Wednesday, 12 December 2012

End of the world?

According to the Mayan calendar, the world may well end on 21/12/12, in just over a week's time. However, judging by some of the reactions on Arsenal blogs and forums across the interweb after last night's loss to Bradford, it already has.

It was a painful way to go out of what, realistically, was our best chance of ending the Gunners' so-called 'trophy drought'. In the past, Arsene Wenger used the League Cup as a chance to blood young players. Yesterday, he played almost a full-strength first team. He'd intimated that this would be the case, given that we don't play again until Monday night, but nevertheless it was perhaps a gesture from the manager that there was a genuine desire to win this competition. A cup would also go some way to appease some of the more antagonistic fans, who shout ever more noisily about Wenger's deficiencies.

Indeed, the anti-Wenger brigade had made themselves heard in recent weeks, most notably at the home game against Swansea the weekend before last, when the atmosphere as the final whistle blew was perhaps the most hostile that I have heard at the Emirates. There is certainly discontent with the manager, but it is far from universal among fans. Others direct their anger elsewhere, such as the Black Scarf Movement, who are angry at the board. Some fans continue to support Arsene to the hilt, while others are ambivalent, recognising that a fallow patch is not unusual in the historical context of football clubs in general or Arsenal in particular.

Last night however, the vitriol was directed at a further source – the players. Gervinho in particular came in for strong criticism, as did Chamakh and Ramsey. Like many, I too have doubts whether these players should be in the team given the standard of their recent showings. But if there are concerns about their abilities, there surely cannot be any about Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen. They are quality players, and a confident, functioning Arsenal team containing those players should be able to win a game like the Bradford tie.

Unfortunately, at the moment Arsenal are not convincing. They lack confidence, incision, inspiration and often (inexplicably) this season they have also looked, to use an annoying Wengerism – 'jaded'. This is evident in our recent record. We were poor against Swansea, poor in Greece against Olympiakos, better – but lucky – against West Brom, and in all honesty pretty poor against Bradford.

At the moment Arsene is not getting the best out of the players, and it is neither unsurprising nor unreasonable for fans to question why not. Similarly, if the quality of the squad is deficient, then there are further questions to be asked of the manager – ultimately, he bought them. But while Wenger will be criticised when the team falls short, the real concern is that unless he acknowledges that there is a problem and does something to address it, Arsenal will continue to lose ground all the time.

Even the most vocal, proactive supporters do not really have the power to force change. Most supporters' noise can easily be filtered out. Ultimately, the power lies with an owner and Chief Executive who both seem largely passive and in accord with Arsene's policies and 'vision' for the club. That perhaps, is because neither Stan Kroenke nor Ivan Gazidis predates Wenger – they have never seen an Arsenal without Arsene, and cannot envisage a future without him.

So are Arsenal – the manager, the board and the players – just too comfortable? Paradoxically, this is a situation that has been created and exacerbated by the commendable achievements of the Wenger era; never out of the top four, consecutive seasons in the Champions League. Such success should not to be discounted or belittled. But fans still find it frustrating. The root, I think, is that there is a sense that we haven't done as well as we might have. We've been close, only to have the rug pulled from under our feet, which can be attributed to more than bad luck. Big losses and smaller ones – from Champions League final defeat against Barca to League Cup final defeat against Birmingham – have combined with an increasingly regular cycle of building and stripping away squads that seem to be perpetually on the cusp of achieving something great.

Here, the obvious cases in point are of players leaving – Nasri, Cesc, Song, van Persie. Their replacements are generally not of the same calibre. They're still good, but the tragedy is that they have to plug the new gaps in the squad instead of adding an extra dimension. Then again, the great unanswered question is, what are the financial restrictions at Arsenal? If Wenger has been tasked by the board to balance the books at the expense of the team, then he is working with his hands tied and deserves far more credit than he has been given. If it is a self-imposed restriction, then the perception changes again. This uncertainty is compounded by the shadowy half-information that emanates from lots of different sources at the heart of the club and means that in the end, I do not feel Arsenal fans have the facts they need to truly be able to judge Wenger's abilities in 2012/13.

We have to make do with what we can see, and that is what happens on the pitch. Last night, even in the League Cup, that performance was not good enough. Improvement is needed fast if we are not to fall behind in the competitions that really matter. And at the moment, the only quick fix on the horizon looks to be the January transfer window. If he has the money that is reputed to be available, then Wenger must buy players to improve and enhance the squad, without losing existing assets like Theo Walcott.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Two very different draws

Away trips to Villa and Goodison Parks, respectively, have left the Gunners with two points from the last two games – not a great return. They were very different performances, but in truth Arsenal didn't play particularly well in either match.

