Saturday came and went and with it saw us get a win at St. James Park against Newcastle. It is a ground that has been relatively good to us lately and I approached this match with a fair bit confidence, even if the commentators mention the infamous 4-4 draw every few minutes. Despite this, the squad was up for the challenge and we got a tough but deserved win.
After the match in Monaco mid-week, it was natural for Wenger to make a few changes to the lineup. Gabriel came into the defense, Ozil was left out due to illness and Chambers was selected in place of Bellerin. Overall the match wasn't too bad. We played well in the first half and Giroud kept his excellent scoring form going with two well-taken goals. We should have had a few more if Welbeck could have found his shooting boots and if Ramsey would have gotten out of Giroud's way. I was getting slightly irritated by him taking the ball and doing nothing with it when Giroud was in a good position. One instance in particular saw the ball come from the left and was destined to find Giroud open for his hat trick goal and instead Ramsey jumped in the way and scuffed the chance. 2-0 at halftime wasn't bad at all but I felt we left a lot on the table.
Sure enough the second half was what Newcastle needed to get on the scoreboard. An early goal saw us on the back foot for the rest of the match. You felt like another goal was coming but we did enough to keep the lead intact. Wenger brought on more defenders to get the 3 points and it worked but it was not the most comfortable second half of football we ever played. Clinical finishing in the first half would have been nice and would have kept us all from nearly having heart attacks.
It is easy to criticize the team for not scoring enough but it says a lot about the strength of our squad when we can get a lead and hold for the match. Newcastle put on the pressure for sure but it wasn't like they were creating the best chances. How many times in the past have we been unable to hold onto a lead? It is statistically impossible for us to win comfortably every game so we have to deal with a sluggish match every once in a while. Monaco was a draining experience. We came very close to advancing and that was tough mentally and physically. To come to a tough ground like St. James Park immediately following must have called for serious motivation and drive from the players. We are not out of the race for the title (although we would need a momentous collapse from Chelsea) and the FA Cup is still ours to lose.
We know that if we win our remaining games, we will have another chance at the Champions League next year and keep us in the running for the title. Winning at Newcastle was a great start to finishing our season strong. After the interlull, I expect the lineup to return to its roots as the squad is beginning to click. Alexis is no longer being forced to play the hero in every match and the burden has been lifted off of him. It doesn't take an expert analysis to see that his take is nearing empty but I think Wenger continues to play him every week because a team with a tired Alexis is still better than a team with no Alexis. Hopefully this international break will be good for the Chilean. He deserves a rest so he can come back and play like he did at the start of the season. Even while tired, Alexis tries to do everything he can to turn the match. His first season will go down as a successful one no matter what happens from now until the end.
Playing Alexis every week while Walcott doesn't even make the bench is an alarming sight. We all know that Walcott's contract is expiring and the club must make a decision on what to do with him. His injury a year ago has not done him any favors in the development department and we have a world class player in Alexis that starts ahead of him. Ox when healthy is also higher on the pecking order than Walcott and with Walcott on high wages it becomes clear that it is not economical to the club to continue to pay a player that kind of salary only to sit on the bench. We had that problem with Bendtner and we do not want that again. I am not saying that Walcott will go and make sexual advances to a taxi cab but having a player sitting on the bench with a large wage doesn't make a lot of sense. The injury was a tough one and it is quite possible that Wenger is still nursing him instead of rushing him back into the side. With Alexis, Ox and Cazorla all capable of playing that the right wing role, Wenger doesn't have to play him every week. This very well could be the reason for the lack of involvement on Walcott's part, or maybe the contract discussion isn't going as planned and the player may be somewhere else next season. I don't know and I won't pretend to know.
I like Walcott and I think he offers a lot to the club but we made his last deal on the back of losing the dutch skunk and I believe he was to be the main man in the aftermath of that debacle. In the following seasons, other players have stepped up and signings have been made, Giroud, Ozil, Alexis and Welbeck have severely reduced Walcott's importance to the squad. I remember a lot of fans calling for Walcott to start over Giroud a while back and you aren't hearing that now. The starting spot was his to lose and in his absence he lost it. Time will tell what happens to him but I have a feeling that he will not be with us next season. He is at a point in his career where he wants to be play every week and not sit on the bench. The club won't give him the same wages as Alexis or Ozil and he won't be playing every week. That is usually the makings of an exit.
The international break will give me a break from football so I won't be writing until after the Liverpool match. This is a must win for us as it will put us nine points clear of them. It would effectively end their top four hopes unless City or United stumble. Although if Gerrard continues to make petulant, schoolboy actions on the pitch, they won't make top four on their own. I won't gloat though because we haven't solidified our place yet. A win in a couple of weeks will make sure of that.
