavin and then a poor defensive mix-up from Squillaci and Djourou to round Fabianski and slot the ball into the net from an acute angle.

Defensive vulnerability was apparent, then, and even Vermaelen's usually calming influence seemed unable to hold together the back-four. Moreover, Fabianski was caught napping after he was played a simple square pass on the edge of the area; a couple of minutes later things got worse as his evening ended prematurely. A knee injury saw Vito Mannone introduced, but despite being handed an unexpected chance to impress the Italian would prove to be just as shaky as his predecessor.

After conceding the Gunners looked rattled. The onus was on the attacking players to provide the impetus, but both Chamberlain and Arshavin were deprived of the ball for long periods, skulking along the touchlines and rarely getting involved. The Russian's touch had seemingly deserted him, and he looked to be getting wholly disenchanted after a mere 20 minutes of play. Even Yossi Benayoun, probably the most experienced player in the starting eleven, was guilty of some uncharacteristically casual passing, although he would at least redeem himself with a fine consolation goal later on.

Frimpong and Coquelin both worked hard, but neither exercised the same influence as they had against Manchester City in the Carling Cup. Admittedly Olympiacos were playing to the referee, going down at the slightest of challenges, but nevertheless the young duo looked a little fazed by the occasion. The frequent stoppages interrupted the rhythm of the game, and the stop-start play did Arsenal no favours. Despite that, whenever they did manage to get into Olympiacos' half the Greeks tended to panic, and you can't help thinking that even at one goal down, if the Gunners had simply organised themselves and showed a bit of application they could still have turned things around and come away with some credit, and even a victory.

Alas, ten minutes before half-time, David Fuster doubled Olympiacos' lead. Again the goal came as a result of an Arsenal error, nay a calamity, this time from Mannone, whose positioning and awareness was sorely lacking as he raced off his line to head a ball away from this edge of his area, but then completely missed the speculative return, electing to scissor-kick his way out of trouble when he should have simply caught the ball. The defence, meanwhile, stared on dumbstruck, apparently rooted and offering little in the way of support for the hapless 'keeper.

Not a good opening 45 minutes, and as the players trooped off you hoped that Arsene would have strong words in the dressing room. If he did, they had little effect. Things only got worse in the second half, as Andre Santos – playing in this game because he was the only fit left-back – went down injured and had to be replaced by Miquel.

Admittedly Arsenal did pull one goal back in the 57th minute after Miquel played a looping ball into the Olympiacos box from the left-hand side, which Chamakh managed to chest into Benayoun's path for the Israeli to unleash a blistering shot.

This was about the only good thing the Moroccan did all night, although even then I'm not sure how intentional his touch was (he went down immediately afterwards and it seemed as though he might have been looking rather half-heartedly for a penalty). Clearly Chamakh can't play as van Persie does; neither is he ideally suited as a lone frontman, but when called upon to spearhead the Arsenal attack, you're looking for him to win balls in the air and hold up the play to bring in supporting players – that is, Arshavin, Chamberlain and Benayoun, to take last night's trio. However he struggled to compete in the air and saw very little of the ball at all. Admittedly he was isolated for much of the game and the role was a difficult one; but it was a dispiriting display – we can only hope that when he goes off to the African Nations in January he might rediscover some of the attributes of a striker, all of which seem to have abandoned him at present.

Meanwhile, pandemonium continued to reign in the Arsenal penalty area. Mannone clearly didn't have confidence in the players in front of him as took the opportunity to hoof it upfield at every opportunity; whereupon more often than not Chamakh simply stared at it dolefully as it looped over his gel-spiked head.

Wenger used his remaining substitution to bring on Rosicky for Coquelin. The Czech's introduction offered a faint hope of redemption, but this proved to be largely unfounded – all the more disappointing given that after some stinging criticism of his dedication to the Arsenal cause a couple of months ago, his recent displays had been much more positive. He did create probably the best Arsenal move of the half, before running purposefully into the box to pick up the return ball after a neat lay-off, but it was the only contribution of note, and he was unable to finish the move, only succeeding in touching the ball into the keeper's grateful hands.

For the most part, Arsenal just seemed a little disjointed. The forward players were only involved intermittently, and on a few occasions initially promising moves broke down too quickly, as players seemed to lack understanding and anticipation. Worse still, as the game wore on, the Gunners began to get careless, and conceded a couple of cheap free kicks including one near the corner-flag from which Olympiacos were ultimately able to scramble in an untidy third goal a couple of minutes before time.

Not a game to remember, but fortunately not one that mattered either. The fact that this was essentially a meaningless fixture is some mitigation for the poor showing, but it still emphasises the fact that shorn of regular first-team players the Gunners start to look like a very average side. That in itself is understandable but it does raise a few questions about the squad's strength in depth – and if we were to suffer injuries to RvP or Szczesny, for example, then judging from the performances of their understudies last night we might as well write off the season.

The worst result of last night, however, was not the score – it was the fact that Santos picked up what Wenger has called 'a bad ankle injury' that will now keep him out for at least a couple of weeks. With injuries to Gibbs, Sagna and Jenkinson, that leaves us with basically no full-backs and so looking ahead to the Everton game it seems likely that we'll be sending out a back four full of centre-halves – far from ideal. The manager has suggested that Vermaelen will play at left-back, which leaves a pairing of Mertesacker-Koscielny in the middle and, in all likelihood, the unconvincing Djourou our only option at right-back. The Swiss is not a bad player, he put in some fine performances when called upon last season, but he is still relatively inexperienced as a central defender – a position that cruelly exposes errors of any sort – and furthermore he is quite patently not a right-back.

Still, on the bright side, in Europe at least the fact remains that Arsenal are one of only two English sides to have progressed after Didier Drogba managed to turn things around for Chelsea last night. After this evening's Champions League matches, however, neither City nor United will be participating further – it's strictly Thursday nights only for them in terms of European competition for the reminder of the season, where they'll have to compete on Channel Five with the powerhouses of Europa League football that are Spurs and Stoke (not to mention Fulham). Although that clearly makes Arsenal's top four infiltration mission in the domestic league even harder, given our capitulation to both of the Manchester sides already this season, I still find their early exits quite satisfying. It also makes a good rejoinder for gloating "yeah? we're top of the league" City fans and those United fans still keen to oh-so-wittily remind us that they'd '8-2' be Gooners.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Olympiacos v Arsenal – Preview

Arsenal Champions League squad:
('A' list, * = 'B'-list)
To date, Szczesny, Mertesacker, Santos, Arteta, Song and van Persie have played in all five of the group games. It seems logical therefore that Wenger will elect to rest all of these key players, with the possible exception of Santos, since he’s the only available left-back in the squad. Aaron Ramsey, Theo and Gervinho have also played in four of the five games and probably won’t travel to Greece.

The latest injury updates from the club website state that Jenkinson, Gibbs and Diaby are all still unavailable, while Wenger has said that Tomáš Rosický ‘has a chance to be available for Olympiacos. He has a thigh problem. He is back in training - not full - but in fitness training.’