The Villa game was a drab affair. Given the Villains' recent performances, and our own fairly decent recent form, I said in my last post that there were no excuses. Wenger didn't agree, however, and promptly made some in his post-match interview, blaming the poor performance on the classic go-to explain-away: 'We had a Champions League game on Wednesday night and we knew [that] when you play away from home after the Champions League, it’s a difficult game … after the Champions League game, when you play away from home, you can make a draw, it can happen. We could have won the game, we could have lost the game.'  He put our lack of cut and thrust down to the fact that 'we lacked sharpness … in the final third. You could see that physically we were a bit jaded.'

Even conceding that he had a point here, we were all hoping for a better performance on Wednesday night against Everton. The starting line-up was unchanged save for the surprise omission of Lukas Podolski – struck down by illness, apparently. This meant that Aaron Ramsey started out wide – a prospect that didn't fill me with confidence. However, I was almost immediately forced to eat those words when Ramsey's neat one-two with Theo Walcott led to a goal just 52 seconds in.

Walcott has now scored 9 goals in his last 11 games in all competitions – and we are still wrangling over his contract. It’s no surprise that the fans were chanting for Gazidis to ‘sign him up’ after he netted the opener. Let's hope the Chief Exec listens; Theo has now started to deliver on all that early promise and arguably carries more attacking threat than any other Arsenal player.

We held on to the lead for 27 minutes but the returning Marouane Fellaini proved to be our undoing, as Bacary Sagna was robbed in our own half and Fellaini picked up the ball before sending a low drive past Szczesny. Fellaini has been Everton's best player this season and he caused Arsenal big problems throughout the game. At his best the Belgian's play is as unruly and untameable as his hair, and Arsenal struggled to contain him.

We created few chances of our own. Santi Cazorla was subdued as Everton intentionally stifled him in midfield. He was well marshalled by Leon Osman and Darron Gibson despite the best efforts of Jack Wilshere and Mikel Arteta to compete in the middle of the pitch. Without Santi there was little in the way of service to to Olivier Giroud, who nevertheless struggled manfully, but after looking as though he was about to make a real breakthrough in his fledgling Premier League career, now seems to have stalled a bit. In itself that raises many questions about the predictability of our play and the lack of creative outlets when the central midfield players aren't ticking.

Only a solid defensive performance – and an excellent showing from Szczesny – saved us from conceding again. This was all the more commendable given the injury to Laurent Koscielny just four minutes into the game, which led to the introduction of Kieran Gibbs. It did mean, however, that Vermaelen was shunted from left back to centre half. Thomas went on to give probably his best performance of the season so far, emphasising the fact that he is wasted as a full back. The captain is far happier and much more effective in his natural position.

He had to be at his best, as Arsenal had their backs to the wall for much of the second half. The Toffees have played some scintillating football this season, and they had numerous opportunities to win the game. Given their uncharacteristically fine start to the season, they look to be in the mix and should be considered a real threat to our hopes of finishing in the top four. Depressingly, that made this match effectively a six-pointer – from which we could not capitalise.

I cannot be alone among Gooners in shooting envious glances at certain members of the Everton squad – they looked very good indeed. David Moyes has been quietly building a very effective unit on a well-publicised shoestring budget. Arsene Wenger seems to have built a decidedly average squad working within the same means – but his financial limitations seem largely self-imposed, rather than dictated by a parsimonious chairman like Bill Kenwright.

One Everton player in particular who has impressed is Kevin Mirallas. Although he didn't play last night (he's out for three weeks with a hamstring injury), he has looked a lively and skilful player. He was also one of the many supposed targets with whom Arsenal were repeatedly linked over the summer – who knows why we didn't end up signing him, but he definitely looks to be one who got away. Similarly, Nikica Jelavic, Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines would all be welcome additions to the Arsenal squad – and even young players like Seamus Coleman, Apostolos Vellios and new £5m signing Bryan Oviedo look like the sort of raw talents that Arsenal were once famed for finding.

Fortunately for us, on Wednesday night none of the Everton attack save for Fellaini found their range, and we managed to hold out for a point. We will need to improve on Saturday when we return to the Emirates for a tough home tie against Michael Laudrup's Swansea – another team with some fine players, including the two flamboyant Spaniards Michu and Pablo Hernandez. Spearheaded by those two, the Swan ripped a hitherto impressive West Brom apart at the Liberty last night, as the Gunners laboured to their tepid 1-1 draw.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Good news week?

The last few days have been pretty positive from an Arsenal perspective, starting with an important home win on Wednesday night against Montpellier.

