Play or get played

It’s been a while; almost 10 months. Not since our 3-2 defeat at home to Olympiacos in last season’s Champions League group stage have I written about The Arsenal. There have been various reasons for the absence, but I thought it time to dust of the quill and have a ramble. A word of warning, it may not be pretty.

What I’m about to say isn’t said easily, nor lightly. Until Arsenal Football Club has a new manager I will struggle to raise my interest and excitement levels in The Arsenal. So much love and admiration for the greatest manager in our club’s history, it makes the end all the more painful. And the worst part of all? It doesn’t have to be this way.

Since day one of the transfer window every Arsenal fan I know has agreed, to a large extent, on what we require. First and foremost, a centre forward. Secondly, defensive reinforcements. Beyond that, a wide forward for the right hand side would also be nice. Then, any young prospects (such as Rob Holding, who are there to bolster the numbers) are always welcome.

Arsene Wenger

Pray (and purchase) a little harder please, Arsene

 

So why can the man closest to it all, with such vast football knowledge and experience, and with such heartfelt love for our club, once again leave the squad going short on numbers and seriously stale? I’m tired of hearing how fans only want £50m signings. Or new signings in every position because ‘new is new’. It simply isn’t true.

What we want is a neglected squad given the TLC it desperately needs, using the resources we quite obviously have at our disposal. New signings, at prices within our means, that will provide some much needed quality and some much needed depth.

With regards to prices, I’m tired of talking about them. When the likes of Crystal Palace can pay £27m for a centre forward there can be no more doubt. Without any question we comfortably have at least double that capability. Our commercial revenue is far greater than theirs. Our match day revenue is the biggest in the league. We have Champions League income on top of the ludicrous new Premier League television money. And yet we keep hearing about money, how there are over 600 staff to pay. Enough, Arsene; we’re not fools.

I’m also tired of hearing the required quality is hard to come by. I cannot believe that in the world of football there isn’t a single player who cannot better the contributions of Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Or those of Gabriel and Chambers. Or who could play more minutes than Welbeck and Wilshere. And this is not to attack any of the individuals listed; they all have their strengths and they all have their weaknesses. But to claim a club the size of Arsenal Football Club cannot find better? Or even find players with an equivalent level in order to boost squad depth? I simply cannot believe it. Over ten years of Theo Walcott and we still can’t find better? Please. (Ok, I’ll admit, that one was a targeted attack, on a player for whom my patience has expired!).

Theo Walcott

Oh, Theo (And repeat…)

 

But then comes the real problem. Even if we did sign the required players, would it really make a difference? Would it make securing a top four finish easier? Probably. A good cup run more likely? Sure. A semi decent Champions League run? Possibly. But would it win us the league title we all crave? Unlikely. And why do I think that? Our life sapping style of play.

It’s slow, it’s pedestrian. I cringe every time I hear pundits bring out the cliché that “Arsenal are great to watch, but it’s all about results”. Because let’s not kid ourselves, we’re not even great to watch anymore! I noticed my good friend Simon Rose tweeted before the Leicester game on the weekend that he was happy to see a front three of Alexis, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain as he likes pace. But what good is having all that pace when none of them use it to their advantage?!

What has happened to the fast, scintillating, one and two touch football? Where’s our devastatingly fast counter attacks? Everton away last season saw such a goal. That it was greeted with such astonishment and joy was thoroughly depressing. We’ve become deprived of such a simple beauty that used to be so common. Now we are slow, we are ponderous, and we struggle to breakdown the defensive walls we see week after week. Oh for the days of 4-4-2 and fast, flowing football (not to mention a squad littered with world class players!).

Celebrating one of our great counter attacking goals

Celebrating one of the great counter attack goals!

 

And I don’t think I, or we, are the only ones that are bored. The players look bored too. They too appear ready for fresh ideas, a fresh approach. The problem is that the man in charge does not. Arsene revolutionised not only Arsenal Football Club, but the entire English game. And his morality for how the game should be played, and the confines in which clubs should operate to play it, is to be greatly admired. But sadly, despite being right, he is also wrong. Because the game has once again changed. It may not have changed for the better, which makes Arsene’s predicament all the sadder, but change it has and a certain element of go with the flow is required. Or, in the words of Omar Little: “The game’s out there, and it’s play or get played. That simple.” Sadly, we’re getting played.

