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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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.

Britain Soccer Premier League

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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Familiar Failings

Another week and yet another rollercoaster ride for The Arsenal. Saturday’s enjoyable 3-0 victory over Burnley was promptly followed on Tuesday with a frustrating and rather indefensible 3-3 draw against Anderlecht, a result that extends our wait for qualification to the knock-out stages and all but ends our hopes of topping the group.

Addressing the Burnley game first and there isn’t too much to be said. We performed well from one to eleven, with our superior quality leading to a dominating display against what is, to all intents and purposes, a Championship side. 32 shots, 18 corners, 68% possession, 3 goals to 0; fair to say it was a comfortable day. Yes we had to be patient, as Burnley defended for their lives and Heaton made some fantastic saves, but in the end we wore them down and Alexis Sanchez delivered once again.

Alexis Sanchez rises high to break the deadlock against Burnley

Another victory and another clean-sheet to take into our Champions League encounter against Anderlecht, who proved in the reverse fixture they would be no push overs. And for 58 minutes it seemed as though lessons had been learned. Granted we pushed our luck a little up until that point, with the Belgians not making the most of some good openings, but having been two goals to the good at half-time it should have been game over when Oxlade-Chamberlain then added the third.

Sadly that was not the case and as the full-time whistle blew our three goals lead had been thrown away. Some will be upset about their first goal being noticeably offside, after all that was the goal that gave them a foothold in the game. Others will argue that their penalty should have been retaken due to clear encroachment. But for me the most offensive of the goals was the third. It was utterly amateur.

89 minutes on the clock and ominously pegged back to 3-2? Do everything you can to see the game out; it really shouldn’t be that hard. One more minute, plus stoppage time, of keeping your shape, defend with aggression and tenacity, avoid embarrassment. Instead we saw little purpose, little desire. Players thinking that being behind the ball is sufficient defending. Players not attacking the ball with the same determination as their opponents. Far too often we stand back and let crosses come into the box (Podolski the guilty party on this occasion). Not for the first time this season Mertesacker was out thought and out fought. And once again Szczesny was far from convincing; stay on his line and he makes the save, but once he came for the cross and then retreated he was always going to be in no man’s land.

Szczesny and Mertesacker fail to cover themselves in glory as Anderlecht equalise

I’m reluctant to jump on the “it happens all the time band wagon”. It was the first time in our Champions League history that we had both scored and conceded three goals in a single game. And as for the 4-4 at Newcastle, well that was almost four years ago. However, the collapse, and the nature of it, had a real sense of familiarity and left a bitter taste in the mouth. Statistics may not back up this notion, but it left me feeling that “it’s happened before and it will happen again”.

In Fever Pitch, Paul (played by Colin Firth) speaks of becoming an Orient fan because you know what you’re going to get, you’re not left in ridiculous situations hoping or dreaming of what might be. Arsenal seems to have reached the same impasse. Good enough for a top four finish, but not quite good enough to challenge the money men of Chelsea or Manchester. Good enough to win a cup, but only provided we avoid said money men, leaving us glued to the cup draws praying we don’t draw them. Good enough to qualify from the Champions League group stage, but not quite good enough to beat Europe’s true elite. And so the cycle continues.

What’s most frustrating is it doesn’t have to be this way. We may continue to fall short, but it doesn’t have to be in the same repetitive cycle. The calibre of players in our squad is good enough that we could be giving the Premier League’s moneymen and Europe’s elite a greater run for their money. The calibre of players in our squad is good enough that we should be looking at Atletico Madrid irritating Real and Barca, like a wasp on a warm summer’s day, and thinking “we can do the same”. But for some reason we don’t. Is it the board, the manager, or the players? I just don’t know. But the sense you get is “fourth and a cup run will do”. Ivan, Arsene, and Mikel Arteta may say otherwise, but actions seem to be speaking louder than words.

