Friday, August 30, 2013

Arsenal 2 Fenabahce 0 (2nd leg of Champions League Play-off)

Arsenal cruised into the group stages of the Champions League for the 16th consecutive year after beating Fenerbahce 5-0 win on aggregate. They didn't even get out of the second gear and it wasn't the most exciting game. In fact, the Gunners played much better against Villa with high tempo and intensity. Still, the result was all that mattered for this game and the team did just that. After the Villa game, people jumped to the conclusion that Arsenal always struggle to get the result when they play poorly (besides, we didn't play badly against Villa). This night's performance answered such criticism.

Arsene Wenger made himself clear before the match that he had no intention of rotation despite the north Lodnon club having almost certainly secured their place in the Champions League proper. True to his words, the Frenchman fielded almost the same strong side that started in the 3-1 defeat of Fulham on Saturday. Monreal came in for Gibbs, which was somewhat expected ahead of a massive north London derby on Sunday. Jack Wilshere replaced Rosicky in midfield. These were the only changes. Koscielny had recovered from his cut to the head in time, but was left on the bench.

There was an argument whether Arsenal should have rested some players ahead of the north London derby, especially after this game left them with a few injury headaches. Podolski was stretchered off with a hamstring injury. The German international is now set to be out for 8 to 10 weeks. Ramsey came off the pitch with three or four minutes to go due to a groin injury. According to the coach, it was his decision to take off the Welsh international who wanted to stay on. Arsenal ended the game with 10-men, having used all three substitutes already. Jack Wilshere was another injury concern, targeted with a few nasty challenges. In the end, the Englishman completed the full 90 minutes, but we were pleading to take him off as Arsenal should certainly be able to see off their qualification with 10 men in the remaining 10 minutes (this was before Ramsey was taken off). Wenger confirmed that Jack wanted to continue and the Englishman's desire was clear in his performance. Fortunately, Wenger reckons Jack came through the game OK.

The qualification came at a heavy cost, but we support Wenger's decision to play a strong side. We needed to continue the momentum carried from the previous two great results. If we had lost this game (although the CAS's decision made on the next day to dismiss Fenerbahce's appeal against UEFA's two-year ban from the European competitions meant we would probably have qualified anyway), the result could have seriously dented the team's confidence ahead of the north London derby. Besides, we don't have the luxury of rotation, which is evident if you look at the bench. Koscielny, Gibbs and Rosicky were the only established first-teamers.

The quality of Wenger's side is no longer a question. However, it is obvious that the squad lacks depth in terms of numbers. Even Ramsey admitted that they were short of numbers in his post-match interview. Now that the qualification has been secured, the focus is on the transfer market.

On Thursday, Arsenal confirmed that Mathieu Flamini had re-signed for Arsenal. Many fans are disappointed with the fact that it was not a high-profile signing they were hoping for and Wenger is yet to spend on transfer fees. However, he is a versatile player, being able to cover for both full-backs as well as playing as a holding midfielder in the absence of Mikel Arteta. He should make a good squad player without hampering Carl Jenkinson's development and depriving Nacho Monreal of playing time. If he proves successful as a deep-lying midfielder, Arteta can move to a more attacking role, which he prefers. If the French midfielder is the same player who left Arsenal five years ago, this is a great signing for us. In the press conference, Wenger was adamant that there would be more signings to come after they had lost their three key players to long-term injuries. Hopefully, we will be able to see some positive developments soon.

Players rating

Szczesny: 7
His saves in the first half were crucial in order to keep any hope of Fenebahce's qualification at bay.
However, his decisions were questionable especially when it came to corners. Fortunately, Emenike decided to dive when the Pole rushed at him, which saved a disastrous consequence for us.

Jenkinson: 7
Didn't make too big mistakes. Helped attack by going forward. Unlucky not to score in injury time.

Sagna: 7
Another competent display as the centre-back.

Mertesacker: 7

Monreal: 8
Perhaps one of his best defensive performances. Put in some important blocks.

Ramsey: 8
Scored two goals. His first goal was a bit lucky as Poldi's through ball to Theo was deflected (or cleared) by a Fenerbahce player into the in-form midfielder's path. Getting into great positions was not a problem for him for the past two seasons, but finishing was. The difference this season is his composure in front of goal. He took the second goal beautifully.

Wilshere: 7
Combined well with Santi.

Cazorla: 8
Weaving through Fenerbahce defence so often, he posed a constant threat to the Turkish side all night.

Walcott: 6
He could have helped Giroud more if he had been more mobile.

Podolski: 6
Didn't get involved too much.

Giroud: 7
Failed to score for the first time this season, but he made a great contribution to the team through good moves on and off the ball.


