Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reading 5 Arsenal 7 (AET) Capital One Cup 4th Round

It was a crazy game of football, which was hailed by many as the greatest match they had ever seen. Both teams deserve credit for their parts in this game, but Arsenal's comeback, in particular, should go down in history.

Arsene Wenger made wholesale changes to the starting XI who faced QPR last Saturday, which was widely expected not only because of his well-known policy to use the League Cup competition for the development of his young players, but also because he needed to rest key players after tough weeks including the international break and keep them fresh ahead of this weekend's crucial clash with Manchester United.

The starting line-up was usual mix of fringe first-teamers and youngsters. Although Arsene Wenger made it clear in the AGM that this trophy lied at the bottom of his priority list, Arsenal's impressive track record of progressing in this competition indicated that the boss has always aimed to field a good enough team to win each game.

Perhaps, this unfamiliar mixture of players was behind Arsenal's disastrous first 37 minutes. We couldn't understand how our last season's best defender, Koscielny, and our best defender two seasons ago, Djourou, could play so badly. Miquel was clearly struggling in his less familiar position, making Andre Santos look like the best left-back in the world. Even in-form Jenkinson looked somewhat rusty, after having been left out of the first-team starting line-up for the first time this season last Saturday.

However, the poor collective performance was blamed for Arsenal's defensive frailty as well as the defenders' individual mistakes. Walcotts' misplaced pass and Chamakh's failure to clear the line resulted in the two of Reading's first-half four goals.

On the attacking side, passing was slow with no urgency or purpose, resembling the first-team's recent performances. Everything seemed to have gone wrong for Arsenal, apart from a lucky escape in the third minute, when Morrison's header came off the woodwork and then hit our keeper Martinez's head (who probably didn't know much about it), ricocheting to the safety. At Las Mimosas bar, we all agreed that this was the worst Arsenal performance in years, even worse than the last couple of games.

However, Arsenal seemed to have finally woken up from Halloween spells after conceding four goals in 37 minutes. In a quick counter-attack, after Arshavin intercepted a lobbed pass, Walcott clipped home, providing us a glimpse of hope in injury time of the first half. The goal gave Arsenal a lifeline.

We were disappointed to see no changes to the team at half time. The game resumed at 4-1 and after Arsenal weathered Reading attack, it was Arsenal's turn to storm back. In the 62nd minute, Wenger had finally decided to make changes. Much to our delight, Giroud and a promising 19-year-old, Thomas Eisfeld, came off the bench in exchange of Gnabry and Frimpong. We expected Giroud to replace Chamakh, who hadn't impressed us up to this point, but the boss' decision to leave the Morocco international on the pitch proved to be spot-on later on.

Giroud provided our much-awaited second goal just two minutes after he came on. He injected some energy and a spark to the team. However, no more goals came until a minute before the end of normal time, when we started conceding that we were going out of the competition before making quarter-finals for the first time in ten years. Although our hopes were fading, we were happy that at least Arsenal tried and showed what Arsenal's style of football is like. The amount of chances they created in the second half only pleased the fans as they have been few and far between them these days. It would be a bonus if Giroud, who will become one of our main players in one day without doubt, could take courage from his performance and the impact he made in this game.

As time was about to run out with only two minutes left in normal time, Koscielny redeemed himself by scoring at the right end this time round. Then, with what was going to be the last kick of the game, Arsenal grabbed an equaliser through Theo's shot. It was debatable at the time whether the whole of the ball crossed the line, but what mattered was that Arsenal snatched an equaliser at the end of stoppage time. There was no room for argument for that as Jenkinson stabbed the rebound into the back of the net to make doubly sure. The goal scorer was later confirmed and Theo was awarded Arsenal's fourth goal. (I wouldn't have minded a bit, if, Jenkinson, a life long Arsenal supporter, had been on the score sheet for the first time for his beloved club).

13th minutes into extra time, Chamakh had finally woken up from his 13-month slumber to score a goal, putting us in front for the first time. Then Pogrebnyak equalised 12 minutes later for Reading, but Theo got a winner to complete his hat-trick and Chamakh added to his goal tally to finish off the incredible night in the last minute of extra time. All football fans were treated to amazing dramas in the eve of Halloween.

Although only Giroud and possibly Walcott out of this team are likely to start against Manchester United this weekend, hopefully the whole first-team will be inspired by the never-say-die spirit shown by this night's side.

