Friday, September 27, 2013

WBA 1 Arsenal 1 (3-4 pens) (3rd Round of Capital One Cup)

The League Cup has been providing a stage for Arsenal's budding stars to make their debuts in the first team. For the last couple of years, however, thanks to the depth in the squad, this competition also has given fringe first-teamers valuable playing time. The opening game of Arsenal's Capital One Cup campaign this season, which took place on Wednesday night, saw a mixture of experience and youth in their team. This was due to mixed reasons: a few players, namely Vermaelen, Arteta, and Bendtner, needed game time to regain their match fitness, while Wenger was forced to rest some of key players, such as Olivier Giroud, Jack Wilshere, and Aaron Ramsey, who have been playing twice a week since mid-August, including the international break. The lengthy injury list did not allow Wenger the luxury of the complete rotation of first-teamers. He had to resort to fielding youngsters to fill the gap the regular starters left. These changes to the starting line-up were all expected prior to the match, but our major concern was whether the team would have enough quality to beat West Brom, who had also one eye on the forthcoming clash with Manchester United at  Old Trafford this weekend.

Arsene Wenger made nine changes from the side who started the 3-1 defeat of Stoke on Sunday. Only Per Mertesacker and Serge Gnabry, who started in the place of Theo Walcott after the Englishman was pulled off during the warm-up, kept their places in the starting XI. Alongside Mertesacker, Vermaelen started in the central defence. The two full-backs, Carl Jenkinson and Nacho Monreal deputised Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs, respectively. In front of the experienced back-four, Flamini was supposed to play a holding midfielder role, but following a minor shoulder complaint, Wenger had made a decision as a precaution to leave Flamini on the bench. Isaac Haydon was given a starting place instead. Given the background that the youth academy player is trained as a defender, the replacement made sense. On the other hand, Frimpong's omission is a mystery to us. If he is not injured, he must have completely fallen out of Wenger's favour.

The problem was up front. 20-year-old Thomas Eisfeld started in the attacking central midfield role, with Gnabry and Ryo Miyaichi on the left and right wings. Bendtner was a lone striker. There was just not enough creativity in Arsenal's midfield, which usually dominate their game. In fact, the most of the game was uneventful, lacking quality. Arsenal lost their possession too cheaply, with a number of passes misplaced. Eisfeld, Gnabry and Miyaichi kept swapping their positions, but whoever played in the middle, they went missing. It was Arsenal's worst game we have seen for a long time. Although Mesut Ozil has seemingly fitted into our midfield instantly, our style of play requires understanding and cohesion in midfield. We, supporters, were bracing ourselves for a long enduring night and indeed, it took 120 minutes plus injury time and penalty shoot-out to decide the winners.

The youth players looked out of their depth most of the times, but it was not fair for them to be played like the way they were played this night. They should have been eased into the first-team action one by one. Gnabry's contrasting performances highlight that. The German youth international looked comfortable on the ball and showed some promise as the game wore on against Stoke, when he was introduced into the mix of quality players, including Ozil. On the other hand, he had a disappointing night among the inexperienced midfield with his talent shown only in patches. These young players need to have quality players around them to shine in this kind of competitive games.

The biggest positive from this game is obviously the result. We are through to the fourth round of the Capital One Cup. It may be a Mickey Mouse cup and our lowest priority, but it would be sad to go out so early in the competition, which is still a trophy to be won. We have survived an early exit scare only to be drawn against Chelsea in the next round. Asked if he would play youngsters again in the next round, Wenger answered that he was yet to decide. Surely he must have had second thoughts during the match about fielding too many young players. The Frenchman stated his decision would be down to the injury situation at the time. By the clash with Chelsea on 29/30 October, we are expected to have Rosicky back (possibly as early as next week against Napoli), while Walcott and Cazorla are both penciled in for the returns after the international break. If we are lucky, we might even have Poldi back by then. These expected returns should boost options for the team selection.

