Monday, 31 October 2011

Chelsea outgunned as Arsenal come back with a bang

Many Arsenal blogs have been waxing lyrical about the Gunners’ win at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. The general consensus is that it was worth waiting for. It was without doubt the team’s best performance of the season so far, and must send out a riposte to those who had prematurely written off our chances of securing a top four finish in 2012.

The free-scoring drama of the game was a welcome surprise, but in hindsight it should not perhaps have been altogether unexpected. In recent games it was evident that going forward the understanding between players was improving, and Arsenal were starting to play with more fluency. Against Chelsea this was more apparent than ever, and at last it would be fair to say that the team clicked – if not for the full ninety minutes, then certainly for sustained periods.

It was an open, pulsating game right from the kick-off, caused by lax defending as much as attacking prowess. Both teams attempted to squeeze the space by playing high defensive lines, but the pace and creativity of the forward players meant this was open to frequent exposure. A rampaging Ashley Cole caught out makeshift right-back Djourou twice in the opening five minutes, while Santos looked similarly vulnerable on Arsenal’s left flank. Seemingly realising the danger, Song and Arteta alternated in deeper midfield positions – mirroring Mikel’s habitual station for Chelsea – in an attempt to offer additional protection to our pressured defence. Even Ramsey began to drop back, but Koscielny marshalled well and was to prove the outstanding individual among the Gunners’ back-line over the ninety minutes.

It was far from one-way traffic, however, and Arsenal looked to move the ball forward quickly with a refreshing and pleasing directness. Gervinho should have scored in the 11th minute, when an intelligent pass from Ramsey released Theo Walcott on the right, who made good use of his ferocious pace and even produced an excellent final ball, which scudded into the box – making Ashley Cole look distinctly average in the process.

Indeed, Walcott was bright and lively throughout the first half, as were Ramsey, Gervinho and Robin van Persie, collectively offering a significant offensive threat. Mata and Lampard’s industry and movement were the counterpoints to this, and they combined well for the first Chelsea goal. However, Arsenal rallied well and a series of relatively uncomplicated but quick and precise threaded passes unlocked the opposition defence for van Persie’s equaliser. Alternating with Gervinho, who was more than happy to cut inside and get into the box, RvP came in from wide left and finished almost nonchalantly.

Sturridge was then caught marginally offside, and the linesman’s flag cancelled out what could have been an uncomfortable 2-1 lead for the Blues on 38 minutes. Ultimately they did take the lead just before half time though, thanks to – who else? – John Terry. It was a scruffy goal from a corner – which again highlighted the Gunner’s ongoing deficiencies in defending set pieces. This was perhaps the only negative of a generally good opening 45 minutes.

At the break it still looked and felt as though Arsenal could get something from the game. Wenger evidently thought so, too, and sent his team out full of fire. The Gunners started on the front foot, again spearheaded by the attacking intent of Gervinho, Ramsey and van Persie. There were two more Arsenal chances within the first minute of the second half, and soon after a second equaliser came thanks to a good run and finish from Andre Santos, after a great pass by Alex Song. Under pressure, Chelsea became increasingly narrow and Arsenal exploited the space on the wings effectively.

Szczesny was booked in the 49th minute, and was slightly fortunate to see only yellow for a clumsy but unintentional foul. The resulting free kick was the first of a few nervy moments for the Gunners, but the defence saw the ball safely away from danger. Further up the field, the midfield axis of Song-Arteta-Ramsey looked increasingly fluent and worked well in attempting to dominate the Chelsea midfield. Although not all-conquering, they did gradually gain the upper hand through economical passing, quick movement and sound positioning. Ramsey was far more advanced, while Gervinho bested Bosingwa time and time again in one-on-one situations. Walcott, similarly, kept Ashley Cole occupied and scored a great third goal, stumbling initially but recovering well and demonstrating a matchless combination of pace, close control (switching the ball from left to right foot) and deft finishing to put the ball past Petr Cech’s outstretched limbs at the near post.

Chelsea attempted to crowd Arsenal out through the middle, but the Gunners had success in threading angled balls from wide positions behind Terry and Ivanovic. Under pressure, the Blues seemed to lose their collective appetite and focus, becoming sloppy in possession and aggressive off the ball as the game got a little fractious. Arsenal tightened up defensively and were quick to break with the ball as Villas Boas introduced Malouda and Lukaku in an attempt to wrest control of the match and produce a goal to restore parity.

The Gunners continued to produce good passages of play, with excellent ball retention, which aggravated Chelsea as they chased for possession. Arsenal made some decent half-chances but frustratingly failed to capitalise on set pieces such as the corners they won – van Persie’s delivery failing to clear the first man on at least two occasions. Given his goal-scoring form, he should be in the box anyway! Jenkinson was introduced on 75’ for Johan Djourou, a sensible change from Wenger, and Meireles also replaced Mikel for Chelsea. Our right-back is learning incredibly quickly and Santos also looked better in the second half, but still struggled against the interplay of Lukaku and Mata – hence the equaliser, which made it 3-3 with ten minutes remaining.

Rosicky came on for the excellent Walcott, but pleasingly he showed the same enthusiasm and drive as Theo had throughout and Arsenal continued to press forward. Suddenly opportunity beckoned and Robin van Persie stole in to retake the lead. A bad Chelsea pass forced John Terry to lose his footing, and our number ten showed great class to nick the ball away, round the prone Cech and stroke the ball into the net. The Chelsea captain’s slip was oddly convenient, masking a chronic lack of pace that is nevertheless becoming more and more obvious at the top level. Regardless, at 4-3 up and five minutes to go, the match was delicately poised. Gooners everywhere were undoubtedly tense – we all know only too well how Arsenal can implode when attempting to hold a lead – but still it was genuinely exciting, and that isn’t something we’ve been able to say about many Gunners performances this season.

The away support were in fine voice, drowning out the Stamford Bridge faithful as the team continued to hold out on the pitch. Vermaelen entered the fray to bolster the defence, and Song was impressive – he was perhaps unfairly penalised on a couple of occasions and didn’t deserve to pick up a yellow card for what amounted to little more than running alongside Ashley Cole. Arteta was similarly combative, and continues to prove his worth, providing bite as well as composure. It was more good counter-attacking play that finally brought the coup de grâce as van Persie’s venomous snapshot fooled Petr Cech, the ball visibly bending in the air as RvP wheeled away to celebrate a fine and important hat-trick. Delight was etched visibly in the players’ faces as they celebrated in front of cameras and the Arsenal fans huddled in one corner of the stadium. Chelsea seemed out of ideas, while the Gunners conversely were more inventive and more potent – and showed greater belief and fighting spirit in the latter 45 minutes.

