FA Cup Winner Report Card

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That winning feel

Well…..quite a season 2013/14 has turned out to be. From the anger of our non transfer activity up until the very last day of the transfer window to the elation of signing Mesut Ozil to the magnificent run on top of the Premier League to the disappointment of slipping away to the jubilation of winning the FA Cup. It’s a season of highs and lows, so to put it into context (from my point of view at least), the report will be broken down into few sections. Marks given A – Very good, B – Better than average, C – average, D – worse than average and E – Very bad.

Building the squad

Best thing to have happened over the summer of 2013 was that we managed to keep all the important players. Sure, Gervinho was let go but it’s not like he was pulling up trees during his time with the club. Keeping him would have given us options but he has not done enough to when given the chance, to show that he will be a non-dispensable member of the squad. We needed a back-up for Mikel Arteta and we got one, albeit one who wasn’t a clear improvement on Arteta. Although Mathieu Flamini came on a free, he did what was expected of him in the games which he played. Showed leadership during the initial months but tailed off towards the end.

Highlight was most definitely Ozil. I thought he was to be the game changer for us in terms of our quality and how we will act in the future market. Here we are signing a top German international with his best years ahead of him, from Real Madrid. I really couldn’t care less whether it was a last minute decision or that we have followed the case for ages. You could see that even the squad was happy to have him on-board. No one will look back at this season being Ozil’s best season but he still produced outstanding contributions to the team. Will be better next season.

We knew that we needed a striker and all we got was Yaya Sanogo. He’s young and he’s raw. Though great for him that he contributed immensely in our cup run. However, his quality was the reason why we overworked Olivier Giroud and thus meant the lack of options to either bring on or to start in place of the Frenchman when the situation called for it. This is the area we were let down when we looked back into the season.

Grade – B (Ozil played a big part in giving it this)

Premier League

To have been in the top spot for slightly under 50% of the entire league season and not win it at the end, is utterly disappointing. Many factors could be pointed to as to why we failed to win it. Injuries to Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ozil were disruptive to our season. We had a good team but these individuals brought different skills and playing style which were crucially missed during important periods.

Though, no matter how unlucky we were with the attacking options, we have been blessed in the defensive one. Almost our entire back 5 were injury-free throughout the season. Can’t seem to recall any consecutive weeks in which we missed more than 2 players from Wojciech Szczesny, Laurent Koscielny, Per Mertesacker, Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna. That Szczesny managed to keep the joint top clean sheet in the league is testament to how important it was to keep the same defence, week in week out.

There were big defeats throughout the season which derailed us as well. Those usually followed by performances in subsequent matches which were used to steady the ship. Those drop points in the second matches also put paid to our hopes of staying close to the top. What can you say about those heavy defeats? Maybe with all our players available, it would have been closer or we might even get points out of those matches but ultimately I think it’s down to psychology. To put it loosely, we seemed to forget how to play when we go up against these teams. Either too gung-ho going forward and neglecting the team shape or being over-confident, only the players themselves know.

Grade – B (Improved from 2012/13 but really wasted not to win it this season after seeing how others performed)

League Cup

Only got as far as the Fourth Round of this competition. Apart from Isaac Hayden, Thomas Eisfeld, Ryo Miyaichi and to a certain extent, Serge Gnabry; little else was seen of the younger players in our squad. Something which was a step away from what Arsene Wenger usually prefers to field in this competition. In which case, it was disappointing to go out to Chelsea in a home cup tie. Add to the fact, that it was pretty much a second string Chelsea side and still we failed to overcome them.

The importance that Wenger placed in the competition was obvious from the team selection. He knew that a trophy is a must and tried to win this competition. From that aspect, it is hard to criticise him for not trying. However, the way the team seemed to froze against bigger opposition was a sign of things to come.

