Conquering The Palace, Shorn of A Cap

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Getting ourselves into a skipping mood

The Premier League is back. Or if you’re being a little fussy, the Barclay’s Premier League is back. Not sure why, BPL is not something that stuck with me. Much rather the EPL than the BPL. Anyway, I’m digressing and how you or me prefer to call it makes no difference of any sorts. Football is back and we can say goodbye to the seemingly endless weekends that was a much duller times to live in than any time between August to May. It’s endless servings of football, from watching live matches continuously from 7:45pm till roughly about 3am, the next morning. Not forgetting the reviews and goals on the next morning before repeating the same on Sunday night.

Lots of players have been brought in by all the other title challengers (we – Arsenal are one too). No particular team stood up with a purchase who can be argued to be a better player than those that we got. No, the little prick at Chelsea is not better than his former Barcelona team mate who’s currently with us (may, or may not be the pride of me talking). Still a good half month to go before the transfer window close and most likely more business to be had between now and then. At the moment though, we are easily amongst the 3 or 4 teams who looks capable to last the pace.

And it starts tonight against Crystal Palace.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain illuminated this game last season with his goals and all-round display in midfield that made a fair few people sit up and listen to that Arsene Wenger comment about how The Ox will probably end up as a midfielder. The match tonight is already looking less tough compared to last season, mostly because they will not have a cap-wearing, trainer-adorning mad man on the bench. Tony Pulis has left Palace and I dare you to say that a Palace with Pulis isn’t a tougher proposition than a Palace without Pulis.

What Pulis did last season with Palace was rather remarkable and the admiration he got from his peers on the fine job he did in steering Palace away from the relegation zone was just reward (urgh) for his work. He made them tougher to beat and installed into them a working defensive shape which teams found hard to break down. Only Brade Hangeland and Frazier Campbell are players of any note brought into Palace this season. Which hardly makes them infinitely better than they were last season.

On our front, the best news came as Wenger confirmed that Laurent Koscielny should be able to feature tonight. We definitely do not want to underestimate Palace and think that Nacho Monreal should be fine for this game. Having a recognised central defender available to partner one who was primarily a right back before, does calm the nerves more. Calum Chambers has impressed in pre season and should be given the nod (Miquel should weep at this) to start his first competitive game at Emirates Stadium.

The rest of the team should picked itself and somehow, I doubt we’ll run too much away from the 11 that started at Wembley last week. Perhaps Olivier Giroud could come in ahead of Yaya Sanogo but this is a doable game to use Sanogo from the start and bring Giroud on, if necessary. First, let me make it clear that this doesn’t contradict my earlier statement as Sanogo isn’t someone playing out of his position, if selected.

Szczesny, Gibbs, Koscielny, Chambers, Debuchy, Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere, Sanchez, Cazorla, Sanogo

After what happened in the corresponding first fixture last season, we definitely do not want to see a repeat. If anything the stands are definitely in a much mood than it was last season. A defeat won’t derail us or create a poisonous atmosphere asking for heads to be culled. However, it’s also vital that we start on the front and right foot, to build on the wonderful last 2 matches in which we’ve added trophies to the cabinet. As I’ve said last week, being on a winning run helps. Psychologically, it does wonderful things to the mind and body.

With the important Besiktas away game on Tuesday, it is vital that we get the job done and get the job done without incurring any setback, injury wise. A couple of quick early goals should be able to kill the hopes of a team that’s currently rudderless. Personally, I’m rooting for Jack Wilshere to have the season that Aaron Ramsey had last season. Maybe not in terms of goals but the quality of performance and all that rising to the top kind of thing. That would make my season …….and trophies of course.

Here’s to a very good campaign. Up The Arsenal.

Here We Go Again

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We love our new signings, don’t we

It starts again today. The gap doesn’t feel as long as it normally because of the wonderful World Cup in Brazil. For the first time in many many seasons, it feels that things might be different.