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What’s The Point?

Since I arrived in Sydney, early September 2012, Champions League coverage has been on the ESPN channels, which are available as part of the Foxtel sports package (Foxtel being the Australian equivalent of Sky for those unaware). I’ve therefore been able to watch every Champions League fixture since my arrival just over three years ago.

BeIN Sports - The New Home of Champions League Football

However, this season coverage has moved to BeIN Sports, a channel which is not included within the Foxtel sports package. So a decision had to be made; do I subscribe to BeIN Sports, or do I go without Champions League coverage? The decision was sadly an easy one – I would not be subscribing to BeIN Sports.

There were two reasons for this decision being an easy one. The first was cost. I cannot justify spending an additional $20 a month; my monthly Foxtel subscription fee is ridiculously high as it is. The second reason is a sad indictment of Arsenal’s Champions League record. I thought, “what’s the point?”.

18 years of Champions League football under Arsene Wenger and what do we have to show for it? One final, one semi-final and, asides from a few magical nights against some true European giants, not a lot else. Our defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiacos were laughably predictable.

Laughable Predictable

Since we last made a quarter-final appearance, the list of clubs to have successfully made it that far includes: Inter Milan, AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Porto, Benfica, Monaco, Schalke, Marseille, Shakhtar Donetsk, Galatasaray, Malaga, APOEL Nicosia and Tottenham Hotspur. Pardon my French, but fuck me. If APOEL Nicosia wasn’t rubbing salt into the wounds then Tottenham Hotspur really is the epitome of kicking a man (very fucking hard) whilst he’s already down.

And here’s the thing. You simply cannot convince me that any of the above teams have had a significantly better team (or squad) than Arsenal whilst achieving their quarter-final appearances. Yes there are some big clubs in that list, with rich histories and some good players, such as the two Milan sides. But are they (or were they at the time of achieving the quarter-final) significantly better than us? And by that I mean would you put them into the Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich category? Certainly not. These are teams we should be more than capable of matching, yet we are not.

I love Arsene, and the many extraordinary things he has done for our great club, immensely. But how can you not question his European record? Even if you exclude the most challenging part of his reign (balancing the books as we transitioned from Highbury to the Emirates) it doesn’t make pretty reading; his two double winning sides and the Invincibles never made it beyond the last eight. To compound matters the second of those double winning sides lost to Valencia, denying them a semi-final place against Leeds United. Whilst the Invincibles suffered that painful second leg defeat at home to Chelsea, denying them a semi-final tie with Monaco and a final against Porto. It says a lot that many Arsenal fans still regard the Invincibles as our biggest near miss when it comes to the Champions League, despite the fact we made the final two years later.

My Worst Night As An Arsenal Fan

Bizarrely the two times we have progressed beyond the quarter-finals came at more challenging times. The first, our final year at Highbury, a campaign in which we scrapped fourth place in the league on the final day, yet remarkably reached the Champions League final thanks to a record (which still exists to this day) of 10 clean sheets in a row, despite playing the majority of those games with a makeshift backline consisting of Eboue, Senderos, and Flamini. The second came during the infamous ‘Project Youth’ era, with eventual defeat in the semi-finals at the hands of United.

But ‘Project Youth’ is no longer in existence. We have a fantastic squad, with some incredible players. There is of course room for improvement, but even with current gaps in the squad we should be capable of beating Zagreb and Olympiacos, and we should certainly have enough in our locker to be matching the exploits of APOEL Nicosia! But we didn’t and we haven’t. So, after 18 years of European failure and a disastrous start to this season’s campaign there is little choice but to question Arsene when it comes to Europe (or in some people’s eyes domestically too).Will Arsenal ever show Champions League progress under Wenger

Our players should be capable of making the last eight more often than not. Beyond the last eight then I admit we’d need a little bit of luck to accompany the squad at our disposal; a kind draw here or there, big clubs knocking each other out, and so forth. Draw permitting, Real, Barca, and Bayern will often take three of the four semi-final spots. But that still leaves a fourth spot up for grabs, and as Juventus proved last season both that fourth semi-final spot and then the final itself are possible if you play your cards right. But sadly we’re not even close.

