Saturday, 30 November 2013

Cardiff vs Arsenal: Match Preview

We're back to focusing on consolidating our lead at the top of the table at the Cardiff City Stadium (innovative name, right?) where we face Cardiff, a side slowly getting known for causing upsets. They famously beat Manchester City 3-2 and drew with United just last week, so they might be entering this match with a bit of confidence.

However, it's safe to say that we are carrying two truckloads of confidence coming into this game, what with being on top and knackering Marseille and being on top and getting Ozil and being on top and having the best midfield in the league. Oh, and being on top. 

I'll find it really surprising if we do manage to slip up here, even though Cardiff are a side that might just do that. I don't think that we are going to take this fixture lightly - certainly this Arsenal side won't - but I do think that we might have to go a little out of our way to secure three points today.

I feel that if we are due to losing points in the Cardiff City Stadium, it will be down to a lack of creating chances and/or being wasteful in front of goal. Even though this team is on a high after beating Marseille and Southampton, I couldn't really help thinking that those matches could've gone either way. We didn't really create much against Southampton, and practically snatched the victory. And while we peppered the goal with shots against Marseille, it really felt more like we were facing a side that was ragged in Europe and deflated after the 30 second goal, rather than a side that were considered a competitive one and one that were set to give us a real run for our money.

I feel that people are ignoring the games in which we've failed to create an adequate amount of chances, such as against Spurs, Chelsea, West Brom, Manchester United, Dortmund, Crystal Palace, etc, simply because the final result drove the final performance out of their minds. However, at this rate, we are bound to slip up and regret not taking the chances that we created, or regret that we didn't create any chance at all.

It's pretty amazing that I'm emphasizing that a team with Cazorla, Ozil, Giroud, Wilshere and Rosicky isn't creating enough chances, but ultimately it is a fact of the matter. Granted, at the Marseille game we saw a mix of the old Arsenal which created a catalog of chances and the new Arsenal that had a mean defence, but I don't think that we are seeing enough of that this season, which needs to change. Starting today, hopefully.

In team news, we are likely to see a full strength squad, owing to the fact that the manager will look to play a lighter one against Hull in midweek. Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Gibbs are set to form the backline, a backline that really should keep a clean sheet today.

Midfield would be a problem, but a problem that Arsene would love to have. Flamini seems the only one set to keep his place, with Wenger possibly partnering him with Ramsey, giving him a reunion at Cardiff. I have said before that Ozil needs a kick in the backside, and even though he had an improved second half on Tuesday, I really don't want him to start, simply so that he gets the idea that even a player of his stature is not guaranteed a spot in the first XI.

However, Arsene Wenger seems certain to start him, which would be a mistake for me. Wilshere and Santi Cazorla would fill the wings, with Theo Walcott providing a powerful bench option. Ollie would lead the line, no question, unless he's diagnosed with Malaria in the next two hours. Or something like that.

It goes without saying that three points is not too much to ask of this side, which would pile pressure on the other England heavyweights tomorrow. And I am sure that they will deliver and produce a comfortable away victory. Even if they don't, what's the four point insurance for?

Come on Arsenal. Here's to another comfortable win, maybe?

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Arsenal 2-0 Marseille: Talk about domination!

Sometimes it's weird how an expected result can yet feel so sensational. That was exactly the case as Arsenal literally walked over Marseille and virtually booked their place in the last 16 of the Champions League. The only way that we won't be able to qualify through the group stages is if we get hammered 3-0 at Naples, but I am certain that that isn't going to happen with this Arsenal side.

We got off to a simply phenomenal start when Jack gave us the lead under 30 seconds, through a sweet curling strike. Sagna's ball across the line of the field, though accurate, was pretty easy to execute, and put Wilshere in acres of space down the right flank. He used his space, cut in easily and finished the move off with a casual curl, nestled neatly into the top corner. Brilliant.

Perhaps what was so great about that goal was the easy manner in which he dispatched it, almost like it was a simple square pass. I like Jack, and I do reckon - like a lot of other Gooners - that he is destined to become an Arsenal and England legend. However, I never thought of him as being a goal threat. I always thought of him as a deep lying midfielder, maybe a player who would rack up some assists along the way. I never thought much of his finishing abilities, instead choosing to admire his flair and quick passing. However, after becoming Arsenal's third highest goalscorer this season after getting 2 goals at the Emirates, I may have to rethink some stuff.

Which gets me to his second goal, a simple tap in after some amazing movement. Ramsey found Ozil in the box through a neat ball, Ozil squared it up for Jack who tapped in a much needed killer goal. We were dominating and could've scored many, many more through Ramsey, where the keeper made a really good save, and Ozil, through that missed penalty.

I had said in the match preview that I was against the idea of Ozil starting tonight, and the first half suggested that I was right. A poor touch in a good position and wayward passes all around left me genuinely wondering if his slump would ever end. And then there was that penalty.

Oh, Jesus.

I really don't remember the last time a person looked so disinterested in taking a spot kick. He didn't have the glint in his eyes, there was no proper run-up, and the pace in the ball wasn't half of what was required. Add to that the fact that Mandana was way off his line, and you get a penalty that has no chance of going in.

He was absolutely pathetic in the first half, truth be told, and I was praying for him to make way for Walcott or Santi Cazorla in the second half. However, it was a pleasant surprise to see him bounce back from a horrendous first half to be a genuine threat and get an assist along the way. Maybe the missed penalty was a wake up call, or maybe the manager had a talk with him, but either way, he responded professionally.

Even so, it's time that he starts earning his spot in the team, owing to the fact that we have Arteta, Wilshere and Rosicky who are capable of replacing his shoes. He looked much more like the Mesut Ozil who killed it in the 2010 World Cup against Marseille in the second half, and let's hope that this marks a turning point in his Arsenal career.

Walcott and Santi Cazorla came on for Wilshere and Rosicky, and both of them had great chances to score late in the game. Santi inexplicably hit wide when he had plenty to aim at, and Walcott missed a one-on-one chance against Mandana. However, with us having such remarkable control and a two-goal cushion, those missed chances were quickly forgotten.