So until I write after the Liverpool, let's just hope that our players return from international duty injury free and we continue our winning ways.
Come on you Gunners!
So that is it. Arsenal are out of the Champions League again at the round of sixteen. It was a strong performance from a team that is on a run of form at the moment. Normally a 2-0 win away in the Champions League is generally a great night for us, but since we went out of the competition despite the win, it doesn't get the celebration it deserves. We can go through all the what-if scenarios about how we could have gone through but in the end it is the first leg that sank us.
At home, we should not be conceding in the fashion that we did but yet we did and have done constantly in this competition. Looking back at the last several years, we have lost to Barcelona, AC Milan, Bayern Munich (twice) and now Monaco. To make the trend worse is that we always choke in the first leg and put in a hard fought gutsy second leg. Barcelona: won 2-1 at home, 3-1 loss away (our only recent first leg win). AC Milan: 4-0 loss away, 3-0 win at home. Munich, 3-1 loss at home, 2-0 win away. Munich: 2-0 loss at home, 1-1 away. Monaco: 3-1 loss at home, 2-0 win away. See the pattern? We lose these match-ups in the first leg. Had we not lost these first legs in such disappointing fashion we would moving on to the next round and who know where it would have taken us.
I am not saying that we would have won. We may have been just delaying the inevitable but the fact is we are better than that. We should be challenging the top teams and instead we crash out to a team like Monaco (even AC Milan, who were and still are a shell of their former selves). Nothing shameful about losing to a team like Bayern Munich or Barcelona, they have so much money that their napkin dispensers are full of euros. They attract they top players from across the world and as a result they created super teams that can destroy anyone. Despite this, we are capable of playing just as well on our night and we can beat them home or away. We just don't do it in the first leg.
I do not know what causes us to lose our concentration in such glorious fashion. Wenger always laments “mental strength” after one of these losses. It is hard to pin this on any one cause. Is it the manager? He is the one who sets the starting XI and establishes the tactics. Is it the players? They are the ones who actually play the matches. It is the manager's job to get the players motivated and set the tactics, and from there it is the player's duty to play to the best of their abilities. However, with poor set up the team may be doomed from kick-off. We never seem to get our footing and in the end we concede stupid goals and we are out of the competition. Against Monaco, at 2-1 with a late goal to keep things manageable, everything didn't seem too bad and getting a 2-0 win at Monaco would have seen us advance. What we got instead was Monaco walking down the pitch and scoring the goal to make it 3-1, thus ending any real chance we had at advancing.
Our stumbling in the Champions League could also be attributed to not winning the group. Getting the top spot in the group stage doesn't necessarily guarantee an easy match in the knockout stages but it does help your chances. With that top spot, you generally avoid playing teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich etc, in the round of sixteen. Sure you will end up facing them later but at least you can delay it and make it further in the competition. A downside to this is we seem to underestimate our perceived weaker opposition. How thrilled were we to get Monaco in the draw? Against all the other teams we could have drawn, this was our best option. I was delighted as I watch a bit of French football and know that while Monaco are tough, they are absolutely beatable even by a team as inconsistent as we are. Then we go ahead and lay an egg at home and that was that. Frankly there are so many ways that we could avoid this fate it would take too long to list them all.
Eventually we will find the winning formula to win this competition and add that coveted trophy to our trophy cabinet, next year perhaps. Until then we have to work on securing Champions League football next year. In order to do that we have to continue our run of good form. We are only a point behind Manchester City in second and seven behind Chelsea. It is too much to think we will take Chelsea and win the league without a monumental collapse from them but Manchester City are not looking like the team that won the league last season. Our squad is starting to gel at the right time to see us through the final stretch of the season. Giroud is scoring regularly, Ozil, Ramsey and Cazorla are really starting to create and Coquelin is bossing the DM role. Obviously, we have to avoid injuries to our key players but as long as we keep playing our game we will get top four and another chance at the Champions League. Let's not forget that we are still in the running for the FA Cup so lets focus our efforts in adding that trophy and call it a season. The end of the season is fast approaching.
We head to Newcastle on Saturday. This is a match that we can and should win. I expect some changes to the lineup that faced Monaco. Welbeck will head back to the bench as Wenger will go back to his more defensive minded setup. I think Alexis may get a break as well so Walcott may get a start.
Until next time,
Come on you Gunners!
There really is nothing quite like beating a team like Manchester United on their own turf. Watching the smug smiles get erased from their fans faces as they leave the stands in disgust to cry into their Ronaldo shaped pillows may be a sure case of schadenfreude but I could care less. That team of over-hyped mongoloids seems to get ninety-nine percent of all calls in their matches and climb higher in the table than they rightly deserve. This match could have easily gone right into the hands of United and see us lose again but that was not in the cards.
