Monday, 30 December 2013

One nil to The Arsenal...

It was smash-and-grab, it was nail biting and it was nerve racking. But it was worth it, as we finish 2013 on top of the pile, thanks to Giroud's head snatching a 1-0 win for us. It was very much similar to the victory that we grabbed previously at St. James', and it felt just as sweet.

We travelled to Newcastle with several key players missing. The absentees included Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal who missed the match due to illness while Ozil suffered a slight shoulder injury which is likely to keep him out for the next 2-3 games. The traffic on the treatment table seems to be growing by the day as it already includes the likes of Ramsey, Chambo and (what was his name again?) Abou Diaby, of course.

We went into the match knowing only a win would help us stay on top at the end of the year. And win we did.

Team lineup:

Vermaelen's absence meant the Mertescielny pair was reunited, while the rest of the back five kind of picked themselves. Flamini came in to replace Arteta while Wilshere slotted in Ramsey's role, after returning from his 2 match ban. The attacking consisted of a very unfamiliar trio of Walcott, Rozza and Santi. Giroud (as usual) spearheaded our attack, with Podolski left on the bench once again.

First half:

The first half was a very tight affair with many half chances for both sides, but the more clear cut ones fell Newcastle's way right at the end of the half. I feel we started both the halves very brightly. Newcastle had no answer to Arsenal's tiki-taka possession football, as barely any team does. However, as both halves wore on, Newcastle grew into the game and put us on the backfoot.

Rosicky and Cazorla kept ticking it for us without really hurting them, while Wilshere always looked to run into traffic and surrender possession. Theo hardly made any runs behind and was poor on the ball, quite honestly. Overall, our build up play to their box was good but the final ball always went astray, reminiscent of the frustrating old Arsenal.

There was a a moment in the match when I really missed Ozil. It was around the 20th minute, when Newcastle were caught on the break by Arsenal. Cazorla, with the ball at his feet had the simplest task of playing the ball through to Giroud who had made an excellent run. However, he passed it straight into the defenders legs, killing off the move. Had the ball been played by Ozil, Ollie would have indisputably found himself one-on-one with the keeper.

Newcastle should have taken the lead at half time, had it not been for Chezza (I love this guy!). He pulled out a top corner save from Sissoko's excellent effort, palming the ball over the bar. Luckily, the resulting corner saw a looping header by Debuchy hitting the bar and then being cleared off the line.

Second half:

This half started extremely similar to the first one with the mighty Arsenal dominating, but still failing to cause Krul any serious danger.

NEWCASTLE 0-1 ARSENAL: Arsenal earned a free kick in the middle of opponents half. With Theo stepping up to take it, I was damn sure it would result in a goal kick to them. His crossing has been poor since he has stepped foot into Arsenal, but on this occasion he proved me wrong. I'm glad he did, to be honest. His delivery was excellent and the faintest of touches off Giroud's head was enough to see him score. 1-0 at long last.

I loved Giroud's hold up play. Yesterday, it was immaculate and sometimes excellent. I remember a highlight of the game when he made the defence stare at him with awe as he plucked a long ball from the air, chested it, juggled it with both his thighs and feet and finally brought it to a halt.

He was all over the Newcastle back four and worked his socks off for the team. Make no mistake, while another striker is still required, this guy is a true team player. He thoroughly deserved his goal and it would do him a world of good to his confidence after breaking his drought. Moments later, a bit of calmness would have certainly doubled his tally for the evening, but it wasn't to be.

Later, Gibbs got injured which saw Flamini play at the LB position again (never imagined this scenario in his second spell), which meant that Gibbs was replaced by Arteta to shore up things. Wenger was quite happy with the 1 goal lead as he brought Jenkinson on in place of Walcott to resort to a BACK FIVE consisting of 3 central defenders. It was a back to the walls approach by us - symbolic of Wenger's growing pragmatism in recent games - as we tried to cling on to our slender lead. We invited pressure onto us but dealt with their aerial attack surprisingly easily, clinching an important victory for us.

In the aftermath of the win, a delighted Arsene said:

"There is something in the team that is special on the mental front where we have many times been questioned. But we have shown that at West Ham when we were 1-0 down, we have shown that again today when we were a bit backs to the wall in the last 15 minutes.For years we were younger [and less able] to resist this kind of pressure but we have always been up there at the top. There's a great solidarity and a great spirit in the side."

And he's right on the money. This is an Arsenal side finally coming of age, getting 3 points when it matters most. This is an Arsenal side that will adapt to Stoke City's footballing philosophy if need be to cling on to 3 juicy, precious and decisive points. This is a mixture of George Graham's gritty Arsenal warriors that held on to one-nillers as well as of Wenger's "beautiful football" artists, which is proving to be a deadly combination thus far.

We've played attractive football against the likes of Norwich, Napoli and Liverpool, but we've abandoned those philosophies for 3 vital points against teams like Dortmund, Marseille and now Newcastle. Critics who are yet writing us off from being title contenders are completely off their rocker - not that I really care.

This is a new look Arsenal, one built on a mixture of pragmatism and attractive football. And I like it.

-Cesc (Follow me on Twitter @adwait122)

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Newcastle vs Arsenal: Match Preview

“We are in the race and we want to stay in it. We won at West Ham and now we must go game by game with a big ambition. But we know that, in this Premier League, you always have to set high standards. As soon as you drop a fraction, you're in trouble."

This was exactly what I wanted to say; Arsene Wenger's words sum it all up. Win, and we can celebrate New Year with being on top. Lose or draw, and we slip behind current leaders Manchester City, and not to mention edge closer towards a quickly improving Manchester United. The situation of the Premier League at this moment is such that every match is regarded as a cup-final, a must win. A very similar situation the last time we visited St. James' Park, I might add.

Of course, the significance of the victories will be different. Back then, we were fighting for 4th place, a chance at Champions League qualification and another chance to go one up on our rivals (where are they in the table again?). Today, we are doing what an Arsenal side are meant to do - shoot for the moon and overtake the teams who have got here through bored Russian billionaires and oil companies.

Our previous performances at St. James' Park have been far from convincing. Last season, of course, was that 1-0 victory through a Koscielny scissor kick - but many would rightly argue that it was a match that could've gone either way. The season before that was the season opener of 2011/12 - a drab 0-0 draw where the highlight was a Gervinho sent off on his debut. The season before - a humiliating 4-4 collapse.

However, many would argue that this is an Arsenal side completely different from the 4-4s and the 0-0s. Never have we seen collapses in this season, and scoring goals is clearly not looking like an issue anymore. However, we would be foolish to underestimate Newcastle United, who have won 7 out of their last 9 matches - defeating Chelsea, Spurs and Manchester United along the way. Remy is looking like one of the best loan signings ever, and Yohan Cabaye's form is showing us exactly why Arsene Wenger was interested in him.

It's telling how close the league table would be if we lose at Newcastle, because we'll drop to just 3 points of their vicinity. While no one in their right mind would call Newcastle United as Champions League contenders, them defeating us would certainly shut up some of the critics.

I have a hunch that we are in for a thriller today, but then again, I do get a lot of false hunches. In the end, whatever matters is three precious points, which would take us back on top and watch the Chelsea vs Liverpool match as a neutral to some extent. In this season where our rivals rarely make a mistake, it is imperative to get a victory with the knowledge that at least one of your rivals (or indeed both) are set to slip-up.

In team news, Tomas Rosicky and Laurent Koscielny are doubts to participate in the game, but I think the latter will be given the green light. It's difficult to see what midfield Arsene looks set to pick out, but I think that he won't make any change in the whole team apart from replacing the injured Ramsey with Jack Wilshere. Personally, I would like to see a pairing of Flamini and Arteta, with Cazorla as an attacking midfielder, Walcott and Wilshere on the wings and Podolski as a striker. I've said it a lot of times that while I feel that Podolski is not the answer to our striker woes, we should at least give him a chance in that position.

