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learn the lessons of the self-inflicted issues and avoid them from happening again because the hope of last summer has been replaced by expectation this.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.

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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Round Up & FA Cup Progress

It seems to have become somewhat of a (bad) habit that I don’t get to write as often as I like. Once again, for one reason or another (this time including a trip to Melbourne for the Australian Open tennis) I have been unable to put pen to paper regarding recent Arsenal matches. Today is catch up time, so here goes:

Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Arsenal 3 (Walcott, Özil, Rosicky)

Due to my visit to Melbourne for the tennis I’ve only seen highlights via Arsenal Online. But from what little I saw it was a largely comfortable and professional performance, orchestrated by Tomas “Little Mozart” Rosicky whose fine volley, our third, secured the victory.

Little Mozart

Arsenal 5 Aston Villa 0 (Giroud, Özil, Walcott, Cazorla, Bellerin)

Having destroyed Villa’s high line with a resounding 3-0 victory at Villa Park earlier this season it would seem Paul Lambert had not learnt his lesson because once again Villa’s ridiculously high line was picked apart with ease, resulting in an emphatic 5-0 victory. Özil was sensational, getting a thoroughly deserved goal and setting up our first with a quite delicious flicked through ball to Giroud. Lambert somehow hung onto his job after this debacle, but not for too much longer; the bloke from Boreham Wood, who ain’t no fucking good, is now in charge of the Villains.

Sp*rs 2 Arsenal 1 (Özil)

It was a North London derby to forget, with a disappointing 2-1 defeat. Despite taking an early lead, through a wonderful Özil finish, we never really got going. With the intent of mirroring what we did at City we sat deep and defended in numbers, but on this occasion we were extremely poor in possession and it cost us. Only the 7th victory for them in 46 matches against Arsene Wenger, it’s safe to assume the DVD is in production as we speak.

Ozil Celebrates His Goal Against Them

Arsenal 2 Leicester 1 (Koscielny, Walcott)

Following our North London derby defeat it was a somewhat nervy response, but three points are three points, and thanks to goals from Koscielny and Walcott that’s exactly what we got. It meant that the “North London power shift” lasted only a few days, with this victory taking us back up to fifth.

Arsenal 2 Middlesbrough 0 (Giroud x2)

Our defence of the FA Cup continued in impressive fashion, with a 2-0 victory over Middlesbrough, with both goals coming from Giroud. The first an example of ‘total football’, with all eleven players involved, and the second an example of improvisation and genius, as a quick corner from Alexis and a wonderful near post finish from Giroud saw us through to the next round.

Giroud Opens The Scoring Against Middlesbrough

There were some favourable draws to be had, but unfortunately we’ve been drawn away to Manchester United. Our recent record against them is nothing short of abysmal. However, the last time we went to Old Trafford as FA Cup holders we won 2-0, with Wiltord and Jeffers up front and Giggs missing an open goal. So stranger things have happened!

The Week Ahead

It’s back to Premier League action this weekend with a tricky trip to Selhurst Park to face an Alan Pardew rejuvenated Palace. Given the tight confines, the iffy surface, their likely approach to the game, and so forth I’m expecting a tight and unattractive tussle.

It will also be interesting to see what starting elven Arsene goes with. Will he risk a Cazorla / Özil central partnership like he did against Boro? Are Wilshere or Oxlade-Chamberlain available again? Does he introduce the industrious Rosicky? And most interestingly of all, should Theo Walcott be starting?

I was always a defendant of Walcott, due to his unique quality of pace. For all his flaws, both on and off the ball, you could forgive him as he was a much-needed outlet; his pace, his runs behind, and more often than not his efficient finishing. However, with the improvement of Oxlade-Chamberlain and the arrivals of Alexis and Welbeck his pace is no longer unique and therefore other aspects of his game are called in to question. And in my mind there is no doubt that his technique, link up play, and work rate are all of a lower standard than his three rivals for a starting spot out wide. With his contract expiring this summer it will be interesting to see what the future holds for Theo.

What does the future hold for Theo Walcott

But one thing is for sure this weekend, which is that this match will be much like the Leicester game in terms of it being as much about the three points as it is the performance. Only six points separate Southampton in third with Liverpool in seventh, so it’s fair to say the race for the top four will be exceptionally tight. On the plus side, we’ve already played 12 of the top 14 teams away from home (with only United and Newcastle remaining) so I fully agree with Arsene’s assessment that where we finish will be down to our home form. Given we’re on a run of nine consecutive home wins (in all competitions) I remain hopeful that third place, and automatic Champions League qualification, is very much ours for the taking.

And talking of Champions League football, it resumes on Wednesday (Thursday morning for those of us down under) with the visit of Monaco. I don’t really follow French football (bar checking the results of Dad’s team St Etienne) but from what I’ve heard their form has improved since the time of the draw being made. That said, it’s still a favourable draw, especially compared to what could have laid in wait, so let’s make sure we put an end to our Round of 16 eliminations.