It's good that we have gotten rid of our injury problems in the face of a testing December schedule, because it is a time that we really need all of our players to chip in for 3 points. Options like Walcott, Cazorla and Arteta on the bench is a stark improvement over Zelalem, Hayden and Olsson, which was the case earlier this sesaon. With Podolski returning in an estimated 3 weeks in a team that is in rampant form since September, it's safe to say that we should be expecting a highly productive December.     

We now have 12 points in the group, and have yet not qualified in it, due to Dortmund's victory. It is quite incredible, but it was a scenario that I was hoping for. A draw at Naples is all that is needed now to seal the winning spot in the Champions League, and I'm confident that our team will achieve that.

I must say, looking back, I never expected us to have such a high amount of control in this game. We created at least five presentable opportunities, had the ball in midfield, and defended well, bar a few understandable lapses. This, without question, was a complete walkover, a game that was over almost as soon as it started. True, we deserved to win by much more, but who said that paradise has to be perfect?

We got Cardiff City (haha) next on Saturday, a game which I fully expect three points out of. While they did hold Manchester United and defeat Manchester City, I don't expect them to pull off another upset against the Arsenal. I may be wrong, I may not, but that's a topic I need to elaborate further on Saturday.

For now, we can sit back, relax, and watch the Gunners dominate the field time and time again.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Arsenal vs Marseille: Match Preview

We play Marseille today in Matchday 5, and I think that it's safe to say that it's a must win. And by that I don't just mean that it's an important clash, but it's a match that we really should be getting 3 juicy points out of.

With Walcott back and set to start, we now have our full strength squad available at our disposal to get a convincing result at the Emirates. Few might argue that Podolski isn't match fit yet and that our first choice lineup isn't complete without him, but I think that even if the German would've been available, Wenger would still start the forward trio of Theo, Santi and Giroud.

It's telling that our squad is strong enough to bench the likes of Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Rosicky, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski (assuming all are fit, of course). And while jumping from a player like Giroud, to that guy who got arrested for criminal damage (effects of too much GTA, huh?) is a gaping hole in the team, at least we'll have a temporary solution in Theo and/or Podolski to fill in in the near future.

Don't get me wrong - a striker needs to be top priority for the January transfer window. It's utter madness to expect Giroud to be alone upfront for the second year running, which makes a striker nothing less than a necessity. I'm just trying to say that things aren't that bad in the striker area as they are made out to be, and that we don't have to turn our eyes on the guy whose hair is more hideous than Madonna at her worst if Giroud gets injured.

Give him a chance, maybe?
I don't understand the deal with Wenger's man management, though. The understood reason of Alex Song's departure was the fact that his attitude was too cocky and arrogant, which was why a £15m bid from Barcelona was accepted. Why not do the same with Bendtner? I get that we have a lack of strikers and that we needed some backup, but why didn't we turn to Park Chu Young instead? I thought that he was pretty decent against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup, and I'm sure that he has a much better attitude than Nick.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure that the above two mentioned players won't play a part in tonight's game, apart from the possibility that Bendtner might be brought on from the bench. I'm pretty certain that we shall see a lineup comprising of Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Flamini, Ramsey, Ozil, Walcott, Cazorla and Giroud, with Arteta, Wilshere and Rosicky benched. However, I feel that it's about time that Ozil needs to earn his spot, because his recent performances have been underwhelming. I would suggest benching him, placing Santi Cazorla in the centre and Jack Wilshere on the left, for that might be more effective.

I also feel that this is a match where Vermaelen should get a crack at. He is the club's official skipper after all, and he had an encouraging game against United. I don't want to lose him in January, which might be a possibility if he doesn't get the playing time that he needs. I'm wary that Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal will consider leaving the club if they don't get football matches under their belt,  which would be a huge blow to our side.

Anyway, it's the manager that calls the shots, and not me. We'll just have to wait and watch, and see if his team selection pays off tonight. The importance of this game will undoubtedly be decided on the outcome at Westfalenstadion, and I'm silently rooting for a Dortmund victory over there. If that does indeed happen, Napoli and Dortmund will be stuck together on 9 points, while we will be cruising on 12, only requiring a draw in Naples to finish first.

If we finish second, the likely choices for us to face are Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid or Barcelona. It's a really frightening thought, and one that we can put off of our minds if we comprehensively beat the worst team in the group who have virtually nothing to play for. It will be tough, as every match is nowadays, but not that difficult for a team that had the capacity to beat Bayern, Spurs, Napoli, Liverpool and Dortmund in the same year.

Fingers crossed for a comfortable victory tonight. Come On You Gunners.

P.S. With Dortmund needing a victory to keep their Champions League hopes alive, I expect a cracker at the Westfalenstadion. Keep an eye on that game.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Arsenal 2-0 Southampton: Back on track

A really encouraging victory over a much improved Southampton outfit, where we won courtesy of Boruc's Almunia moment and a clinical penalty, both scored by Olivier Giroud. That win and Liverpool's 3-3 draw against Everton (I pity the people who didn't see that match!) means that we are now 4 points clear at the top of the Barclays Premier League.

Yes, 4 points clear. Just let that seep in.

We've played 12 games now, so you can hardly categorize this part of the year as the "start of the season." We've faced difficult opposition in the form of Tottenham, Liverpool, Man United and Southampton, 3 of whom we defeated. We're 4 points clear of Liverpool and Chelsea, temporarily 8 points clear of United and the Spuds, and 9 points above Man City. I think it's finally safe to say that we're title contenders now.

I always refrained myself from being open to the possibility that we might take home the league title this year. What with the team having only one recognized striker, only 3 center backs and a lack of strong players made me think that this side will surely fall somewhere. However, after Boruc gifted Giroud the opener, our defence was immense in front of Szczesny. There was almost no cause for concern throughout the 90 minutes for Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Gibbs. In the past week of football, this back four had faced Suarez, Sturridge, Reus, Lewandowski, Rooney and van Persie, yet  conceded only one goal. I'm finally seeing the Mertescielny partnership and the Steve Bould effect taking hold.

