Wednesday, 26 February 2014

A case to defend Olivier Giroud

For a long time, almost ever since he came to Arsenal, Olivier Giroud has never really convinced all Arsenal supporters. While no one can possibly deny that we are witnessing a much better Giroud this season than the last, hordes would point out that he is still nowhere near the class of the Ian Wrights or the Thierry Henrys, and probably never will be. For a team challenging for the Barclays Premier League title, Giroud as a tailsman seems to be not good enough.

The fall from van Persie to Giroud was almost insulting to a few Gooners. His initial misses against Sunderland and Liverpool, not to mention the tongue-wagging and the looking-up-at-the-sky-and-clutching-his-dyed-hair-like-a-French-model after missing those chances were harshly greeted upon. Amazingly he was touted as a flop after only two months at his new club.

Agreed, Giroud has made up for those misses now and vastly improved in his hold up play, workrate and even finishing. However, I don't think that even Arsene Wenger believes Giroud can score 25+ goals per season.

So why do I still want Giroud at the club?

Because I understand that carrying the striker burden for two seasons straight is no mean feat, especially at a club in the EPL. Giroud's been thrown into the starting lineup by Wenger ever since he joined the club, without any proper adaptation period or striking partner. He's been forced to juggle factors like fan pressure, fatigue, fitness and form in almost every Arsenal match since the beginning of last season. Yet he has performed moderately well this season, bagging 16 goals and 8 assists.

What Giroud needs is motivation and rest. He has shown us from time to time again that he will perform when rested or faced with the threat of losing his starting berth. Not to mention that he still works really hard even after being completely jaded due to gross overplaying by Wenger. With a proper balance between fitness and form, I'm sure Giroud can perform much better than he currently does.

Against Sunderland, for example: Prior to that match, Yaya Sanogo had put in a good showing against Bayern and there was talk that this unpredictable talent could bring more to Arsenal's play than Giroud does. Giroud had been rested for a week, and was faced with the task of winning his starting position back. How did he respond to that? 2 goals, 1 assist, and a Man of the Match award.

However, for a team challenging for the title, rotating Giroud with Yaya Sanogo or Nicklas Bendtner is too much of a gamble. Yes, Sanogo has been performing well recently, but are we sure that we can trust an injury prone, Ligue 2 striker to partner Olivier Giroud? If Sanogo somehow manages to stay fit until the end of the season and keeps playing like he did against Liverpool and Bayern then I'm all for it, but isn't that too much to hope for?

This is exactly why I wanted Wenger to buy a striker in January. And not just any striker - we needed a striker that had the traits Giroud didn't. However good Giroud plays, I think that it's unfair to compel him to be what he's not.

Giroud is a striker who will always play with his back to goal. He will always lack pace, he will always struggle in one-on-one situations and will always struggle in executing volleys or free kicks. Forcing him to grow a quicker pair of feet or develop an artistic finesse in front of goal is not possible, simply because it's not in his DNA. And never will be.

Whatever he says, Giroud needs a striking partner. He needs a player who can complement him; a striker who is pacy and an expert in dribbling and finishing. The only player who can come close to replicating that is Lukas Podolski, a man who we all know is best suited to the wings and not that quick anyway. Sanogo and Bendtner are too similar to Giroud, which is why we need to get someone from outside.

Joel Campbell? I don't know. I've never seen him play football at all; I even missed the Champions League match yesterday (although I wish I hadn't now). His goal was a cracker, no doubt, but I really don't know if he is capable of producing such moments from time to time. He ticks the boxes - he's fast, he's versatile and that finish shows that he's certainly not afraid of having a crack. He's 21 years old (the same as Alvaro Morata) and clearly wants to do well at Arsenal, judging from what he said:

“As soon as Arsenal came, I wanted to join them and I believe I am ready to play for Arsenal next season. I know I have the capacity to play there; I am only waiting for the opportunity. With hard work I know I can get there."

Don't want to get to carried away, don't want to hype the youngster's potential, but if given the chance, I think Campbell could turn out to be the ying to Giroud's yang. Wenger certainly can spot a talent, but there are also fears that he may be one of those duds who Wenger got carried away with. I guess time will tell with this player.

However, I think that this is an unnecessary risk. We don't need to depend on Joel's form for a solution to Giroud's woes, really. We have £120m in the bank and more competent, proven strikers in the world not beyond our reach to purchase. It's almost like the manager has to take his pick in the summer. Speaking of which...

According to Guillem Balague (a Sky Sports Spanish football expert), Alvaro Morata wants to join Arsenal but a fee hasn't been agreed yet. I have a lot of reservations on the source, but I felt it was my duty to pass on the news. Make what you want of it.

In the end, the fact of the matter is that a striker is a must in the summer window. Morata would be a good signing in that direction, but I'm still not sure that this deal would happen. Anyway, that's something to worry about in 6 months. Till then, let's have faith in Yaya Sanogo.

Jesus, where has this club gone to?

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Post-Sunderland and Dennis Bergkamp thoughts

Back on track with a mesmerizing 4-1 victory today against an appalling Sunderland, where the only regret would be conceding a Premier League goal at home since Deufoleu's. Nevertheless, an impressive Giroud return and an astounding Rosicky goal sealed three points for us, but I don't think that there was much to read from this match.

Resting/dropping Mesut Ozil was absolutely the right call from Arsene Wenger. It was apparent for a long, long time that fatigue and disinterest was creeping into him, and the fact that he thought his place in the starting XI was guaranteed didn't help either. Frankly, there were better players on the bench who weren't getting to play because of Ozil's monopoly of the central attacking midfield role, so it's good to see that they are getting chances now.

Wenger put his resting down to injury concerns, saying:

"Yes [Ozil was injured], a thigh problem but it was a kick. He should be available next week. He was in the dressing room [during the match]." 

According to me, the only sign of progress we made in this match was that we finally won a game nice and early. As early in the 5th minute, some neat Arsenal play and a wonderful Wilshere pass gave Giroud freedom of space in the box. He finished a promising move by slotting the ball in the corner, sending ex-Gunner Vito Mannone the wrong way.

I'm not a fan of Giroud's shooting technique. Sure, it pulled off then, but I don't think that a physically bulging player like Giroud should try to curl the ball in like he always does. This is one of the reasons why Giroud misses easy chances in front of goal, even though he didn't miss then.

Still, if anyone deserved a goal it was him. Ever since he played for Arsenal there have been doubts on his quality, and his recent dry patch seemed to prove the 'haters' right. I for one was never one of them; I think that Giroud is being made a scapegoat for our attacking woes and is constantly being asked to do what isn't in his DNA. Let's not forget that Olivier Giroud is a player who has carried the striker burden for 1 and a half seasons now, it's about time we cut him some slack.

What I like about Giroud is that he's committed and hardworking. Even though he has been grossly overplayed since coming to Arsenal, he is ever ready to run across the pitch and hold the ball up, or show fantastic determination even at the 89th minute to win a half-ball. I understand that his constant back-to-goal play and a reluctance to take a shot frustrates a few Arsenal supporters, but that's the kind of player Giroud is. Isn't it unjustified to expect Flamini to provide 10 assists for Arsenal?

I wanted Giroud to score because he's Arsenal's only main striker. If you want Arsenal to win something this season, you get behind your players, simple as that. Constructive criticism is always welcome, but naive ranting never is. While Giroud's second was much, much simpler (even though he made it look really easy), I'm happy that two goals will help increase the confidence of one of Arsenal's most industrious players.

The third goal was sensational, possibly better than Wilshere's. I'd agree to people who suggest that Sunderland had made it too easy for us at that point, but that didn't stop me from marveling at one of the greatest goals of this campaign. Rosicky started the move by passing it to Cazorla and ended it by coolly chipping it over Mannone after some fantastic one-touch passing by Arsenal. That was a goal which seemed like a testament to Bergkamp's passing ability. Simply electrifying.

