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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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!

arsenal-cannon

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.

arsenal-cannon

Fine Margins

Football is a game of fine margins, and never more so than at the highest level, a bracket within which reigning champions Manchester City definitely fall. And so it proved on Saturday lunch time as we played out a 2-2 draw, a fair result, but nevertheless a frustrating one.

Welbeck goes close to a debut goal

In terms of the starting line-up there were a couple of surprises; Flamini instead of Arteta, Sanogo not even making the bench, the exclusion of both Cazorla and Oxlade-Chamberlain (made all the more surprising with the benefit of hindsight given Ozil’s very poor display). But equally, it was a team that I was happy with and I guess that’s a testament to the options we have in midfield and upfront.

We started brightly, dominated the opening 25 minutes, Welbeck was unlucky not to score a debut goal as his delightful chip came back off the post, and then bang, sucker punch and its 1-0 to City. Typical Arsenal you might say. And once again it was a goal that can be analysed (over analysed?) and leave you wondering if we could have done better. Had we over committed? Did Flamini need to go to ground? Could we have reacted to the unlucky ricochet more quickly? Should Flamini have tracked Aguero’s run better? Many questions, but one simply fact – we were a goal down.

Getting back into the game was made harder by City’s consistent cynical fouls; quite how Kompany and Milner finished the game without yellow cards is beyond me, and that Pellegrini removed Fernandinho before he was sent off tells you its own story. But come back we did.

Wilshere scores our equaliser

Jack Wilshere, man of the match by a country mile with an outstanding display, scored our equaliser. Having received the ball from Ramsey he sucked the defender in, dragged it past him and with Joe Hart rushing out, and with the near post angle very narrow, he cheekily dinked the ball over his England colleague.

The game was suddenly there for the taking and nine minutes later Alexis Sanchez gave us the lead with a sumptuous side foot volley that flew past the flailing Hart. A world-class strike from a world-class player, who once again showed not only his quality on the ball, but his energy and work rate off of it.

Alexis gives us the lead with a sumptuous volley

At home, with 15 minutes to go, and you have to be holding out for victory. I know it was Man City, but these are the games that define and determine champions come the end of season. For all the criticism of the heavy defeats away from home last season it is often overlooked that we drew far too many of them at home.

But a lot can happen in 15 minutes of football and unfortunately none of it went our way. In a freak accident Debuchy suffered what looks a very bad ankle injury (one that further highlights our worrying lack of numbers at the back). Both a stretcher and oxygen were required for the Frenchman and we never regained our composure from that moment on.

I’m going to be overly critical now, but as I mentioned at the beginning such games are won and lost on fine margins, and for me Szczesny failed to help our cause during a crucial period. In the immediate aftermath of Debuchy’s injury we looked a little shell-shocked. So when your goalkeeper has the ball at his feet I’d like to see him slow the game down, make a “calm down” gesture, help our outfield players to refocus.

Instead he played a poor pass out from the back, which we just about got away with leading to a goal kick. Again, I’m looking to Szczesny for calm, to slow things down. But again he rushes, this time a poor goal kick straight to a City player in the middle of our half. From here City won a corner, and from the corner they scored their equaliser.

Another free header from another set-piece; we conceded three goals from set-pieces in pre-season and have now conceded three from set-pieces since the start of the season – a concerning trend. And the more I watch the replay the more I’m convinced that Flamini would have headed the ball off the line if Szczesny hadn’t got a hand to it – but of course it goes without saying that I don’t blame Wojciech for this, he had to attempt to make the save.

Another set piece goal conceded

I did warn you that I was going to be overly critical, but it really is about fine margins, and Szczesny’s distribution on Saturday was akin to his early performances in an Arsenal shirt. At times it puts needless pressure on the defence, expecting them to play out from the back when they’re clearly being pressed (as Man City were). It gifts cheap possession that builds pressure.

Its pressure that was almost costly. City’s equaliser was a blow and from there we really were hanging on. Dzeko hit the post, Kolarov hit the post, and then Szczesny (to his credit) made amends with a top class save from Dzeko, with Nasri (thankfully!) flagged offside when tapping in the rebound.