Grade – C (used almost all starters but still failed to get past a mixed Chelsea side)

Champions League

With Borussia Dortmund and Napoli in the same group, it was not an easy ride. To be able to go through to the knock-out stage is an achievement itself. Obviously winning away at Westfalonstadion was the highlight of the group stage but the defeat at Naples cost us the top spot.

That meant being drawn against the sides that finished top of their groups and unfortunately for us, almost entirely all group winners were big teams. It was to be a repeat encounter against Bayern Munich and it was a wall too tall for us to climb over. Some would argue that we should never have allowed ourselves to finish second but that itself was no guarantee that had we followed Dortmund’s path, we would have got further than they did.

Grade – B (still not quite good enough to properly challenge for the premier European cup competition)

FA Cup

Ahhh……saving the best for last. Let’s get a few things out first. Yes, we played every single match in London. Yes, apart from the semi-final and final, all of it was played in Emirates Stadium. But we played and beat Spurs, Liverpool and Everton en-route to games at Wembley. Of course it would be harder if some of those matches are played away but these teams doesn’t exactly lay down and surrender when they play in our home stadium.

I particularly love that 3rd round match, obvious reasons apart. We absolutely dominated them from start to finish and capped it off with superb goals from Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky. That win over Liverpool showed plenty of character after being given a footballing lesson by them just 2 weeks prior to that at Anfield. We rode our luck in the earlier minutes and went from strength to strength after that.

Going into Wembley, nerves were to be expected and we displayed plenty of it. 10 minutes away from going out of the competition, Per Mertesacker more than made up for his error in conceding the penalty before that. It was a leggy performance but (plucking Wenger’s favourite term) we showed great mental strength to win it in the end, albeit in the penalty shoot-out.

The final went about the same way and perhaps even worse. In which case, the mental fortitude shown to come back against Hull should be classified as even greater that it was in the semi-final. After going 2 nil down, we grab the game by the scruff of the neck and ploughed our way back into it. Luckily for us, Cazorla scored when he did. The longer it went with the score still at 2-0, the belief in our team would have eroded with time.

In many ways, the winning goal was a fitting one. Scored by the player who was our best in 2013/14 season and one that is typically, an Arsenal type of move. The cleverness and understanding of the run of a team mate as well as the precision of the first time finish. That one moment ensured that the monkey finally got off our backs. The trophy drought was no more and celebrations which ensued showed just as much relief as it was jubilation.

Grade – A (We won the bloody cup!)

After the joy and relief have subsided, the thought that immediately entered my mind was echoed by Ivan Gazidis during the victory parade.

“Today we celebrate our achievement but tomorrow we go again”. (I’m may be paraphrasing but the message is the same)

Yes, let’s build on this.

 

Give Us A Fighting Chance

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Wiltooooooord

If you use a free classifieds web to search for the name Sylvain Wiltord, I bet you can still find memorabilia of him still available for purchase. Probably most famous for the goal at Old Trafford (if you’re the Arsenal persuasion) or that one in Euro 2000 (if you’re the France persuasion), Wiltord did what was needed of him to ensure that he goes down in the history books as one of major influencers for both teams. What interest me is the season which he was signed by Arsene Wenger.

That came about in season 2000/01. Wiltord arrived at the club that boasted the free-scoring talent of one Thierry Henry, the magnificent Dennis Bergkamp and the mercurial Nwankwo Kanu. 3 players who in their own right, were capable of winning football matches on their own. Yet, the manager saw fit to add Wiltord to the fold. Perhaps, the opportunity was there whether it being Wiltord was available or otherwise but the fact remains that the French international was signed when we already have 3 big names playing up front.

In the following season, Francis Jeffers was added to the squad. On hindsight, it can certainly be argued that the former Everton striker fluffed his lines at Arsenal. That he was no more than an expensive failure. However, Jeffers did have a very good start to his career at the Merseyside club and was widely looked as the solution to the problem that we were facing.

