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.