It's about time Giroud gets benched too. His recent performances are simply bordering on decent, and a failure to get a goal in matches where he has been given presentable chances is simply adding on the pressure of being a lone striker in the team. While Ozil isn't suffering from a lack of form at the moment, the manager needs to rest him, especially because he isn't used to being played at this time of the year. Anyway, Santi Cazorla's fine performance against West Ham was largely down to him drifting into the center more often - a sign that he can aptly replace Ozil's tiring legs.

However, knowing the manager well, I'm sure that he will start Ozil and Giroud again, regardless of form and fatigue. He might start Podolski ahead of Cazorla as a result of fan pressure, but I don't see any other changes happening apart from Wilshere slotting in for Ramsey, of course. I'm tired of repeating how stupid a decision it is to overplay Ozil and Giroud and seeing my complaints being fallen on deaf ears. I just hope that my predicted consequences don't occur.

I'm going for a 3-2 Arsenal win today, although I won't be able to see the match, or indeed the Chelsea game. Due to my absence, a different blogger will be reviewing the game.

I think Liverpool will defeat Chelsea today if they aren't thwarted by a bad referee, like against Manchester City. Anyway, the result of that game shouldn't contaminate the significance of three points at St. James', which - I hardly need reminding - would bring us back in control of the title race.

Come on Arsenal.

P.S. Congratulations to Szczesny, Mertesacker, Ozil and Ramsey for being selected in the team of the year. You did us proud.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Friday, 27 December 2013

West Ham 1-3 Arsenal: Merry Christmas!

This game was a perfect example of how fickle an Arsenal supporter can be over the course of 90 minutes. After all the mixed emotions that I witnessed (which I yet vividly recall), in the end I can only say I'm glad it ended on a happy note.

It started with the team sheet. While I knew that Wenger's appalling man management skills meant that Ozil and Giroud were set to start, a little part of me hoped that Wenger would have the teeny-tiny foresight to realize that Mesut and Ollie needed to be benched for a game like this. That little part of me was killed off when Wenger yet again decided to overplay them, and field Cazorla on the wings. I believe that the only reason that Santi had a good game was because he took matters into his own hands, opting to drift into the center rather than stay on the flanks.

Despite practically everyone's wishes, Podolski was benched again, with Arsene opting to play Giroud ahead of him. Why Wenger thought that Giroud would perform well after missing great chances against Chelsea just 3 days ago is beyond me. Even though Arsene's hand was forced on overplaying Giroud earlier, he should be giving him some rest now, especially due to the arrival of stand-in strikers like Walcott and Podolski.

Honestly, Wenger is making horrible decisions regarding the man managements of Ozil and Giroud. He's failing to find the balance between form and fitness between the two players, instead choosing to start them in every match. Ozil is coping with it well - he had another good game yesterday - but that is because he is a professional. Robin van Persie and Mesut Ozil are world-class players, which is why they could perform consistently, even though they were overplayed by Wenger.

Of course, not every professional footballer can handle being sent to the field twice every week. Witness Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and even Jack Wilshere to some extent, who used to suffer injuries due to constant overplaying by the manager. Ozil and Giroud are dangerously close to entering that dreaded 'red zone', and unless they are benched for fresher legs like Rosicky and Podolski, we might witness Arsene plunge us in another injury crisis.

As it happened, it was Ramsey who fell prey to Wenger's incompetent man management, suffering a thigh strain which would rule him out of the Christmas schedule. I still don't know why Wenger decided to field him ahead of Mathieu Flamini, who had 12 days of rest going into this match. The good news is that we have Jack Wilshere back from his ban to cover up for Aaron and provide more options. The bad news? I don't think that Wenger is going to use those options.

I had said in the match preview that it would be Wenger's team selection that would catch my eye rather than the final result, and so it proved. Wenger's failure to rest Ozil and Giroud, playing Cazorla on the wing and overplaying Ramsey has led to a bad game by Giroud, Ramsey getting injured and we almost bottling this match.

Giroud missed a handful of chances in the first half, sometimes looking downright lazy by failing to move his foot half an inch more to poke the ball home. And while the goal we conceded in the second half was against the run of play and a sloppy one really, it was actually a blessing in disguise, because it finally gave us motivation to go on and snatch this match.

Arteta failed to clear the ball away in the box, instead handing it to Nolan through a poor clearance. He shot straight at Szczesny, who inexplicably failed to catch that ball. It fell straight at Cole's feet, leaving him to tap the ball in. Advantage West Ham.

I actually think that Wenger wouldn't have got Podolski on had Ramsey not been injured. Even though his loss is a blow to the club, at least we can focus on the silver lining - how Podolski's introduction changed the match.

After Walcott scored what I felt was a fluke equalizer, Podolski stole the show by assisting Theo's header and getting a goal himself. Right from when he came on, he was lively and dangerous, the mark of a striker. His goal showcased a striker's instinct and lethal finishing. He's now got 3 goals and 1 assist in his last 125 minutes of Premier League action, indicative of his usefulness to the team. I've already said it a million times - we should try Podolski as a striker and see how that works out. If he thrives in that position, we can get a really good winger like Marco Reus or Angel Di Maria to replace his vacated position. If he doesn't, tough luck, but we can concentrate on getting that striker.

However, I don't want Arsene to not buy anyone in January and say that we have Podolski and Giroud as striker, with Walcott, Cazorla, Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain as wingers. Wenger needs to make up his mind - either Podolski should be played as a winger or as a striker. If Arsene sees Podolski as a winger, then we need to buy a striker, and vice versa.

It's good that we got 3 points, especially since Everton, Spurs and Liverpool slipped up on the same day. It's even better that we got it in dramatic fashion, coming from behind to get the win, something we haven't been able to do this season. Amazingly, this is the first time that we've won a game after trailing in this season, something that would hopefully give us a boost in our coming matches.

Compared to our title rivals City and Liverpool, we have a really low goal difference. The one point lead we have at the top currently is paper-thin, and we need to make sure that we maintain that distance at least. If we ever go level on points with either City or Liverpool, we'll slip behind them in the table. That would be a tremendous shame, considering that we have 6 easy matches coming up.

Such is the competitiveness of EPL that we have absolutely zero margin for error now. To keep our lead, we have to win all of the 6 matches that we are playing, starting with a trip to Newcastle. With Liverpool facing a match against Chelsea - unbeaten at their home ground also - the chances of either team dropping points are high. We need to take advantage.

Let's enjoy being on top of the pile for the moment. Be back on Sunday with a match preview.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Thursday, 26 December 2013

West Ham vs Arsenal: Match Preview

With Liverpool looking set to surrender their lead at the Etihad, we already have a chance to get a 3 point lead in the table by winning at Upton Park today, the home of West Ham. It's a game that we really should be taking three points out of, even after rotating our squad to rest the big guns.

This Arsenal side have struggled against the top teams, yet we are high up in the table. The lead - that we are almost certain to retain by the end of today - would almost completely be down to getting results against teams that we are supposed to be getting results. Bar the humiliation against Villa and the point-gained-rather-than-two-lost at the Hawthorns, we have defeated every team that aren't heavyweights in the league, such as Stoke, Swansea, Cardiff and Tottenham.

These were coupled by points won against Everton and Liverpool, which have ultimately got us in this position. While I still maintain that merely beating mediocre sides will not guarantee us the title, it has got us in a good position thus far, and we need to maintain that level of consistency until reinforcements arrive in January.

Personally, I'm confident that we are going to batter West Ham today, especially if we take the lead in the game. Once we break the deadlock against the Hammers, I really don't see any way back for them. However, if West Ham indeed take the lead, we might be in a bit of a pickle. In this Premier League season, we've conceded first only against West Brom, Manchester United and City, gaining only one point from these matches. It's safe to say that we might find it difficult to bounce back if we trail, which is why we need a focused defence today.

This is a match which allows room for rotation, keeping in mind that we face a much tougher task against Newcastle at St. James' Park 3 days later. Personally, I would be glad if Ozil and Giroud are dropped for Cazorla and Podolski, and Flamini and Arteta are played in center midfield. I feel that a major reason of Santi's form dropping is down to the fact that he's been fielded out wide, and benching him is certainly not the answer.