Although the Gunners started slowly, they easily kept a rather toothless French side at bay and piled on the pressure in the second half with two excellent goals from Jack Wilshere and Lukas Podolski. Admittedly, Montpellier do not look the surprise force they were last season; domestically, they're languishing in 14th spot in Ligue 1, and have turned into the whipping boys of Group B. Then again, that might be because we stole the man who scored 25 goals for them last season. Although he didn't manage a goal for us, Olivier Giroud performed well against his old side, and looks to be developing a much better understanding with his teammates. Pleasingly, both Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker were also solid, if not quite imperious, at the back.

That win secures Champions League group stage qualification for a thirteenth straight season, putting us into the knockout rounds and still with an outside chance of topping the group (if we beat Olympiakos away and Montpellier beat Schalke at home on 4 December). Regardless, it's good to have negotiated a safe passage through – unlike Man City, who have floundered once again, finishing bottom of the 'group of death' that is Group D. Chelsea are also struggling to clamber out of Group E – and could face an ignominious exit as the first reigning CL holders ever to fall at the first hurdle in the next campaign. New manager Rafa Benitez certainly faces a baptism of fire. But that's already enough about the Blues, surely the most dislikeable club in the Premier League. They don't even treat their heroes well – Roberto Di Matteo was justifiably a fans' favourite as a player, and let's not forget, delivered an FA cup and a Champions League in about half a season as manager.

The latter is something that still eludes Wenger and looks likely to do so for many years yet, while he hasn't won the former since 2005, and probably won't this year either. But given the Arsenal board's almost total deification of le Professeur, his job still looks one of the safest in football. They do at least seem a bit more willing to give him some funds, as news from the top today is of a £150 million sponsorship deal with Emirates. Ivan Gazidis has stressed that 'the deal is all about football; it's all about giving us the resources to be able to invest in what we put on to the field for our fans'. Although the first £30m instalment doesn't kick in until the end of the season, there is reputedly a large player fund available for the January transfer window. It will be interesting to see if any cash is splashed – Arsenal are in dire need of more strength in depth in key positions.

As the Nike kit deal also expires soon, rumours are that advanced negotiations are ongoing with Adidas to bring in increased revenue from a more lucrative kit manufacturer – another potential windfall. And from a purely sartorial perspective, I'd quite like that change too – it'd be a return to the Arsenal of the late 80s and early 90s, when, alright, we were pretty boring, but we won stuff and looked good doing it. I'd even prefer the bruised banana to the purple striped eyesore that Nike have foisted on us this season. 

Back to more immediate football concerns and there's other good news from the treatment room as Kieran Gibbs is fit and working again, and according to Wenger, Tomas Rosicky 'should be back with us on Monday' to start first team training as he inches back towards full fitness. Last season the Czech played arguably his best football ever in an Arsenal shirt, and proved to be an important part of the team. Where he would fit in the current Arsenal attack I'm not sure, but he is certainly a good option to bring on from the bench and help squad rotation.

Walcott will not make the squad for the Villa game on Saturday, and nor will Andre Santos, but Gervinho is back. Not sure if that counts as good news or not.

It will be a difficult away fixture against a young side who have had a tough run recently, and are fighting for points at the bottom of the table. Their first eleven is not without talent though, and Darren Bent is back in contention for a starting berth. He always carries a threat, but Arsenal should take confidence from two excellent wins on the spin and a decent away record so far this season (only two losses so far, at Old Trafford and Carrow Road – the latter of which was hopefully just a one-off post-CL blip). Also in our favour: Podolski and Giroud look to be in good form, Santi Cazorla is pulling strings again at the heart of the midfield and Jack Wilshere displayed an array of deft touches on Wednesday. He also got a good goal, and seems to be getting back to match sharpness – his reading of the game was markedly improved against Montpellier and fewer passes went awry. Having Szczesny back between the sticks is also a plus. No excuses really, then...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

5-2 – déjà vu?

Arsenal secured three points against Spurs in emphatic style yesterday, repeating the 5-2 scoreline from the last time this fixture was played back in February.

In truth, apart from the number of goals, the similarities between the two games were superficial – although, having said that, there was a slight sense of déjà vu as, once again, Arsenal had to fight back after conceding first, and Spurs had a player sent off.

However, last time round the man to see red was Scotty Parker, on 86 minutes – by which time the game was wrapped up, following a remarkable Arsenal comeback sparked by Bacary Sagna. This time the fall guy was the eternal villain, Emmanuel Adebayor, red-carded on 17 minutes for a reckless two-footed lunge on Santi Cazorla, which proved to be a far more decisive factor.