That suggests a fairly unfamiliar team-sheet on Tuesday night, and one that will combine youth and experience, whilst giving an opportunity to some of the fringe players in the squad. Indeed Wenger has said as much:
‘First, the priority is to respect the competition and to win our game. That is what I will try to do … I will go with a side who has experience and give the chance as well to some young players … I have done that against Manchester City, and you could see the team was really up for it ... The target is to respect the competition, win our game and finish the group stage unbeaten.’
UEFA’s rather complex Champions League rules make for typically dull reading, with lots of conditions about A-list and B-list squads, so I haven’t bothered to ascertain whether Sebastian Squillaci, for example, will be eligible for this game. If so I’d expect him to play alongside Djourou, with Koscielny and Santos as full-backs; if not then Vermaelen might feature. Starts will also probably be handed to Fabianski, Rosický if fit, Benayoun, Frimpong and/or Coquelin (although Wenger seems to prefer the latter as a general rule), with the Ox, Arshavin, and either Chamakh or Park as an attacking three.

It’s possible that Wenger could play a 4-4-2 as he did against Manchester City and field two strikers. Olympiacos will probably play this way, with Rafik Zoheir Djebbour and Marko Pantelic likely to lead the line. Both scored at the weekend in the domestic win over Panetokilos, leaving Olympiacos one point behind AEK at the top of the Greek Super League.

The Greeks must of course win this game to have any chance of joining the Gunners in the next stage, and while Wenger’s comments on ‘respecting the competition’ and finishing the group stage unbeaten are undoubtedly genuine, he’s hardly likely to take any risks in what is essentially a meaningless match. Given Wenger’s long-standing animosity towards Marseille, as a result of his days at Monaco, he’d probably prefer to see either Olympiacos or Dortmund join us in the Round of 16. The French side are currently best placed in the group but have a tough final fixture away to Dortmund. The Germans still have a very slim chance of qualifying – although they would need both a big victory over Marseille and for Olympiacos to lose against the Gunners to get through. Interesting permutations, then – but fortunately a three-way tussle that Arsenal will not have to worry about.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Victory a four-mality as Gunners beat Wigan comfortably

Arsenal showed good all-round strength yesterday to beat a struggling Wigan side who look to be going into the Christmas period readying themselves for a scrappy relegation battle. The Gunners persevered after a slow start to find a good rhythm, ultimately dictating the majority of the play and enjoying long spells in possession – which, crucially, they were able to make count, unlike the game at Fulham last weekend.

With fifteen minutes played, however, the resounding win that eventually resulted was not immediately obvious. Wigan were finding some success with their tactics of strong pressing in midfield as the ball was played out from the Arsenal back-line. This denied time and space to Song, Arteta and Ramsey, and as a result Arsenal initially struggled to create any sustained build-up play. To combat this Arsenal began to hit long diagonal passes across the pitch – Vermaelen in particular attempted this a couple of times with the object of playing in RvP behind the Wigan defence. The Wigan forwards were also working hard, moving out wide when out of possession to track Santos and Koscielny and prevent them from supporting Gervinho and Walcott.

Arsenal were patient, however, and gradually began to assert themselves. The tempo slowed as Wigan seemed unable to keep up their fast-paced pressing game, and this enabled the Gunners to settle. The first goal duly arrived through a good strike from Mikel Arteta four or five yards outside the opposition box. Al Habsi, perhaps, should have done better but Arteta's shot was hit with pace and it moved visibly in the air, dipping beneath the Wigan keeper's outstretched arm.

Two minutes later Arsenal forced a corner and pleasingly van Persie's delivery was much better than has been exhibited recently, if a little deep. Vermaelen was in the right place, however, and he nodded home from a standing jump – showing impressive athleticism and no loss of his famous spring after his well-documented tendon problems. The Belgian's return to the team has provided a far greater threat at set pieces, and moreover the team's corner-kicks yesterday were much improved.

Playing his 250th game, van Persie was a real menace, timing his runs well and causing the Wigan centre-backs major problems. His understanding with Walcott has been excellent this season, and it was again evident against Wigan, but in addition RvP alternated well with Gervinho, the Ivorian cutting inside and allowing van Persie to drop deep and also run wide, leaving Steve Gohouri exposed and playing catch-up throughout the ninety minutes.

At 2-0 the game became very one-sided and Arsenal could afford to play higher up the pitch, the ball rarely leaving the Wigan half. Mertesacker and Vermaelen both looked comfortable, and the midfield axis again worked effectively to dominate the middle third. Ramsey was full of running, despite taking some heavy challenges.

After half-time Wigan emerged with a renewed sense of purpose, and Arsenal were forced to soak up a little pressure as well as the rain, as it bucketed down. Martinez attempted to change his team's shape as Sammon played through the middle and Moses and Gomez attempted to run the channels, but with half an hour to play this had clearly been ineffective. Accordingly the Wigan manager introduced Albert Crusat for Jordi Gomez and Franco di Santo for Conor Sammon, but they had hardly been on the pitch before Wigan found themselves 3-0 down. More good interplay between Gervinho and van Persie led to a well-worked goal.

Arsenal wrapped up the victory with a now-familiar Walcott-van Persie combination, RvP picking his spot to notch his 14th of the season.

A good all-round performance in which it was good to see players other than van Persie get on the scoresheet, although RvP's promptings contributed greatly to the team's attacking threat. Gervinho got the goal that his recent performances have deserved, while Mertesacker and Vermaelen both played well at the back, exhibiting few of the defensive lapses that have previously cost us in this fixture. In 2011 RvP now has a better scoring record than Lionel Messi – an impressive statistic. As the Gunners go into a period with tough games against Everton and Manchester City to come, as well as the dead Champions League rubber in Greece, the team looks to be hitting a rich vein of form. Clearly van Persie is at the heart of this, but yesterday Arsenal showed that there is far more to this team than the flying Dutchman.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Wigan v Arsenal – Preview

Not a good fixture for Arsenal in recent years, this one – the Gunners only managed to take a point at the DW last season, despite being two goals up with ten minutes to play, while back in 2009/10 we succumbed to a 3-2 defeat. There's no reason, however, why we shouldn't be able to beat Wigan this time out – the Latics had a good result against Sunderland last weekend (which effectively cost Steve Bruce his job) but they have generally been either poor or unlucky in the league to date and currently lie second from bottom, with only two wins so far this season.

Manager Roberto Martinez is hamstrung by a tight budget and a small squad, certainly by Premier League standards. Moreover, with Hugo Rodallega out of form and out of favour they are currently reliant on Franco Di Santo and Conor Sammon up front, and on players like Victor Moses and James McCarthy to pitch in with goals. These players are not without talent though, and in addition Wigan have a pair of useful Spaniards in their line-up in the form of Jordi Gomez and Albert Crusat.

Still, Arsenal have more than enough quality to win tomorrow. In doing so they would extend their unbeaten league run to seven games on the spin, and keep pace with Liverpool and a stuttering Chelsea. The injury situation is unchanged from Tuesday – Diaby and Rosicky are both still out as well as the regular absentees. That probably means the now familiar first eleven of Szczesny, Koscielny (at right back), Vermaelen, Mertesacker, Santos; the Song-Arteta-Ramsey midfield axis; and Gino, Theo and RvP to complete the attacking positions.

