Sunday, March 25, 2012

Arsenal 3 Aston Villa 0

We arrived at Las Mimosas earlier than usual in order to catch the latter stages of the Chelsea-Tottenham match, thinking which result would be ideal for us: Chelsea beating Tottenham to ensure we finish above Tottenham, Tottenham beating Chelsea to dent Chelsea's hopes of a top four finish, or draw so that both of our nearest rivals in the table drop two points? All of these were based on the assumption that we would win our game later on. In the end, Chelsea and Tottenham played out a goalless draw, which suited us fine.

Arteta's post-match interview for BBC gave us an impression that the players were aware of the result of the early game and perhaps they thought three points would do just the job. Arsenal's controlled second-half performance, which seemed to be a little bit flat at the same time, probably came from this notion. After difficult periods that they have been through this season, they seem to be more focused on results rather than the style. They have probably learned how results can affect confidence through experience. We used to play beautiful football, but could not get results.

Koscielny's absence from the starting line-up was a big mystery to us as the settled back-five's performance has been impressive recently and up till Saturday morning there was no news of fresh injuries. According to Arsene Wenger's post-match interview, Koscielny had tendinitis in his knee when he woke up in the morning. He tried the warm-up, but he couldn't carry on because of pain. Let's hope it is not too bad.

Djourou filled the void Koscielny had left in the central defence, which was much of our worry. To make it worse, even the stand-in Djourou suffered an early knock. There was no recognised center-back on the bench and using a substitution this early is always a disadvantage. However, our mood quickly changed at Las Mimosas bar as Arsenal got into the rhythm of their free-flowing attacking football.

We are very pleased to see goals come from the players who have been the subjects of criticisms. Gibbs, whose positional sense has been constantly criticised, showed how he can be an attacking threat to the opponents. Walcott, whose decisions in the final third have been questioned, took the goal very well with great control, composure and precision. Then, the third goal came from Arteta's free-kick. He has been doing a great job for Arsenal as a midfielder linking defence and attacking, but his set-pieces have been rather disappointing this season. In his post-match interview, the Spaniard said "I used to be good at it". Yes, we remember some of your great free-kicks for Everton, Mikel. We are glad to see such a sublime free-kick by him again, this time in an Arsenal shirt. This goal just shows you what confidence can do to individual players, when the whole team is playing well. He also had a long-range stinging shot in the first half, which forced a powerful save from Shay Given.

At 2-0, the scoreline wouldn't have been enough for the old Arsenal to settle with because if they had conceded a goal they could have started to panic and let the lead slip away. On this day, we kept concentration and didn't make a mistake. The third goal to kill off the game completely didn't arrive until the last kick of the game, but we kept the calm and had the game under control.

All in all, it was a comfortable win, which took our winning run to seven Premier League matches. Apparently, this was the Club's best run since October 2007. Not bad for "the worst Arsenal team in the recent years"! The convincing team performance and comprehensive victory surely did further good to our players' confidence. Bring on QPR!

Player ratings

Szczezny: 7
With Aston Villa registering only one goal attempt with no shot on target (according to Sky Sports, although BBC thinks Villa had 3 shots, of which 1 on target), he didn't have much to do, but looked solid.

Sagna: 8
Again good link-up with Walcott, overlapping with him often. Solid defensively as well.

Djourou: 7
Did his job. Made a crucial tackle.

Vermaelen: 9
He showed his determination and desire to win at the both ends of the pitch again.

Gibbs: 8
Scored his first goal in the Premier League. His smile on the pitch is rare as his goals, so the goal has an extra value in that sense.

Rosicky: 8
Maintained his red-hot form. Displayed his class and skills.

Arteta: 8
Passing success rate for this day's Arsenal side was 87.8%. As the second best passer in the Premier League with an average of 90%, only second to Yaya Toure, his individual passing success rate must have been phenomenal this day. His stunning goal wrapped up the very enjoyable afternoon for Gooners nicely.

Song: 8
The lofted pass to Walcott was another killer pass by him, which resembled those that set up for RVP's legendary goals against Everton and Liverpool this season.

Walcott: 9
He was a constant threat to Villa's left flank. Took the goal beautifully.

Gervinho: 7
Covered Gibbs well defensively, tracking back and keeping Albrighton at bay.

van Persie: 8
We have scored three goals and none of the goals came from him, but he still led the attack.


