While Arsenal usually start strongly and finish the season in a confused, stumbling daze, it appears that the reverse is panning out this season. After a false start that this guy would be proud of, they’ve gotten their season on track after a brief false dawn. Monday night’s victory over Newcastle was the fourth win having been behind in a row; a new Premier League record. The Gunners, with important players coming back left, right and centre, finally seem to be at their best.
The creativity, intensity and confidence had previously been very low in the season, but now the team seems to be finding the consistency in results and performances that they’ll need to overtake their deadly rivals; the enemy, as Bacary Sagna called them, Tottenham Hotspur in 3rd.
This can be put down mainly to the gelling of the team – after panicked deadline day deals, Arsenal were more a group of individuals as opposed to a unit, which seems to be what they are now. Skipper Robin van Persie has helped the players to bond, and they now seem a cohesive side, able to overcome any obstacle.
That unflappable quality was demonstrated perfectly against Newcastle, when Hatem Ben Arfa rifled in a goal for Newcastle against the run of play. Instead of retreating into their shells, Arsenal showed character and resilience by going up the other end and levelling the scores instantly. Going behind only seemed to motivate Arsenal further – like angering a wasp by swatting it. Arsene Wenger’s side didn’t seem fazed whatsoever by going behind, and even the fans were singing straight after the goal went in, highlighting the belief at the club right now.
The players have done a good job of getting the fans back on-side (the speculation about Lukas Podolski has helped too; more on him later this week), and having restored their broken image and pride against Tottenham, Milan and Liverpool, they now believe that third place is a realistic target and something that they might just end up achieving. They now believe that they’re a good team, and are ready to stand up to any team who threatens to damage the new aura around the club nowadays.
On the actual football, Arsenal were most dangerous when attacking down the right hand side, like against Milan. Theo Walcott and Bacary Sagna both had excellent games, with the former picking up the man of the match award, while Tomas Rosicky combined well with them both, particularly for the equaliser. Newcastle struggled to cope with Arsenal’s intensity and incisiveness, and Walcott was a large part of that.
He put some excellent balls into the box, making those who criticised his final ball tuck into some humble pie. What some don’t understand is that it takes two to make a good ball; the pass itself, and the run to get on the end of it. Analysing Walcott’s crosses yesterday, he got everything spot on – and not by luck as well, because the techniques were spot on for each of his balls in. Both of the goals were assisted by him, and credit rightly went his way. He now looks more confident, which is a vital part of his game, as he needs to be ready to take players on and whip the ball into the box.
Rosicky was the recipient of a new contract at the Emirates just before the game, and instead of settling with his future sorted out, continued his fine form, linking up excellently with Mikel Arteta, and supplying the pass for Walcott to set up van Persie’s goal.
The equaliser from the Dutchman was expertly taken – the delicate, cushioning first touch, the second to place it in his path and away from the flailing Mike Williamson, and finally the punishing, accurate finish past Tim Krul. It was van Persie’s first touch, and showed his clinical finishing touch.
Someone else who showed an eye for goal was Gervinho, although the Sky cameras didn’t pick it up. While Howard Webb was booking Jonas Gutierrez, van Persie took a quick free-kick, giving it to Bacary Sagna, who whipped it in for Gervinho. The Ivorian, in one swift movement, leapt up into the air and flicked the ball into the far corner of the net. It was a shame the cameras missed it, as I have no proof of it. But trust me, it happened.
As for the negatives – somebody has to I suppose – defensively the first goal was a poor one to concede for Arsenal. When Vermaelen gave the ball away, the midfield were labouring and didn’t get back, leaving a large gap between themselves and the defenders. Kieran Gibbs allowed the tricky Ben Arfa onto his left foot, and the Frenchman punished him.
Arsenal can ill-afford to sell any more big players – every summer for a while now they’ve sold at least two key players, which has disrupted their long-term momentum and put paid to any hopes of real season-to-season progress. If Arsenal can get some seasonal continuity in their line-up, they may begin to become more consistent and competitive. Not only that, but it would send out the completely wrong message – especially if it was van Persie that was sold – as it was surely be an admission that they are no longer a big club; instead a club whose ambition has faded away.
This post first appeared on Life’s a Pitch.
In the six years it has been since Arsenal lifted a trophy, there has been one common factor throughout: a problem with our defence. Whether it’s been a dodgy goalkeeper, the defensive personnel or trouble with set pieces, it’s nearly always been our downfall.
