Monday, March 18, 2013

Swansea 0 Arsenal 2

On Saturday, two teams known for their similar style of play met for the fourth time this season. In the first encounter of the season at the Emirates, the Welsh club left us shocked, scoring two late goals in quick counter-attacks and taking all three points. However, since then, we had nearly beaten them on their home soil, where Manchester United and Chelsea both dropped points, in the third round of the FA Cup, and we outplayed them in all departments in the replay at the Emirates.

Nobody knew what kind of mood Swansea would be in, going into this game, after they won the Capital One Cup three weeks ago, securing their place in Europe next season, and  pretty well safe from relegation. It was equally difficult to predict how much the midweek exertions had affected Arsene Wenger's side. On the other hand, we were hoping that the impressive win on Wednesday night would give them much-needed confidence to carry them through the rest of the season. In fact, Michael Laudrup revealed his gameplan that if his side managed to hold Arsenal early on, the north London club would get tired and his side could beat them in the second half.

Arsene Wenger made three changes from the side that started in the midweek win over Bayern Munich. We were hoping that he would keep the same back five on the back of their solid defensive display against the German giants, but the reported recurrence of  Gibbs' thigh strain looked set to leave the English left-back out of the squad. As it turned out, Gibbs made the bench and he came on as an 85th-minute sub, which was an encouraging sign of his fitness. In any case, we never doubted that Nacho Monreal would be a more than capable deputy and our confidence in him was backed up by his performance in this game. Now Arsene Wenger has two competent left-backs to chose from.

Bacary Sagna was yet to recover from his injury, which made Wenger's selection for a right-back position easier. Vermaelen continued his life on the bench, while Szczesny also made the bench. Prior to the game, Wenger defended his decision to have left out the two regular starters against Bayern Munich, claiming they still play vital roles in the team. Jack Wilshere has been ruled out until April, according to the media report, although Wenger previously hoped that the England international would only miss out on one Premier League game.

Another conspicuous absentee was Lukas Podolski, whose future has been a talking point among the fans. The German international declared his return to full fitness on the matchday, 16 March, and tweeted on Sunday that he was glad to be back in the German squad. As we mentioned in the last post, Juventus and Atletico Madrid are reportedly prepared to offer £15 million for the German striker as he seems to have fallen out of favour with Arsene Wenger. If he plays for Germany and he doesn't feature in the Reading game in two weeks' time, unless he gets injured during the international break, it will cast a serious question on his future at Arsenal. He is Arsenal's most clinical finisher and has provided joint top assists in the Premier League. We fear that Arsenal may not be able to resist the temptation of selling him for profits in the region £4 million (based on a reported transfer fee of £11 million) in just one year.

Elsewhere, Abou Diaby replaced Aaron Ramsey from Wednesday night, while Santi Cazorla moved back to a central attacking midfielder role, which was vacated by Tomas Rosicky. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the left wing.

Wenger's substitution decisions have caused our displeasure a number of times this season, but the one he made in this game proved to be spot on and crucial. In the 70th minutes (regular as clockwork), the Frenchman brought on two pairs of fresh legs in the shape of Gervinho and Ramsey, both of whom have many critics among fans. Their introductions were met by groans at the Las Mimosas bar. Especially, the substitutions came when the Ox was demonstrating his strength, i.e., shooting from range, going close to score twice only to be denied by the woodwork. However, the two substitutes injected energy and impetus going forward and produced a late goal to seal a victory with two of them combining. We have to say that the Ivorian's resurgence was somewhat expected from his good work on Wednesday night.

It was a strange game. Some papers described the win as "comfortable", while others claimed that it was anything but convincing. Stats are of no help for that matter, painting a mixed picture open to interpretations. Swansea dominated with 57% of overall possession. They outpassed us with 619 passes vis-à-vis our 454, with an 88% passing success rate against our 84%. However, one can argue that they didn't make most of their possession and passes, as they only had nine shots in total with no shots on target, in comparison with our 16 shots in total with six on target.

