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.