The three points were undoubtedly deserved, and although it was not quite the mauling that the scoreline suggests Chelsea looked completely overrun at times. The win is all the more impressive when you consider the teamsheets – Arsenal were playing with a back four consisting of new players in left back and centre back positions, without a recognised right back for most of the game and, for 87 minutes, without Thomas Vermaelen, the club’s most highly regarded defender. Admittedly, we conceded three goals, but Chelsea conceded five with an experienced and expensively-assembled defence – even with the £25.5-million David Luiz left on the bench. Increasingly John Terry seems to rely on his repertoire of pulling shirts, blocking off players, catching ankles and treading on feet as his stature at the heart of the Chelsea back-line dwindles, in stark contrast to Laurent Koscielny – a player who, it is fair to say, has had good days and bad days already in his Arsenal career but who worked tirelessly and fearlessly at the back. Andre Santos, similarly, may look slightly suspect in his positioning and stamina, but no more so than Bosingwa, and the Brazilian can evidently score goals, being blessed with an excellent touch and superb close control.

Arsenal consolidate their seventh place position in the Premier League table, gathering momentum all the time as a good run continues, and emphatically breaking the hoodoo of their awful away record. Prospective fixtures loom large, but suddenly we can look ahead with anticipation – next up, a Tuesday night Champions League home tie against the suddenly-not-so-mighty Marseille...

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Time to shoot for the (blue) moon...

Carling Cup Quarter Final Draw:
Chelsea v Liverpool
Manchester United v Crystal Palace
Arsenal v Manchester City
Cardiff City v Blackburn Rovers

After two fairly fortuitous third and fourth-round home draws against Shrewsbury Town and Bolton Wanderers, it was about time Arsenal got a tougher test - arguably, that was somewhat inevitable anyway, given the quality left in the last eight. However Manchester City represent perhaps the greatest challenge of all the teams still in the Carling Cup - the strength in depth of their enormous squad means that even a second string City side would rival the Arsenal first team in terms of big-game experience. We do at least have a chance at the Emirates, but you would still hope that Wenger will field a stronger - or at least a more experienced - eleven than the team that featured against Bolton.

Having said that, the team performed fairly well on Tuesday, fighting back from a 1-0 deficit with spirit and determination. At right-back Nico Yennaris marshalled Tuncay effectively, and Miquel did the same to a lesser extent on the left. He struggled on occasion against the lively and inventive Gael Kakuta, but then, as a centre-half, the young Spaniard was effectively playing both out of position and out of his comfort zone. Vermaelen played well before going off after 85 minutes while his partner in the middle, Sebastian Squillaci, also did a decent job. He made his first start of the season and betrayed a lack of match practice by picking up a yellow card on 26 minutes, but otherwise remained largely error-free.

For once Coquelin and Frimpong were less effective, struggling to dominate the midfield, and both were guilty of dwelling on the ball and being caught in possession too often. In particular, Fabrice Muamba - himself an ex-Arsenal player - seemed keen to demonstrate his abilities. Darren Pratley also showed his Championship footballing education (five seasons at Swansea) by battling well.

Given starting places in the first eleven and a brief to create chances, both Benayoun and Arshavin (the latter finally given licence to attack from the the centre rather than the wing) displayed trickery and guile. Chamberlain and Park similarly were out to impress, and both were full of endeavour. After his heroics against Shrewsbury the young winger perhaps felt the weight of expectation and didn't quite manage to produce the moments of magic that have lit up recent England U-21 prformances, for example. Our South Korean striker - also in fine international form - has clearly undergone a steep learning curve since joining from Monaco. He looked useful, however, and capped his display with a finely taken goal. That will certainly give Wenger selection dilemmas, particularly in comparison to the troubled Marouane Chamakh. After the game Arsene said that he now considers Park to be ready for the Premier League, and indeed the South Korean has a place on the bench at Stamford Bridge with Chamakh conspicuously absent from the matchday squad.

The Bolton win was merited but far from emphatic, and the Trotters threatened regularly - looking worryingly potent for a team currently mired in the Premier League's relegation zone. As such Arsenal will need a more composed display if they are to get past City to reach the semi-finals of the Carling Cup. The team also flagged visibly against Bolton as the second half waned. Admittedly, this competition has to realistically be lowest in the list of priorities for the Gunners this season - at the same time, however, many feel that only another crack at the elusive three-handled trophy will finally expel the demons still haunting the team after last season's capitulation to Birmingham.

Chelsea v Arsenal - Preview

Arsenal have largely stayed out of the headlines this week - a refreshing change given the media's tendency to play up the 'club in crisis' angle at every opportunity. Thankfully, Manchester United's half-satisfying humbling at the hands of noisy neighbours City has taken centre-stage as attention has focused alternately on United's weaknesses and City's strengths - so 6 of 1, half a dozen of the other, really...

Moreover, the fallout from the entirely separate John Terry/Anton Ferdinand incident has also occupied the back pages; JT's apparent inability to act like a normal, functioning, decent human being either on the pitch or off it rearing its ugly head again.

However, with the Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge looming, the focus has once again shifted back to the Gunners. Arsenal have not taken points from any of the teams currently ahead of them in the league so far this season, with disappointing defeats to Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs already featuring as embarrassing blemishes on the 2011/12 record. Given our relatively poor record of late at the Bridge - we haven't won there since November 2008 - it is debatable whether this match will be an opportunity to continue what could otherwise be a decent run in the lead-up to Christmas. Fans should still be positive given recent results, the excellent form of RvP and signs of returning confidence and greater fluency in Arsenal's play, though.

Regrettably the Gunners are still likely to be without a recognised right-back. Djourou could again deputise, but given that Vermaelen successfully completed 85 minutes against Bolton (minor cramp in one calf stopped him seeing out the game in full) it is possible that the Belgian could return, with Koscielny moving to the right. Yossi Benayoun is of course ineligible to play against his parent club due to the terms of his loan deal.

The game will be a considerable test indeed, but we can be thankful that Arsenal's hulking Ivorian nemesis, Didier Drogba, will not be playing due to the red card he picked up last weekend against QPR. On the other hand Fernando Torres should return, unless Villas-Boas opts for the Sturridge-Anelka pairing ahead of the £50 million pound man. Enforced suspension has stalled Torres' progress, but he has shown signs of returning form, and scored two good Champions League goals against Genk. We must hope that El Niño's explosive comeback doesn't begin against the Arsenal. Given his undoubted quality it is sure to occur sooner or later, despite the Shevchenko-esque burden of expectation on his shoulders.

Still, our very own RvP is in better goal-scoring form than any of Chelsea's expensively assembled forward line at present, and he will be key to any prospect of getting a result from this game. He'll be up against a Chelsea defence that has looked solid but not impregnable (they have conceded in all but one of their last eight home matches), and although bolstered by the return of Bosingwa and Ashley Cole to the full-back positions all eyes will be on John Terry's conduct in the middle.

