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.
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