It may be true that we nicked this victory. Had Boruc cleared the ball away calmly or had Fonte not given away the penalty, we would've come of this game with a single point. Supporters would've been nervous that Chelsea and Liverpool were breathing down our necks and frustrated that we failed to capitalize on a slip-up at Goodison.

But that's what I love about this new Arsenal. It's an Arsenal that gives the final scoreline priority over the overall performance. It's an Arsenal that understands the value of a one-goal lead and will put their lives on the line to preserve it. It's an Arsenal who are desperate to throw off the "8 years no trophy" tag and win the league to shut the critics up. Miles better than the "Ooh, we lost, but we played pretty football" crap that we had to put up with in the previous disappointing years, I'd say.

There is a reasonable possibility that this team would fail to win the Barclays Premier League, but when that happens, I don't think that I'm going to be as disappointed as I would've been in previous years. I would know that this club gave it their best shot at winning the title, instead of relying on a few world class players to get the results. I would know that this crop of players at our disposal are players that are honest, determined and ones that run on sweat, not oil or money.

If we'll win the league, we'll win it the right way. We won't lean on a Russian billionaire to get top-class players, nor will we dive for penalties that will salvage draws against relegation threatened teams. We won't play mind games, nor will we argue with the ref over petty issues. This team is absolutely on the right track, and while I have voiced my concerns that Arsene Wenger does not deserve a trophy, the players, the fans and the whole Gooner community sure do.

We play Marseille on Tuesday, a game which really is a must-win. Though I know that our chances of winning the Champions League are slim to none, I just want to know how far this team can go in Europe and fare against the very top teams in the continent.

Until then, crossing my fingers and hoping for City, Tottenham and United to slip up...

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Arsenal vs Southampton: Match Preview

After what seems like an age, we finally get to see our Arsenal in action again as we face the Saints at the Emirates Stadium. And while Southampton are in unbelievable and unpredictable form, above Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and the Spuds in the table, this is a game that we really must win today.

I must confess, I haven't really seen any of Southampton's games this season, bar the one where they defeated Liverpool. They were resilient in defence, and played with real determination in preserving that one goal lead at Anfield. They do look like a side that can give a real push for the Europa League this season, and if results go their way, they can find themselves on top of the Premier League at the end of the weekend.

However, this is a team that we really need to beat. With Liverpool facing a rejuvenated Everton, there is a plausibility that they might drop points, and we can go further clear on the top if we manage to defeat Southampton. It won't be easy, as no Premier League match is, but we have to show our newfound quality of grinding out results today if possible, like we did against the Spuds, Crystal Palace and Dortmund.

The odds are in our favour too. The match is in our own stadium, we have Theo back and we have a rested squad, which should be enough to get 3 points today. The only long term injuries are that of Lukas Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Abou Diaby (yes, he still plays for us). It won't be a comfortable ride, but I'm confident that we will get a win today.

In team news, Mathieu Flamini won't play due to receiving 5 yellow cards this season (unexpected, right?) and Arsene Wenger has busted any myths regarding Wilshere suffering any niggling issues during the international fixtures. Even though there is an important Marseille match coming up on Tuesday, I expect to see our strongest possible squad of Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Arteta, Ramsey, Ozil, Walcott, Cazorla and Giroud. Of course, Wenger might put Theo on the bench and/or play Wilshere in the main lineup, but I don't think that those changes will make a huge difference to the result.

It's nice that we have so many options to fall back on in midfield, especially in this time of the season, where there is constant football till March 2014, which is where the next international fixtures butt in. With Podolski only 3 weeks away and the Ox set to return in December and Yaya Sanogo in January, we might have a little bit of reserve depth in the striker area until the winter transfer window arrives.

I have a hunch that we are in for a stellar Arsenal performance, even though Southampton are a team that have produced upsets at Anfield and Old Trafford. This well rested, motivated squad will be raving to consolidate their lead at the top, which is why I'm going for a 3-0 thumping at the Emirates. For now, let's enjoy the return of the Premier League and hope for another Arsenal victory.

Oh, and make sure to catch the Merseyside derby today, it looks to be an exciting match.

P.S. Congratulations to France for overturning the 2-0 loss and qualifying for Brazil. World Cup ambitions can only mean increased motivation for Sagna, Koscielny, Flamini and Giroud.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Szczesny commits long term finally confirmed that Szczesny has signed a new long-term deal with the club, which would keep him here till another estimated 4 more years.

It is, in every aspect, an encouraging piece of business. Szczesny has grown to be a regular player in our stabilizing defence, and it was essential that we tied him down for our long-term plans. Statistics show that he is currently the best keeper in the league at the moment, despite having only 3 clean sheets. He is certainly the best goalkeeper we've had since Jens Lehmann, and is currently having a much improved season compared to his last.

Szczesny said of the deal:

“I am very pleased to have signed a new contract. Arsenal is like my family and I’m so happy to be committing my long-term future here. I’ve been at this Club for over seven years now and I’d just like to take the opportunity to thank everyone for their support towards me during my time here."

It is rumoured that his deal will consist of £100,000 wages per week, which seems quite fair to me. After a shocker at the opening day of the season, he has grown in each game and produced some astounding saves, the highlight of which was the save against Crystal Palace. It's really quite unbelievable that he's only 23 years of age, when you consider how vocal he is with the back four, and how he has already played 121 games for us.

Arsene Wenger said:

“We’re very pleased Wojciech has signed a new long-term contract. I have always believed he is an extremely talented player, with excellent reflexes and good mental strength. He continues to grow and improve all the time too, so he has the potential to be even better. He can be an important part of Arsenal Football Club for many years to come.”