Football changes quickly. A look at the team sheets proves the point –  yesterday, only six of the Arsenal players who started this tie back in February were on the teamsheet, while only three of the Tottenham starting eleven remained.

Adebayor, however, seems to be exactly the same player he's always been – a good goalscorer, but a liability as much as he is a threat. He deserved to go – a good decision from referee Howard Webb – and arguably, from that point on the game turned in the Gunners' favour.

Wenger would probably disagree, but Arsenal had started sluggishly and conceding early at home was surely not part of the gameplan. Per Mertesacker was most culpable for the first goal, caught out of position as Defoe latched on to a looping ball over the top from Jan Vertonghen. Szczesny parried but could not prevent the ball spilling to Adebayor, who followed up to sweep the ball into the Arsenal net in front of the Clock End.

Predictably, he duly celebrated in front of the home fans, to a chorus of boos and abuse. Jeers turned to cheers seven minutes later as he rightly got his marching orders.

Playing against ten men enabled Arsenal to assert control and on 23 minutes Mertesacker redeemed himself with an important first goal for the Gunners, powering in a header from a Walcott cross. It was a superb finish from the German, who is gradually starting to win over many doubting Gooners. Scoring in the North London derby will certainly do him no harm in that regard.

It was our other German, Lukas Podolski, who put the Gunners in front after a neat interchange between Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere. Poldy's slightly scuffed finish bobbled into the net via the heel of another ex-Arsenal man, William Gallas.

Tottenham were now reeling, and Arsenal took advantage for a third time as Howard Webb played a perceptive advantage that enabled Cazorla to stumble, recover, and send in a low cross from the left for Giroud to stroke home.

Spurs trotted out after half time with a new shape, opting to play three at the back. They started with intent, and Arsenal had a few scares, before managing to secure the game with a swift counter. Theo linked up with Podolski on the left and his perfectly-weighted centre was easily converted by Santi Cazorla.

However, the always-dangerous Gareth Bale took advantage of more sloppy Gunners defending, shooting past Szczesny's outstretched palm into the bottom corner as Mertesacker stood off him on the edge of the penalty area.

Wenger showed some tactical acumen when he introduced Andre Santos and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. In the ninetieth minute, the Ox broke down the right and fed Walcott in the centre, who scored Arsenal's fifth of the game, capping a good team performance.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Cottagers cross London to claim a point at the Emirates

Yeah, you can't muzzle The Muzzle ... but occasionally there is a prolonged silence. However, after a lengthy hiatus, the blog is back for the 2012/13 season. Sorry readers (if there are any of you left). I will try and update regularly from now on – starting with a look over the Gunners' recent travails, beginning with the latest episode in the drama that is Arsenal Football Club; Saturday's 3-3 home draw against Fulham.

The season so far has been patchy, to say the least. In fact, if we're purely looking at league points, it's even worse than last season, despite the fact that at this point in 2011/12, Arsenal were generally adjudged to be in crisis, having accrued a mere 16 points from 10 games, with some horrible losses including an 8-2 drubbing by Manchester United. And now? Well, a year later, we've got 16 points from 11 games. Not good – in fact, our worst ever start under Wenger, and indeed, the worst opening to a league campaign since 1982/83.

One of the most frustrating things is that Saturday's performance showed that we still can't hold a lead. For the second time in two games, Arsenal struck quickly to put themselves in a commanding position, before throwing it away and ultimately ending up clinging on for a draw. The match was best defined by an uncharacteristically erratic performance from the man who is usually Arsenal's midfield metronome, Mikel Arteta. Our number 8 conceded a penalty to gift Fulham a 3-2 lead, for which he could have atoned in the dying seconds of the match when he stepped up to take our own penalty, fortuitously won by Andrei Arshavin. Alas his spot kick was palmed away by Mark Schwarzer, and as Arteta brought his hands to his face in visible agony, referee Phil Dowd blew for full time.

Positives to take from the game? Well, Olivier Giroud put in his best performance yet in a red-and-white shirt, scoring two good goals. He also hit the post, and really deserved a hat-trick and the match ball. If only he'd stepped up to take that penalty...

It's fair to say that the Gunners need goals. Not least because they're letting in so many at the other end. A defence that Steve Bould initially seemed to have disciplined into some semblance of order is now looking ominously porous – Arsenal have conceded 14 goals in their last 6 games.

