Wednesday, December 29, 2010

After Relief, Grief

Man Utd played Sunday afternoon, then Tuesday evening; Alex Ferguson did not make many changes from one starting eleven to another. United visibly tired towards the end of the Birmingham game and shipped an equaliser that might yet end up proving costly in an unpredictable title race.

Arsenal had even less recovery time between the euphoria of Monday night and the mundane trip to Wigan. Wenger decided to use the fullness of his squad. Only Fabianski, Sagna and Koscielny survived from the previous line-up. Wilshere joined them when Diaby all-too-predictably broke down in the first half.

After a high-energy performance on Monday, there was probably little choice; wholesale changes had to be made. Unfortunately, this impacted on the team's fluidity, and Wigan often looked the better side. The absence of Gibbs meant Eboue had to defend on his "wrong side". Arshavin was vintage Arshavin: lethargic and frustrating- he scored one brilliant goal and set up Bendtner's.

That sent Arsenal into half-time with a lead they scarcely deserved. Wigan had started at a high tempo, hastling the Gunners much as the Gunners had hassled the Blues. The dangerous Nzogbia had Arsenal on the ropes early on. Arsenal attacked dangerously but- surprise surprise- were opened up on the counter. The winger advanced to the edge of the area where he jinked by two challenges. The latter came from Koscielny, and N'zogbia fell over it into the box. Penalty. Watson dispatched it with minimum fuss.

The goal was a little unlucky for Arsenal. The challenge was not inside the box, for a start. Secondly, Koscielny merely wafted a foot in N'zogbia's direction, then pulled out- the contact was no more than a slight brush, if that. It was a dive, albeit the kind of dive that never gets condemned.

Before half time, Arshavin acrobatically gobbled up the rebound after Bendtner's shot had been parried to level matters. The Russian had been abject to that point but the goal provided him with a boost and he glided forward minutes later to flick a pass to Bendtner. The Dane benefited from a lucky ricochet to bear down on the keeper but his finish was assured and Arsenal had turned it around.

Of course a one-goal lead is never safe for Arsenal. Sadly, despite the perceived freshness of the starting line-up, they failed to work as hard without the ball as the team of Monday night did against Chelsea. Wigan threatened at intervals throughout the second period; Arsenal merely sat back and invited it. They surely ought to have better tested the soft centre of their opponents, in trying to put the game to bed.

Wenger's changes came too late- he was reactive rather than proactive. The reaction only came after Wigan equalised. As the final ten minutes loomed, N'zogbia got himself sent off for a headbutt on Wilshere. Instead of closing the game out, however, Arsenal duly conceded. Squillaci underlined his rotten form by finding his own net from a corner. As Wenger said, an extra man doesn't count for much while your team is defending a set play. Especially when the team in question CANNOT defend a set play. I don't think Arsenal could defend effectively with 15 men.

So, belatedly, Nasri and Walcott stepped onto the pitch. The former had a free kick handled in the area in the death throes of the match- no decision. But Arsenal should not have left themselves needing last gasp decisions.

UNITED's draw at Birmingham presented an opportunity for Arsenal to assert their credentials as closest challengers for the title. It was a vital chance to gain ground. Instead, the gap remains at two points, but may as well be viewed as five, with United holding a game in hand. Such a lead would not be insurmountable but the question hangs in the air: can Arsenal put a run together? Are they good enough to stop dropping points to the lower lights of the league?

They have a decent squad in numbers and there is more depth of quality than at some of the other leading clubs, but no depth of character. They seem to lack the necessary confidence when Fabregas is missing. The absence of Vermaelen is cruel but Wenger could surely have scouted for a more able centre back than Squillaci. The team's lack of a winning mentality was perhaps summed up by Koscielny's resigned acceptance of the contentious penalty award. That happens to United or Chelsea, there would be some unseemly hounding of officials.

The story of the week so far: Arsenal can beat Chelsea after all, but look no closer to winning the title.

Monday, December 27, 2010

3-1: What a Relief

The first time Arsenal have beaten either of Man United or Chelsea in two years, and despite Chelsea's grim run of form, it was the home side's most accomplished performance since they went to the San Siro and outpassed another Ancelotti-managed team in 2008.