Gibbs: 7
Replaced injured Podolski in the 49th minute. Set up for Ramsey's second goal through a superb cross.

Sanogo: 6
60th-minute substitute for Giroud. Involved in the good movement in the build-up to Ramsey's second goal, but did have little impact.

Ryo: 5
Came on in the 74th minute in the place of Theo Walcott. His low cross to Jenkinson in the injury time was excellent, but part from that, he made very little impact.


Carlos Velasco Carballo: 5
Booking a man of the match, Ramsey, for not getting a permission to come on the pitch after he changed his boots was petty. Didn't punish Fenerbahce players for their sinister challenges on Jack, while showing a yellow card to Per for an innocuous tackle.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fulham 1 Arsenal 3

What a difference a week makes in football. Arsenal were under pressure following the disappointing  3-1 loss to Aston Villa, which was described by Arsene Wenger as an accident. The 3-0 victory in the Champions League play-off midweek still left some fans sceptical. Fulham are tough opponents we tend to struggle against. A 1-1 draw seemed to have been a consensus among pundits. However, another convincing win, which followed the win in Istanbul in less than 74 hours, has finally released the manager and team from pressure. Arsene Wenger's faith in the quality of his side was repaid once again and this time around there seemed to be very few who questioned it.

Wenger made three changes to the side who started against Fenerbahce on Wednesday night. Carl Jenkinson started at the right back, while Bacary Sagna was slotted into the centre back position in the absence of Laurant Koscielny, who missed this game through suspension and head injury. Jack Wilshere was rested, after having completed the full 90 minutes twice in five days. Podolski came in for the Englishman amid a rumour that he could be loaned to Schalke.

Jack Wilshere's omission from the midfield, which impressed on Wednesday night, seemed to have had a big impact on the team's tactics and shape. While Arsenal attacked in numbers, Ramsey looked overwhelmed by defensive duty at times. Following his early yellow card, he was always flirting with  the chance of another yellow. Perhaps midweek exertion was taking its toll on the fitness of the industrious midfielder, who covered more distance (an impressive 12,190 km) than any other player on the pitch. When Fulham had the ball, Arenal struggled to win the ball back. When Jack came on the pitch, we thought Ramsey was to be replaced. In fact, it was Rosicky. However, Jack's involvement seemed to have helped release Ramsey from some of defensive responsibility. The Welshman delivered another impressive performance, bossing the Gunners' midfield.

Olivier Giroud's goal may have needed a lucky touch as Ramsey's optimistic shot from the outside of the box took a fortuitous deflection on Giroud's foot. But the French striker was quick to seize the opportunity and there was still a job left for him to beat the keeper, which Walcott failed to do a few times in this game. Giroud clipped Stockdale to score his third goal of the season in as many games. Since the preseason, he has been on a red-hot form.

Therefore we were surprised to see Giroud replaced by Monreal. Maybe it was Wenger's intention to give a run-out to the Spanish left-back, who has just come back from injury and missed the preseason. That said, the substitution was questionable as Arsenal conceded a goal 7 minutes after his introduction. Another defender seemed to have upset the system.

Lukas Podolski was another striker under scrutiny. Arsene Wenger emphasised that the German international was often left out of the starting XI not because of his performances, but for tactical reasons. The boss also made it clear that he intended to keep him.

The win at Craven Cottage meant that Arsenal were the first club to win 100 London derbies. Given the north London club's history, the feat was no surprise. However, we found it somewhat surprising that Arsenal earned more points from derbies than any other London club last season with 19 points, considering that we lost to Chelsea home and away. The stats bode well for the big match next weekend.

The result and performance lifted the players and fans alike. If they can finish the job on Tuesday night in an equally convincing manner and we can see some positive developments in the transfer window in the week, we can all look forward to Sunday's north London derby.

Players Rating

Szczesny: 8
His breathtaking double save was crucial for Arsenal to remain in control of the game.

Jenkinson: 6
Guilty for Darren Bent's goal. He had no idea where the ex-Aston Villa striker was. On the other hand, he went forward more often to help his team's attack. His crossing improved on recent games, while he was the most successful tackler in the team, winning three tackles.

Sagna: 7
Put in another competent performance as a centre back.

Mertersacker: 7
Solid performanc. Made a crucial tackle.

Gibbs: 7
Effective going forward. Nearly scored.

Ramsey: 8
His has been in an impressive form. Established himself as a vital part of the team.

Rosicky: 7
Not as effectual in the previous two games.

Cazorla: 8
After the slow start to the season due mainly to the lack of preseason with the team, he was nearing his creative best.