Meireles, Mata, a resurgent Lampard and the possible return of Ramires will all pose considerable threats, although AVB would surely struggle to accommodate all four in his starting eleven, and recent reports suggest that the game has come slightly too soon for the Brazilian anyway, who is still coming back from injury. Arsenal's midfield, which will in all likelihood consist of the ever-improving Song-Arteta-Ramsey axis, with Gervinho and Walcott on either flank, will have to be at their combative best to counter the opposing trio as well as preventing Mikel from fulfilling his 'ball-playing Makélélé' brief in the holding role.

The Gunners' pretty poor away form and Chelsea's contrasting excellent home form in 2011/12 does not augur well - ultimately, from the red-and-white perspective, a point would do very nicely here. However the game is certainly not the foregone conclusion it might have been a month ago. Kick-off at Stamford Bridge is at lunchtime today - will Arsenal be able to show that they are now bridging the gap between themselves and Chelsea et al at the top of the league?

Friday, 28 October 2011

Gunners triumph over Potters and Trotters

Arsenal’s win over Bolton on Tuesday ensured that they booked a place in the last eight of the League Cup for the ninth successive season. An initially impressive statistic that begins to look slightly less so when you also acknowledge that in that time we’ve actually gone on to win the bloody thing, er, zero times. Still, getting into the Fifth Round takes us one step closer and although there are numerous teams still in the competition that could trip us up (namely Chelsea, City, Liverpool and United), with the draw to be made at noon on Saturday, the performances so far have shown considerable quality from the youth team graduates and the more experienced players, and from faces old and new. That includes, for example, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s match-winning display against Shrewsbury and Ozzy Ozyakup’s encouraging cameos in both of the last two matches, along with demonstrations of craft and trickery from Andrey Arshavin and Yossi Benayoun over the ninety minutes against Bolton. Ju-Young Park similarly produced a finish of supreme quality to notch his first goal for the Gunners.

The midweek victory followed a Sunday afternoon home win against Stoke – the sixth from seven games – that also showed many encouraging signs from the team, and was arguably Arsenal’s best Premier League display of the season to date. Gervinho and Ramsey in particular were both outstanding, adding dynamism, directness and good linking play, although again the plaudits have to go to Robin van Persie. He is in such good goal-scoring form at the moment that it seems he could probably take to the pitch in a pair of clogs and still put the ball in the back of the net. At the beginning of the season some expressed doubts as to the wisdom of awarding a forward the captain’s armband – although it worked for both Thierry and Wrighty – but through his performances alone the Dutchman is inspiring and leading the team. One school of thought holds that his introduction from the bench and the resulting pair of goals demonstrated Arsene’s tactical astuteness, winning the game whilst giving RvP a well-earned rest for the majority of the match – and protecting his notoriously fragile ankles from the robust challenges that typify the Stoke approach to modern football. Another school of thought asserts that actually the substitution simply highlighted the team’s overwhelming reliance on our talismanic number ten and the inadequacy of our other centre-forwards – viz. the largely ineffectual Marouane Chamakh and the fact that Wenger seemed again unwilling to commit Ju-Young Park to the cause, as the Korean remained firmly rooted to the bench. Either way, van Persie’s 24-minute display was an attacking masterclass which delighted the Emirates and illuminated his efficacy of movement and superb understanding of positioning in the box, culminating in a fine brace that beat Asmir Begovic through a deadly combination of speed and power – the Stoke ‘keeper got hands to both but was unable to adjust sufficiently to parry either shot.

The two victories surely herald further signs of upward progress – not least another three points to take Arsenal seventh in the league, a mere three points adrift of Sp*rs in fifth, and also still in contention for the three-handled jug, the first silverware of the season. Things are looking up then? Well, maybe. Only the most hysterically optimistic Gooners would ignore the more worrying traits that the team still shows at frequent intervals: individual inconsistency (Walcott, Arshavin), lack of focus at key moments (Stoke’s equaliser from, predictably, a set piece, being a case in point) and regularly exposing a still fragile defence being the weaknesses that are most often cited. However, Arsenal are looking increasingly confident and more fluent, and there is a consensus that the new signings – certainly those in attacking positions – do look to be adding a different dimension to the Gunners.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Arsenal v Stoke - Preview

Not having all that much to do on Thursday night, I put the telly on, flicked over to ITV4 and settled down to watch Stoke play Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Europa League. It proved a diverting if unedifying spectacle, the most interesting element of which was watching the Stoke players attempt to deal with an unfamiliarly broad expanse of pitch (apparently the standard dimensions at the Britannia don't conform to UEFA regulations, meaning that the club's groundsmen had to paint over the touchlines in an unnatural-looking bright green, redoing the white markings about two feet further out on each side of the playing surface). As I watched I couldn't help but wonder if somewhere across London, Wenger was looking on with the same sense of bemused detachment. On the other hand, I quite liked the thought of Le Professeur glued to the screen, scrutinising Tony Pulis' team selection intently, and frantically scribbling tactical notes in an attempt to work out a masterplan for the Arsenal to thrash the Potters on Sunday. Or perhaps he doesn't need to. Arsène is still supposed to know, after all - according to some supporters at least.

Of course, it doesn't take a genius to work out how Stoke might play, particularly against the Gunners. The cynic might say they go out to break legs, but that would be unfair. Increasingly, Pulis seems inclined to field quality over brute force, and Stoke do boast a smattering of talented players - including ex-Gunners Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Upson. Still, Stoke typically play uncomplicated but effective football, relying on big forwards to capitalise on set pieces and their various other weapons of assault - which largely consist of Rory Delap's now infamous long throws (or failing that, the efforts of his equally burly-armed apprentice Ryan Shotton, judging from Thursday night's performance). It certainly worked against a nervous-looking Israeli team, even after Stoke were reduced to ten men following Cameron Jerome's first-half red card.

Stoke look to be enjoying their Europa League adventure in 2011, even if it does mean playing on Thursdays and Sundays, so much so that it seems they're quite keen to get into Europe again this season. As such they're currently hovering just outside the qualification places, occupying seventh position in the league. They've been in fairly good form of late, and the Potters will be a test for Arsenal this weekend; Stoke's uncompromising style could well disrupt the momentum that now looks to be slowly gathering, and Peter Crouch, Kenwyne Jones and the aforementioned Cameron Jerome are just the sort of players who would be more than happy to stamp all over the Gunners' tentative green shoots of recovery.

Still, after a good European result of their own in midweek, Arsenal should be in confident mood. The stats are also on our side - we have not lost at home to Stoke since 29 August 1981, according to the 'Official History of Arsenal'. That fixture was the opening game of the '81-'82 season and neither Alan Sunderland nor Graham Rix, both playing that day, managed to net us an equaliser. We eventually finished fifth in the league in 1982; doubtless some Arsenal fans would be content with a similar position at the end of 2011/12. It is not impossible for us to go one better than that, however, and therefore guarantee not just second-rate but top table European football for another year. That's some way off, admittedly, but putting together a good run in the lead-up to Christmas would certainly help the cause, and a win at the Emirates on Sunday would be another step in the right direction. It would also signify our fourth home win 'on the trot', as Wenger recently said, which is a promising sign of progress and returning confidence in itself.