The key was tempo and pressing. At last, Arsenal worked as hard without the ball as they did in possession. They hounded the Blues high up the pitch and when this happens, there is less onus on Arsenal to score the "perfect goal". Arsenal looked most dangerous when Chelsea had the ball in their own half.

This, and the criticism Song has attracted for his apparently over-adventurous style this season, made the nature of the first goal ironic. It was the result of a short passing move, the type that Chelsea usually repel with ease, but this time the weight of Arsenal's numbers undid them.

I worried in the build-up about Arsenal's tendency to overcommit in attack, leaving gaps behind them, and their attendant inability to attack any other way. This time it paid off as the red shirts swamped Chelsea- everyone but the back four ended up in or at the edge of the box. Song passed to Wilshere and continued into the box. The younster flicked it back his way, and Fabregas took over only to be tripped by Ferreira. Both Van Persie and Song were on hand, and the latter provided the finish with his lesser-used left foot.

Coming close to half-time, the goal was thoroughly deserved. Arsenal were comfortably the better side, without creating many clear opportunities. Chelsea looked deflated after their recent travails, didn't deal well with the pressure Arsenal exerted, and only really looked threatening from Cech's kick-outs.

Lampard looked rusty after his lay off. Drogba was matched by Djourou, who was at last allowed to replace the unconvincing Squillaci. The Ivorian had his moments early on. When Koscielny ventured too far into midfield and gave the ball away, one Chelsea pass exposed Arsenal's often fatal flaw, and Drogba was running at a back-pedalling Djourou. His shot was angled just wide. Then he attacked a cross well but was tracked by the Swiss defender who managed to deflect the header wide.

Michael Essien was a shadow of his usual ubiquitous self, and Florent Malouda seems to have gone off the boil completely after being one of the players of 2010. But despite Chelsea's problems, Arsenal deserve praise for exploiting them and, hopefully, banishing that debilitating inferiority complex.

Arsenal's half time lead seemed to raise as many questions as it answered. The memory of the North London derby debacle was fresh and painful.

Within minutes of the restart, the Emirates exploded into the greatest scenes of euphoria seen there in quite a while. Van Persie was crowded out by blue shirts, but Essien only nicked the ball inadvertently behind Ashley Cole and into the path of the onrushing Walcott. He advanced on Cech and slipped the ball sideways for his captain to slide the ball into the unguarded net.

Less than two minutes later, Fabregas returned the compliment. Again, Walcott's anticipation was crucial. Malouda accepted the ball from Terry but was immediately robbed by the Englishman. Fabregas took the ball on, and dinked it over Terry's challenge. Cesc's pass was weighted so that Walcott needn't take a touch before shooting. He again exhibited his finishing prowess, blasting across Cech and into the bottom corner.

The worry remained that Arsenal could blow any kind of lead, and nerves were set to jangling just four minutes later. Drogba's free-kick was flighted superbly, so that Fabianski was left in no man's land when Ivanovic rose above Koscielny to head in. There was a period of uncertainty- at one point Ivanovic broke a couple of tackles and surged into the Arsenal area, but Drogba dithered and the chance was gone- but it soon became apparent that Chelsea lacked the confidence to put anything together in open play, and Arsenal played the game out with only a couple of scares from set plays, and once when Ramires shot wide.

Nasri and Diaby fluffed chances to finish Chelsea off, but overall one could have little complaint about the way Arsenal played. Deficiencies remain- there was almost comical panic at a stoppage time set piece, the ball eventually rebounding off Fabianski into his own net, only for the "goal" to be disallowed- but the high-energy pressing that Arsenal put into action gave them a much better chance of overcoming those flaws.

Song and Djourou probably merit special mention. Walcott and Fabregas were the match winners despite both suffering nervous starts in differing ways. Nasri was always dangerous, especially when delivering a clever chip at 0-0 that Cech had to tip over. Clichy, though not hugely tested by Kalou, hounded and harrassed. Sagna was typically steady, and Koscielny, despite having a few uncertain moments, looked far more assured in the absence of Squillaci. Wilshere was the perfect mix of graft and craft, his growth continues. Van Persie's movement bothered Chelsea and he is still not at his sharpest.