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Festive Fixtures Round Up

The fast and furious festive period is now behind us, and it’s been navigated in a mostly positive manner with three wins and a draw from our five games since I was last able to put pen (fingers) to paper (keyboard).

As is often the way the disappointment of a late equaliser at Anfield and the defeat at Southampton will take most of the attention and generate the most comments from online Gooners, but the victories over QPR, West Ham, and Hull City should not be overlooked.

Rosicky celebrates his winner against QPR

I don’t want to take too many backward steps, so just a brief word on the Liverpool game. Overall it was rather disappointing; with a poor performance against what is a poor Liverpool side. Yet despite our short comings we still found ourselves in a winning position with only injury time to play. So needless to say, conceding from a set piece was very frustrating and while many pointed the finger at the flinching BFG I myself would question why Chambers let his man go and why nobody was on the post. Unfortunately these things happen, with the timing on this occasion making their equaliser feel more like a winner.

It made the Christmas fixtures all the more important and victory over QPR was crucial. In true Arsenal style we went from coasting along nicely to making life very difficult for ourselves, in no small part thanks to Olivier Giroud’s stupidity. One of these day’s he’ll realise that all his finger wagging and head-to-head reactions is exactly what the opposition want and that the more he does it the more they will target him. He’d be well advised to just ignore the sly pushes and niggly challenges, demonstrate that it doesn’t bother him, and focus on scoring. The minute you react they win and all you need is a pathetic reaction from Onouha and you’re taking an early bath.

Arsenal v Queens Park Rangers - Premier League

It’s a red card that not only made hard work of the final 40 minutes against QPR, but also cost us an extra forward option in two tough away games against West Ham and Southampton. We got away with it at the Boleyn Ground, with an impressive 2-1 victory that could and should have been more but for some poor finishing. However, it cost us dearly at St. Mary’s, with limited front line options and two crazy moments from Szczesny seeing us fall to a 2-0 defeat.

Due to the lack of forward options it was imperative we keep a clean-sheet, to help secure a 0-0 draw at the very least which, given we had our first choice back five for the first time this season felt plausible. However, the fact it was their first game together was telling, with rusty moments from Koscielny, Mertesacker, Debuchy, and of course Szczesny resulting in their two goals. With another two attempts hitting the woodwork and one-off the line for the Saints it could easily have been worse. As Arsene has rightly pointed out, none of the teams who had two away games on the 28th and 1st (which included ourselves, Chelsea, and United) came away with all six points, so perhaps expecting to do so was asking a little much. However, much like the draw at Anfield it’s the nature of defeat at Southampton that hurts most, as opposed to the result itself.

Thankfully you don’t have to wait too long to respond at this time of year, and we had the opportunity to do so in my favourite fixture of the holiday period, the FA Cup Third Round. While the opposition conjured up memories of our cup final victory in May the performance and result were thankfully a little smoother sailing, with a comfortable 2-0 victory. The goals came courtesy of a Mertesacker header (from a corner no less!) and a lovely finish from who else but Alexis Sanchez (the man is a goals, assists, and running machine!). Into the Fourth Round we go, where we face a potentially tricky tie away to Brighton & Hove Albion.

Alexis Sanchez secures our spot in the FA Cup Fourth Round

For some the FA Cup has lost its prestige, which the FA’s ridiculous fixture scheduling of ties across five days and at stupid kick-off times does little to help. However, for me it will always be a wonderful competition and a major trophy. So many precious memories; Andy Linighan’s last gasp header in 93, Overmars in 98, it’s only Ray Parlour in 2002, super Robert Pires in 03, Vieira’s last ever kick in an Arsenal shirt in 05, and last season’s dramatic comeback when “two nil down, three two up, Aaron Ramsey won the cup”. How can you not love the FA Cup? And that’s without mentioning our many other classic cup victories for those of an older generation…I’m looking at you Goonerholic!

Finally for today, a word on the atrocious level of officiating we’ve seen so far this season. During the festive fixtures alone we saw the ridiculous penalty awarded against Debuchy versus QPR, the lack of red card when Alexis was clean through against Southampton, Burnley’s offside goal against City, Cahill not seeing red for violent conduct against Sp*rs, Hull being awarded a free kick for a foul clearly inside the area, Rob Green not being sent off for clearly handling outside the area, and Liverpool’s two ridiculous penalties against Leicester. And these are just the incidents that spring to mind.

Arsenal v Queens Park Rangers - Premier League

In many instances technology would have quickly and efficiently helped, and the sooner the governing bodies realise that the better. However, a large percentage were also a result of highly incompetent and arrogant officials, with Anthony Taylor the worst of the bunch; he is an absolute disgrace. And what do you expect when the head of officiating is Mike Riley, the useless and spineless fool who failed to show three obvious red cards against United and then awarded them a penalty for a blatant dive to end our famous 49 game unbeaten run.

Too many poor decisions are costing teams results and ultimately it costs them the title, a top four finish, or sees them relegated, all of which have significant financial impacts in today’s game. I guess all we can do is pray for a better day and hope we eventually get some competent officials who have the aid of technology for key situations. Alternatively pigs might fly.