6,000 travelling supporters also attracted media attention. We are proud of our fellow Gooners who stuck behind the team. They were louder than the home fans. On the other hand, some of the travelling fans got stick for leaving the stadium at half time. We understand the feeling of those fans as well. Sometimes it is too hard to watch your team when they are playing awfully. One particular Arsenal supporter was caught on camera as he was leaving his seat before half time, but he defended his action by stating he was just going to get a pint, which understandably he needed. Apparently he remained at the ground thoroughout the game to witness one of the most amazing football match.

We also praise those fans who gave Giroud and Coquelin their shirts back before extra time. The two Arsenal players thought there would be a replay and didn't realise they had to play another half an hour until one of the Arsenal subs went to tell them. Newspaper reports say that Arsenal FC are now looking for those fans, examining CCTV footage, in order to present replica Giroud and Coquelin shirts to them. Arsenal always do things properly, don't they?

Player ratings

Martinez: 4
He has been sitting on the bench with the first-team this season due to injuries to the two keepers top of the pecking order. He didn't put his foot wrong in the previous round of the Capital One Cup (he couldn't do much about Coventry's only goal), which warranted his starting place in this match. He looked like an amateur keeper this day. He was guilty for Reading's third goal. He made a few fine saves afterwards, but he looked shaky.  Towards the end of extra time, Wenger was furious about him taking a goal-kick too quickly before his team-mates were ready. His Capital One Cup campaign may be over as Szczesny is very close to his return, which means Mannone will soon be taking over the Cup keeper role.

Jenkinson: 7
Despite his slow start, he was all over the pitch (in a good sense) in the second half, delivering some good crosses. He stayed focused and kept his cool in the goalmouth melĂ©e to make sure his team got an equaliser.

Djourou: 5
Had a poor game. He was beaten by Reading players too easily.

Koscielny: 5
He was simply dreadful in the first half.

Miquel: 4
Although we have to take into account the fact that he was played out of position, he was still poor. He played at the left-back a few times last season as we were going through the full-back injury crisis, so we expected better from him. Got injured and stretchered off in the 105th minute.

Frimpong: 5
We like his combative approach to games, but he was ineffective in this game and taken off in the 62nd minute.

Coquelin: 5
His passing was very sloppy and he looked as if he hadn't cared in the first half.

Walcott: 8
Put in some good crosses and scored hat-trick. His finishing was very good.

Arshavin: 8
He was given a chance again to play his favourite position just behind the central striker. He looked eager to show what he could contribute to the team, giving 100% for the full 120 minutes. Made three assists, including his powerful effort that led to Walcott's match-winner.

Gnabry: 5
Despite hypes about the 17-year-old Germany youth international prior to the match, his performance was disappointing. He had a couple of good efforts, but his defensive contribution was non-existent, apart from one crucial block early in the second half, which didn't help the make-shift left-back, Miquel, at all.

Chamakh: 7
Scored two goals, but his first-half performance was as bad as others'. Difference from his previous appearances was that he was more mobile in this game. His first goal epitomised this. In the build-up to it, he passed the ball to Giroud and made a run to collect the ball from Arshavin, who received a pass from Giroud. Hopefully, this will boost his confidence and re-ignite his Arsenal career.


Giroud: 8
Replaced Frimpong in the 62nd minute. Super sub who made a big difference. This experience should give him a huge confidence boost or at least a feel-good factor.

Eisfeld: 7
Came on in the 62nd minute for Gnabry. We were really looking forward to seeing him in first-team action. He had a sensational pre-season and has scored a couple of good goals in the U-21 game recently. He is a real bright prospect for Arsenal. And we were not disappointed when we saw him play (we WERE disappointed when we didn't see his name in the starting XI). He made good runs, causing problems for Reading defence, forcing fouls and winning free-kicks at the edge of the box. We think he is readier and more all-round than Gnabry. The ex-Dortmund man's stellar performance seems to have gone unnoticed by many amid the other players' eye-catching displays (he still won praises from a section of fans, though), but introducing the talented young German to a senior-team game was definitely one of many positives from the game.

Meade: 6
Substituted injured Miquel in the 105th minute.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Arsenal 1 QPR 0

It was an unconvincing victory, but a win is a win. What mattered was that we took all three points we desperately needed. If we could have done it in a convincing way, it would have been ideal, but at the moment scraping a win seems to be the best we can do and we did just that. Also, the clean sheet was a notable achievement (although it was threatened for a number of times), considering the fact that we have conceded first goals six times in the last eight games in all competitions, which has made the games very difficult for us.