With the addition of Per Mertesacker, we at last have some height at the back to deal with Stoke's muscle and aerial threat, and although their forwards are hardly free-scoring at the moment both our 6' 6" German and the slightly less imposing Laurent Koscielny will have to be on top form to keep them at bay come Sunday. Unfortunately, the injury curse has now struck the right-back position again (will no player be left untouched?) and we are likely to be without Carl Jenkinson. That probably means Djourou will fill in, which is a concern - but not one that can really be helped in the absence of another right-sided defender. It will be up to Szczesny to help marshal the back-line and command his penalty box; you can't help but think he will be busy over the course of the game, but the back four showed a collective improvement against Marseille and hopefully that will continue.

Thankfully there are no fresh injury concerns elsewhere in the team. Gervinho will probably come back into the side in favour of our erratic Russian, and Walcott will probably start - but he really needs to start finding some consistency, particularly with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain waiting - literally - in the wings. Song and Arteta are beginning to look like a very good central duo, but it remains to be seen whether Ramsey will get the nod over Rosicky. Given Aaron's nasty previous with Stoke and Tomas's much improved performances of late I would be inclined to go with the latter, but Ramsey's important and composed winner against Marseille was impressive. Hopefully RvP will keep scoring goals of his own so that his century quickly fades into the distance as the next milestone appears on the horizon - could he get to 125 goals in the club's 125th season?

It will be an interesting game and another chance to assess just how quickly - or otherwise - Arsenal have regrouped, given the turbulent start to the season. The team is more than capable of getting three points, but at the moment the Gunners must simply be prepared to apply the Stoke method and win ugly if necessary. Grinding out results with a metronomic regularity used to be an Arsenal forté, once upon a time - and when you're fighting your way up the league, a 1-0 win is as good a result as any.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Arsenal grab late winner to steal a march in Group F

Aaron Ramsey’s great but late winner in the 92nd minute was a fine if fortunate strike that turned a middling Arsenal performance into a satisfying one, at least in terms of the result. The atmosphere at the Stade Vélodrome was a little strange, given that half the ground was essentially a building site. This was compounded by the prominent claret and blue banner hanging behind the goal that read ‘Come on you Irons’ – frustrated Hammers fans in search of vicarious European football?

The Gunners, for once, were superior in defence to attack, and Arsenal showed better defensive discipline across the back four, holding a good line and pushing up to squeeze the space. In particular, the central pairing of Mertesacker and Koscielny looks to be improving with every game, and the same can be said of Carl Jenkinson’s performances. His loss to a knee strain in the 59th minute was unfortunate and necessitated the introduction of Djourou, who fortunately did a good job to see out the game – and was unlucky to get a booking for a perfectly fair tackle. The weak link was perhaps Santos on the left, who took a few unnecessary risks and seemed to have neither the fitness nor the inclination to track back and close down as the game wore on. Still, the Brazilian showed some good skill and was average rather than poor – in Sun terms, an unremarkable 5.

The first-half was fast-paced and frenetic, with both teams playing relatively open attacking football. Wenger opted to start with both Arshavin and Rosicky, and Walcott and Arteta retained their places while Gervinho and Ramsey were left on the bench. This fairly offensive line-up perhaps demonstrated Arsene’s desire to take three points off the French side, a team for which – understandably – he seems to hold some residual resentment. Marseille did put Arsenal under pressure at various points however, their initial high-energy pressing giving our midfield in particular a hard time and causing individual errors. Arsenal didn’t help themselves either though, as various players were guilty of putting team-mates unnecessarily in trouble. Clearly the understanding between players isn't there yet, at least not on a consistent basis, which led to some misplaced passes and balls needlessly running out of play.

Still, a nervy start was perhaps to be expected, and they settled as the half went on, picking up and retaining possession for long spells. Arteta was vocal and a calming influence throughout, helping to break up play and alternating with Song as the defensive midfield pivot. This raises the question as to whether Arsenal in fact need a nominal deep-lying defensive midfielder in the conventional sense. Song does not seem disciplined enough to play that role, and while Arteta could fill it, this would rob the team of his creative influence. The generally good understanding between the two, which is visibly improving, should serve us well. Arteta habitually plays deeper anyway – certainly more so than Cesc did, for example – and though there will be sterner tests ahead than Marseille, this flexible-looking system perhaps holds promise.

Walcott put in an improved performance over the weekend, but would waste a good chance later in the game with a tame shot. Rosicky was full of endeavour, perhaps stung by criticism over his apparent nonchalance after Larsson’s free kick on Sunday. Arshavin, on the other hand, was largely anonymous, and disappointing given his positive substitute’s display against Sunderland. Jenkinson was impetuous in his desire to get forward, running on and looking to put balls into the box. He certainly gave Andre Ayew lots to think about, who looked nonplussed by this young buck disappearing up the pitch at every opportunity. In the young right-back, who is yet to turn twenty, we do at least seem to have a player capable of delivering decent crosses – arguably his delivery is of better quality than Bacary Sagna’s.

Jenkinson’s only prominent error was a case for handball, which was waved away by the referee despite loud appeals from the Marseille forwards. It would have been harsh and indeed Diawara’s handball at the other end was a much better claim for an Arsenal penalty.

The second half seemed to demonstrate that Marseille were unwilling to live with Arsenal for a second 45 minutes and they visibly slowed the tempo. Arsenal continued to be tidy in possession, playing good approach football but lacking a cutting edge. The fact that they were unable to capitalise on a lacklustre display from the home team became increasingly frustrating; the introduction of Gervinho and Ramsey helped without managing to result in many clear-cut chances.

Until the dying seconds of the match, that is. A good ball from Djourou, advancing on the right flank, was miscontrolled by Gervinho but ran on to Ramsey, who had made an intelligent run to the far post. With time and space, he finished crisply past Steve Mandanda with a coolness that Theo Walcott demonstrably lacked earlier in the game. Lucky, yes, but also deserved, on balance. As the rain started, Ramsey ran the length of the field to the huddled Gooners in the corner of the stadium, where the first player to congratulate him was a jubilant Szczesny, who’d run from his goalmouth to the touchline. The team spirit seems to be returning to the side, and confidence too. This win will only help that; significantly it leaves us top of Group F and adds, perhaps, to the momentum that seems to be slowly but surely building.

Marseille v Arsenal – Preview

UEFA Champions League: Group F tablePWDLFAGDPts
1. Marseille22004046
2. Arsenal21103214
3. Borussia Dortmund201114-31
4. Olympiacos200213-20

Arsenal face a difficult task tonight in the third game of the Champions League group phase at the intimidating Stade Vélodrome – although Arsenal may benefit from the fact that Marseille’s ‘twelfth man’ will be somewhat handicapped by the reduced capacity of the stadium at present, due to ongoing redevelopment work for Euro 2016.