Is Giroud the man to save our season in the same way that van Persie did last year? Unfortunately, I think the answer can only be no, not on his own. Despite marked improvement from the ex-Montpellier man, I just can't see it. Then again, perhaps we need to be a little more patient. After all, Arsenal's recent history isn't short of French players who've come across la Manche and taken some time to make an impact. Even Thierry needed time to settle, remember.  And on Saturday Giroud did cause Fulham lots of problems. His aerial ability in the box is something that Arsenal have lacked in recent seasons, and his work-rate is excellent. Indeed, there are few Premier League strikers who look more aggrieved than Giroud when they miss a chance. He always looks absolutely desperate to score, which from a fan's perspective is a good thing. I like both him and Lukas Podolski a lot.

Having said that, I still hope that Wenger buys a forward in January, if only to alleviate the weight on their shoulders. So far, his simple equation that Podolski + Giroud = van Persie hasn't worked out, and so in my view we need a third attacking player to supplement our offensive ability and provide a quick fix. Rumours are flying at the moment, and Fernando Llorente, Adrián López, Robert Lewandowski and Stevan Jovetic have all been mentioned. The latest name is Napoli's Edinson Cavani  – frankly, any of these would be welcome additions, particularly if, as is also likely, Theo Walcott is on his way out.

Midfielders Adel Taarabt and Yoann Gourcuff are also names that have appeared in the press. I would be much more apprehensive about Arsenal signing either of these – the former is occasionally mercurial but more often a liability, while the latter has genuine talent but whose recent career at Lyon has been generally disappointing. 

However, there are twelve games to play until the January window even opens, so an interim solution is needed. The first step has to be to tighten up at the back. In the absence of Kieran Gibbs, Thomas Vermaelen is our best option at left-back, but he is visibly lacking confidence at the moment. He needs support from Mertesacker and from Koscielny, and indeed the back four need to work much better together as a unit to stop leaking goals. The fact that Sagna is fit again is a big plus and hopefully, some continuity in the defensive line-up will help the situation.

Next up? At home to Tottenham – a stern test. But there's nothing like the fire of a North London derby to temper the spirits of the Arsenal team. Let's just hope we can withstand the heat, and that we don't melt in the face of the old enemy.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Tooned-in: Gunners leave it late but grab the points against Newcastle

The atmosphere at the final whistle on Monday night at the Emirates was nothing short of incredible as Arsenal rallied to come from behind (again) to beat a dogged and resolute Newcastle side, scoring a dramatic winner deep into added time.

At the moment the team seem to want to make the fans sweat for victory. The game seemed all set to play out for a momentum-sapping and frustrating home draw until Thomas Vermaelen embarked on a last ditch box-to-box run that came straight out of an Indiana Jones film, arriving with perfect timing at the far post to crash home Theo Walcott's rocket-propelled cross from the right. Ninety-five minutes in and the crowd duly erupted – it was certainly the most frenzied and jubilant celebration I've seen at home this season. The chap in Row 21, Block 25 of the Clock End jumped on my back in excitement and all around me fans pogoed in collective delight. At last the Emirates is starting to feel like home.

The team undoubtedly deserved the win – a look at the stats will tell you that, with 26 attempts on goal from the home side compared to four from the Toon. Robin van Persie again led from the front, and was well supported by Theo Walcott and Tomas Rosicky, who were both excellent. The Czech in particular has reached a new level in his Arsenal career of late, showing class, composure and a degree of attacking intensity hitherto only glimpsed occasionally. Suddenly the high regard in which he is held back in his homeland and by Dortmund fans – recent Arsenal signing Thomas Eisfeld being one example – seems fully justifiable. Cynics might say he's picked the right time to come into form, given the fact that he has just been awarded a new contract, but I would say it probably has far more to do with an injury-free run in the team and a regular (central) starting berth. As long as he keeps playing like a turbo-charged Luka Modric I'll be happy, anyway.

The return of genuine full backs in Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs has also had a noticeably positive impact in restoring width to the side, something conspicuously lacking a month or so ago when goalscorer Thomas Vermaelen was being stifled as a makeshift left back. As such Arsenal made good use of the expansive Emirates pitch, pulling Newcastle around mercilessly, particularly in the second half. They had gone in 1-1 at half-time, a bright start seemingly undone with a good finish from the tricky Hatem Ben Arfa that beat Szczesny at his near post. The response from the Gunners was immediate and emphatic, however. The captain took matters into his own hands and levelled less than a minute later with an equally fine goal. Walcott supplied the ball from the right, and van Persie showed deft touch and control on the edge of the area, finding enough room to evade defender Mike Williamson and shoot low past Tim Krul.

