Xhaka and Ramsey: Promising

Arsenal and midfield stability are enduring a turbulent time in their relationship. Gone are the days of butterflies filling your stomach with Gilberto Silva and Patrick Vieira dominating the central areas. There definitely wasn’t any fighting when Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini used to roam around together. The security you felt with Mikel Arteta sitting just in front of the back four? Non-existent. You try and spice things up again with a pivot of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, but even though it fixes things for a little while you know it won’t last. Something needed to change.

In Arsene Wenger’s case, that something, was spending £35million on Granit Xhaka. Having initially required some time to settle, the Swiss international has now established himself as first pick in midfield, leaving his team-mates to battle for the single spot beside him. But with injury and AFCON absences forcing his hand, Wenger had to address the Aaron Ramsey shaped elephant in the room. Despite playing his best football for Arsenal in a deeper role, the manager has preferred to use the Welshman’s more natural attacking instincts either behind the striker or out wide in recent times.

However, with no alternative, doubts over Ramsey’s game have been put to one side in hope of him rediscovering his Midas touch, alongside a more metronomic presence that saw him find it originally.

At his best when used as a deep lying playmaker, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to suggest that Xhaka is currently the club’s best passer. When given time to turn, his wand of a left foot can spray diagonal passes to advancing full backs or wingers with laser like precision. But what makes him such a mainstay in the side at present is his ability to find players through the lines. When Arteta lost his battle with fitness, the Gunners lacked a midfielder capable of breaking deep defensive blocks which stalled their progression massively. But Xhaka has already shown a willingness to fizz balls into final third, which offers Arsenal both a smoother offensive transition and more variety in their play.

In contrast, Ramsey thrives when given license to contribute at both ends of the pitch. His incredible engine was evident in the victory over Swansea after covering eight miles during 90 minutes - the furthest distance covered in a Premier League match by any Arsenal player all season. Often criticised for his lack of positional discipline, Ramsey is also timing his forays forward to greater effect, allowing the Gunners to overload the opposition inside their own half instead of bursting towards the box at every opportunity. He also provides something that no other midfielder at the club can on a consistent basis - goals.

Looking at the numbers from the Liberty Stadium, Mesut Ozil could be another reason to stick with this new central midfield set up. Having completed 180 passes between them against Swansea, it’s clear that Xhaka, Ramsey and Ozil enjoyed a balanced share of midfield duties. Not only that, but some of the game’s most frequent passing combinations involved all three players. Ozil to Ramsey (14 times), Ramsey to Ozil (11 times) and Xhaka to Ramsey (10 times). This shows that despite not having played together a great deal, they can play on a similar wavelength with the German just floating around and linking it all together.

Despite the potential for this partnership to grow, some concerns still lie over both players. Earlier I drew reference to Xhaka’s wand of a left foot without mentioning his total lack of a right one. He seems so reluctant to use his weaker side at times that, unless he is in an optimal passing position, the ball will only go backwards. When you combine this with his occasional habit of dallying, teams (Manchester City, PSG and Bournemouth to name a few) have found it easy to press the former Gladbach man and subsequently cut off Arsenal’s passing supply at the source. Going to ground too easily and giving away unnecessary penalties and free kicks is another bad habit he’ll have to curb.

Ramsey’s willingness to make things happen and improvise in the final third make him a great entertainer, but he can frustrate just as easily. The 26-year-old is often guilty of overplaying, perhaps trying an elaborate piece of skill when an easier option is available. He has also developed a strange ability to misplace or over hit simple passes considerably under little pressure, despite his 90% pass completion rate in the Premier League. Another issue that lies with the club as much as it does Ramsey are his hamstrings.

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When fit, it’s clear that the manager will try and fit the Welshman into his teams whenever possible, but it’s difficult to find form when you are fit for three weeks and then out for the following four. Any injury free run would be more beneficial to him than any improvement he can make to his game.

Without pulling up any trees, the Xhaka-Ramsey test has been a fairly successful one. With the team guilty of starting slowly against Preston and Swansea, the pair were much more comfortable after the break in both games and displayed a tactical understanding of how they should work together. It’s likely they will get another chance to prove themselves against Burnley on Sunday, but with the tried and tested Coquelin fit again after his injury, there is no room for error.

In an ideal world this is probably Wenger’s preferred midfield, and while it should be used when Arsenal need to break down smaller sides, better teams could exploit gaps on the counter attack. But with both players offering a well-rounded set of attributes and displaying an eagerness to take on responsibility, it’s down to them to convince the manager that they can perform at a high level consistently. 

Olivier Giroud: Arsenal's Cockroach

It’s often said that cockroaches would be the only living species to survive extreme nuclear fallout. Their simple bodies and slower cell cycles offer resistance to radiation, which is fatal towards beings with more active biological sequences. Olivier Giroud couldn’t be further away from having a ‘simple body’, and while I don’t have his exact anatomical figures to hand, it’s unlikely he’d survive extreme nuclear fallout. But no matter what is thrown at him, whatever alternatives are tried, the Frenchman keeps clawing his way back to find the back of the net with regularity. Arsenal’s very own cockroach.

Throughout Arsene Wenger’s tenure at the club, world class striking talent has become the norm. The likes of Ian Wright, Nicolas Anelka, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry all set an incredibly high standard - even Emmanuel Adebayor was transformed into a 30-goal-a-season forward. Robin van Persie’s departure in 2012 was a tough pill to swallow for Arsenal fans, and Giroud, having finally earned his big money move, would learn quickly that settling in wasn’t an option. Despite originally being signed as an alternative to the Dutchman, first team football came quicker than anticipated.

After a slow start (which included that glaring miss against Sunderland on his debut), you’d do well to find fault in the 30-year-old’s numbers. For someone criticised so often, 60 Premier League goals and 20 assists in 140 appearances is extremely impressive. He’s also scored 13 in the FA Cup, another 13 in the Champions League and two in the League Cup. That’s 85 goals in total, which leaves him 23rd in the list of Arsenal’s all-time top scorers – sandwiched between Robert Pires and Cliff Holton.

Since his arrival in English football, nobody has scored more headed goals than Giroud (21). Not only that, but following his trademark bullet header against Manchester United, he became the club’s leading scorer as a substitute with ten goals. The former Montpellier man is also one of five to score a Champions League hat-trick for Arsenal, in addition to becoming the first ever player to score a brace with his first two touches (vs Sunderland in October). He has made a significant impact in North London regardless of what many think of him.

However, beyond the Frenchman’s evident success as Arsenal’s frontman, the manager has never hidden his craving for attacking fluency. For all his strengths, the Gunners simply cannot play a smooth and flexible game with a 6ft 4in, 90kg focal point ahead of them. Failed pursuits of Luis Suarez in 2013 and Marco Reus in 2016 highlight Wenger’s desire for mobility, with both Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez given license to lead the line over the last 18 months with varying degrees of success. Gervinho was even used as a centre forward due to the threat he posed in behind.

But here we are, approaching 2017, and Giroud is still a valuable member to this squad. His progress has been halted slightly this season thanks to a persistent toe problem, yet in just 128 minutes of football he has found the net four times – that's a goal every 32 minutes. With the boss often seeking an alternative to him in the past, the tables have turned with his aerial presence and ability to hold up play providing a welcome change to the dynamism of Alexis.

Wenger admitted recently that Giroud is not happy sitting on the bench, but took time to praise his mental strength and revealed admiration in how he continuously proves people wrong. ‘Olivier is a guy who is mentally absolutely fantastic,’ he told the club’s official website. ‘He’s strong and every time he’s questioned, he gives you the right answer on the pitch. I admire that in him. He’s a guy who has gone through some difficult questions.’

It’s easy to criticise the players we watch week in, week out because we are privy to every mistake, every misplaced pass and every missed chance. But that also makes it easy to praise players because we get to see what cut and cropped highlight shows don’t give you. For every time he's shanked a simple shot wide, for every counter attack he's slowed down, there’s no denying that Olivier Giroud is a fantastic striker who has proven his worth for both club and country when doubts are repeatedly raised.

It’s easy to forget that this is a guy who has worked his way up from the fifth tier of French football with Grenoble, to playing at the highest level of European football in the Champions League. One thing I’ve always admired about him is that he never hides on the pitch when things aren’t going his way. He rarely shirks media responsibilities, and when he is questioned, will always provide genuine and honest answers about what’s going wrong and how he can improve.

He may not be a Sergio Aguero or a Diego Costa, but few players in Europe can dominate defenders physically like he can, while also having the technical quality to fit in with a squad full of smaller more technically accomplished players. Few have mastered the near post flick as delicately and precisely as him. Whenever menacing soles loiter from above, he’ll take a crunch on his back and struggle a bit before getting back up to do what he does best – score goals. With a few dramatic flicks of his hand along the way, of course. 