A pulsating game of football, with so much action and incident. A draw was a fair result, but it could have been so much more. Fine margins and pivotal moments will determine many games this season and this weekend we didn’t react well enough to them; whether it be the defending for both of their goals or following the injury to Debuchy. These moments will continue to happen, so we need to improve our in-game management and fast. Failure to do so will result in further punishment. But if the fine margins tip in our balance then we stand a real chance, starting at Dortmund on Tuesday. Up The Arsenal.

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North London is red and there’s only one Arsene Wenger

T*TTENHAM 0   ARSENAL 1

Three North London derbies. Three clean sheets. Three victories. This season North London is as red as it always has been. Our latest victory over the enemy was a good old-fashioned ‘one nil to The Arsenal’ thanks to an absolute screamer from super Tom Rosicky.

Rosicky Celebrates His Thunderbolt Winner

I must admit our starting midfield surprised me. I was expecting the Arteta / Flamini axis, with Flamini sitting deep and Arteta rampaging from box-to-box as he did to such good effect against Everton last weekend. But Wenger stuck with Chamberlain alongside Arteta, with Cazorla and Rosicky providing the width, although truth be told Chamberlain, Cazorla, and Rosicky interchanged as often as you’d expect.

And the pace and drive from Chamberlain and Rosicky brought instant success. With less than a minute on the clock we won the ball in our own half. Chamberlain broke clear and, with a little bit of good fortune, played the ball out wide to the overlapping Rosicky who unleashed an absolute screamer from just inside the corner of the area. Just over a minute on the clock and it was one nil to The Arsenal. Beautiful.

Rosicky Lets Fly

It could and probably should have been three inside of twenty minutes. First it was Podolski sent clear, but with only the goalkeeper to beat and Giroud on hand for a tap in should the German have needed him, the linesman incorrectly raised his flag for offside. It’s a decision that has been overlooked as moments later the enemy’s high defensive line was caught out once again. This time it was Chamberlain through on goal, with Podolski waiting for a tap in, but The Ox went it alone and sliced his chipped effort wide, partly due to a nasty bobble. It’s fair to say Podolski let his feelings be known.

But then the tide changed. We still had chances (Podolski fired wired just before half time, and in the second half The BFG had an excellent effort saved by Lloris and Koscielny should have had a penalty when hauled to the ground by Vertonghen), but on the whole it was they who controlled possession. Thankfully for all their possession they never really threatened; there were a few close calls as crosses flashed across the face of our goal, but on the whole they were restricted to half chances and efforts from distance. The only exception came from a Szczesny error when he dropped a cross, but the superb BFG and Koscielny bailed him out by blocking Chadli’s effort on the line. The clean-sheet was retained, the three points were gained.

The celebrations after the game showed what it meant to both the fans and the players. Podolski climbed into the crowd for a photo, before joining Szczesny, Gibbs, and The BFG for a selfie in front of the away support.

The Szczesny Selfie

And then there are the supporters. Excellent as always and singing themselves hoarse during the thirty minute lock-in after the final whistle with a loud rendition of “49, 49 Undefeated…”. North London is red. Always has been, always will be.

ARSENE WENGER’S 1,000TH GAME AS MANAGER OF THE ARSENAL

We now have a week to soak in the glory of North London derby victory, and to rest and recover ahead of our visit to the bus stop in Fulham. The Russians were beaten away at Villa on the weekend meaning we’re four points behind them with a game in hand. Unless somebody has a complete collapse you’d have to think that the teams currently in the top four will still be occupying the top four positions come the end of the season. But in what order is still very much up for grabs, so three points on Saturday would be massive.

And finally, this weekend will mark Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th game in charge as manager of The Arsenal. It’s a fantastic achievement for the greatest manager our club has ever had. Words cannot describe the affection I hold for Arsene and what he has done for our great club, but suffice to say I’d very much like to see him lift our first trophy of the Emirates era and then sign a new contract in the summer.

One Arsene Wenger

Victory on Saturday would not only be significant for our title challenge, but it would also come with the very nice cherry on top of being the first team to inflict a home league defeat on Mourinho in English football. What a fabulous way to celebrate the fact that there’s only one Arsene Wenger, and he’s ours – so here’s hoping. Up The Arsenal.

Another Heroic European Failure?

