Monday, February 18, 2013

Arsenal 0 Blackburn 1 (FA Cup 5th Round)

We don't usually criticise the boss, but he got it all wrong for this game. The Frenchman was reportedly not happy with the team's performance and rued a "massive" mistake that allowed the Blackburn goal. However, we think he has a large part of blame for the defeat.

We said in our previous post in this blog and our Facebook post that Jack Wilshere should not be risked ahead of Tuesday's Bayern Munich match and we still stand by the view. Abu Diaby, Tomas Rosicky, and even Aaron Ramsey could play in his place. In fact, Diaby and Rosicky were two standout players in this game. Midfield was not a problem. Diaby couldn't do everything Jack Wilshere is capable of, but he has different attributes to be a box-to-box player and contributed to the team in his own way, using his aerial ability. Rosicky has created enough chances to match what Cazorla could have offered, again in his own style.

While we had some injury issues prior to the tie, including Jack Wilshere and Laurant Koscielny's fitness, our other concern was that Wenger might not be able to resist the temptation of rotation, with the Champions League match looming on the horizon. We hoped that he would not make too many changes to his side, but seven changes to the starting XI against Sunderland proved to be just what we feared.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's inclusion was expected to some extent. He is a bright prospect, but has so far failed to replicate his last season's form. If Wenger were to play the Ox on one flank, in-form Walcott or a clinical finisher, Podolski, should have played on the other side. Gervinho was just one gamble too many to take.

To be fair to him, Coquelin probably didn't do too badly in an unfamiliar position, but why would you play the midfielder out of position, when a specialist right-back is fit in the shape of Bacary Sagna. Wenger might have hoped to save the experienced full-back for the Bayern Munich game, but the FA Cup was our best chance, if not an only chance in realistic terms, to win silverware. He should have fielded the best team available. Wenger's logic behind resting Sagna and Mertesacker was that the two players played 90 minutes of mid-week international friendlies and Saturday's Sunderland game last week. However, they had a week's rest since the last match and Sagna should been able to play against Bayern three days later. If the France international were to get injured during the cup tie, so be it. Carl Jenkinson will be available against Bayern. Although following the sending off last week, Jenks' stock has suffered a dip, he is still a competent deputy, if you remember how well he played at the beginning of the season.

Arsene Wenger claimed that he had no regret on his team selection, but we think that was exactly the major factor behind Arsenal's exit. Blackburn's intention was clear even before the kick-off that they were going to park the bus and try to hit us on the break as a lot of visiting teams do at the Emirates. We knew Blackburn would be happy to let us keep the possession of the ball. The only way to open their defence up was to score the first goal. In order to do so, we needed our best players up front. Once we had scored the first goal, they would have had to come out, resulting in the floodgates opening. With a comfortable cushion of goals, then Wenger could have withdrawn some of key players to rest them ahead of Tuesday's match. He should have started with the strongest XI.

OK, the boss may have overestimated some of his second-string players' ability, but he still had a chance to rectify his mistake. At Las Mimosas bar, we were crying out for substitutions in the 60th minute. We had seen enough of some of the players. However, our calls were not answered until the 71st minute. Some may argue that the triple substitutions led us to concede a goal, but if the substitutions had been made with half an hour to play, we would still have had a time to score a goal or two.

We had 71.4% of overall possession, but we were too comfortable with it. Maybe the players thought that they could score at any time with the overwhelming possession. There was no urgency and they lacked clinical finishing. Also, we were unlucky that Blackburn's second-choice keeper was in defiant form. The decisive moment was arguably Gervinho's miss in the first half. Rosicky's incisive pass released Gervinho behind them. However, Gervinho dragged his shot wide. If he had found the net, then Blackburn would have had to come out and it would have been a totally different game.

In his post-match interview, Wenger admitted that we need to improve in set-pieces. We failed to take an advantage of a whopping 16 corners (according to the Sky Sports site, it seemed more than that to us) we were awarded. Under pressure Blackburn were just hacking the ball after ball out of the line, knowing we would do nothing with corners. To start with, we have to improve our deliveries. Also, we tried to break through the crowded middle on the edge of the box too many times, which proved to be fruitless. We have to find another way to break down a stubborn defence.