Walcott: 7
Had several chances in front of goal but his finishing is very disappointing.

Podolski: 8
His two goals underlined the quality of the German international's left footed shots, "accuracy" and "power", the two words used by Aron Ramsey in his praise for Poldi.

Giroud: 8
In the build-up to Arsenal's third goal, his touch and control were excellent. Worked very hard defensively as well.


Wilshere: 7
69th-minute substitute for Rosicky. Made an immediate impact.

Monreal: 6
Replaced Giroud in the 71st minute. Made a couple of important challenges and earned a free-kick in the dangerous area.

Sanogo: 5
Disappointing debut. He looked promising against a weaker Galatasaray side in the first half of the Emirates Cup game, but he was out-muscled by Fulham defenders. He fell a long way short of his reputation as a next Drogba.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Fenerbahce 0 Arsenal 3 (1st leg of Champions League Play-off)

Arsenal went into this game under massive pressure after Saturday's shock defeat to Aston Villa. Combined with frustration over the Club's failure to sign big names, including Gonzalo Higuain, and the recent spell of inactivity in the transfer market, the disappointing start to the season caused a huge uproar among fans. As a result, a comfortable 3-0 win in Istanbul eased the tension.

After the Villa game, Wenger responded to criticism about the Club's inability to spend so far by stating that he had enough qualities in his players on the pitch to win the game. He was right. The side he fielded on that day was strong enough to beat Aston Villa on another day. Unfortunately, when the referee makes mistakes in as many as two of his key decisions, it is very difficult to win a game. Even when we were a man down, we could still have won the match if only Giroud had been a more agile striker and Rosicky (who should have had a hat trick) had been more clinical in front of goal. Wenger's view on the squad was once again vindicated in Wednesday's tie against Fenerbahce as his side showed their qualities over a rather poor Fenerbahce side.

In his post-match interview in Istanbul, Arsene Wenger reiterated his faith in the quality of the squad, but admitted that the squad lacks depth in terms of numbers. The quality of our midfield was indisputable, but we felt that we desperately need a more technically gifted striker than Giroud in order to challenge for the title.

We are frustrated by the lack of transfer activity so far as much as other supporters are. The summer clear-out meant that the squad are now stripped to bare bones. Look at the bench for the Villa game and this play-off first leg. Frimpong hasn't played a single game with the first team for a long time, having been left out of the pre-season squad. Gnabry may be a talented 17-year-old, but he wouldn't scare any Prem team or Champions League regular. We believe that Wenger is fully aware of the lack of depth in the squad. Through his experience, especially a number of seasons plagued with injuries, he should have appreciated that the squad in the current shape would struggle to cope with  possibly over 60 games in a long season. He will add more players to the squad, although they may not be big names we hope for.

It was a great result in Istanbul. The three away goals and clean sheet mean Fenerbahce now have a mountainous task of scoring four goals at the Emirates to win the tie. Arsenal will go into the second leg which comes between two tough Premier League games, knowing that they have a relatively easy job of wrapping up the tie. Qualification for the Champions League proper is almost certain, which should help the Club entice world-class players.

Apart from the result, there are further positives to take from this game. Although they gave the ball away a little bit too often for our liking, our midfield was impressive. Following Arteta's thigh injury, which is expected to leave him on the sideline for up to six weeks, a newly-formed central midfield partnership between Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey looked more solid and better balanced than Saturday. Jack looked tired and lacking concentration towards the end of Saturday's game, when he was forced to play a full 90 minutes for the first time in many months as a result of unplanned substitutions. However, he seemed to have regained his full fitness now. We even saw his "burst" forward. He won 8 dribbles, completed 90% of his passes and made 3 key passes.

Ramsey was an almost unanimously chosen Man of the Match. He was outstanding in every area with 5 tackles won, 86% of passing success, and 2 key passes and a goal. With an excellent pre-season under the belt, he is now an integral part of Arsenal's starting XI.

Rosicky was the main drive in Saturday's game and put in another gutsy performance on this night.

Once Walcott had found the weakness in Fenerbahce's left-back, he was a constant threat to the Turkish side. After the fruitless first half, Ramsey's astute pass finally materialised the danger, which led to Arsenal's opening goal.

Our defenders coped very well with the sudden withdrawal of Laurent Koscielny and regrouped quickly to keep a clean sheet. Sagna once again putting a good shift at centre back.

Saturday's defeat triggered some knee-jerk reaction. Alan Hansen was one of those pundits to jump on the bandwagon. He criticised Arsenal's mental strength by stating that Arsenal has been having trouble in getting results over the past years when they play poorly. The ex-Liverpool defender must have a short memory. During their 11-game unbeaten run at the end of the last season, Arsenal did not always win by playing their brand of easy-on-the-eye football. They ground out the result in some games. They may not have a stand-out leader, but this group of players have strong characters as a team.