Ramsey: 6
68th-minute substitution for Gervinho. Got involved in the late charge and fired a shot wide.

Santos: 5
Replaced Gibbs in the 68th minute. His first involvement in the game was giving away the ball to Weimann in a dangerous position, but he got away with it thanks to Weimann dragging a shot wide.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Came on in the 78th minute for Walcott. Made a few runs and nearly earned a penalty.


Phil Dowd: 7
He is definitely not our favourite referee after staging the Premier League's biggest comeback drama against us at Newcastle. He was nearly hated even more by Arsenal fans after he had decided not to give the OX a penalty, but it is widely believed that replays showed Mr Dowd made a correct decision as Ireland was first to the ball. We let him off this time.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Everton 0 Arsenal 1

The major pre-match talking point was the team selection. Now we have a number of players back from injury, there is a healthy competition in the squad. While RVP, Walcott, Arteta, Song, Vermaelen, Koscielny, Sangna and Szczesny were believed to keep their starting places, the big questions were who would start at  left back, in the remaining place in midfield, and on the left flank: more specifically, whether Gibbs or Santos, Ramsey or Rosicky, and Oxlade-Chamberlain or Gervinho. Arsene Wenger's answers turned out to be Gibbs, Ramsey and Rosicky. It was an interesting choice to play Ramsey on the left side, considering the fact that Wenger was once very reluctant to play Ramsey on the flanks as he had an inclination to drift into the center. Although he missed a few good chances and lacked clinical finish, it seemed to have worked.

Arsenal started the game with great intensity, which was great to see because it reminded us where they left off 9 days ago. They took a lead within just 8 minutes with Vermaelen's header from RVP's corner, the lead Arsenal thoroughly deserved. However, they should have been more than one goal up. They created chance after chance in the first 30 minutes. Typically, Arsenal would have regretted such wastefulness big time, come the end of the game, but the new tenacious Arsenal protected their narrow lead for the remaining 82 minutes through solid defence.

Some claim that Arsenal have been lucky in their recent winning streak. Luck played no role in their demolition of Tottenham and AC Milan. The victories were the result of their sheer determination to win the game (If any, the luck was on Tottenham's side in the shape of Saha's deflected goal and the penalty awarded for Bale's dive). Against Liverpool, we might have been lucky as Liverpool hit the woodwork twice, but we didn't miss the opportunity to snatch a late win. As for the Newcastle game, many questioned where the 5-minute stoppage time came from, but it reflected Newcastle's time-wasting free-kick/goal-kick taking (especially by Krul) and it was fair of Mr Howard Webb to slap it on the added time. Besides, Arsenal deserved the win as they threw everything forward to grab the all three points. They would have been extremely unlucky if they hadn't won that game.

In this game, we might have been lucky as Drenthe's goal was ruled out for offside, which replays proved a wrong decision. In fact, the assistant referee had a few other dubious decisions, including one against us. We may not have been as unlucky recently as we had been for the last few seasons, but the current good run of form is attributed to more than just luck.

Arsenal's resurgence coincide with the return of a settled back five. Apparently, we have never lost this season when Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen and Gibbs all started. The return of Sagna brought the best out of Walcott as the Englishman has less to worry about cover for defence. Fit again Gibbs meant Vermaelen's return to his familiar central defensive position and forming a stable partnership with Koscielny. On top of the newly found defensive robustness, Rosicky's rediscovery of the form is another factor behind our recent fine run of form. We have finally found a much-needed creative midfielder in him.

The three points from Goodison Park, where all Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham dropped points earlier this season, saw us move above Tottenham by a point to the third in the table after they had only managed a draw against Stoke at White Hart Lane. With other results from last night also going our way, we are now 6 and 13 points clear of  Chelsea and Liverpool, respectively (Shame about Newcastle's result at the weekend). Our recent climb in the table has reflected the other clubs slipups coincided with our favourable results. We often failed to capitalise on these occasions before this season.

Before the match, our captain emphasised the importance of winning ugly. I think this win qualifies as that. Arsenal just had to withstand pressure from Everton for some while and eventually managed to keep the clean sheet to seal a 1-0 win. We are beginning to like winning this way.