That consolidated the team's collective sense of belief and the second half was almost all Arsenal as they enjoyed long spells of possession, fashioning a series of half-chances that left Newcastle reeling, without quite managing to deliver the coup de grâce. Fortunately, it came. But was it simply luck? Well, a little, but the fact that the Gunners seem to be flatly refusing to lose at present is immensely satisfying. They could and should have been a bit more clinical – van Persie, Rosicky and substitute Gervinho all fluffed late chances – but a certain Belgian epitomised the spirit coursing through the team when he embarked on a lung-busting gallop to undo Newcastle at the death. I've often thought that Arsenal should follow up better for the second ball, particularly when it breaks in the box, and never was the advantage of a spare man in that area more evident than on Monday night.

The only negative aspects of the match were the elements of gamesmanship that were evident between the two Dutchmen on the field, RvP and Newcastle keeper Tim Krul. Krul seemed upset by the fact that our number 10 stood a bit close to him when he was kicking (a striker's prerogative, surely?) and attempted to rile the Arsenal for the rest of the game with an increasingly ridiculous bout of time wasting, taking an inordinately long time to put the ball back into play. As the Telegraph's Henry Winter eloquently put it in his match report, he “could not have taken a more languid approach to goal-kicks had he dressed as Noel Coward, donned a smoking jacket and composed some pithy lines while preparing to kick downfield”. It was a source of equal frustration to RvP and watching Gunners fans alike, particularly given referee Howard Webb's apparent reluctance to do anything about it.

Given this negativity, the victory was all the sweeter. Admittedly the captain's reaction to the Verminator's goal wasn't all that sporting, delivering some "choice words" to Tim Krul, but it was also entirely understandable. Unfortunately it developed into a small bout of handbags that slightly marred an otherwise glorious vision of red-and-white jubilation at the Emirates. Still, five league victories on the spin is a great run, made all the more impressive by the fact that Arsenal have come from behind to win in the last four – a Premier League record in itself. They need to carry this belief on into the next game against Everton – which doesn't take place until Thursday thanks to FA cup action this weekend - and beyond as the chance to beat the faltering Spuds to third place, now only a single point ahead in the table, seems all the more achievable. And I never thought I'd be saying that this season. Traditionally – or certainly in recent seasons, anyway – this is a time when Arsenal begin to fall away. For once they are beginning to buck that trend and although we will again end up trophyless this season, a strong finish from now until mid-May would be a success of sorts, and definitely a sign that this is a team with genuine quality.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Miserable in Milan

AC Milan 4-0 Arsenal, Wednesday 15 February 2012
UEFA Champions League Round of 16 First Leg, Giuseppe Meazza

Wojciech Szczesny
Bacary Sagna
Laurent Koscielny (44)
Thomas Vermaelen
Kieran Gibbs (66)
Alex Song
Tomas Rosicky
Mikel Arteta
Aaron Ramsey
Theo Walcott (46)
Robin van Persie

Johan Djourou (44)
Thierry Henry (46)
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (66)

AC Milan 0-2 Arsenal, Tuesday 4 March 2008
UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg, Giuseppe Meazza

Manuel Almunia
Philippe Senderos
Gael Clichy
William Gallas
Bacary Sagna
Abou Diaby
Emmanuel Eboue (71)
Cesc Fabregas
Mathieu Flamini
Alexander Hleb (89)
Emmanuel Adebayor

Gilberto Silva (89)
Theo Walcott (71)

What's the difference between these two sides? It is hard to pin it down exactly, and looking down the team sheet perhaps tells us little – we would have to consider the quality of the opposing Milan sides to get a better picture, for one thing – but the respective performances and the very different results of Wednesday night compared to that famous night in Milan four years ago would suggest that there is a palpable gulf in quality between the current Arsenal team and the class of 2008.

In midweek Arsene, his chin resting on the turf in the away dugout, looked tired, frustrated and haggard. The furrows in his brow depended as the game wore on and the situation worsened to the point where the tie became irretrievable. We are to all intents and purposes out of the Champions League – no team in this competition has ever come back from a four-goal margin in the second leg of a tie. In the post match interview Arsene was critical of his players, a rarity in itself. Yet he realised, perhaps, that only a brutally honest assessment would be an adequate response to a performance in which the Gunners were decidedly second-best. They were unlucky too, but showed little of the creative flair or tenacity that characterised previous performances in this great stadium. The weaknesses were felt primarily in midfield and central defence – Koscielny, having been accustomed in recent weeks to playing alongside Per Mertesacker, was reunited with Thomas Vermaelen as Kieran Gibbs came in at left-back. It's a central pairing that arguably would have been many fans' first choice partnership, but it didn't work tonight – and even less so when Koscielny was replaced by Djourou at the end of the first half. The young Swiss has looked unconvincing when called upon this season, which can be forgiven when he was used at right-back, but even in his strongest position he did little to instil confidence.