As expected, Wenger heaped praise for the young players for their gritty performance, but if the result went the wrong way (and it could have easily gone wrong as "the penalties are a bit of a lottery", according to Wenger), how would he have defended his team selection? Thanks to the happy ending, there weren't many questions cast over the quality of the game, but hopefully we, supporters, will not have to endure this kind of games again.

Player Rating

Fabianski: 7
Made a few good saves.

Jenkinson: 7
After struggling to cope with Sessegnon's trickery early in the game, he grew into the game to keep the ex-Sunderland man quiet. Went forward often to help out the attack and delivered good crosses. He demonstrated his amazing athleticism, which attracted Wenger's attention when he was a Charlton player, by running up and down the right flank until the 120th minute.

Mertesacker: 7
Made a couple of match-saving tackles.

Vermaelen: 7
Didn't put foot wrong. The yellow card was a bit harsh. If he continues without making mistakes for a few games, hopefully his confidence will recover.

Monreal: 7
Solid. Had a good chance to score, but his shot was blocked. Stepped up to take the decisive penalty and sealed the win.

Haydon: 5
Had a poor game. He was lucky to stay on the pitch after his sliding tackle at Mulumbu, which was shown only a yellow card. Replaced by Olsson in the 84th minute.

Arteta: 6
His first start of the season following Sunday's cameo appearance against Stoke City. Looked rusty with his tackles often late. Hobbled off the pitch in the 95th minute, but Wenger assured that the Spaniard only had a cramp.

Eisfeld: 6
Opened the scoring in the 62nd minute. Mostly anonymous by then, but popped up to get behind the West Brom defence line, when Bendtner laid the ball for him. Clinical finish, which is what we can always rely on him for. Wenger pointed out that he and Robert Pires share a rare quality in appearing in the box suddenly and quietly. Hopefully, the 20-year-old German will grow into the Arsenal legend's mould. Taken off the pitch in the 82nd minute to give way to Chuba Akpom.

Gnabry: 5
Some good pieces of work in patches, but overall poor performance from the highly-rated youngster. However, his through ball which released Bendtner from his marker was a pure quality.

Miyaichi: 5
Put in a few good crosses, but most of the times he didn't know what to do in the final third.

Bendtner: 5
He had a glorious chance to score a winner, but squandered it by taking too long and one touch too many. Looked rusty and far from full match fitness. Good to see him step up to take our first penalty and score, though.


Akpom: 6
The 82nd-minute substitute for the goalscorer, Eisfeld. The youngest player on the pitch at the age of 17 was one of the star players in the pre-season. His penalty was the most important one for us at 3-1 after Gnabry's pen was saved. Kept his nerve and took a very good penalty.

Olsson: 6
Replaced Haydon in the 84th minute. Brought a fresh pair of legs to the team. Good prospect as a box-to-box player, if he toughens up. Cool penalty.

Bellerin: 5
Right-back for the U-19 team was used in midfield. Took two wild shots at goal. With his attacking instinct and slightly dodgy defensive record, the midfield could be his future.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sunderland 1 Arsenal 3

Prior to the match, the focus was on the club-record signing and we didn't get disappointed.

Arsene Wenger made three changes from the side who started  their 1-0 win in the north London derby before the international break. Sagna came in as a centre back for Per Mertesacker, who missed the game through illness. The deadline day signing, Mesut Ozil, also suffered the virus picked up in the German national team and was pulled off the training on Friday. However, coupled with Rosicky's hamstring injury sustained during his international duty, Cazorla's ankle problem left the manager with no choice but to start Ozil. In the post-match press conference, Wenger confessed that the German playmaker would have been on the bench should Cazorla have been fit. Mathieu Flamini, who came off the bench against Tottenham, was also in the starting XI. To our relief, Walcott and Wilshere, who were taken off during England's 0-0 draw with Ukraine, were both fit to start. Wilshere started on the left wing, with Ozil in an advanced midfield role. Recovering from a stress fracture in the back, Vermaelen returned to the squad for the first time this season, but he was only fit to start on the bench.