Traditionally one of the powerhouses of French football, Marseille chased Lille for the Ligue 1 title last season. They finished second in 2010/11, good enough to secure entry into the Champions League group stage, where, after the draw was made for Group F, they might have been expected to struggle against Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund. So far, however, they have confounded expectations with two wins from two matches – including a 3-0 home win against Dortmund – leaving them currently sitting top of the group.

Domestically however, their form mirrors that of the Gunners. Marseille have started slowly, taking only 9 points from ten games – those coming from a solitary home win and six draws, three gained at home and three on their travels. That leaves them in 15th place in Ligue 1.

Arsenal should not underestimate this team, however, and judging from Wenger’s pre-match comments he is fully aware of the threat they pose to our qualification hopes. Didier Deschamps’ side may not have been firing on all cylinders of late, but they have some talented players in the form of André Ayew, Loïc Rémy, Mathieu Valbuena, Alou Diarra and Lucho Gonzales – Arsene recently admitted that he attempted to get the latter on loan in the last transfer window. Then again they’ve also got the one and only Djimi Traoré (possibly the worst player to own a Champions League winners’ medal?), although, having signed a one-year deal at the start of the season, he hasn’t actually featured for Les Phocéens yet. Still, Marseille played well on the counter against Dortmund and punished the Germans – the Gunners will have to be wary of this and try to spring a few surprises of their own.

Although the bookies have the French side as favourites to win tonight, if Arsenal play as they did for the first 20-25 minutes against Sunderland they are capable of getting a result. Three points would take us to the top of Group F, with a return visit to Emirates still to come for Marseille (on Tuesday 1st November). Realistically most fans would happily take a draw, which would still leave Arsenal in a good position – within two points of the group leaders with that return match to come as well as another home tie to play against Borussia Dortmund.

The squad who have made the trip to the South of France does not include Kieran Gibbs, who is still suffering from the stomach strain he picked up against Sunderland, but Aaron Ramsey returns. Frimpong has not been included but Francis Coquelin has – a sign that Wenger prefers the latter’s more considered football to the gung-ho style of the former? It is probably simply a reflection of Coquelin’s flexibility given that he has the ability to play in defence if called upon.

With Sagna absent it will be interesting to see if Jenkinson retains his place at right-back or whether Arsene will move Koscielny there and play either Djourou or even Alex Song alongside Mertesacker. Similarly the midfield line-up will provide an indication of Wenger’s current thinking – conventional wisdom for a European away night would dictate a more cautious defensive approach. On the other hand, both Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin played well at the weekend, while it is also possible that Wenger will have one eye on the Stoke game, in which case we might see an appearance for the so-far underused Yossi Benayoun.

With RvP in sparkling form the centre-forward position picks itself, but Marouane Chamakh has been favoured over Chu Young Park for a place on the bench. We have seen next to nothing of the South Korean so far other than a short cameo in the Carling Cup game against Shrewsbury, but given his excellent international goal-scoring form and familiarity with French football – 103 league appearances for Marseille’s regional rivals Monaco – it seems a little odd that he has not made the trip. Of course, Chamakh also knows French football very well; he came to us from Girondins de Bordeaux, and arguably offers a different option tactically, including a strong aerial threat.

The game is being televised live on terrestrial television tonight (ITV1, coverage starts at 7.30pm), and Arsenal fans across the country will be taking up positions on sofas with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension. Our Champions League form so far has been decent, at least the equal of Manchester City and Manchester United, who both laboured to scrappy wins last night – Marseille are a tougher challenger than either Villarreal or Oțelul Galați, but hopefully we'll also be able to follow the Mancs' example and secure three points.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Van Persie brace secures the points

Yesterday’s result has to be seen as a good three points, propelling the Gunners to the dizzy heights of tenth in the league (the highest we have climbed in 2011/12 so far) whilst leaving Sunderland teetering on the edge of the relegation zone, ahead of Bolton only by virtue of goal difference. There were also many positives to take from the performance, with good spells in both halves in which Arsenal looked dominant.

The line-up was notable for the absence of Ramsey, replaced by Tomas Rosicky, and Jenkinson starting at right-back, despite Wenger’s hints earlier in the week that he would play Koscielny there and Djourou at centre-half. Perhaps Arsene was just trying to keep Steve Bruce guessing; in the end he set out his stall with an attacking forward line and probably the strongest back-line currently available.

The team showed intent right from the kick-off, scoring with the first attack of the match. Gervinho has added directness and purpose to Arsenal going forward and he was instrumental in the early goal, finding space on the left and doing well to pick out RvP in the middle. Van Persie’s 101st strike for Arsenal was something of a rarity among his collection of Gunners goals – a low and precise right-footed finish.

The old chant ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ reverberated around the Emirates even as fans were still filing in. The lead gave the Gunners a perfect platform on which to build, providing an immediate boost to the collective confidence of the team. Indeed, the display of good football continued as both crowd and team responded to the bright start, and for the first 25 minutes there were glimpses of what this Arsenal side may be capable of. They looked assured in possession, full of ideas and capable of applying sustained pressure.

Van Persie should have had a second after twelve minutes when he turned superbly on the edge of Sunderland’s box and chipped exquisitely over Mignolet. Agonisingly the ball hit the inside of the post and bounced away. On the MOTD2 sofa later, Neil Warnock called it the best thing he’d seen in the Premier League so far this season, while Gooners made their own comparisons to our most famous Dutchman – the turn and chip was certainly reminiscent of Bergkamp in his pomp.

There were other positive moments and a couple of half-chances before Arsenal nearly let Sunderland back in, with, predictably, a defensive error, but unusually one that stemmed from a moment of madness by Szczesny. He raced out of his goal to collect a ball, but Stéphane Sessègnon got to it first and squared across the box – only a timely block from Song cut out the danger.

Minutes later Sunderland pulled a goal back after Arteta conceded a free kick about 30 yards out. Seb Larsson, fresh from international heroics for Sweden last week, duly stepped up and delivered an unstoppable curling finish into the top corner. He used to do the same thing fairly regularly for Arsenal reserves, and a player with such ability from set pieces is always a good asset. Admittedly, when he left to join Birmingham in 2007 Arsenal had something of an embarrassment of riches in midfield, but in hindsight we probably should have tried to hang on to him…

The Gunners now started to wobble. Inevitably the equaliser had a positive effect on the opposing team, but Arsenal had been on top and there was no need to panic. Unfortunately, the back four didn’t seem to see things that way, with both Koscielny and Jenkinson committing errors – Sessègnon got the better of the latter on numerous occasions, while Sunderland’s ginger menace Jack Colback repeatedly caused Koscielny problems. Arsenal should have conceded again in the 35th minute when only a wonder-save from Szscesny kept out Lee Cattermole’s header from less than three yards. Our young keeper threw himself to his left and clawed the ball away, showing great reflexes and more than atoning for his earlier mistake.