I guess that’s more than enough for one day. I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and I wish you all a very happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. And of course, up The Arsenal!

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Thank You, Thierry

It’s been an extremely good week for The Arsenal, with two 4-1 victories and a favourable Champions League draw providing exactly the kind of boost to morale required as we head into the busy festive period, which kicks off with a visit to Anfield this Sunday.

Ramsey lets fly against Galatasaray

The first of our 4-1 victories came in Istanbul, with a comprehensive win over Galatasaray. Both Podolski and Ramsey bagged a brace, with the German’s first (a thunderbolt strike from an acute angle at the near post) and the Welshman’s second (an outrageously sweet volley from 30 yards) staking their claim for goal of the season. The comfortable nature of proceedings also allowed Arsene to make some youthful changes, with the introductions of Zelalem, Maitland-Niles, and O’Connor which was also great to see.

So a positive end to the group stage, albeit not enough to secure top spot. However, top spot has proven to be irrelevant on this occasion as a favourable draw (for once) has seen us handed a tie against AS Monaco. Of course the French side must be respected, not taken for granted, etc. But when you consider the level of opposition we could have been drawn against (Madrid, Barcelona, and Bayern) and when you consider that group winners Chelsea and Dortmund have drawn PSG and Juventus respectively, then you have to be pretty pleased.

Arsenal vs. AS Monaco

People say to be the best you have to beat the best, but why do you have to beat them now? At this stage of the competition I’d much rather be facing Monaco; the big guns can wait a little longer. And who knows, what if we beat Monaco and then draw and beat the winner of the Basel vs. Porto tie? All of a sudden you’re in a Champions League semi-final, without having met any of the true European giants, dreaming of what might be. I know that scenario involves a lot of ifs, buts, and maybes, and I’m in no way saying “oh my God, we’ve drawn Monaco so we’re going to win the Champions League!”. But after years of difficult draws and early exits it’s nice to being feeling positive and optimistic about the knock-out stages of the Champions League.

Our second 4-1 of the week came at home to Newcastle, with another set of braces – this time bagged by Giroud and Cazorla. I didn’t get to see the game in its entirety as I was away for the weekend, but from what I saw it looked an impressive performance and it was important to get back to winning ways in the league after our disappointment at Stoke.

I particularly liked the look of the front three of Giroud, Alexis, and Welbeck. Giroud is a key component of our attack, holding the ball up and linking so effectively with others. Any issues with Giroud last season seemed to be related to fatigue (due to overuse) and lack of runners (following the injuries to Theo and Ramsey). But having spent most of this season injured and with Alexis and Welbeck now flanking him, neither fatigue nor isolation appears to be an issue. It’s still early days, but the signs are encouraging.

Giroud scores his second against Newcastle with a delightful near post flick

Other positives include the return of Debuchy this week, the performances of Oxlade-Chamberlain (especially in a central role), and Bellerin starting to find his feet. While on the flip side, the news of Ramsey’s injury, just as he appeared back to his best, and the ongoing concerns with Koscielny’s Achilles are a blow. From a Koscielny perspective, let’s just hope we can muddle our way through to January when reinforcements must be made!

Finally for today, a few words for the legend that is Thierry Henry. Yesterday he announced his retirement from playing football and confirmed he will be returning to London to take up a role in the Sky Sports studio. I feel truly blessed and honoured to have watched every one of Thierry’s home games in an Arsenal shirt, plus so many on the road too.

He is not only an Arsenal great but a football great. His two league titles and three FA Cup winner’s medals with The Arsenal sit alongside league and cup medals from France (with Monaco), league and Champions League medals from Spain (with Barcelona), not to mention the small matters of the World Cup, the European Championships, and the Confederations Cup at international level with France. And all this whilst scoring phenomenal goals, at a rate of one every other game, plus a lifetime worth of assists.

But for us, and for Thierry, he will always be Arsenal. Favourite goals that spring to mind include the volley over Barthez against United, his solo efforts against Sp*rs and Real Madrid, and the back-heel against Charlton to name but a few. But his hat-trick against Liverpool and his four against Leeds (both at Highbury) during the unbeaten season are without doubt his stand-out performances in an Arsenal shirt for me. For his fourth against Leeds I love how Gary Kelly tried to foul him, but how Thierry (despite falling to the turf) still managed to stretch out a leg and guide the ball into the net. He was, quite simply, unstoppable.

Henry's Greatest Games

His stand out season will always be 2003/04, the year of The Invincibles. That season Zidane was voted World Player of the Year and Nedved European Player of Year. As extraordinarily talented as those two players were, especially Zidane, neither was a patch on Thierry at that time and to this day I still can’t believe he didn’t receive the world recognition his talents deserved. But we knew we had a very special player in our ranks and Highbury was often treated to a chorus of “We’ve got the best player in the world” and “Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry…”.

One of the greatest players in our club’s rich history – our record goal scorer. So many fantastic memories. And a statue of bronze outside The New Home of Football in his honour. Thank you, Thierry.

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