Instead I’m left thinking “what’s the point?”. BeIN Sports also provide coverage of the League Cup, the Europa League, the Championship, Scottish football, German football, and Italian football, none of which provide a strong enough interest to lure me into subscribing and handing over $20 a month. It’s rather tragic that I’m now putting Arsenal’s Champions League exploits into the same bucket, a bucket I don’t see them coming out of until there’s a new manager at the helm.

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Cech Mate

Welcome to The Arsenal, Petr Cech. After 11 years with one of most despicable clubs in world football, Petr is now one of us, part of our great club that has the class, tradition, and history his previous employers seriously lack. That said, a small ounce of credit to Roman Abramovich who was true to his word and has allowed Cech to move to the club of his choice, despite the continued whining of Mourinho that he did not approve of the destination. It’s no surprise that one was thanked in Cech’s ‘Letter to the Fans’ while the other was completely omitted.

Welcome to Arsenal Football Club, Petr Cech

But enough of them and their loss, and instead let’s have a little more about us and review our first signing of the summer. At the age of 33 players are deemed to be in the twilight of their careers, but not goalkeepers; for them it’s their prime. Having signed a 4 year contract it seems clear to me that’s exactly the view of both Arsene and Cech himself.

Personally I’m sitting on the fence a little with this one. There’s no doubt Petr Cech was the best goalkeeper in the Premier League, and arguably across world football, during the majority of his stay in West London. But in recent years I thought I saw cracks appearing, mistakes that never used to occur, and was therefore not too surprised when Courtois was recalled following his successful loan period at Atletico Madrid.

But that’s the empty half of the glass. The half full part of me knows that no player is perfect, that everyone makes mistakes from time to time, and that we’ve signed a goalkeeper with bags of talent, who clearly still has a great hunger for the game, and a resume of vast experience – 4 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, 3 League Cups, 1 Champions League, and 1 Europa League to be precise. All very painful successes to watch as an Arsenal fan, but achieved by a player from whom we may now reap the rewards of such experience. A player, dropped and discarded by Mourinho, who is no doubt chomping at the bit to prove he still has what it takes. To have that level of quality and know-how between our sticks could prove invaluable come May.

Petr Cech In Arsenal's New Goalkeeper Kit

In addition, for those wanting to make a half full glass and completely full glass, I believe Cech will be the perfect mentor for Wojciech Szczesny. There is so much talent and potential in our Polish stopper, but flaws in his temperament and character appear to be inhibiting his progress, which has not been as great as I imagine Wenger would have hoped, especially in comparison to some of his peers, such as David De Gea.

I have no doubt, however, that Arsene will be hopeful that the professionalism of Cech will have a positive influence on Szczesny, whose warm response to Cech’s arrival was a welcome sight. By the end of Cech’s 4 year contract Wojciech will be 29 years old and, with any luck, perfectly moulded into the truly great Arsenal number one many believe he can be.

Petr Cech Signs His Arsenal Contract

So, with Petr Cech seemingly signed to be our number one, and mentor to future hope Wojciech Szczesny, what next for David Ospina? Personally I’ll be surprised if he’s still an Arsenal player come the end of the transfer window, even if he was only signed last summer, as I just don’t see him settling for third choice.

Statistically he hasn’t done a great deal wrong. His saves percentage is very good, as is his win ratio. But something has just never felt right for me. I like a goalkeeper to have an aura; a commanding presence, control of his area, marshal the back four, and the ability to make world-class saves out of nowhere. They almost need an air of arrogance, of invincibility about them. I also quite like goalkeepers who can clear the half way line with their goal kick!

Ospina offers none of the above, therefore when selecting Szczesny for the FA Cup final I’m sure a large part of Wenger’s thinking Wojciech’s ability, and instinctive nature, to own his penalty area; to come and claim crosses or to punch them clear. It became very clear, very early, that he would not allow Benteke to be an aerial threat. I’m not convinced Ospina could have done that.

Wojciech Szczesny Displaying His Extra Reach

With Szczesny there is of course high risk, as well as high reward, but I think that’s the reason behind Petr Cech. Someone who, like Lehmann before him (and Van der Sar for United), can more than fill the void while Szczesny matures and refines his game to the required level.