Our attacking was still not clicking to produce goals, but we have created a lot more chances than the last two games put together. Contrary to Mark Hughes' claim that Arsenal created nothing apart from Cazorla's chance, the stats showed that Arsenal had 9 shots on target and another 9 off target, in comparison to QPR's 2 shots on target with 2 off target. Had it not been for Julio Cesar's heroics, we would have scored 4 or 5 goals. It wasn't typical Arsenal style of football which is easy on the eye, but things are definitely getting better.

As usual, major talking points prior to the match were about team selection, and this week its focus was on whether Wilshere would play. He was expected to be included in the squad once again after making the bench against Norwich and playing another 90 minutes in the U-21 game earlier that week, with his eye-catching performance. However, it seemed to us that this game may have come too soon for Jack to start. Based on this notion, we thought Francis Coquelin would get the nod for the remaining midfield starting place on the back of his committed performance against Shalke. We kept a watchful eye on team news, but it looked that the boss was going to leave his final decision until last minute. In fact, after the match, the boss revealed that he told the England midfielder his intention to start him at 10:30 am on the match day. Jack's inclusion in the starting line-up came as a welcome surprise to us.

Jack Wilshere was still not 100 per cent match fit, according to Arsene Wenger's pre-match comments, but the players and the supporters alike desperately needed a morale boost after the back-to-back defeats. Playing Jack in a league game for the first time in 17 months could have been a gamble, but Wenger's decision paid off. Not only did his presence give us a lift, but also his performance was impressive, giving the team much-needed creative sparks. He also ran at defenders and took on them. The effect of his long-term injury was not visible at least in a psychological aspect. Santi Cazorla, who usually orchestrates our attack, has been deprived of freedom and space in the recent games against Chelsea, Norwich and Shalke. It will be difficult for the oppositions to shackle both Santi and Jack all the time. Jack's presence is likely to free up space for Santi.

Jack was always going to fade later on and he retired in the 67th minute, but it seems safe to say his first Premier-League adventure was successful. There was an anxious moment when he had a knock on his ankle, but he carried on playing. During Jack's 67-minute appearance, we had a glance of what could be Arsenal's best midfield combination this season in the shape of Santi, Jack and Mikel. This was a totally new partnership for Jack, but it looked that it would't take too long to gel together and find a new attack-defence balance, just like it took Cazorla no time to acclimatise himself to Arsenal style of football.

Bacary Sagna also made his return from a long-term injury. Dropping in-form Jenkinson was somewhat surprising for us, but it showed that Wenger's faith in Sagna as a first-choice right-back and the France international did not let the boss down. He played as if he had never been away.

We fancied Giroud up front for this game and as expected, the french centre forward led the line. We think he has now reached adaptation stages where a striker benefits from more playing time. He should start more often.

Following Andre Santos' calamitous performance against Shalke, we wanted to see Vermaelen playing as the left-back with Santos dropped to the bench and Koscielny and Mertesacker in the centre-back partnership. However, we also anticipated that Wenger would always prefer playing a specialist full-back whenever they are available and we were right about Wenger's inclination as Santos took the left-back position once again. In fact, he didn't play too badly despite QPR targeting his flank just as Shalke did.

Prior to the match, it looked that both Theo Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain were out, which meant the right-wing position open to Gervinho and Ramsey, who were both heavily criticised for their poor performance during the midweek game. Ramsey started on the right wing, which didn't make some of us happy. Gervinho was understandably dropped to the bench. The team sheet revealed Walcott's inclusion in the squad. He only made the bench, but his return to the squad admittedly excited us.

We may have been a bit lucky as the boss admitted, as Stephane Mbia was sent off for a moment of madness. However, the referee's decision was nothing to do with luck. Everybody reckoned that Mbia's senseless conduct left no choice for the referee but to show him a red card, except for Mark Hughes who doubted any contact between his player and our captain. The numerical advantage certainly helped us to unlock QPR's dogged defence. On the other hand, QPR were lucky not to get Granero sent off for the second bookable offence, when the Spaniard fouled Arteta. We could have been one-man up for a longer period.

Mark Hughes also claimed that Arteta's winner was off side. The ref's reasoning of his decision is that a QPR defender, Ryan Nelson ran beyond the goalline at the time of the initial header, which played Arteta on side.

At the final whistle, there was no elation at Las Mimosas bar that is usually accompanied with an Arsenal victory, but just a relief. We could not afford to fall further behind our rivals and a third consecutive loss would have had a catastrophic impact on the players' confidence. Saturday's win saw us temporarily move up to fourth in the Premier League table. After all the weekend results, including Man Utd's defeat of Chelsea, we are currently 6th of the table, trailing the league leader, Chelsea, by 7 points and two Manchester clubs by 6 points. The gap now looks a little bit more manageable.