In our view, Arsenal controlled the majority of the game, especially most of the second half. With our defence looking composed, we didn't look like we were going to concede, which left it only a matter of our capability to score a goal. Arsene Wenger and Michael Laudrup both agreed that in this kind of game, a first goal would be decisive. And we got it in the 74th minute through Nacho's shot, which was described as a "scuffed" attempt by many, but we didn't agree. The goal was set up by Olivier Giroud. According to some match reports, after Santi had "squared the ball for Giroud", Giroud "nudged" the ball for Nacho. In our opinion, the French striker did his best to mess up Santi's pass which was intended for Ramsey waiting at the far post unmarked. After the goal, Swansea had to come out in their attempt to find an equaliser, which pushed their defence line high up, leaving space behind them. Giroud spotted Ramsey on the right flank ahead of him. After collecting a pass from the Frenchman, Ramsey found himself in a two-on-one situation and squared the ball to Gervinho. The pass was not perfect, falling behind the Ivorian, but Gervinho managed to check and slotted past Michel Vorm with a great composure, which has been found wanting for some time.

It was vital three points after Everton beat Mancester City earlier on the day and leapfrogged us temporarily. We showed great spirit, in particular, in the last 20 minutes. Our defence looked solid throughout the game, even when Swansea showed some attacking intent in the first half. Fabianski was well protected by the back four, who prevented Swansea's shots on target by doing their best to block or deter them. Another clean sheet in four days against another strong attacking side should further boost the team's confidence. Many thought this was our toughest fixture, apart from the Man U match, so coming away with all three points from South Wales definately helped Arsenal's successful run-in.

After Tottenham's slip-up on Sunday, fouth place suddenly looked more achievable. We are now trailing the north London rivals by four points with a game in hand. Hopefully, all the players who go away on their international duty will come back unscathed and others can get a good rest before they focus on the clash with Reading in two weeks' time. Keep fingers crossed that we can keep the momentum and a good run of form after the international break.

Player ratings

Fabianski: 7 
With Swansea registering no shots on target, he had little to do. Apart from one occassion, in which we were surprised that he didn't come out to claim the ball, he looked commanding.

Jenkinson: 7
Apart from one school-boy error, in which he gave away the ball in his attempt to make a pass across the face of the box, he looked solid.

Mertesacker: 7
Solid. Seems to be much better with Koscielny.
Koscielny: 7
Worked hard and made some crucial challenges.

Monreal: 7
He grew into the game and scored a key goal.

Diaby: 6
After having a nightmare in the first half, his game improved dramatically in the second half. He was more direct and used his bursting runs well. He just needs to have a good run of games without getting injured. 

Arteta: 6 
His passing success rate was right up there on this day with 92%, but he still committed a meaningless foul and received a yellow card.

Cazorla: 8
Outstanding. 41% of voters on's Opinion Poll shared the same view with us that he was the Man of the Match. Nacho was the runner-up with 18% of votes, followed by the Ox's 14%.
Walcott: 6
We expected more from the birthday boy.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
He was most likely to score in the first half, hitting the woodwork twice.

Giroud: 6
Battled well against Ashley Williams, a Swansea defender who has been linked with Arsenal in recent weeks.


Gervinho: 7
Made a great impact again when he came on in the 70th minute for the Ox. Scored a stoppage time goal.

Ramsey: 7
The other one of the double substitution in the 70th minute, replacing Diaby in his favourite central midfield position. Assisted a goal for Gervinho.

Gibbs: 6
85th-minute substitute for Walcott.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Bayern Munich 0 Arsenal 2 (2nd leg of Round of Last 16 in Champions League)

We nearly made the "mission impossible" possible. While the media are keen to remind us that another season will end trophy-less for the eighth successive year, we are quite happy with how bravely our players fought for an unlikely comeback. The impressive win against the last season's Champions League finalists and current Bundesliga leaders proved that we deserved to be in Europe's elite league. Although Arsenal failed to find the net one more time to go through to the next round, they went out of the competition, holding their heads high.