By that time 3 points were in the bag, something incredibly rare from this season's Arsenal. Seldom have we tied up a game this early in the match, and it is something that should be continued in this season. The benefits of wrapping up a game before half time are profound - the confidence of the players are high, the manager can start his preparations for the next, key players can be rested and whatnot.

After a brief Sunderland rally in the second half Arsenal struck again to make the game as dead as possible. After Vergini almost scored one of the funniest own goals, Santi Cazorla flung in the resulting corner into the box. Sunderland's man marking was dire; Laurent Koscielny was given the space to open a tea stall there. He headed in the ball easily, and Arsenal were 4-0 up within 60 minutes.

I was disappointed that we conceded, though. I agree that it was a superb goal from Giacheerini, but I really wanted another clean sheet from us. True, a makeshift back four of Jenkinson, Sagna, Mertesacker and Flamini did have their reasons, but I was particularly looking forward to extending the record of no Premier League home goals conceded since DECEMBER.

Still, 4-1 is good enough right?

Wenger spoke of the win:

"We have shown today we are capable of responding and that is the most important thing. You see City had a difficult game, Chelsea had a difficult game so you see it is difficult for all the teams at the top, but we did the job well."

Although I still feel that winning the Premier League is out of the question, it's much more fun to be competing with Manchester City and Chelsea than with Tottenham or Everton. I've always felt that setting a target of winning the league and failing is better than setting a target of fourth place and achieving it. Plus, the ability of Chelsea and City to consistently defeat average teams isn't that great. The league is unpredictable, so who knows?


Amazingly, it wasn't Tomas Rosicky's goal that was the highlight of the day. Bergkamp's statue was finally unveiled earlier in the day at the Emirates Stadium, in the aftermath of which one of Arsenal's greatest forwards said:

“Everyone knows I love Arsenal and I had such a great time at the Club. The fans, the staff and my team-mates were fantastic. The team was also amazing and we had a lot of success over the years. For me and my family it was such an important and enjoyable period in our lives."

I love Dennis Bergkamp. He's my all-time favourite Arsenal footballer, ahead of Thierry Henry. Unlike Thierry, Bergkamp never left the club and retired where he belonged. His signing back in 1996 marked the beginning of a new era for Arsenal, much like Ozil's has this season. To cap it all, he clearly wants to achieve more with the club even after so much.

It's been obvious that for a long time, Bergkamp has wanted to be a coach for Arsenal. Even if not on the training staff, his love for Arsenal has been so much that he wants some connection to it. Any way in which he could possibly help Arsenal would be something of a dream for him. So why won't Wenger include him in the club?

Wenger says:

"I am not against it. He has the qualities, but you need to have the need as well because we have a big staff already. He is now at two clubs that made Dennis Bergkamp. The first, and certainly the most important one, is Ajax. He is at Ajax now and a coach there. The second club that is important in his life is Arsenal. Maybe that will be the next step!"

I'm sorry, but this is a load of bollocks by the manager. Bergkamp would kill to be a part of this club, and could have a few years ago. Arsene Wenger denied him, and he will keep denying Bergkamp in the future as well.

Why? Because Wenger is an egoist. It's clear that he wants all the limelight, and that he wants to be the single most popular figure at the club. Remember that he gave away Martin Keown and restricted Steve Bould's influence to impose his superiority and power at the club. Why should he give Dennis Bergkamp an input in the club?

I might be wrong about this, but for me it fits into the character sketch that I have of Arsene Wenger. I apologize for ending an eventful Arsenal day on such a sad note, but I don't think that Wenger will ever give Bergkamp a role into the backroom staff. And the reason won't be because Bergkamp's not "good enough" - he was one of the Premier League's best players, for crying out loud!


Anyway, today's not the day to have this argument. The fact remains that we're only one point off the pace of the title, and that strong starts to the match like today's are the key to success. On we go to the next game.

Let's hope for business as usual then as well.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Arsenal 0-2 Bayern: If you want to blame one, blame Ozil

Mixed feelings would be the best way to describe this game. After an astonishingly superb start to the game, Ozil (possibly our best player till then) proceeded to oh-so predictably miss a penalty and infect his disinterest onto the entire crowd support. Later, a fairly awarded penalty was made to seem a bit harsh when Szczesny was shown a straight red card. Although Alaba's miss provided brief hope to the hosts, Szczesny's sending off proved decisive and individual errors cost Arsenal a potential Champions League quarter finals entry.

Throughout 90 minutes this game had everything. Dread, fear, hope, frustration and glory. I'm just disappointed that it ended in a defeat, more so because we had the chance to show Europe's finest where Arsenal stood. I'll be analyzing this match through the key points, and boy were they a lot!

The team selection...
...I have to admit, was spot on. Wenger played everyone I asked for, but started Yaya Sanogo up front instead of Giroud. I can only assume that in the aftermath of revealing his extra-marital affair, either Olivier Giroud personally told Wenger he didn't want to start or Wenger himself deemed it unfit to play Ollie. Either ways, starting a Ligue 2 injury prone striker at his CL debut against Bayern Munich seemed to border on insanity.

I was incensed. I could understand if the manager was forced to drop Giroud, but why not play Lukas Podolski or (I can't believe I'm saying this) Nicklas Bendtner instead? Especially Podolski, who has 120 caps for a country regarded as favourites to win the World Cup, not to mention being the best finisher in the side. What, Sanogo gets the nod because he's French? What was Wenger up to there?

We know how it unraveled, though. Sanogo had a much better game than he had against Liverpool, and that's saying something. I always felt that Sanogo was too similar to Giroud or Bendtner, and that the latter two were better than him in those repetitive skills. However, Sanogo gave us a new dimension in mobility, a willingness to drift to the flanks and workrate that would put Giroud to shame.

I was impressed by his performance, he seems like another good find by Wenger. I still don't buy the suggestions that Sanogo should be a regular starter over Giroud. However I have to admit, if he can keep this up, maybe Wenger did have a legitimate reason to not buy a striker in January.

Our start...
Was unexpected, superb and made me proud. For the first 10 minutes, no one would deny that we were the better side in the game. Sanogo, Ozil, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere looked inspired, and closed the best team in the world to set up presentable chances for ourselves. Szczesny even pulled a magnificent save to deny Kroos the opener to keep us hunting.

I never expected this from Arsenal. An incomplete squad bereft of Ramsey, Theo and Giroud somehow managed to produce a fine initial display against a team like Bayern. I know that as an Arsenal supporter I believed, but it was more out of compulsion than optimism. I actually reckon that had Ozil not missed the penalty, we would have won this game. Speaking of which...

Ozil penalty miss...
Was sickening, predictable and downright infuriating. Prior to the penalty, Ozil looked like a man determined to make amends for his lack of commitment in previous matches. He had redeemed some of his pride against United and Liverpool, and looked set to do that on such a high mantle as well. The way he won the penalty was a testament to his class as well.

But then he decided to get too cheeky.

From the moment the commentator announced who was taking the penalty, I closed my eyes in expectant anguish. I'll just say it - Mesut Ozil is a pathetic penalty taker. Against Montpellier it was evident, only now did it become showcased to the whole world. I don't care if walking up to the ball is his 'style', all I know is that it's a shitty way to take a penalty and that he shouldn't be allowed to take one for Arsenal ever again. Ever.

Losing the battle of wits was bad enough, but hiding from the match after that is much, much worse. From then on, he completely switched off and was subsequently told by Wilshere and Flamini, both of whom have much more passion for the club than Ozil. I don't care what statistics say, we've been in the footballing business far too long to know that they don't tell the whole story.

What I saw on the pitch was not a world-class player who is the face of Arsenal. What I saw was a player who doesn't care if his team wins or loses. I saw a player who would prefer making the Germany squad for Rio than watch Arsenal lift the Premier League or the FA Cup. I saw a player who plays with a mentality that he's doing Arsenal a favour, who believes himself to be superior than everyone else on the pitch.