The natural ebb and flow of football, and the pace and intensity of the Premier League in particular, means that it is rare for any team to dictate a game for the full 90 minutes. We know this, but at the moment Arsenal seem unable to absorb any pressure from the opposition – as soon as they are forced on the back foot they begin to crumble. Suddenly the composure disappears and the players seem incapable of finding a pass or making a tackle. Half-time was a welcome chance to regroup and Arsenal emerged from the tunnel with a restored sense of purpose. Hard to imagine Wenger applying the hairdryer, but whatever he did had a positive effect.

Some niggly fouls resulted in yellow cards for Song and Koscielny, and worryingly the first change of the match came when Santos replaced Gibbs – the manager later revealed that Kieran had suffered a stomach strain. Arsenal threatened continually but were unable to score, despite some good individual moments. The highlight of these was a jinking run into Sunderland’s box from Andrey Arshavin, who came on for Gervinho and immediately set about rectifying what by his own admission has been a disappointing start to the season. Whether affected by a drop in confidence, the Russian has underperformed of late but yesterday showed both urgency and trickery.

As the second half went on, and without a second goal to seal the game, frustration levels inside the Emirates began to rise, particularly when Song wasted a good chance to release Theo down the right, who had made an intelligent run. In addition Arsenal were ineffective from corners time and time again – we had nine in the match compared to Sunderland’s two – but none resulted in a clear-cut chance, and a couple didn’t even clear the first man. This is something that must improve – without wanting to detract from an otherwise excellent performance, RvP’s delivery from corners is rarely consistent.

After a series of underwhelming set pieces, it was therefore fitting that van Persie scored a fine second goal from a free kick seven minutes from time. It was a deserved winner, and pleasingly (albeit with frayed nerves) Arsenal were then able to see out the match – despite a scare when Ji-Dong-Won put the ball into the net. Fortunately Howard Webb had spotted that he was at least a yard offside.

Wenger summed up the game fairly succinctly, and for once without reverting to his recent tendency for cliché. He was also rightly effusive in his praise for RvP, who put in a match-winning performance.
‘We have now won five home games on the trot. If we can put another two or three results together it will help confidence because you can feel that the attitude and spirit of the team is great. Even at half time we had a good response. The motivation is there and the quality too so we should eventually get there.

The spirit in the team is exceptional and in the second half we just came out and played in their half. We are growing as a team and getting stronger and stronger.

Robin van Persie is a special player and he's shown that again today. He's blessed at the moment and let's touch wood with his injuries. He's shown what a great player he is when he can be consistently playing.

Gibbs has an inflammation of his stomach muscles. Ramsey has a small chance to be in the squad, he had fatigue of his hamstring. But it is a very, very minor one. I wanted to give him a breather. It would have been a gamble to play.’
The decision to rest Ramsey was probably wise – he played international football for Wales in the break and had featured in all seven of Arsenal’s league matches up to the Sunderland game, as well as three Champions League fixtures. Too many games combined with international demands leads to fatigue and injury, particularly in young players, and that is arguably why we are currently without Jack Wilshere.

Besides, Ramsey’s replacement, Tomas Rosicky, played well (albeit in a slightly different role), and either of the two substitutes yesterday – Benayoun and Arshavin – are capable of filling the midfield with creativity, provided a holding player such as Song, Frimpong, Coquelin or a deeper-lying Arteta plays in support. Aaron has also been criticized in some quarters recently for being indecisive and slowing down the tempo, and Arsenal did seem to play at a faster pace against Sunderland yesterday. The impetus provided by the early goal may account for that, however, and the statistics – four assists and a goal to date – show how important Ramsey is to the team.

The same can be said of Robin van Persie, who was instrumental in the result yesterday and was the stand-out player on the pitch. As Wenger says, his fitness will be key to how the rest of the Gunners’ season pans out.

Scszesny also played an important part, and his form – excellent to date – will also dictate how far up the table Arsenal can climb.

Although no team with our points tally at this stage of the season has ever recovered to finish fourth in the Premier League, we are now only six points away, with eminently winnable games in the coming weeks – although the trip to Stamford Bridge next weekend could delay the start of a good run.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Arsenal v Sunderland – Preview

Football returns to the Emirates on Sunday afternoon after another tedious international break, with visitors Sunderland currently a single place and a single point behind us in the table. The first of two home games in a row (with a Champions League trip to Marseille sandwiched in between like a fine French pâté), this really is a must-win fixture for the Gunners.

As always, injury concerns surround the team, with Rosicky and Sagna added to the now-familiar crocked list of Wilshere, Vermaelen and Diaby (am I the only one starting to forget what Abou even looks like?). There are at least positive reports that Djourou and Koscielny are now fit again after missing the Spurs game, so hopefully Song will be released from the private hell of his emergency centre-back role.

With Bacary Sagna out for the next three months, the key question mark on the team-sheet in the Christmas run-in lies at right-back. Wenger maintained in an interview this week (conducted with the hotbed of investigative journalism that is Arsenal Player) that there is no crisis and that he considers Jenkinson and Koscielny as the primary cover for Sagna, also mentioning Djourou and Santos as possibilities to fill the role. But the Brazilian appears to be as one-sided as they come, and Jenkinson has looked out of his depth already; not really surprising given that he was probably expecting nothing more than a few Carling Cup run-outs in his first season. Many would therefore prefer Koscielny to play at right-back, but in turn this clearly impacts on who plays centrally. With Vermaelen still out, the best partnership – and the one that we should be looking to get maximum playing time together – is Mertesacker-Koscielny. Shunting the latter to right-back is therefore not ideal, and with the decidedly suspect Squillaci out of favour it also means that Djourou will fill the other centre-half position. The young Swiss has not been convincing when called upon so far in this campaign. The situation, then, looks to be more urgent than Wenger is admitting. Come back Eboue, all is forgiven.

Whoever plays as right-back will probably come up against the twin threats of Kieran Richardson and Seb Larsson. With competition for places Steve Bruce has tried various different players out on the left, but given Arsenal’s defensive weakness in general at the moment, and the injury to our first-choice right-back, Sunderland will be looking to capitalize in this area. On the plus side their forward line is pretty depleted at present through injuries to Fraizer Campbell and one-time Arsenal target Connor Wickham, as well as the ineligibility of our beloved loner loanee Nicklas Bendtner. This paves the way for Ji Dong-Won to start up front for the Black Cats. He played for South Korea on Tuesday alongside our own Chu Young Park (who captained the side and scored a goal) in the 2-1 win over UAE, a 2014 World Cup Qualifier played in Suwon. Might be a bit knackered after the 11,000 mile round trip then?

In addition Sunderland's Phil Bardsley is suspended, and the always-ridiculous Titus Bramble got arrested recently, so he won’t be playing either. Players in police custody is at least one crisis that hasn’t affected Arsenal so far this season, although this time last year three of the squad had felt the long arm of the law, including a bizarre incident involving Craig Eastmond and his little chap (yes, really).