No striker was bought in the 2002/03 season and that remains throughout the summer 2003/04 season. However, by the time the January transfer window came around, Wenger still went out to get Jose Antonio Reyes. Needs repeating that at the time we had Bergkamp, Henry, Kanu, Wiltord and Jeffers in the squad. Despite the embarrassment of riches up front, Wenger still wanted Reyes to complement the team. We are not going to argue whether Reyes plays deeper or wider. Arsenal still played with 2 up front and that’s enough for this part of the discussion.

Maybe Wenger during that period, likes to collect strikers. Or perhaps, the situation was very different then in that we still had the upper hand compared to other English clubs in terms of scouting and contacts to other European countries. It’s a different era and manner of working these days but it’s baffling all the same how the manager’s perception could have changed so much in these 10 or so years.

We are now depending on Olivier Giroud, Nicklas Bendtner and Yaya Sanogo (by all means, add Lukas Podolski to the list) to win us the Premier League title. If the aforementioned group from a decade ago needed reinforcement, it is almost impossible to convince that the strikers of 2013/14 season, doesn’t need help. Two transfer windows have come and gone where we failed to bring in reinforcement up front. I refuse to believe that there are no options better than the above 3, if not 4 names.

Maybe it’s longer term thinking. That by the time summer comes along, we would be chasing bigger and much better targets instead of just getting some in who is half the talent. I tend to think that if we could get someone in just to give us the final push towards the title, I’d want the manager to do it. Even if this player could only produce for a short 6 months before being overshadowed by whoever that the we intended to bring in by June/July.

We have come so far in the season and led the table for a big chunk of the season. To see it all go for nought, will be devastating. For the quiet years since Patrick Viera lifting the trophy, this season has actually been very liberating. It is such a joy to see our results impacting the leadership of the table on a weekly basis. While it can still be considered an improvement, to let the title slip from our grasp would still be very disappointing.

On Saturday, Sanogo had a chance to level the score right at the death. He skied the ball high over the cross bar. Better strikers like Karim Benzema and Edin Dzeko have missed those chances before. I’m not speaking of one match or one incident in particular. It’s unfair to lay the blame on Sanogo or whether he is a good or bad player based on one particular moment in a single match. What I’m trying to show is the disparity between choices a decade ago and now.

It would unfair to ask for the same quality of strikers to that of Bergkamp and Henry but is it not justifiable to ask for more options to give ourselves a fighting chance?

Go Forth To Crush The Baggies

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Going to need two, to stop this man

Tonight will be the second meeting for The Arsenal against West Brom this season, and unlike 2 weeks ago, the personnel involved are likely to be very different. That was the Capital One Cup and this is the Premier League. A league in which we could return to the top if we win tonight’s match. With next week being an international break, there’s no reason to suggest anything but the best available first XI being fielded by both sides.

WBA Arsenal
Table position 12 2
Form Unbeaten in last 3 matches. Beat United last week. Already lost twice this season Unbeaten in 8 matches in all competitions. Won 7 of it. Won on penalties in the other
Injured Late test : Sessegnon, Anichebe, Morrison, Long, Anelka, Brunt
Out : Sinclair, Gera, Vydra, Foster, Thorne
Out : Sagna, Walcott, Cazorla, Sanogo, Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Diaby

Effectively, I think we’re going to field almost exactly the same players as the last match against Napoli. The only uncertainty is whether Jack Wilshere gets back into the starting line-up ahead of Tomas Rosicky. Which I think could happen, given that the Czech only just returned from injury and 2 games in a few days might not be the best for his recovery. The other change would be an enforced one  with Carl Jenkinson coming in for the injured Bacary Sagna.

The Wilshere smoking thing has been blown out of proportion. Lots of players smoke and it doesn’t necessarily affects their game. That said, it was stupid of Wilshere to do it in public and stupid of him to respond in that manner on Twitter. I wish all players are disciplined like Dennis Bergkamp and finds no trouble outside of the pitch but I can understand that no two players are ever the same. Some people live their lives in a certain manner and as long as their contribute on the pitch, I have little complains.