The scrappy win didn't inspire us with too much optimism, but the hard-fought win was certainly encouraging and the team's performance definitely showed some improvement from the last two games. This victory should give Arsenal a base to build on.

Player ratings

Mannone: 6
He had a relatively quiet game in comparison with his counterpart, Julio Cesar, but he did well when it mattered. He punched away Granero's free-kick to the sideline and blocked Mackie's close-range shot in the injury time to secure Arsenal's win.

Sagna: 6
Made his first senior-team appearance in 5 months. He is back physically.

Mertesacker: 6
Mostly solid. Unlucky not to score with his header.

Vermaelen: 6
Some good clearances and tackles.

Santos: 6
He was still caught out at times, but he went forward more often and get involved in attack.

Cazorla: 7
A player with his calibre should have buried a chance like the one he had.

Arteta: 8
His tenacity earned the goal.

Wilshere: 8
Bright spot for us.

Ramsey: 7
His looping header was a good effort, which hit the top of the cross bar. His shot forced a fine save out of Julio Cesar.

Podolski: 5
His work rate improved, compared with the poor level against Shalke, helping Santos more defensively. On the offensive side, he failed to make his mark in this game. Is it time to review his position as a left winger?

Giroud: 6
Julio Cesar was only able to parry the Frenchman's powerful header, which eventually led to the winner. He was unlucky not to score as his shot from angle was saved.


Walcott: 6
67th-minute substitute for Jack Wilshere. Added some pace to the game, but did not make as big a difference as we hoped.

Gervnho: 5
Replaced Podolski in the 71st minute only to be substituted 12 minutes later by Arshavin. Suffered an ankle injury and was stretchered off. We didn't see any improvement in his performance during his cameo appearance.

Arshavin: 7
Came on in the 82 minute to replace injured Gervinho. He played a crucial role in the build-up to the valuable goal as his chipped cross back from the by-line found Giroud. He also had a chance to score himself in the death of the game, but he couldn't get a decent touch. He looked hungry and raring to go.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Norwich 1 Arsenal 0

At the final whistle, we, the Arsenal supporters at Las Mimosas bar, all agreed that this was the worst performance we had seen so far this season. In the post-match interview, Arsene Wenger admitted that his men were well below par.

This day's Arsenal side looked as if they had never played together. Their attack was so disjointed. Perhaps a disruption caused by the international break affected their understanding and telepathic communication? Such understanding plays a greater part in Arsenal's style of play, but other big clubs have also lost many players for international duties, yet still managed a win earlier that day. The international break cannot be an excuse, but it certainly seems to have taken the edge off the momentum Arsenal created from their committed performance against West Ham two weeks ago.

Did Arsenal players take Norwich seriously enough? They did not seem to be fully focused in this game. Also, Arsene Wenger's decision to include "80 percent match-fit" Jack Wilshere in the squad may suggest his anticipation that this game could be a walk in the park. He revealed his intention to play him if the game allowed, but it was too intense and he had no choice but abandon his plan. Obviously, he was worried about rough challenges on Jack, but what sort of game did he envisage when he decided to let Jack travel with the squad.

Our midfield, the boss and the fans alike have recently boasted as our strongest position, was non-existent this day. Cazorla, who normally pulls the strings, went missing at times, while Ramsey was ineffectual. Only Arteta found space to exploit and made more forward runs than usual, but he couldn't take full advantage of it because of his deeper role.

Particularly in the second half, there was nobody in the box apart from Giroud, who was surrounded by the yellow shirts. He had no support around him to feed the ball to, when he got the ball. Arsenal players' movement was very poor, static at times. They were only passing the ball around at the edge of the box with no purpose or urgency (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?). They did very little with their dominance in possession.

Earlier this season, we were pleased with the sight of the strong Arsenal bench, which we hardly experienced last season, but on this day the bench was reduced to the hopeful youngsters and back-ups due to injuries to regular first-teamers. We shouldn't be relying on a 19 year-old (the Ox) or even a 17 year-old (Serge Gnabry) for turning things around, no matter how talented he is.