Ozil cannot get away with anything. After giving up against Bayern Munich his form has come under intense scrutiny by everyone, which would only mean a good thing in hindsight. One hopes that Ozil will perform under pressure, starting against Sunderland. His psychological boost off the pitch has evaporated, which is amazingly rendering him a bit obsolete on it.

Being out of form and not wanting to chase a half-ball are not connected: this is why I like players such as Giroud more than Ozil. Giroud will give his all even if things aren't working out for him. Ozil won't.

Szczesny, the red card and Alaba's miss...
I'm not sure that Szczesny deserved to be sent off, but I have no doubts that it was a penalty. Kieran Gibbs was brought off after an injury and his replacement Nacho Monreal allowed Robben the freedom of movement. Robben made a diagonal run into the box after a delicious ball by Toni Kroos, and Szczesny had little choice but to go for it.

He brought Robben down, a penalty was given and Szczesny was duly sent off, a bit reminiscent of the 2006 final. Thankfully, Alaba missed the penalty, but most of the crowd were still subconsciously aware that defending a clean sheet, outnumbered against the best team in the world was a task too many.

Was it a penalty? A firm yes; Szczesny had clearly clipped Robben's feet. The point is moot on how much Robben decided to cry on it, the fact was that anything other than a penalty would have been really harsh on Bayern. But was it a red card? I'm not so sure. In fact, I'm in one of those states of mind that a red card seemed really harsh for Arsenal, but a yellow would have seemed harsh for Bayern.

It turned out that Bayern got the benefit of the doubt there, and even though Alaba gave us another chance, everyone sensed that it was kind of game over there. Credit to all players (except Ozil) for working really hard to keep it at that scoreline, but it was almost when rather than if regarding Bayern opening up our defence.

The two goals...
...were a result of individual errors. Ozil's laziness on the left flank made it almost inevitable that he would be a culprit in us conceding. Bayern were targeting our left flank, and Ozil and Monreal were letting them do that. From passing to the left to bringing it to the centre to passing it on the left again, Kroos got some space and finished it beautifully. I know that many might be inclined to blame Monreal or Ozil particularly, but I never felt the need to barrack them in person for this goal.

However, there can be no doubt that Koscielny was to blame for the second. No doubt as a result of frustration, Koscielny ran to the half-line and lost the ball. Bayern saw the hole in the team, and being the ruthless team that they are, punished us through a Muller header. Flamini was partly at fault too, but I couldn't see the sense in Koscielny sprinting forward when overturning a 1-0 deficit was possible at the Allianz Arena.

Someone has to screw up in big matches, when they play for Arsenal. It's almost like compulsion.

On what it means to the tie...
I still think that if we put in the necessary effort, we can overturn a 2-0 deficit. With the return of Aaron Ramsey, the team will be strengthened and motivated to reproduce what they did the last time they visited this stadium. I have not forgotten that we had a fantastic start to this game, but were let down by an Ozil miss and the crowd falling flat after that. Yes, we can go to the quarter finals.

But the question arises - is it really necessary? What's the virtue in putting so much sweat in a match that won't really help our trophy chances? Yes, we can win the match and the tie, but the chances of doing so are really low, even though I have sounded uncharacteristically optimistic earlier about our chances. In addition, ambitions like the Premier League and the FA Cup are much more realistic - why risk injuries and stamina in a potential dead rubber?

I say we cut our losses, play a fresh, substitute lineup and view this game as a bonus friendly than an obstacle to Champions League glory. Playing youth footballers on a big occasion with no pressure will free them of expectations yet instill them with motivation. Yaya Sanogo surprised them, who knows, maybe Nicklas Bendtner will as well? (I kid, of course).


Oh yeah, and Wenger's decision to keep Ozil on for 90 minutes was cowardly. He needs to grow a pair and bench Mesut for players like Podolski or Rosicky.

Calm down, Gooners. No one expected us to win this anyway, yet we almost could have.

P.S. Preview for the Sunderland game will not be available. Apologies.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

How to beat Bayern

This isn't a preview, per se, it's more of a suggestion. If you are here to catch an excerpt of Arsene Wenger's pre-match conference or for an update on our injury list, I apologize, but I won't be providing that today. Nor will I give my predicted starting XI or a prediction of a final scoreline.

After our victory against Liverpool, I wrote:

"I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think I saw blueprints in this team that could cause problems for Bayern Munich on Wednesday. The unique combinations that the manager attempted worked out beautifully, and could really help us in midweek. I'm not suggesting that Arsenal have a great chance to defeat Bayern, but we seem to have the potential to give them a real push over two legs."

I still stand by that. Incredibly, I have a strange feeling that IF we play our cards right, we can achieve something memorable over two legs. Bayern Munich, according to me, are the best football team in the world right now. Defeating them at home would not only skyrocket our confidence, but it would also give us a reasonable chance to enter the last 8 of Europe's elite.

Without any delay, THIS is what I think we should do in order to topple the German superiority, at least for one game:

Mesut Ozil should start, only if Oxlade-Chamberlain does...
In Chamberlain we have a rare player who is capable of making off-the-ball runs. This is something that Ozil has been crying out for, and is finally getting what he needs. I have already said before that we need more movement in the final third so that Ozil, Cazorla and Wilshere can create chances for them on a silver platter. The Ox provides that.

While I have been criticizing Ozil's performances since November, it is only now that the footballing world has gotten wise to it. Pressure of expectation from the fans has worked wonders on Ozil - we're finally getting our money's worth. It would be a shame if we waste Ozil's current good form by surrounding him with slow players.

An Ozil in form is key to success, and pacy players are key to Ozil's form. For me, it's a no-brainer.

Olivier Giroud must start as well...
On other days, I'd have happily suggested Lukas Podolski. I agree with Wenger; Podolski is the best finisher at our club. In addition, he's motivated, fresh, understands Ozil (what with being German and all that) and pops in goals almost regularly. So why bench him?

Honestly, he's a lousy striker, at least in Arsenal's current system. He looked totally out of place against Cardiff as a lone striker, even though he's a player closest resembling Robin van Persie at Arsenal. I'd completely understand his frustration at being benched despite bringing so much to the team. However with all due respect, Cazorla and Chamberlain bring a bit more.

I've considered suggestions that playing Ox as a striker, Ozil right behind him and Cazorla, Podolski on the wings could be a tactical masterstroke. After all, Chamberlain is a fast, physical player who could also provide Ozil with a plethora of options. Not to mention Podolski getting a start (on the left flank, where he's most effective) would leave him eager to impress when it really, really matters.

However, experimentation (especially at such a big match) is always susceptible to risk. On one of the biggest matches of the season, there is always a chance that Chamberlain could perform badly and Ozil might find himself lost. It's a chance we cannot gamble on, which is why Olivier Giroud should start.

The Back Five and Flamini to get the nod...
With Arteta suspended and Ramsey still injured (please don't say Kim Kallstrom), Mathieu Flamini's start alongside Jack Wilshere seems something of a given. Nothing to particularly worry about though, Flamini could be vital to our success today.

He's our only natural defensive midfielder (PLEASE don't say Kim Kallstrom), and a damn good one at that. He's steeled up the midfield and brought genuine aggression to the side, something only Jack Wilshere previously provided. If he's in the mood today, we might injure the Bavarians instead of just frustrate them.

Franck Ribery and Xherdan Shaqiri are ruled out for this game. The wings have opened up; we should use Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna to exploit them. Add to that a reliable partnership of Mertesacker and Koscielny along with Wojciech Szczesny in goal, and you get a fantastic chance for a clean sheet.