Pre-match mood couldn't have been gloomier for Arsenal fans with more unnerving news unfolded on the day, as if the media hadn't tormented us and Arsene Wenger enough this season. First of all, Wenger's decision to rest Wojciech Szczesny caused a stir among the fans. Wenger explained his decision by stating that the young No. 1 needed a breather after a number of games he played under severe scrutiny. Most of the media interpreted this as the young keeper being dropped because of his recent errors, especially the one that led to the Gunners' exit from the FA Cup, while some fans took the word "rest" at face value and protested Wenger's decision as they saw no reason why the first-choice keeper should need a rest. At Playa Flamenca Arsenal Supporters Club, we feared the worst at the news that Lukasz Fabianski, aka Flappy-hand-ski, was likely to stand in for his compatriot. As it turned out, we must admit that his performance surpassed our expectations.

The most malicious rumour which went around on the papers earlier that day was that Arsene Wenger was expected to field a weakened team, resting key players ahead of Saturday's league game against Swansea. Supporters, including celebrity fans, such as Piers Morgan and Ian Poulter, expressed their anger and disappointment with the alleged team selections. The Telegraph even posted an online poll asking readers whether Wenger was right to field a weakened team. The narrow majority of voters were against it, while the rest of them showed their understanding and a realistic point of view that it would make sense to prioritise the league game. And the truth? Arsenal's starting line-up included Theo, Santi, and Per, all the key players that the media thought Wenger was going to rest (picking Koscielny or Vermaelen ahead of Mertesacker may be called rotation, but I am not quite sure if that qualifies as "resting a key player", though).

In fact, Wenger only made forced changes, apart from one surprise omission. Santi Cazorla continued on the left flank in the absence of Lukas Podolski, who have been struggling with an ankle problem. Earlier on that day, the newspaper reports suggested that Juventus and Atletico Madrid were prepared to offer £15mn for the German striker as he seems to have fallen out of favour with Arsene Wenger due to his poor work rate (Poor work rate? Poldi offers more cover for a left-back than Gervinho, Arshavin, or even Santi does). However, in this case, only the German international's injury seems to have kept him out of the squad. Tomas Rosicky replaced Jack Wilshere in an advanced central midfielder role. The Englishman was ruled out for three weeks through a bruised ankle. Kieran Gibbs started for the first time since the end of January in the place of Nacho Monreal who was cup-tied. The above changes were more or less in line with expectations, after the heartening news about Gibbs' return, but it came as a surprise that Thomas Vermaelen was dropped to the bench, which gave Laurant Koscielny a starting place alongside Per Mertesacker. The Belgian was regarded as an automatic starter because of the armband, but the media believe that this season's dip in his form has finally prompted Wenger to drop the captain from the starting XI.

The only negative from this match was that we fell one goal short of going through to the next round. The final whistle should have seen us and our players celebrating a massive victory, but instead, it was met by a relief from the home side and cheers from the home crowd. We cannot help thinking ifs and buts. If we hadn't conceded the third goal at the Emirate, a 2-0 victory would have been enough to see us through. We should have played at home like we did this night. If Gervinho or Giroud had converted that clear-cut chance, a 3-0 win would have sent us to the quarter-finals. If a second goal had come 10 minutes earlier, panicked Bayern defence might have given in under pressure.

However, as Mikel Arteta, captain on the night, said, there are a number of positives to take from this game. First and foremost, beating the Bundesliga's run-away leaders 2-0 on their home soil was a feat in its right own right and it should give our players confidence, which has been an issue this season. Bayern Munich had conceded only 10 goals at their home ground this season before Arsenal's visit. Hopefully, the Gunners can take the momentum into the remaining league games as we still have a Champions League spot to play for.