Alexis and Walcott: A Perfect Match

I had my reservations about Alexis as a centre forward. I had my reservations about Theo Walcott full stop. But after the demolition of Chelsea and an irresistible 45 minutes against Basel, it seems to be clicking for them both as individuals, but also as a pair.

Despite having all the necessary ingredients to lead the line, Alexis has never quite worked there. His (admirable) desire to be constantly involved works when playing out on the left, but as a frontman he often drops too deep in search of the ball – leaving Arsenal without an outlet further forward or a threat in behind.

Walcott is the polar opposite of the Chilean. His end product has never been in question - averaging a goal or an assist every other game throughout his Gunners career – but he would drift through games with little impact in the team’s overall play and leave his full-back horrendously exposed with half-hearted defensive work.

The one constant here is Arsene Wenger. Managers rarely believe in their players as much as he does, but you wouldn’t have blamed the Frenchman for losing patience with them both. But from day one he always felt Alexis had the qualities to play centrally, with his faith in Walcott unrivalled - even when things weren’t going his way. It looks like he’s finally reaping the rewards of his persistence.

After a quiet start to the season, Alexis looks to have finally understood what Wenger wants from him up top. He can still be at the centre of everything, buzzing around and harassing defenders like a wasp to their favourite soft drink, but his movement into the channels and on the shoulder has improved significantly. The 27-year-old has also learnt how to take care of the ball with his back to goal, while still having the ability to spin away from players in a flash with his trademark turns.

Throughout his career, Alexis has played as a supporting striker for Udinese, on the right for Barcelona and on the left for Arsenal. The education he’s received in those positions has allowed him to combine the best of each role to flourish, not only for himself, but also for the benefit of the team. He can still be guilty of overcomplicating things or trying the spectacular too often, but take that away from his game and you don’t have the same player anymore. Because that’s what Alexis is. Spectacular.

While the team have benefitted from Alexis’ recent performances, nobody is enjoying them more than Walcott who looks to have absorbed the Chilean’s infectious energy and desire. Wenger said in August that Theo was not ‘defensively minded’ enough to play on the right, but already that statement has been quashed emphatically.

Walcott is averaging 1.83 tackles per 90 minutes this season, compared to the 0.25 he was averaging last season. He is also attempting a higher number of interceptions, blocks and clearances, making sure that our perfectly side parted Hector Bellerin is never isolated. His involvement in the build-up is unrecognisable as well with 25 passes per 90 minutes compared to just 11 from last season, and 1.83 successful take-ons opposed to 0.89 in 2015/16.

Theo has always been an intelligent mover off the ball, in terms of knowing what space to vacate and when to vacate it. His best season in an Arsenal shirt came in 2011/12, when Robin van Persie was as brilliant at playmaking as he was goalscoring. When he dropped deep, Walcott would click into gear and use his pace to break defensive lines, coming off the wing with great effect.

It’s no surprise that with Alexis playing centrally and dropping deep in a similar fashion to Van Persie, he’s become effective again rather than struggling against defences who tend to play further back when tasked with dealing with Olivier Giroud.

I still maintain that Walcott is the best finisher at the club, excellent when he has no time to think and improving slowly when he does. It was his all round play that needed a revamp to warrant a regular place in the side, and whatever it was that sparked this revamp has not only made him a regular, but has (for now at least) made him indispensable.

Speaking after the win over Basel, Wenger spoke about Alexis ‘getting stronger in every game’ in his new position and stated that the improvement Walcott has shown is ‘95% down to him’. Whether or not that’s true is an entirely different matter, but what we are seeing is two players who have the desire to constantly improve and work hard to better themselves.

Undoubtedly, striking a balance in the team is getting the best out of everybody. Koscielny and Mustafi are forming an excellent partnership already, while Bellerin and Monreal are as consistent as ever. Cazorla and Xhaka are combining well in the middle, supporting the silky duo of Iwobi and Ozil who gracefully combine to glue together Arsenal's play in the final third.

But it’s Alexis and Walcott who have stolen the limelight, and rightly so due to the confidence and understanding of their new roles. With both players in the peak of their careers, they’re visibly enjoying football again which is bringing out the best in each other – and long may it continue. 

Takuma Asano: The View From Japan

On Sunday morning, Arsenal revealed that 21-year-old forward Takuma Asano will be joining the club from Sanfrecce Hiroshima this summer. The transfer is of course subject to the completion of a medical and regulatory processes, with Arsene Wenger calling him a 'talented young striker and very much one for the future'. I'm down with that. 

But to be honest, I had and still don't have any idea who Takuma Asano is. So I decided to ask Sean Carroll, a freelance football writer for Japan News, for the lowdown on our new signing. You can follow him on twitter here: @seankyaroru

1) Who is Takuma Asano?

He's the latest in a long line of highly-rated Japanese forwards with bags of potential, although yet to play at the very top level. He has, however, delivered in some of the biggest games he has played in, including scoring the winner to seal the J1 title for Sanfrecce Hiroshima in the second leg of the play-off final last year and a brace in the AFC U23 Championship final to take Japan from 2-1 down to 3-2 up over South Korea.

2) What kind of player is he, and why might Arsenal be interested in him?

He is incredibly fast and particularly good at one-on-ones. He is perhaps more of an instinctive finisher though, and is slightly less accurate when he has time to think.

3) What are his strengths and weaknesses?

Pretty much as above: his speed and eye for goal are strengths, but he is still far from the finished article and will need some time and patience.

4) What has the reaction been like in Japan following the transfer confirmation? 

The reaction in the media has been one of excitement, as the Premier League is seen as the highest level of club football here. They love to hype up their talented young players - especially ahead of the Olympics which are an incredibly big deal in Japan. Supporters are of course also pleased on the whole, but many are concerned that the move may be too early, or that he won't get chances to play (although of course he'll be loaned out).

More and more Japanese players are making quick returns home after not making the grade in Europe, and Asano going to such a big club means many within the game here are trying to keep their excitement in check for the time being.

5) Does he have any quirks? An interesting back story, nickname or celebration?

As I'm sure you've read he does a jaguar pose when he scores as he was nicknamed the jaguar by a beat writer who covers Sanfrecce (supposedly because a former teammate was known as the puma, so it was a comparison kind of thing in reference to his pace). He is also one of seven children, the third oldest, with five brothers and one sister.

6) Will he be able to make an impact on the Arsenal first team, or will he need to go out on loan?

He'll have to go out on loan first. Technically there's no reason he couldn't be included in the squad and spend a year or so settling in/playing in the league cup, but he won't qualify for a visa. Also, it will probably be the mental side of the move more so than the technical that will require time for adjustment. Sticking him in front of the notoriously impatient Arsenal fans straight off the bat is unlikely to be beneficial for anyone involved. 

7) Lastly, what are your own personal thoughts on Asano? Does he have the potential to impress in Europe? What do you think his future will hold?

He is a very good player technically and capable of scoring a variety of goals, with pace and power (for a young player he has good physical strength, and despite not being the tallest is also good on the air). I was tipped off about him by a teammate of his (Mihael Mikic) when he was still yet to play in the Sanfrecce first team, while Mikic told me after Asano scored the winner in the J1 play-off final last year that he thought he could go on to become one of the best Japanese players ever. 

He has now been given the opportunity to go on and do that. There are slight question marks over how he'll deal with the mental side of the move - he doesn't speak English, for instance, which will make it tougher - and he cried after missing a late sitter in the recent friendly defeat to Bosnia, suggesting he will need to toughen up if he is to make the grade at the top level. However, he has all the ingredients to be a success if, as I said above, he is given the time and patience to settle in and develop.

So there you have it. Takuma Asano in a nutshell. After the move was confirmed, I saw a lot of people on Twitter (I know) talking about how this is merely a marketing ploy from the club, that we're going to sign nobody and how everything is Wenger's fault again. 

Firstly, I think to dismiss him as a shirt seller is completely disrespectful to him as a professional footballer, and secondly, the guy is only 21! We watched him, we liked him, and we paid a bit of money for him in hope that he might progress into an excellent footballer. If it doesn't work out, then who cares? We'll wish him well and move on. Give the guy a chance! 

Although it's unlikely that we'll see him in Arsenal colours next season, he has been included in Japan's squad for the Olympics so we'll hopefully be able to get a closer look at him there. For all the YouTube scouters out there, this video below is pretty good. Knock yourselves out. 

Thanks again to Sean for his time, and you can follow him on Twitter here: @seankyaroru

Thank you.

I usually like taking a bit of time and effort on my blog posts, even if it is just a blog. I like to do a bit of research, making sure I get all my facts right and presenting it in the best way I can. But it's currently 11:54am on Sunday morning, and I am leaving in just under two hours to watch Arsenal host Aston Villa, and I'm writing this completely off the top of my head - so bear with me. 

In his Friday press conference, Arsene Wenger said that 'we will be losing three big personalities' when asked about the departures of Mikel Arteta, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini. You can say that again. Three excellent servants to the club, each in their own separate ways, who are all set to leave the club this summer as their contracts expire. I'd just like to say thank you. 