Motivate the team, someone!
It's obvious that Arsene Wenger is incapable of setting a positive team mentality when the crunch times arrive. To mention recent games, encounters against Manchester United, Liverpool (5-1), Napoli away and Aston Villa stand out.

He needs to make an exception sometime, right? Bayern Munich are staunch opponents; going into this game with a relaxed mindset it therefore suicide. It's not like he has to look up a motivational book or something as well, he has one of the easiest pep talks to deliver: "The whole world is waiting for us to fail, prove them wrong!"

I don't think that he will, though. Anyway, let's hope that players like Flamini and Mertesacker lead from example. Let's hope.

If you can't win, don't lose...
I understand that all of these factors combined still might not be enough for us to win this match. After all, it is Bayern Munich that we're facing, only the best team in the world.

However, we should keep in mind that we're facing a two-legged encounter. Even if we don't win the first leg, we must lay a good foundation to give us hope for the second. Suffice to say, a clean sheet at the Emirates is vital to progression. I would genuinely be delighted and filled with hope with a 0-0 draw, mostly because we would have a huge chance for progression if we nab an away goal in the second encounter.

The lineup I want?
Starting XI: Szczesny - Sagna - Mertesacker - Koscielny - Gibbs - Flamini - Wilshere - Ozil - Ox - Cazorla - Giroud.

Bench: Fabianski, Monreal, Rosicky, Podolski, Gnabry, Bendtner, Sanogo.

I considered dropping Wilshere, putting Chamberlain alongside Flamini and playing Podolski on the wings. However, I know that a player like Wilshere would play with much more flair today than Podolski would. Besides, I was never really convinced with the idea of Chamberlain being particularly effective in central midfield. To me, he's best effective on the wings.


I still expect us to bow out, though. I don't want to fault or criticize our own players, but we all know that Bayern Munich are better than us. We've never really convinced against top teams - heck, we look nervous against teams like Everton and Manchester United. I'm not saying that Arsenal aren't a good team, I'm just saying that Bayern are better, and expectations shouldn't be raised higher than reality.

However, Arsenal are living proof that underdogs can defeat the big teams when they put their efforts in the right direction. As opposed to hopes of the Premier League title, I'm not expecting failure today. I firmly believe that we have the potential to cause a massive upset, if we play cautiously as well as ruthlessly.

On paper, Bayern Munich are clear winners. Out there, who knows?

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Monday, 17 February 2014

Arsenal 2-1 Liverpool: Dare to dream?

I don't care if it was lucky, I don't care if it was risky. I don't care if refereeing decisions favoured us (for once!), and I certainly don't care that I sounded increasingly critical of our chances prior this game.

This is the FA Cup: It is results, and results alone that rule the tournament. Screw the performances - the final scoreline is a fact that cannot be disputed by anyone. And the fact is: Arsenal two. Liverpool one.

This win HAS to be one of the highlights of this season, however mitigating the circumstances may be. Unbelievably and unexpectedly, players like Lukasz Fabianski, Nacho Monreal and Yaya Sanogo were the star men and stepped up in the absences of Szczesny, Gibbs and Giroud. It's amazing to imagine that a defence of Fabianski, Jenkinson and Monreal somehow kept out Coutinho, Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge. To witness it transcend into reality is a quite different thing altogether.

Admittedly, I had no confidence in the team going into the match at all. Aside from a seemingly mediocre lineup, Olivier Giroud's confession of cheating on his wife merely highlighted the negative mood at the club. I don't want to comment on Giroud's personal affairs on a purely football blog, instead I just hope that it doesn't affect his performances at the club.

Even if Giroud hadn't confessed before the game, I'd have still fancied Wenger to give Yaya Sanogo the start. Frankly, the fact that Wenger held this match in such incorrect priorities didn't infuriate me - I almost expected such complacency from him. The team sheet just made it official.

After our weakened team was announced, I'm not exaggerating when I say I had no faith left in our season. I actually had made my peace with it before the game kicked off, for I truly felt that Liverpool would dominate us to a comfortable victory, which would unofficially seal another trophyless season for us.

The early signs seemed to suggest that as well. Sturridge missed two chances which on another day he would have taken, and we looked distinctly average up front. I don't remember much of the initial highlights, mainly because I was seeing it with such passive indifference, dreading the inevitable that I thought was certain to come.

Amazingly, it didn't. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain broke the deadlock after Sanogo impressively muscled his way through and smashed a volley. It deflected off Gerrard and fell politely to the Ox, who dispatched it away with ease. Somehow, a severely depleted Arsenal side managed to go one up on a full-strength Liverpool.

The second goal, I think, was even better than the first. Ozil finally got what he wanted - a player making a productive run off the ball. Motivated to prove his doubters wrong, Mesut played an inch-perfect pass to Chamberlain. Podolski stormed into the center, gave Chamberlain an easy pass to execute and connected with the ball perfectly, past a helpless Jones. Two-nil to Arsenal... who would have thought?

Of course, then we proceeded to blow it in Arsenal fashion. Lukas Podolski needlessly challenged Suarez in the box when Monreal appeared to have it all covered. Steven Gerrard got the spot-kick and promptly scored, to provide the Mugsmashers with hope.

It wasn't enough, thankfully. Neutrals would say that Liverpool deserved at least a replay - they were arguably denied another fair penalty, and messed up presentable chances to Agger and Sturridge. Suarez had peppered the goal with shots, and the Kops might've felt that one of them was bound to enter.

Gooners have a fair argument as well. Sturridge and Gerrard committed offences worthy of bookings; Gerrard in particular was fortunate to not have been handed a second yellow card. Moreover, Suarez seemed to have made the most of light contact from Podolski; which had led to Liverpool's opener. Not to mention that Santi Cazorla really should have hit the target here.

The point is moot, anyway. I understand that a healthy section of Arsenal supporters emphasize that the performance was worrying, and it papered over the cracks. I think I agree with them - while the result was a huge morale-boost, this match did showcase some of our glaring deficiencies.

However, this is the FA Cup. It's results that matter here, not how we get it. At the end of the day, we're one tantalizing step away from Wembley and skyrocketed in confidence going into one of the biggest challenges of this season. Liverpool are out, and Arsenal are neck-deep into a competition which only poses Manchester City and Everton as genuine threats. One hopes that we don't slip a chance for silverware against the Toffees.

What pleased me the most was how the players understood their deficiencies and worked really hard to cut them down. Fan pressure has had a positive reinforcement on players like Jenkinson, Monreal, Arteta, Ozil and Sanogo, who showed their supporters how able they were to improve on their game and appease the fans. I'd especially like to extend my personal congratulations to Yaya Sanogo, who put in a toiling shift despite looking rusty throughout.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but I think I saw blueprints in this team that could cause problems for Bayern Munich on Wednesday. The unique combinations that the manager attempted worked out beautifully, and could really help us in midweek. I'm not suggesting that Arsenal have a great chance to defeat Bayern, but we seem to have the potential to give them a real push over two legs.

We've made the Emirates Stadium a fortress. Aside from Steven Gerrard's penalty, the previous goal we conceded here was against Everton back in December. If we manage to maintain this home form until the end of the season, I'd fancy a productive 4 months for us.

Right. Now on to hosting the best club in the world in two days. Come ON Arsenal.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Arsenal vs Liverpool: Match Preview

This match might just be our biggest of the season.

The FA Cup represents our best chance of a trophy this season. I'd argue that it is our only chance, seeing that we can't come close to competing with City's and Chelsea's world-class squads in the EPL. When one sorts out priorities, it becomes painfully obvious that winning the cup is much likelier than the league or the CL. I still think that we are quality enough to win this coming game, if the manager plays his cards right.

But will he play his cards right? He's said as much that he's looking to rotate his squad for one of the biggest games of our campaign. Why would he increase the chance to get eliminated from the Cup? So that he loses by a lower margin to Bayern Munich?