It would be good to see either of the two wide players get on the score-sheet tomorrow, particularly Walcott, who started the season well with a couple of goals but has dropped off a bit since then, although his record of assists for Robin is admittedly very impressive. Arsène has commented:
'I believe that the likes of Gervinho, Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott can score goals and I believe they will. They can score goals, I am completely confident of that. And they will score. At the moment Robin is always on the end of things. I think he will continue but I also think it will change that the other players will score goals as well.'
As long as the team is scoring goals I suppose it doesn't do to be picky about who tucks them away – but our apparent reliance on van Persie is a bit worrying. As we saw against Fulham, even RvP can draw a blank occasionally, despite playing superbly, and although Vermaelen came to the rescue to atone for what was a very unlucky own-goal in that match, a similar mistake or piece of ill-fortune allied to a quiet or simply an unlucky day for our number 10 might prove costly.

Corner-kicks in particular are one area in which the Gunners should work harder, both in terms of who gets in the box and in the quality of the delivery. Indeed, in his post-match interview after Tuesday's Carling Cup game, Wenger commented on how poor the majority of our corners were – particularly since it was a City break from an Arsenal corner that led to the decisive goal. However, I don't think this is a problem that is restricted to the second string side – Arsenal corners have been poor generally in all competitions this season. I have lost count of how many times I have seen a delivery from an Arsenal corner-kick fail to bypass even the first man. It's something we really need to work on and hopefully Wenger has now recognised this. Seeing an improvement in this area against Wigan would therefore be very gratifying.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Arsenal succumb to City sucker-punch

It's been a while since Arsenal fans have had to reflect on a loss, still less a home defeat – not since the 0-2 reverse against Liverpool back in August in fact – when, it is fair to say, Arsenal were a very different team. That in itself is a reflection of just how far the Gunners have come in a very short space of time.

Wenger's team selection was almost as predicted in light of the news that both Rosicky (thigh strain) and Diaby (hamstring) were unavailable for the game. His formation caused a few comments, however, as he elected to use Chamakh and Park as a front two – both given a chance to show that Arsenal do have striking options beyond Robin van Persie. Behind them the impressive duo Coquelin and Frimpong fought the good fight in midfield, while Oxlade-Chamberlain and Yossi Benayoun provided width and creativity. An unfamiliar back four lined up together for the first time this season – Iggy Miquel at left-back, Koscielny and Squillaci in the middle, and Djourou at right-back. Fabianski came in for his one-time understudy for both club and country Szczesny (now superseded in both respects thanks to Wojciech's impressive form).

The opposition line-up was far from the '11 young players, maybe 14 or 15 years old' that Mancini had suggested he might put out as a statement of defiance at the congested fixture list. In the event, Kolo Toure, Pablo Zabaleta, Nigel De Jong, Adam Johnson, Edin Dzeko and Samir Nasri all started, while Kun Aguero was on the bench, highlighting the apparent disparity between the bloated Manchester City squad and our own rather leaner current crop of players.

Arsenal did the fans proud, however. The Gunners were by far the better team for most of the game, and nine of the players in red-and-white performed superbly. Only the front two were disappointing, as Park was largely shackled by Toure throughout, while Chamakh, although he held the ball up well with his back to goal, showed precious little in the way of predatory instinct. Adam Johnson did cause Miquel a few problems down the left-hand side (the young Spaniard was effectively playing out of position, after all), while the introduction of Aguero for the injured Kolarov midway through the first half caused a few warning bells to sound, despite minimal impact initially. The Argentine's pace meant the Gunners would be susceptible to the counter, which is ultimately what cost us the match. The late goal, which sprung from an Arsenal corner, was both unjust and disappointing – since at that stage we were on top, and a goal the other way felt more likely – but, as Wenger commented after the match, it can be put down to naiveté and a bit of inexperience.

The positives to take from the game were the determination and spirit that was shown throughout, in conjunction with some fine individual performances. Frimpong was outstanding, as was Coquelin, and their fight and tenacity outshone De Jong and Hargreaves, both of whom were largely anonymous. Koscielny again showed his importance to the team, and given the quality of his recent performances, there is an argument that he should – at least at the moment – be the first choice centre-back partner for Vermaelen over Per Mertesacker. Chamberlain again showed his considerable talent, turning Zabaleta inside out on numerous occasions. There was genuine anticipation every time he picked up the ball, and he undoubtedly deserves more playing time in the Premier League.

The Emirates faithful were again in fine voice, contrary to the reputation that Carling Cup fixtures seem to have. Nasri copped a stinging torrent of abuse throughout the match (Kolo, on the other hand, got a round of applause when City changed ends to defend the North Bank at half-time). The insults which were hurled at Nasri for the duration of the ninety minutes were hardly unexpected, but their intensity was a little surprising – I haven't seen the North Bank this angry since Cashley left. They ranged from a new twist on the old 'na na na na na' song (let's just say the word c**t was involved) and 'you're just a f*****g reserve!' to the inevitable 'went for the money, you only went for the money'.

Indeed, the City fans took some punishment too, to which they responded with, well, nothing. The last time I saw City they played in League One, but even when their team was crap they at least had a few songs. Now, stoic silence, until the 86th minute, anyway, when a few scarves were waved. Deeply unimpressive behaviour from fans who should do better – although admittedly they could hardly compete in the face of a packed Emirates (a very impressive crowd of 60,028) singing 'shit club, no history', 'where were you when you shit?', 'we forgot you were here', 'f**k off back down the Kippax' and a personal favourite, 'you're just the Spurs, the Spurs, you're just the Spurs of Man-ches-ter...'

The 86th minute winner was a bit of a sickener, but Arsenal had more than matched City up to that point, largely stifling an attack made up of players that have collectively cost nigh on £100 million (Dzeko £27m, Nasri £22m, Johnson £7m and Aguero £38m). The finish for the goal was clinical, as you would expect of Aguero, and the build-up was fast and effective, but not enough to redeem what was still a poor performance by all four of these players, in which they were held at bay by an Arsenal back-line without recognised full-backs on either flank.

Arsenal drew on an impressive fighting spirit – the sort of stuff on which all good teams are built – and the predominantly young side showed resilience and character, but relying on these rather insubstantial resources rather than a more experienced squad is neither reliable nor a guarantee of sustained success. The fact remain that in January Wenger could pick up a second striker with enough quality at even a fraction of the transfer fees quoted above to provide our own cutting edge. More than anything, that was what was missing in this game for the Gunners.

Still, the Carling Cup was hardly the priority for the season. Let City fight it out with Liverpool, Cardiff and (probably) United Crystal Palace (come on!) for the three-handled jug, while we strive to claw our way back into the top four and march on in Europe. At least City won't be in that competition – they seem almost certainly destined for the Europa League. It still seems incredible that they were considered among the favourites even when the CL group stages were drawn. The City fans' cocky self-assurance certainly suffered last week, their draw against Liverpool won't have done much to inspire confidence, and neither will a lucky 1-0 over a second string Arsenal side. I for one would enjoy it hugely if we beat them when we visit the Etihad in a couple of weeks' time. And as the Gooners sang last night; 'Champions League? You're having a laugh'...