Ospina on the other hand is simply a safe option. Real clangers will be few and far between, and he’ll make the saves you’d expect any decent keeper to make for you. But he’ll never produce that moment of magic. In his, albeit short, Arsenal career he has never made a save that made me gasp, which prevented what felt like an inevitable goal. I’ve seen both Cech and Szczesny do that many a time.

I’m certain that, at this point, people will point to Ospina’s fabulous double save for Columbia against Argentina in the recent Copa America. However, even then I was left thinking “Messi should have buried that” as opposed to “wow, what a save”. When a striker does all they can possibly do and yet the keeper still makes the save, that is world-class. I believe Petr Cech has that ability, I believe Szczesny has it too, but I’m not convinced that Ospina does.

Does Ospina Have The Ability For World Class Saves

I think of goals such as Southampton’s first in the League Cup, Monaco’s first and third goals in the Champions League, and Swansea’s winner towards the end of the league season, and I see fundamental flaws in Ospina. For many these are not seen; these goals were not deemed to be the fault of Ospina. But I see a keeper with a lack of height, a lack of reach, a lack of push and spring in the diving motion. I’m often left wondering “could he have done better?”

Cech or Szczesny, goalkeepers with the extra height, reach, and technique, would, in my opinion, have produced fantastic fingertip saves. Yes their potential rewards may come with real possibilities of risk (especially Szczesny), but I’d rather win by rolling the dice than fall short playing safe.

I’m fully aware that I’m being super critical of Ospina, who is a good goalkeeper; I’m highlighting, and fixating on, the smallest of margins. But the reality is that we’re now in a position to do just that. With the stadium transition complete, and with greater funds available to us, we no longer have to decide between Almunia and Fabianski, or have deputies such as Shaaban, Warmuz, or Mannone. Instead we can now nit-pick between Cech, Szczesny, and Ospina. It’s a fantastic headache for the manager to have, so welcome to The Arsenal, Petr Cech.

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It’s Happened Again

*Blows away the cobwebs*

Ten games, two months, twenty-one days, and however many hours and minutes since I last put my lazy pen to paper. I’m sure you’ve missed me like a hole in the head.

All in all it’s been a positive absence. Five league victories, the highlight of which was the 4-1 thumping of a pathetic Liverpool side which I very much enjoyed watching in the company of my Liverpool supporting in-laws, culminating in us celebrating St.Totteringham’s Day for the twentieth, yes TWENTIETH, season running.

St.Totteringham's Day

And of course there was the small matter of our record 19th FA Cup Final, emphatically won 4-0 against Aston Villa to secure a record 12th FA Cup triumph. Never have I witnessed such a one-sided, comfortable cup final victory. It was heaven.

The Arsenal - FA Cup Winners 2015

We’re now in the depths of summer (or winter for those of us down under), where, from a football perspective, you essentially have three options: reflect on the season that was, debate the summer business required to improve next season, or watch international football.

Looking at the first of those, reflecting on the season that was, and the debate of did we make progress? For me the answer is yes. We finished one place higher (avoiding a Champions League qualifier), retained the FA Cup with a display in the final of greater maturity and composure to that of last year, our end of season form was second to none, and for once our injury list went down in numbers instead of up.

Some have challenged these views, in particular raising the question of points vs. places. To those on the side of points, I’ll ask you this – which of the following league seasons was your favourite: 1997/98, 1998/99, 2002/03, 2004/05, 2007/08, 2013/14?

I’m guessing your answer was 1997/98 given we won the league title and in the other five seasons listed we did not. And yet, in those five other seasons we finished with the same number of points (78) or more than we did in 1997/98. If you still prefer points, that’s fine, but I’ll be sticking to places.

The Arsenal - League Champions 1997-98 - Places, Not Points

But for some mitigating circumstances, some of which were unavoidable and some of which were self-inflicted, I fully believe we’d have challenged for the title. The key is to learn the lessons of the self-inflicted issues and avoid them from happening again because the hope of last summer has been replaced by expectation this. Arsene’s record suggests we have stronger league campaigns in seasons following a vacant summer, so with no European Championship and no World Cup to disrupt our preparations next season feels like it could finally be our time again.

On that note I seem to have reached our second option for the summer, debating what’s required to improve next season. Whilst preferred transfer targets may differ there appears to be some consensus on the areas of the field that need addressing, with goalkeeper, defensive midfielder and strikers on most people’s lips.