Liverpool also view the FA Cup as their best chance for a trophy, so one can be sure that they will field their best possible lineup today. With no European competition for them to look 'forward' to in midweek, I'm certain that we will see a lineup featuring Gerrard, Coutinho, Suarez and Sturridge. Remember, it's a lineup that so comprehensively defeated us merely a week ago, and is well capable of doing so again if we remain so complacent, distracted and uncommitted in defence.

So why are we looking at rotation here? I can understand some changes - players like Flamini, Podolski and even Fabianski and Bendtner are tolerable because our key men need a breather. However, if Wenger decides to play Jenkinson, Monreal, Gnabry or (god forbid) Yaya Sanogo, then he shall have little excuse should we lose.

And lose we will. Unless we play our strongest squad possible and remain mentally motivated, I see no way that Liverpool won't win today. Brendan Rodgers is a very good manager who will doubtless take advantage of Wenger playing a weakened side, yet it seems that such a scenario is plausible to unfold.

We have to face realities. Beating Liverpool at home in the FA Cup is much more probable and productive than beating Bayern Munich at home in the Champions League. I'd actually be okay if we play Wojciech Szczesny, Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud today, and be forced to field Lukasz Fabianski, Tomas Rosicky and Nicklas Bendtner against Bayern. To me, today's game carries much more significance than Bayern's.

However, I'm sure Wenger doesn't see it that way. Even though we have quality players that can smash the Mugs, expect to see Lukasz Fabianski, Carl Jenkinson, Nacho Monreal and Nicklas Bendtner in the starting XI today. Of course, I'd want Arsenal to win even if they field eleven Yaya Sanogo's out there, but I wouldn't count on it.

While Santi Cazorla is out for this match, I suspect a motivated Lukas Podolski would make a seamless transition on the left flank. However, it's the other positions that worry me. I'm praying for a lineup of The Back Five guarding the goal, with Flamini and Wilshere in midfield. I'd love to see Chambo on the right and Podolski on the left, with Mesut Ozil or Tomas Rosicky just behind Giroud or Bendtner.

However, such is the stubborn mindset of Arsene Wenger that he almost considers it protocol to rotate in an FA Cup match, be it against Liverpool or Bournemouth. I'm expecting dreading to see Jenkinson, Monreal, Gnabry or Yaya Sanogo in this match, with key men like Gibbs and Giroud benched. I can only hope that our substitute lineup pulls the surprise of the season by beating one of the best Liverpool sides in a long time.  

Manchester City's victory over Chelsea means that they are the only other top side remaining in the FA Cup. We need to take advantage of that and defeat Liverpool at the Emirates today, or else our season will disappear in a trice. Winning the Barclays Premier League is a step too many for this side, while winning the Champions League remains the most wildest of fantasies.

If we are to win this game, I'd promptly call our next FA Cup match as one of the biggest of the season. However, a loss is unacceptable, mainly because it would all but confirm a fact that most have feared about.

A ninth trophyless season.

P.S. I know that Arsenal have announced a £120.6 million profit, which would mean that at least £100m would be available at Arsene Wenger's disposal. Don't get too excited though, you can't trust Wenger with all that money. Remember Project Youth?

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Friday, 14 February 2014

One life, one love. And it's Arsenal.


It's a number well-known among everyone connected with Arsenal. The players, the fans, the manager - heck, even the backroom staff of Cardiff City are well aware of the significance of this number to Arsenal. Since 21st May 2005, millions around the globe are desperate for the club to break its long-standing nine year trophy drought, waiting to see Arsene Wenger lift silverware since the FA Cup triumph over Manchester United.

We have come close, oh so close. Thierry's miss when we were leading 1-0 at Paris still haunts a few, for Barcelona staged a comeback to ensure heartbreak at the Champions League final. Wenger's insistence to play young blood in the Carling Cup final against Chelsea resulted in Mourinho outsmarting him again, dumping Arsenal to runners-up.

A title challenge going much better than expected was abruptly and humiliatingly shattered, like Eduardo's left ankle. On that day, we lost our confidence and soon lost our lead, finishing third only 4 points adrift of winners Manchester United, despite a heroic comeback against Bolton. One prays that Theo Walcott's injury does not have similar implications on this season's title challenge.

A brave attempt to reach the semi-finals was thwarted by Lionel Messi's brilliance, who scored four at Camp Nou to put an aggregated 3-2 tie beyond our reach. Moreover, Fabregas had ended his season in the first leg and joined a promising talent - Aaron Ramsey - on the injury list. Another opportunity to win the league was wasted; we collected only 6 points from a possible 24 in the run-in, ending our league hopes at the DW Stadium.

Grief followed in the following season as well, where the kids on the pitch inexplicably blew a four goal lead to draw 4-4 at Newcastle. On that day, the immaturity of the squad was ruthlessly exposed, but it was displayed on the big stage when a Koscielny blunder gifted Birmingham the Carling Cup.

An exodus followed. Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy clearly lost faith in Wenger's youth project and headed straight for the exit door. With the manager unwilling to buy quality reinforcements and notice the ever-growing injury list, a severely weakened team got thumped 8-2 at the Theater of Dreams. Fans were convinced that the manager would throw in the towel the following day, but instead five panic purchases and Robin's undoubted brilliance carried the team to third.

On 4th July 2012, van Persie announced his decision to leave Arsenal. What made this transfer all the more painful to stomach was the presence of a third party - Alex Ferguson's Manchester United. With no recognized quality in attack and defence whatsoever, this bereft-of-world-class-players team endured shameful exits to Bradford and Blackburn, slipped to sixth in the table and lost convincingly to Bayern Munich. A 2-1 loss to Tottenham effectively ended our top four hopes as well.

Or so it seemed.

It was almost divine intervention when we went to the Allianz Arena and miraculously snatched a 2-0 victory, scaring Manuel Neuer and restoring a hell of confidence in the process. This rejuvenated Arsenal then amazingly staged another comeback, hilariously overtaking the Spuds once more. After Koscielny's scissor striker sealed CL for us, it was greeted by sighs of relief rather than cries of jubilation. From cruising to the title in 2004, the club has clearly gone backwards, scrapping Champions League on the last day.

And that's a good thing.

Yes, you heard me right. I don't think that going 9 years trophyless has all negative implications on the club. Arsenal are one of the few top clubs that are almost completely devoid of 'plastic supporters', because the fake ones left a long time ago. The rough-weathered journey has shown everyone's true colours. The loyal ones have stayed.

And that's not to say that the past 9 years have been all doom and gloom. No one will ever forget 'The Lasagne' which destroyed a bulk of Tottenham players and paved the way for us to overtake them. Thierry Henry - fitting as it was - scored the final hatrick on our beloved stadium which literally erupted in cheers upon full time. The Spuds had crumbled against WEST HAM, and gave us a secure path into Europe's elite.

However, what surely was the highlight of that season was our Champions League dream run. I remember Thierry reflecting on the Round of 16 draw. Says it all, really:

"I remember the year we got to the final. Everybody laughed when we were drawn against Real Madrid. I remember their officials leaving the draw and saying they were happy they got Arsenal. Then we beat them."

One doesn't only need trophies to make memories. What about that screamer from Cesc Fabregas against AC Milan that helped in a crucial 2-0 win over them? What about the moment when Arshavin scored four at Anfield, or nestled the ball past Valdes in the corner? What about Theo Walcott's amazing run that briefly restored hope and amazement among all?

Even in turbulent seasons, this club has managed to produce some magical moments. 2-0 down to Tottenham Hotspur and the prospect of going 13 points behind them was slowly sinking in. After losses at San Siro and the Stadium of Light vanquished hopes for a trophy, our consolation of fourth place also seemed  in danger.