Ozil needs a rest for the Newcastle game, and Giroud needs a kick in the backside, a reminder that even his position in the starting lineup is not guaranteed. Maybe a run-out for Gnabry won't hurt either, as his pace might inflict damage to the West Ham back four. Some changes in our back four - like Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal coming in - won't be a bad idea either, even though I doubt that the manager is going to do that.

All in all, I would like to see a lineup of Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Monreal, Flamini, Arteta, Santi, Walcott, Gnabry and Podolski. Cazorla - under pressure to step up his performances and pleased to get freedom in the center - will put a good show against a team that he has already performed fairly well. Gnabry was impressive against Swansea back in September, and I think that he and Theo will really bother the Hammers' defence. Even though I am highly dubious on Podolski's potential to solve our striker issues, I would at least give him a crack in that position, see if he can surprise any of us. As much as I like Giroud, 2 goals in 11 appearances is simply not good enough - he NEEDS to be benched.

However, I am quietly confident that Wenger is not going to bench Giroud. In fact, I think that he's going to play Ozil too, even though he isn't really required in this game. I've said it before, I'll say it again - Wenger is a horrible man manager. For instance, playing Cazorla out of position and then benching him is not the mark of a competent tactician at all. He's giving players like Szczesny, Ozil and Giroud too many games to play, which would make them complacent and might lead to injuries due to overplaying.

I think Wenger will give Flamini a starting position in this game and play Cazorla too, but I'm sure that Santi is going to start on the wing, a perfectly ridiculous decision if you ask me. It's getting increasingly clear throughout this calendar year that Cazorla cannot perform well as a winger, and to continue playing him there or benching him is destroying a quality player.

Sometimes I fear that Cazorla is set to go the same way as Arshavin. Arshavin's case was as clear as day to many people - he was a world-class player who needed to be given special attention to thrive. Wenger should've built the team around him and fielded him in the center attacking position or as center forward. However, Arsene foolishly pushed him to the flanks, and ruined the career of a promising player capable of producing magical moments.

I'll be honest - I have no clue why Wenger is treating Cazorla or even Podolski in such a manner. If treated right, these two players can be devastatingly effective for the club, yet the manager is ignoring their strengths and playing them in incompatible positions (or in Podolski's case, not playing them at all).

We have strength in depth, especially in midfield. A player like Mesut Ozil is not required to be starting in games like these. If Arsene does indeed start Mesut and should he suffer an injury, I will never forgive him, especially when there are players like Cazorla raring to take his place for ONE game. While the final result seems something of a given today, it is Arsene's team selection that will really catch the spotlight for me.

I think that Arsenal are going to win this match by a 2 goal margin, and Liverpool are going to lose convincingly at the Etihad. That would mean that our lead at the top is set to be reinstated, and possibly extended when Liverpool face Chelsea at the weekend. For me, rotation is key to finishing December strongly, coming through unscathed and to be in a healthy position ahead of a decisive January.

Let's begin with three points at Upton Park.

P.S. Check out this post I wrote for Arsenal India Supporters. Merry Christmas!

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: Knocked off the top

A 0-0 stalemate against Chelsea finally knocked us off our perch, much to the critics' pleasure. And while there is a plausibility of reclaiming it a mere two days later, I think that this game should be taken as a lesson to the players and the manager of the club.

As much as I loathe Jose Mourinho's personality, I can't help but admire the perspective he saw this game from. Instead of sending his team out to win against us, he decided to face facts and settle for a draw at an away pitch with blistering conditions, possibly hoping to get a goal on the break as a bonus. It would've worked out extremely well had Lampard found the net through a volley that cannoned off the crossbar.

While he was surely the benefactor of the two managers, it's surprising why he didn't change his tactics midway throughout the game. It was getting obvious in the first half that Arsenal were far from their best, with the London weather and our link-up play looking dreadful. I think that if Mourinho had decided to stop parking the bus and go for the win, we would have crumbled.

I think to some extent that we should count our lucky stars, because we could've easily left this game without a point at all. However, that certainly didn't rob me of the frustration of failing to win an important game on an important night. Olivier Giroud's failure to score when he had two presentable opportunities was another example on how signing a striker is becoming a must through every passing game. Even though his second effort via a Gibbs cross was well saved, he at least should've hit the target with the first.

His technique was all wrong as well, while taking the shot on. Instead of lashing at it, maybe a loop over the goalkeeper or a placement at the near post would've been a better option. It's getting clearer with every passing game that Giroud is not the first person that you would want on a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper. A change of plans up front is becoming a necessity.

I've resigned myself to the scenario that on the way off chance that Arsenal do buy a striker, he would come way after the 25th of January, courtesy of Wenger's notorious transfer procrastinating habits. That would mean that there is a month - or 7 matches - of no player being set to brought in, which is already taking a huge gamble. Can we rely on Giroud until then?

I think not. Podolski's return means that we do have more options upfront. While I am of the opinion that Podolski offers us much more on the wing rather than as a lone striker, he might just prove me wrong like so many Arsenal players have done so far. In this season alone Ramsey's turning into a complete midfielder, Giroud's hold-up play has vastly improved and Arteta's defensive qualities are gradually standing out. Looking at the changes developing in these players, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility of Podolski turning into a goal poacher.

If he indeed does, that still doesn't rule out the requirement for a signing. If Podolski turns out to be the answer to our striker woes, that would mean that a winger would become a necessity, due to Podolski vacating that position. I haven't really considered a winger that we should purchase, but I feel he should be good in crossing, pacey and a prolific goalscorer or assister.

Whether we do get anyone in the transfer window itself remains a huge question mark, but there is no doubt in my mind by now that a winger or a striker is a necessity if we want to win the title. Let's be honest - this Arsenal side are completely incapable of beating top teams. We aren't going to win the title or even get past Bayern Munich unless we get a marquee signing in January. That's a fact.

Deemed incapable of starting?
Speaking of Podolski, it's baffling why Wenger didn't bring him on, or even Santi Cazorla for that matter. Mourinho's clever decision of pairing Terry and Cahill against Giroud to match his physicality paid off. Halfway through the second half, if Wenger would've got on Podolski for Giroud and made Walcott as a striker with Lukas on the wing, we might've threatened a lot more than we did.

On that subject, Arsene said:

"I had plenty of offensive players on the pitch and we were in the need to attack. I had Walcott, I had Ramsey, I had Ozil, I had Giroud, I had Rosicky, and because we didn't play for nine days none of them looked really jaded. That's why… I felt we had the balance defensively and we had four or five offensive players on the pitch."

A word on Mike Dean as well, who many Arsenal supporters have criticized for his performance. Actually, I thought that he did pretty well, aside from his decision to not book Mikel for that challenge on Arteta. The foul on Walcott definitely wasn't a penalty, in my opinion. Quite frankly, the referee gave the game every chance of continuing, and doesn't deserve to be made a scapegoat for our underwhelming performance.

As of now, we've surrendered our league lead to Liverpool, a team who I believe are top four contenders rather than title challengers. They play Manchester City and Chelsea in this week, while we face West Ham and Newcastle. While I'm confident that we are going to restore our lead when the New Year arrives, I'd want to warn everyone to not be fooled into thinking that it's a sure sign that our team are set to win the title.

The current league standings suggest that this season's title race is going to be closer than ever. It's a league where there are two joint leaders, a league where Man City are just one point off the pace, and where Chelsea and Everton are four points adrift. It's also worth noting that it's a league where Newcastle United are on par with Tottenham and ahead of Man United, and can become genuine Europa League contenders should they beat us on the 29th.

I remember Arsene saying that the league table carries no real significance at the beginning of November. While I agreed with him, I had fully expected the title race to take shape at this point of the season, which, to my surprise, hasn't been the case. The increasingly competitive nature of this season's title race is leaving absolutely no margin for error for us. The scenarios where a draw or a loss would make a team fall two or three positions were entirely unexpected at this time. For a neutral, this is shaping up to be one of the most exciting Premier League seasons ever. For a Gooner, it's downright worrying.