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Fulham analysis and City preview...

Seen in the cold light of day, Saturday's game was, I suppose, two points dropped. If it hadn't been for Vermaelen's late goal it could have been much worse, though, and salvaging a point against a committed Fulham side – in what was the Gunners' third match in a week – felt only vaguely disappointing. Arsenal remain in sight of the top four, and although they are obviously reliant on the teams above them dropping points, it's not even Christmas yet. All is not lost.

The match was nevertheless something of a wasted opportunity, but the more troubling aspect of the ninety minutes was that none of the fringe players who were introduced were able to impact sufficiently. This emphasised the relative paucity of the squad, and the fact that we simply cannot rely on the same eleven players week in, week out. It also highlighted the huge gulf in resources between the Gunners and the teams they are chasing – such as Manchester City, where even Samir Nasri, instrumental in his last season at the Emirates, is currently only a bit-part player.

Wenger must have been tempted to rest RvP against the Cottagers. But given that we are still playing catch-up in the league, he plainly thought that he couldn't afford to. Indeed, both previous attempts to rest the Dutchman had nearly backfired, namely in the Stoke game after the Champions League tie against Marseille, and in the return against the French side at the Emirates, a mere three days after the frenetic 5-3 at Stamford Bridge.

In those matches Chamakh played at the Britannia, and Park played against Marseille. The Moroccan was largely ineffectual and was duly replaced by RvP midway through the second half, who then won the game for us. Against Marseille Wenger persevered with Park, who was unable to score. We only managed to get a point. Both games ultimately suggested that without van Persie the Gunners are, at the moment, basically toothless – while RvP is a razor-sharp incisor, our other strikers seem to have about as much bite as a pensioner without her dentures in. Most Gooners still seem bewildered by the change in Chamakh, in particular. What has happened to him since he first arrived in North London?

Against Fulham, however, even van Persie was unable to make the difference – although he had numerous chances and was admittedly unlucky not to score at least once. This can perhaps be put down to fatigue; three games inside a week is a big ask, no matter how rich your current vein of form is. Indeed, the whole team looked a bit leg-weary, and although the difference was not overtly noticeable in the first half, it told in the second. If we had been able to get an early goal that might have given us enough impetus to hold out for the three points, but Fulham fought well and soaked up considerable pressure. Thereafter they grew in confidence and evidently believed they could take at least a point, while conversely Walcott, Arteta and Ramsey in particular all seemed to be feelings the effects of the sheer volume of football they have played recently. The Cottagers of course had effectively had a week off, since their next Europa League fixture isn't until Thursday.

As such it was a little surprising that the team sheet didn't show more changes; only two initially as Arshavin replaced Gervinho and Djourou came in for Koscielny at right-back. That, however, reflects the limited options available to Wenger at present, as well as the manager's reluctance to gamble at this stage of the season, given our current situation (as the manager put it, we have come from 'a deep position', i.e. from 15th place in the table!). Our squad is still conspicuously thin, though, and at some point we are simply going to have to rely on other squad players if the starting eleven are not to simply burn out.

In such situations you look to players on the fringes, like Andrey Arshavin, who was disappointing on Saturday. It is difficult to come in and do a job but nevertheless he looks increasingly disinterested and did not impress. It's a pity that Rosicky wasn't fit; the Czech has actually played very well when he had been called upon so far this season, but again niggling little injuries have limited his ability to help out the team.

Tonight in the Carling Cup Wenger will surely rotate; this competition is of course the lowest priority at the moment but nevertheless most fans would hate to see us roll over against City – particularly if Nasri plays, which is entirely possible. A sprinkling of regulars as well as youth and fringe players will probably take to the pitch; hopefully the performance will assuage my doubts as to how far the seam of genuine quality runs through the squad. With City's chances of progression in Europe out of their own hands, they'll undoubtedly want to grab as much glory as possible in the domestic cups; fortunately Arsenal are at least guaranteed another round of Champions League action. As such Gooners can loftily talk about bigger concerns, but even so, the game isn't a foregone conclusion. With home advantage the Arsenal could still stage an upset tonight, despite a team sheet that will, on paper, be outshone by the opposition.

Gary Speed – thoughts and condolences

Like many football fans, I was shocked and upset to learn of Gary Speed's untimely death. I was however proud to hear that Aaron Ramsey led the flurry of tributes with an eloquent and heartfelt statement:
“To say I am devastated is an understatement … My thoughts and prayers go out to Gary’s family and friends. Today the world has lost a great football manager but even more sadly a great man. He will be missed by all.”

Gary Speed was of course the man responsible for handing Aaron Ramsey the Wales captaincy; a brave decision that indicated he was a forward-thinking manager with faith in the abilities of young players in his squad even at the highest level.

In the short time he was manager of the national side Speed was already starting to make a real difference. The Welsh players – who have always been a proud bunch, you only need to look to ex-Gunner John Hartson for evidence of that – sensed genuine opportunities to play for a side on the up, and seemed, almost without exception, eager to get involved in internationals again. As Mark Lawrenson pointed out on MOTD, the suspect ‘groin strain’ that had commonly been cited as an excuse not to join up with Wales suddenly became a thing of the past. As a result the national side began taking steps in the right direction after a difficult period under John Toshack; indeed, when Speed took over Wales were placed 117th in the FIFA world rankings system, they subsequently climbed to an impressive 45th.

That stat alone is testament to Gary Speed’s evident managerial abilities at this level, regardless of his illustrious achievements as a player. And he was a great player, one who helped to define the Premier League in long stints at Leeds, Everton, Newcastle and Bolton. The old cliché was that if there was ever a pub quiz question about the Premier League, the answer was always Gary Speed – the man’s longevity and ability to stick around at the top level of English football was incredible. Part of this was his talent – he had a cracking left foot, for one – but it was also attributable to his great industry (he was, perhaps, the archetypal ‘midfield engine’), and his selfless team play.

It does not do to speculate on the circumstances of his death. It is clear, however, that modern footballers, accustomed to intense media scrutiny, are practised at hiding inner thoughts, conflicts and problems – and Arsenal know that better than most clubs, given the battles with demons faced by ex-players like the addictions of Highbury heroes Paul Merson and Tony Adams. Their frank autobiographies Rock Bottom and Addicted, respectively, offer revealing insights into the ways that both managed to function as players on the pitch for many seasons whilst their lives off the pitch gradually descended into chaos.

Neither is Gary Speed the only figure in the football world to have (as has been reported) taken his own life in recent years. Many will remember the death in November 2009 of German goalkeeper Robert Enke; an internationally capped Bundesliga star who battled with long-term and periodically debilitating bouts of depression. Again, Ronald Reng’s excellent book A Life Too Short is a poignant read that gives a real insight into the intense high-pressure world of modern football.