The wages given to him also demonstrate Arsene's willingness to loosen the purse strings a bit. Back in 2006, Ashley Cole had wanted higher wages from Arsenal but was left "trembling in anger" after discovering that we had only offered £55,000 to him. He rightly wanted to be paid his worth, but was laughed out of the club for that. And while the circumstances of his departure is a fair reason for us to hate him, it was hugely disappointing to notice that we couldn't keep one of our star men simply because we couldn't afford to pay them their valued wages.

That's not the case anymore. Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski, Mesut Ozil and now Wojciech Szczesny are 4 Arsenal players that earn 100K or more salaries, and all of these contracts were signed within a year, with the exception of Podolski, who signed it in July 2012. And while one might argue that Walcott did not deserve the wages he is getting paid right now, I feel that it was absolutely the right decision by the manager and the club to give in to his demands.

Theo symbolized a world class player back then, even though in my opinion, he was not (and still isn't). Losing Robin and Alex Song was bad enough, but to lose Walcott in the same season would've been over the top. He was in scintillating form back then, and letting him go in January or in August on a Bosman would've convinced the media and the fans that we can't keep our star men anymore. Even though Walcott has gone on a really bad run of form, he's shown signs of improvement this season, and had it not been for his abdominal injury (which he might be recovering from in time for the Southampton match), who knows what might have happened?
Signing Walcott for long-term was the correct choice, and keeping Szczesny for another 4 years is too. Wojciech Szczesny is one of the players that I want to see playing for this club for another decade, like the entire British core of Jenkinson, Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain. I believe that if they have faith in the club and what it stands for, these players can achieve great things for it and themselves.

Wojciech Szczesny seems like an Arsenal through-and-through, and the only reason I think that he may not be at the club after 3 years is if we're still maintaining our trophyless run, or if he sustains a career ending injury. It's a horrifying thought, and one I must really put away from my head at the moment.

For now, let's just hope that we do win a trophy this year, and be glad that the best goalkeeper in the Premier League is at North London for years to come.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Thursday, 14 November 2013

My worries on Mesut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey

Remember the time we were singing praises of our dream midfield, which had creativity in Cazorla and Ozil, the flair of Jack and Rosicky, the steel of Flamini and Arteta and the goals from Aaron Ramsey? That was undoubtedly highlighted by Ozil's superb start to life at North London, Flamini's surprising run of form and of course, Ramsey scoring goal after goal in almost every match. After a couple of weeks in October, we had every right to call our midfield as one of the best in Europe.

Fast forward to today, and I don't know about you, but doubts are certainly beginning to emerge in my mind about this midfield. While Arteta has covered up the absence of Flamini aptly, the much awaited partnership of Ozil and Santi Cazorla isn't working out as well as one might've hoped. Wilshere has succumbed to injury once more, and Ramsey seems like a hardworking but average midfielder in the games that he fails to score. Add to that a Mesut Ozil who's performances are degrading with each "passing" game, and you've certainly got a flawed midfield.

I don't think that players like Arteta, Flamini and Rosicky are ever going to deliver half-hearted or underwhelming performances for the club. Sure, everyone has their bad days, but they're too experienced and passionate for the club to cause blunders or whoppers. Wilshere might be a bit disappointing at times, but since he's recovering from injury and has a lot to learn, I guess I could cut him some slack. However, I have had worries about Ramsey throughout his goalscoring streak, and quite recently, I have also developed some concerns on Mesut Ozil.

The loss of our wingers meant that Ramsey was constantly played on the right flank, lately against Manchester United. And while this understandably meant that his performances dropped, I always had a feeling that his performances were pretty average throughout this month. It was always the goals that covered that up, and when you view these goals, most of them are a result of selfish and solo play.

Average might be a strong word to call Ramsey. He can be called decent, but no more than that. The goals that he scored against Swansea, Norwich and Liverpool were most notably goals that had a certain amount of selfishness in them. Don't get me wrong - sometimes you need to take matters in your own hands, but Ramsey is hogging up the goals rather than looking for better options. He's a midfielder, not a striker.

Examples of his solo play could be seen when he gave the ball away on the edge of the box against Dortmund for their first goal at the Emirates, when he ludicrously shot from long range at Old Trafford, and when he tried a pretty weird strike against Chelsea. People say that Ramsey is the best in the Premier League at the moment, but when you take away his goals, what do you get?

Ramsey is a good player, but he's not a great one, and the fans are putting an unfair burden on him to score. At some point he himself seems to be putting pressure on himself to score a goal in every game, which is really not necessary. People comparing him to Cesc Fabregas could not be more wrong - Ramsey always shoots when he wants. Fabregas looks for the best option possible and performs that, whether shoot or pass. The only player who's closest to replace Cesc at Arsenal is one Mesut Ozil.

Which brings me to Ozil's dip in form. I couldn't help but notice how he constantly kept playing back passes and safe passes to his teammates, in recent games. After his brilliant start, he seems to have faded away from the game to the point of almost being invisible at times. And it's not like he's being played out of position like Aaron. Ozil has being playing almost every match in the central attacking role, but currently not living up to the £42m transfer fee.

Maybe that's the problem. The fact that Arsene is overplaying him even when he's sick suggests that the rigours of the league might be getting to him. And while that may be the case, I think that his dip in form is down to his teammates, and not him.

The absence of Theo Walcott, Lukas Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain means that our team has had to adjust a lot and play in different positions. I'm constantly noticing a lack of movement in the final third, which would make Ozil difficult to find a man. I know that Ozil has really good vision, but shouldn't we give him something to see?

In my opinion, when our injured trio of wingers return, there will be more fresh legs in the team. Which means that our team won't be as tired as they were before, and that there will be no problems in positioning and movement. Ramsey will get his preferred position, and Ozil will find Walcott running in promising positions. Maybe the return of Walcott and Podolski will instigate that.


-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Monday, 11 November 2013

United 1-0 Arsenal: Let's be honest

Robin van Persie: "I will never celebrate against Arsenal."

Aargh. This is almost too painful to type.