We've coped remarkably well under pressure thus far, responding to Aston Villa shocks and Old Trafford sucker punches to continue being right up there. As of this moment, the team is experiencing yet another slump of four games, and has an easy fixture list given to recover from. THIS is the time of the season, which, according to me, would decide if we're going to lead the pack or play catch-ups.

In this week, we can be certain that either Liverpool, Manchester City or Chelsea are going to drop points. By defeating West Ham and Newcastle, we can take advantage of the inevitable slip-ups that are certain to follow. Let's do that.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Monday, 23 December 2013

Arsenal vs Chelsea: Match Preview

If this isn't a must-win, then what is?
We face an exhausted Chelsea tonight at the Emirates Stadium, with a view of restoring our 2 point lead at the top. After dropping points against Everton and City, we simply cannot afford another slip-up today, especially when it would come at a huge cost.

The five point lead that we earlier boasted of served a meaningful purpose. It still preserved our lead after a humbling at the Etihad, and gave us a chance of being on the top again, albeit by a much slender margin. While we know that reinforcements are required to enhance our title challenge, for now we just need to get a victory to be in the loop until the players we need do arrive.

Whether they will arrive or not shall be seen in the coming month, but that's a discussion that's neither here nor there, coming into tonight's game. Chelsea are a side that greatly resemble ours - a fantastic midfield, striker issues, yet high up in the league. As much as we need to win, they badly need a result too, to bounce back from the defeats against Sunderland and Stoke.

I can't help but feel that this game will be won in the midfield. Both sides have their strengths in the middle of the park, and will doubtless try to use that to their advantage. For every Ozil, they have a Mata, and for every Ramsey, they have a Lampard. While it is my firm belief that Chelsea is a team that is currently better than ours, they will undoubtedly be physically and psychologically drained after crashing out of the Capital One Cup in extra time.

Even though we haven't been given the easiest side to resurrect our title challenge, I can't help but feel that we've got Chelsea at their weakest. As a mark of a title-challenging side, we really should take advantage of it.

The return of Podolski (aha!) gives us more options upfront, but I doubt he'll be a starter in tonight's clash. After dropping Santi, I have a hunch that Wenger will field him on the left, along with Theo and Giroud. While the defence of Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen and Gibbs picks itself for this match, the midfield should be a bit of a pickle for Wenger. He has Flamini, Ramsey, Arteta, Ozil and Rosicky who are available at his disposal, yet only 3 spots available. I suspect he'll opt for a trio of Flamini, Arteta and Ozil, with Ramsey dropping to the bench despite his current form.

Look at that bench. If my prediction of Arsene's lineup indeed proves accurate, it shall consist of Ramsey, Rosicky, Podolski and would also include Wilshere were he not banned for two games. It hardly needs emphasizing that our bench is significantly stronger than it was seasons ago, along with 11 fresh legs out on the pitch. While Podolski isn't up and running to the rigours of the Premier League yet, he doubtless will be in a couple of games, which might just give Wenger some food for thought on Giroud's striker position.

If you ask me, I still think that we should buy a striker to increase our options. However, the main reason for that was because I wasn't really convinced with having Podolski as a choice upfront. In the previous season, he wasn't exactly prolific when he was deployed out there, you see. However, after witnessing Giroud's markedly improving second season, I can't help but wonder if Podolski can do the same with Arsenal. You never know, if Lukas indeed replicates his 2006 World Cup form, we might not require a striker after all.

While Podolski was by no means a flop, he was certainly a bit underwhelming last season, as was Giroud. Look at Ollie now. If he did have the suitable backup that we are all craving for thus far, I'm sure that his good form would've continued throughout this first half of the season. Maybe the return of Podolski might just provide the backup he needs, you know.  

Anyway, that's one curious issue that will be answered in the coming Christmas fixtures, depending on Podolski's form and our winter transfer budget. All I have to say for now is that we cannot afford a loss, or even a draw against this huge team that we're about to face. I respectfully disagree to those people who think that a draw is an acceptable result. It might be acceptable for a team fighting for the top four, rather than the top one. If we're serious about winning the title, we should capitalize on Chelsea's tired legs and deliver them a knockout blow.

The fixture list gets a lot easier after facing Chelsea. Our next league games - after Chelsea - includes West Ham, Newcastle, Cardiff, Aston Villa, Fulham, Southampton and Crystal Palace. Out of these games, it won't be unreasonable to ask for 18 points out of a possible 21. If we indeed throw Chelsea off the pace and win most of our upcoming matches, we might go a bit more than 5 points clear come February.

Even though a Wenger side has never beaten a Mourinho side, the odds are slightly in our favour in this one. We have players like Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud and Aaron Ramsey who have gotten 9 days of rest that they so needed, and we have strength on the bench if they do tire. We have players like Thomas Vermaelen, Theo Walcott and Mikel Arteta who feel that they yet have a lot to prove to the manager and book a starting berth. And we had 9 days of buildup to this game, along with the carrot of restoring our lead at the top for incentive enough.

I don't really know which way this game is going to go, honestly. Both sides have equal strengths and weaknesses as well in all areas of the pitch, and have a common goal of going further high up in the pitch. Pessimist that I am, I have a hunch that Chelsea's never say die mentality might prove decisive at the Emirates, but I'm confident that we're going to give them a good run for their money this time, unlike the City massacre.

A finely balanced London derby with a lot to lose and a lot to gain is approaching. If we do win, it'll surely be the best Christmas present that I've gotten thus far.

Come on you Gunners.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Thursday, 19 December 2013

My predictions on Arsenal's 2013/14 campaign

We're almost midway through a season that's just flown by so far and we've already got a good idea of our team, which indisputably seems like one of the best Arsenal sides in years. Though there is a lack of world-class players in this team, we have a core of good, honest players ho seem committed enough to be Arsenal greats in the future. And with the likes of Podolski returning and Theo finding form, coupled with the teams we're going to face set to get a bit easier after the Chelsea match, supporters do have a reason to be a little more optimistic about our trophy chances this season.

You must forgive me then for seeming a little bleak in these happy days of ours, but I must admit that I yet can't shake off concerns that this season won't be as successful as some Gooners might think. Signing Ozil, while a fantastic move, was merely papering over the cracks, and unless reinforcements are added in January, we might just witness yet another disappointing campaign.

Again, while I do agree that we have the strongest Arsenal side in years, I'm still not certain that it is strong enough to be there with the best. Yes, we have many players who are performing above their expectations, but I genuinely doubt whether they'll be able to match that form throughout the course of the campaign. I think that I've mentioned earlier that while we do have a bunch of currently overperforming players, the bitter truth is that they won't be able to maintain the same world class form that they're in so far Form is temporary, class is permanent.

I may be wrong, of course. On the contrary, I would love to be wrong. I would love for Arsenal to win the league or defeat Bayern Munich in the round of 16, but I just can't see that happening at the moment. This is my blog, and I refuse to compromise on my real thoughts on it to provide false hopes. So, without further delay, here is how I predict our Arsenal will perform this season:

Premier League: 3rd

Contrary to popular belief, I feel that Arsenal are still not capable of winning the title, at least not with this squad. A team with a lack of depth in defence, only one striker and only one out-and-out world class player cannot surely compete for the title. People might quickly argue that we are in control in the title race, what with being 2 points clear and all, but they fail to notice that if results go against us this weekend, we might find ourselves 4th by the end of it.

The team has done excellently thus far, but the inescapable truth is that unless we get more depth in our side (most notably support for Olivier Giroud), this team is likely to tire towards the business end of the season. However, if we do get a marquee striker like Karim Benzema, I think we can transform the chase into a close two-horse race for the title between us and Chelsea.

However, I'm almost certain that Arsene Wenger won't get a striker in January. Actually, apart from the odd promising youngster, I doubt that he'll buy anyone in this window. If Bendtner indeed leaves the club in the middle of January, his hand might be forced, but I think that he'll instead make Podolski a support striker for Giroud and replace the vacant winger position by Serge Gnabry.