Despite the convincing win, there are still negative views even after the impressive display by the Gunners. These so-called fans say that we merely beat a sorry side. How Arsenal will fare against a tougher Premier League side remains to be seen, but for the night, the job was done professionally. This night's performance was certainly encouraging.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

2013 Asia Tour

Compared to the 2012 Asia Tour, which left quite a few fans doubtful or critical about the meaning of the tour, the 2013 Asia Tour was an unqualified success. It was perhaps largely attributed to the outcomes of the matches played there, four wins out of four. The convincing wins in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Nagoya boosted the players' confidence, while they lifted a first trophy this season after the hard-fought win over Urawa Reds. Arsenal were crowned as only the third European winners of the Saitama City Cup, after Barcelona and Lukas Podolski-inspired Bayern Munich.

Arsenal were received very well everywhere. Arsene Wenger stated that it was as if they had been playing at home when they played against the national team in Indonesia. Stadium-record attendance was recorded at the Toyota Stadium in Nagoya. Every time Miyaichi got the ball, it was met with cheers from his local fans. Although home fans were more vocal in Urawa, the friendly attracted capacity crowd again. The tour was an excellent chance for relatively new players from abroad, such as Giroud and Poldi, as well as youngsters, to appreciate how big and well-supported Arsenal are across the world.

The players seemed to have enjoyed promotional events, sightseeing and fan parties. Also, the tour made one supporter in Vietnam, "the Running Man", not only a national media star, but a global internet sensation.

In terms of preparation for the new season, the tour was more successful than last year. Wenger's men were put through the paces, double training sessions a day at times. Although the conditions were as hard as last year with heat and humidity, the players looked much sharper this year. The friendly matches were well arranged. As the tour went on, they faced harder oppositions, providing them with good tests.

There were some interesting experiments carried out as well. Sagna played as a centre-back in light of the prospect for the start of the season without Vermaelen. Chuks Aneke, who was an attacking midfielder before he left Arsenal for Crew Alexandra on loan, was slotted into a central defensive role before he played in the more familiar central midfield against Nagoya Grampus. Wenger explained he has composure and height to play at centre-back, but the shortage in number in that department was clearly in Wenger's mind.

Iggy Miquel played more minutes as a left-back than in his natural centre-back position. In fact, he played the whole 90 minutes in the last game of the tour, with our only specialist left-back, Gibbs left on the bench. Obviously, Wenger was looking at the possibility to use Miquel as a back-up left-back, following the news that Monreal was set to miss the start of the season due to a back injury. Given  Gibbs' injury record, having no back-up is a worrying outlook, especially when even our usual makeshift left-back, Vermaelen is also sidelined. The Ox was deployed throughout the tour as a central midfielder, a position that the 19-year-old is thought to play on a regular basis in the future, and he lived up to the expectations.

Giroud's finishing has remarkably improved, bagging a hat-trick against the Vietnamese national team. On the other hand, Theo Walcott's finishing has been woeful this pre-season. If the Englishman had been more clinical, we could have beaten Urawa Reds more comfortably. In fact, the game should have been put to bed by the end of the first half. Married life has done nothing for his football, while parenthood appears to have inspired Giroud.

A German U-16 international, Gedion Zelalem, caused a hype after his vision and passing ability impressed in the first three games. His name was often mentioned in the same breath as Fabregas because of his precocious talent. However, he failed to shine against stronger opponents in the shape of Urawa Reds, who gave him little time and space on the ball. This is obviously where he needs to improve.

Wilshere was gradually getting back to his fitness, although it is still a question which role is most suited to him. Rosicky, who also missed last pre-season, looked sharp. The Indonesian game showcased Ramsey's mesmerizing technical ability, e.g., pirouette and back heel pass, while the Welshman's workrate impressed throughout the tour. Chuba Akpom proved to be a bright prospect, scoring four goals in four appearances. Other youngsters, Gnabry, Olsson and Eisfeld, all looked promising.

On the other hand, Miquel was not totally convincing as a left-back. We need to keep Gibbs in cotton wool until Monreal returns. Fabianski's erratic performance reminded us how he earned a nickname, Flappy-hand-ski. Szczesny needs a stronger competition.

Overall, it was good preparation for the new season, while we hope that Wenger is not so naive to believe that the current squad can beat any Prem team as easily as they did during the tour, without a new signing or two. Maybe the Emirates Cup this weekend could finally wake up the Frenchman.