Arsenal should be capable of a win; we’re fairly free-scoring at home at the moment while Sunderland have lost seven and drawn three of their last ten visits to Arsenal, and have failed to score in their last three (thanks Opta). Statistics aside, one thing that is sure to be in both managers’ and players’ minds on both sides is that the loser on Sunday could find themselves in the relegation zone – which would be embarrassing for the Mackems, particularly given Newcastle’s fine start to the season, but it would be utterly humiliating for the Gunners.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Share and share alike?

The man formerly known as Silent Stan was in the news recently (Kroenke’s Comments), and in the last couple of days Arsenal’s other main – and increasingly vocal – shareholder, Alisher Usmanov, has also caught the eye of the media. The activity seems to focus around an ongoing attempt by the Uzbeki billionaire’s company Red & White Holdings to buy up additional shares from minority Arsenal shareholders – at a higher price than the £11,750 that Kroenke was recently offering. This move is perhaps unsurprising given that the club’s AGM will shortly take place on 27 October, when Kroenke is finally likely to visit North London and talk to shareholders and even – gasp – supporters. Whether Usmanov will also turn up is debatable (in the past he has only ever sent a ‘representative’), but it seems he is keen to play a larger part in the running of the club, by forcing the board to let him inspect the club’s accounts and by fortifying his position to demand a place on the board – something Kroenke has always refused, placing his support firmly in the existing set-up.

Back in 2007, Arsenal fans were vocal in their opposition to billionaire Usmanov. After the rotund and rather jowly Uzbeki bought up David Dein’s 14.5 per cent share in the club, banners were raised inside the Emirates defiantly proclaiming, ‘Sod off, Jabba’. Opinions seem to have softened since then – Jabba the Hutt no longer, perhaps, though hardly Obi Wan Kenobi. Usmanov has been keen to position himself as a true fan, in it for the long-haul, and is apparently a friend of archetypal Arsenal obsessive Nick Hornby. The more cynical Gooners among us might view these claims with suspicion, but equally others would argue that anyone who wants to stir those at the top into action should be supported, particularly given the team’s inconsistent start to the season, Arsène’s increasingly clichéd recent statements, Kroenke’s apparently unwavering support for the boss, and Ivan Gazidis’ recent statement downplaying the importance of a top four finish.

Usmanov’s latest efforts to purchase shares from minority shareholders seems to represent a concerted effort to buy the 405 shares necessary to up his stake in Arsenal from his current 29.35 per cent holding to the 30 per cent-plus threshold. This would make him subject to the Premier League’s ‘Owners and Directors’ Test’, a measure supposedly in place to ensure a degree of transparency in clubs’ affairs and ownership – although it can’t be that hard to pass, since Sheikh Mansour seems to have got through it. The term conjures up images of club owners taking a really hard A-level, but it actually seems to be a set of financial assessment criteria that have to be met. For my money, Richard Scudamore should forget this sort of thing and instead introduce an arcane football club trivia quiz – so in Usmanov’s case, he’d have to tell us how many league goals Rocky bagged in 1987-88, and produce the ticket that proved he was at the game where John Jensen scored.

If Usmanov does get to 30 per cent (and recent reports state that he has been offering £14,000 a share to the estates of some of Arsenal’s estimated 200 recently-deceased shareholders) he will be entitled to inspect the accounts. He’ll learn therefore, why the club’s turnover in the last tax year increased by a mere one per cent, while the wage bill increased by 12.4 per cent, despite our ‘rigid’ wage structure. Whether that means the supporters will be told anything is a different matter, of course. Usmanov has been critical of many of the Arsenal board’s decisions and outspoken on things like the commercial deals currently in place with partners like Nike and Emirates – which pale into insignificance compared to those offered to Manchester United, for instance, and arguably undervalue the club. Moreover, Usmanov has said that he would inject more money into Arsenal to provide Wenger with a bigger budget, as opposed to Kroenke’s ‘self-sustaining’ model:

‘Arsenal has all of its major commercial contracts coming up for renewal … to
maximise the value of those you need to invest in building a winning team. This
is simple commercial logic.’

He certainly has the money to invest in the team. Whereas in 2007 he was worth around £2.7 billion, he is now worth an estimated £12.4 billion, making him the 35th richest person in the world. That’s as wealthy or even slightly richer than a certain Roman Abramovich, whose personal fortune is put at around £11 billion – although he has lavished much of his pocket-money on that small club near Fulham. Most Arsenal fans don’t want to take an approach that mirrors Chelsea or City in any shape or form, but on the other hand it is hard to get excited about the Kroenke vision for the future, and with the contracts of RvP, Walcott and Vermaelen due to expire in 2013, a bit more money in the kitty – as well as a man at the top with a bit of ambition – might not be wholly unwelcome. We certainly don't want to lose any more key players and adding some more quality and strength in depth in the next transfer window will also be vital.

Embracing Usmanov (in either the literal or the metaphorical sense) would probably be both unwise and unpleasant, but as a counterbalance to the inertia that seems to have developed in recent years and the apparent unwillingness of the American across the pond to do anything about it, letting Usmanov provoke those at the top into action could be good for the club. Playing with fire perhaps, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and the situation at Arsenal seems to be getting increasingly closer to that stage.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Africa Cup of Nations 2012 – who's Gunner be missing in January?

This is one of those seasons that falls in the odd years before a major international competition, and as such it is typically disrupted by the qualifying demands of UEFA or FIFA. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for Arsenal at the moment is highly debatable – on the one hand, the players who aren’t called up for international duty get a little respite from a hectic playing schedule and possibly some extra training time together, but on the other hand the domestic lull clearly seems to affect the spirit and consistency of the team. Worse, it can lead to injuries to key players if they get crocked playing for their respective countries.

Of course, there is another international competition that may have a similar impact on the squads of many Premier League teams in early 2012. The offending confederation is not UEFA or FIFA, but CAF – the Confederation of African Football – and the sporting event is that jamboree of crazy fans and gung-ho football that is the Africa Cup of Nations. The 2012 tournament, to be held jointly by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, runs from January 21 to February 12.

Many Arsenal fans are currently bemoaning the fact that one of our key players will be missing come January – the Cameroonian powerhouse that is Alexander Song. Most Gunners fans will know that our Alex is related to African legend Rigobert Song, and is beginning to follow in his illustrious uncle’s footsteps as one of the integral members of the national side.

But actually, there’s no need to worry on that score, as Alex Song won’t be going to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012. Why not? Well, because Cameroon haven’t qualified. Despite finishing second in Group E, a slow start and some bad results meant that their total of 8 points was not good enough to earn them a runners-up qualification spot. Draws with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Senegal (in Yaounde) as well as a 1-0 defeat to the latter in Dakar meant that the only team Cameroon have managed to beat to date are Group E’s whipping-boys Mauritius. These results proved costly – bad news for Cameroon and for the tournament, since the Indomitable Lions have one of the richest footballing pedigrees on the continent. They were the first African team to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup, in 1990 (who can forget Roger Milla’s dance at the corner flag?), before dastardly England put them out, and they have also won the Africa Cup of Nations four times along with a gold medal at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Their absence from the 2012 tournament is good news for Arsenal, however.