If indeed Wenger does buy a striker, then I seriously doubt that he will be a world class one. Forget that, I seriously doubt that Wenger will buy a striker at all in the transfer window. If he indeed doesn't, then I shall solely blame him for the inevitable collapse that's certain to follow. That's why I feel that Chelsea will win the Premier League, with Manchester City finishing second and Arsenal a close third.

Champions League: Round of 16

The only way that we can beat Bayern Munich over two legs this season is if we continue our good run of form which has been dented recently, AND if we get a world class striker, cup-tied or not. In my opinion, Bayern Munich are currently THE best team in the world at the moment, and if they get a striker like Robert Lewandowski in January, qualification to the quarter finals might just be out of our hands, even though Lewandowski would be cup-tied to Dortmund.

We of all teams must know the lasting implications that a world class player gets you. Signing Ozil lifted our confidence from average to sky-high and propelled a decent team to the top of the pile, even though it was Ramsey, Giroud, Flamini and a dogged back four who were really the key men in that. We really need to push on from there, and if we're serious about winning the title and getting past Bayern, a marquee striker is a must and a center back is a bonus.

I see barely any way for Arsenal to get past Bayern, I'm afraid. I'm grimly confident that Wenger will refuse the chances to get in "top top quality" or whatever, which will be a catalyst in bottling our Premier League lead and losing against Bayern.

FA Cup:

This is one competition that we have every chance of winning and stemming our trophy drought. With the Champions League a fantasy dream and the Premier League uncertain, the FA Cup is one knockout tournament that we have a fair chance to win, without any signings. I think Arsenal will defeat Spurs in the first round of the FA Cup, but after that it's really down to which teams we pair up with. If we do get paired with City or Chelsea - who, in my opinion, are the only two sides better than us in England - then I expect us to bow out, but I have a sneaky suspicion that we might just be fortunate enough to avoid them. We'd deserve that luck too, what with being in the Group of Death and having a worrying row of games in February and March.

This is one competition where we don't need any signings to win it. However, we need to take this chance seriously, and instead of playing rag tag promising players, Wenger needs to straighten up and play strong starting XIs in these matches. While a draw against Chelsea, Manchester City or maybe even United might extinguish our chances of going further in this competition, I think that Wenger's insistence to play reserve players against a mediocre side is what's going to cost us another trophy, with a side like Swansea or Norwich possibly knocking us out in a shock one-niller.


There you have it. According to me, this team is yet not capable enough to win a trophy this year, even though there has been a stark improvement compared to the previous Arsenal sides. Please don't get me wrong, I don't want this Arsenal side to fail at all. However, I still don't believe that we are strong enough to win the league, which seems like our primary objective this season.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the month of January may just define our season. It's the month which provides a window to buy a striker we so require, and a couple of FA Cup fixtures which we can either progress in or get knocked out of. In addition, if we string some good results in the Premier League, we might just set a good tone for the rest of the season.

After we face Liverpool, United, Bayern Munich, Spurs, City and Chelsea in February and March, the fixture list lightens considerably, which could mean that we can end the season strongly. However, if we fail to step up in the big games where it really matters, the damage could already have been done back in March.

We've faced 10 competitive matches this season, namely against Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, United, Everton, Manchester City and Napoli and Dortmund twice each. Out of these matches, we've won only 4 times, and only the victories against Napoli and Liverpool from them could be considered as convincing ones. Some say that a team is still capable of winning the league even if they struggle against big teams. Aren't they the same ones who said "If you want to be the best, you need to take out the best" when we got drawn against Bayern?

I respectfully disagree to the Arsenal supporters who believe that we can win the league even if we fail to beat the big guns. Yes, it is mathematically possible, but psychologically improbable. Failure to beat the big sides and depending on them to slip up against average teams is hardly the mark of a title challenging team, and if we fail to step up in games that could potentially be title deciders, then we shall only have ourselves to blame for not striking the iron when it was hot.

As much as I am against Arsene Wenger, I've resigned myself to the fact that he is set to stay at the club until he retires. Instead of hoping that he fails and gets sacked by the board (a thoroughly unlikely scenario), I would rather him win a trophy sooner rather than later. Oh no, not because he deserves it, or not because his managerial tactics are accurate, but because it's the fans and more importantly the players who deserve silverware for sticking by the club when the others turned their backs on it. If finally winning a trophy leads Wenger to believe that his managerial skills were on the right track all along, so be it.

Of course, in the long-term, such a mentality of mine might prove harmful to the club, but in the short-term, I couldn't care less. It has been an objective of ours for nearly a decade to break this infamous streak of zilch trophies, and I, like all Arsenal supporters out there, desperately want that label off my back. If it means Arsene Wenger continuing on his deluded path and the board cluelessly backing him, I'm willing to pay that price.

Speaking of short-terms, it's time to focus on the daunting task at hand against Chelsea on Monday, and see if we can get a win there. We've fortunately caught Chelsea at their weakest, after them going into extra time against Sunderland and losing there to a really late goal. Even though they will be demoralized, we by no means can afford to underestimate them, and after our legs are rested, we can go all guns blazing for a win, which would tip the scales in our favour going into the Christmas' hectic fixture list.

See you on Monday with a match preview. Until then, time to cross our fingers and hope that Liverpool and City slip up in the weekend.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Monday, 16 December 2013

My idea of an ideal January transfer window

Now that our fate is sealed in the Champions League (Bayern Munich it is!) and we have a clear picture of what chances we have in all competitions, it's getting blindingly obvious that our squad needs reinforcements to win a trophy, any trophy for that matter. However mystical the circumstances, signing Mesut Ozil was a step in the right direction, but we still need to capitalize on that, especially when we finally have the financial muscle to do so.

The below signings are purely hypothetical in nature, and they are in no way predicting the manager's transfer dealings in the winter. Without further ado, here is the activity that I would like to see us indulge in in January 2014 to ensure a successful 2013/14 campaign:

Buy a striker:

Let's start with the obvious one first.

It's getting clearer with every passing game that the season has already taken its toll on Olivier Giroud. He's now failed to score in the past 6 games, and while it was entirely down to him when he failed to find the back of the net in Manchester (well he did, but the linesman wrongly called him off), the overwhelming burden for him to perform in every single match is clearly not something that he can handle.

True, Robin van Persie did it 2 seasons ago, but there's a significant difference between him and Ollie. Robin was world class, and while Giroud can be really good on his day, he's currently nowhere near the league of the finest. The need for support to Giroud couldn't be clearer, really. Just as Ivan Gazidis said, "We need to buy."

A striker who would provide suitable backup or competition for Giroud might be an acceptable signing even for the most pessimistic Arsenal fan. Yes, I am more than welcome towards that idea, but I feel that we should buy a player who is significantly different than Giroud. Ollie portrays a target man, and he is also more of a creator. This team needs a more of a finisher upfront, not to mention a more mobile striker than Giroud.

While signing Fernando Torres or Demba Ba isn't a bad idea at all, I think we've learned our lesson of not dealing with Jose Mourinho by now. We were really close to getting Ba this summer, but Chelsea apparently 'pulling out' of the deal makes me feel that Mourinho planned this scenario all along.

I also DON'T want us getting Luis Suarez, not just because he's a despicable bitey racist, but also because Liverpool won't be looking to sell him to a title rival, at least not for a £40m-ish price. We wasted our time courting him in the summer, and should really avoid doing the same in January. Plus, I'm confident that a player like him won't stay for too long at Arsenal. He'll probably bite another center back and hand in a transfer request to try to force a move to Real Madrid.

I'd be more satisfied with a signing like Alvaro Morata, frankly. He's young, he adds a new dimension to our side and he won't exactly cost us a fortune. Plus, he could be a powerful option from the bench, and would also provide Giroud with suitable cover, or indeed, healthy competition. He's 21, which would make him a short term answer as well as a long term one. Since we have so much experience in the team, young blood won't hurt us so much now as it used to earlier.