It didn't take very long for the deadline-day signing to show what he is renowned for. In the 11th minute, the German playmaker took Gibbs' long ball in the air with an exquisite first touch to control it and delivered a perfect cross for Giroud to finish. Arsenal were 1-0 up. After Arsenal settled in the game, they were totally in control, enjoying 73% possession in the first half. They were at their fluid best and Ozil was at the heart of it. We witnessed with glee that everything said about him, silky skills, deft movements and quick decisions, were all true.

Another talking point of this match was the referee's controversial decision. In our opinion, the referee did not make a mistake by disallowing Altidore's goal, but was probably at fault for not playing advantage on Sagna's foul. Sagna clearly stopped playing when the whistle had been blown (maybe he thought the foul was given in his favour as Altidore was also grabbing the French centre-back in a tussle). However, Altidore continued to play and his shot trickled over the line. The referee was right to pull play back as he had already blown the whistle, but he should have played advantage in the first place if he adjudged Sagna committed a foul. That said, these things, i.e., the ref not playing advantage when they should, have been seen before more than once.

It was another tough and tense game at the Stadium of Light after last season's narrow 1-0 win. This time it was due to Arsenal's profligacy that allowed Sunderland to get back in the game in the second half. And the main culprit was Theo Walcott once again. If he had converted all the chances he had in the first half, it would have been a comfortable win for the visitors. His finishing must improve. On the arrival of the King of Assists, we thought the Englishman would be the largest beneficiary given his pace. Ozil supplied enough chances for Theo to score a hat-trick, but Theo's finishing let him down.

In the end, it was a great result which saw Arsenal climb to a dizzy height of the top of the table. Everton's defeat of Chelsea later on the day meant that we will stay there  at least until Monday night. There are a number of positives from this game: Great debut for Ozil, Ramsey and Giroud continued their red-hot form. On the other hand, Arsenal's defence left a few questions. Koscielny's rash challenges are always likely to give penalties. We were looking forward to see Cazorla and Ozil on the pitch at the same time, but the Spanish midfielder's ankle injury means we have to wait for some while. The injury is likely to keep Cazorla sidelined for a few weeks. Wenger thinks the Spaniard is unlikely to return before the next international break. It is a huge blow to us. On the positive note, Giroud seemed to be OK after he limped off the pitch in the 90th minute. We really need him to stay healthy as he is our only fit first-team striker at the moment. Playing Theo Walcott in the centre forward position he craves to do is an option, which does not seem very attractive given his dismal goal-scoring form.

Players rating

Szczesny: 7
With Sunderland registering only 3 shots on target, there wasn't too much to do, but made a good save when called upon. A couple of wrong decisions although they didn't cost us fortunately. 
Jenkinson: 7

Spotted Ramsey and set up the Welshman's sublime first goal with a pin-point low cross.

Sagna: 7

Captain on the day displayed a solid performance as a centre-back.

Koscielny: 6

Conceded a penalty. Has to be more careful especially in the box. 

Gibbs: 7

Good going forward.

Flamini: 6
His positioning was questionable at times, leaving too much room in front of the back four. Made a crucial tackle, but gave away a few needless fouls and was shown a yellow card.

Ramsey: 9

Our Man of the Match. Scored two important and superb goals. Won an impressive 7 tackles. In the second half, when everybody else dropped physically, he started an attacking move involving Ozil and Giroud and finished it off with a fine first touch and a clinical finish. Later on, he had some engine left to beat two defenders and nearly set up a goal for Giroud with a cross from the right flank.

Ozil: 8

If this was his performance when half fit, we save our 10 rating for a day when he is 100% fit and has completed 90 minutes.