I could just sit here and say that we were unlucky to not snatch a point and continue our fantastic away record in this game. Or I could say that apart from van Persie's header, we were the better side at Old Trafford. I could also say that by virtue of still being 2 points clear at the top and a relatively easy fixture list after the international break, there is hardly any cause for concern.

Predictably, I'm not. Let's be honest, Arsenal lost fair and square against a motivated side who had more productive possession, more clear cut chances and ultimately more hunger and desire to win the game. True, the match was much tighter than the previous Manchester United vs Arsenal encounters, but Robin van Persie's header was a clear example how an out-and-out, world class striker can make a difference between two quality sides. What's even more painful is that he could've been the one who might've made the difference for us, had he still been in Arsenal colours.

Olivier Giroud was one of our best players on a disappointing day, but it's obvious that he can't carry the striker burden alone. Don't get me wrong, Giroud is a really good striker with an increasingly colourful and likeable personality, but as demonstrated yesterday, he's clearly not world class. There is a good chance that he will be one day, but we can't afford to hang around and pin our hopes on him to prosper and reach his undoubted potential.

Robin van Persie announced his decision to leave Arsenal on around the 4th of July. Since then, we have had one whole year and 3 transfer windows, yet we have failed to replace him. It took 2 whole years to finally replace Fabregas with Mesut Ozil and a year to get Cazorla for Nasri. Patrick Vieira left in 2005, and it's simply shameful to see 8 whole years of no leadership, until finally Mathieu Flamini was got in (whose signing still seems like a stroke of luck to me). Even after having £80m in his pocket and Champions League in the bag, Wenger procrastinated till the final half hour of the transfer window to finally get in some genuine, proven, world class quality. Why?

There is something massively wrong in this club's transfer policy. I'd even go as far as to suggest that there is hardly anything right about it. We're short of two center backs and a world class striker in this team, and it's simply ridiculous that Wenger didn't realize that and not manage to bring anyone there. Giroud needs someone to support him or overtake him in the starting lineup, but there is a good chance that there will still be no replacement for Robin got in at January. Gazidis' statement on the fact that "we need a striker" (Oh, really?) might pile some pressure on Wenger like back in August and force him to spend, but unless there is pressure from the fans too, I don't think that there are going to be any arrivals in January. It is the bitter truth, but it's the truth all the same.

Which is why we have to hope that this current crop of players perform well throughout the season, and certainly better than yesterday. Flamini was rusty (which was understandable), Ozil was average and Santi and Ramsey were - no other word for it - dire. While everyone has been praising Aaron and Mesut for their performances this season, I have always had a few niggling worries on them, especially on Ramsey. Those worries will be exploding into separate blogs throughout the international break, because I feel they aren't to be shared right now.

As I said before, the loss doesn't affect us mathematically, because we're still pretty high up on the table. However, the psychological implications of this loss is massive. We just ended our famous and well publicized away record (not to mention another record of scoring in every Barclays Premier League) against a team that broke our 49 match unbeaten run. On the same ground. We also bottled the chance of having an astonishing 11 point gap against our once-again emerging bitter rivals, and all but invited them back to the title race. Things don't really look as blossom as they did two days ago, do they?

It's a bit strange that every time we win a match, I'm heaping praises on the team and sounding increasingly optimistic, but when every time we lose, I'm against the manager and averse to the team's chances of winning trophies this year. Maybe I'm just on the edge of the line on being a Wenger supporter and a Wenger hater, and every loss pushes me over the edge, while every win pulls me back up. All I know is that I'm firmly seeing the glass as half-empty rather than half-full at the moment.

There was still a silver lining that we could take from an otherwise jet-black cloud, though.  While the result was a sure sucker punch and a slap in the face, we could still salvage some admiration from an Arsenal side that showed pride and fearlessness while playing at Old Trafford, for the first time in almost 4 years. For the first time in a long time, Manchester United were actually considered as underdogs, and while you have to credit and respect them for notching a crucial 3 points, it was heartening to see this Arsenal side dominate the closing proceedings, knocking their socks off. While we did lose, we showed great determination and mental strength (heh) and gave United a run for their money, even after playing high intensity matches at the Emirates and the Westfalenstadion as early as last week.

However, that still doesn't cover the fact that this was a game we really should've won, but lost due to a certain underestimation of the opposition. The international break could not have come at a better time, because it provides a perfect opportunity to cool off, regroup and prepare for a vital December run in. With key players like Flamini, Ozil, Rosicky and Mertesacker (possibly Jack too) [UPDATE: Only Flamini is not going out of the mentioned players. This sucks.] not going to play international fixtures and Podolski and Walcott set to return after the break, we might have a much stronger side at the other end of the two week break.

Be back on Thursday with another post. Until then, keep the faith.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Saturday, 9 November 2013

United vs Arsenal: Match Preview

Do not. Underestimate. Manchester United.

True, Alex Ferguson has left and put David Moyes, a mid table manager, in charge. True, Moyes has had a bit of a rocky start to his United career. And it's also true that they seem considerably weaker than last season. (the Premier League table does not lie!)

But it's also true that they are still Manchester United. This is a team that gave Real Madrid a real run for their money last year. This is a team that has stars like Rooney and van Persie to showcase in their lineup. And let's not forget, this is the same Manchester United that won the Premier League as early as last year. They might arguably be stronger than last season, due to the arrival of Fellaini and the brilliance of Adnan Januzaj. And for those who think that Januzaj got famous only because he scored two against a relegation threatened side, think again.

I'm not saying that we are destined to lose this match. We're actually the favourites to defeat United at Old Trafford for the first time since 2006, and end that dismal Old Trafford record. On current form, we certainly have the better players than Moyes' team. To add to that, there couldn't be a better time to play them, on the back of morale boosting victories against Liverpool and Dortmund, so confidence should be high to defeat a "weak" United team.

And that's my worry. Moyes' shaky start and Man Utd's current position in the league has led many to believe that United's class has considerably fallen and that they are just a mediocre team with a few starlets. Rumours of van Persie being unhappy at Manchester and Fellaini's horrible form simply adds to the burden on Moyes.