Mikel Arteta. Following your potential arrival to the club on Sky Sports News in August of 2011 was an absolute rollercoaster ride. It was on. It was off. We couldn't agree a fee. The boss even denied our interest in you at one stage. But it finally went through with minutes to spare, and I'm so glad it did. 

Thank you for sacrificing your attacking instincts to play that little bit deeper. Thank you for providing a secure foundation which allowed Aaron Ramsey to turn into Ruud Gullit on steroids for those six months. Thank you for being the glue that kept my club in the Champions League in 2012 and 2013. Thank you for that goal against Manchester City.

Thank you for your incredible performances against Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool. Thank you for playing on despite losing your tooth. Thank you for always being a calm and sensible head. Thank you for being a leader. Thank you for your composure from the penalty spot. Thank you for being a model professional. 

I'm sorry your calves gave up on you and that you haven't been able to replicate your clear influence off the pitch on the pitch as much as you'd like. But in my opinion you've been the greatest Arsenal captain post Highbury, and I hope you go and learn tons of shit under Pep so you can come back and boss it for the Arsenal. Thank you, el Capitan. 

Tomas Rosicky. Oh man, the sense of regret I feel over your Arsenal career is ridiculous. I watched you in awe at times during the 2006 World Cup, and despite being injured for a third of your time in North London, the sense of excitement your little ten yard midfield bursts give me are unrivalled. 

Thank you for that screamer against Hamburg. Thank you for performances against Brighton and AC Milan. Thank you for being part of that incredible midfield four in 2007/08. Thank you for that brace against Liverpool. Thank you for your relentless energy. Thank you for your iconic hair that flows ever so beautifully when you run. Thank you for your celebrations. Thank you for using the outside your foot when it's blatantly obvious that using your left would be so much easier. 

Most of all, thank you for hating Tottenham. Thank you for the first 5-2. Thank you for robbing Danny Rose on the half way line and dinking Hugo Lloris. Thank you for twatting one into the top corner at White Hart Lane and drawing a piece of commentary from Martin Tyler that'll stay with me forever. Thank you for understanding what it meant. 

I'm so sorry that your best years were robbed through long term injuries, and that I had to watch your stomach wrenching interview after you got injured against Burnley. I have no doubt that you would have been one of Europe's best players had things been different, but hey, you're loved in Prague, you're certainly loved in Dortmund and you'll always be loved here. 

Mathieu Flamini. You might not be everyone's favourite player, but you've certainly had your moments. 

Thank you for that tackle against Danny Rose about 30 seconds after you came on. Thank you for that rocket against Newcastle. Thank you for your goal against Chelsea that made me lose my voice. Thank you for being Fabregas' bodyguard for a season and killing everything that got within five yards of him. Thank you for also being part of that incredible 2007/08 midfield. Thank you for being Ozil's best mate

Thank you for giving your all at left back in the season that we somehow got to a Champions League final. Thank you for bossing Kaka at the San Siro. Thank you for going to all that trouble cutting your tracksuit bottoms, even though you could've just worn shorts. Thank you for making me wince every time you went in for a tackle. Thank you for always giving your all in our shirt. Thank you for being brought on to shore up the midfield against Everton and then ending up nearly scoring a header in their penalty box ten seconds later. 

I'm sorry that you've often been made an unfair scapegoat, and that passing may not be your strongest quality in a (normally) possession based side. But nobody can deny your commitment to the cause and what you haven't always had in talent, you've made up for in passion, determination and fight. Also, remember you're old mate Phil who's written these few paragraphs when you're out there saving the world and sitting on chairs made out of money. All the best for the future. 

It's a sad day, but hopefully also a day of celebration as we thank you for your services to this great club and I hope you all get the send off's you deserve. (Not that type of sending off, Mathieu). 

Alexis: Back on the Right (Track)

It’s not often you associate a player like Alexis with predictability. A sharp turn here, a step over there, ankle breaking swivels and outrageous pieces of control thrown in from time to time. But between January and March, just like his team, Alexis became something he despises most – easy to stop.

After signing from Barcelona in the summer of 2014, Alexis has played on the left-hand side for most of his Arsenal career. He has stolen many a soul out there, a long list of victims which includes the likes of Lukasz Piszczek, Emre Can and even poor Matteo Darmian who still probably wakes up at night in a cold sweat after the 3-0 demolition of Manchester United at the Emirates in October.

When he’s at his sharpest, you’d do well to find a defender in world football who can stop the Chilean cutting inside and firing one into the top corner. But after returning from a two month layoff, without that extra burst and lacking that seemingly infinite swagger running through his veins, instead of finding a yard of space, all he found were opposition defenders.

But as March came to a close, injury, circumstance and a kick up the arse directed to a couple of the squad's more senior players *cough* Theo Walcott *cough* saw 19 year-old Alex Iwobi come into the side and straight onto the left, with Alexis moving out to the right. A slight tactical tweak that has paid instant dividends to both Arsene and Arsenal.

Playing from the right instead of the left, you give Alexis options. And when you give Alexis options, the predictability that was following him around like a shadow during the early months of the year disappears.

When planted out on the left, Alexis’ reluctance to use his weaker foot means he can only do one thing, and that’s drift in centrally onto his stronger side. But situated on the right hand side, the Chilean has the ability to go either way. If you show him down the line, he will do so and burn the full back. If you force him inside, his interplay with Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Ozil will cause problems in dangerous areas just in front of goal - which no defenders want to see happening. Essentially, there is no ‘wrong option’ for Alexis on the right.

Not only is the 27 year-old flourishing on the right due to the increased variety in his game, but also due to the newly found balance that's been struck in Arsenal’s forward line.

Alex Iwobi, recently brought into the side, offers tranquillity and composure alongside Alexis’ chaos. This season, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott have been played out wide and are either a) too similar to the Chilean or b) have not been good enough, forcing the Chilean to take on greater technical responsibilities than he should be, causing him to over-elaborate (which he doesn't need much encouragement to do anyway). But Iwobi’s silky first touch and surprisingly mature footballing brain allows Alexis to be himself, which is why we’re seeing the best of him. He can play his natural, instinctive game.

Not only has Iwobi made a difference, but so has Danny Welbeck. At both Udinese and Barcelona, Alexis was utilised as a right forward and often as a second striker. His style in Catalonia especially was based on his intelligent movement off the ball, driving towards goal and latching onto slide rule passes in behind the defence. Welbeck’s pace, power and ability to run in behind offers the second wave of Arsenal’s attack a lot more space, and Alexis is constantly getting joy exploiting these gaps time and time again.

It’s no surprise that he has struggled in the past playing behind a far less mobile striker in Olivier Giroud.

After only scoring and assisting once in nine games before his switch to the opposite flank, we’ve now seen the Gunners’ very own Duracell bunny directly contribute to eight goals (five goals, three assists) in his last eight games. Also, despite this season presenting itself as a disappointing one for Alexis, he has actually scored at a slightly better rate in the Premier League this season, as opposed to last.

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The manager spoke in midweek about how the Chilean has looked much more ‘electric’ of late, and whether this brief tactical switch becomes a permanent one, only time will tell. But what we do know, is that another name has been added to his list and hopefully others follow between now and the end of the season, as we continue to watch the Alexis our hearts took in 18 months ago. Sorry James Chester. 

 

A Breath of Fresh Air

William Cowper once said that ‘variety is the spice of life, that’s what gives it its flavour’, a phrase you’d have a hard time disproving. Everyone has a favourite food, but eat that food every day and it won’t be long before you’re sick of it. Music. We’ve all played that song five, fifteen or even fifty times in a row, but eventually you move on until you’re reminded of it two years later after sticking your iPod on shuffle. Wearing the same clothes, working the same job for a number of years, never decorating a room – there comes a time where it all becomes a bit stale.   

This season, whether it be down to injury, others not taking their opportunities or just a feeling of ‘we’ve been here before’, Arsenal have gone through the early stages of 2016 lacking identity and energy. It’s all just been a bit stale. However, with the side in its worst way approaching March, three faces have come in with a spark, a freshness and an enthusiasm, like a breath of fresh air.

Mohamed Elneny, a £5m signing from FC Basel during the January transfer window, was virtually unknown to the majority of England as YouTube compilations blew up and the desire for scouting reports intensified. He scored a screamer in the Europa League and he’s got great hair. So what? Mr Cheapo himself, Arsene Wenger, lacking ambition and accepting mediocrity (that’s how it goes right?) yet again.

Not quite! The Egyptian has taken very little time to settle in London, helping to restore the balance of the side with Aaron Ramsey briefly reverting back to the right, not to mention his incredible stamina and care in possession which have gone a long way in filling an ironically large Santi Cazorla shaped hole in midfield. Already averaging a 91% pass completion rate and with 13 interceptions to his name, Elneny has been the superglue that the broken pivots in the centre have craved since November. Let’s just hope his shooting is more Barcelona than Burnley in the future.