Wilshere: 7

With Ozil occupying a No. 10 position, Jack started on the left wing, but roamed across the final third. Combined well with Ozil to pose a threat to Sunderland defenders and looked to enjoy playing football alongside with him. He can learn a lot from the German midfielder, for instance, how to avoid fouls and nasty challenges from the opponents and to make quick decisions on the ball.

Walcott: 5
Again this season his finishing left a lot to be desired.

Giroud: 8
Scored a fourth league goal in the fourth consecutive league game. Apparently, he was the only eighth player in the Premier League history to score in the opening four games of a season. Set up a goal for Ramsey with a perfectly measured flick. Aaron Ramsey explained his form as "I am confident at the moment. Things come naturally to me". Probably the same goes to the French striker.


Vermaelen: 6
80th-minute substitute for Ozil to be slotted into the left-back position, which pushed Kieran Gibbs into the left wing. Good to see him fit again.

Monreal: 6
Replaced Walcott in the 88th minute to shore up defence.

Akpom: N/A
Came on for injured Giroud in the 90th minute.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The 2013 Summer Transfer Window

The summer transfer window finally closed at 11pm BST on 2 September. It was a long, agonizing summer for all the Gooners, but those who kept faith in Arsene Wenger were rewarded with the signing of Mesut Özil for a club-record fee of £42.5 million.

After the previous day's win over their archrivals, Tottenham, Wenger reiterated his confidence to add a "super player" or two. He also said that maybe hr could surprise us. And we were blown away with the amount Arsenal spent on one player and the calibre of the player they brought in. This was anything but a typical Arsenal signing in so many ways.

The deadline-day signing smashed not only Arsenal's transfer record, but also their wage structure, with Özil reportedly on a £140,000-a-week wage. Their flat wage structure, in which mediocre players were getting paid more than they deserve, has been under review by the management. The traditional system has made it difficult for the north London club to offload such players like Squillaci, Bendtner Chamakh, and Denilson.

There is an argument that Wenger only made this marquee signing in order to appease the fans. However, if you look at Özil's attributes, this has all the hallmarks of the Wenger signings that fit with the Arsenal brand of football. Also, some say that his price tag was inflated. Arsenal may have had to pay a premium for a deadline-day signing, but players like Özil wouldn't have become available under other circumstances. We were lucky to capture him. Many believe the money was well spent.

With a reported £70 million transfer budget, Arsenal have been linked to a host of players, especially strikers, all the summer. We, the supporters, expected this summer to be different for us because for the first time in the past few years we would not have to sell our star players. Did that prospect make our summer less stressful? Not a bit. We still had to go through an emotional roller-coaster normally associated with transfer windows, i.e., hopes, expectations, disappointment and resignation.

Arsenal's early transfer activity was focused on moves away from the Emirates. Arsenal released 10 youth players, while Squillaci and Arshavin left the Club as their contracts expired. Also, Denilson's contract was cancelled before the Brazilian midfielder joined the club he spent the previous two seasons on loan with, São Paulo, while Andre Santos moved back to his native Brazil to join Flamengo for an undisclosed fee. Djourou and Coquelin joined Hamburg and Freiburg, respectively, on a season-long loan. Vito Mannone was sold to Sunderland for a reported transfer fee of £1.5-2 million. Gervinho's move to Roma was secured in August for a reported fee of around £8 million. Chamakh moved across the capital to Crystal Place before the start of the season for an undisclosed fee (or on a free transfer according to some reports). With all the deadwood cleared, Arsenal were ready to spend big on wages as well.

After the signings of Gonzalo Higuain, Luis Suarez, and Luiz Gustavo, all failed to materialise (I'm quite sure that there is a story behind each potential signing as Wenger stated that he could write a book about a transfer window every summer), the fans were extremely frustrated. Furthermore, after the summer clear-out, our squad was stripped to the bare bones. Arsenal were desperately short on numbers.