It's difficult to find a positive from this game. Obviously we were all shocked and heartbroken with another trophy hope dashed. However, one thing Wenger got right was that we avoided a replay.

A clash with Bayern Munich, last season's Champions League runners-up and the current leader of the Bundesliga, is looming large. Hopefully, the players will bounce back from the disappointment quickly and show some spirit and desire in the massive game.

Player ratings

Szczesny: 5
He was almost certainly guilty of the goal. Any professional keeper would have parried Olsson's shot to either side (preferably to his left), or even held the ball. Maybe, he was not alert enough as he had nothing to do for a long period. Disappointing display after his heroics against Sunderland last week.

Coquelin: 6
He was a threat when he went forward. If he hadn't been so theatrical when he was fouled in the area, he may have had a chance to be awarded a penalty (if he was lucky, with Mike Dean as the ref). He may have had his hand in the Blackburn goal.

Koscielny: 6
Looked solid.

Vermaelen: 7
Led the defence well.

Monreal: 6
Went forward more often than his previous two games, but his deliveries left something to be desired.

Rosicky: 8
In the heart of Arsenal's creativity. He was unlucky not to score as his shot hit the under-side of the bar. It just summed up our day. His shot hit the bar and came out, while Kazim-Richards' scuffed attempt hit the inside post and went in. Gave way to Santi Cazorla in the 71st minute.

Diaby: 8
Encouraging performance from the injury-ridden player. Had a couple of good chances to score himself, as well as providing others, and completed 90 minutes.

Arteta: 5
One of his poorer games from the usually consistent performer. Some of his passing was disappointing for an accomplished passer boasting high passing success rates usually. (We have no individual stats on this game as this is not a league game).

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Started brightly. Lively. Replaced by Walcott in the 71st minute.

Gervinho: 5
Missed a match-defining chance. He is still not good enough, no matter how well he did in the Africa Cup of the Nations. It is frustrating as he had a good pre-season and start of season. Withdrawn in the 71st minute.

Giroud: 6
Maybe it was his off-day. His movement without ball was poor on this day, static and wrong at times, but his disappointing performance may be partially affected by the fact that he was often isolated and had to hold up the ball on his own.


Walcott: 6
71st-minute substitute. The three substitutions injected the urgency to the game, but could not find the net.

Wilshere: 7
71st-minute substitute. He upped the tempo of the game and made an impact to Arsenal's attack.

Cazorla: 6
71st-minute substitute. Didn't have enough time to influence the game.


Mike Dean: 5
Since he was assigned to take charge of this game, we were doomed. Another number added to the stats that indicate that he is our "bogey" ref.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sunderland 0 Arsenal 1

It was another hard-fought win, which was a lot tougher than last week's 1-0 win over Stoke as we had a lot of defending to do under severe pressure with a numerical disadvantage. The last 20 minutes brought our hearts into our mouths. It was not comfortable viewing, but in the end, we were all pleased with our team's gritty display. Arsenal have been criticised for their lack of steel in recent years. Losing a key player to injury and a sending off could have had a catastrophic effect on the team's performance in the past. The departure of Jack Wilshere certainly affected our creative side of play, but it didn't lead to capitulation. We defended resolutely after going down to 10 men. We like the way the team earned a vital three points. Facing a situation where we cannot afford to drop any more points, have the team finally found a strength of character? We'd like to think so.

Games following international breaks always give Arsene Wenger team selection headaches and this one was no exception. The biggest problem was a centre-back position. With Thomas Vermaelen ruled out after reportedly having been sent back from the Belgium national squad midweek due to his lingering ankle problem, Koscielny's fitness was a big issue. Wenger was optimistic about the Frenchman's calf strain that forced him to limp off the pitch during France's friendly against Germany on Wednesday night. However, the boss admitted prior to the match that if Koscielny failed a test, options were limited and he had to be "creative". To our relief, the boss didn't mention Squillaci's name as an option. As it turned out, Koscielny reportedly tweaked his calf in the warm-up and as a result, Bacary Sagna was told to play in central defence only 15 minutes before the game, which meant Jenkison was promoted from the bench to the starting line-up at right back. Another option Wenger suggested in the pre-match press conference was on the bench in the shape of Iggy Miquel.