It would also be an understatement to say that Arsenal have struggled for goals over the past few months. While Theo Walcott’s early displays as a central striker bore promise, his technical limitations and anonymity throughout matches has seen him fall largely out of favour. Olivier Giroud, prolific until January has also seen his confidence in front of goal shattered after only scoring two goals in 15 appearances since bagging a brace at Anfield. Step forward Danny Welbeck, who after ten months out with bone bruising to the knee, has slotted back in as if he were never away.

Welbeck’s goals against Manchester United and Watford, although in vain, highlighted his considerable penalty area presence, while his well taken goal against Everton at Goodison Park put a few concerns about his finishing momentarily aside. Who knows how crucial his late winner against Leicester could prove to be as we approach the season finale?

A static and predictable front line now has a player in Welbeck who can use his impressive physique to hold the ball up and drop deep to link the play in midfield, but also offer the side the ability to play on the counter, with strong running and intelligent movement in behind – particularly on the flanks. The fact that he has quickly become so important tells you a lot about our fortunes going forward of late, but thankfully, rustiness has not been an issue as his rehabilitation goes from strength to strength.

Finally, everybody loves a youth product don’t they? Someone you can brand your own, in a culture of spending for those exotic names from abroad. Someone you can identify with. Someone ingrained with the culture and the history of the club. Step forward, Alex Iwobi. Did you know he’s the nephew of former PSG and Bolton player Jay-Jay Okocha? It hasn’t been mentioned much.

According to Arsene Wenger, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough, and after Nicolas Anelka, Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere and Hector Bellerin before him – Iwobi has been the latest youngster to grab a first team opportunity with both hands. Starting in the absence of Mesut Ozil against Sunderland, Burnley and Hull, the low socked teenager did not look out of place, with his assured first touch, calmness on the ball and deceptive speed impressing not only the home crowd, but his manager. Never looking rushed and often making the right decisions, these are skills which are found on a seasoned veteran rather than on the shoulders of a player only just promoted to the first team.

His confident performance at the Nou Camp saw him earn a Premier League debut against Everton, in which his 86 minutes on the field were topped off with a debut goal and plaudits aplenty. It’s always difficult to tell with young players who burst onto the scene if they will have it in them to maintain their form, as opposition managers and defenders will now know to plan around them. But with his silky stride, an impressive awareness of those around him and an evident work ethic, Iwobi has demanded creative responsibility and delivered when called upon, which can only excite us for the future.

Unlike most, I will not call Olivier Giroud not good enough, I will not demand that Theo Walcott be shot, or Aaron Ramsey be sold on the back of a patchy season. But the truth is, when we really needed them to step up, they haven’t done so. It’s not just those three, with the whole team (bar Ozil, Cech and Monreal) deserving of the blame. However, as we know so well in football, when one door closes, another one opens and Elneny, Welbeck and Iwobi more than deserve their first team places at the moment.

Arsenal are exciting to watch again, and hopefully the desire for those who have lost their places to earn them back will breed competitiveness throughout the squad. Because despite the Champions League and the FA Cup unfortunately being beyond us, there are still 24 points up for grabs and we need those hungriest out on the pitch battling for every single one of those until they can do so no longer. 

The Week That Was Arsenal #6

I'm sure you've all snapped back to reality, and oh, yep, there goes gravity. Eminem lyrics aside, January is well and truly here, and with January comes all of its wet, horrible greyness. Work, routines, depressingly dark mornings, not to mention the scattered remains of New Years' resolutions that just ten days ago seemed all so inspiring. Ah, January. But enough of that! It's Monday, which means that another seven days of Arsenal related goodness have passed. How about we dive into that, eh? 

In a change of scenery from the emotionally and physically exhausting Premier League, it was time to defend our FA Cup again. The last time we lost in the competition was in February 2013, to Championship side Blackburn. I was there. Gervinho missed a one on one. Colin Kazim-Richards scored. Dark days. Thankfully, everything has changed for the better and we're now 14 games unbeaten since! 

As usual, there has been discussion about how the FA Cup doesn't mean as much as it used to, or that the 'big teams' don't take it as seriously bla bla bla. But in an interview this week, the boss was keen to dismiss those claims. "We want to win every competition in which we participate and the FA Cup is one of them. For us it is an important competition and it's our next game, so that's important as well." So there you go. It's bollocks, just as it is every year. 

Fun Fact: If we were to win the FA Cup again this year, we would be the first side to win it three times on the spin since Blackburn Rovers in the 1880s. 

Come Saturday, we welcomed Sam Allardyce (again) and his Sunderland side (again) to The Emirates (again). After an awkward 3-1 victory against them in the Premier League a few weeks back, they were back again to try and cause an upset. In terms of our team news, Gabriel, Kieran Gibbs, Calum Chambers, Joel Campbell and Alex Iwobi all came into the side, with Mesut Ozil finally getting a rest! Mikel Arteta also made a return to the bench, alongside #TheJeff and Chris Willock, who at 17 and 16 respectively are disgustingly young and I'm not having any of it. Nope. 

After an understandably scrappy start to the game due to the rotation from both sides, we fell behind in the 17th minute. After Gibbs did well to dispossess the annoyingly effective Watmore, he decided to drop the ball back to Koscielny who was caught dallying on the ball by Lens. The Dutch winger created a bit of space for himself and whacked a shot past Cech at his near post to make it 0-1. Perhaps Gibbs could've just lumped it clear, but it was a mistake from Koscielny and a completely avoidable goal to concede.

Thankfully, we were only behind for 8 minutes as Iwobi found Walcott on the left hand side, before he dipped past Yedlin and cut back a smart left footed cross for Campbell to run onto and tuck away excellently into the corner to level things up. The Costa Rican has really stepped up of late, and looks to be a real goal threat coming off the right wing which can only be an advantage for us as we look to maximise the potential of our squad in these sorts of games.

We had chances in the second half, with Iwobi and Campbell both having shots saved by their keeper, before Oxlade-Chamberlain was really unlucky to see his shot come off the post as Walcott thrashed at the rebound. Sunderland also hit the woodwork through Fletcher, but it would be our hispanic connection down the right hand side which would put us ahead. 

As the game began to enter a bit of a lull, Ramsey and Arteta were brought on for Chambers and Iwobi, with the Welshman making an almost instant impact. Campbell’s beautifully worked one-two allowed the perfectly sculpted cheekbones of Hector Bellerin to get in behind, and his low cross found Ramsey who tucked it away on his left. Just three minutes later, the right back was involved again after he was freed down the right after a smart Oxlade-Chamberlain pass, and after waiting for Giroud's back post run he slid the ball right into the Frenchman's stride for him to make it three.

All in all, and bar the early scare, it was a very comfortable win for us. I thought Gabriel and Gibbs came into the back four and were solid throughout, with a very young midfield of Oxlade-Chamberlain, Chambers and Iwobi broadcasting a nice blend of strength, drive and composure - all traits welcomed in the centre of the park. It was also nice to see Arteta last 20 minutes of football with his calves still intact, in addition to a cameo from #TheJeff at the end, who could've even had a goal himself had his first touch been a little better after Oxlade-Chamberlain tried to put him through. 

Undoubtedly our men of the match were Bellerin and Campbell, who seem to have formed a lovely partnership down the right of late. A bit of a slow burner after his recent groin problem, Bellerin was back to his speedy best on Saturday, always looking like a threat going forward as well as looking assured defensively. A special mention to Campbell, who has grown into the role impressively since that afternoon at Swansea, taking a real creative responsibility in the absence of Ozil. He looks so confident right now, and his hard working yet productive style has gained him a deserved place in the side. Could he be a Coquelin 2.0?

Also, a quick word on The Ox who I thought was much better yesterday. There were one or two moments where he was guilty of trying too hard, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. I do wonder if he'll ever score again though! 

In other news, after 'complications' with work permit/visa issues, it looks like we will finally be ready to announce the signing of Mohamed Elneny from Basel this week, who I scouted for The Mirror if you'd like to have a quick read up on him. A welcome addition to the side, and I'm sure he'll give everybody a nice boost as we head into a season defining period both domestically and in Europe. Nacho Monreal is also close to agreeing a new contract according to Wenger, who said that "it’s not over the line completely but we’re not far". Good news, because Nacho is great. We love Nacho. 

The FA Cup draw is also being done later on today, and we could get a variety of teams from Oxford United or Shrewsbury, to Burnley or Crystal Palace. So naturally, I'll be looking forward to Manchester City away. We've got a huge game on Wednesday away to Hamstring FC, followed by another away trip to Stoke which is always a tough one. I know they've actually got some footballers in their side now, but they'll still be up for it and so will their fans. Obviously I'd love to win both games, but 4/6 points come Sunday evening and I will not complain at all. Let's do it. 