Between the sticks I’m open to improvement. Since Seaman and more recently Lehmann we haven’t had a top quality keeper. But the struggle I have here is identifying a realistic target that is significantly better than Szczesny.

Who's Your No.1 - Szczesny or Ospina

Good goalkeepers are few and far between, so those of the highest calibre are already at top clubs. Petr Cech is the name generating the most noise right now, but I’m far from convinced he still has the quality displayed during his heyday. If he does, of if Arsene has an alternative option in mind then great, but if not I’d be quite comfortable sticking with Szczesny. My only concern there of course is whether Wojciech remains left out in the cold, but I’ll leave the Szczesny vs. Ospina conversation for another day!

With regards to defensive midfield Coquelin has been a revelation and, hopefully, has made Arsene realise just how pivotal his role is to the team. The defence need protection and our creative sparks need the freedom to play. But Coquelin is just one man. Injury or suspension is likely to occur at some stage, as is fatigue. Having a suitable back-up could prove fundamental to just how successful we are next season.

The third area of improvement, for many, is up front. Podolski, Sanogo, and Campbell will, most likely, be sold or loaned out again and rightly so on all three counts. What leaves us with Walcott, Welbeck, and Alexis as alternatives to Giroud, but all three have their limitations.

The Best of Both Worlds - Walcott and Giroud

Walcott has frightening pace and movement, but doesn’t offer the physicality, hold-up play, or aerial ability of Giroud. Welbeck can offer some of those components, plus Walcott’s pace, but never quite to the clinical level required. And Alexis is an absolute gem who is devastating from the wide position, so why play him through the middle where he’s outnumbered and lost in a sea of bodies?

What would therefore be great is to have another option that provides the combined physicality, touch, electric pace, and finishing of both Giroud and Walcott, but with greater consistency than Welbeck. Does such a player exist? If so are they a realistic target? Hopefully Arsene knows the answer.

And finally that brings us to summer option number three: watch international football. There are friendlies, European qualifiers, the Copa America, and the Women’s World Cup. Personally international football really isn’t for me. If it’s the quarter finals onwards of the Euros or World Cup then maybe, otherwise I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. That England has lost only 1 of their last 33 qualifiers yet can’t even come close to making their first semi-final since 1996 tells you all you need to know. So as I say, unless it’s the latter stages of a major tournament I’m happy to give it a miss, but fair play to those who can find enjoyment from it.

So there you have it, options 1, 2 and 3 for the summer with my view on each. The countdown for the new season has well and truly begun, with Arsenal unveiling our new home kit. And for me personally the countdown has even more significance than usual this year because for me, in 46 days’ time, on the Community Shield weekend, I’ll be marrying the girl of my dreams. I can’t wait.

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Awesome Olivier

NEWCASTLE UNITED 1 ARSENAL 2 (Giroud x2)

The Arsenal continued their fine run of form with a hard-fought 2-1 victory at St James’ Park against Newcastle United in what was a text-book example of a game of two halves.

The first half saw a dominant display with two fine finishes from Olivier Giroud. The first an instinctive prod with his knee to divert Welbeck’s flick on into the bottom corner and the second a fine header from a Cazorla corner having held off Williamson exceptionally well.

Olivier Giroud scores Arsenal's second goal against Newcastle in the Premier League matchpton

Newcastle were well and truly on the ropes and but for some poor finishing from Olivier’s front line counterparts we could have been three or four goals to the good at the half way mark. Whether it was John Carver’s rousing half time team talk, us taking our foot off the pedal, or heavy legs from our midweek exploits in Monaco is anyone’s guess (note: I suspect it was a bit of all three), but regardless of the cause Newcastle came out all guns firing in the second half, pressing high and snapping into tackles.

Just minutes into the second half it was 2-1, with Sissoko pulling one back for the home side after we switched off down our left hand side, and after that we really struggled to get our passing game going again. In the end though a combination of tame finishing, excellent defending (Gabriel and Koscielny were impressive) and some good saves from Ospina (in particular one with his feet following a double deflection) saw us over the finish line, with another vital three points secured in the race for the top four.