Player ratings

Szczezny: 6
Although he made some good saves, he had a hairy moment by kicking the ball straight to Jelavic's head.

Sagna: 7
Strong performance.

Koscielny: 7
Together with Vermaelen, he weathered Everton's aerial threat from crosses very well. For the single goal of the game, he took a couple of Everton players onto himself in order to create space for Vermaelen to come around in front of him. He had a thrusting run forward as well.

Vermaelen: 8
Looked solid alongside with Koscielny in the heart of Arsenal defence. Scored a winner. A Man of the Match performance.

Gibbs: 7
There has been criticism about his positional sense, but he looked OK in this game. Now he appears to be a part of a solid back five. I was convinced that he would start this game as the left-back, but I was considering Santos against Aston Villa this weekend. It is interesting to play Santos in the next game as the Aston Villa game is expected to be more open, but it's difficult to drop Gibbs to the bench, given the current form of the back four as a unit.

Rosicky: 7
Made a few good attempts at goal, good tackles to win the ball back. Solid performance.

Arteta: 7
Worked hard. Did his job well.

Song: 7
Although his passing left a lot to be desired, he worked hard, often dropping deep to help defenders.

Walcott: 6
Had a quiet game.

Ramsey: 6
Unusual role on the left side. His movement was good, but lacked clinical finish. Missed some glorious chances. He has to improve his finishing. Overall, considering the fact that the game turned out to be a defensive competition, playing a midfielder where a striker would have been fielded in the usual formation seemed to have been a good decision.

van Persie: 7
Had a relatively quiet game by his standard. Missed a couple of opportunities and hit the post.


Gervinho: 6
79th-minute substitution for Walcott. Made a good interception and run only for van Persie to plant a shot high.

Djourou: 4
We didn't understand why Wenger wanted to make a change with 2 minutes remaining in normal time when we were defending so well. Obviously, an additional defender could help shore up the defence, but the substitution could have upset the balance and distracted concentration or Djourou being Djourou, he, himself, could have become a distraction. Perhaps, Wenger wanted to give Djourou a runout, but it was a pointless substitution. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Arsenal 2 Newcastle 1

It was only a little over two weeks ago when Tottenham supports were taunting us ahead of the north London derby by saying that the gap between the two old rivals could widen up to 13 points after the derby. Two weeks on, we are just one point behind them. The momentum has completely changed in the recent couple of weeks. Arsene Wenger's tone was different before going into the Newcastle clash. He was already talking about the importance of securing a top three spot which does not require qualifying for the Champions League Group stage. We are no longer in the four-way battle for the top-four finish (with Chelsea, Newcastle and Liverpool), finding ourselves now in the middle of a three-horse race for the third and fourth places with Chelsea and Tottenham.

Wenger praised the team's relentless effort throughout the game, but in my opinion, the team lacked urgency in the first half after their good start. They looked comfortable in possession, but they did not make a good use of it. There were more backward passes than we have recently seen and some players were slow to move the ball. Vermaelen's sloppy pass led to Newcastle's counter-attack. Gibbs didn't close down Ben Arfa, giving him time and space to take a shot, which beat Szczezny on the near side. However, I must say that Arsenal did exceptionally well to equalise in less than a minute, which was vital. In the second half, they totally dominated the game and kept mounting the pressure.

In the previous two league games, the opponents were open sides, which didn't test Arsenal's ability to breakdown stubborn defence. Newcastle probably learned lessons from their 5-0 defeat at White Hart Lane. They had their tactics right for this game and didn't allow us much time or space. Arsenal may still not have a plan B, but this game proved if they keep pressurising the oppositions, a crack may eventually appear in their defence. Alan Pardew rued not having been able to replacing Danny Simpson, who was playing through injury, as Newcastle had already used up all three substitutions. The half-time substitution to replace Santon, who had trouble containing Walcott, proved to cost Newcastle expensively. On the other hand, unlike the Champions League match against AC Milan, we had luxury of having fit midfielders on the bench.

Arsenal set a new Premier League record by registering the 4th consecutive win battling back from losing postions, which is an impressive record, showing their character and determination. And in the three games out of those four, the winner came at the death of the game. We like our players' resilience this season, but we hope that they do not make it a habit to give away the first goal. Although now the team and fans alike have belief in the team's capability to overcome an adverse situation with a goal down, it would be nice if they can avoid such a situation in the first place.