Till next week. 

You can follow me on Twitter here. (@CostAFC_)

The (Christmas Period) That Was Arsenal #5

The Christmas Period. England’s most grueling, unforgiving, knackering fixture schedule across the whole season. Four games in twelve days. Home and Away. Only the strongest will survive. And to be fair, the Arsenal did alright. Instead of going by the usual format of these weekly (hah!) series that I do, I will be going over a few talking points which have risen over the festive season, breaking them down and giving my thoughts on our title winning chances. As usual, thank you so much for reading and I hope you don’t want to throw a chair at me by the time you reach the end.

Arsenal in the Big Games: After our move to The Emirates, there's no denying that bar a special result here or there, we were pretty hopeless against the top clubs. This was down to a multitude of different reasons, most of which I do not have time to go into detail, but it wasn't good. But something changed at The Etihad twelve months ago, and we have now taken 13 out of a possible 15 points from this season's top six, in addition to wins over Liverpool and Bayern Munich elsewhere in 2015. 

After our 2-1 win against Manchester City a fortnight ago, Per Mertesacker gave us some small insight into why we may be performing better in these 'big games'. 

“We are capable of doing different things sometimes and that is what makes it harder for the opponent. That is why we implement it in games sometimes but we are still dangerous on the counter-attack and that makes us a real threat.

“Last season we played at Manchester City and showed a different kind of gameplan. That is what we had in the locker already but this year we are more consistent and it makes us a bit better as a unit. That is what we are doing really well at the minute but that means a lot of concentration and work in training, and everyone is up for the challenge.

There is a new found steel in this side. There is experience in this side. There is a Plan-B in this side. There is an ability to work hard and dig deep in this side, which is now bearing fruit. We have winners in Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech who have all helped to change the mentality of the club - which now has supporters and players on the same wavelength. A wavelength which maybe hasn't been there in the past, which can only be encouraging. 

Mertesacker vs Gabriel: The BFG took a little while to adapt to the pace of the Premier League, but once he cracked it, he's been an ever present in our back four providing leadership, communication and a big aerial threat. Gabriel, on the other hand arrived in January 2015, and has a much more obvious defensive style. He's all action, aggression, with lightning pace and a killer mentality. A fantastic find. So who should start? 

Laurent Koscielny of course. But who partners him? Well I've taken to everybody's favourite statistical comparison matrix to try and answer that exact question. (Believe me, I'm no evil number wizard, this is just a very, very, very brief way of differentiating the two). 

  • Pass Completion: PM (90%) vs GP (90%)
  • Tackles Won per 90 Minutes: PM (1.2) vs GP (1.5)
  • Aerial Duels Won: PM (72.92%) vs GP (62.50%)
  • Fouls Committed per 90 Minutes: PM (0.33) vs GP (0.25)
  • Interceptions per 90 Minutes: PM (1.47) vs GP (3.25)
  • Blocks per 90 Minutes: PM (0.33) vs GP (0.12)
  • Clearances per 90 Minutes: PM (5.20) vs GP (5.25)

As you can see, despite most Arsenal fans thinking that Mertesacker is the lovechild of Sebastien Squillaci and Mikael Silvestre, there really isn't much separating the two on a very basic level. As a top club, you need three or four solid centre back options and we have that. Both have their own qualities, and will be used to suit different games, as well as for rotational purposes throughout the season. Gabriel has the ability to dovetail with either Mertesacker and Koscielny, while the gangly German brings a calm and commanding presence to our side along with Petr Cech. Enjoy them both. 

#Chambers4DM: After the injuries to Coquelin, Cazorla and Arteta, we were left down to the barest of bones in terms of our midfield options. The most obvious pairing to guide us forward until January at least was Flamini and Ramsey, which was used in five matches (five wins) throughout December. After three games in less than a week, some rotation against Bournemouth allowed Calum Chambers to come in for Flamini as the holding midfielder. to answer that exact question. 

On November 24, 2015, the boss gave an interview stating why he believed that Chambers could have a future in the middle. “He has been educated as a central midfielder. He has a big stature, good technique, good vision as well. He has played in defensive positions so I think he can develop in the future in a position like defensive midfield. He has the stamina, the power and the quality to be a central midfielder.”

Similar to Mertesacker in the fact that he isn’t the quickest player around, Chambers’ intelligent positioning throughout the game rarely forced him into making any rash or unnecessary challenges. By preferring to stay on his feet, this allowed him to use his assured reading of the game as his principal method of cutting out attacks. His three interceptions, seven ball recoveries and four blocks combined with the fact he only committed two fouls, showed how diligently he defended throughout.

Not only was the former Southampton man impressive in his defensive work, he was also tidy and composed in possession. Despite the preference to keep his distribution simple, Chambers still managed to complete 53 out of his 59 passes, exhibiting a variety of short passes and cross field diagonals, in addition to executing slick one and two touch flicks with an equal measure of comfort.

Yes, he hasn't played much of late, and yes, it was only Bournemouth, but when you consider that he’s still only 20, it's easy to share Wenger’s optimism about his future at the club. Hopefully we'll see a bit more of him in the second half of the season because there's definitely a player ready to blossom there. 

The form of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: After bursting onto the scene in late 2011, Oxlade-Chamberlain has been a fan favourite at Arsenal thanks to his refreshingly direct playing style and bubbly personality best seen on the club’s social media outlets. After a few hit and miss seasons due to a mixture of inconsistent form and injuries, it was widely expected that the 22 year-old would finally nail down a position in the starting eleven for the 2015/16 season, thus allowing him to build on his undoubtedly massive potential. A cracker of a goal in our Community Shield win over Chelsea in August put substance behind the claims, but it hasn’t quite worked out for him since.

We've now sped into January, and despite a number of injuries to our attacking options, Oxlade-Chamberlain remains on the fringes with Joel Campbell the unlikely beneficiary to his recent slump in form. He knows it's not quite working for him. The manager knows it's not quite working for him. We know it's not quite working for him. So how about we litter his Twitter and Instagram feeds with abuse? My... it's.... it's... Genius! Honestly, I cannot get over how stupid people can be sometimes. 

The Ox plays for Arsenal. We, as Arsenal fans want Arsenal to do well. Abusing players breeds nervousness and a lack of confidence which doesn't help Arsenal. Supporting players breeds hard work and drive, even if things aren't going well, allowing players to play their way back into form and help Arsenal. It's simple math. There is no denying that he hasn't been at the standard required of late, and to play in this side you need to be consistently performing - which he hasn't been doing. But we've literally got two players on our doorstep in Ramsey & Coquelin who have turned it around against the odds, so just leave him and Wenger to try and do that, pretty please?

Our Title Chances: Can we win the title? Of course we can. Somebody brilliantly tweeted a little while ago that Arsenal are more of a threat to Arsenal than Manchester City or Leicester. And it's so true. After 20 games, we sit two points clear at the top of the Premier League table which is fantastic considering how we started on August 8th. I think the key for us right now, is to take each game as it comes, one by one. We have a massive January ahead with trips to Liverpool and Stoke, not to mention Chelsea at the end of the month who now look to be improving after the toxicity of Mourinho has been cleared. 

Injuries. Every team gets injuries, but the rate and severity in which ours appear is ridiculous. I said it after the window shut that I could understand Wenger not buying an outfield player this summer, and that's because our squad is talented, cohesive and stronger than others would have you believe. If we keep our injuries down to a minimum, in addition to getting our injured players back (RIP Danny Welbeck), then we can win the league. Every team has blips, and boy did we have one against Southampton, but we are generally consistent and at the end of the day that is what is rewarded.

It looks like the signing of Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Elneny from Basel will be confirmed sooner rather than later, and I'll be writing something on him later on this week so keep your eyes out. Here's a little video on him if you fancy some YouTube scouting. 

I know it was a long one today, but kudos to you if you made it this far. Till next week. 

You can follow me on Twitter here. (@CostAFC_)

The Week That Was Arsenal #4

7th-13th December

Doing this series every week has made me extremely conscientious of time and how quickly it passes. I mean, this already my fourth installment. When did that happen? There are 11 days until Christmas. ELEVEN. How did THAT happen?! The great Geoffrey Chaucer once said, 'time and tide wait for no man', and while you try to interpret a deep and soulful meaning from that, he's basically saying time carries on going and you can't do anything about it. Now there's a jolly thought to start your week!

After a disjointed three points against Sunderland last weekend, we travelled to Greece with one objective in mind: Progressing into the knockout stages of the Champions League. Normally we play Olympiakos in a dead rubber, where the youngsters have a chance to impress with our qualification already sealed. Not this time. Our two early defeats in the group put us in a difficult situation, but we knew the deal. Win 2-0, or by any scoreline other than 1-0 or 2-1. It was clear what we had to do, it was just a case of choosing how we went about it.