That the game can be responsible for tragedies like this is a sad indictment of its power and influence; it brings joy to millions, but it also has a destructive side, and, more than that, the notion of football as spectacle often detracts from the fact that those who play and run it are only human, with human emotions, worries, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses.

RIP Gary Speed.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Gunners secure top spot with creditable win over Dortmund

UEFA Champions League: Group F tablePWDLFAGDPts
1. Arsenal532063311
2. Marseille52124227
3. Olympiacos52035506
4. Borussia Dortmund511349-54

The Group F table now looks very satisfying indeed, all the more so given Olympiacos' unexpected 1-0 win over Marseille at the Stade Velodrome tonight. Arsenal did the job, and in addition the Greek victory guarantees the Gunners top spot in the group – a huge bonus that means we cannot now be caught, which will in turn give Arsene Wenger a valuable opportunity to rest key players in the dead rubber in Piraeus on December 6.

Such a relatively comfortable progression is all the more impressive in comparison to the heavy weather that both Manchester clubs are making of their qualification campaigns. City will be very fortunate to get through Group A after their defeat to Napoli last night, while Manchester United will be reliant on a win over Basel to qualify from Group C. Chelsea, meanwhile, went down 2-1 in Germany against Bayer Leverkusen, which also means that Group E is finely poised, and the Blues now need a result in their home tie against Valencia (who walloped Genk 7-0 tonight). At this stage, then, the Gunners have been the best performers of all the English clubs in Europe this season – and a group featuring both the Ligue 1 runners-up and the German champions cannot be dismissed as 'easy'. The consistency that the manager has talked about, in terms of 14 consecutive seasons of Champions League football, certainly seems to have stood us in good stead so far in this year's competition. It's the sort of experience, perhaps, that a club like Manchester City simply does not have, despite the multi-millions at their disposal. Simply buying a squad of players with CL experience is not quite the same thing...

Arsenal can also draw positives from the performance at the Emirates, which was generally composed, and the Gunners stayed in control for most of the game. Admittedly, it should have been a 2-0 victory, but for a sloppy goal conceded in stoppage time – for which, it has to be said, the substitute Djourou was primarily culpable. However, the starting back four of Koscielny, Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Santos played well, and save for a couple of nervy moments in the first half and right at the start of the second, they were pretty solid. In front of them Alex Song played what is still known in Islington as 'an absolute blinder', and it was his good work that saved Arsenal on a couple of occasions and also set up van Persie's first goal. The Dutchman deserved the highest praise too – he was again unplayable, and both goals were superbly taken. His movement throughout the ninety minutes was supreme, as he dropped deep, made intelligent diagonal runs from both flanks, darted into the box between the centre-halves, and consistently found space for himself.

A word also for Abou Diaby, who spent most of the second half warming up on the touchlines, while being incessantly applauded by the watching Gooners. In response he bounced around and did lots of star-jumps, presumably in an attempt to show off his rock-solid ankles. He was rewarded with a brief second-half cameo, and most fans were still clapping as he trotted onto the pitch when van Persie glanced in our second goal on 86 minutes, from an Arteta corner and a Vermaelen flick. Abou might struggle to break into a midfield that seems to be working very well – again the Song-Arteta-Ramsey axis was impressive – particularly with Wilshere's anticipated return in the New Year, but nevertheless it is great to have him fit again. This is a player, after all, who was once heralded as the 'new Vieira'.

In fact, there was not a player in the starting line-up tonight who disappointed. Walcott and Gervinho were both full of endeavour and kept the Dortmund full-backs occupied, and Szczesny was again a safe pair of hands – and he was clearly annoyed not to have managed a clean sheet. The underused Yossi Benayoun was again introduced as a substitute, and put in a good stint. Only Johan Djourou perhaps let himself down – but coming on as a defender late in a game is always a difficult task.

The fact that we were able to contain Dortmund so easily was partly attributable to the fact that coach Jurgen Klopp was forced to make two first-half changes – including the loss of the prodigiously talented Mario Gotze, who departed, presumably injured, although he walked off, after about half an hour. Rumours abound that Arsenal are interested in bringing him to the club, and although we didn't get to see much of him tonight (probably for the best, given his reputation) his creativity and playmaking ability, as well as his goals, would undoubtedly be a good foil for our mercurial RvP, and would also alleviate some of the pressure that the Dutchman is under. The worrying part of his sparkling form is that without him, there is an increasing suspicion that Arsenal would be in big trouble – the difference he made tonight, compared to Park's industrious but ineffective performance against Marseille, for example, is striking (no pun intended).

Onwards and upwards then; Champions League qualification is in the bag, so now let's keep our fingers crossed for a good draw in the next stage, and focus once again on the Premier League, where our position - although dramatically improved from a few weeks ago - is not quite so secure. We are counting on others to drop points in domestic terms, but if we can do our bit, then hopefully - as we've seen in Group F - the rest will take care of itself.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

On Borussia Dortmund and their fans

I didn’t see much point in doing a comprehensive Arsenal v Borussia Dortmund preview, given that it would essentially consist of the usual worries about Arsenal's defensive frailty, our occasional inability to win Champions League groups (a bad habit that started in 2007/08), and concerns that Borussia Dortmund in fact represent the future of football (a result of reading an excellent article on their recent history, as featured in issue number two of The Blizzard).

Suffice it to say that the opportunity to secure qualification with a game to spare and also to put ourselves in a good position to progress as Group F winners surely dictates that Wenger will play a strong line-up. Therefore, although he could rotate I suspect he probably won’t, and the team that runs out tonight will be the same one that beat Norwich – with the possible substitution of Arshavin for Gervinho (just a hunch).

Other news is that Abou Diaby is available, but he will surely not appear given that he hasn't played competitive football since May 22nd. Unfortunately Tomas Rosicky again misses out against his old club due to a thigh strain, while Laurent Koscielny is once more likely to step into the breach at right-back.

It’s a must win game for Dortmund, who are a good side in good form (having beaten Bayern Munich 1-0 at the weekend), and therefore the Gunners will need to go all out to get the vital three points. We got a bit lucky last time round at the gargantuan Signal Iduna Arena, and will need to play much better than we did that night. But recently we have been, so fingers crossed. Arsene Wenger certainly seems confident, anyway. Oh, and if Perišić lines up another shot in or around the 88th minute, then let's close him down.

And that’s it. Such brevity might be because I’ve recently developed a bit of a soft spot for the German side, who seem to share Arsenal’s philosophy when it comes to the way the beautiful game should be played. They've got great players such as Götze, Lewandowski, Kagawa and home-grown hero Kevin Großkreutz. Hopefully it will be a cracking match to watch – and I’ll probably get to experience their famously mental fans at close-range, since I’ve got a seat in the Clock End.

Incidentally, here’s an observation on their fans, in the form of a slightly rambling anecdote…

I suppose I should set the scene. Well, I had my lunch in St. James' Park yesterday. The Thames-side one that is, next to Westminster Abbey, not the Tyneside one that's now known as 'The Stottie Cake Sports Direct Arena'. Actually the link here is strangely apposite, since in aforesaid park I was working my way simultaneously through a sandwich and Harry Pearson's excellent book The Far Corner, but already I digress.