The main talking point of the pre-match was the inclusion of Danny Welbeck over Olivier Giroud. Giroud, with the exception of that Monaco match, has been in terrific form and one would assume that against a team like United he would start. Wenger decided to go with Welbeck, a player who has given us some good goals but lately has been quiet. Whether or not that has anything to do with being utilized out wide is a debate for another day. Maybe Wenger was trying to stir up emotion on the pitch but sending out a player that Van Gaal publicly insulted when he was sold or maybe Wenger simply wanted to see how Welbeck would do. Whatever the true reason, the experiment didn't seem to be panning out at first.
Welbeck took several heavy touches and couldn't get onto the end of anything. The squad wasn't playing poorly by any means it just appeared to be an off night for Welbeck. Thankfully, several players were up for the task, Ox, Coquelin, Bellerin and Monreal in particular. We dictated the flow of the match early on despite the fact that Van Gaal saw it fit to send Fellaini as a battering ram though our midfield. We got to watch foul after foul go completely ignored by the ref. Fortunately Ox was unfazed by the uncultured tactics of the Mancs as he powered his way to the edge of the box where the diagonal pass down the left cut the defense in half (Valencia was no where to be found) as Monreal pounced onto it. He curled a shot from a tight angle to make it 0-1 to the mighty Arsenal. I was elated and struggled to contain myself at my desk. That happiness didn't last as Rooney's hair-plugged basketball he calls a head sent a header over Szczesny and into the net. Once again we shoot ourselves in the foot. A penalty appeal not given as Welbeck was dropped in the box and the sides went level at the break.
The second half started as the first ended, with United fouling and getting nothing. Eventually Fellaini got the yellow card he deserved even if it was eight fouls too late. Despite the lack of football being played by United, we started to grow into the match. The ref wasn't falling for United's diving and we began string passes through their midfield where we completely outclassed them. Welbeck, Alexis, Cazorla and Ox(who was replaced by Ramsey after his hamstring went) really started to ramp up the pressure and it was through this pressure that we got the second goal.
After a terrible back pass from Valencia, De Gea tried to meet the ball. Welbeck's quick acting feet drove him aggressively toward the ball. He clipped the ball around the stranded keeper, corrected his balance and set the ball into the open net. All eyes were upon him as not only did he score against his former club, but he celebrated the goal with his new teammates. United looked shellshocked and tried again to turn the tide by diving and fouling. The ref wasn't buying it and with 20 minutes to go United shot themselves in the foot.
Di Maria hit the dirt like he was leveled by Manny Pacquiao. Ramsey did touch him slightly and by slightly I mean a fingertip or two may have grazed his arm. The ref promptly gave Di Maria a yellow card and that seemed to be that. In a bizarre twist, Di Maria got up and grabbed the ref's shirt in a final act of defiance and displeasure. The red card was shown and United were down to ten men. Naturally I was ecstatic for two reasons, United was down to ten men and it robbed them of one player that legitimately could have got them level. They instead turned to using Fellaini as an even more lanky mongoloid Peter Crouch. Fellaini sat at the edge of the box and watched ball after ball get cleared by our defense. Whenever he did manage to get his mop onto the ball it did little to frighten us. United tried a few more dives but in the end we walked away with the win and a ticket to Wembley.
The post match interviews went as expected from the managers. What I found interesting was Welbeck's interview. He wasn't asked about the goal or his emotions about starting. No his first questions was about his celebration. To his credit I think he handled it well by saying United is a club that means a lot to him and that he wasn't celebrating to spite them but that he was celebrating scoring a goal with his teammates in the heat of an intense match. I believe what he said. He grew up a United boy and played for them for his whole career but Van Gaal turned his back on him and showed him the door. It was probably tough to walk back into that ground wearing our kit but he did what was needed of him from an Arsenal standpoint. He played into the match and got the winner, all to a cacophony of boos from their fans. Not every player who dons our kit grew up as a fan of our great club. It would be nice if they all were Gooners, born and bred, but that is unrealistic. Not every player/fan is loyal, the dutch skunk proved that. As Gooners, we need to keep this in perspective. Welbeck may have been a United boy, but we can make him love our club too by showing the support that they aren't giving him. The traveling fans showed him a lot of love that night. Let's continue that trend. Welbeck may not be the ultimate striker or even the best player and he may not be here for the long term, but for as long as he wears our red and white, he will be a Gunner. He has shown himself to be a respectful player that looks to be willing to show what he can do so let's treat him as one of our own. No matter what happens, a young, former United player, sent them home and out of the FA Cup through a tenacious goal. Nothing can take that from him.