In his pre-Olympiakos press conference, Wenger was keen to echo this point, saying “There is one positive thing for us – we know exactly what we have to do. We know that we have to go for it from the start. So let’s do that and hopefully we can get through. We know what is expected of us.”

Fast starts were the theme of the day, with Mesut Ozil adding “If we score an early goal, I’m confident that we can win this game and go through. We know that we have a lot of quality up front, but our goal is to go into half-time ahead and then we will know that everything is possible.” And I don’t know about you, but if Mesut says we can do it, we can do it.

And boy did we do it. Initially, our start to the game was quite unconvincing, and we definitely didn’t live up to the fast start that the boss was talking about earlier on in the week. We were far too open in the centre of midfield, and some long range shots from the home side got their fans behind them very quickly. Not that the Greeks need much encouragement anyway.

However, Wenger tweaked a few things, more notably swapping Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell around which seemed to improve the balance of the side instantly. It was the Costa Rican who set up Flamini after 25 minutes whose shot unluckily deflected onto the bar, but it wasn’t long after that where we deservedly took the lead.

Ozil turned in midfield when he had absolutely no right to, and caressed the ball perfectly to find Aaron Ramsey loitering in the left hand channel, taking three Olympiakos defenders out of the game in the process. The Welshman then crossed with his left, Olivier Giroud made great contact with his head, and via a lucky bounce off the goalkeeper – there it was. The breakthrough. The timing could not have been better and you could feel the tension flowing through the stadium.

The second came just after half time, after Giroud won and held the ball up brilliantly in midfield. He then played it to Ozil, who lobbed a lovely pass over to Campbell who controlled expertly on his thigh, dragged it back, and played an incisive reverse pass straight into the stride of Giroud, who finished low and hard past the keeper. Ozil was Ozil, Giroud was Giroud and Campbell again impressed when given his opportunity. 

2-0 was what we needed to go through, and we had it. But in the context of progression, it was a bit more complicated than that. One Olympiakos goal would see them go through instead; one more Arsenal goal would mean they had to score three times to qualify. Do we stick or twist? It's not easy. 

Again, it was a bit nervy with Petr Cech having to make an acrobatic save to push a shot around his post, and there was a scrambly moment when Ideye was left free in the area but thankfully miscontrolled before we had time to clear. Down the other end, a Nacho Monreal shot was blocked by an Olympiakos hand in the box, and Arsenal had the chance to seal the deal. 

Giroud was the image of composure sending the goalkeeper the wrong way, and with that, he had his first hat-trick for the club. Olympiakos knew the game was over after that, but I did enjoy Pardo trying to hurry Walcott off the pitch when he was being substituted, despite diving for the entirety of the match beforehand. After the game, Wenger was delighted with the performance of the team: "It is a fantastic achievement for us. When you look at who we’ve lost in the last three weeks, we’ve lost Coquelin, Cazorla and Alexis among other long-term injuries, not many people gave us a chance. We are a real team. In the dressing room this team is very close and you could see that again today." Too right. 

After our excellent victory in Piraeus, it was up to Birmingham on Sunday where we took on Aston Villa who sat rock bottom of the table. The starting eleven was unchanged from midweek, despite rumours of Ozil having a calf issue before the game. 

After dominating the ball in the early stages, a Flamini pass set Walcott free down the left, and after getting on the wrong side of Alan Hutton he was blatantly pulled down in the area. Kevin Friend took a while to make the decision, but it was the right one and Giroud buried the penalty, sending the keeper the wrong way just like he did on Wednesday. A different game this time, but I'm sure the boss appreciated the early goal! That was our handsome Frenchman's 50th Premier League goal in 113 matches, becoming the third quickest Arsenal player to reach that tally behind Thierry Henry and Ian Wright. Not bad for £12m! 

After the goal we continued to dominate possession, with Ramsey, Ozil and Giroud flicking the ball around nonchalantly, making it look easy at times. Those three built a wonderful understanding with eachother early on in the 2013/14 season, and now with Ramsey back in the centre it looks like this trio could be flourishing again which is extremely encouraging. 

Our second was a thing of beauty, breaking from one end of the pitch to the other in a matter of seconds. Ramsey, who was again everywhere, dispossessed Gueye on the edge of our area, and just like that we had four players sprinting forward. Ramsey to Ozil, Ozil to Walcott, Walcott back to Ozil, Ozil to Ramsey - goal. Granted, Villa defended the situation horribly, but we were quick, strong, and clinical, and in complete control at that stage. 

The second half wasn't quite as comfortable as the first, with our legs tiring and Villa looking to press on as the home team. They had a few chances through Gestede and Sinclair heading off target, as well as Bacuna looping a shot just over the bar. But we weathered the brief storm, and never looked like conceding after that. In fact, we had chances to nick it on the break at the end but our final ball was poor. 

After the game, the manager was happy with the performance, as well as the three points. “I’m very proud and happy of the spirit we show. There’s a strength and togetherness coming out of the team that people feel and that’s the biggest satisfaction." He also admitted that we were a bit leggy in the second half, before finishing with "It’s been a great week - Sunderland, Olympiakos and today. We’ve scored eight goals and I think it was a fantastic week. I would like to give credit to the team for their mental approach to the games.”

I thought last weeks results were kind to us, but the footballing gods are obviously paying us back with interest after all those injuries. Manchester United and Spurs both lost to Bournemouth and Newcastle respectively, Liverpool could only manage a draw at home to West Brom and Leicester play Chelsea later on tonight. (We all want Leicester to win, right?) We won't talk about City and their ridiculously jammy last minute winner. Top of the league with 16 games played, seven crocked players, progressing in Europe by the skin of our teeth - it could be a lot worse! Three wins on the trot was just what the doctor ordered. 

You cannot call what’s going to happen in the Premier League this season, and it is so, so refreshing. Granted, the ‘top clubs’ have failed to find consistency throughout the opening months, but I’m not buying the 'standard of the league is decreasing', or that 'nobody wants to win the league' rubbish being spouted by various journalists and pundits of late. Everybody wants to win the league, and maybe it’s time to accept that thanks to huge TV revenues being piled into the English top division, the ‘lesser clubs’ can spend well on a higher calibre of player, thus allowing them to become more competitive, no? Anyway. That's one for another day. 

In other news, the Champions League draw is happening this morning, and we can get:

  • Barcelona
  • Real Madrid
  • Atletico Madrid
  • Wolfsburg
  • Zenit

I think we could have a great chance against any of those sides, but obviously Barcelona are the strongest, so naturally, I'm thoroughly looking forward to seeing Messi, Neymar, Suarez & Co at the Emirates come February. (We got Barcelona, because, of course we did). 

Till next week. 

You can follow me on Twitter here. (@CostAFC_)

 

 

The Week That Was Arsenal #3

30th November-6th December

I hate November. Well, I hate November as an Arsenal fan. Two points from nine. Miserable. Having said that, every team goes through a sticky patch and I’d rather we had ours now and still lingered around the top, than to have it in March and drop like a stone after competing for the majority of the season. But have no fear, December is here! A new month, all chilly and festive with the smell of mulled wine and Amazon next day delivery in the air. Gotta love it.

After back to back away games in the Premier League, it was time to welcome Sam Allardyce’s Sunderland to the Emirates. The world champion gum chewer is never fun to play against, with his Bolton, Blackburn and West Ham sides all giving us trouble in the past, and this weekend was going to be no different. Not to mention they were coming to us full of confidence after two wins in their last two games. You know the drill, they sit back and defend with eleven men behind the ball hoping to catch us on the break. We’ve been here before, we’ll certainly be here again, but at home it’s on us to break defences like this down.

In his pre-Sunderland press conference, Wenger shared his views on our poor form of late “We have gone through a spell taking two points in three games, yet we are still only two points off the top. The whole pack is tight and compact, but we are still in there.” He then stated that this could be one of the most even title races for years. “Every game is difficult for everybody. It is down to consistency. I am convinced we will respond very well.”

After losing Koscielny, Cazorla and Alexis to injury last weekend, there was also some news on that front. “I don’t know when they’ll be back. Sanchez is a hamstring, but he’s usually a quick one. Cazorla we wait to see the specialist.” Injuries at Arsenal have become the norm now, and it’s just something we have to live with until we figure out what the hell is going on.

Something that did spark some debate was Alexis’ twanged hammy, with the boss coming under serious fire for what was seen as an avoidable one. However, he came back with a very Wenger response when asked about it during the week. “Sanchez is adamant he felt fine. If I have to take the blame I do. It was not an obvious mistake. We have tests. We have medical tests. We are quite sophisticated in testing our players. I had a chat with Sanchez after the game. We test them every week.”

You’ve had a chat with the player, he says he’s fine (although I’m pretty sure that Alexis would still say he’s fine with the bubonic plague). You’ve done the medical tests, the player looks fine. So you play him. The result doesn’t go your way and all is wrong with the world. If he started on the bench against Norwich and we drew, there would have been pelters for Wenger underestimating Norwich and not going for the title properly by not using his best available players. It’s a difficult one. Although I do feel that the Chilean playing the full 90 against Dinamo Zagreb was a bizarre decision.