Now, the Borough of Westminster isn't somewhere I spend too much time, and it was nice to be out of the office for once, so naturally I took an interest in the surrounding environs. As I surveyed the scene from the vantage point of a park bench, I spied two rather unusual-looking herren among the assorted tourists feeding the ducks, runners setting their lunch-hour PB's and politicians dumping confidential reports in litter bins. One was dressed head-to-toe in yellow and black stripes, while the other, along with the obligatory scarf, sported a yellow-and-black pointy jester's hat, of the sort that have invaded football grounds in the last half-decade. "Ah, Dortmund fans", I thought to myself. They ambled past and subsequently asked a park attendant for directions, very politely and in impeccable English, which he duly gave them, albeit with a bemused stare at their costume (not a football fan, evidently). They wandered off happily, presumably to absorb a bit more of the sights and sounds of London before heading back to the hotel to apply Borussia Dortmund face-paint ready for the big match.

The German football fan is evidently a strange animal, but you can't begrudge his devotion to the cause. Getting dressed up a full 24 hours before the game is pretty impressive, particularly when your team colours have the visual appeal of a hazard warning sign.

Managing expectations? Wenger's L'Equipe interview

News on the back pages today (apart from glowing reports of Ade*****'s brace for Sp*rs, which we'll ignore) is that Arsene Wenger has confirmed his commitment to Arsenal after the weekend's shenanigans. For anyone who missed it, the win over Norwich was somewhat overshadowed by increasingly hysterical media speculation about his future, thanks to a recent interview the manager gave with renowned French sporting gazette L'Equipe. In reality the interview itself was thoughtful, articulate and wide-ranging, covering many different aspects of Wenger's 15-year tenure at the club, but somewhat predictably the English papers seized upon a couple of short remarks in particular, in which the gaffer seemed to insinuate that his time with the Gunners was coming to a close:

L’Equipe: ...Will you embark on another long spell?

Wenger: No, as far as I am concerned, we are now talking pretty short term, that’s obvious. But whether it is with me or someone else, that changes nothing. The person that comes in after me will need foundations on which he can obtain success.

L’Equipe: Will you still be here in 15 years?

Wenger: No.

L’Equipe: And next season?

Wenger: We’ll look at things at the end of this one. I still have two years to run on my contract.
Admittedly, when taken out of context these comments do seem to hint that Wenger considers a chapter to be closing. At the same time, the few sentences above came from a 2,148-word piece which was itself written up from a lengthy one-and-a-half-hour interview. Nevertheless they sparked a flurry of pieces highlighting Wenger's apparent 'self-doubt' and 'soul-searching' at the start of the season, from papers including The Mirror and The Guardian. To quell such talk Wenger has reiterated today that he will stay for 'a few more years' and indeed, according to The Sun, 'as long as he can walk'.

The whole of the interview, which was conducted at London Colney two days after the Chelsea game, and published in France on Saturday, has been translated into English by @mattspiro for Arseblog news, so thanks are due to all involved. As most fans will know, Arseblog is probably the most popular Arsenal blog on the web, and rightly so, since it features a broad range of contributions from fans of all different sorts, while Matt Spiro is a great commentator on the game from a Gallic viewpoint (commentator in the analytical sense, rather than in the sense of chap-with-microphone-in-sheepskin-coat...)

You can read the piece here, and I would urge all Arsenal fans to do so. It gives a real insight into the manager, who comes across very well indeed. Perhaps liberated by the fact that he was speaking to L'Equipe, rather than to the more fanatical elements of the English media (who nevertheless did their best to spin a story anyway), Wenger reveals a very different side to the somewhat myopic persona ('I didn't see the incident') that he typically assumes in front of the MOTD camera, for example– or even when dealing with the Club's official organs like Arsenal Magazine.

His openness and honesty regarding such subjects as the loss of Cesc and Samir are disarming in their candour. Similarly, he talks frankly about the disappointments of last season, his own culpability in the way 2010/11 played out, and his expectations for this season and this team – which he admits must be considered the start of a 'new cycle'.

Neither does he deny the central role that he played in the 'long-term project' initiated after the Invincibles season, i.e. the construction of Emirates and the investment in a young team, but he is willing to admit that it has not produced the results that he – and all connected with the club – hoped for. Wenger remains fiercely defensive, however, about the merits of the club's self-sustaining ethos, which he again asserts is a 'viable model' that will let Arsenal 'sleep in peace'. Given that Manchester City are currently top of the Premier League table but have also just posted a record £194.9 million operating loss, this is clearly a salient point. Neither Arsene nor the Arsenal board will subscribe to the philosophy of 'success at any price', although for those who would accuse him of prioritising (fiscal) security over silverware, he states that he still dreams of winning the Champions League, and that he is still hugely driven – 'I remain addicted to the next match, like a drug'.

For all those reiterations of commitment, the interview ends on a valedictory note, as Wenger looks back on 15 season in charge – years which, he says, have gone by 'at the speed of light'. He considers the time he's had to have been a great luxury – not one that many managers are afforded, and given that is he now 62, not something he is likely to experience again in football, with Arsenal or any other club. He is rightly proud of what he has achieved with the Gunners, and whether fans lean to one or the other side of the AKB/AMG divide, no-one can deny that since he came from Japan as a relatively unknown Frenchman, way back in 1996, his personal investment in the club has been immense.

It seems inconceivable that Wenger will leave before the end of his contract, and he surely will not go of his own volition. It is equally unlikely that he will be forced out given the hegemony in the boardroom and the unstinting support for the boss from Ivan Gazidis and Stan Kroenke. Regardless of what happens between now and 2014 then, his legacy is secure, although as things start to look a little brighter for the side in the light of recent results, we can hope that his reputation is polished rather than tarnished by the new and current crop of players.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Another away win sees Gunners tied on 22...

Yesterday's win at Norwich was a good performance and another obstacle safely negotiated. Arsenal are now level on 22 points with Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool, and although Spurs have two games in hand, upcoming fixtures – which see Liverpool play leaders Man City next Sunday and Chelsea play high-flying Newcastle the week after that – could have very interesting implications on who ultimately breaks into the top four.

Against the Canaries Arsenal started brightly and purposefully, keeping good possession for long spells and winning the ball very quickly when it broke free. This pressure forced Norwich into nervy and hurried clearances, not least from keeper Ruddy. Van Persie had two early half-chances while only a remarkable goal-line clearance from Russell Martin stopped Walcott from making it 1-0 on twelve minutes, when the Canaries' defender somehow kept out Theo's well-directed shot.

Arsenal's strong start therefore made Norwich's goal on the quarter-hour mark seem fairly fortuitous. It was certainly against the run of play, although the warning signs were perhaps there. In general the back-four marshalled the Norwich attack adequately in the early period, but they also exhibited a worrying tendency to step up at every opportunity. This high line was vulnerable to the ball over the top, and predictably that's exactly what happened – Tierney hit an unsophisticated route 1 punt and Steve Morison duly barrelled after it. Mertesacker, although caught flat-footed and with the glare of the early afternoon sun in his eyes, initially looked to have recovered by managing to get between player and ball. Alas, the uncompromising Morison then merte-suckered the unfortunate German by muscling him out of the way before finishing past Szczesny. An unflattering goal, but perhaps a valuable lesson in English football for our new centre-half.