The team is riding on a crest of confidence from the good run that we’re having and it’s a shame that the international matches are on next week. Without doubt that the first 45 minutes against Napoli was the best half we’ve produced this season. It’s Wengerball, no other description will give it justice. To be able to mix that up with the second half showing of absolute control, goes to show how far the team has matured.

Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil, Mathieu Flamini and Olivier Giroud are all on good form and the same players will be expected to perform. If usually, we only have 1 player being in excellent form at one time, it gives great pleasure to see a few players being a great run together. Makes it just that little harder for the opponent to pin down a target to control.

As their result last week at Old Trafford proved, WBA won’t be a pushover. While the current Manchester United side is not the best they have in Premier League history, they are still a formidable side. For Steve Clarke to be able to take his men there and take the game to United, deserved a lot of praise. Stephane Sessegnon is slowly but surely becoming a very important player for WBA, in the roaming role behind the lone striker.

Key battles

Saido Berahino v Carl Jenkinson The 20 year old forward scored at Old Trafford and had a good run in the League Cup. Jenkinson will have to keep up with his pace and trickery, perhaps for one match, entirely disregarding his attacking duties.
Claudio Yacob v Aaron Ramsey The Argentine can be a tough tackler when he needs to be and that’s something Ramsey needs to be wary off. That said, physically Ramsey is at a different level and Yacob may have a hard time trying to follow him around. May switch between sometimes with Mulumbu.
Liam Ridgewell s v Mesut Ozil Ridgewell gave Walcott the rough treatment the last few times both teams met and might give Ozil the same. Only one winner here, only if Ozil accepts the possible physical nature of the battle and not shy out of it.

This is no easy but it’s hard not to be confident that we could take all 3 points. It’s another away game and the team can draw confidence from our magnificent away run since that match at the Allianz Arena. We can’t let our hopes go to smoke this soon. Up The Arsenal.

We Have A Gap

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Big big day for the youngster

It was a Serge forward
I said yesterday that I didn’t think Serge Gnabry will start at Swansea because of his midweek involvement and I couldn’t be more wrong. It was one of those times that I’m more than happy to be wrong. Gnabry was selected to start and perhaps the young age played a part in how quickly he recovered from his midweek exertions. His performance yesterday proved that we have plenty to be excited about with his prospect and the manner in which he took his goal was definitely encouraging. If little else, it does show that when Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain comes back, there are genuine competition for places.

Momentum was continued
Given how the results in the other matches yesterday, it was extremely important that we take full advantage of it. None of our closest challengers picked up full points and we’ve opened up some gap by continuing our amazing run of away wins in the league. Two points ahead of that team, 4 ahead of Chelsea, 5 ahead of Manchester City and 8 points ahead of Manchester United. Even at this stage of the season, that is no small distance to be putting ourselves in front of the others. For the team though, they don’t really have to look at the table just yet. What is important for them is to harness the confidence that we’ve built up and use it to continue to win matches and the rest will come along.

It’s that Welsh midfielder again
Aaron Ramsey continues to perform and it would be to the amazement of everyone if he doesn’t win Premier League’s player of the month award. His awareness of where Gnabry was, in creating the opening goal was wonderful to see. As for our second and the goal scored by him, it just highlights the calmness he has in his game now. If previously, he might have snatched at that chance, Ramsey is now better in assessing the situation and the extra touch he took before hitting the shot proved just that.

Swansea will continue to do well this season
Of all the teams that we’ve played this season, Swansea have been the toughest opponent. Which is to be expected, given what we know of them. They were organised in defending with good movement and interchange of positions going forward. It was difficult for us in the first half as they managed to stifle our creative midfielders and close down the space that we were seeking. Mesut Ozil rarely had time to himself and like the rest of his team mates, were constantly and quickly closed down.