Anyway. Back to Sunderland. The starting eleven saw two changes from the draw at Norwich, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain coming in for Alexis and Joel Campbell coming in for Cazorla. Big opportunities for the likes of Aaron Ramsey, who was getting his chance in the centre after pleading to Arsenal Player for months now about starting on the right, with Oxlade-Chamberlain and Campbell, who due to injuries have chances to nail down a place in the starting eleven.

After a cagey start to the game, we were somehow opened up in the first few minutes, but with Fabio Borini in the clear and bearing down on goal he rushed his finish a bit and put it straight into Cech’s body. An early warning sign. From then on when dominated the ball, but weren’t able to do much with it apart from Aaron Ramsey shooting just wide. We looked like a nervous team hit with injury, but that didn’t stop the goal machine that is Joel Campbell putting us ahead in the 33rd minute. His run was good, and the genius that is Mesut Ozil found him with a perfectly weighted pass from his wand of a left foot as he slotted the ball through Pantillimon’s legs.

I mentioned last week how we could do a lot worse than Campbell for a fourth or fifth choice option, and you can say what you want but he’s scored two goals now in this brief cameo and he might be building a case for himself after a season on the fringes. Bet he’s glad he didn’t get out while he could, now.

Olivier Giroud. Olly, Olly, Olly. He’s always the centre of attention somehow, bless him. The big man was fairly anonymous throughout – but to be fair it’s not easy when you’re alone against three giant centre backs all afternoon. That being said, the ball wasn't sticking with him, those clever first-time flicks weren't coming off and his poor first half was topped off by an own goal just before the break. It was just awkward, and his reluctance to use his right foot came back to bite him in the arse, as his attempted clearance became a typical Giroud goal – just at the wrong end.

Still, our handsome Frenchman can come off as mentally fragile but I think he's got a lot going for him in that department as he atoned for his error with half an hour to play. Ramsey’s cross was brilliant, as was Giroud’s run and headed finish into the bottom corner. That's now ten for the season, and awesome stat alert: Since joining Arsenal in the summer of 2012, Giroud has netted 17 headed goals in the Premier League, more than any other player. 

Back in his favoured central role, Ramsey was all over the pitch showing endless energy to either create something for himself or for his teammates. It was his first start in a month after that hamstring injury he sustained against Bayern Munich, and granted, a few passes went astray, but you can't complain with a goal and an assist in what was a promising day's work. What I love about Ramsey is that he always wants the ball, and even when he had his awkward spell in 2012 he never hid on the pitch - which is always a key quality in a midfielder. 

The third goal was incredibly scrappy, but it was a reminder of what he can offer running from deep positions, with a goalscoring instinct that very few players in this side can boast. 

Elsewhere, can we talk about Petr Cech please? He saved our bacon on more than one occasion and he was as crucial as anybody on the pitch in winning those three points. He saved well from that early one on one, but he also prevented a Flamini own goal after some more awkward defending. He was commanding in the area, constantly communicating with the team, and made one brilliant reflex save on the line from Steven Fletcher. Thanks Jose!

Slightly worryingly, Duncan Watmore found himself through on goal after springing the offside trap but finished poorly, and with the scoreline at 2-1, Bellerin lost Patrick van Aanholt on the right hand side only for him to fire over the bar. The collective sigh of relief after that inside the ground was quite something. 

There is obviously still work to be done as we find our balance again with this new midfield partnership, but Sunderland created more than enough chances to come away with something from the match which is obviously not what you want to see. Still, three points are three points, and at the end of the day nobody cares how we got them as long as we got them - especially when those around us didn't. 

Unfortunately, we know now that Alexis’ will be out for around four weeks whilst Cazorla looks set to be out for four months with ligament damage which is a big blow. We’ll miss Alexis dearly over the hectic Christmas period, and we’ll definitely miss Coquelin and Cazorla over the coming months as we look to put a serious challenge in for the title. I’d be shocked if we didn’t spend some money in January.

A big three points, and now a couple of days rest before a huge game in Greece against Olympiakos - where our Champions League future hangs in the balance. I'm hopeful that we can pull off the result required over there, but, and I feel a bit weird saying this, if we don't - I wouldn't mind too much. Get the kids some game time in the Europa League *cough* The Jeff *cough*, and put everything into the Premier League. Everyone's a bit crap this year and it's there for the taking. 

Till next week. 

You can follow me on Twitter here. (@CostAFC_)

The Week That Was Arsenal #2

23rd-29th November. 

Another week has passed, as have two Arsenal matches! Hoping to put our West Brom woes behind us, we welcomed Dinamo Zagreb to The Emirates on Tuesday, followed by an awkward trip to Carrow Road on Sunday. Both of these games were important in their own right, one, with our Champions League future in the balance, and two, hopefully being able to keep our noses in and around the Premier League title race. It doesn't help that we have about seven players fit at the moment. 

In his pre-Dinamo press conference, Wenger shared his views from our loss in Zagreb two months previous. “We were unlucky on the day as we played with ten men but we should have got a better result.” However, he insisted that despite the obvious difficulties, the team were itching to keep their Champions League hopes alive. “The players like to compete at the top, and we have the ability in the squad to do that.”  

And on Tuesday night, the ability he was talking about was there for all to see. The starting eleven was unchanged from the loss at West Brom, bar Joel Campbell coming in for Kieran Gibbs. I think some praise is due here for everyone's favourite Costa Rican (he may not be everyone's favourite Costa Rican), who passed the ball confidently, tracked back well throughout, and provided a gorgeous reversed pass assist for our third goal. The 23 year-old hasn't had it easy at Arsenal, but he's worked hard, remained professional and we could do a lot worse for a fourth or fifth choice right winger. 

Campbell aside, undoubtedly the stars of the show were our two most expensive players - Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. After a fairly tepid opening half hour, a lovely move fashioned from deep inside our own half was finished off with a diving header from Ozil, via a perfect Alexis cross. Who'd have thought it, eh? We play some wonderful, intricate one touch football at times, but there's something so satisfying about watching a lightning quick counter attack resulting with the ball in the back of the net. Ya. Mesut. Ya. 

From that moment on, our tails were up, and our lead was doubled a few minutes later. Some 'questionable' Dinamo defending allowed the hero that is Nacho Monreal to pounce on a loose ball, who subsequently squared it for Alexis to calmly side-foot home. It was all happening. Tricks, flicks, one-two's, Chilean Jesus neck controlling... It was brilliant. Granted, the opposition weren't of the highest standard, which makes it even more frustrating that we didn't beat them first time around, but when we're in full flow like that it's delicious to watch. Thankfully I did just that, live! 

The third and final goal was scored again by Alexis, who lost his markers with some clever movement inside the box, rounded the keeper after latching onto Campbell's Ozil-esque through ball to tap into the empty net. Overall, it was a good win, matched with Bayern doing us a favour and demolishing Olympiakos at The Allianz (shock), and now our task is simple. We must beat the Greek side 2-0. Or 3-1. Or 4-2. Or 4-3! Or... Basically we have to win by two clear goals, or by one clear goal with a scoreline of 3-2 or higher. 

You'll all be pleased to know that we've lost all of our last three matches away in Piraeus, but speaking after the game, Wenger was there to give us all a hug and make everything better. "Sometimes when we played at Olympiakos we had already qualified, but this time we go to Olympiakos heading to qualify." It's not going to be easy, but I'm sure we can do it. Just please, no more glorious failures a la Milan, Monaco, Bayern... the list goes on. 

The Arsenal were back in action on Sunday travelling away to Norwich, and speaking to the press on Friday, Wenger reflected on a weird afternoon last weekend. "On the day, I must say, everything went against us. They had one shot on target and scored two goals - that will not always happen. And on top of that we missed a penalty and scored an own goal so we had a nightmare on the day". While our nightmare day was acknowledged, the Frenchman was also keen to talk up our performance against Zagreb, saying "but it is how you respond to that and we did that well on Tuesday". 

There was again only one change to the starting eleven, this time with the fit again Aaron Ramsey coming in for Joel Campbell on the right hand side. No surprises here, as the boss shared his thoughts on Rambo playing out wide, stating that “Ramsey is more an offensive player, he is not a tactical, defensive player. I will use him there when the game demands". Elsewhere, Flamini continued to partner Cazorla in the middle in Coquelin's absence, with everyone else as they were. 

After taking a few minutes to settle down, we controlled the first half as both sides' game plans became evidently clear. Just what we didn't want to see, we saw in the 10th minute as Koscielny was forced off through, you guessed it, INJURY! Looked like a hip/abductor problem at first glance, and we'll all be hoping that it's not a bad one. 