Morison would expose the Gunners at the back again, as he sat on the shoulder of Mertesacker (or, given the height difference, on his elbow) and looked to make runs into space. The Norwich midfield had precious little of the possession though, and so the bullet-headed Welshman was subsequently reduced to holding up the ball as it was played to him from deep. With his back largely to the Arsenal goal, and without much forward support from his team-mates he was unable to capitalise further. Arsenal, meanwhile, continued to apply pressure of their own, and created a fistful of chances – Gervinho spurning two or three before RvP once again came to the rescue with a close-range finish from a low Walcott ball across the box. That is swiftly becoming a trademark Arsenal goal and the duo have formed a very good understanding indeed.

At 1-1 Arsenal reasserted their dominance and looked by far the better team – and the most likely to score a second. Both Norwich full-backs suffered at the hands of Walcott on the right and the effective overlaps of Gervinho and Andre Santos on the left. However, although the Brazilian's eagerness to get forward undoubtedly adds an extra dimension to Arsenal's forward play, it also leaves the team vulnerable to the counter-attack, and the Gunners did get lucky once or twice in this regard. Fortunately, Van Persie was once again pretty much unplayable, and almost single-handedly he could have kept the Canaries on the back foot, even without Gervinho, Walcott and Ramsey weighing in with their own attacking threat. Arteta and Song were similarly composed in the middle, and watching them at work is starting to become very satisfying, as their snappy tackling, excellent distribution and good ability to switch the play provided a solid platform for the Gunners to build from.

It was evens at the break, but Arsenal were well on top. They came out for the second 45 with more of the same, and it seemed to be working despite a slight change in shape from Norwich as Paul Lambert brought on Elliot Bennett for David Fox, attempting to push further up the right-hand side of the pitch. Santos, marshalled by the left-sided centre-half Vermaelen, was just about equal to the challenge, despite showing that his defensive abilities seem largely to consist of diving in as soon as a player picks up the ball. It could have proved costly, but then that man Van Persie did his bit to secure the game with a second goal. Ramsey made a good challenge to win the ball inside the centre-circle, but went to ground in the process. Alex Song quickly took over and broke forward, shaping to play in the advancing Gervinho on the left before electing to supply RvP to his right. The Dutchman deftly dinked an accomplished and distinctly Bergkamp-esque chip over Ruddy as the Norwich 'keeper went to ground, thereby recording his 31st goal in 29 games – an incredible strike rate. Right-foot, as well… Gooners are quickly running out of superlatives to describe our mercurial captain. With 13 goals already this season, he looks certain to get to a personal tally of 125 in Arsenal's 125th year – and probably not too far into 2012, on current form.

Arsenal managed to see out the game without major drama, and although there were a couple of nervy moments in the final half-hour they alleviated opposition pressure through good ball retention. The Gunners probably should have notched another goal at least, but nevertheless the win was fully deserved. Frustratingly, they did concede a cheap free-kick in the closing seconds, but managed to maintain enough concentration to close the game out and so record the second domestic away win of the season.

Plaudits must of course go to RvP, who is arguably the best player in the league at the moment, and an admittedly very open Norwich defence were unable to deal with his movement, as he dragged both centre-halves all over the pitch. Walcott was also a constant menace whilst simultaneously working hard to provide some cover down the right-hand flank for Koscielny, who was playing in an unfamiliar right-back position. A word also on the Ramsey-Arteta-Song axis, which is becoming a very efficient unit. Alex Song has stepped up his performances this season; but in addition Arteta is making him look even better by helping him out of trouble in typically unfussy but assured fashion. Undoubtedly a calming presence, Arteta's tireless work rate and willingness to help out defensively has also given Ramsey more licence to get forward. At this rate Wenger will have a real selection dilemma when Jack Wilshere finally makes his much-anticipated return in January.

With another three points the Gunners have now put themselves in a good position, and if they can continue to create as many chances as they did against Norwich whilst shoring up an improving but still susceptible defence, then the chase will really be on.

In other news, Yaya Touré has reportedly suggested that Manchester City could emulate the Invincibles and go the whole season unbeaten. Rather premature, methinks – we're only twelve games in, after all. Admittedly, at present Arsenal fans have more immediate concerns than defending the honour of our greatest ever Premier League side, and it is still the case that for the time being we have to look a little further down the table to find the Gunners – but not much further. Let's continue to keep the pressure on, and come 18 December we might see whether City really have the quality to compare with the class of '03/04.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Norwich v Arsenal – Preview

Another international break over, and the Gunners return to action with a trip to Carrow Road. Arsenal have got the lunchtime kick-off today, and hopefully they can start the Premier League's weekend fixtures with a bang. With Chelsea playing Liverpool tomorrow and Spurs facing Villa on Monday (albeit at the Lane) it is entirely possible that any one of the teams immediately above us could drop points – let's hope we can capitalise.

At the same time, however, we shouldn't underestimate Norwich. It's entirely possible that they'll prove to be the bright yellow stumbling block in our headlong charge back into the top four. They are arguably the best of the three teams that achieved promotion last season, which is currently reflected in the fact that they lie ninth in the table – just ahead of both Swansea and QPR. Paul Lambert has built a good team and either one of the tough, predatory strikers Steve Morison or Grant Holt could cause the Arsenal defence problems. The Gunners will also need to stifle the endeavour and creativity of key midfield players Wes Hoolahan, Leon Barnett and especially Anthony Pilkington, who has been a revelation for the Canaries this season.

Still, we have the quality to negate these threats as well as causing some of our own, and the fact that Norwich have yet to keep a clean sheet this season, combined with RvP's stellar form, suggests that there should be goals today.

Unfortunately we will be without both Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson – the left-back's stomach strain, which he picked up a couple of weeks ago, turned out to have been caused by a hernia, which has now been operated on. In all likelihood he'll therefore be laid up for four or five weeks as he recuperates. Meanwhile, our nineteen-year-old right-back has picked up a very middle-aged injury indeed – yep, he's 'done his back in'. In all seriousness though, the reports of a stress fracture sound a bit ominous – although in a pre-match press conference Wenger assured us that the specialists have picked this up early and that therefore all he'll need is some rest. The much-heralded new medical centre at London Colney is already filling up with customers then.

On the plus side, Abou Diaby, who apparently used to play in our midfield, is once again fit and healthy after an inordinate lay-off. The Frenchman has now 'resumed full training', although given that he has been out for around five months he'll need plenty of time to recover his fitness - so we probably won't see him on the pitch for a while yet. Jack Wilshere's also been spotted hovering around the Colney outpatients' area sans crutches, which is good news, and he might be back by January. And finally, Marouane Chamakh, who missed the West Brom game with a minor knee injury, is now once again fit to, er, take his place on the bench.