The midfield axis that looked as if it was beginning to become a highly effective unit was decidedly lacklustre – neither Song, Arteta nor Ramsey played well. Perhaps Rosicky's tendency to drift inside disrupts their collective rhythm, causing uncertainty where there should be commitment, but the team lacked balance. Neither was Rosicky able to provide the creative flair or the linking play to co-ordinate attacks. As a result RvP was isolated throughout, and though well marshalled by the Milan defence, in truth he saw very little of the ball. Neither was there much to the Gunners in the way of width – although the poor state of the pitch negated much of the impact that could have been made on either flank. Still Walcott was virtually anonymous, and the decision to withdraw him at the start of the second half was justified. His replacement, Thierry Henry, struggled manfully but he no longer has the pace to run defenders as in former seasons, and although his positional sense remains impeccable, Arsenal could not find the space or the passes to play him in. Thierry will have been as frustrated as any other fan at the result, and it is an ignoble end to a cameo that otherwise must be seen as adding rather than detracting from his glorious Arsenal legacy.

Arsene called this display a 'disaster', and has apologised to the travelling fans for the spectacle that they witnessed. It was an abject performance and a humiliating one, to add to those we have already seen this season. A victory on Saturday against Sunderland will be one way to repair the damage that has been done to the way this team is viewed.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Sunderland v Arsenal – Preview

Arsenal kick off the first part of a Gunners–Mackems double header at 3pm tomorrow, as they travel to the Stadium of Light for an important Premier League encounter. Next Sunday we'll be on Wearside again for the first leg of an FA Cup Fifth Round tie. If it wasn't for the midweek Champions League trip to Milan, the team could have *enjoyed* a week up north, sampling the delights of Sunderland – Hylton Castle, Roker Beach and, er, the National Glass Centre. Probably for the best – given the Gunners' injury record record this season, someone would undoubtedly have broken something (sorry…)

It'll be a tough task tomorrow. Sunderland are unbeaten in six at home under Martin O'Neill's tenure, and the team look utterly revitalised since he took charge. With a good mix of talented young players like Fraizer Campbell, James McClean and Jack Colback, combined with real pedigree in Seb Larsson and Stéphane Sessègnon, they form a potent attacking side.

Nicklas Bendtner the best striker in the world™ is of course ineligible due to the terms of his loan agreement while Sunderland also have injuries to various other players including Lee Cattermole and Wes Brown. The covering defenders that Martin O'Neill brought in on loan in the January window, Wayne Bridge and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, could come into the side though. Fortunately neither are very good at football, so the Gunners have a good chance of getting on the scoresheet.

From a Gunners perspective there's good, bad and indifferent news. Chamakh has returned home from the Africa Cup of Nations having put in some very dispiriting performances for his native Morocco. There's no indication that he'll play any better if called upon tomorrow. Conversely Gervinho is still out in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea (one or the other, not sure which) as he almost single-handedly dragged Ivory Coast into the final against Zambia. If you didn't see his wonderful individual goal in the semi against Mali, have a look – it's awesome (classic commentary on this clip too).

The Gunners are still missing Santos and Jenkinson, as well as the now semi-permanently injured Diaby and Wilshere. On the plus side, there's a chance that Gibbs could return after his lengthy spell on the sidelines. Everyone else is fit and healthy so we should see largely the same team that hammered Blackburn last weekend, although Sagna will probably start at right-back with either Gibbs or Vermaelen to play left-back. I would hope that both Rosicky and Ox-Chambo retain their places as both have been outstanding in recent weeks, and it would be good to see Henry introduced from the bench too. A second-half cameo in which he scores the winner with a trademark finish would cap a pretty successful few weeks. This will probably be his last chance to play in the red-and-white as it was today confirmed that New York Red Bulls have refused to extend his loan, so he'll be returning stateside on Thursday. In theory he could travel to Italy on Wednesday night, but it is surely unlikely. It's hard to fathom from UEFA's complex Champions League squad rules whether he's even eligible, given that he wouldn't have been named in the provisional squad for this stage of the competition. But I digress.

Arsenal really need a win to consolidate the optimism and new-found confidence that will have been generated by the 7-1 result, and to realistically have any chance of staying in the hunt for fourth place. Let's hope Sunderland don't upset the apple cart, either tomorrow or indeed next weekend when they could just as easily shatter our best hope of securing any silverware at all this season.

Definitely not dench – Frimpong out for season

It was confirmed this week that after suffering a nasty-looking injury in Wolves' game against QPR last weekend, Emmanuel Frimpong's season is regrettably over. He has ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and has now returned to Arsenal's space-age medical facility at London Colney to get better (and presumably to have a go on the new anti-gravity treadmill – see post from 13th December), bringing his brief loan spell to an untimely end.