A closer look at the nations that have already secured qualification reveals that Botswana, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Senegal will definitely be playing in the tournament, along with Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, who both automatically qualify as co-hosts.

With a round of games still to play, there are various permutations that will decide which other countries book a place. But from an Arsenal perspective, the most conspicuous country on that list at the moment is Ivory Coast, as Gervinho is an important player in the national side. Indeed, he has already scored three goals in the qualification phase already. In all likelihood, we will be losing him for the duration of the tournament. Elsewhere, Morocco are currently top of their group with one game still to play, and so it looks as though Marouane Chamakh, who was made captain of Morocco for the first time in August 2010, will also be on his way to Africa come January. The only other player who might be missing could be Emmanuel Frimpong, who has pledged to represent Ghana should he be called up. As yet he has not earned a cap for the Black Stars, but if he makes a big impact for the Gunners between now and Christmas we may just find ourselves a midfielder short – particularly given the long-term injuries to Michael Essien and Kevin-Prince Boateng.

Arsenal’s Premier League fixtures during the Cup of Nations are as follows:
21 Jan – Man Utd (h)
31 Jan – Bolton (a)
4 Feb – Blackburn (h)
11 Feb – Sunderland (a)

In addition there is potentially a Carling Cup semi-final 2nd leg, an FA cup fourth round tie and also a Champions League round of 16 1st leg on the 14/15 Feb (although let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

A few tricky league games there, including the big match against Manchester United, when Gooners will be desperate for revenge after what happened back in August (let’s not mention the score). United themselves will hardly be affected by the loss of African players – they will be without Mame Biram Diouf, who will probably be named in the Senegal squad, but he is hardly an integral member of the United first team at the moment.

With regard to the African players in the Bolton, Blackburn and Sunderland squads, namely Chris Samba (Republic of the Congo), Yakubu (Nigeria), Elmohamady (Egypt), and Stéphane Sessègnon (Benin) – none will be off, as Benin, Congo and, surprisingly, Nigeria and Egypt will definitely not be participating, thanks to poor results in the qualifying group stage.

It seems then, that although the Africa Cup of Nations could be worse for the Gunners, we’re still going to be without one or possibly two key players – and Marouane Chamakh...

Monday, 3 October 2011

Arsenal ‘hand’ Spurs victory

On Sunday night Lee Dixon was again forced to sit on the MOTD2 sofa and highlight Arsenal’s inept defending. Understandably reluctant to go over the same familiar lapses in positioning and organization, he nevertheless resignedly pointed out a succession of schoolboy errors committed throughout the 90 minutes against Tottenham. The man who played 458 league games for the Gunners could do little but shake his head at our current state, and today said that far from looking to get back into touch with the top four, Arsenal should be worried about finishing the season in the top six, or even the top eight.

You have to say that, on current form, Dixon is right. Seven points from seven games leaves us 15th in the table, with two wins (both at home, against Bolton and Swansea), one draw (goalless at St James’ on the first day of the season) and four defeats already (including the Gunners’ worst result for 115 years). It’s going to be a long season. The last time we finished behind Tottenham in the league was back in 1994-95 (one to forget for Lee), but how much longer that always-comforting fact will remain the case is questionable – potentially, one of the most painful aspects of this increasingly blighted 125th year.

Arsène’s post-match comments were frustrating. His recent tendency to lapse into cliché emerged again; this time he wasn’t even original. ‘I felt we played a little but with the handbrake on … We lack a little bit of confidence at the moment, and we just need to protect a result when we have one’. Well, leaving aside this handbrake we seem to have developed, the pressing question is, what exactly were we protecting? Since when is a 1-1 draw in a North London derby considered a ‘result’? These soundbites from the manager are getting increasingly difficult to listen to – after the game he was almost as inarticulate as ‘Arry. This from a man who was once nicknamed ‘le Professeur’.

But to be fair to Wenger, we did play a bit. Ramsey’s goal was well-worked and that should have really put us into the lead rather than simply being the equaliser – Gervinho had already spurned a gilt-edged chance after RvP teed him up midway through the first half. But Gervinho’s wayward finish was at least two feet wide of Friedel’s post, and that sort of carelessness ultimately cost us – not just up front but at the back too.

For Spurs’ opening goal, Sagna and Mertesacker allowed Van der Vaart far too much time to ‘collect’ (i.e. handball) Adebayor's pass before shooting across Szczesny into the bottom corner. For the second, Arteta did a great job of pointing out the danger as he waved a finger at Kyle Walker waltzing into Arsenal territory, but unfortunately neither he nor anyone else picked up the young right-back before he unleashed a moving, dipping shot that evaded Szczesny’s hand.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Arsenal struggled again defensively. The teamsheet indicated that it would be a tough outing, Song again deputizing in the absence of a fit centre-half to partner Per Mertesacker. Song did ok at the back, but whereas he can get away with occasionally overplaying further up the field, there is no room at the back for him to chase and win the ball back, and that nearly cost us early on. Fortunately Szczesny managed to parry Scott Parker's close-range effort.

Having a fit defence and therefore the luxury of Song’s dynamism in the midfield would have made us far more secure and probably more dangerous offensively too, particularly against a pretty light Spurs presence in the middle of the park. Indeed, initially Ramsey, Arteta and Coquelin made the most of this, using the extra man over Parker and Modric to good effect. Unfortunately they were unable to make the greater possession count significantly, and neither Walcott nor Gervinho carried consistent attacking threat down the flanks – certainly not enough to get either Assou-Ekotto or Walker unduly worried. Van Persie was also quiet, admittedly isolated but far less effective than usual. Neither of the substitutes, Benayoun or Arshavin, were able to do any better as the match ebbed away, and Wenger’s earlier forced change, Jenkinson for an injured Sagna in the 68th minute, simply heaped pressure on the back four just as we should have been trying to do the same to Spurs’ defence. Instead, Bale made the most of the young right-back’s inexperience and caused more tense moments.

We haven’t actually won at White Hart Lane in the League since September 2007, a worrying statistic in itself, and this was another bad day. Referee Mike Dean didn’t do us any favours, and should have disallowed Spurs’ first goal and sent Van der Vaart off for handling (second yellow), but we can hardly say we were robbed. Arsenal just weren’t good enough. Struggling for any positives, then. Minor pluses (really grasping at straws) are perhaps that 1) up to Tottenham’s winner Szsczesny had been absolutely superb, 2) we didn’t concede from a set piece, 3) our defence still did enough to stop Adebayor really rubbing our noses in it and 4) at least we avoided another Man United-esque mauling. But the negatives far outweigh the positives, the biggest of which must be the news that Bacary Sagna has fractured his fibula and will be out until January. Why so many Arsenal players are injured already in 2011/12 is another question to add to the many that are now being asked of Wenger.