ARSENAL 0   BAYERN MUNICH 2

In recent seasons I’ve felt a little blasé about our Champions League ‘Round of 16’ fixtures. Due to our scraps for fourth place I have felt they were an unwelcome distraction, on the basis that we wouldn’t be good enough to win the tournament and that continued participation could potentially damage us mentally and physically. In that sense the heroic failures against Milan and Bayern were perfect; we could continue on our mission for fourth in the Premier League, whilst exiting the Champions League with our heads held high.

But Wednesday night was different. Since this time last year we’ve improved remarkably, resulting in a genuine title challenge and an FA Cup quarter-final to look forward to. And here we were about to face the same opposition in the Last 16; Bayern Munich, the reigning World and European champions. What better barometer to find out how far we have truly come?

I was confident we’d see a very different performance, a different story to last year, and for the first 37 minutes I was right. We started very quickly and were bossing the game, leaving Bayern rattled and shocked. Were they not expecting us to play at such a quick tempo? Were they perhaps expecting the same weak Arsenal they faced last year? Who knows. But we hit them hard and we hit them early and we should have been rewarded inside the first 10 minutes; Sanogo had a smart effort excellently saved by Neuer and then we were awarded a penalty, but sadly Neuer made another save, palming away Özil’s poor penalty. And then came the turning point.

Neuer Saves Ozil's Penalty

Kroos played a delightful chip over our defence, Robben got to the ball just ahead of Szczesny, and was brought down by the Pole. There was definitely contact and it was definitely a penalty. But what weren’t required were the theatrics from Robben and the red card from the referee. I get tired of people saying “he was the last man”; that isn’t the rule. The rule is an obvious goal scoring opportunity and knocking the ball wide and away from goal isn’t one of them (not to mention the fact you’ve been award a penalty which is an obvious goal scoring opportunity). And then of course there’s the fact that things shouldn’t have even progressed that far as Mandzukic was clearly offside in the build-up and is clearly interfering with play as he deliberately blocks Koscielny who is attempting to track Robben’s run (image below via @mccroix).

Offside Mandzukic In Build Up To Bayern Penalty

The second half became attack versus defence as Arsenal looked to hold the clean-sheet, but with only 12% possession for the entire second half (via @OptaJoe) and due to a wonderful strike from Kroos it wasn’t to be. But 0-1 would have been ok, given the circumstances, and certainly would have been retrievable in Munich. It’s for that reason I have no idea why Koscielny raced up field on a counter attack and then, once fouled, continued going forward to get on the end of the free-kick. Unsurprisingly the free-kick went straight into the arms of Neuer, Bayern broke forward, and with Koscielny still not back in position Flamini’s centre-half qualities were found wanting as Bayern made it 0-2 as Muller headed home a lovely cross from Lahm.

What started so promisingly ended so frustratingly. For 37 minutes, eleven versus eleven, we more than matched the Germans and a potential upset looked more than possible. Even at 0-1 I had the belief that we could turn things around in the second leg, but 0-2 just feels like a step too far. With the league title to fight for and an FA Cup more than achievable I can’t help but feel the best thing now might be another heroic defeat. That’s not to say we should give up or to say that we should field a weakened team in Munich, but a gracious exit may not be the worst thing in the world. We have some very difficult fixtures in March and if failure to progress means we can use our freed-up midweeks to rest, recuperate, and keep our title challenge on track then I don’t think I’d be complaining too much. But I guess that’s something we can discuss in a little more detail if we don’t make a miraculous comeback in Munich on the 11th March.

One final thought about the game versus Munich and it’s for the fans. I thought the atmosphere was fantastic, just as it was against Liverpool in the FA Cup. The mosaic was a wonderful entrance for the players and the noise was deafening. It’s great to see and hear everyone playing their part; let’s keep it up.

Arsenal Fans Created An Excellent Atmosphere

BACK TO THE BREAD AND BUTTER

It’s back to league action this weekend as we host Sunderland at The New Home of Football. I must admit I’m a little nervous as to the potential physical side effects from Wednesday night, but fingers crossed everyone has enough left in the tank to get us the three points. The terms must win is over used and as my good friend @thatsimonrose always says surely every game is must win, or at least always a want to win. But I think it’s fair to say that when you’re challenging for the title and are playing at home against relegation strugglers then it’s not a fixture you want to be dropping points in. And last, but by no means least, don’t forget that the Dennis Bergkamp statue is being unveiled before the game, so why not get there early and check it out. Up The Arsenal.