The signing of Mesut  Özil, which was confirmed just before the window closed, lifted the fans, as well as sent Arsenal players a buzz. Santi Cazorla, the Ox, Jack Wilshere, and Aaron Ramsey, who could be all competing for a place in midfield with him, immediately tweeted their excitement over the signing, with Wilishere declaring that this was easily the signing of the summer. Theo Walcott also expressed his excitement, saying "the likes Özil joining the club is only going to boost everyone's confidence and everyone's going to be on a massive high". Gibbs revealed that he jumped in the air when he learnt Arsenal's signing of the ex-Real Madrid player. Olivier Giroud welcomed the arrival on Twitter from French national team's camp Tuesday morning, while Laurent Koscielny described the German international as a world-class player and assured he would adapt to English football quickly. Poldi posted on Facebook a photo of himself and the new signing together holding an Arsenal shirt in Germany. Later, Mertesacker also posted his welcome message and a photo with Özil and himself on Facebook.

The fans' reaction was equally enthusiastic. Apparently Arsenal had sold 6,800 Özil shirts by the end of the following day and more than 1 million shirts, including casual T-shirts, had been ordered/sold in the next two days. It just goes to show that big signings pay for themselves.

While there is no question about the class and qualities of Özil who is dubbed as the King of Assists, the signing left some fans sceptical about the need of another attacking midfielder. Arsenal's strength lies in their dominant midfield and it was widely believed that reinforcement was needed in other areas, especially up front. Arsenal reportedly attempted to sign Demba Ba on loan from Chelsea, but the deal fell through in the last minute. The rumour has it that the Chelsea manager realised that Arsenal were genuine title contenders after they had completed the signing of Özil and made a U-turn on the proposed loan deal, refusing to help out their rivals. (If this is true, Special One clearly didn't consider Everton (Lukaku) or Liverpool (Victor Moses) as title contenders, then.)

On the SkySports site, Adam Bates answered these fans' questions as to whether Arsenal really needed Özil. The Germany international was Real Madrid's third top scorer with 9 goals, but he really shines in terms of assists. Özil was the 4th most successful through ball provider (17) in La Liga last season, only after Iniesta, Fabreagas, and Di Maria, but with the league's best accuracy rate of 70%. It's not hard to imagine one of those through balls will release Walcott behind the oppositions' defence on numerous occasions this season.

Upon the arrival of Özil, Cazorla is likely to spend more time on the left wing, combined with Poldi's prolonged absence. Apparently, left-footed Özil tends to move into wide positions. Given Santi's inclination to cut inside (which was a kind of problem for us because we miss a real wide player when he plays on the left wing), the interchange of these two talented midfielders will present an interesting prospect. It will be very difficult for the opponents to contain these two.

Giroud is in a fantastic form at the moment and is unlikely to complain a lack of service once Özil has hit the ground running. Özil could even make Bendtner look like one of the greatest strikers in the world, which the Dane claims he is. Who knows. If Giroud can stay fit, the goal tally will improve on the last season between Giroud and Walcott thanks to Özil's vision and passing accuracy. When Podolski returns from the hamstring injury, he is expected to play a centre forward role as an alternative option to Giroud.

Another position we needed to strengthen was central defence. With Vermaelen's imminent return (possibly after the international break), Wenger seemed to have decided against the idea of adding in this area. Sagna could serve as a fourth-choice centre-back, which leaves the right-back position without a back-up. However, newly re-joined Mathieu Flamini can provide a cover in case Sagna's deputy, Carl Jenkinson, gets injured. As we have already given a verdict in the previous post, the re-signing of Flamini was probably one of Wenger's most shrewd signings. Wenger earlier revealed that he did not want to re-sign the French midfielder initially. However, Flamini's physical sharpness and determination convinced Wenger to re-sign the 29-year-old midfielder.