Giroud celebrates his opener with his team mates

In his post-match interview Arsene was understandably happy with another away win:

We have played four games in two weeks and three away games at Manchester, in Monaco and here today, and we’ve won all three. The last 40 minutes were difficult because our legs had gone a little bit and Newcastle played very well in the second half, but we had an outstanding first half going forward. We had a fluent game by creating chance after chance and in the second half we just had to show different qualities and hang on.

I’ve heard many being critical of the second half performance, but if you can’t acknowledge the exceptional efforts (both mentally and physically) of securing a victory from a third tough away game in quick succession then you’re going about this “football supporting” thing all wrong.

A word for Olivier Giroud too. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard people claim we’d win the title if we had a world-class striker and it leaves me wondering just what games they’re watching because clearly I’m watching different ones.

During his Arsenal career Giroud has made 124 appearances (98 starts and 26 as a substitute). Across these 124 appearances he has scored 56 goals. That’s roughly a goal every other game which, but my reckoning, is pretty good going. Especially when you consider how his goals to game ratio will have improved this season compared to his first, for example.

Olivier Giroud - Playing for the cannon on his chest

Olivier has continuously improved year on year and this season has a goal to game ratio (in the Premier League) which is better than anyone else. Better than Aguero. Better than Costa. Better than the inbred clown who plays for that lot up the road, who the English media can’t get enough of. “Is there any striker out there in better form?” they shriek whilst pitching their tents.

Well, yes… yes there is. And his name is Olivier Giroud. 9 goals in his last 9 games for a team that has won 21 of their last 26 matches in all competitions. And it’s not just the goals. There’s assists, hold up play, intricate link up play, a fantastic work rate, defensive headers from opposition corners, and much more. He’s an all-round striker who has risen to the challenge of the arrivals of Welbeck and Alexis and has, without doubt, cemented his place as Arsenal’s first choice striker.

It will be all quiet on the Arsenal front for a couple of weeks now thanks to an international break. When Premier League action resumes on Saturday 4th April we’ll be playing host to Liverpool who will be licking their wounds after defeat to United. As well as the usual motivating factors involved in this fixture there is also the knowledge that victory would create a 9 point cushion between ourselves and Liverpool, so there will be plenty to play for. But for now it’s boring internationals, during which I’ll be keeping all of my fingers and toes crossed that everyone returns fit, healthy, and ready to pick up where they left off.

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Glorious Glory, Glorious Failure

All in all it’s been a positive week for The Arsenal. Three games, three wins. Seven goals scored, only one conceded. Third in the league (only a point behind second) and through to the FA Cup semi-finals. Unfortunately, however, the third of our three victories wasn’t enough to progress in Europe, with the widely predicated “glorious failure” coming to fruition.

But with 20 wins from our last 25 games it’s hard not to be pleased (and excited) by the progress made in recent weeks and months, despite our European exit. Yes there are still a few creases that need to be ironed out, but this squad of players has me feeling very optimistic at just the right time of the season.

MANCHESTER UNITED 1 ARSENAL 2 (Monreal, Welbeck)

I said before the game I was quietly confident. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the exact reason why, but needless to say I was delighted to be proved right. We witnessed fantastic performances from one to eleven and kudos to Wenger as well; he’s often criticised for his tactics and substitutions, but on this occasion got both spot on.

The first goal was a wonderful move; from the quick interchanges on the left, to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s mazy run from the right, through to Monreal’s cool and composed finish. As for the second, another example of why Welbeck gets the nod ahead of Walcott, with anticipation and hard work allowing him to take advantage of a short Jones back-pass. He made the finish look easier than it was and it was great to see him celebrating with his team-mates too, rather than any of that respecting your former club bullshit.

Welbeck celebrates his winner at Old Trafford

And so the defence of our FA Cup continues, with Reading our semi-final opponents on Saturday 18th April. What did she wear? She wore, she wore, she wore a yellow ribbon…

ARSENAL 3 WEST HAM 0 (Giroud, Ramsey, Flamini)

There was only one challenging thing about this game – picking your favourite goal; all three were things of beauty! For the first, delicious one touch football rounded off a Giroud thunderbolt in off the far post. For the second, some quick thinking and clever movement from Giroud and Ramsey as they one-two’ed their way to a fine finish for the Welshman. And the third, substitute Flamini scoring with his first touch after an incisive move carved the Hammers open.