Player ratings

Szczezny: 6
With Newcastle registering only two shots on target and committed to defence, he had little to do. However, he shouldn't be beaten at the near post, should he?

Sagna: 8
Convincing and energetic performance both offensively and defensively. His overlapping and link-up with Walcott were excellent.

Koscielny: 7
Didn't put a foot wrong. The yellow card was too harsh.

Vermaelen: 8
Showed his determination to score the late winner.

Gibbs: 6
Although he was good going forward, he was guilty for Ben Arfa's goal.

Rosicky: 8
Another good performance from the veteran player. We are glad to see his contract extended.

Arteta: 8
He was always where his team-mates wanted him to be, keeping the shape.

Song: 7
Battled hard as usual, but his passing was not best.

Walcott: 8
Caused all sorts of problems for Santon and a substitute left-back, Perch, through his runs. Set up RVP's equaliser through an inch-perfect cross and his cross led to Vermaelen's winner. Many think he was the Man of the Match and he had his best game in his career at Arsenal so far. Stephen Hughes, an ex-Arsenal player and commentator of Arsenal Player on the night said "Funnily enough I didn't think Theo was outstanding when I was at the game but, having watched it again, it could be the best game he's played for the club". I totally agree with him. Maybe I should watch the game again.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6
Lacked penetration on the left flank. It wasn't his best game, but he showed a glimpse of his talent.

van Persie: 7
Although he scored the equaliser, he also missed several good chances. As well as Arsene Wenger, we were also relieved that he didn't get sent off.


Gervinho: 6
67th-minute substitution for Oxlade-Chamberlain. Lively, but missed a sitter.

Ramsey: 7
Came on for Rosicky in the 76th minute and carried on Rosicky's job OK.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Arsenal 3 AC Milan 0 (Champions League Round of Last 16 Second Leg)

As we said in the previous post, this game was all about restoring the pride and keeping the momentum we have built through the last couple of league games. We didn't expect a miracle to happen or the 4-0 deficit to be overturned. However, as the game started, our players gave us hopes. The way they started was sensational. In the 6th minute, we got an early goal we wanted. Before the match, all our players were talking about this early goal. They believed that if they could get early goals, they could overturn the four-goal deficit. I must say that Arsene Wenger did a great job to make them believe after the heavy defeat at the San Siro and the subsequent mountainous task to undertake. Our players were in the absolutely right frame of mind.

At half time, we were buzzing at Las Mimosas bar. 3-0 up at half time. At this rate, scoring two more goals to see us through the tie did not look impossible at all. For most of us, except for those extremely optimistic ones, this tie was already over 3 weeks ago, but Arsenal's sublime performance in the first half allowed us to dream again about making progress in the Champions League and gave us exciting 90 minutes.

Arsene Wenger blamed fatigue for his side's failure to find an illusive fourth goal. Our midfield was so thin even before the game kicked off. On top of Jack Wilshere's long-term injury, Diaby (hamstring), Benayoun (virus), Arteta (head) and Ramsey (ankle) were out, while Coquelin was still four weeks away from fitness. Rosicky (groin) managed to pass a late fitness test, which was a big relief for Wenger, who earlier admitted he wouldn't know what to do if Rosicky was not available. The Ox took an unfamiliar central midfielder role to fill in the void Arteta left. Arsenal have been unlucky this season with injuries, which tend to concentrate on one particular position and this time it was midfield. When the intensity of the first half started taking its toll, Arsene Wenger had no option for freshening up the midfield. If he had had a couple of fresh pairs of legs to bring on, Arsenal may have completed a miracle comeback. Arshavin would have been hailed by all the fans on this occasion, if he had come off the bench to replace The Ox, who were struggling with a knock.

As well as scoring five goals, keeping a clean sheet was equally important, so the attack-defence balance was vital in this game. With little choice available in the midfield, our defensive players, including Song, put in an impressive performance to keep Ibrahimovic at bay.

Some players described the dressing room afterwards as "dead". Being knocked out of the Champions League after such a brave fightback must be devastating for them. However, all the media praised their heroics the following morning. Nobody was worried about the downfall of English football and the changing landscape of European football any longer (at least not until both Manchester clubs get knocked out of the Europa League) as Arsenal demonstrated that an English club still have qualities to beat the current Serie A leaders comprehensively if they play to their full capacity.