Then Sagna scored, and the season literally turned on its head. From 2-0 down to 5-2 winners, Arsenal then won NINE on the trot and nab third place at the Hawthorns, at the expense of Chelsea as well. Victories against Liverpool, Manchester City, Newcastle United, Thierry's return and a sensational comeback attempt against Milan were also highlights in a colourful 2011/12, which remains my personal favourite season as an Arsenal supporter.

A new Arsenal was born at the Allianz Arena, where the team somehow found the mettle to beat Bayern of all teams. The team has never looked back since then. Acquiring Mesut Ozil dispelled the discontent among a large Arsenal fanbase. Amazingly, we currently sit one point shy of the top of the table despite a flawed manager, jaded players and half the world against us.

My love for Arsenal will never stop - I just know that. Apart from family and friends, Arsenal has become another constant in my life that will only let go once I die. The fact that I predict a disappointing campaign, yet pointlessly hope for more just indicates how madly obsessed I am with this football club.

It's difficult to explain such a personal relationship with football. I know people find it weird when I celebrate three points which such vigour and a loss with such disappointment. "It's just a game, after all" they reply, having absolutely no clue about the bigger picture.

The most annoying responses I get for being an Arsenal supporter is, "What have they done for you?" I mean, I know that most of them don't have a taste of the football fever, but it doesn't stop me from being absolutely livid with them, even though I don't have a logical response to their question.

That's the thing about football, though. When it comes to Arsenal, logic is hurled right out of the window. I consider myself a logical, practical person, but when an Arsenal game is on, I forget all reason and pin all hopes on three points. I know that it's emotionally harmful to put so much passion into a "football game", but it's a phenomenon I can't quite explain accurately.

For a long time, Arsenal's fanbase has been horribly split. There are people who want Arsene Wenger to stay, and there are those who want him to leave. Most often, the "Wenger Out"ers are made to look like plastic fans, a common misconception. I for one never sugarcoat the fact that I do want change at Arsenal, and my reasons will definitely be mirrored at the end of the campaign.

However, I don't want today to be a day for that argument. I am certain that all fans (whether pro-Arsene or anti-Arsene) all want the club to do better. Nine trophyless seasons have bonded the club's support and made it closer than ever. We are now a club filled with loyal Gooners and loyal Gooners alone.

Why am I writing this? It's 14th February, and I know that every Arsenal supporter - whether single or otherwise - has deep feelings for this club. Being an Arsenal supporter is significantly different than being a Chelsea or a Manchester City one; we are a club with class, not oil. It goes without saying that we need a day to reflect on the transitions our team has gone through, and I believe today is that day.

To conclude, I'd like to show a video that many may have already seen. Needless to say, this precisely reflects the feelings of a lot of people. Enjoy the rollercoaster ride.

Supporting a club without trophies for 9 years? Yeah, we may not be that smart.

But that's what LOVE is.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Arsenal 0-0 United: Adjust your sights for the remainder of the campaign

We aren't winning the Premier League.

Acceptance is the first step to understanding, and only with proper understanding can there be true recovery. I have been saying since 1st February that our league hopes have been vanquished by Arsene Wenger, and today I believe it more than ever.

Don't get me wrong as people always do - I badly want this team of all teams to win the EPL. However, when everyone knew that we needed a striker and Wenger refused to buy one (not failed, REFUSED), that was when we lost our chance. All that hard work done by a plethora of honest, dedicated players like Szczesny, Mertesacker, Ramsey, Flamini and Giroud was laid waste by a blind manager who cares about his job more than our title hopes.

Back in November 2013, this is what Ivan Gazidis had said:

"We will see where Arsenal will be in January and whether or not the club will invest in another forward. Olivier Giroud won't be able to go on all alone until the end of the season. We need to buy."

Board at fault for denying Wenger funds? That's a laugh and a half. There were quality players in the market that would have infinitely strengthened the team and taken the pressure off Olivier Giroud. Even if we failed to buy a striker, a doable transfer like Julian Draxler would have undoubtedly provided the club a massive boost going into the crunch period.

Let me get this clear - if you have the money, every player on the planet becomes available. The question of a possible snag between deals for players like Dimitar Berbatov, Mirko Vucinic and Jackson Martinez does not occur; when in doubt, throw in a few million and get the deal done! It's not like we're a poor club anymore, we're raking in cash from business deals, sports deals and ticket prices everywhere.

I know that I have emphasized our failure to purchase a striker a lot since the transfer window had closed. After all, such redundant facts would get increasingly tiring to read, even for people who agree on my views. However, my sole reason to keep Arsene Wenger's blunder fresh in everyone minds is because I don't want people blaming Olivier Giroud or Nicklas Bendtner at the back end of the season. I want Wenger held 100% responsible.

I completely support the boos ringing around the stadium at full time - everyone connected to Arsenal deserved better from Wenger. By that I don't merely mean defeating the worst United side since three decades - the fans deserved some show of real ambition from Wenger. They deserved a better signing than Kim Kallstrom. They deserved a manager who has his sights on first and not fourth, and they deserved a manager who makes the right calls during team selection and mentality preparation.

Not this shadow of a person. I'm growing sick and tired of Wenger's one-dimensional tactical naivety, playing the same players and using the same formation, whether the team is Manchester United or West Ham United. I'm beyond frustrated at his refusal to make substitutions before the 69th minute, and his insistence to play Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of Lukas Podolski.

We could have just as easily defeated Manchester United today. The fact that we drew doesn't have anything to do with Moyes' tactical brilliance (ha), or that we had an off day. It's all Wenger's fault that we drew this game, because he went about this game just as he goes about with others.

Nothing has changed with Wenger's Arsenal. The problem of a lack of movement up front was initially apparent at the Cardiff game, but Bendtner's heroics saved us. However, instead of counting his lucky stars and addressing this obvious problem, he stuck to his same old philosophy throughout the following games, including today.

It isn't the February run of fixtures or the March top-of-the-table clashes that will define our season. It was the month of January, when Wenger had the chance to bring in the cavalry. He failed, and it seems like the hinges of our season are already beginning to come off. With a spirited team now fading away, players like Ramsey have succumbed to injury, and Arteta, Ozil and Giroud are looking dead tired from the rigours of overplaying.

The season isn't over yet though. While I've given up hopes for the Premier League, our Champions League encounter with Bayern Munich is one that I'm really looking forward to. Our stable defence gives us a good chance to nick this tie somehow, and while the chances of winning the CL are slim to none, a good result from the Munich ties might just have the Ozil implications on the club that we need.

However, I firmly believe that a huge chunk of our season depends on the FA Cup. Irrespective of Wenger's infuriating lack of activity in January, the squad remains motivated and talented enough to win the FA Cup. I know that winning the league is the primary objective this season, but I think we all know that wresting the title from Chelsea and Manchester City is a long, long shot.

Win the FA Cup, and a lot would be forgiven. Even pessimistic supporters like myself would call this season a success, and Wenger's disappointing managerial decisions would be quickly forgotten. Most importantly, the ghost of the "9 years without a trophy" would finally be killed, something that has been our objective for half a decade now.

It goes without saying that the game against Liverpool at the Emirates is massive. It's a game that would have long-lasting implications when we look back at the season. Lose, and a trophyless season awaits, with only the Champions League as a possible highlight. However, if we win, a bunch of Arsenal supporters would be filled with something that they crave for right now.


P.S. Here are the highlights, for those interested.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Arsenal vs United: Match Preview

Needless to say, this is a must-win. After our sickening collapse at Anfield, it is absolutely vital to bounce back and defeat Manchester United. For title challengers, nothing less than three points would work, and that's what we are going for.

We couldn't have caught United at a weaker time. Under Moyes, they are one of the most shockingly poor outfits I have ever seen. Signing Mata seems to have had little effect - they lost to Stoke and drew hilariously to Fulham. However, they were in similar perils when we visited them at Old Trafford, yet they managed to come out with three convincing points.