This is definitely not 'dench' news; Manny was having a decent season and deserved a shot at regular first-team football in the Premier League. Although he probably wouldn't have got that at Arsenal, I still can't pretend that the sight of Frimpong in black and gold sat particularly well with me. Ok, he would have got some solid PL experience under his belt, but what else he would have learned at the Mick McCarthy school of hard knocks is debatable; and how much he would have benefited from playing alongside cloggers like Karl Henry is also questionable. Given that Frimpong's play is often seen as a little too robust as it is, he hardly needed toughening up, which is a quality that Wolves already have in abundance but which Arsenal are often criticised for lacking.

Moreover Frimpong was rapidly becoming a fans' favourite among the Emirates faithful. Most Gooners welcomed the sight of an eager and committed midfielder on the pitch, especially one eminently capable of 'putting his foot in', as Lee Dixon would say, combined with the ability to add a different dimension to Arsenal's play. Wenger's decision to send him out on loan to a team like Wolves did seem a bit strange, and was not perhaps the manager's shrewdest move. In the event it has backfired horribly – we can only hope that the injury does not set back the player's longer-term development.

Still, if his Twitter feed is anything to go by, our number 26 seems to be keeping in pretty good spirits. Get well soon Manny...

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Super seven shatters silence...

Quite simply, Arsenal's form in the last six weeks has defied analysis or comment. That's the best explanation/excuse I can offer for the recent period of silence from the The Muzzle. The situation has changed immeasurably in that time – when the Gunners beat Villa on 21st December the team was lying fifth, a single point behind Chelsea and three behind Tottenham. Since then Arsenal have played seven league games, losing three, drawing two, and winning two. Until yesterday's emphatic win against a ten-man Blackburn things were looking grim indeed. The current league table sees us lying sixth, two points behind Newcastle and three behind Chelsea, and ten behind Spurs – a gap that now seems fairly insurmountable.

Also in that New Year period, the January transfer window opened and snapped shut again. The Gunners brought in one living legend and one nineteen-year-old German wunderkind in Thierry Henry and Thomas Eisfeld. The former needed no introduction; the latter is a midfield playmaker with six goals in twelve games this season for Borussia Dortmund's U-19 team (he hasn't actually played for the senior side). In terms of absent players, two more young starlets went out on loan, as Frimpong left to join Wolves (and subsequently got crocked), and Ryo Miyaichi went to Bolton. That leaves the Gunners with an exodus of players crying in the wilderness – we currently have fifteen farmed out to various clubs across the four tiers of English league football as well as others in Spain, Brazil, Scotland and France.

The absence of transfer activity frustrated many Gooners, but realistically Arsene's relative indolence cannot have been altogether unexpected. Basically, we're sticking with what we've got, hoping against hope for a fourth place finish with an outside chance of a decent FA cup run. We're somewhat fortunate to still be in that competition – the script was written against Leeds, and the ever-obliging Thierry Henry duly nabbed the winner – but only the cool head of Robin van Persie rescued Arsenal against Aston Villa. RvP's desperation to win something before he leaves at the end of his contract is palpable.

Still, the Gunners haven't had much luck so far this season and were more than due a bit of 'the rub of the green', as Tony Adams used to like saying in his post-match interviews, once upon a time. If we got it against Villa it certainly didn't last for very long – the news that Jack Wilshere's long-awaited return has been delayed by another injury is a big blow.

There is also the Champions League tie against Milan to consider, which most Gooners were regarding with a mix of trepidation and apprehension.

Until yesterday's result that is. There's nothing like a 7-1 spanking to lift the spirits, particularly when RVP bags a hat-trick and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showed exactly why he deserves a regular starting berth. Even Theo Walcott had a good game. The unsung hero was undoubtedly Mikel Arteta, and his return after three games out is most welcome. In the Ox Arsenal perhaps have a player who could have a big impact on the remainder of the season.

Sterner tests will follow – next up is Martin O'Neill's resurgent Sunderland side – to be followed by the first leg of the Milan tie at the San Siro, then another trip to the north-east to face either Sunderland again or Boro in the FA Cup fifth round. After that there are crunch games against Tottenham, Liverpool, Milan at the Emirates and then Newcastle.

If Arsenal's slump is over and confidence returns once again who knows what can happen. It is unlikely that the win, however emphatic, will be the catalyst that sees the team win at least ten of their remaining fourteen league matches. That's the figure required to reach the 70-point mark likely to secure fourth place, according to The Gooner. Still, three points never hurts, and so a flicker of hope remains as the Gunners head into what must now be make or break time for 2011/12.