However, we need to remember that the Invincibles left us a blueprint. Sooner or later, we need to replicate that squad which won the league so famously 10 years ago. We already have Ozil who can replace Bergkamp and Santi Cazorla to acceptably fill in for Robert Pires or Freddy Ljungberg. However, Giroud or a possible Morata cannot come close to replace Thierry Henry, and while signing Morata would be a step in the right direction, on comparison with the Invincibles, it would actually seem like a step back.

The closest thing that I've seen to Henry in this footballing world is Karim Benzema, and I would absolutely love to see a player like him in Arsenal colours. He would be a phenomenal move towards recreating the glory days, and while such a marquee signing isn't really a necessity to win us the league this season, signing Benzema would have the exact Ozil implications on the club, maybe even more.

Even though he is cup-tied to Real Madrid this season, his mere presence might intimidate Bayern Munich and possibly get us through them. While I'm still open to the idea of signing a support striker similar to Morata, a marquee Henry-esque signing would not only near guarantee us the league, but also mark the beginning of a new era.

Sell Bendtner or Park:

The acquisition of any striker would undoubtedly pave the way toward the exit for either Park or Bendtner. While there are many supporters who want to see the backs of both of them leave at once, I feel that we need to keep at least one of them at the club for a bit of reserve backup. Of course, I would want Bendtner to leave, because even though his game is showing improvement and he is appearing more motivated, there is no doubt that he wants out of Arsenal in the near future. In addition, his mere presence is an infuriating sight to a healthy section of our fans, who are reminded of the bitter memories we had with him in the team.

Park should stay, mainly because I would hate for our striker options to jump from Giroud to Yaya Sanogo. Plus, he hasn't really had a chance at proving his worth for the club, and it's about time that he's given one.

Renew Bacary Sagna's contract:

Bac's arguably been our best defender this season, and yet there's the uncertainty of him having a future at this club. Sagna spoke out very recently, confirming reports that contract talks are indeed ongoing, but refusing to confirm if he will commit to them. Bac says:

"I would love to win trophies with this club, it's a club I love so much but something is missing. I've still got six months on my contract with Arsenal. We are in negotiations. It's an option to go somewhere in January but I always had a good relationship with Arsenal. I've been playing there for seven years and i hope we will end up on something good. First of all I want to finish champion because we have got a good opportunity to do it this year and after we will see..."

It seems that his decision to stay or to depart the club depends on our title hopes this season. You don't exactly need to read between the lines to understand that if we do manage to win a trophy this year, Sagna would happily pen his signature, pledging his future to the club. It's almost the same situation that we've had with our other departed world class players in our team, and it's imperative that we halt that right now. If winning the Premier League means that Sagna stays at the club, so be it.

Jenkinson's a satisfactory defender, but one feels that he still has a lot to learn. Handing Sagna around a 3 year extension would mean that he has plenty of time to pass on his experience and wisdom to Carl, after which he can retire a club legend or shift to being a center half, which would extend his remaining playing years. He's been one of our loyal servants throughout the drought, and we need to make sure it stays that way. Not the drought, but Sagna's future at the club!

The incentive to win a trophy this season just got bigger.

Sign a centre back:

We have three very good center backs, in Mertesacker, Koscielny and Vermaelen. It's more of quantity than quality that would satisfy me here, to be honest. A promising center half or a half decent, versatile defender would be more than okay with me. I won't even mind Djourou or Ignasi Miquel filling in here, after being recalled from loan. However, maybe we can give Semi Ajayi a chance and promote him to the Arsenal first team squad. Experience from Sagna, Mertesacker, Koscielny, Vermaelen and Nacho Monreal might just work wonders for him, and who knows, we might have another gem on our hands.


So, there you go. If we manage to get a decent striker, seal Sagna's future and add depth to our defence, we'll have a squad well-equipped to win the Premier League or even the FA Cup in my opinion. Maybe adding depth to our defence isn't even all that necessary, seeing that we have Mathieu Flamini and Bacary Sagna who can slot in there temporarily.

I look at this current Arsenal side, and I see a glorious chance to end our trophy drought this season. With Villas-Boas sacked by the Spuds, we have a higher chance of getting past them in the FA Cup in January, because they would undoubtedly struggle to find their feet under a new manager. However, the unpredictable nature of the knockout tournament means that any shock loss would immediately see us exit from the competition. Winning the Champions League is almost a lost cause now, especially if Bayern Munich complete the imminent signing of Robert Lewandowski from Dortmund.

However, the Barclays Premier League is the only competition that we have in our hands. The nature of the league is such that you can lose against the big teams, yet give a real push for the title. We're atop the league at the moment, and we need to keep that lead until May to win a trophy we have a very realistic chance of winning.

It's since 2008 that we've been presented with a lead at the top of the pile, and a glorious chance of winning the league. Such opportunities clearly do not arrive regularly for us, and we need to capitalize on it by getting a striker, at the very least. Make absolutely no mistake, it's not the failure to qualify for the Champions League, but finishing anywhere other than first this season that would signal a disaster for the club.

January's a fortnight away, but the top of the table clash against Chelsea is only a week away. For now, our lads have to give their all for the upcoming match, and leave the transfer hassles to Arsene in January.

This is the best Arsenal side I've seen in years. Will we get better in January and finally lift that trophy?

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Man City 6-3 Arsenal: A humbling crash to reality

Losing this game sure was a possibility, but losing by that margin is downright unacceptable. A crazy game of football ended quite convincingly in their favour as they handed us a 6-3 pasting, to reduce our lead to only 2 points and increase the tension around Ashburton Grove.

It's better to analyze this game goal by goal, instead of mashing up the 90 minutes and missing out on a few moments. Aargh, here we go,

CITY 1-0 ARSENAL: What's irritating about this goal is that it came from a corner that wasn't a corner at all. Even so, when Demichielis flicked it on to the path of Aguero, Laurent really should've done better. Brilliant finish from Aguero nonetheless, and City arguably deserved to draw first blood, even though the best chance of the game had fallen to us through a miscued Jack volley.

CITY 1-1 ARSENAL: Something we badly needed, and something that was arguably gifted to us. Rambo stole the ball of Yaya Toure and fed a perfect ball to Ozil. It seemed for a moment that Mesut had wasted the chance by delaying to put a ball in, but he eventually found Walcott perfectly, who hit a first time strike past Pantilimon.

We really should've carried on from there. True, it was against the run of play, and City were imposing their authority. But isn't that what title winning teams do, get results by hook or by crook?

CITY 2-1 ARSENAL: After Negredo had curled wide after he was clean through, he made up for it just 5 minutes later, coolly slotting home a cross from Zabaleta. I was actually watching Zabaleta make that run and was practically yelling at Flamini to cover him. He didn't, Toure found him, and he played a simple enough ball for Negredo to restore their lead. Painful, but deserving.

CITY 3-1 ARSENAL: The goal that practically killed off the game for me. I was positively fuming when Ozil played a lazy pass on to the path of Flamini. When you're near the corner flag and under the pressure, just clear the ball, for Pete's sake!

Fernandinho picked it up and generously took the opportunity handed by us to bend it into the net. The goal looked fantastic, but in my opinion it was just too easy for him. We forget how talented footballers actually are until we see our talented defenders give them that much space. That goal was a clear example of how ruthless they could be if we allowed them that freedom, something we failed to pick up on.

CITY 3-2 ARSENAL: A good goal from Walcott, but we never would've got that goal had City not been so distracted defensively like we were throughout the game. Prior to the goal, Olivier Giroud had missed three presentable chances to take us to that fighting position, three misses which could've earned us a draw had Ollie not been so wasteful. While the need for another striker is becoming more and more obvious throughout each passing game, you can't really relate that with Giroud missing a free header and bottling a crossing opportunity.

CITY 4-2 ARSENAL: It was coming, really. After we got some hope through that Theo goal, they totally went at us, finding openings everywhere. We actually could've capitalized on that situation, possibly bringing Rosicky on and trying to hit them on the break. Jack was having a shocker, and his gesture towards the City fans didn't help either.