There have been several high-profile defensive mistakes at Arsenal over the past six years. Manuel Almunia has made a large number of them – for one, his fumble against Birmingham in March 2010 signified the beginning of the end of Arsenal’s title challenge. That season had seen us still in with a chance of lifting the trophy late in the season, but defensive mistakes, among other things, saw us fall away. Losses to Tottenham, Wigan and Blackburn – all littered with goals that should have been easy to prevent – were the final nails in our coffin for that season.
While other things have contributed to us not winning trophies (refereeing mistakes and injuries come to mind – these can also be traced back to St Andrews) it has long been the case that defensive troubles have been one of the main reasons that we’ve struggled for consistency. The fragility has always been clear to everyone, and you could sense that a mistake could come out of nowhere at any time.
Now, things seem to be different. Arsenal’s first choice defence finally seems to be one to be proud of; the reliable Wojciech Szczesny, one of the best right backs around in Bacary Sagna, our solid vice-captain Thomas Vermaelen, the ever-improving Laurent Koscielny and the enthusiastic (yet temporarily injured) Andre Santos. Left back is arguably the only first choice position which can be questioned – Santos has only been at Arsenal for a few months, and although he’s shown good signs he’s still yet to be tested to the best of his ability.
However, Arsenal have been a lot more solid in defence of late. Szczesny has proven himself as a top goalkeeper worthy of his position, Sagna has always been top quality, Vermaelen has few remaining critics after a storming first season, and Koscielny has set about proving all of his nay-sayers wrong with some outstanding form. Santos has also provided calm and experience, despite his liking to maraud forward – which has in fairness improved our attack too.
In fact, a case could well be made for Koscielny and Vermaelen potentially being the best central defensive partnership in the league. They haven’t played together at the heart of the defence as much as Arsene Wenger would have liked due to various injuries, but when they have they’ve impressed.
The perennial high line seems to have been ditched in favour of a more efficient, versatile style, and the Gunners have had far less problems in the air – be that from set pieces or from long balls. While not the tallest pairing around, Vermaelen and Koscielny are both deceptively strong in the air, and the statistics back that up.
While it may be too late for Arsenal to mount a proper title challenge this season due to a late awakening because of Wenger’s apparent wish to press the snooze button until the end of August, we seem to have sorted out the problems that have haunted us season upon season. The spine of the team is now strong, and we have a tough, efficient base to build upon. Without the shakiness at the back the rest of the team can feel more at ease and more able to do their own jobs, instead of worrying when the next defensive cock-up will come.
Not only have we improved our first choice back-line, it seems obvious that our back-up options are better now too. Instead of the often-erratic Eboué (see the penalty he conceded against Liverpool at the Emirates last season) we have the young, hard-working Jenkinson – while he is still learning, he has incredible stamina and a wicked cross. At centre half Squillaci is making fewer appearances thanks to the shrewd purchase of Per Mertesacker; although he has made a couple of errors, he’s still getting to know the Premier League and has given us a vital boost of experience, according to Robin van Persie. Johan Djourou now seems ready to fill in whenever needed effectively across the defence too, instead of destabilising our defence like he once did. And Kieran Gibbs now offers a more reliable alternative at left back than he did a few seasons ago (when he’s actually fit!).
So you can keep your Gary Cahills (overrated and not at all versatile) and your Christopher Sambas (definitely not what we need, thanks) because we’ve solved our defensive problems on our own. As the old saying goes; Arsène knows.
A few stories for me to cover in today’s round-up.
Firstly, the Mirror reckons that if we don’t manage to sign up Samir Nasri to a new deal, we’ll reluctantly look to sell him this summer. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case, but I think too much has been made over the whole contract situation. Many people around the club seem confident that Nasri will sign up, and his agent also said that the Frenchman wants to stay at the club. It seems like a case of wanting to focus on football for the moment, rather than wanting to join a different side.
The Mirror report also added that we will look to Borussia Dortmund’s Mario Goetze as a replacement for Nasri if he does leave. I can’t say I’ve seen much of him – in fact I’m not sure I’ve seen him play at all – but I’ve heard good things about him. Still, I can’t see Nasri anywhere else but the Emirates next season.
Robert Pires returns to Arsenal tomorrow for Aston Villa, and he’s had some words of advice for Arsene Wenger. He reckons we’re lacking English experience/grit – I think it’s important to note that the only English players who were regulars in the Invincibles side were Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole, plus Ray Parlour. I’m not sure nationality is the problem, but more so experience; another area which Bobby thinks we’re lacking in.