The glow of May’s FA Cup victory has faded. The optimism of the summer has evaporated. We’re back in the trenches. But if there’s one thing Arsenal has shown me time and again over the course of history it’s that they respond best when heavily criticised, when our backs are firmly up against the wall. It goes without saying that when the full-time whistle blows at the Liberty Stadium we all hope that we’ve claimed the three points. But whether we accomplish that desire or not, what’s most important is to be left feeling proud, to feel like we have given our all. We won’t always win, but we can always fight. With 89 minutes on the clock and a 3-2 lead to defend we failed to show that fight on Tuesday night and that’s what hurt me most. It’s not a mistake we can afford to repeat on Sunday, so the more players we have following Alexis Sanchez’s hard working lead the better. Come on you Gunners; up The Arsenal.

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A Win Is A Win, But…

All in all it’s been a successful week for The Arsenal; two away games, two wins. The first in Belgium where a last-minute salvo secured a 2-1 win over Anderlecht and the second in the North East where some comical defending by Sunderland aided us in our 2-0 victory.

RSC Anderlecht v Arsenal FC - UEFA Champions League

Neither performance was outstanding, which is of some (continued) concern, but equally three points are three points. Sometimes it’s a matter of whether you’re glass half full or half empty; today I’m feeling a bit of both. People tend to start with “the bad news” when given the choice, so let’s address the concerns first:

Defence

Ask most Arsenal fans their preferred back five and the answer would be Szczesny, Debuchy, Mertesacker, Koscielny, and Gibbs. So far this season we’ve started a grand total of ZERO games with that back line. With Debuchy out for some time, Arsene unwilling to place a time frame on Koscielny’s return, and Gibbs substituted on the weekend, I fear our frailties at the back may continue for a little longer.

Gibbs Adds To The Injury List

Slow and Stop

As my mother always used to say to my sister “you have two speeds…slow and stop!”. It feels like Arsenal are stuck in my sister’s speed sphere, perhaps suffering from little bit hand-brake niggle. Our style of play is dependent on confidence. Without confidence our slick one or two touch and counter attacking football becomes three or four touch football, with slow hesitant breaks and looking for the safe pass. The number of wasted counter attacks on Saturday was, at times, as comical as Sunderland’s assists for our goals!

Injured Plan B

As demonstrated at Everton, Giroud provides an excellent plan B. He’s big and strong, good in the air, and excellent at the tippy-tappy flicks with his back to goal. Welbeck on the other hand prefers a high line and the space it leaves in behind defences, in order to utilise his movement and speed. But against more stubborn defences and parked buses that space doesn’t exist and he looks isolated. Giroud seems to feel more comfortable with his back to goal, linking up with midfield runners. He also provides a greater aerial threat, so that width, crosses, and set-pieces become more of an option and threat. So the sooner the Frenchman returns the sooner we have a plan B.

Outnumbered Welbeck Needs Support

Just as night follows day, after the bad news comes “the good news” and there are certainly some positives. Some may have to look harder than others to seem them, but I assure you they are there:

Away Wins

Two away wins in a week is no small feat. Victory away from home in Europe is never to be frowned upon and to back it up just two and a half days later is equally positive. That the win in Anderlecht has left qualification for the knock-out stages in such a positive looking position and that the win in Sunderland was accompanied by all of our rivals dropping points this weekend is a double bonus.

Alexis Sanchez

The man is an absolute machine! His work rate is phenomenal, he has so much skill and trickery, and he’s currently scoring goals for fun. His chance conversion rate is currently 33%, well above the league average. He’s an exceptional player and we’re blessed to have him at our great club.

Alexis Sanchez Scores His Second With The Helping Hand From Agent Don Vito

We’re In The Mix

After this weekend’s results we’re only three points behind Man City and sit above United, Liverpool, Sp*rs, and Everton in the table. Yes the draws have been disappointing and costly, but given the difficult fixtures and ridiculous number of injuries we’ve actually done pretty well to keep ourselves in such a position. It goes without saying that 9 points behind Chelsea would sit in the “bad news” section above, but at this stage they are the outlier, both in terms of their performances and results. Hopefully their blip will come soon enough, in order to (a) pull them back into the pack and (b) safeguard the Invincibles for another season!