He left Nacho Monreal horribly exposed from time to time, which was a major factor in us conceding that goal. I think it was Navas who so easily got past Monreal and crossed it to Silva, who rocketed it in the roof. Vermaelen - who came on after Koscielny got stretchered off - really should've done better there, especially because David Silva was the only person in that danger zone.

It was another indicator of how little we seemed to care about what was going on around us. Everyone on that pitch was lazy, jaded and barely had any commitment to draw level, bar Theo and Ramsey.

CITY 5-2 ARSENAL: After a Wilshere piledriver was tipped over the bar by Pantilimon, Wenger inexplicably brought on Bendtner and Gnabry to make way for Giroud and Flamini. Yes, Giroud was having a bad game, but did anyone really think that Bendtner would be any better? We had Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky on the bench, yet he decided to get on Gnabry and Bendtner?! It was almost like he gave up.

Rather, I think he should've got Wilshere and Ramsey off to make way for Santi and Bendtner. With Ozil and Flamini in the center and Santi and Theo on the wings, we could've played Bendtner and Giroud up front and adopted a 4-4-2 system. I like the 4-4-2 because the two strikers in this formation can pull the center backs and create space, and in addition, Bendtner performs better when he has a support striker.

I have no clue what was the basis in Wenger's tactics there. All I know is right there he admitted defeat when I still believe that the game wasn't out of reach. While our defence was horrible, theirs was too. If we regrouped and defended as a unit, not to mention caught them on the break with Walcott's pace, we might've just got something from this game.

Oh, but no. We simply collapsed and gifted them yet another goal. Wilshere gave the ball away to Fernandinho, who played it to Nasri. He was desperate to get a goal against us, which was blindingly obvious, but he squared it to Fernandinho again, who chipped it over Szczesny after some appalling Mertesacker defending.

CITY 5-3 ARSENAL: Another goal that we snatched from a team that had no concentration in defence whatsoever. Sagna crossed it in and Mertesacker fired in a header to restore some pride in the score, at least for the time being.

Honestly, I felt sorry for Mertesacker yesterday. Yes, he wasn't the best defender in that game, but he was constantly trying to do better throughout, urging his teammates to carry on. Truth be told, he didn't deserve to be on the losing end of this one, but it was the other 10 players who failed him.

CITY 6-3 ARSENAL: Just when it can't get any worse, it did. Szczesny brought down Milner in the penalty area, and a spot-kick was fairly given. Szczesny got a yellow - which was fortunate - but at that time I don't think I cared. Yaya Toure dispatched the penalty away calmly, to cap off a nightmare for us.


The team as a whole seemed distracted, and our newfound trait of defending as a unit was thrown out of the window. I have no idea why this Arsenal side was so disinterested, especially because we had so much incentive going into this match. The players were to blame, the manager was to blame and in the end, a whopping loss was what we deserved.

To cap it all, Ozil refused to applaud the away fans, instead choosing to walk straight down the tunnel. The BFG's reaction said it all there, and it was representative of my reaction too.

Look, I don't care if he's currently the face of Arsenal, I don't care if he's our X-factor or our Joker in the Pack, Ozil simply cannot pull off stunts like that. We've had enough talented players who haven't shown enough commitment and desire on the pitch in the past as it is, just ask Nasri, Arshavin or Adebayor. In this current Arsenal lineup, we have very few players who don't have the required amount of determination for the club. It's frustrating that our one out-and-out world class player, Mesut Ozil, is one of them.

This isn't a knee jerk reaction either. Ever since he has come to Arsenal, I haven't really seen any flair, commitment or desire from him. While it is undeniable that he's having a very good season so far (just look at his statistics!), I've not failed to notice how he gives up on a half-chance, or doesn't chase a loose pass from time to time.

There is a good chance that that may be down to being overplayed, which is why I want Wenger to rest him. In addition, even a player of Ozil's caliber shouldn't be guaranteed a start in the lineup, especially when we have Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky who can perform well in his place. Mertesacker's reaction to Ozil's disgraceful act was apt, and it's time that we - like the BFG - stop turning a blind eye to his falling levels of determination, just because he got here for £42m.

This was a freak result, one mainly caused due to shoddy, uncommitted defending and poor Wenger tactics. However, the title is by no means out of our reach for now, and we need to make sure it stays that way, starting with a top-of-the-table Chelsea clash 8 days later. Of course, we still have to look 'forward' to the Champions League draw tomorrow, which would undoubtedly set the tone for our European hopes.

Time to cool down our heads for 9 days, and then focus on a daunting Chelsea task. Until then, keep the faith.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Man City vs Arsenal: Match Preview

Even though we are six points clear of City, today's game will determine just how better off or worse we are than them when we face them at the Etihad, just 3 days after a tiring, demoralizing trip to Italy. It's time we justify our sensational start to the season by sustaining it, starting with a victory against a team considered favourites for the title.

City have made their home ground a fortress, winning all of the league games they've played there this season. However, we have a pretty good away record too, and will hope to maintain it with a positive result there. With the transfer window not opening for more than a fortnight, and the FA Cup and the Champions League also beginning the next year, our 100% focus is undoubtedly on preserving our 5 point lead at the top, a lead that can be significantly reduced if we lose to title rivals.

In the beginning of the season, there was a lot of confusion as to who would be in the mix of being title contenders, but as we approach the first half of the season, the dust seems to have settled a bit. For me, it's looking like a three horse race of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City battling for the Premier League crown, a battle we can win if we get a striker in January. However, for now, we just have to focus on the short term - three points at the Etihad.

A draw might be a positive result at their home ground, but it would put a lot of pressure on the upcoming Chelsea game, a team who I believe are currently better than us. City have been poor on the road but have made up for it on their own ground, and they'll be oozing confidence after triumphing at the Allianz Arena just a few days ago. In stark contrast, we've suffered a damaging loss at Naples and are looking to pick up our title challenge, starting at Manchester.

Even though we are six points clear of them, they're understandably the favourites to win this game that would have a huge impact on the league table in the short term. Defence would be the key to victory today, because even though we've conceded 3 goals in the previous 2 games, our back five have looked solid throughout those matches. Weird, right?

Speaking of defence, Arsene Wenger has spoke of Bacary Sagna's status, suggesting that he has a chance of returning for this game. While Jenkinson has done an acceptable job of filling in, Bac is indisputably better than him, and we need defensive solidity in this game more than anywhere else to pick up 3 points.

There are reports coming in that Sagna is set to sign a two-year deal with Arsenal, one I pray is true. His return to being one of the best right backs in the country is remarkable, particularly after having a disastrous last season. He's become nothing short of rock solid at the back, and has also worked on his weaknesses - crossing, notably - to improve on his game. I feared that our loyal servant would leave at the end of the season, but if these reports are true, then it's brilliant, welcome news for us.

In other news, Lukas Podolski is available, but Arsene is understandably reluctant to field him immediately in such a high intensity game. I think it's possible that we might see him on the bench today, but other than that, we might have to wait another 10 days for him to make an appearance against Chelsea.

With Podolski and Sagna set to be completely fit by the Chelsea game at least, we shall only have Oxlade-Chamberlain, Abou Diaby and Yaya Sanogo who are injured, all three of whom aren't guaranteed a start, or indeed, a place on the bench. In the coming days, we shall have a clearer idea of what Wenger considers to be his strongest XI, or possibly starting from today.

While the back five seems set to remain as Szczesny, Jenkinson, Mertesacker, Koscielny and Gibbs, I don't think anyone apart from Ozil and Giroud are guaranteed a start ahead of them. We might see Mathieu Flamini partnered with Aaron Ramsey, with Walcott and Santi operating on the flanks. Ozil seems set to take the central attacking role again, with Giroud assuming striker.

If that's our supposed lineup, we shall have a really strong bench then, featuring Lukas Podolski, Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere. It's a bench that has players who can turn around games as soon as they come on, which is a stark encouragement from the Denilsons, the Arshavins and the Gervinhos. We have a strong defence, a phenomenal midfield and a decent forward line, which should be enough to win this game.

Wenger has already emphasized on the positives, saying:

“Remember we're still top of the table and our defensive record is absolutely fantastic. That's a good basis to go into the game. Forget the fixtures. Just think about the next game and put in a quality performance."