Giroud smashes in our opener off the far post

Allardyce likes to blow his own trumpet, including many rants about how he knows the secret to beating Arsene. But that’s 13 games for Fat Sam as an opposition manager at Highbury and The Emirates and he has now amassed a grand total of zero wins. Your Bolton thugs may have got the better of us for a few years running at the Reebok, Sam, but on our turf you’re very much Arsene’s bitch.

So, three lovely goals and three lovely points which, coupled with Man City’s defeat at Burnley, saw us retain third spot and close the gap on City to just one point. If the league had started on October 25th we’d be top of the league by three points. It’s such a shame that 7 draws and 1 defeat in our opening 10 games, which resulted in 17 dropped points, has cost us so dearly. Never say never, but I think it’s fair to say we’re running out of games to catch Chelsea.

MONACO 0 ARSENAL 2 (Giroud, Ramsey)

Everyone hoped for a #MiracleInMonaco but in the end we got what many of us anticipated; “glorious failure”. To qualify for the quarter finals of the Champions League would have been amazing, especially given the circumstances, but deep down we all knew the most realistic outcome was to simply continue our fine run of form with another strong performance. And that’s exactly what we did.

Ramsey made it 2-0 on the night to give us a glimmer of hope

Defensively we were solid, with Monaco failing to register a shot on target. Going forward we looked very lively, with two goals, various other chances for a third, and key players producing impressive performances; Mesut Özil in particular was outstanding.

But the damage had already been done in the first leg. Not for the first time in recent seasons Arsenal have paid the price for thinking a two legged tie has to be won inside the first ninety minutes. Hopefully lessons will have been learned this time because once again we’ve proved capable of getting a result on the road, so why do we always attempt to kill the tie at home? Granted it’s a mission we achieve, it’s just that we kill the tie for ourselves rather than the opponents!

It’s another exit on the away goals rule and everyone will therefore point to, and remember, the third Monaco goal. And I can totally understand that; it was utter stupid and unforgivable for players at this level. But equally this tie was lost in the final third. 33 attempts at goal across the tie, with only a third of them on target. At home Giroud could have had a hat-trick and Welbeck should have scored when he blasted over via Walcott’s arse. In the away leg Giroud had a header go narrowly wide, Koscielny hit the crossbar, Welbeck had a great chance blocked, and Alexis may have scored the third but for Giroud almost taking his head off.

Another glorious European failure for The Arsenal

Don’t get me wrong, the three goals we did score should have been enough to progress; Monaco should never have been allowed to score three goals, let alone three away goals. But even with our atrocious first leg performance and amateur defending we still could (and should) have scored 8 or 9 goals in order to progress.

But these things happen unfortunately. As I mentioned in opening, 20 wins out of our last 25 games is an impressive run of form. It’s just a shame we picked the North London derby and the first leg against Monaco to have our momentary blips!

Next up on Saturday is Newcastle United at St James’ Park. Here’s hoping we make it 21 wins from 26. Up The Arsenal.

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Arsene, what’s the French for déjà vu?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

When Charles Dickens wrote ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ he would have been blissfully unaware of just how accurately it would sum up The Arsenal and in particular our recent form. Domestically it has been the best of times, with a 2-1 victory away to Palace followed up with a 2-0 victory at home to Everton and another 2-1 victory on the road, this time at Loftus Road against QPR. But sandwiched in amongst that domestic delight was the worst of times and it was the age of foolishness; a 3-1 defeat at home to Monaco in the first leg of our last sixteen tie.

CRYSTAL PALACE 1 ARSENAL 2 (Cazorla, Giroud)

Before the game I had a really horrible feeling about this one. A small stadium, tight pitch, poor playing surface, and an opposition showing marked improvement since the arrival of their new manager with whom there is no love lost.

Cazorla gives us the lead from the penalty spot against Palace

Thankfully we got off to a great start, with Welbeck winning the ball high up the pitch and being brought down in the penalty area. Cazorla stepped up to slot the ball home from 12 yards; one-nil to The Arsenal. Many have questioned the exclusion of Theo Walcott in recent weeks, but this goal was the perfect illustration of why Welbeck is getting the nod, especially away from home. He may be less clinical in front of goal compared to Theo, but his work rate and team play is far superior. Walcott would never have been closing down the defender in a million years thus forcing a foul in the area.