In summary…

So there you have it. A half empty glass for the ‘Negative Nigel’s’ amongst you and a glass half full for all you ‘Positive Paul’s’. For me, I remain firmly on the fence, with splinters in my bum. When you consider our challenging fixtures, poor form, difficult to watch performances, and lengthy injury list it’s quite incredible to think that we’ve qualified for the Champions League group stages, are positioned nicely to reach the knock-out phase, and are sitting 5th in the league table. If Southampton and West Ham fall by the wayside, as many would expect them to do over the course of a 38 game season, then we currently sit third behind Chelsea and City as many have predicted will be the case come May.

That said, at some point impressive performances must make an appearance. To keep performing this way until May would surely prove fatal, both to the club’s ambitions and to the many Arsenal fans that would fall into a boredom induced coma! Whilst many predict a third place finish behind the money-men from Chelsea and Manchester, we certainly expect us to at least give them a good fight and a bloody close run for their money, and as things stand we’re not quite doing that.

But winning breeds confidence and confidence breeds winning. This week we’ve had two wins, three if you count the return of Theo Walcott as a metaphorical victory. And with no Champions League this midweek we have the luxury of a seven-day rest before our next game, at home to Burnley. Fail to beat them, and beat them well, and I fear there’ll be a few more Nigel’s in the room. But win handsomely and I reckon we might just see a few more Paul’s lurking around the corner. Come on you Gunners; up The Arsenal.

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Painfully Predictable

For one reason or another I haven’t been able to jot down my thoughts since our League Cup defeat to Southampton. A lot has happened since then of course, with the small matter of the north London derby, our first home game in the Champions League group stage, and a visit to the small Russian bus stop in Fulham.

With so much time having passed, especially for the first two of those three games, I won’t bore you with my version of a ‘match report’. Instead I’ve tried to summarise my thoughts in a more ‘talking points’ style, so let’s see how it goes.

Two points dropped

The north London derby is a passionate and emotional occasion, and I for one get very caught up in the moment. For all the vulgarity of United and even more so Chelsea, Sp*rs will always be my most hated team. It’s for that reason that the draw was all the more frustrating because the simple fact of the matter is that they are useless.

Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates his north London derby equaliser

Once again we looked comfortable, in control, dominating possession, only for a stupid mistake to cost us the first goal. Szczesny played short rather than thinking two steps ahead and realising everyone was closely marked, which meant that Flamini’s awful touch was punished.

Credit to the players for continuing to fight and to the excellent Oxlade-Chamberlain for his equaliser. But there’s no two ways about it, this is a very mediocre Sp*rs side and, especially being at home, it was two points dropped. Some may say it’s a tricky game on paper (due to the occasion and passion involved), but on grass it’s a fixture real title contenders win.

Well, well, Welbz

Our midweek performance against Galatasaray was absolutely fantastic; quick and incisive football that the Turkish side just couldn’t cope with. It was great to see. And of course the main man, who took the glory, was Danny Welbeck, who scored his first senior hat-trick.

I really like Giroud and believe he offers us a great deal, but pace and movement in behind is not really his forte. Welbeck allows us to stretch defences a little more and offers that threat in behind. Three intelligent runs later, found by three tremendous passes, and it was a Welbeck hat-trick (with a Sanchez goal thrown in for good measure).

Welbeck completes his first senior hat-trick

I particularly liked the third goal because there was no time to think or prepare, it was just pure instincts. And the smile on Danny’s face was priceless. It’s great to see him enjoying himself and getting in amongst the goals. Long may it continue!

Déjà vu

The euphoria and bubble from our Champions League victory was very quickly burst with defeat on Sunday. It was massively disappointing, but not at all surprising. Sadly that is a game we have watched a hundred times. Like United under Ferguson, Chelsea under Mourinho know exactly how to play us.

They know the first goal is vital to us. They know it will open up the game and force them to come at us, leaving us space to exploit. They know they cannot allow that, so they sit deep, in numbers, and park the bus. And then they wait. They don’t go chasing the first goal because that too could leave us space to exploit. Instead they wait. They wait for a mistake, a set-piece, or a moment of quality on their part. In the end all three came at once.