We should really sign some more experienced players, but Pires cited the reason for experienced Englishmen as being that “they know the English league”. I can’t agree with that – look at Vieira, Bergkamp, Henry, Ljungberg and Pires himself. They were all new to the league when they signed, but became world-class players over time. I for one think we should tap into the Italian league a little more. There are some excellent players there, for example, Gokhan Inler. Furthermore, Vieira, Bergkamp and Henry were all signed from Serie A, as was Kanu.
Continuing the talk about signings, the Benzema to Arsenal rumour continues to pick up pace. According to the Metro, he’s been “given the green light” for a £25 million move to the Emirates this summer. It’s a huge amount of money, and many are skeptical that Wenger wouldn’t go anywhere near that kind of sum for one player. However, it’s worth remembering that he did actually bid £20 million for Pepe Reina in the summer, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Benzema.
I’m a big fan of his, I think he’d add a lot to our play and score a lot of goals here. However, I also heard that Juventus had a £25 million bid for the French striker turned down. I can’t remember who said that, but Juventus fans seemed quite certain it was true. But as I always say – I guess we’ll see…
Finally, some words on tomorrow’s game. Nasri and Cesc face late fitness tests, but there’s a rumour that Conor Henderson is in the squad, which would probably mean one of or both of our star midfielders was out. Villa aren’t great away from home, and are on a dodgy run of form, so we should dispose of them easily.
Thomas Vermaelen should start, which will be great to see. We’ve missed him a great deal this season, and I can’t wait to see him appearing for us week in, week out again. And for anyone who’s interested – he’s now on Twitter, under the username T_Vermaelen05.
That’s all for today, I can’t be bothered to cover the glory of both Manchester sides, although in other footballing news, Benik Afobe put in a decent shift for Huddersfield in the playoff semi final first leg. He missed a decent chance, but other than that lacked service.
You see that big Belgian nutter up there?
That’s right – nine months after that puzzling Achilles injury was first sustained, Thomas Vermaelen is back in a senior Arsenal squad.
Last week he made an impressive return to football in a reserve game against Manchester United at Old Trafford; you can see pretty much all of his involvements here. It hadn’t been expected that we would see Thomas back this season after a lot of confusion over his fitness. His return radically changed every few weeks – he went from returning soon to out indefinitely nearly every time Wenger was asked about him.
Now though he is well and truly back, and with the injury to Johan Djourou possibly keeping the Swiss centre-half out of the Stoke game, Vermaelen looks likely to start. The other option in Djourou’s absence would be to pair Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny together in the centre of defence. While individually they’re both pretty good defenders, together they have been an absolute disaster. Since they were unable to cope with Newcastle’s limited aerial threat, playing them together against the Kenwyne Jones’ and Robert Huths of Stoke would be a big mistake in my opinion.
Squillaci has had some success alongside Djourou, but I don’t think he’s suited to our style of play. Similar to the likes of Vidic and Hangeland, he’s a solid defender, but struggles against pace, or generally when playing in a high line. Sadly for Seb that’s the defensive system we employ, so he gets caught out of a few times. I think he gets perhaps a bit of a harsh assessment from Gooners, but a lot of us look for scapegoats and targetted Squillaci, just like Denilson, Eboue and Bendtner had been previously.
Speaking of Bendtner, I’ve been meaning to talk about him and today brings the perfect opportunity. As well as this being the fixture when he scored a beautiful header during his excellent scoring run last season, Arsene has recently said that he wants to keep the big Dane – unlike a lot of Arsenal fans.
As I just mentioned, Nicklas had a superb run in the team when given a chance last season, and scored something like nine goals in eleven games. For a player who gets so much criticism, that’s a big statistic – you can write stats off as much as you want but it’s difficult to write that one off. He kept us in the title race with vital goals against Stoke, Hull and Wolves – two of those being last minute winners – plus some more.
He’ll always have a place in my heart, as his last minute winner against Wolves gave me an experience I’ll never forget. I was at that game, and it ranks up there with the Barcelona win, which I was also at – remember I’m only a youngster so I don’t remember WHL 04, let alone WHL 71!
