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.