Still, the result should be viewed as more a challenge than an accomplishment. Arsenal must now match this level of performance for the rest of the season. Wenger picked the right team, they played the right way, and the whole club should be re-energised.

will the big-game hoodoo continue?

Chelsea have been in rotten form of late but seem to love playing against Arsenal.

Their last two visits to the Emirates have both yielded victories of a three goal margin.

They have Frank Lampard, who has been sorely missed, making his first start since his injury a few months back.

Fabregas returns too, but he's often been bullied out of games against Chelsea. And you could say that that's the problem in microcosm. Chelsea tend to have too much power and pace for Arsenal. It's almost like the ghost of Wenger's successful Arsenal sides is haunting the current bunch, in the form of a Chelsea team that have all of that old power and poise and character, and the trophies to match.

The tables have turned in a big way over the last five years or so. Pre-Abramovich, Chelsea went almost ten years without beating Arsenal in the league. Chelsea were the team who entertained at times, but too often looked a team of style without substance.

Now the upper hand is Chelsea's and Arsenal are the ones who crumble when the big matches roll around.

After meek defeat at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, it is undeniably crucial that Arsenal produce some kind of performance. But it remains difficult to back them because they continue to look naive tactically and lacking in the necessary mental fortitude.

At Old Trafford, there seemed at least a desire to keep things tight. But the toothless result of that shift in emphasis worryingly suggested that when Arsenal play in a more balanced manner, they lose a too much of their attacking threat. Overcommitting seems to be their style, but if they overcommit that will play into Chelsea's hands. And if they sit back a little and play with more caution, it may lead to a closer game, but also take away from Arsenal's ability to create chances.

And perhaps the greatest worry of all is that Drogba has made meat of far better Arsenal centre halves than Koscielny and Squillaci.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Barca Again...

Strangely looking forward to another tonking at the gifted feet of the newly anointed Greatest Team of All Time (TM).


Barca are superior in every area to Arsenal.
It seems strange to think that, more than halfway through last season's weird quarter-final tie, Arsenal had worked themselves into a winning position. Especally when you remember the grinding humiliation of the first twenty minutes of the first leg, when Barca took Arsenal's aristocratic pretensions and stuck them where the sun don't shine (and somehow failed to score).

While the lead that Bendtner gave Arsenal lasted only a couple of minutes, it still said something. It spoke of Arsenal's spirit and Barca's potential profligacy. They should have had the tie done and dusted within a half hour of the first leg, instead they needed Messi's genius to dig them out of a little trouble.

Of course, few would expect David Villa to be as wasteful as Zlatan was at the Emirates (despite his eventual two-goal-haul), and Barcelona have probably improved since that tie.

To push them close, Arsenal would have to try to impose a tempo that is no longer in their own comfort zone. They are Barca-lite. They would enjoy themselves in Spain and come 3rd. They no longer have the power and the pace to trouble a technically superior side. You know that Chelsea or United would give Barcelona a lot more to worry about.

In fairness, it should also be noted that even when Arsenal were a "power team", they often found themselves outplayed by technically adept teams- most memorably, Deportivo la Coruna in the second group stage in 2002. As I've said before, I think that game and similar chastening experiences in Europe inspired Wenger to change tack and prioritise possession and technique over power and pace.

It has backfired spectacularly. Chelsea and Manchester United routinely overpower the New Gunners, and an admittedly special Barcelona side shows up their passing game as comparatively poor, inefficient and unexciting.

TO EVEN BOTHER Barcelona, Arsenal need a Vieira, or even just a Flamini. Alex Song is going backwards with every step further up the pitch but even if he is redeployed as a dedicated holding player he is not good enough or mobile enough to stem the flow alone and Xavi, Iniesta and company will relish the chance to tear into Arsenal's woefully ragtag rearguard.

Expect to be watching fireworks through your fingers.

Friday, December 17, 2010

50% Chance of Disaster

In the 2nd round of this season's Champions League, Arsenal will play Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Schalke.

Barcelona would absolutely muller Arsenal.

Real Madrid would absolutely muller Arsenal.

In the other two scenarios, the Gunners would be expected to win through, but as the group stage has proven, anyone has a chance against Arsenal these days.

I would struggle to get excited if the draw presents a tie against either of the Germans. The sad fact is, Arsenal's continued progress in the competition would represent only delayed disaster. They will be turfed out by the first good side they face.

Wenger has never beaten Mourinho and the chances of that ever happening decline with every new day of misguided, myopic idealism.

And if Barca can beat Real Madrid 5-0, logic dictates that they could aim for double figures over two legs against Arsenal {they could have had five after twenty minutes at the Emirates last season).

The further Arsenal get, the greater the chance they will meet another of the English sides.

Arsenal cannot beat Manchester United over two legs.

Arsenal cannot beat Chelsea over two legs.

Arsenal could beat Spurs over two legs, but imagine they didn't.

So I will finish this by saying I hope Arsenal get Madrid or Barca. I pray that elimination comes soon so the winnable tournaments may be focussed on for the remainder of the season.

And with that I return to drinking this half-empty cup of tea.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

United 1-0 Arsenal: Out-Thought and Out-Fought

Arsenal lost a tactical and a physical battle on Monday night. This incarnation of Manchester United is far from the most sophisticated but they consistently come out on top against the Gunners: Ferguson has found Wenger out.

While tactics have never been Wenger's strong point, the lack of physical presence in the Arsenal team is very worrying. As I've said before, Wenger's successes have been based as much on power as on technique. These days, his team is made to look feeble against United and Chelsea.

Alex Song is, supposedly, the closest thing this Arsenal side has to an "enforcer". Late in the game, he was brushed aside by Patrice Evra- one of United's more diminutive players. The same Patrice Evra who was confident enough in United's superiority to insult Arsenal BEFORE the game this time!

Were his harsh words used as motivation in the away dressing room? There were many fouls by Arsenal, but not enough winning of the ball, United first to every 50-50, still looking like they want it more, despite being a team who've won it all, playing against a team who've won fuck-all.

Arsenal have nothing to match the tenacity of Fletcher, the running power of Anderson, Park and Nani. United have a rock-solid defence whereas Arsenal have a charitable one.

But it's not as simple as Arsenal lacking United's robust element: Arsenal's passing game is grossly overrated. They barely put a move together in the entire game. Wenger indulged in a bit of trademark excuse-making afterwards, which doesn't even deserve discussion. The pitch was bad, yes. So what? Will United be complaining after the next encounter that the pitch was "too good" for their game? Probably not, because they'll have won the match.

Bottom line: No Surprises. United win big games, and Arsenal lose them.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dunphy in Rash Statement Shocker

"Barcelona are way ahead of the rest, they're gonna win the Champions League this year Bill".

They may be way ahead of the rest, but Eamo is getting way ahead of himself.

Few were betting on Inter this time last year....

Arsenal 3-1 Partizan: Job Done...

A performance that does not bode well for Old Trafford next Monday.

4-4-2 returns- Chamakh and Van Persie in tandem.

Arshavin and Nasri struggle to get into the game from wide positions.

Denilson + Song = creativity deficit in the centre.

The crowd: edgy, frustrated.

The Kurse of Kieran Gibbs strikes again- another addition to the brittle brigade.

An abject first half hour ends with Van Persie cleverly buying a soft penalty. The Dutchman buries it for 1-0.

There is no sense of danger- Partizan are woeful- but Arsenal fail to kick on. A disjointed showing. The penalty is the only shot on target.

Dunphy: "Denilson and Song are nothing players.... they don't have a playmaker" (suggesting Nasri move to the centre).

If Wenger's bottle-throwing antics betray anxiety, it is justified by his team within minutes. Partizan work an opportunity on the edge of the area- Squillaci hesitates- dives in- Cleo's shot hits him and loops over Fabianski's dive.

1-1 against this frankly rubbish team!!!

What's the score in the Braga game?? Goalless.

Tension up, heads down, Partizan get bold, threaten again.

Arsenal struggle to reassert themselves but the players look as edgy as the crowd sounds.

Arshavin- having a stinker- removed for (ugh) Walcott.

A poor defensive header falls for the Englishman. A position in which he often snatches at things. This time, good chest control, super volley, placed into the far corner. Relief.

3-1 minutes later. Nasri in the goals again. Song and sub Bendtner play one-two, Song finds Nasri, clever feet, left foot finish, job done.

The poor overall performance is underlined by a sloppy end to the game.

Sagna dismissed for a foul as last man. And Shakhtar win, which means Arsenal finish second- could play Barca or Madrid in the second round.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nasri's Improvement Helps Arsenal Cover The Cracks

Arsenal 2-1 Fulham

It's always exciting when you see a player of huge potential start to realise it.

Samir Nasri has been Arsenal's player of the season so far, adding consistency and goals to his game.

After the opening day's poor showing at Liverpool, I bemoaned the lack of midfield "runners" in the Arsenal squad- it too often seemed that everybody wanted the ball to feet, and nobody made clever runs off the ball. Credit to Arsene Wenger, he saw in Nasri the latent potential to add this aspect to his game:

I'm happy because he had a game that was, at the start, only based on coming to the ball.
But now he has more variation in his game: turns, runs in behind without the ball, and as well coming to the ball and taking it to his feet.

Nasri's newfound directness has also triggered an improvement in Arshavin. The Russian is less inclined to look sideways than most of his team mates, and his passing has looked more incisive this season. Both Nasri and Chamakh have contributed to that. On Saturday, Arshavin twice released Nasri for goalscoring opportunities; once for the first goal, and before that when Nasri poked the ball wide of goal.

The winner was the result of a pass Van Persie probably wouldn't have made a few years ago. He had the chance to shoot on the edge of the box but instead pushed a clever pass to the onrushing Nasri.

Both goals showcased the Frenchman's confidence, composure and close control. But confidence and composure are not words you'd associate with the Arsenal team as a whole. While early on they looked like swamping Fulham, again the swagger was all-too-easily punctured. Squillaci and Koscielny summed up their Arsenal careers so far by crashing into each other. Koscielny was concussed, as it turned out, but failed to do the professional thing and lie down for treatment. As he stumbled and staggered, Dempsey found Kamara whose finish was, on this occasion, unerring- his profligacy would later aid Arsenal.

Koscielny was replaced by Djourou, which would have pleased many, but Squillaci and his new partner parted like the Red Sea for Kamara before half-time, and Fabianski had to save Arsenal from facing yet another home deficit.

Nasri's magic was vital- either side could have come out on top, which is pretty damning when you look at this Fulham side. And it is, by extension, pretty damning for the Premiership in general that this Arsenal side is top, because they simply cannot defend.

Slip-ups in the next two games- must win vs Partizan and must do better vs United- will do more damage than the one that was rendered a footnote by Nasri's brilliance.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Whiff of Silverware

The much-maligned Carling Cup now appears to Arsenal an oasis in the desert of their trophy drought.

And (he said conveniently) what an unfairly maligned competition it is. Despite the top teams using it as a testing ground for young talent, there are still a lot of competitive, exciting games.

And to those who would poo-poo Arsenal's prospective triumph, it should be remembered that either Manchester United or Chelsea have won five of the last six League Cup tournaments- success breeds success, trophies can lead to more trophies, Arsenal should be going all out to win it.

In the semi-finals, they will play Roy Keane's Ipswich, who have just dispensed with West Brom. The other semi will be contested by Birmingham and West Ham. There is certainbly nothing to fear in this line-up.

You'd be tempted to say that Arsenal should be able to win it while continuing to rotate. That said, an understrength United team has been humbled by the Hammers, showing the dangers of complacency. And Alex McLeish's Birmingham have never proved an easy touch against Arsenal.

It has to be said that a defeat over two legs against Ipswich would be little short of a disaster.

This Arsenal team's inability to win big games, and the lack of silverware that has led to, has surely become a burden for the players now. Here they are presented with three distinctly winnable games and a trophy waiting at the end. There are no more excuses. Field a weakened side and go out, Wenger will be crucified. Field a strong team and lose, it would be a new low for a team that at times seems scared of success.

Obviously, winning the Carling Cup after beating Spurs's 3rd team, Newcastle, Wigan, Ipswich and either Birmingham or West Ham would not prove a whole lot, but lifting that trophy could be a big psychological boost. It could lift that invisible weight off the players' shoulders and give them the hunger to chase more glory.

Let's hope that the end of the drought is in sight.