Moyes already seems to be losing the plot. His redundant tactic of telling his team to repeatedly cross the ball to no competent target man is yielding poor results. One feels that if we have full backs in form (Sagna and Gibbs) and a 6 ft 6 inch Per Mertesacker, we could nullify a lot of their attacking threat on the flanks. In reality, if the manager motivates the team correctly and chooses the right starting XI, three points would be comfortably gained.

However, I don't think that he's going to do that. Wenger always fails to mentally prepare his team for big matches - that is a factor that could cost us dear. In addition, his irritating habit of overplaying Mesut Ozil is not boding well for the player as well as the team, but it's a trend that seems set to continue.

My advice? With Arteta and Wilshere covering the defence (what other choice do we have?), Santi Cazorla should occupy the central attacking midfielder role. Lukas Podolski should be deployed on the left, and Tomas Rosicky on the right, and Olivier Giroud as our mainstream main man. Ozil is long overdue a rest - we should keep in mind the Champions League clash against Bayern is approaching.

However, I am quietly confident that Wenger will go out with the same one-dimensional formation, lineup and tactics. Whether it will work or not remains to be seen, but if United catch up on Wenger's naive attacking method, they could close us down and cause problems like Everton, Dortmund, Southampton and Liverpool did earlier in the season.

You know, I actually think that United are going to snatch this encounter as well. It's not about being pessimistic, but I think Wenger's flawed team selection and United reading through Arsenal's tactics would result in another bad result. Moyes is having a really bad time at Manchester, so maybe the factor that could go in our favour is that he ignores our deficiencies and sends a confidence-depleted side to London. Either ways, I'd be really surprised if we manage to win this game comfortably.

The odds are overwhelmingly in our favour. We have a fantastic home record, and are sitting 14 points pretty of United. Even so, I just hope that I had a better feeling about this match.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Monday, 10 February 2014

Fabianski announces summer departure - beginning of an exodus?

Lukasz Fabianski has officially said that he is going to leave Arsenal irrespective of whether they win a trophy or not this season.

In every way, I understand this move. After all, his appearances were severely restricted for club and country by an impressive Wojciech Szczesny, and so his decision to reject a new deal is perfectly understandable. Fabianski is 28 and is approaching the peak time of his career - why waste it on the bench of a football club, however popular it may be?

Four years ago I'd be happy to let him leave; on the contrary, I'd be quite glad to see the back of him. It is always difficult to bounce back once you lose the fans, which is what he had done at Portugal. However, unlike players such as Andre Santos, Andrey Arshavin, Emmanuel Adebayor and indeed Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie, Fabianski has done a tremendous job of redeeming a heck of pride for himself from the Arsenal fanbase.

It all began when he was called upon following Manuel Almunia's injury. For at least half of the 2010/11 season Fabianski shone for the Gunners, which went to some way for getting his pride back. After a gem was discovered in Wojciech Szczesny, Fabianski's starts had understandably dwindled to Carling Cup and FA Cup matches.

However, few have noticed that Fabianski has done well for Arsenal when called upon. While some may be reluctant to field him as a first choice goalie, I think that he was the best backup goalkeeper that we had for ages. His departure seems all the more frustrating for me because he's leaving with a tainted name of "Almunia's caretaker", one that he does not deserve anymore.

Personally, I'm sad to see him go. In an ideal world, I'd love for him to be our backup keeper for ages, but we must understand the player's desires. Fabianski has the potential to be a very good reliant at the back, it was just not to be at Arsenal though. No offense, but we have somebody better.

Fabianski's impending departure puts another signing on the list of our summer requirements, which already included a striker and a center back. I think that we need a defensive midfielder as well; Arteta cannot be relied upon to cover the back four any more. Sagna's worrying ongoing rumours suggest that a right back may be a necessity as well; Jenkinson is good, but is far from emulating Sagna's solidity.

I still have a niggling worry over players like Vermaelen, Rosicky and Podolski. Lack of game time and poor man management of them might mean that they may be angling towards a summer move as well. If they are to leave, then Wenger should be held completely responsible for failing to use quality options on the bench to replace faltering and tired players in the starting XI.

I think that Bacary Sagna's future depends on whether we win something this season. I'd slap anybody if they would call Sagna a traitor if he leaves in the summer - this guy stuck with the team throughout the Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie, Song and Clichy departures, and didn't even make a big fuss about it. He is one of the few world class right backs in the league, and badly wants to win something for the club. However, if Arsenal falter in their title bid and their Cup hopes, then I'm certain that Sagna would leave.

I foresee a disaster ahead for the club. Wenger's refusal to buy a striker, employ flexible tactics and give Bould his space can and will lead to calamity this season. In any case, players like Viviano, Fabianski, Bendtner and Park are set to leave. If we fail to win a trophy, players like Vermaelen, Podolski and Rosicky could depart as well.

Imagine the worst case scenario. We bottle our lead and lose the cup. Viviano, Fabianski, Sagna, Vermaelen, Rosicky, Podolski, Bendtner and Park depart. The team is left severely lacking in goal, right back, center back and in striker. I highly doubt that Wenger would buy the necessary players (six required at least) to maintain our level of quality, or indeed, step it up a notch.

Once again I emphasize - this season may be one of the last times that we witness an Arsenal team challenging for the title. I may sound increasingly critical about potential departures regarding Vermaelen, Rosicky and Podolski, but I am certain that at least one of these departures are to happen if we win nothing but peanuts.

I am scared for the future, I really am. It seems to me that the scene is set for heartbreak at the end of the campaign, and an exodus is to follow. Wenger will only buy players sufficient enough for qualifying for the CL in the summer, which would lead to another tug-of-war with Tottenham Hotspur for fourth place.

I pray I'm wrong, but I think I'm not wide off the mark.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal: Worse than the 8-2

I'm the kind of guy who loves to say "I told you so." Especially in predicting stuff about Arsenal, where I'm generally accurate. I understand Wenger; I understand his managerial decisions, the logic behind his transfer dealings and the reasons behind his recent successes and failures. I pride myself on knowing the near-exact functioning of Arsenal Football Club, and I can make confident predictions based on that.

However, what happened yesterday transcends logic. It was simply shameful to concede 5 at Anfield, so shameful that I still can't quite get my head around that. It's true - apparently - a team with the best defence in the league and Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Olivier Giroud in attack somehow managed to lose spectacularly against (what I still consider) an inferior Liverpool side.

If there's one thing that I learnt from this game, it was to not take anything for granted. I had said that I fancied Arsenal to nick this game by one goal, but was proven dead wrong in 20 minutes. Coutinho, Sturridge, Sterling and Suarez completely tore us to ribbons, cutting open the famous Mertescielny pair with effortless ease. In the aftermath of the game, people have seemed to ignore that defensive problem, instead focusing on the complete ineffectiveness of Ozil and Giroud in the match.

I have a very disturbing theory for our horrible defence, though. You may not want to believe it - I don't want to believe it either - but I have a sneaky suspicion that my guess is close to correct. It's a logical guess, but it's a guess all the same, so I hope it's a wrong one.

On 28th January, in the aftermath of our 2-2 draw against Southampton, I wrote:

"Wenger knows how to make a solid attacking side, I'll give him credit for that. While he's completely incompetent in teaching his team how to defend (shame, seeing he was a center back), he has Steve Bould to sort that out for him now. (Speaking of which, was our disorganized defence a sign that Wenger's interfering with Bould's training again?)"

After our win against Crystal Palace and a nice clean sheet for us, I put this question out of my mind, regarding Steve Bould's diminishing influence on the club. Shortly afterwards, Per Mertesacker gave a pretty candid interview, in which he lauded Bould's defensive work on this team. He said:

"Steve likes to work with us, especially with the back four. We are grateful for his influence, his tips and his little hints as to what we might do better in any situation. We've worked just on details and that's what it's about, that's what really pays off now. From the start, he tried to be an influence. He's a good addition on the coaching staff."