After Sanchez and Giroud missed a couple of half chances, we went ahead through our graceful German. John Ruddy kicked poorly under little pressure, as Alexis pickpocketed one of Norwich's midfielders, before playing a perfectly weighted pass for Ozil to dink the ball delicately over the onrushing keeper - a goal 18 months ago he may not have scored. He has now had a hand in 13 goals in his last 12 league games (11 assists and two efforts of his own), not to mention misplacing only one of his 68 passes despite making 57 of them in the Norwich half. He's playing his best ever football in an Arsenal shirt, and is central to pretty much everything good that we do nowadays. Sorry Beyonce, but he is irreplaceable at the moment. 

We continued to dominate after the goal, until some sloppy play all around gave Norwich a way back into the game. The tireless Robbie Brady travelled far too long with the ball unopposed, before playing a low pass into the feet of Lewis Grabban who turned and finished to score his first goal since March. Of course. No pressure on the ball at all in midfield, with Gabriel caught too deep and muscled off the ball too easily. Completely avoidable, and it feels like I say that about every goal we concede now. 

The second half was not great at all. We had most of the possession, with Norwich looking to counter - just as it was in the first half. Chances were few and far between for both sides, but a save from Cech to prevent a Gabriel own goal was absolutely brilliant. Moments like that are what you pay £10m for. Cazorla played on 'one leg' for most of the second half according to Wenger, but we suffered a huge blow when Alexis came off with half an hour to go after pulling his hamstring. When you look at the amount of football he has played over the last two years it's no surprise, but again, it's like clockwork. Two in, two out. Injuries cause lack of rotation, fit players are overworked due to lack of options, they get injured - it's a cycle.

I blame the black kit, personally. NOT TO MENTION THE FACT THAT WE FLEW TO NORWICH. Outrageous. We probably melted the whole of Antarctica just for a 14 minute flight. Wenger obviously doesn't care about the environment. Too busy pocketing his £8m a year and aiming for 4th place. 

Did you know?: November is statistically Arsenal's worst month under Wenger - they average just 1.6 points a game.

Anyway. Thanks to other results going in our favour over the weekend, we somehow remain two points off top spot despite only gaining 2/9 points in November. The Premier League is ridiculously tight at the moment, with only nine points separating 1st and 10th place. As frustrating as our results have been of late, it is exciting having a division as unpredictable as this, where literally everybody can beat everybody. Also, congratulations to Jamie Vardy for scoring in his 11th consecutive game - quite an incredible story when you consider he was playing non-league football three years ago. 

The injuries to Koscielny and Cazorla don't look to be too serious, but Alexis' will definitely hurt us as he looks set for a month on the sidelines (which will probably kill him inside). I honestly believe this team is capable of winning the title, but continuously losing key players for lengthy absences reduces our chances of doing so drastically, and it's so, so frustrating. But, when one door closes another one opens, and we need the likes of Giroud and Campbell to step it up now, not to mention that this is a massive opportunity for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to make his presence felt. *cue hamstring injury*

Till next week. 

You can follow me on Twitter here. (@CostAFC_)

Olivier Giroud beard update: Things haven't quite gone for him of late, but at least he's still bearded. And gorgeous. 

The Week That Was Arsenal #1

Hey everyone, before I start, I'd just like to introduce myself. 

I'm Phil Costa, and this is my website. You need one to actually make something of yourself nowadays, right? Anyway, I'm a 20 year old from London who's looking to break into the world of football journalism. Granted, there are plenty of others who are in the same boat as me, but let me tell you why I'm different.    

I really, really, like football. 

Anyway - back onto what you're hopefully here for. I will be creating a weekly series called 'The Week That Was Arsenal', which is basically my spin on the last seven days at Arsenal Football Club. This could range from matches, to stories in the press, to updates on the players (mostly Olivier Giroud's) facial hair. 

16th-22nd of November, 2015. 

With another international break blessing us all and seemingly lasting forever, The Arsenal were finally back in action at The Hawthorns on Saturday. Despite their surprisingly poor home record this season, it’s never an easy place to visit, not to mention they’ve got Tony Pulis in charge who must be the only 57 year old that wears a baseball cap accompanied by the whitest trainers in the universe, that I'm convinced will blind somebody one day. The boss knows the difficulties of facing a Pulis side more than anyone, stating in his pre match press conference on Friday morning that he expected a ‘committed, physical and fast game where we cannot afford to make any mistakes.’

After the squad was down to its barest bones against Tottenham in our last Premier League fixture, we were boosted by the return of Hector Bellerin following a small groin problem. Now, I have nothing against Mathieu Debuchy. The injuries he suffered which gave Bellerin the chance to come into the side in the first place were extremely unfortunate, and through no fault of his own. But 2015 has been poor to say the least for him and after struggling again away to Sheffield Wednesday and Bayern Munich, our speedy, side-parted youngster returning was a sight for sore eyes, and he’s one tick off the injury list.

Wenger also revealed that whilst Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain were short for the weekend, they would be back for Tuesday’s tie against Dinamo Zagreb which is always nice to hear. 

For their national sides, Cech and Gibbs featured for the Czech Republic and England respectively, whilst Alexis continues to defy the limitations on the human body by playing 180 minutes for Chile against Colombia and Uruguay. Cazorla also bagged a goal for Spain which is nice to see, but his shooting ability in Arsenal colours has sadly been missing since 2013. If anyone has seen/heard anything, please do let us know.  Koscielny and Giroud both featured for France during and after the tragic attacks in Paris, with the former visibly affected by what had happened which lead to Wenger admitting that he would have to speak to the defender before the weekend's game. 

Right. West Brom. I tweeted midway through the second half that I hoped it wouldn't be one of those days. That's exactly what it was. We didn't start the game with any sort of tempo, and in the 11th minute Coquelin looked to have jarred his knee sliding in on Claudio Yacob. After limping heavily for half a minute, he signaled to the bench whilst prone on the ground and clutching his right knee that he needed to come off. Reports from France over the course of Sunday afternoon indicate that it's an MCL injury, and that could mean 3-4 months on the sidelines. 

Ever since his unlikely renaissance 11 months ago, the Frenchman has become crucial to the balance of the side and was a catalyst for our excellent form towards the end of last season - a lengthy absence would be deeply concerning. His replacement was Mikel Arteta who came, who saw, who co...cked it up. Despite only being on the pitch for 40 minutes before coming off injured himself, he gave away the free kick (which I didn't and still don't think was a foul) which lead to their equaliser, as well as scoring an unfortunate own goal just minutes later. 

I really like Arteta, and he has been a crucial figure for us since his arrival in 2011, but time isn't his friend at the moment and neither are his calves. The back portion of the lower leg, that is. But the way things are going for him at the moment it wouldn't surprise me if he owned baby cows who were revolting against him. It's common knowledge that the Spaniard is doing his coaching badges at the moment, but will he be forced to put them into practice quicker than he would have liked? 

Arteta's nightmare afternoon aside, the defending was shocking for each of the goals. The delivery from Brunt for the first was decent, but Bellerin was caught the wrong side of James Morrison who finished well, showing nice technique to find the top corner with a deft touch. For the own goal, Ozil lost the ball in their half, and Salomon Rondon found the unchallenged run of McClean who drilled the ball across goal, only to bounce off Arteta and in to the net. Before the game, Wenger spoke about how we couldn't afford to make mistakes, but we made two in quick succession and were punished for both. 

Just to make things worse, the second half which was basically played just outside of West Brom's penalty box saw Ozil hit the post, in addition to Campbell somehow miscuing from five yards out and Cazorla slipping and hitting over from twelve. If a player was ever going to miss a penalty, it was that one. Called it before he even took it. Someone who is usually excellent from the spot losing his footing and giving away a free kick for a 'double hit' just summed up our day. 

On the plus side, Ozil bagged his 11th assist of the season and he now only needs nine more to equal Thierry Henry's record. The German has found a way to produce even when things aren't going our way, and there is no hiding the fact that we rely on him enormously creatively. Also, Giroud continued his fine scoring form with his headed effort - that's nine in eleven starts for the big man. Credit is also due to Alexis for looking so sharp despite not having a rest since 1995. 

The Premier League is ridiculously open at the moment, as we stay level on points with City after their battering at the hands of Liverpool, and one point behind United. Leicester are top with thanks to the awesome Jamie Vardy, but with their lack of squad depth you would expect them to fade away as the season reaches it's latter stages. As disappointing as it was to lose, we're still only two points off top spot so there's still plenty to play for. 

Coquelin's injury is a worry though, and should he be ruled out for a considerable period of time this would mean a lot of tactical reshuffling, which means finding that all important balance again. Two set to come back from injury, and two injured. It's like clockwork. Arsenal in an injury crisis just before December, who'd have thought it eh? Wrap everyone in bubblewrap, fine anybody going in for tackles in training and let's win against Dinamo on Tuesday. 

Til next week. 

You can follow me on Twitter here. (@CostAFC_)

Olivier Giroud beard update: Still bearded. Still gorgeous.