Secondly, our defenders answered critics with their calm display. The two young full-backs were superb. They kept Bayern's skillful and tricky wide players, Muller and Robben, at bay. The two centre-backs obviously rehearsed well during the 10-day interval since the north London derby defeat, leaving no space between them. The tight defence meant that Bayern were reduced to shooting from outside the box. Our well-organised and composed defence was a big positive from this game. Bayern Munich were top-scorers in this season's competition, going into this game, and this was the first time they failed to score in this campaign. Our defenders should take courage from a clean sheet against one of the best teams in the world.

Arsene Wenger said they would have a go without being silly. His gameplan was spot on and the team executed it well. They started strongly and got the first goal inside three minutes. The early goal gave the team a belief that they could pull off an unlikely turnaround, as well as surprising a confident home side. However, we didn't take a gung-ho approach to this game as some journalists suspected. We kept it tight at the back. As long as we didn't concede, there was still a chance to overcome the 3-1 deficit from the first leg.

If we were to go out, which looked most certain prior to the game, we had to go out in a positive way and we did exactly that. Any humiliating result or weak performance would have had a detrimental effect on our run-in. We didn't find fluency in our attack in this game, but an excellent team display earned an impressive 2-0 win on German soil. The lads did us proud.

Player ratings

Fabianski: 7 
Made some smart saves. Apart from a sloppy pass to Jenkinson, he didn't put his foot wrong. He demonstrated authority which Szczesny lacks, when he came off the line to claim the ball with such a momentum that took Mertesacker off the ground. Very promising performance in his first start of the season for the first team.

Jenkinson: 9
We think the 20-year-old right back had a blinding game. Made a match-saving stop. He put in a strong defensive performance and made a superb cross to Giroud who nearly converted it.

Mertesacker: 7

Koscielny: 7
Arsenal fans' chosen Man of the Match (according to the's Fans Online Poll) perhaps on the strength of his goal and solid defensive display.

Gibbs: 8
Encouraging performance on his return since the Liverpool game at the end of January. He didn't look like he had been away. If anything, he seemed to have made a progress from where he left off 6 weeks ago. He kept quiet Philip Lahm, who was influential in the first leg. We don't mind the same back five playing against Swansea this weekend, but Gibbs are likely to be sidelined again as Wenger revealed that the Englishman had a minor reaction on his thigh. Monreal should replace him without problem as he has had a nice 2-week rest by then.

Ramsey: 6
Got involved and worked hard, but his passing let him down.

Arteta: 6 
Made an impressive 7 interceptions. Although he was unlucky that the ref's decisions went all against him, he made too many (9) fouls. Especially, his silly fouls disrupted the flow of the game in the final few minutes when we were desperately searching for a tie-decider. The stats were also shocking for the usually accomplished passer, with a meagre 78% of passing success rate. In fact, the entire team's passing completion rate (76%) was far below their standard. The whole team worked hard to win the ball only to lose it through subsequent poor passing.

Rosicky: 7
His incisive pass found Walcott, who set up an early goal for Giroud. He seemed to have lacked understanding with his team-mates at times, but hopefully there will be his best to come from him.

Cazorla: 6
Had a relatively quiet game.

Walcott: 6
Provided an assist for Giroud. Looked dangerous.

Giroud: 6
Scored the opening goal, but missed a couple of good chances. We want to see more commitment on attacking from him.


Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6
One of the double 72nd-minute substitutions for Ramsey and Walcott. The double substitutions clearly gave the team an attacking momentum. I know that passing is not really the strength of his game, but passing success rate of 46% is appalling.

Gervinho: 6
The other one of the double substitutions. Had a glorious chance to score in 78th minute after dancing through Bayern defenders into the box only to trickle a shot just wide.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tottenham 2 Arsenal 1

Las Mimosas bar started filling up earlier than usual ahead of kick off of a north London derby with Gooners who didn't want to miss out on seats in the popular bar, including John and Karen, who turned up one hour earlier, thinking the kick-off was at 4 pm Spanish time. This north London derby had an extra significance with more than bragging rights at stake, as the two neighbouring clubs were only separated by four points, looking to push on for a Champions League spot. A win would move us up to only one point behind them, while a loss would open up the gap to seven points. This was a real six pointer.