And I think that's a good idea. At this stage, we need to think of taking the games one at a time instead of focusing on the big picture. This is a stage of the season where there is a very realistic scenario of losing our lead in the next two games, and we need to avoid it by playing sensibly.

I fear that City are going to continue their winning record by defeating us, but I also hope that I'm dead wrong. I badly want us to win today, mostly because these are exactly the kind of matches that define title contenders. Yes, we are tired and yes, we are demoralized, but a highlight of this year has been our ability to bounce back from setbacks. There's no virtue in crying over spilt milk, and we need to continue that policy by a win at Manchester. We have a squad capable of doing that, and we have the 9 point cushion as motivation of doing that. Let's go out there all guns blazing and get that victory.

It's time to show that a club is made of more than just money and oil. Come on Arsenal.

P.S. Check out this hilarious article on Arsenal's upturn in form. How dare you, Wenger?

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Friday, 13 December 2013

Napoli 2-0 Arsenal: Second thoughts creeping in

All we needed was a draw. That would've guaranteed first spot for us and set up a relatively easy round of 16 featuring possibilities like Leverkusen, Olympiacos, Schalke or Zenit. It would've lessened the burdens of expectation on the players, giving them some confidence over two top of the table clashes. Most importantly, it would've slightly improved our chances of winning a trophy, which is something every Arsenal fan indisputably wants to witness this season.

Oh, but no. We've undone all our hard work and tainted the memorable wins over Napoli and Dortmund by crashing to a 2-0 loss to the former, due to late goals from Higuain and Jose Callejon. It's a loss that puts our Champions League hopes from slim to none if we do indeed face one of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or FC Barcelona.

I thought that the players played really well on that night, but it was the manager who was largely at fault for the loss. I don't think that he went out any proper game plan on that night, urging his team to go for the victory or to contain Napoli and stick with a 0-0 draw, maybe hoping to get a goal by hitting them on the break.
Of course, either game plan would've put us in a risk of losing the game altogether, but at least it's better than hesitating to attack as well as hesitating to defend throughout the course of 90 minutes. You'll undoubtedly reach a point where you don't know if you're happy with the result that you're going towards, or reluctant to stick with that scoreline. Arsene Wenger should've laid out an objective for the game - he didn't, and now we're paying the price.

What surprises me is why he didn't get Theo Walcott on around the 67th minute. Arteta was already on a yellow card, and while he wasn't walking on a tightrope, Arsene should've had the foresight to take him off before he got himself into trouble. He should've got Ozil and Arteta to make way for Theo and Ramsey, with a central midfield pairing of Flamini and Ramsey, Rosicky playing as attacking midfielder and Theo and Santi on the wings.

Walcott's pace would've unnerved Napoli, who might've hesitated to commit more men forward, afraid to be caught on the break by Theo's pace. Instead, Wenger got off Santi and put on Ramsey on the right, a bad decision for me. For all his qualities, Ramsey is horrible on the right flank, largely because he hardly possesses the skills required to perform there. If Arsene did need someone on the right flank, why not get on Jack Wilshere or the aforementioned Theo?

I can't help but feel that Wenger and Walcott have had a bit of a falling out - his exclusion from matches has been surprising for me. Surely he is match fit by now to start games more regularly and match his £100,000 salary? In this team where we only have two fit wingers - one of whom prefers a central attacking role - why aren't we starting Walcott anymore?

After falling behind to Gonzalo Higuain's opener in the 74th minute, Wenger got on Nacho Monreal for Tomas Rosicky, another poor decision. We were 3 points clear on top of the group coming into this game, and our objective in the match was to either draw or to snatch a win to seal first spot. Why stick to a 1-0 loss then?

Look, if you had asked me at the beginning of the group stages if I would take second here, I would've readily said yes. But that was before we collected 12 points from five games and were cruising in first place, having our fate in our own hands. That was before the updated objective was to finish as winners of the group and look forward to easy opposition in the round of 16.

After Arteta got sent off, the primary objective quickly shifted to avoiding a 3-0 loss at San Paolo, one which I could understand. At that point, the tables had remarkably turned, forcing us to stay content with what we had. News pouring in that Dortmund were yet stuck at a 1-1 draw against Marseille left Napoli content with the result, too. The following minute was one of the most boring ones I have ever witnessed as a football fan, because either team wanted the result to stay the same.

Then Dortmund scored, and Napoli went right at us. The changed aim for them was to score two more against us in the remaining 6 to 7 minutes, and they nearly achieved it when Callejon looped the ball over Szczesny to make it 2-0 to Napoli. I, as an Arsenal fan was shit scared then, but fortunately the final whistle blew right after kickoff, making me strangely relieved that we lost only by two.

Arsene said:

"We prepared well and were concentrated but we were a bit in between ‘do we attack or do we defend’. It is difficult to cope with that problem. In the second half, I felt that our legs went a little bit and Napoli were sharper physically than us."

What probably came as the biggest shock to me was the sudden realization that apart from Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla, we arguably have no other world class players in this side. Sure, we have our entire back five, Ramsey, Flamini and Giroud in great form, but that is exactly what worries me. All of these players are good, but none of them are truly world class. They're playing well now, but I'd hate to see what happens when they don't. 

There were glaringly obvious signs in this match that we badly need another striker to sustain our remarkable form thus far. I almost pitied Olivier Giroud, dragging his feet across the pitch, trying to create something for the team. Simply put, Giroud is a good player who is being forced to overperform on a daily basis, and is getting unfair slack for not doing so.

It's time to straighten up and be honest with ourselves now. If we draw Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Barcelona, we can be sure that we are going to face an early exit from the Champions League (unless we buy in January, of course). Sure, we're top of the league, but we've struggled against the Spuds, United, Everton, Dortmund and Chelsea. The fact of the matter remains that we're on top because we seldom slipped up against teams that a team of Arsenal's caliber is capable of beating.

Winning the Champions League is almost a lost cause now - seeing the opposition that we're set to be pitted against - and it would be pretty difficult to predict our chances in the FA Cup, seeing that we're facing Tottenham in the first round itself. The only remaining piece of silverware that we do have left in our hands is winning the Barclays Premier League, an objective we're on course to achieving. However, even though a magnificent run of form has meant that we are five points clear, I'd be very surprised if we did manage to win the league this season without purchasing anyone in January.

Look, Giroud simply cannot carry the striker burden alone, even if we do have a finally fit Lukas Podolski. Signing Ozil brought swagger and confidence in the team, propelling us into the top of the pile. However, it's time to push on and get more world class or at least decent talent, starting in the striker area. Granted, if we do manage to get a world class striker who is cup-tied to the Champions League, he won't be able to play for us in that competition. However, he would doubtless provide another major fillip to the side, and maybe, just MAYBE see us through to the round of 16.

I would be happy if we face Atletico Madrid or PSG (I feel that we are capable of beating them), but personally, I have an eerie feeling that we are going to be drawn against Real Madrid on Monday. Unless we spend wisely in the winter transfer window, I see us bowing out of the competition in this stage itself. I couldn't really care about "being eager to welcome quality opposition at the Emirates" and the "If you want to be the best, you've got to take out the best" cliche lines, because I just want my Arsenal to go as far as possible in this competition, and see where we stand in Europe.     

In the four important fixtures that we were to face, we drew from a winning position in one and fell to second spot in the group stages in the second, set to face the elite of Europe in the next round. It's safe to say that the morale of the team has dented slightly, and needs to be picked up before the Manchester City clash tomorrow.

The FA Cup isn't until January, and the Champions League isn't till the month after. For now, we need to concentrate on our primary and most realistic hope for a trophy - taking the Premier League crown home. That battle would be put to severe test at the Ethiad Stadium tomorrow. The choice is simple - either we can push City away from us, or bring them closer and double the significance on the upcoming Chelsea clash.

The message couldn't be clearer. We NEED three points tomorrow.

P.S. Apologies for the late blogging, but the bloody net was down. And life got in the way.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )