Tuesday, December 13, 2011

1-0 to the Arsenal

Arsenal 1-0 Everton

Arsenal celebrated 125 years on Saturday, and if the spectacle of the game did not match the grandness of the occasion, there was at least a goal to remember.

Though a lot of the play was scrappy in the opening 45, Everton were giving up clear chances. Arteta robbed his old partner Fellaini and released Walcott. With Gervinho and Ramsey square, a goal seemed certain, but last ditch defending denied the Ivorian. Song played in Ramsey, and the Welshman twisted onto his left foot, but only found the top of the net with his scooped effort. Almost immediately an Everton player inadvertently sent Gervinho through on goal, but his finish was predictably artless, and Howard parried.

Everton improved after half time. They denied Arsenal space in the centre. Van Persie was having an off day, overrunning the ball on a few occasions and not enjoying many sights of goal.

Even after sending on Distin and serving notice of their contendedness with a stalemate, it was Everton who were beginning to threaten more. Arsenal looked like they might need a scruffy goal, because they had not really put a move together all game. Instead, they scored a goal of real beauty.

Song found space in midfield and curled a perfect through ball over Jagielka's head to Van Persie. Despite his performance up to that moment, the Dutchman still had the confidence to take the ball first-time on the volley, and his technique matched that of the pass, the ball flying past a static Howard and glancing in off the far post.

While Arsenal never hit their stride except for that one moment, it would be hard to argue that Everton deserved anything from the game. They had shown an almost absolute lack of ambition despite the evidence that their opponents were not at their best.

That said, there were a couple of late half chances for the away side, both stemming from Mertesacker's continued uncertainty. One substitute, Gueye, dragged an effort wide when well-placed. Some a similar but more difficult chance, another sub, Conor McAleny, struck a brilliant effort that had Szczesny beaten but dipped just wide of the far post.

For the umpteenth time this season, Arsenal were indebted to the brilliance of their Dutch striker. But Song should also take some credit for the quality of his pass. He has again shown his underappreciated creative side. It's hard to think of any other "holding midfield" players who pass incisively with the regularity that Song does. As much as anyone else, he has softened the considerable blow of losing Fabregas's precision passing.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Fabianski and Mannone remind us of the Dark Days...

....and United Crash Out Basel 2-1 Manchester United

When Manchester United destroyed Arsenal at Old Trafford by a surreal scoreline just a few months ago, who could have predicted that in the final round of Champions League group games Arsenal would be able to field the reserves in a dead rubber, while United would try and fail to secure the solitary point they needed against Basel. It has been a strange and unpredictable season.

United endured numerous warnings on their way out of the competition. They never truly convinced in any game, and were within minutes of losing at home to Basel after leading 2-0. They came from behind to lead the home game against Benfica, but immediately gave up an equaliser that left them in a precarious poition. Still, few if any expected that they would fail to get at least a draw in Switzerland. Instead they succumbed to soft goals and a lack of punch up front that has hampered them in recent weeks.

United started the season in freewheeling form, knocking in goals seemingly at will. They were freakishly clinical against Arsenal and in the game at home to Chelsea they led 3-0 after being outplayed for 45 minutes. Their run of form was ended in spectacular fashion by Manchester City, and Ferguson responded to that scalding defeat by falling back into cautious mode. In the league, it has worked. United have kept clean sheets, and won games 1-0. They are not playing expansive football but that may come later.

In Europe, however, the air of vulnerabilty that City exposed has been almost constant. When United exited the Champions League at the group stage in 2005/06, it was a little less shocking. The group was more difficult, and in the years previous United had lost knockout ties against Milan and Porto, while also seeing Chelsea and Arsenal romp to Premiership titles.

This time, the group was seen as a formality. After all, United have recovered from their 2005/06 nadir to reach three of the last four finals. United have however embarked on a period of reconstruction, as shown by the youthful look of thei line ups this season. As Arsenal know only too well, setbacks are inevitable in this situation. But Ferguson has shown himself willing, where Wenger has not been, to break the bank in order to reinvigorate his side. United's summer transfer policy focused on bringing in youth but January might bring about a different approach.

Olympiakos 3-1 Arsenal
Olympiakos took advantage of Arsenal's patchwork line up to secure a deserved win, only to be denied a place in the next round by Marseille' stunning comeback in Germany.

The game was noteworthy as a reminder of the days not long ago when Arsenal were something of a laughing stock thanks to the infamous Goalkeeper Situation. Fabianski settled quickly into his familiar comic routine, but it was Mannone who provoked the biggest laugh of the night with his slapstick swing at Fuster's tame shot.

The more religious of Arsenal fans will be praying that Szczesny stays healthy and disciplined.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Fulham Halt The Revival... Wigan Provide Little Resistance...

Premiership: Arsenal 1-1 Fulham
After Arsenal's hard-fought win at home to Dortmund, there was a hangover. The players looked knackered against Fulham; it was an all-too-familiar display of lethargy from thr home side at the Emirates. The game was played at the pace of a pre-season friendly, and the Gunners missed the injection of speed and penetration that Gervinho has already provided in his short time at the club. Arshavin, though he did net a neat but offside goal, was typically ineffective in general.

Fulham attacked in fits and starts, as the away side usually does at the Emirates, and although Arsenal's defence has seen a marked improvement in recent weeks, the opening goal here was largely the result of one of the sporadic bouts of ineptitude that has blighted the team in recent years. After Arsenal were caught trying to be too clever playing the ball out from defence, Murphy had time to size up a typically canny diagonal pass into the box for the onrushing Riise. The Norwegian's touch ran away somewhat, but a panicky Vermaelen miscued his clearance and the ball trickled past Szczesny and into the corner.

That the comical opener came soon after Van Persie had been denied by a desperate goal line clearance seemed to suggest that this was not to be Arsenal's day. But credit to Vermaelen, he responded to his mistake in characteristically buccaneering fashion, storming up the pitch in open play to nod in Theo Walcott's superb cross. In the late stages after the equaliser, Arsenal had pressure but no real chances, and Fulham held out for a draw that they deserved after a compact and solid performance.

Carling Cup: Arsenal 0-1 Manchester City
The Carling Cup game against City was notable mostly for the return of Samir Nasri, who had a subdued game in front of his hostile former admirers. Arsenal's mix of youngsters and squad players gave a good account of themselves, as they usually do. City's back up players failed to gel except in the moment that decided the game. A lightning break saw the ball shuttled from one end to another, Dzeko to Johnson to Aguero, and the Argentine slotted clinically past the exposed Fabianski. Arsenal had had a lot of possession, and Oxelade-Chamberlain looked particularly dangerous, but City hd the class and the cutting edge to engineer the killer moment in a tight match.

Premiership: Wigan 0-4 Arsenal
A welcome return to winning ways was found at Wigan, though in truth they offered little by way of tough opposition. There was an early scare in which Santos deflected a point blank shot wide, but Arsenal slowly took control. Still, the first two goals were the epitome of soft. Arteta's shot was well struck and moved a little, but still should have required only a routine save from Al-Habsi. Instead it found a way through him and into the net. Then Vermaelen pounced with a well-aimed header from a corner, but one that would not have been so telling had Wigan positioned a man on that post.

Of course, Arsenal have disturbing recent memories of leads thrown away at the JJB and elsewhere, and so there was no room for complacency. The game could not be considered safe until a patient move led to a beautiful 1-2 between Van Persie and Song. A dummy from the Dutchman left the wretched Caldwell sliding into the middle of next week, and though his right-foted effort was parried by the keeper, Gervinho was there to pick up the pieces.

Walcott squared unselfishly to Van Persie for number 4, and Arsenal thus continued their impressive away form of recent weeks.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Van On Fire (Part 2)

...and Song's on Song...

Arsenal 2-1 Borussia Dortmund

Another Van Persie brace, another win.

As has been the case in quite a few of Arsenal's wins this seasons, it was not a barnstorming performance, and there was no surfeit of chances, but the Dutchman is so clinical at the moment that the results are starting to stack up.

But Song was the real star of the show, and after an iffy start to the season, he is showing signs of yet more improvement on last campaign's impressive displays.

The term "holding midfielder" is a ubiquitous term nowadays, and not without some reason, as most teams field three central midfielders. With that system dominant, there is a greater number of midfield "specialists", and less midfield generals like Patrick Vieira or Roy Keane in their pomp. A midfielder is usually seen as a creator or a destroyer, and while there are some players who occupy some kind of middle ground between those two simplistic terms, there are few nowadays who combine combative tackling with incisive passing and an instinct to drive forward.

Song has, since his return from that vital loan spell at Charlton, often looked a little too talented to be just another Makalele clone. What with Arsenal's defensive travails over recent years, most fans just wanted him to be a disciplined and effective presence in front of the back four, good enough to provide a shield, win the ball and shuttle it on to someone else, preferably Cesc Fabregas. But he has more technical ability than your average destroyer. That has become more evident still since Fabregas's departure.

A lot of this is probably down to the maturity of Arteta, who is proving to be a much better version of Denilson, doing what the Brazilian was meant to all along. Arteta gets tackles in, helps Song protect the defence, and does not get ahead of the play too often, leaving Ramsey closest to Van Persie out of the three midfielders. Song and Arteta have already forged a decent understanding and Song must feel more freedom to push forward as he likes to, knowing that his team mate is likely to fill in behind.

We have seen some nice slide rule assists from Song- for Gervinho's opener at Blackburn and for Van Persie's winner at Norwich. This time, the game-breaking assist came from a jinking run and a pinpoint cross that allowed Van Persie to power a downward header past the keeper.

It had been something of a stalemate up to that point, with neither side creating a great deal. Dortmund had just won in impressive fashion at Bayern Munich and set about Arsenal in a similarly intense fashion. Their pressing was quite effective and it took something out of the ordinary from Song to open them up.

The second goal was also out of the ordinary, by Arsenal's current standards. Or out of the distant past, perhaps? A corner, a near-post flick on, and a poached finish...it could almost have been Paul Merson, Steve Bould and Ian Wright after a week of tough training under the watchful eyes of George Graham. In reality it was Vermaelen and Van Persie who combined to convert Arteta's inswinger.

And with only a few minutes to go, that was that, although there was time for the concession of a very late Dortmund consolation. It was the result of some sloppy play in the corner by Song and, especially, Djourou. With the game won, maybe the most heartening image of the night was Vermaelen raging at his team mates. It's the kind of professionalism and passion that have been lacking in too many of his team mates over recent years. It's good to have him back.