We face West Ham United this weekend. We should be flying high after the win against United so I expect a win, but anything can happen. Football can be as cruel as it joyful.
Until this weekend, sing with me:
Who the (expletive removed) are Man United?
The debacle against Monaco is still fresh in all of our minds, I am sure. I am equally sure that it is still on the minds of the players and Arsene Wenger. Watching the matches against Everton on Sunday and the match against QPR on Wednesday, it was abundantly clear that whatever mental and physical wrinkles that reared their ugly heads in that Monaco game, have not been ironed out. The difference, however is that we managed to get wins instead of a terrible loss. Ugly wins are still wins and no manner of anti-Arsenal media can take that from us.
As the season begins to come to final stages, we need all the points we can get. Winning emphatically and winning ugly still produce the same 3 points. There aren't any bonus points for style. I know we all love a great attacking performance but in the midst of a rough patch sometimes we can lose sight of the real goal: getting maximum points from every match. Looking at the results you will see a 2-0 win and 1-2 win. Let's just keep it in perspective.
There were a few good points to discuss. Olivier Giroud notched two goals to continue his good scoring run. He caught a lot of flak after the Monaco match and with fairly good measure. He missed a few chances that he should have buried. He got a lot of the blame for that loss and I think that is unfair to him as he has been picking up the scoring where others have dropped. He had a poor game and he admitted that but he is not the only player capable of getting a goal. The team let themselves down that day.
Another good talking point is our young players: Coquelin, Bellerin and Ox. Ox has always shown promise and has been in and out of the first team for a few years but I thought he was stagnating slightly but he is showing why we acquired him. He always looks to drive to the net and he is tough to knock off the ball. Like Alexis, his energy levels are high and he never seems to tire.
I have mentioned before how much I like Bellerin. He continues to grow in confidence as the matches pass. While he is still prone to a rookie mistake every now and then, I am no longer nervous when I see him on the team sheet. Debuchy is still the first choice right back but we are seeing a capable back up emerging. His crossing is excellent when in attack and he can make up ground quickly in defense when tracking back. These are qualities you want in a right back. He isn't doing anything to warrant being replaced in the line up and our only other option is another young player, Calum Chambers.
There are some stats floating around that show that Coquelin is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league. I am not doubting those numbers but I do not like touting a young player as the best player or comparing them to a legendary player so I won't. What I will do is say that he has taken a tough situation, and made the most of it. There is already enough pressure on these young players to perform like a veteran player without over-hyping them. Necessity is the mother of invention and young players need experience. The situation is not ideal for us as fans but these players are getting valuable first team experience in the best league in the world.
Moving ahead to the FA Cup match against Manchester United on Monday, I expect Wenger to take this very seriously as the defenders of the Cup. The problem is we are coming to this match on the backs of sub par performances and United come into it as the luckiest team in the Premier League. We will have to be at the top of our game at a point in the season where we have been struggling. Wenger has the difficult task of motivating this squad to perform to a higher level, a level that we can hit with the talented players we have, and a level that we have seen before this season.
We have a squad of incredibly skilled players that together are going through a slump. What better way to get back on track then by beating United at their own ground to advance to the next round in the FA Cup? United are not the invincible team of the 90s that they wish they were. We have struggled there because we give them too much respect and play timidly. This is exactly what they want us to do. We need to go for the throat immediately. We need to dictate the tempo from kickoff. Easier said then done I know. I am confident (probably stupidly) that we will win. Frankly we are due for a win against not just United but at Old Trafford. Plus how great would it be to beat both Manchester clubs away from home?
In order to beat them, Alexis, Ozil and Cazorla must be at their best. Hopefully since we have five days to rest after today, Alexis will be able to get to recharge his batteries. Despite how good he is, he still looks tired after every match and I think some of his decision making comes down how hard he plays every week and how many matches he plays in. He is so influential that it is hard to drop him for even half of a match. He and Ozil haven't clicked quite like we would have expected but I think some of that comes down to the extended injury absence that plagued Ozil for most of the season. Another problem is that due to Cazorla's form in the center attacking mid role, Ozil has played more on the flank instead of center so there is less of a direct route for the two play off of each other.
No matter the lineup, we have a tough task ahead of us on Monday. Weekday games are the worst especially for those of us who work in offices that block streaming sites or frown upon screaming at a monitor when we give up a goal. Plus if we lose, Monday's suck enough without that hanging over our heads. So let's hope Arsenal can advance get back to Wembley.
Come on you Gunners!
Side-note: I hope everyone got to watch the Invincibles documentary that aired after the match against Everton. It was well done even if it was a bit short. That was a legendary team that will go down in Premier League history as one of, if not the best team.