What worries me that immediately after this interview against Liverpool, we witnessed some comical defending largely reminiscent of Wenger's defending throughout 2007 to 2012. I never bought into few people's allegations that Wenger is egoistical enough to take credit for everything that happens at Arsenal, but I think I am now.

It's only a theory, but I fear that Mertesacker's comments on Bould led Wenger to think that Bould was hogging some of the limelight, which he wanted. I think that he interfered with Steve's training sessions and took it himself, in an attempt to assert his power. This must have resulted in the team being completely unprepared defensively, and paying the price against outstanding strikers like Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.

Again, it's only a theory, but it's the only logical one that I can come up with. If it indeed turns out to be true and this continues, then I must immediately emphasize that Arsenal are in grave danger of facing a dead season. This Arsenal side have almost completely depended on their defence; it has almost been their fail-safe this season. If Wenger got paranoid enough to take that strength away from us against Liverpool (and fearfully beyond), then our title hopes have zilch chance of surviving.

Wenger's Arsenal always managed to stay in the mix for the title in seasons like 2008, 2010 and 2011 because we had the attacking flair to hide our defensive frailties. However, few would argue that due to a clear lack of cutting edge and movement up front, our attack is currently not good enough.

Due to Steve Bould getting his space, this time we had our steelness in defence to hide our attacking woes, quite the contrary compared to previous years. If Wenger cuts that from the team as well, then I hate to imagine what is to happen to this team in the coming months.

Bar Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey, we had our best possible squad out there, every bit as capable of defeating Liverpool. However, it was Arsene Wenger who killed our chances to win this game, by two glaring errors in the team sheet. When I realized that Monreal was selected above Gibbs in the lineup, I immediately tweeted:

I don't mean to brag, but I was right. Sterling made Nacho Monreal look like Andre Santos, getting in behind him from time to time again. After we conceded our first goal freakishly early in the game, the team was completely demoralized, and Wenger failed to motivate them. Instead, we used our own redundant 'pass and pivot off Giroud' tactics that didn't work, and Wenger sat clueless on the touchline instead of changing it.

Why Mesut Ozil started this game is beyond me. Even the most deluded of Arsenal supporters will now know that he has been woeful for us since Everton, which was in the beginning of December. His statistics mean nothing to me - on the pitch I just see a player who completely lacks confidence, workrate and concentration. I understand that everyone wants Ozil to be more than just the player who lifted the team psychologically, but that doesn't mean that we completely ignore his deficiencies and laud his minor contributions as potential game changers.

At this rate, there's no way that he's going to replace Cesc Fabregas or Dennis Bergkamp. He was solely at fault for the third and the fourth goal he conceded, and frankly, he didn't seem to give a fuck about it. Mesut Ozil is a world class player who we NEED in world class form for us to contend for the title; but at the moment, we need to bench him.

Oh, but Wenger won't. There's almost a monopoly of the central attacking midfield position now, neither Rosicky nor Cazorla gets an input into that role when Ozil is fit. I strongly suggest that we bench Ozil for the United clash, play Cazorla there and Lukas Podolski on the left, but I strongly suspect that Wenger will do that. His tactical naivety and an inability to motivate his team is what holds Arsenal back, rather than propel them forward. For me, our Premier League season was over when Wenger failed refused to buy a striker in January.

While I don't know about our FA Cup hopes now, I'm getting familiar with a much more worrying prospect than a failure to win a trophy for the ninth year running. It's not related to Mesut Ozil's awful form, and it's not related to a lack of business in January. It isn't about Arsene Wenger either, at least not to some extent.

It's about Steve Bould unable to get his messages through to his defence. In my opinion, it was Bould's coaching and Mesut Ozil's signing that had revolutionized Arsenal's form over the past 5 months. Now that the gloss of Ozil's buy has worn off and a suspicion of Wenger overruling Bould in the training ground has arisen, I'm actually terrified to see what is to become of us in the upcoming matches.

I have written some realistic solutions to turn our form for the better, although I am sadly confident that Wenger won't do any of them. Anyway, here they are:

Bench Mesut Ozil: 

At least for the United and the Liverpool game, Ozil needs to be benched. Irrespective of his performances, he is long overdue a breather. In addition, Wenger benching him will lead Ozil to realize that his place in the starting XI is not guaranteed, and we might see more rejuvenated performances from him. In the meantime, may I suggest playing Santi Cazorla in his position and Lukas Podolski on the left flank?

Motivational team talks:

Even though there has been no indication from anywhere (except this report) that Wenger is incapable of motivating his side, I think that it's true. Again, it's another logical guess, but it perfectly explains why Wenger's Arsenal collapsed after the Carling Cup disaster at Wembley and Eduardo's injury, both against Birmingham.

Of course, many would say that a feature of this season's Arsenal has been its ability to bounce back from disappointments. We did it against Aston Villa, Manchester United as well as against Manchester City. However, I refuse to believe that it is Arsene Wenger who instigated these bounce-backs.

You may accuse me of being blinkered with my hatred of Wenger, refusing to give him credit when it's due. You may be right as well, I don't know. However, I am much more inclined to believe that it is leaders like Per Mertesacker, Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini who motivate the team, for I see these players as genuine Arsenal through-and-through's, who want the team to do better.

Hand over the defence completely to Bould: 

This, I am certain, is the most important tonic to success. Our recent wins have largely - if not completely - been down to Steve Bould's work with the back four. After this match, I am left worried that Bould may be getting overruled by the dictator that Wenger is, which I pray is false.

If it's true, then our season is dead. There is absolutely no chance of recovery, because we'd have a poor defence and an average attack. Maybe we would get a clearer idea of where our defence stands when we face United on Wednesday, seeing they have a dangerous attacking trio of Mata, Rooney and van Persie.


To say that all of the reactions to yesterday's game were justified would be incorrect, though. I disagree with people who consider players like Monreal, Arteta, Giroud and (would you believe it) Wilshere to be liabilities to this club. I support all of these players, especially Olivier, and feel that they are being held scapegoats for a tactically crippled Wenger.

Jack played with more heart than everybody out there. I doubt that half of the Arsenal fanbase would have put in that much effort were they 4-0 down at Anfield and in Wilshere's place. Nacho Monreal did not need to start the game - Gibbs would have held the threat of Sterling much more capably. Arteta is being the victim of old age and Wenger's insistence to play him as a deep lying midfielder; to say that he doesn't deserve to wear the shirt is a bit unjustified.

I have long since vouched for Olivier Giroud, and I continue to do so today. Wenger is messing him up - instead of getting a pacy player who can finish difficult chances (a raw Luis Suarez if you will), Wenger is heaping pressure on Olivier and draining him of stamina. While his lack of hardwork in this game was a bit surprising, I'd give him the benefit of the doubt, because I know he must be as jaded as Mesut Ozil is.

I don't think that this is a beginning of a collapse from Arsenal. Players like Mertesacker, Arteta, Wilshere, Flamini and Rosicky would never allow it. However, if the above solutions are not taken, I strongly feel that we are going to run out of stamina and ideas towards the end of the campaign. By the end of March, I fear that the gap between us and the leaders would be insurmountable.

Understandably, there were a lot of varied reactions to the drubbing at Anfield. Below I have picked out the tweets that I feel are the most realistic reactions to this game, and what it means for our future.

Finally, a word of congratulations to Liverpool. As shit as we were, Brendan Rodgers saw through Wenger's one-dimensional tactics and fielded the team perfect enough to clobber us. However, Wenger simply stuck to his pass and move philosophy with the same predictable lineup, and deservedly paid the price. What wouldn't I give for this manager to be replaced at the end of the season.

I still have faith; not in the manager, but in the players. Let's hope that they can dig in and win something, despite the manager putting obstacles along the way.

-Santi (Follow me on twitter: @ArsenalBlogz )