That run of goals from Bendtner gave us a huge chance at the title, only for us to blow it in the end (through no fault of his, might I add). I can’t remember many times other than that when he’s had a consistent run in the team, and it’s so much easier to play well when you’re playing regularly. Just ask Lukasz Fabianski. His performances were dodgy and error-strewn until he got a run in the team this season, and he was superb. Maybe it’s different for goalkeepers, but I feel the same principles apply.
To sum up, I think we should keep Bendtner, as I think he offers something to the squad, and there are quite a few who contribute a lot less than the big man. As I said earlier in the week, what we need to do is add to the squad, while getting rid of the deadwood, not selling players that still have a role to play here.
That point was made about our captain, when I was explaining why people are silly to demand that we sell him. Well, according to this post on arsenalfanblog, they’re going to get their wish. Apparently Real have had a €45 million offer accepted by the club, but Cesc will turn them down in favour for Barcelona, who look set to be lining up a similar bid of their own. More updates will likely follow on that site, so I guess we’ll see.
Finally, returning to the injury front, Diaby, Nasri and Cesc are definitely out. There’s a suggestion that Cesc’s injury is fake, with information circulating from sources “within the club”. I myself have no sources, but if the reason given (Arsene being unhappy with the recent interview) is true, I’m a little confused, as it’s a bit of a late backlash surely? Still, I suppose we will probably never know for sure, but I’d probably say it was a genuine thigh injury.
As for Nasri, he announced on Twitter that he’ll be out for between 10 days and two weeks. That means he has an outside chance for Aston Villa next week, as Arsene confirmed, and should return for Fulham on the last day, which I’m hoping to get down to Craven Cottage for.
Ramsey should deputise for Cesc again at the ground where he broke his leg back in February of last year. If there are any mental hurdles he didn’t overcome with that goal against United, I’m sure he’ll leap right over them if he gets through this game unscathed. Neither team has much to play for right now, so it shouldn’t be too physical a game, but you never know, as Stoke are a bunch of complete and utter…. cavemen.
That’s it from me today, if you’ll excuse me I have some poetry to write about. Joy… And just before I go, I hit 2,000 views today – thanks to all who have clicked, and I hope you continue to do so! Au revoir.
It’s not often we get good news on the injury front, so let’s savour this moment.
Ahhhh. That’s nice.
Sorry? Oh right, the news!
Well you probably already know; three crucial players in Wojciech Szczesny, Johan Djourou and Alex Song are set to return to action in the vital match against Liverpool. It’s a massive boost to us, and it’ll really give us a helping hand in our efforts to gain another three points at the Emirates. The last time we won there in the league was against Stoke I believe, and that was too long ago.
I’d expect the returning players to slot straight back into the starting line-up, what with cover in those positions being particularly scare in this moment in time. Seeing as our alternatives would be Lehmann, Squillaci and an admittedly improving Diaby, I’d be surprised if Arsene didn’t opt to slot Szczesny, Djourou and Song back into the side.
It has to be said, they’ve been three of our best performers this year. It’s strange – last season we had a few players who had great seasons, and the team played really well. This season, we’ve had loads of great seasons from players, but less success overall.
Perhaps the reason is the players haven’t actually been performing as well as we think. Maybe players like Szczesny, Djourou, Wilshere and Nasri all seem to be playing exceptionally well, when in reality what’s changed is they’ve improved hugely from their previous seasons. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve all done really well, but I don’t think we’ve had anyone on the level that Cesc was on last season.
Anyway, on with things. Thomas Vermaelen is back in full training and is making good progress. Apparently he may play before the end of the season, but I think it would be silly to play him in a match with a lot at stake. What he needs is a proper pre-season to get him back into the swing of things. It’s excellent that he’s recovering, but rushing him back was exactly how he exacerbated his injury. There’s no need to do the same again, especially with Djourou and Koscielny being a fine partnership.
There’s also a picture of the apparent away kit for next season on arsenalinsider.com. Here it is in all its… well, glory’s not really the word…
Most people aren’t keen on it. Some really hate it, some just dislike it. I’m not sure about it, I’d probably need to see some of the players lining up in it to make a proper verdict. The badge is nice, I like the “FORWARD” on the wreath, although it might be a little over the top. As I said it’s quite difficult to judge without seeing the guys playing in it so I’ll reserve proper comment until then. Who knows, it may not even be the real kit! But it seems likely.
Anyway, more will probably follow on here before the Liverpool game – more team news when it comes through maybe. We’re still unsure of whether Sagna will be available, but Rosicky is ruled out for sure. Until then.