One of either Johan Djourou or Laurent Koscielny – who apparently did his work experience started his career as a right-back – will deputise for Jenkinson today. The Swiss defender did a decent job there when called upon recently, but Koscielny has also been playing well, and therefore this situation might give Wenger the opportunity to play Koscielny-Mertesacker-Vermaelen-Santos for the first time.

Elsewhere the team will probably be unchanged from that which strolled to victory against the Baggies way back on 5 November. That game was a comfortable win in which Arsenal showed both composure and fluidity – hopefully they'll be able to pick up where they left off. The international break was an unwelcome disruption in that sense, but the players involved in matches for their respective countries at least came through unscathed, while I'm sure Mikel Arteta spoke for other members of the squad – particularly the new faces – when he said that the break was a good chance to pause and reflect on a rollercoaster start to the season.

Away from home today's match will be a tougher task than the West Brom game. But the Gunners broke their unenviable away record in emphatic style against Chelsea, and Carrow Road has hardly been a fortress this season. We should therefore be more than capable of taking three points back to North London, thereby keeping the pressure on the likes of Spurs and Liverpool.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Arsenal stroll to victory against the Baggies

It was a crisp but sunny afternoon in North London yesterday, and Arsenal will at least have got plenty of fresh air - because that one was the proverbial walk in the park.

The players on the pitch visibly enjoyed themselves against a lacklustre West Brom side, and they are looking increasingly comfortable in front of the Emirates faithful too as the stadium begins to feel more and more like home. The new player banners adorning the upper stand (particular favourites: 'The Verminator' and 'We don't need Batman, we've got Robin') undoubtedly added to this impression - alright, they don't have the amateurish paint-splattered old-bed-sheet charm of some of the old banners that were faithfully hung at Highbury, but they are still a welcome addition.

The only slightly taxing periods of the game were the ten minutes that opened and closed the match. Arsenal did have to be patient initially, as they darted and probed, looking for a way to unlock the West Brom defence. Typical of a Roy Hodgson side, the Baggies set themselves out tidily and were well-organised, but without Shane Long or Peter Odemwingie they offered little attacking threat. Accordingly, the Gunners soon asserted their dominance, and although on a couple of occasions individual players were guilty of sloppy passing - which looked, if anything, to be a result of overconfidence rather than of opposition pressure - these errors soon melted away, the play got more and more assured and the first goal duly looked to be on its way.

The midfield trio of Arteta-Ramsey-Song is gelling into an effective unit. They spent most of the early period playing neat little triangles before spraying balls out to Gervinho on the left and Walcott and the overlapping Jenkinson on the right, thereby bypassing a congested midfield. This largely negated the impact of the five West Brom midfielders strung along the pitch, and in addition Van Persie began to drop deeper, offering an extra option for whichever Arsenal midfielder was on the ball - the Nike Seitiro, apparently; a neon yellow orb which has now been introduced as winter approaches in the Premier League. The ball's high-vis appearance only highlighted how little time any of the West Brom midfield spent with it - neither Chris Brunt, Graham Dorrans, Zoltan Gera, James Morrison nor Jerome Thomas seemed to have more than a few touches before a man in red-and-white deftly nicked it away like one of the bigger boys in the school playground. Ultimately it was the purposeful running of alternating players in Arsenal's midfield three, allied with Walcott's pace, that ensured an opening goal. Ramsey and Walcott combined well to set up an excellent chance, but Foster initially looked to have parried Theo's low driven effort before a certain flying Dutchman arrived to sweep home the rebound from about four yards out.

With the majority of the possession, the Gunners looked both comfortable and composed as they continued to forge ahead in search of a second goal. Pleasingly, however, they were also pretty solid at the back. Koscielny and Vermaelen were finally given the chance to resume a partnership that was prematurely cut short last season by Thomas' injury setbacks. The absent Mertesacker might be disappointed to have missed out, but he probably deserved a rest having been repeatedly dunked in at the deep end ever since his last-minute summer transfer move. Given his 6' 6" stature you can hardly say he has been out of his depth, and he has done a creditable job despite sniping from critics, but nevertheless the last few weeks must have been bewildering at times. Besides which, Laurent Koscielny has done extremely well in recent weeks, playing his part in Arsenal's resurgence, and as such deserved another chance of first-team action after missing out against Marseille.

Vermaelen, however, showed that he remains a class apart from whoever partners him at centre-back. His ability to seamlessly slot back into the team is almost incredible, and he underlined an excellent performance with a series of superb covering tackles whilst also scoring an emphatic goal. Welcome back Thomas - we've missed you. As long as his troublesome tendons remain in working order, he must surely be one of the first names on the team sheet.

So, going in with a 2-0 lead at the break, Arsenal were secure. They simply needed to maintain control and perhaps consolidate with a third goal to seal the game. Well, the Gunners rarely do things the easy way but for once they did just that, taking up where they had left off and also varying the tempo well to keep West Brom on the back foot. Hodgson introduced Mulumbu and Tchoyi to try and inject some more muscle and guile up front, but without much of the ball they had little impact. Wenger's substitutions - Rosicky for Ramsey, Benayoun for Gervinho and, five minutes later, Arshavin for Walcott - were more pragmatic. Benayoun probably made the biggest impact of the three, although Rosicky was involved in the set-up for the third goal, when sixteen minutes from time Van Persie played an intelligent and unselfish ball to Mikel Arteta, who finished confidently to notch his second Arsenal goal.

With the game more or less won, Arsenal did ease off in the remaining minutes, and for almost the first time in the match West Brom fashioned a couple of chances. Fortunately, Szczesny sprung into action when called upon, dealing with Steven Reid’s header and James Morrison’s drive calmly and unfussily. The young 'keeper demonstrated commendable composure and focus, aspects of his game that have been questioned, as he helped the Gunners to a second consecutive clean-sheet.

Both full-backs deserve a mention, too. Their approaches are very different - one is evidently striving to be a crowd-pleaser, while the other, conversely, seems to be rapidly winning over the fans almost unconsciously. Andre Santos is quintessentially Brazilian in his approach to football - cavalier in defence but flamboyant on the ball. Over the course of the ninety minutes he produced some dazzling examples of skill, including two 360-degree pirouettes that drew appreciative cheers from sections of the Emirates, and grudging acknowledgement from others (who still bemoan his frequently wayward positional sense). On the other flank, Carl Jenkinson continues to come on in leaps and bounds. He was always available in the final third to whip in consistently excellent crosses - all of which begged to be touched into the net. Alas, there was rarely anyone in the box to oblige. Nevertheless, at this rate, Jenks will have achieved cult hero status in no time - remarkable when you consider that last season he was on loan at Eastbourne Borough. Frankly, I don't care where he came from - the boy can cross. Note to Arsene - give him corner-taking duties too...

So, with the 3-2 defeat in the same fixture last year duly avenged, the Gunners are now level on points with Liverpool, who again stuttered against Swansea at Anfield. Moreover, Arsenal are now also a mere three points off fourth place. The team now seems firmly ensconced in a very comfortable groove. In that sense, the looming international break could not be appearing on the horizon at a worse time - but hopefully Arsenal will resume where they have now left off when they travel to Carrow Road in two weeks' time.