The focus of our pre-match talks was on a reported £1.5 billion take-over bid for Arsenal FC by a Middle East consortium. The news seemed to have been generally received favourably among the Playa Flamenca Gooners, with expectations for cash injections and the prospect of drastic changes. However, with qualification for next season's Champions League thought to be a condition for the proposed take-over or the basis of the valuation of the Club's worth, the bid now looks less likely to take place.

Wenger only made one change to his side who started in a 2-1 win over Aston Villa last weekend. Abou Diaby, who hobbled off the pitch against Aston Villa, failed to pass late fitness tests and did not even make the bench. Bacary Sagna also failed to recover in time from his knee injury he sustained during the Bayern Munich game, which meant Carl Jenkinson continued deputising for the French defender at right back.

We thought Koscielny would get the nod for this game because of his pace, but Mertesacker continued in central defence alongside Vermaelen. If Arsenal were to play such a high defensive line, Koscielny may indeed have been a better choice. However, the defensive frailty exposed in this game did not necessarily stem from Mertesacker's lack of pace, but the whole defensive unit did not cope well with the pace of Tottenham's attack nor manage their own high line well. Besides, Koscielny has his own problem of error-proneness. Back in September, when he was selected ahead of Mertesacker against Torres, his two mistakes cost us three points. It seems that it always turns out to be a wrong decision, whichever is chosen, Koscielny or Mertesacker.

Santi Cazorla has been excellent on the left flank in recent weeks, which kept Lukas Podolski out of the starting line-up. Combined with Jack Wilshere excelling in a No. 10 role, which was played previously by Santi Cazorla, Poldi has rarely started of late. Although it is understandable for Wenger to continue playing Santi and Jack in these positions, we don't understand the Frenchman's reluctance to play Poldi, considering the fact that Wenger has been known as a long-term admirer of the German striker. We want to see him in a central striker role, especially now Giroud's form has dipped.

Santi's deployment on the flank again opened up another central midfielder position alongside Mikel Arteta, which was occupied by Aaron Ramsey in the absence of Abou Diaby.

The team selection was more or less in line with our expectations, but what baffled us was Wenger's substitutions. Rosicky came on for Jenkinson in the 60th minute, when we were pushing for an equaliser. The Frenchman's intention to add more attacking force was easy to understand, but not at the expense of one of our best players on the pitch. Jenks was a threat going forward, providing the width, putting in superb crosses all the time and even his cross-cum-shot tested Hugo Lloris. Jenkinson's withdrawal meant Aaron Ramsey was once again pushed to right back. Although Ramsey had a good game overall, surely a specialist right-back would have been a better choice for the position. A straightforwad swap, i.e., Rosicky for Ramsey, may have done just the job.

Another questionable substitution decision was the timing of Poldi's arrvival. Although he did not make as big an impact as we hoped, if he had come on earlier, he could have made a difference. During his 15-minute appearance, he had a goalbound shot deflected wide.

This game highlighted two big issues at the back and front. We allowed two easy goals. Although our defence is still the fourth best in the league statistically and had the best defensive record away from home before this game, the lapse of concentration (the second goal was conceded while Santi Cazorla was injured by Sigurdsson) and the lack of communication should be addressed before we embark on the crucial 10 remaining games.

Up front, we didn't take advantage of our possession and chances when we were on top in the first 35 minutes. This problem has been apparent for some time, but against bottom- to mid-table teams, we have managed to scrape wins, where we could have beaten them comprehensively. To start with, poor finishing is to blame. If Giroud buried that clear-cut chance early in the first half, it could have been a different game. We also lacked accuracy in the final ball and crosses. Secondly, we want to see a change in approaches to our game. Our usual probing passes around the edge of the box didn't find a breakthrough to Tottenham's resolute defence. Predictable crosses from wide positions were easy for them to defend as well. Our attack has to be more direct in order to find penetration into the box.