In addition to those changes to the shape of the back four, Wenger made two more changes to the side that started in last week's victory over Stoke. Aaron Ramsey, who was pulled out of the Wales squad before their friendly against Austria due to a calf problem, came in for Abu Diaby, while Santi Cazorla started in the place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The scorer of the winner against Stoke, Lukas Podoski, was on the bench along with Vito Mannone, the Ox, Tomas Rosicky, and Diaby.

A fraction of fans are not happy with the negative tactic we adopted for the last 20 minutes, which was sitting in deep and trying to hit Sunderland on the break. However, we think the Gunners did the right thing under the circumstances with 10 men. In fact, it nearly worked. On several occasions, our break-away players outnumbered Sunderland defenders as the hosts pushed forward, committing more players higher up the pitch. If only Giroud, Cazorla, and Diaby had been more clinical in their finishing, we could have enjoyed the rest of the game relaxed. Walcott also hit the woodwork.

While we heap praise on our team's resolute and committed display in the second half, our regret is wastefulness in the first half. We played some good football and beautiful link-up play, demonstrating quality in the team and showcasing Arsenal's style of play, but the final ball let us down. Walcott and Giroud missed glorious goal-scoring chances, while Ramsey was unlucky not to score on two occasions, both of which were denied by fine saves by Mignolet. We had enough chances to put the game out of sight in the first half and the sending off wouldn't have mattered too much.

That said, positives taken from this game far outweigh negatives. We started the game with high tempo and kept attacking with a high level of intensity for a large part of the first half. Hopefully, we have kicked the recent habit of slow starts which earned us a reputation as a second-half team.

Another clean sheet and solid defensive performance should boost the team' confidence. Since the arrival of Nacho Monreal, we have kept a clean sheet twice in a row. Is this coincidence? The presence of an experienced left back seemed to have contributed to the stability of our defence. Mertesacker was largely helped in the less familiar left side of central defence by not having to cover for the left back and concentrating on his job. In particular, Monreal's calmness is beneficial to our defence which was shaky previously.

Three points proved to be vital with Chelsea and Tottenham winning on the same day. The win moved us up in the table to fifth, leapfrogging Everton, and we are set to stay there for at least another two weeks, following Everton's loss to Manchester United on Sunday. Now we have three important matches in three different competitions in two weeks. We need to focus on each one of them.

Player ratings

Szczesny: 9
Produced a string of outstanding saves, which were crucial to secure the three points.

Jenkinson: 5
Sent off in the 62nd minute after receiving a second yellow card. We think the first one was a bit harsh as it was his first foul and wasn't a malicious challenge, but just mistimed. Nonetheless he should have been more careful after being cautioned. Struggled to cope with Sunderland's wide players. However, we still think he is a promising young talent and this game just highlighted the fact that he needs games. It's a shame now he will miss out on Saturday's FA Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers through suspension, which could have been an ideal opportunity for him.

Sagna: 9
Prior to the match, we were sceptical about him playing as a centre back mainly because of his height or lack of it, although we knew that he has a tremendous leap. In fact, he put in a blinding performance and fared better than in his regular position at right back, perhaps because he didn't have to run up and down the flank or put crosses in. It was a revelation.

Mertesacker: 7
Generally solid, apart from one failed clearance, which nearly cost us a goal and two points (although Fletcher handled the ball).

Monreal: 8
It was the first stern test for him in the defensive terms as Stoke showed little ambition in going forward last week. We think he passed it with flying colours. Made two key passes with 96%  passing success rate.

Ramsey: 7
Had a good game both defensively and offensively. Actively involved in attack in the first half but following the sending off of Jenkinson, he ended up playing in an unfamiliar right-back position. He was dispossessed by Sessegnon, which could have had significant consequences, but to be fair for him, his play was probably affected by the knock he received on the ankle.