Although the exit from the Champions League may have been heartbreaking, at least the players can take heart from their performance and the 3-0 defeat of Europe's elite club. Hopefully, after 6 days' rest and with players to come back from injury (Arteta, Ramsey and hopefully Benayoun as well), they will be raring to continue their fight for a top-four finish.

A major talking point at the moment is the signing of Podolski. He has been linked to Arsenal for some time, but this time it looks very promising. The experienced Germany international will be a great addition to the squad. He can play up front with RVP just behind him, which will give a whole new dimension to Arsenal's game. Most of all, his signing will send out the right message that Arsenal have a serious ambition to compete for the title next season to the inside and outside of the Club, including RVP.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Liverpool 1 Arsenal 2

It was not our best performance, but we had all three points, which matters most. Earlier in this campaign on this Blog, we asked which is better, excellent performance without winning the game or getting the result without playing well. Now we are sure which we prefer: winning regardless. We have to make sure that we finish top four this season in order to attract world-class players so that we can rebuild the team and keep RVP for the next season.

The result was massive, sending us 10 points clear of Liverpool. With Chelsea losing and Newcastle only managing to draw, we have secured solo possession of fourth place, 3 points clear of Chelsea with a better goal difference than them, and with a 4-point cushion over Newcastle. Even before the Liverpool clash, I was surprised to hear some pundits claim that the fourth spot was between Arsenal and Chelsea. How many times have they written off Arsenal for a top-four finish before? Now with the defeats of Tottenham and Liverpool, we are in an even stronger position. Some have even started talking about Arsenal finishing third. After Tottenham's defeat to Manchester United, the gap was reduced to just four points, which makes it look increasingly likely that we will finish above Tottenham.

Talking about the media fickleness, Arsene Wenger was last week shocked to learn that he was selected as the Premier League Manager of the Month. It seems that the award reflected Arsenal's impressive league form in February: 3 wins and 1 draw scoring 14 goals. February was supposed to be the lowest period of Arsene's entire carrier, according to the media.

Arsenal may have been lucky to snatch a win in the injury time, but we think our players deserve credit in many ways. Arsenal goals may have come against the run of play, but they constantly looked dangerous on the break. Their defence may have been all over the place in the first half, but they withstood the pressure and limited the number of goals conceded to only one, which we scored for them. In the second half, they dealt with Liverpool attack very well, keeping Suarez quiet. Mikel Arteta's serious-looking injury did not led to capitulation. In fact, the dynamism of the game changed in favour of Arsenal immediately after the incident. I don't know if it was due to the introduction of Abu Diaby or Liverpool affected negatively by the incident. This game showed some untypical aspects of Arsenal's game and we don't mind them at all.

Liverpool did not take chances in the first half when they could have won the match and it came back to haunt them. We have been often at the receiving end of the same criticism, so it was good to see somebody else getting stick for a change. After the match, Dalglish said Liverpool have to learn how to win ugly. A couple of weeks ago, we heard exactly the same expression coming from Samir Nasri about his old club. This game convinced us that Arsenal can win ugly.

We have no player ratings for this game. Man of the Match is a close call between the defensive hero and attacking hero, Szczezny and RVP. Szczezy's double saves from Kuyt among other numerous stops and saves were as important as RVP's two goals. RVP expressed his appreciation of the goalie's heroics by handing over his Man of the Match champaign to the 21 year-old Pole. It is nice to see our captain appreciate his team-mates' contributions. He kissed Alex Song's right boot during the celebraton of his injury-time winner. He also tweeted his gratitude to Sagna and Song for their superb assists. (Sagna's cross was inch-perfect, while Song's lofted through-ball was just like the one he set up for RVP's exquisite volley against Everton.)

The result of tomorrow's Champions League match is now irrelevant. We are not expecting a miracle to happen and the 4-0 deficit will be overturned. We just hope that our players will deliver decent performance, give AC Millan a good game and not let down the home crowd. The next league game against Newcastle will be far more important. It's a home game against a club who are still in the mix for a top-four finish. Now we have dented Liverpool's hopes for a Champions League spot, we have a chance to do some damange to another contender's aspiration Monday week.