At Las Mimosas bar, we were critical about Walcott's ineffectiveness, complaining that he should have used his pace like Aaron Lennon did. Therefore, when we watched the Match of the Day 2 on that night, Walcott's movement off the ball was a revelation to us. Contrary to our perception, Theo was making quite a few good runs, when he did not have the ball, but unfortunately most of them were not picked out by Jack Wilshere. In those cases, Jack dribbled sideways instead of pushing the ball forward to release Theo behind the Tottenham defenders. Hopefully Jack will learn lessons and improve his game. If those clever runs of Theo's had been used, we could have found the net more than once.

The result was obviously very disappointing. We saw the same result with the same scoreline for the corresponding fixture last season, but there is no denying this one dealt a severe blow to our Champions League qualification aspiration and the hopes of finishing above our old archrivals. However, our players' general performance showed some encouraging signs. Despite the reputation as a second-half team, we started the game very well. The tempo was high. Passing was crisp. No one can say that we were outplayed or outclassed like we were in the Bayern Munich game. Stats showed that we had a majority (61%) of possession and our passing success rate was right up to our standards (83% vs Tottenham's 73%). Our midfield pressed well (perhaps they could have done better to put pressure on assist providers, Sigurdsson and Parker, on the two particular occasions, though). We mounted heavy pressure in the second half with desire and determination to win the game only to be disrupted by injuries to Tottenham players. Overall, we didn't play badly, but the lapse of concentration cost us dearly. We had enough quality in the team and produced good enough performance to win a match on another day, but it wasn't to be.

I have to admit that even within our Supporters Club, quite a few members hope we will not finish in the top four so that it will serve as a wake-up call and trigger major changes within Arsenal FC. However, Champions League qualification is imperative for the Club to attract world-class players in order to reinforce the squad next summer. A top-four finish now looks increasingly difficult, but keep fingers crossed that Tottenham and Chelsea will slip up and drop more points. But before that, we have to be consistent and win the remaining games.

Player ratings

Szczesny: 6
Made some good stops.

Jenkinson: 7
Good going forward. He has better crossing than Sagna does.

Mertesacker: 7
Scored with a towering header (hope the dubious goal committee won't rule it as Bale's own goal). His two goals in an Arsenal shirt both came from this season's north London derbies.

Vermaelen: 6
He lacked leadership in defence and should have been more aware of the positioning of him and his central defensive partner.

Monreal: 5
He was guilty of Tottenham's second goal. He should have picked out Lennon's run and stopped it. It was a disappointing mistake as he looked like a good defensive addition.

Ramsey: 7
Lively, but he slowed down our quick counter-attacks. Fired a shot inches past far post.

Arteta: 6
Did his job, but made significantly fewer touches (66) than usual. (Actually, other Arsenal players also had fewer touches than usual).

Wilshere: 7
Influential in Arsenal's attacking play.

Cazorla: 6
Did not provide his usual creative spark, but worked hard defensively, doubling up on Tottenham's wide players on the left flank with Monreal. His pass sent Giroud into a great position only for the French striker to have his shot blocked.

Walcott: 6
His free-kick led to Mertesacker's goal.

Giroud: 5
Won most of aerial duels (12), but his holding-up of the ball on this day left something to be desired. He also lacked composure in front of goal. Doesn't seem to have any close control especially if it involves his right foot.


Rosicky: 7
60th-minute substitute for Carl Jenkinson. According to's poll, he was Arsenal fans' chosen Man of the Match with 18% of total votes, followed by Jenkinson and Ramsey, who collected 17% of total votes, respectively.

Podolski: 6
Came on in the 77th minute to replace Mikel Arteta. Too late to make a difference.