Wilshere: 8
Drove the team forward till he suffered a big kick on the thigh. Excellent in linking with Cazorla, which is encouraging as it looks these two seemed to have developed good understanding. Keep fingers crossed for his speedy recovery. Wenger hopes it will be four or five days until the England midfielder is back. Newspaper reports suggest that Wilshere could be back for Saturday's cup tie, but with the Champions League game on the horizon as early as on Tuesday night, it may be a good idea to start him from the bench. Certainly his fitness shouldn't be gambled on, considering the importance of a player of his calibre against Bayern Munich.

Arteta: 8
Guided the team to the hard-fought victory as captain of the day. Subtle display as usual, but played a central role in distribution of the ball and Arsenal's resolute defence.

Cazorla: 9
Scored the winning goal and orchestrated Arsenal's attack.

Walcott: 7
Had several goal scoring chances, one of which he hit the woodwork. He has hugely improved this season in consistency through a game. He doesn't go missing or fade away in games these days.

Giroud: 7
Worked hard. He played a vital part in defence, using his aerial ability, as well as getting involved in most of the Gunners' attacking play. However, he needs to improve his finishing.


Diaby: 7
50th-minute substitute for injured Wilshere. Added physical strength and height to the Arsenal defence and defended well.

Miquel: 6
Came off the bench in the 87th minute to replace Walcott in order to shore up the defence. Did his job.


Anthony Taylor: 5
His decisions were inconsistent. Jenkinson's first carded challenge was not as bad as some of the Sunderland players' tackles which escaped punishment. Arsenal midfielders, especially Ramsey and Wilshere, and forwards suffered the consequences of the referee's shortcomings physically. One of the poorer referees this season.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Arsenal 1 Stoke 0

If "the end-to-end stuff" and a goal fest are main ingredients for entertaining games, this game was certainly not one of them, but it was not our fault. Stoke parked the bus and stopped us playing our free-flowing football by constantly tripping Walcott and Wilshere. They had no intention of attacking, with only Crouch up front left isolated. It was very difficult to break down stubborn Stoke defence and in the end, we needed a lucky deflection on Geoff Cameron's boot to find the net. Some fans are critical, stating that we don't have a plan B against those teams who try to defend with 10 men behind the ball, but we think that we could have won the game even without a help of luck, by playing our style of football, had it not been for Asmir Begovic's heroics. Also, the media were sceptical about penetration of our attack, but through Wilshere's incisive pass combined with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's effort, we managed to get behind Stoke's defence and created a number of clear-cut chances. We could have won 3-0, again had it not been for Begovic's superb saves.

In fact, we played some good football despite Stoke's efforts to stop us playing. Before the match, a piece of Opta stats was in the centre of attention, which was "if only the second half of games counted this season Arsenal would be second on 46 points, two points behind Manchester City." So, it was official that Arsenal are a second-half team. Following the Liverpool match, in which we came back from 2-0 down to earn a point, Podolski urged his team to start strongly from the beginning. The team responded to his call by starting the game in high tempo against Stoke.

Arsene Wenger made five changes to his side who started against Liverpool on Wednesday. Injured Vermaelen was replaced by Kosielny. Vermaelen's aggravated ankle problem left us with little left-back option, either a transfer-deadline-day signing, Nacho Monreal, or Andre Santos. To our joy, Monreal came straight into the starting XI. Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski dropped to the bench, while Abu Diaby and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came in for them. Fit-again Mikel Arteta started in the place of Aaron Ramsey, who had filled in for the Spaniard as a deep-lying midfielder relatively well.

All eyes were on our new signing. Although most of fans agreed that he was a great acquisition, some were disappointed with Arsenal's transfer activity less than they expected amid the media reports that the Club had a sizable transfer budget. At Arsenal Playa Flamenca Supporters Club, we were pleased with the fact that the boss recognised the need of a new left-back and took action before the transfer window slammed shut. Maybe we could have done with a new holding midfielder as well, but we don't think we needed a new striker as we have Walcott and Podolski as Giroud's back-up.