Unfortunately, the current injury situation does not look likely to improve in the immediate future. Arsene has confirmed that there will be no players to come back from injury for the mid-week game. Chamberlain was added to the lengthy injury list after this game, although his injury is not of a long-term nature. However, as Jack Wilshere, Bacary Sagna, and Manny Frimpong all completed 90 minutes in Monday's U-21 game against Everton, these players' return is imminent. Wilshere's performance in this game was outstanding. Those chances Wilshere created in this game would have made a difference in the Norwich game.

Following the poor performance, questions sprang up among the doubters (Yes, we have those in our club as well and they are not so called "plastic fans", but they are long-standing fans) as to the quality of the team. The current crop of players have enough quality to challenge for the title, after the signing of the three quality players this summer. We could have comfortably beaten the Norwich side who faced Livepool or Chelsea (most of us were fairly optimistic until the game started and still believed at half time that we could turn the game around just like we did against Olympiacos and West Ham). Norwich got their tactics right and tightened up their defence, but the main factor behind our defeat was the fact that we did not play to our full potential.

The weekend's results left us 9th in the table, trailing the league leader, Chelsea, by 10 points. No more slip-ups will be allowed. We need to get all three points next week from the QPR game to make up ground on our top-four finish rivals, when Chelsea face Man United.

We all know how bad results ruin our day or even a week. Fortunately, we don't have to wait too long to have the rest of our week brighten up. We think the disappointing performance was a one-off incident. Hopefully, Arsenal will prepare well and focus themselves on Wednesday's Champions League game and produce a perfect response to this disappointment.

Player ratings

Mannone: 4
The Norwich goal was largely due to his goal-keeping error. The goal dented his confidence and his performance afterwards was unconvincing.

Jenkinson: 7
Although his crossing may have been mixed, he looked the most consistent player in the team when the whole team performed poorly. Got forward and then tracked back quickly to stop the Norwich winger attacking on his side. Reliable performance. Also made a last-ditch clearance to save a further blush.

Mertesacker: 6
Couldn't get to the loose ball before Holt to prevent the Norwich goal, but we know he is not the fastest defender, don't we?

Vermaelen: 5
His slip nearly gave me a heart attack.

Santos: 5
I thought Gibbs was overrated in comparison with Jenkinson, but now I know what difference Gibbs makes. Gibbs wins the ball high on the pitch and makes a forward run straight away to the byline, swift movement allowed by his pace. His crossing sometimes leaves much to be desired, but he is a threat to the opponents' defence when he get forward. The partnership along the left-hand-side touchline between Gibbs and Podolski was behind Arsenal's success this season. On the other hand, Santos stopped getting forward well before the edge of the opponents' box. He is not a good defender, but he was good going forward last season. Maybe his pace or lack of it inhibits him from getting forward too far. Gibbs was sorely missed in this game.

Cazorla: 6
Not at his best. His corner kicks were poor in this game. In fact, we have to improve our set-piece play to take advantage of so many corners we get.

Arteta: 7
He did his job well and stung the palm of Ruddy with his low shot at the latter stages of the game. The best player in this day's lacklustre midfield.

Ramsey: 5
We all know he is not a box-to-box player, but for some reason Arsene Wenger still plays the Welshman in the position vacated following the injury to Diaby. He cannot tackle, he slows down the team's passing, and he gives away the ball cheaply. Poor performance. Having his captain's armband stripped for his country affected his confidence? Coquelin playing a holding midfielder role with Arteta in a more advanced role may be a better option until Diaby or Wilshere comes back in the team.

Gervinho: 6
Some call him Mr Inconsistency. He is inconsistent even in one game. He was once again better on the left wing, causing Norwich defence problems with his trickery, but he was his old self in this game. His final ball let him down. Should have taken a shot earlier when he received an incisive through pass from Arteta.

Podolski: 5
Struggled to assert himself in this game. Was it because he didn't get service?

Giroud: 5
Following his first League goal against West Ham and his only touch in his most recent international game, which resulted in a valuable equaliser against Spain, when he came on as a late sub, we were hoping that he has got himself into some kind of form, but it wasn't to be. He had some half chances and a couple of more clear-cut ones, which he should have buried.


Oxlade-Chamberlain: 5
Replaced Podolski in the 65th minute only to be substituted 8 minutes later by Arshavin. Suffered a knock on his hip, which rules him out for Wednesday's Champions League game.

Arshavin: 5
74th-minute substitute for injured Ox. Had a little go, but not enough to make a difference.

Gnabry: 5
We know he has impressed Arsene Wenger in the recent U-21 games and the Capital One Cup tie against Coventry, but he is not quite at the top-flight football level yet. He was found in good positions a couple of times, but he was not composed enough to capitalise on the opportunities.