After the seemingly endless wait last season for transfer, it all happened rather quickly and early this season – the club cannot be criticised for dragging their feet and that is always music to the masses of fans. We’ve replaced and added well, with time to integrate the new ones into the squad despite the distraction of the World Cup.

Bacary Sagna was replaced by Mathieu Debuchy – not the typical replacement that Arsene Wenger normally goes for. That being someone who’s already 29 years old but it does give us someone who’s ready to step into the breach immediately, without needing a period of settling into the English game. It remains to be seen if Debuchy could replicate the defensive stoutness that Sagna provides but it’s an upgrade if we consider the contributions which the former Newcastle man could bring to the attacking side.

Just like Sagna, we knew of Lukasz Fabianski’s desire to move away to get more game time. With Damien Martinez still young and probably need one or more loan moves to gain more experience, a more experience keeper was needed. It came in the shape of Colombian custodian, David Ospina, signed from Nice. I wouldn’t claim to know much of Ospina apart from Colombia’s run to the quarter final of the World Cup. Given he’s first choice there, should be someone who’s able to provide a challenge to Wojciech Szczesny or come in without the defence worrying about the keeper behind them.

With Thomas Vermaelen confirmed to have signed for Barcelona (really happy we’ve rejected Manchester United’s advances – sign of increase power and all that), we are down to only 2 recognised centre backs in Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesackers. Calum Chambers was signed from Southampton and played there during the Emirates Cup (no, I would not consider Monreal playing there as any sign of Wenger looking at the Spaniard as being the 3rd centre back).  However, Wenger has come out and say that Chambers could be a defensive midfielder and that leaves everyone just a little confused and worried.

Theoretically, we need another experienced centre back as 3rd choice and probably an up and coming young centre back learning the trade at 4th choice. We’ve been extremely lucky with regards to the fitness of both Koscielny and Mertesacker last season. I’m hopeful that this run could continue but I’m going to be realistic and somehow, think that either one could be out for a sustained period this season. I don’t see Chambers as someone in the mould of Raphael Varane, as in someone who’s young but slots in seamlessly when called upon.

If we could get that position settled before the start of the season, all the better. For flexibility purpose, it’s of course better to find a player who could do the defensive midfield role as well as the centre back role. It would mean less effort on one hand and more concentrated effort on the other, to pursue this player. If that role is eventually filled, either by a specialist in each position or someone who could do both roles, then in my mind, we have to be one of the favourites for the league title. All that and I haven’t even mention the special talent we’ve procured further up front.

Last season’s we’ve been begging to have someone come in who could complement as well as ease the workload of Olivier Giroud. We’ve got that someone now. The signing of Alexis Sanchez ticks a lot of boxes. The primary/secondary striking role, the pacy wide attacker to reduce the reliance on Theo Walcott, blessed with high technical abilities as well as being an absolute resilient fighter on the pitch. We’ve struggled when Walcott and/or Oxlade-Chamberlain were injured, at least now we’ve added the option of another one who looks to run beyond the last line of defence. You could always see Mesut Ozil grinning ear to ear.

Add to all that the continual progression of Aaron Ramsey, an injury-free season for Jack Wilshere, the growing impact of Kieran Gibbs from left back and the experience afforded from the likes of Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini – it’s hard not to feel better at how we are approaching this season compared to the last few.

It starts with the Community Shield against Manchester City and if I could dictate how the players approach this match, I want each and everyone of them to take it like it’s the first league match of the season. Winning is addictive and after the triumph of last match of last season, there’s no doubt in my mind that it would be best to continue in the same vein. Whatever your view on how important this trophy is, I would very much like our winning momentum to continue. We saw how the desire to keep winning every single week, helped push the Invincibles through their run and how it gave us an advantage with respect to how it instil fear into other teams.

So, let’s pick up where we left off and have an almighty go at it this season.

Up The Arsenal.

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.

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