Left-back was exactly where we needed to strengthen and we are happy to see Wenger act swiftly as soon as he had found Gibbs would be out for up to six weeks. We didn't have an adequate cover for Gibbs as Santos is not a Premier-League level defender. Also, at the age of 23, Gibbs is too young to be an uncontested first-choice left-back anyway. The 26-year-old former Malaga player is at the prime of his career and nine caps for the Spanish national team is not to be sniffed at. Arsenal had been linked with Luke Shaw of Southampton for some time, but following his signing of a new contract with the South coast club, the speculation has died down. We are glad that the potential move didn't materialise. Shaw may be a talented player with 6-month experience in the Premier League, but another teenage player is not what we wanted for this position.

We didn't get disappointed with the display by our new signing. Although his defensive prowess was not much tested as Stoke had decided not to push forward, Monreal was unfazed in aerial duels against Jon Walters. Arsene Wenger said, "There is no better culture shock than Stoke when you come from Spain!". Monreal also looked comfortable and confident on the ball as is the case for Spanish players. He even played a lovely one-two with Wilshere and his chipped cross for Giroud was delightful. It was a promising start to English football and his Arsenal career.

Critics claim that we struggled to find penetration without Santi Cazorla. Although it is true that the introduction of Santi and Poldi injected a renewed urgency into Arsenal's game, we think Jack Wilshere did well in Santi's place. Arteta, captain on the day in the absence of Thomas Vermaelen, hailed the depth in Arsenal's squad. We needed to give Santi a rest and it was encouraging to see Jack play in the heart of Arsenal's attack, filling Santi's boots, while the Spaniard came off the bench to make an impact. In fact, a number of players had a good game this day, including those who have been heavily criticised recently, which is encouraging. Another positive from this game was a clean sheet obviously. It should give some confidence to our defenders, who have been under huge pressure in recent games.

The goal shouldn't have been disputable. The linesman may have flagged for Walcott's off-side position, but he was not interfering with play and not even in a position to obscure the keeper's view. Christ Foy correctly (as all the media said) overruled his assistant and let the goal stand. Tony Pulis was not happy with the way Arsenal players surrounded the linesman, but as Wenger said, it was a natural reaction (In that situation, who wouldn't protest?) Actually, a couple of Stoke players also rushed to the linesman.

It was a great win (it's always great to beat Stoke), although it may not have been as convincing as some of recent games such as our thrashing of West Ham. We are quite happy with our team's performance. With Chelsea and Everton dropping points, it was a good weekend for our hopes of a top-four finish (Shame about the Tottenham result, though). Hopefully, we can maintain the winning ways after a mid-week international break.

Player ratings

Szczesny: 6
With Stoke managing only one shot on target, which was a comfortable save, he had little to do all afternoon.

Sagna: 7
Had a much improved game.

Mertesacker: 7
Kept Crouch at bay. He has been under criticism recently for not using his height well (on some occasions, he didn't even jump). In this game, he won 7 aerial duels.

Koscielny: 7
Looked solid and went close to score with his header, which was denied by Begovic's fine save.

Monreal: 7
Made a promising debut just after 48 hours of his arrival in England.

Diaby: 7
He had arguably his best game since his return from 2-month lay-off. Looked reliable defensively and robust going forward.

Wilshere: 8
In the heart of creativity. His pass to the Ox was superb.

Arteta: 7
Much-awaited return from a calf injury. Brought back stability to the team. The most touches (128) of all the players on the pitch with 91% pass success rate.

Walcott: 7
He tormented Wilkinson and showed his strength against physical Stoke, not deterred by crude challenges. One of those Wilkinson's challenge resulted in a free-kick just outside the box, which led to a precious goal. However, his final ball let us down in this game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Had a good game. Energetic and constantly posed a threat to Stoke defence. We like his direct approach. He always look to shoot. Went close to score twice.

Giroud: 6
He should have put his free header on target, rather than knocked it down for another Arsenal player.


Cazorla: 7
Came off the bench to replace Diaby in the 68th minute. Added creativity and went close to secure a victory in a more convincing way.

Podoliski: 7
Replaced the Ox on the left flank in the 68th minute. His free-kick may have needed a lucky deflection to beat Begovic, who was excellent all afternoon, but the German should get credit for his powerful shot.

Ramsey: 6
90th minute substitute for Walcott. Little time to make a difference.