And Welbeck was involved again for the second. Just beating the offside trap he struck his shot firmly across goal, with Giroud following in for the rebound after Speroni had saved Welbeck’s effort. It was perfect timing; right on the stroke of half time.

The second half was a rather drab affair, with Palace’s impressive efforts and the very poor pitch making it tough to get going; a narrow Alexis miss aside we didn’t really create much. It could have cost us as, in true Arsenal style, we managed to allow Palace a 94th minute goal and a 95th minute header onto the post, but thankfully we held on for three valuable points.

ARSENAL 1 MONACO 3 (Oxlade-Chamberlain)

Where to begin? It’s not easy to identify a starting point when we were completely abject in defence, midfield, and attack. Not one component of the team, hell not even one individual in the team, can claim to have had a good night.

In goal there are questions marks over Ospina for the first and third. The defence covered itself in little to no glory. The midfield was overrun and out powered from start to finish. And up front Olivier Giroud couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.

It was a night to forget against Monaco

Unfortunately these things happen in football. Some would argue far too often for The Arsenal, but they happen. What was inexcusable to me was how we lost our heads. You can struggle to perform, but keep our heads and we leave the field with perhaps a 0-1 defeat or by miracle a 1-1 draw. Or even with how events did unfold a 1-2 defeat. Instead we were rattled. We forgot that this game was the first of a two-legged tie; just 90 of 180 minutes. And so, at 0-1 down and again at 1-2 down we went chasing goals in a manner akin to children running around after the ball like headless chickens on a Sunday morning. And even then, that’s offensive to the children!

Losing comprehensively to the likes of Barcelona, AC Milan, and Bayern Munich is one thing. Being caned at home to Monaco is something else altogether. It was embarrassing. It was inexcusable. And it asked serious questions of this squad’s mentality at the highest level, of the manager’s preparation of his players, and has left the fans asking just why we get so stressed about finishing in the top four every season just to witness more humiliation in the Champions League last 16? Here’s hoping the away leg in Monaco provides us some kind of divine answer!

ARSENAL 2 EVERTON 0 (Giroud, Rosicky)

Both Giroud and the team provided the perfect response to our midweek fiasco. After a slow start we finally got a foothold in the game and then never looked back against a toothless Everton side, whose away form is rather shocking! That said, we required some great goalkeeping and a wonderful last-ditch tackle from Gabriel to keep the scores level.

Goalscorers Giroud and Rosicky celebrate Little Mozart's strike

But after Giroud swept home confidently from an Özil corner it was largely one-way traffic. Rosicky provided the cherry on top with a couple of minutes left on the clock to avoid the panicky finish experienced at Selhurst Park eight days earlier. How can you not love Little Mozart?!

QPR 1 ARSENAL 2 (Giroud, Alexis)

The domestic bliss continued with another crucial three points at Loftus Road on Wednesday night. Another goal from Olivier Giroud (it only seems to be in Europe that he has the heebie-jeebies!) and an exceptional near post finish from Alexis Sanchez secured the victory.

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It was a much better team performance too, with Özil, Bellerin, Gibbs, and Coquelin all having standout performances, but equally in true Arsenal style we gifted them a consolation. It was a fine finish from Austin, but not surprising given we allowed him the freedom of the park. However, on this occasion it really was just a consolation, with QPR creating no further chance and Arsenal seeing it home fairly comfortably.

FA CUP SIXTH ROUND

Next up on Monday night we continue the defence of our FA Cup with a trip to Old Trafford to face United. Excluding the lunacy of the game being scheduled on a Monday night it’s a fixture that certainly wets the appetite.

Considering our atrocious record against United of late I’m surprisingly confident. Perhaps it’s due to being defending champions. Perhaps it’s due to our decent domestic form and them stinking out the league with their rank awfulness. Who knows?

I’m sure many will point to the fact United have been shithouse ever since Ferguson left and yet all we’ve managed against them in that time is one draw and two defeats. But fuck it. If you can’t be excited by a fixture of this magnitude and have belief in your team’s ability to get the job done as defending FA Cup holders then you’re approaching football in completely the wrong way. Here’s to proving the cynics wrong. Come on you Gunners!

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