Alexis gave the ball away too cheaply, Hazard set-off on a brilliant mazy run, Cazorla let him past too easily, Chambers already on a yellow couldn’t foul him, and Koscielny had no hesitation, but did so inside the area. The Belgian dusted himself off and slotted home from 12 yards. The first goal gifted away.

Koscielny conceded another penalty

In our last 20 fixtures against United, Chelsea, City, and Liverpool we have gone behind 13 times. Of those 13 games we have gone on to win none of them. We’ve had three 0-0 draws. But in the 4 games we’ve taken the lead? Won 3, drawn 1. As I said before, the first goal is vital to us. (Stats via @orbinho).

Add to that we have only scored 6 goals in 12 games against a Mourinho managed Chelsea and you can see why it felt as good as over at that moment. On this occasion we couldn’t even manage a shot on target, never mind an actual goal.

Could it have been different if Cahill saw red (at 0-0) for a disgusting tackle on Alexis? Perhaps. Could it have been different if Wilshere scored when clean through, instead of his heavy touch? Perhaps. But as I said after the City game, these big matches are decided by fine margins and we just don’t seem to have the ability to make them count; we do not cut it in the big games, especially away from home, and until that’s addressed we will not win another league title.

Mesut Özil

I’ve spoken about Özil’s lack of form before, so I don’t want to go into too much more detail. However, what I do want to quickly add is that where he is played has nothing to do with his current form. It goes without saying that his best position is centrally and that I, like the rest of you, would like to see him played there. But being played out wide is not an excuse to continuously miss control passes. It is not an excuse to misplace simple passes. It is not an excuse for dribbling the ball aimlessly into touch. And it is not an excuse for being out-muscled by Sneijder and Fabregas.

For those who say he has played well centrally, I say it was Villa and Galatasaray. Two teams who played a high line and left us far too much space to work within. Of course he can pick teams apart when given those luxuries, but on most occasions he will not be. He needs to pull his socks up and start delivering. Wenger has shown an incredible amount of faith in him and it’s time he started repaying it.

I miss Vieira

I think the most depressing thing about Sunday’s defeat was that it felt like the football equivalent of the giant holding a little man at arm’s length, while the little man swings pointlessly. People talk of Fabregas, of Costa, of Hazard. For me I was jealous of Matic. What an absolute monster he is.

It made me realise how much I miss Patrick Vieira. A mountain of a man who could go box-to-box for ninety minutes, who could tackle and fight, who had amazing skill, who could pass and score, who was so physically and technically imposing. He had everything, the whole package. He was captain of the Invincibles and my all-time favourite Arsenal player. God what I’d give to have him, in his prime, leading our side right now.

Patrick Vieira - Arsenal Legend

He would have stamped his authority on Sunday’s game, without doubt. Like in the unbeaten season when his mistake led to Chelsea taking the lead after 20 seconds, when he responded by dominating the game for the remaining 89 minutes and 40 seconds, including scoring our equalising goal. He was one of a kind, a once in a lifetime player. *Weeps*.

Arsenal Sydney

Finally for today is a shout out for the Arsenal Sydney supporters group. I made my debut at The Armoury this weekend, and whilst the result was a disappointment the people were not. It was great to watch the game with over 180 fellow Gooners. Midnight kick-off on a Sunday, game finishing at 2am Monday, yet over 180 Gooners? Amazing.

Arsenal Sydney

Special mention goes to Elijah (@AussieGoona) who made me feel very welcome and who is a vocal supporter of this blog. And also a special mention for the Q&A organised by the Arsenal Sydney committee. It was fantastic to listen to two guests from the media, @DebSpillane and @CarlyW226, talk so knowledgeably and passionately about The Arsenal, and to also have @TaraRushton in attendance and showing her support too. I’m looking forward to the next time! 10,000 miles apart, but forever in our hearts…up The Arsenal.

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Pressing Issues In Defence

It was a night to forget in Dortmund as The Arsenal lost 2-0 to the impressive Germans, and it could have been a whole lot worse, but for a couple of good saves from Szczesny and some poor finishing from the men in yellow.