A goal-keeping position was another area we were keen to see strengthened, although Szczesny appeared to be heading for Arsenal's long-term No.1. Following the sale of Vito Mannone, Wenger looked for a third-choice keeper and brought in Emiliano Viviano on a season-long loan from Palermo on the deadline day. He is not a Casillas or a Julio Cesar the fans were hoping for, but the 27-year-old Italian should give the young Pole competition. We don't know much about him, but earning 6 caps for Italy during Gianluigi Buffon's long-term reign is not to be sniffed at. If he proves himself worthy of a place in the Arsenal squad, he will be signed on a longer term next summer as his loan deal includes a buy-out clause. It's a win win situation. We don't know why some fans are reportedly so negative about the signing.

The jury is out for Yaya Sanogo, a 20-year-old French striker signed from Auxerre on a free transfer. Although our squad still looks somewhat deflated, we are happy with the Club's activity in the 2013 transfer window. After all, Arsenal have made a statement of intent through the signing of Mesut Özil.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Arsenal 1 Tottenham 0

While pundits were expecting Arsenal to edge out Spurs mainly on the strength of a home game, many Arsenal fans were more pessimistic about the outcome of the first north London derby of the season. One thing in common was a prospect of a few goals, if not a goal fest which has been the trend of this fixure for the recent years. However, the game ended in Arsenal's traditional scoreline, one nil to the Arsenal.

It turned out that Arsenal won the game as a team, while Tottenham showed individual brilliance in patches but fell short collectively. This season's biggest spenders' attack was disjointed, which explains their two earlier 1-0 Premier League wins, with both goals scored from the penalty spot.

As the pundits predicted, Arsenal's almost unchanged line-up showed their strength as a team, which saw them only beaten once since the day they beat Bayern Munich 2-0 on their home soil. Tottenham may have a strong squad, but Arsenal had stronger team.

Olivier Giroud was awarded the Barclays Man of the Match for his tireless defensive work as well as scoring which turned out to be the only goal of the game with a sublime one-touch finish. Aaron Ramsey put in a tenacious performance in the midfield battle, winning an impressive 7 tackles. Mathieu Flamini proved himself as a quality addition to the squad with his combative display, organising the Arsenal defence in the midfield as if he had never left the Club. Laurent Koscielny delivered an assured performance, keeping Soldado at bay.

We could have won the game more comfortably, if Hugo Lloris hadn't been in such a superb form on this day. The French international was Tottenham's best performer.

However, the lack of depth in the Arsenal squad was clear. Once Jack Wilshere came off the pitch, who was replaced by a more defensive option, Flamini, Arsenal were left with no attacking options. Sanogo, Gnabry, and Zelalem could hardly have changed the game. Wenger brought Nacho Monreal on in the place of Rosicky to bolster the defence. Sagna replaced Walcott in injury time as Wenger prepared for frantic aerial battles in the box for the remaining minutes. Arsenal ended the game with three full-backs and three centre-backs (According to Wenger, Sagna was brought on as a centre-back.) 

The lack of resources forced the Gunners to choose to protect a narrow lead rather than pushing for a second goal. In addition, the arduous seven days started taking its toll on the team's fitness in the last 20 minutes as Wenger had feared. With the team's technical quality in play dropping, Arsenal have decided to concede the possession and hit on the break. Interestingly, this was the same tactics experimented in the pre-season game against Man City, which ended in Arsenal's comfortable 3-1 win. Arsene Wenger now has a "Plan B", the lack of which he has been criticised for, when the team struggles to deliver their passing game. It is encouraging that we can win a game in this way. This wouldn't have been an option a few years back. The development shows improvement and confidence in the team's resilience, discipline, and determination.

There are many positives to take from this game, but the most important one is the bragging rights. Tottenham may have spent over 100 million pounds this summer and Arsenal had a depleted squad with injuries and sickness but it is Arsenal who rule  North London, at least for now. We, the fans, have suffered Tottenham supporters' taunts over Arsenal's inactivity in the transfer market all summer, but it was us who had the last word. Priceless.