But they are still Manchester United. A club who are on an 8 match unbeaten run, a team that seem to be finding their feet and a team that can defeat us if we take this fixture lightly. I still believe that they are title contenders this season, and I am certain that they will attain a Champions League spot at the end of the season. 

The last time we won was in 2011. Guess who scored?
Which is why Arsenal can't afford to take Man Utd lightly. It's true that this is one of the best Arsenal sides that we have seen for almost half a decade, and it is also true that this is one of the worst United sides in recent history, but that doesn't mean that we should treat them like Crystal Palace or Sunderland. I can't shake off this sneaky suspicion that over-confidence and complacency will play a part in getting 3 points at Old Trafford.

When you look mathematically, a loss won't be the end of the world for Arsenal. We'll still be on the top of the table comfortably, and it will only be our second loss in the Premier League. However, a loss at OT will be a huge psychological letdown. To let the same team who destroyed our 49 match unbeaten run to destroy our fantastic away record might be a catalyst in a collapse we've seen far too often (although I think that's unlikely to happen to THIS Arsenal side). The gap narrowing to 2 points from 5 will undoubtedly bring nervousness and leave hardly any margin for error. Not to mention the glory hunters looking to "shut us up" will get a reason to cheer about.

Wenger highlights the fact that our defence, rather than our attack, needs to be focused. He says:

"Rooney and Van Persie are a very dangerous partnership because both can score, both are complete players and both can give assists. Certainly one of the keys for us on Sunday will be to keep this partnership quiet. First in stopping others feeding them but, as well, we will need our back five to be very efficient.”

We have a boost in team news, with Flamini certain to start and Wilshere and Walcott possibly providing options on the bench. I think that Wenger won't use Wilshere at all in this match, so that he doesn't play with England and thus gets a two week rest. I suspect we shall see a lineup of Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Gibbs, Arteta, Flamini, Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Rosicky and Giroud, with a powerful option like Ramsey (and maybe Theo) on the bench. It's a side that is definitely strong enough to win at OT (we need to, after Liverpool won) and keep out the likes of Rooney and van Persie.

It's surprising how little I have thought of van Persie this year. While many Gooners teased and jeered him for having a tough time at Manchester so far, I have been completely indifferent towards him so far. For me, this match carries much more significance than showing a traitor how wrong he was to turn his back on us. For me, this game is about avenging the humiliation our reserves suffered 2 years ago on this pitch. It's about turning the tables on Manchester United in less than a year and going 11 points above them. It's about making a statement to the whole of England that we are the team to beat this season.

Most of all, it's about showing the world in 90 minutes that the old Arsenal is back.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Dortmund 0-1 Arsenal: A crucial, memorable victory

As the final whistle rung around the Westfalenstadion, I stood up, filled with pride. I could do nothing but clap at this group of XI players, who put a sword to one of Europe's finest and sent them packing.

Clap, to applaud how rock-solid the defence were and how they made Lewandowski and Reus look like spectators. Clap, at Aaron Ramsey, who has come so far after his horrifying leg break and death of his mentor, Gary Speed. Clap, at the spirit of this team, at how we bounced back from the 8-2s and the 3-1s to send a statement to the rest of the world, that we shall keep rising. Clap, at Arsene Wenger, who, after years of doubt and ridicule, can stand up to the critics and tell them, "In your face!"

However, my applause was also towards the Arsenal away support, symbolic of the Gooners around the globe. Gooners who kept their faith in the team through years of dejection, frustration and anger. Gooners who stuck by the team who have won nothing for 8 whole years, a team who were wrote off by many as the team that won't make the top 4 as early as the start of the season. Gooners who kept chanting when we were losing 8-2 at Old Trafford, 4-0 at San Siro, or 3-1 against Bayern Munich and Aston Villa.

Tonight was when I realized what being a Gooner was all about. It's not about trophies, it's not about success. It's not only about applauding Mesut Ozil and it's certainly not about turning your back on the club in the wake of embarrassing cup exits.

Being an Arsenal supporter is a way of life. It's about wearing the jersey with pride and strolling down the streets with it. It's about switching the television on at 3 in the night, trying to catch a glimpse of the team you love. It's about reminiscing the times that we signed Dennis Bergkamp, when we won our first double, when we trashed Inter 5-1, when we won the league at White Hart Lane, the 49 match unbeaten run, Thierry Henry kissing Highbury farewell, managing to snatch Champions League spots under debt, finishing above the Spuds and defying the critics, THAT win against Barcelona, and the heroic comeback attempts against AC Milan and Bayern Munich.

It's about sticking by the club through Carling Cup failures, Champions League heartbreaks, having to stomach painful exits of money hogs and traitors. It's about believing that the night is always darkest before the dawn, and waiting for the glory days to return. It's about not abandoning your team like the ex-Arsenal players did. For me, it's about putting as much emotion as I can while typing every letter in every Arsenal post. However, most of all, it's about finding a place for yourself in that club.
I can't even describe how proud I am to be a Gooner today. We completely deserved the win we got tonight, and it was only fitting that it would be through a typical "1-0 to the Arsenal" scoreline. Critics would argue that we would have lost this match if Mkhitaryan and Lewandowski would've been more clinical. I say, what about Ramsey and Mertesacker narrowly missing the back of the net? What about Giroud's shot being cleared off the line, and what about Koscielny not getting a fair penalty?

After Ramsey scored that goal, I felt that an equalizer was inevitable. I thought that we would crumble against a side that was playing so well and creating so many problems for us. However, I'm simply stunned at how well we defended to keep out the constant attacks by Reus and co. We understood the magnitude of the situation, and stepped up to keep out any threats. Arteta, who was walking on a fine line after receiving a yellow card, helped out defensively and completely threw Flamini out of my mind. Giroud was everywhere, heading out corners and holding up play fabulously.