Captain and vice-captain look on

@Orbinho’s timeline (a good follow for Arsenal stats which I highly recommend) made for some grim reading on this occasion. At half time our passing accuracy was only 72%, with Arteta, Ramsey, and Wilshere only completing 58%, 60%, and 73% of their passes in the opposition half respectively. By the end of the game our collective figure had risen to 77%, but still well below what you’d expect from an Arsene Wenger side, with Mertesacker, Ramsey and Gibbs only completing 30%, 53%, and 62% of their passes in the opposition half respectively.

Of course after a performance like this it’s inane to name or blame individuals. Those listed above have purely been mentioned to help illustrate how much we struggled in possession, how it felt like we could barely string two passes together. The fact of the matter is that we were poor from one to eleven and we paid the price, as Arsene stated afterwards:

It’s very difficult on the night to go into any individual assessment of any players because as a team we were not at the requested level.

For me the most concerning thing is our new approach to defending this season. It seems we’re pressing much higher and trying to get much tighter to the opposition. In theory not an unreasonable idea, but in reality I’m not sure I like it, I’m not sure it works, I’m not sure it suits our style of play, and I’m not convinced it suits the players at our disposal.

With the naturally attacking nature of our full-backs we’re already left exposed on occasions, so is it really wise to have our whole midfield and centre halves pressing high up the pitch as well? Mertesacker was probably our best defender last season; a composed figure who reads the game well, intercepts and blocks (rather than being last-ditch), and leads from the back. Now we’re taking him out of his comfort zone by asking him to press? As a result I think I’ve seen more players turn Mertesacker, and seen more passes played in behind him, in his five appearances this season than I did in the whole of last season. Their first goal was a prime example with one long ball from deep leaving Koscielny one-on-one.

Koscielny gets beaten for Dortmund's first goal

And what I can’t seem to work out is why have we changed our approach so drastically? On the whole I thought we improved last season from a defensive stand point, with our heavy away defeats skewing some otherwise decent defensive performances and figures; it’s not just a coincidence that Szczesny won the ‘Golden Glove’ award. Some fine tuning on the training field and a more sensible (conservative) approach in the big games seemed the only tinkering required, but instead we seem to be trying to start from scratch.

And that those heavy away defeats that clouded our judgement were largely a result of pressing too high, over committing in numbers, and leaving Arteta and our centre halves too exposed makes it all the more bewildering as to why we would now adopted that exact approach to our defending this season. It just seems so illogical to me; I can’t get my head around it.

Whilst I won’t blame individuals for tonight it is clear that some are struggling for form in general. Özil in particular is going through a tough patch and you have to wonder if taking him out of the spotlight for a game or two might be a wise move, with Cazorla or Oxlade-Chamberlain coming in to provide some much-needed spark.

Out of form Mesut Ozil

What’s most noticeable for me is the difference in Özil when we’re leading a game compared to when we’re not. In the brief spell we led City I thought he perked up. He had more space to manoeuvre in and his timing of runs and passes were clever. But when we’re level or trailing it’s as if he feels too much of the burden to set the attacking tempo and create openings, and when you’re low on form and confidence these things come less naturally.

Of course another complaint people have with Özil is his work rate and defending, or should I say lack of, but I don’t buy into this. It wasn’t an issue when he was performing early last season and it wasn’t as much of an issue until people saw Alexis Sanchez running around like a man possessed. Furthermore I don’t recall people complaining about how little Robert Pires used to defend or tackle. Because the fact of the matter is that if you score goals and make assists then people will be more forgiving. When Özil rediscovers his touch I look forward to hearing the same amount of noise about his work rate.

But what’s done is done; Dortmund is in the past. We must now focus on Saturday and a potentially tricky trip to Villa Park. I say potentially because on paper you’d be expecting three points, but Villa have started brightly this season as evidenced by their victory at Anfield, so it will inevitably end up being a tough fixture as it so often is. Hopefully the team will be determined to put things right, none more so than Özil. Over to you Mesut, and up The Arsenal.

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