Extra rest days counted in the second half
All but 2 of our XI,  played at the Hawthorns. Swansea had 4 players who played against Birmingham in midweek and were without the service of Leon Britton. It’s only a marginal difference in the numbers but it counted. In the second half, we were just that half a yard of pace faster than them. Quicker in the passing and quicker in the closing down. Swansea couldn’t live with us and the two goals were the result of that.

Then we got sloppy
Satisfied with the two goals lead and the control we have over the match (perhaps even Napoli playing on the minds), we took our foot off the pedal and went into auto cruise mode. Lapse of concentration was the reason why Swansea managed to halve the deficit. The manner in which Ben Davies was allowed to burst past a few players, is something of a concern. By the 2nd or 3rd player, someone should have already fouled him.

But we held on for the win
After conceding the goal, you could see that the whole team pulled themselves back together and wasn’t going to allow the home side the chance to get level. We’ve developed this new found resistance and strength to close out matches and it is hard to fault them in that regard. Another away win, another 3 points and this adds to the magnificent response that the team has produced since the opening day defeat. From a supporter’s point of view, hard not to look at the league table and be more than a little excited.

No Serge Forward

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Samurai scores

Few things to get off the chest ahead of Arsenal’s visit to the Liberty Stadium tonight, to play Swansea.

3 points at Stade Velodrome
Not the most vintage Arsenal performance. Gave the ball away a lot (intentionally or otherwise, open for debate). Despite that, still defended as well as we could. The most important of wins as any away win in this tough Champions League will be a huge advantage comes end of the group stage.

Home joy
There’s winning and there’s taking the piss while winning. We certainly did the latter as 3 set piece goals sent Stoke packing. I can’t remember a bigger piss-take in recent football memory. It’s wonderful to see that we are able to mix it up when required and are able to find other avenues to goal when the normal slick passing route doesn’t work.

Return of the samurai
Ok, it’s Nicklas Bendtner but we got to admit the similarity there. Only went through on penalties and given the options we put out in attacking positions, it was no surprise to find that we were lacking creativity up front. May just be a League Cup third round but to the youngsters in their first penalty shoot-out for the senior squad, it’s still a daunting experience. Took plenty of guts to step up, let alone convert those penalties.

Best Wales player, going to Wales
Aaron Ramsey will return to Wales for the match against Swansea as the best player in the Arsenal squad at the moment. It’s hard not to be incredibly proud of the young midfielder who has fought through numerous barriers to be where he is today. On form, he could very well be the best player in the world right now but that is only temporary. For him to really establish himself, he knows he has to produce this high level of performance throughout the entire season. At the moment he has made himself indispensable and would surely start tonight.

Laudrup’s men are a serious threat
While we are undoubtedly the team in form, Swansea away is not the easiest of ties, no matter the form. Michael Laudrup has whipped up a good concoction for his team and looks to be an improved version of Brendan Roger’s former side. Three main threats for me, Michu – Wilfried Bony – Jonathan De Guzman. Michu likes to roam (no, not that type) and between Flamini/Arteta and the centre backs, someone has to give the orders on who to pick him up. De Guzman pops up in good positions just outside the penalty box and his battle with Ramsey, will be a good contest.

Stopping the Serge Forward
Given the Serge Gnabry played the full 120 minutes at the Hawthorns, it is unlikely that he will start tonight. If I’m a betting man (which I am), I’ll have my money on Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta starting together which will mean that Mesut Ozil goes to wide right to fill in for the injured Theo Walcott. Maybe that’s why pictures of Robert Pires training with Ozil have emerged (only kidding). My other thought was the Ignacio Monreal to come in on the left but he also played the full 120 minutes in midweek.

Continuing the momentum
Napoli at home next week is crucial to our hopes of advancing past the group stage of the CL but today’s fixture cannot be underestimated. We’re on a good run of form and we need to continue that run. Only by continuously winning, can the team believe in their talents and create that insatiable hunger to keep hunting down more victories. More than most, a win tonight will keep us on top of the league for another whole week. I’m sure we all want that.

Up The Arsenal!

 

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