However, it was the Mertescielny axis that really stood out defensively. After we took the lead, I can't remember Dortmund creating a single chance, and huge credit to Mertesacker and Koscielny for keeping them out, that too with apparent ease. The whole team helped out as a defensive unit and kept Dortmund from scoring.

It's genuinely difficult to select a stand out player in this match. The back four, including Szczesny, were immense on an important night. Arteta recovered well from a shaky start to become an essential cog of our defence. Rosicky was, oh my word, simply electrifying tonight. Ramsey got a goal, Olivier Giroud assisted it (I know!), and Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil showed signs that they were returning to their best.

In the end, I simply have to give my hats off to the entire team, who really showed their maturity and broke records on this memorable night. Arsenal is now the second team who managed to keep a clean sheet at the Westfalenstadion for 61 games now, and we're the first English team to beat Borussia Dortmund in their own den. Not to mention that we are the only English team to beat Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich in their own stadiums. Not bad, huh?

We face Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday, a game which I am really looking forward to. I remember that we had played them last year at around this time itself, and had convincingly lost 2-1. It's time to show the scums how much we have evolved and grown since then, and especially show Robin van Persie the kind of team he turned his back on.

Finally, a word to all Arsenal supporters. Let no one snatch this victory from you. Let no deluded Manchester United or Chelsea fan dent this memorable night from us. After 8 long years, our time seems to be finally approaching. Savour it, because who knows how long it is going to last for?

The glory days might be on their way. I can't wait.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Dortmund vs Arsenal: Match Preview

It's Dortmund vs Arsenal tonight at the Westfalenstadion - a game which will have a significant impact on Group F, and one we should look to get a positive result out of. After losing to Dortmund at the Emirates, we need to go for a win if we want to finish the group at the top.

Which is why Arsene Wenger says that his team will be gunning for all 3 points:

"We will have a positive attitude in our game, in our approach to the game. That’s what makes football great as well but Dortmund is a very positive side, we are a very positive side so at least you have the guarantee that the two teams will try to win the game."

It's a bold decision by the manager and the team - because we all remember what had happened the last time Arsenal tried to take 3 points against Dortmund. And for a team tired after Liverpool happened and travelling across the continent, we might be much more susceptible on the counter. I'm not saying that we shouldn't go for 3 points in this game, I'm saying that we need to exercise caution to our determination. Getting no points here and Napoli defeating Marseille (which seems more than likely) will mean that our qualification hopes will be in real hot water, leaving no margin for error at all.

The Westfalenstadion intimidates me, and it will certainly intimidate the players much more than it affects me. This is one of the games that may just define our season - and I know that our players won't be as fresh as we would've liked, but they need to understand the gravity of the situation and get 3 points, whether by hook or by crook. For me, this match carries much more significance than the Manchester United game, coming up on Sunday. Losing at Old Trafford would still keep us on top of the table by 2 clear points, but losing against Dortmund would mean that we would almost certainly have to hope for second - and we know how that turned out last year.

In team news, Jack Wilshere has stayed in London due to his ankle inflammation, but we still have a kind of an injury boost. Gibbs and Gnabry are declared completely fit and have travelled to Germany for this crucial Champions League game, while Flamini has a good chance to be fit for Manchester United. And while Wenger has said that Walcott and Podolski will be back after the international 'break', there have been some suggestions that Theo could make it on Sunday - which would be a huge boost. Having Flamini and Walcott fit for Old Trafford would mean that our squad gets a bit of a breather for Sunday, and that should give the starting XI much more incentive to give their all tonight.

Speaking of team news, it seems that the exact XI that beat Liverpool seems set to start today. I feel that they are good enough to at least take a point from Westfalenstadion, and that should be our minimum requirement. Ozil didn't really have such a good game at the Emirates on Saturday, aside for that assist for Ramsey's goal. However, the manager has heaped praises on him, saying:

“[He has brought] technical quality, vision and his absolute desire to play collectively in a very strong way. He is a player who has only one master, that is football. He does what the game demands, his ego does not stand in the way of his game, all the great players have that.”

Well chosen words by the manager to big up one of our most influential players on the pitch, who will undoubtedly look to impress on his home soil.

I find it really hard to predict this game. An Arsenal loss does seem likely, because this team is tired and didn't have a proper answer to their tactics in the last Matchday. However, this Arsenal side have a tendency to pull a rabbit out of the hat in the Champions League when most unexpected - just ask Bayern Munich. A draw wouldn't be bad at all, but it would mean that we would need victories against Marseille and Napoli. It's a really tough game to call, this.

I guess we'll find out tonight.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Monday, 4 November 2013

Arsenal 2-0 Liverpool: Rosic-key to our success

A Santi Cazorla volley and an Aaron Ramsey screamer ensured that Arsenal clinched three seemingly convincing points against Liverpool. And while there are still problems in this squad that were evident in this game, no one can deny that the pros largely outshone the cons on a memorable night for the Gunners.

It all started at the 19th minute through a Santi strike. I thought that Arteta's pass to Sagna to start up the move was really good. He is often criticized for playing the ball too square and slowing the game down, but that sure wasn't the case when he placed an inch-perfect ball to Bac. Sagna's cross was good (Is it just me, or has his crossing markedly improved after the Dortmund game?), Santi played a one-two with the post and rocketed it in. A good move wrapped up in some style.

However, if the first goal could be classified as good, the second had to be called world-class. Olivier Giroud held up the play successfully at the right flank, (once again, and he's getting really good at that now), and he played a back pass to Ozil. Mesut flicked it onto the path of Ramsey, who fired an exceptional strike into the top corner, leaving Mignolet absolutely no chance. This was the kind of strike a player would only attempt at such sky-high confidence, but he actually pulled off that shot. And while that goal did show some selfish play, it was just reward for our domination over them.

A happy manager said:

"Today was an important win for the team, for the club, and overall nobody would dispute that we deserved to win this game. It was vital to win, I said that before the game and I don't change my mind, because had we not won people would say 'yes, Arsenal at home they cannot win the big games'. It is done, in a convincing way. We had a good solidarity, a good focus."

A simply stunning result where we maintained good control over the game and found the goals through convincing and effective play. And while we deserved to win this game, I'm a bit surprised as to how many Gooners quickly forgot how easily we could've lost it.

It is a myth that Mertesacker and Koscielny managed to keep out the threats of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. The SAS were a constant danger throughout the game, and were unlucky or not clinical enough to not score. Our defence was porous, and if luck wasn't on our side, we would've easily shipped in goals. Had a Henderson howler, a disallowed goal, Suarez grazing the post, a mistimed Sturridge header, Szczesny's rebounded kick and another Suarez miss gone the other side of the post, we would've convincingly lost this game for sure.

I just don't feel that most of our back four deserves credit for our win, because they were pretty below par. Suarez and Sturridge were finding spaces and causing constant problems for us, and we wouldn't have kept our clean sheet if Szczesny and Sagna weren't at their reliable best. Szczesny was simply out of this world in the game, claiming crosses and punching headers away. Indeed, if he hadn't almost gifted Liverpool a goal through a deflection, I would've rated him a Perfect 10. If rumours are to be believed, he has been given a 4 year contract worth £100,000 per week. Saturday's performance thoroughly justifies that bumper deal.

Sagna - I have no idea why he hasn't been given a contract yet. He played his 250th game in an Arsenal shirt with remarkable consistency once again. One of his few flaws - crossing - seem to be taken care of at the moment. He came back from two long term injuries and a disaster of a last season to continue being one of the best right backs in the country. I'd even go so far as to say that he has been one of our unsung heroes this season. There is actually no valid reason left to not give him a deal anymore.

While Sagna and Szczesny were at their best, I felt that the game was truly won in the midfield. Arteta covered the absence of Flamini and showed how much he still has to give for the club, Ramsey capped off another energetic display with a goal and Santi Cazorla showed glimpses that he was going back to his best. It shows how brilliant our midfield is that our worst midfielder on the pitch against Liverpool was considered to be Ozil, who got his 150th career assist for Aaron Ramsey's goal.

However, it was Tomas Rosicky who certainly stole the show. His unpredictable runs, sublime one-two's and dribbling skills made me wonder if he was getting younger every year. He was all over Liverpool, and allowed players like Gerrard no space. The Mozart was definitely the man of the match for me, and I hope he doesn't get injured any time soon.

Finally, a word to our fans, who were brilliant on this memorable night. I had expressed my doubts that we weren't turning this place into a fortress, and that the away fans were silencing us too often. Oh, not a sign of that was seen in the match. Like the entirety of Liverpool's midfield, the away fans were largely silenced by a rocking Emirates Stadium, who got behind the team they love from the start and saw us march on to victory.

This win and the Spuds drawing against Everton (hahaha) means that we are five whole points clear at the top of the table, bettering our Invincibles season by getting 25 points of a possible 30. And while this victory wiped off the memories of that damaging Capital One Cup loss, I hardly need not emphasize how important the next match is going to be for our Champions League qualification hopes. Playing Borussia Dortmund at an intimidating Westfalenstadion is certainly the kind of game that can dent our current feelings of ecstasy.

However, more on that on Wednesday. I'd just like to add three words:

Mind. The. GAP.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Arsenal vs Liverpool: Match Preview

Arsenal will face off Liverpool in what would undoubtedly be an entertaining clash today. It's hard to say which team has the edge - but I would go with Arsenal, because we're playing it at the Emirates Stadium.

Even so, we haven't been as clinical at home as one would want us to be. Recent defeats to Dortmund and Chelsea have dipped the mood of the Arsenal faithful a bit. We aren't making the Emirates a fortress, which was evident when the chants of 9000 Chelsea fans singing "Jose Mourinho" outshone the 50,000 quiet Arsenal fans. We have a fantastic away support, no doubt, but the fact that we're struggling for results in our own home is a bit of a worry for me. We are going to play about 50% of our games there, you know.

Anyway, be it at the Emirates or Anfield, a win would be simply great because it would maintain our lead and put our title rivals five points off the pace. However, I would be really surprised if we manage to win this game, especially because Liverpool have been largely impressive thus far. Brendan Rodgers and Daniel Sturridge are looking like men possessed, who want to prove a point this summer. The return of Suarez was followed by 6 goals in his past 5 games, which is nothing short of astounding. Despite my distaste of his character, I can't deny that Suarez is in the form of his life.

It's a frightening thought to put our unpredictable defence against the most potent attacking duo in the Premier League. Without Flamini (who might return for the Manchester United clash), our defence looks more porous than ever, and it would truly be a marvel if we manage a clean sheet in this fixture.
Wenger sees this game as an opportunity to prove our title credentials, by saying:

“Yes, [it’s a big week] considering the quality of the opponents. But we have a good opportunity on Saturday to make a difference and we want to take it. We play against Liverpool at home, it's an exciting game but, as well, it's of massive importance for us.”

The team should line up in the usual back five of Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Kieran Gibbs. I think that Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey will occupy the central midfield role, with Ozil playing as an attacking midfielder. While Santi is set to start on the left wing, the manager has a dilemma as to whom to start on the right. I think that he will opt for Jack Wilshere over Rosicky, which for me, is the right choice. Jack seems to be finding his feet on the right wing, and while it is only temporary, at the moment, he's the best we've got there. [UPDATE: Reports suggest that Wilshere has aggravated his ankle injury. Rosicky seems set to start now] Of course, Olivier Giroud will start as our striker, and will hope to damage their defence.

It's a tough game to call this, but I'm going for a draw. In hindsight, it won't be a bad result, because we would still maintain our lead on the top, albeit only by goal difference if Chelsea win by a one-goal margin. A win would be a brilliant result, and would show that this team can indeed give a good fight for the title. We should be in for a cracker, either ways.

Come on Arsenal. If you want to be the best, you need to take out the best.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )