Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Manchester United 1 Arsenal 0

When fixture lists are published every year, there are four dates we check straight away: a set of two games are north London derbies of course, and the others are clashes with Manchester United. There was a debate prior to the match whether Arsenal vs Man U is still one of England's biggest rivalries. Yes, it is still for us Gooners. We didn't care how Arsenal would win, but we just wanted them to beat Man U. So the narrow defeat was bitterly disappointing for us.

Arsene Wenger made two changes from the side which started in their famous win at Dortmund merely 4 days ago. Per Mertesacker and Tomas Rosicky travelled to Manchester only to be found ill in the morning and were sent back to London. Captain Thomas Vermaelen and a fit-again Mathieu Flamini came in their places. Mikel Arteta and Serge Gnabry were also sick before the match, but the former started, with the latter on the bench. The rest of the squad may have been fit enough to take part in the game, but they looked tired with the mid-week game taking a lot out of them.

The formation with double "pivote" in Flamini and Arteta may have looked a bit too defensive, but it is very difficult to drop either of them, when they are both fit. Besides, we didn't have much attacking option with Rosicky fallen ill, Wilshere only fit for the bench, and even Gnabry only half fit.   

While Wenger didn't use the illness that struck the camp as an excuse, he cited their poor record at Old Trafford as one of the reasons behind his side's nervousness at the start of the game. We know Man U have only lost once in their 9 encounters with us, but we were going into this match with an excellent away form of 15 unbeaten games, including the confidence-boosting win against Dortmund. Last season's Champions League finalists are arguably a stronger side than the current Man U team. We were 5 points clear at the top of the league, while Man U were 8th in the table. Man U were under massive pressure as a loss would have opened up the gap between the two teams to 11. We, Gooners, had reasons to be optimistic, going into this game. It's difficult to understand why the team were so nervous. Our record against top 6 teams last season was disappointing. One of the reasons was that we started a game poorly against those teams, paying too much respect to them, and paid a heavy cost of a lot of catching-up to do in the second half of the game. Later on, when Arsenal rectified such a tendency, their impressive form of the late season began. We hope that this is not the return of that bad habit.

After the match, we were bracing ourselves for the media reaction the next morning. We thought they would rip us apart and write us off completely as title contenders, but surprisingly their reaction was much more sympathetic than expected. The loss was widely regarded as a one-off result and didn't seem to have done a permanent damage to Arsenal's title credentials. The biggest reason was the fact that the game was closely contested. The two sides were only separated by one goal from a set-piece. In the second half, we were clearly the better side, being in control of the game for a long spell. In fact, Man U supporters were greatly unhappy with the media, claiming that they gave the Manchester side little credit. Although Rooney deservedly won plaudits for his man-of-the-match performance, the press were not much impressed with the way the reigning champions won the game. It's safe to say that we were not outplayed or outclassed as a team. Man U didn't beat us as convincingly as we did Liverpool.

Maybe we have done just enough over the past week to convince the media that we can challenge for the title. Also, this weekend's results demonstrated that the results of so called "big games" may not necessarily decide the title tilt. Chelsea were extremely lucky to get a point against a mid-table West Brom side at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. Tottenham were beaten 1-0 by Newcastle at White Hart Lane earlier on Sunday, while Man City suffered another away defeat at the hands of a struggling Sunderland side on the same day. These outcomes suggest that titles are won through consistency. Prior to this past massive week, pundits and journalists alike said that Arsenal hadn't played big clubs yet, but now they must be feeling how little those "big games" can prove.

Arsene Wenger thinks that the international break is not welcome as you want a next game straight away in order to move on from a bitter loss. However, some players will benefit from two weeks off from the gruelling fixtures. Those who go on the international duty should have a change of scenery and can come back to the Club mentally refreshed. Keep fingers crossed for Giroud, Koscielny, and Sagna to come back unscathed and healthy as they have two tough World Cup play-off games against Ukraine.

According to the last update given by Arsene Wenger on Walcott's injury, the Englishman should be back soon after the international break. The Özil-Walcott combination is another partnership we have been looking forward to since the German playmaker's arrival. It showed its promise in the Sunderland game, in which only Walcott's poor finishing prevented Özil from bagging more assists than just one for Giroud's goal. Hopefully, we will see the partnership finally take off and more width and pace added by the England winger to the Arsenal attack.

The next Premier League game will be against an in-form Southampton side, who currently lie third in the table. People are talking about their attacking force at the moment as their attacking players, Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana, have earned their first call-up for the England squad alongside an already capped striker, Ricky Lambert. Although they scored 4 goals against Hull this weekend, their strength undoubtedly lies in defence, which boasts the best record in the league so far with only 5 goals conceded in 11 games. Against the Southampton defence, Arsenal may face a toughest test of the season. Hopefully, we will be at our best, when the two sides meet, and get back to winning ways.

Players rating

Szczesny: 7
With Man U only registering 2 shots on target, he had little to do.

Sagna: 8
Delivered a couple of brilliant crosses. His crossing is getting better and better.

Koscielny: 7
Made 3 tackles and 10 clearances.

Vermaelen: 7
Did well on his rare start. Made 1 tackle, 4 interceptions and 11 clearances. Went forward and had 2 shots. The absence of a flu-stricken Mertesacker may have cost us three points, but every cloud has a silver lining. Vermaelen's positive comment 
regarding his future at Arsenal came up after the match. Captain stated that he wants to stay at Arsenal and will be ready to help the team anytime he is called upon. He may not be a regular starter, but he is still a quality defender.

Gibbs: 7
Made 3 tackles and 4 interceptions. Unlucky not to get on the end of one of Sagna's perfectly-weighed crosses.

Flamini: 6
Shown his 4th yellow card of the season to miss the next game. Replaced by Wilshere in the 62nd minute.

Arteta: 7

Made 4 tackles, 2 interceptions and 51 passes, including 11 long balls, with an impressive 94% passing success rate. Gave way to an attacking option, Gnabry, in the 83rd minute.

Özil: 6
Not at his best. 80% passing success is well below his average. Made 2 key passes, though. His attempt for goal excited us at Rendezvous bar, as well as those travelling fans at Old Trafford, only to hit the sidenetting.

Ramsey: 6
Covered more ground than any other player, including Wayne Rooney whose workrate was highly praised. But a 75 % passing success is very poor by his standard. Guilty for not blocking RVP's run in the set-piece leading to the goal. Had a good chance, breaking away, but he rushed his decision. They say that the Welshman didn't have shooting boots on this day. My advice to Ramsey and 
Özil is never try out new pair of boots in a big game like this. (They both showed off their new Adidas boots on Facebook Pages prior to the game).

Cazorla: 6

Quiet game by his standard.

Giroud: 6
Worked hard for the team, but his touches let him down. Outjumped by RVP in that particular corner.


Wilshere: 7
62nd-minute substitute for Flamini to add creativity. Made a difference as soon as he had come off the bench by getting behind the Man U defence, which no other Arsenal player was able to do before then.

Bendtner: 2
Replaced Cazorla in the 78th minute. Made 6 passes with a 50% success rate. Failed to make a connection with Sagna's excellent cross in the dying minutes. After his recent remark that appeared on a Danish newspaper about his disappointment in having been unable to leave the Club this summer, it will be very difficult for him to regain Arsenal fans' support.

Gnabry: 7
Came off the bench in the 83rd minute to replace Arteta. Looked sharp and was effective on the right wing.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Dortmund 0 Arsenal 1

The was a massive result for a number of reasons. The odds were against us as Westfalenstadion was a difficult place to go where no English side had won before. Arsenal, themselves, tried two seasons ago only to be denied by Dortmund's late equaliser. Arsenal were buoyed by their impressive win over Liverpool at the weekend, but Dortmund's confidence were also boosted by their 6-1 thrashing of Stuttgart on Friday night, another win added to their excellent home record. Apart from Alan Smith, who predicted a positive result for his old club, all the pundits and journalists alike seemed to have expect nothing but a home win. Probably only fans were optimistic, but to be honest, even those hopefuls would have taken a draw if it had been offered before the game.

Arsenal took a huge step towards qualification after the 1-0 victory over Dortmund, sitting top of the Group F on 9 points along with Napoli, who beat Marseille 3-2 at home on the same night. There is still a possibility of all the three teams finishing on 12 points, but the win certainly helped Arsenal's hopes of securing their place in the knockout stage. 

This was the second game of Arsenal's most important week so far this season. It was a contrasting game to the 2-0 win over Liverpool on Saturday, in which Arsenal's creative midfield caught the eye. At half time, some of our members were not happy with the lack of chances Arsenal created in the first 45 minutes. Our final ball didn't have an edge to threaten Dortmund defence. Nonetheless, with a number of dangerous situations we survived, most of us at Rendezvous bar were content with 0-0 at half time.

Arsene Wenger had his game plan spot-on and the team executed it with discipline and professionalism. They were patient. In the post-match press conference, the Frenchman stressed the importance of not making the first mistake and praised his experienced midfield for not losing the ball in the stupid positions. The media exaggerated the impact of Wilshere's ankle injury prior to the match, but Rosicky was a better option for this game without doubt. Perhaps Dortmund missed the German international centre-back Hummels, who put in a man-of-the match performance at the Emirates, more than we missed Jack Wilshere. There was a time when Wilshere's absence would have been thought a disaster but now it's just a minor irritation.

We didn't create a lot. In fact, the goal came from our first attempt for goal. It was a classic counter-attack. After the goal, the game suddenly opened up and we had a series of goal-scoring chances and even nearly found the net second time.

The most pleasing fact this season is that this team has been improving every game. They have learnt lessons from their mistakes in the first game against Dortmund. Mertesacker reflected the game on his Facebook Page, using the same word "naive" as Wenger described the team. Prior to the second match, Ramsey said they would have to be streetwise in the return match. We know that there are still fans out there who wanted the team to play their brand of football, but it wouldn't have worked against this Dortmund side. Arsenal can win a game not only by playing beautiful football like they did against Liverpool, but also by creating little and defending under pressure. The fact that Arsene can now choose this kind of tactics highlights huge improvement in our defence.

In fact, Arsenal's gutsy performance against Dortmund seemed to have earned more plaudits and convinced more people of their title credentials than their fluid display against Liverpool. Arsenal showed their solidarity and defended resolutely against one of Europe's best sides as a team. On top of that, they demonstrated character, defensive stability and organisation, which they have been accused of lacking for the past few seasons.

Beating last season's Champions League runners-up on their home soil has sent out a positive message for Arsenal's domestic title aspiration as well. Our players must have taken belief from this feat. This week has been considered as a real litmus test for Arsenal's title credentials. Now two down, one to go. And the great thing is that we know that we will still be top of the table whatever happens at Old Trafford. Pressure is not on us, but Man U. It would be a perfect end to the massive week if we can increase the gap to them to 11 points.

Players rating

Szczesny: 7
Well protected by the back four, didn't have much to do, but did well when he was called upon.

Sagna: 8
Good defensive work, tried to provide width offensively as well.

Mertesacker: 8
Had an excellent game. Made 2 tackles and 8 clearances.

Koscielny: 8
Kept Lewandowski quiet. Unlucky not to score.

Gibbs: 7
Got caught out of position at times, but his pace made up for it.

Arteta: 8
Resolute display a real defensive rock

Ramsey: 8
Covered more ground than any other player on the pitch (even more than some of Dortmund players who are known for their workrate) of 12.83km. It is amazing how he pops up in those great positions. Although he has been doing that for the last two seasons, this season his finishing is making the difference. Would he have scored that goal in the last two seasons? No. Probably it would have taken him a couple of seconds to decide how to deal with Giroud's knock down. This night he dived towards the ball and headed it past the keeper without hesitation. Nearly scored a second goal.

Özil: 7
Not outstanding, but showed his class at times. His perfectly weighed cross for Giroud led to the goal.

Rosicky: 8
His tenacity and vision started the move leading to the goal. Another top class performance against his old club

Cazorla: 7

Kept the possession well in midfield.

Giroud: 7

It wasn't his best game by his own admission, but worked tirelessly and provided an assist for Ramsey's goal.


Monreal: 6
75th-minute substitute for Cazorla.

Bendtner: 1
Replaced Giroud in the 90th minute. Pointless substitution. His sole mission was keeping the ball at the other end of the pitch for the dying minutes, but he even managed to lose a free-kick near the corner flag by getting offside. Just one touch registered with no passes, no tackle, absolute zero contribution.

Vermaelen: N/A
Injury-time substitute for Rosicky. Little time to make any impact. Made just one clearance. Always good to have this experienced defender in reserve.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Arsenal 2 Liverpool 0

This was the first of the three massive games in the space of 9 days to test Arsenal's credentials as genuine title contenders. They passed it with flying colours, but the result was still not enough to silence the doubters completely, even after Arsenal increasing their lead to 5 points over second-placed Chelsea and Liverpool.

Arsene Wenger made only one change from the side that started in a 2-0 defeat of Crystal Palace last Saturday. Tomas Rosicky came in for injured Mathieu Flamini. As Jack Wilshere was ruled out due to an inflamed ankle (which is reported as a minor problem), Rosicky's involvement was widely expected. Rosicky is our favourite choice over Wilshere anyway as the Czech moves the ball around much quicker than Jack does and always provides more dynamism to our attack. Against what is dubbed as the Premier League's most deadly striking force, Mikel Arteta's return from suspension was crucial for us in the absence of Flamini in order to protect the back four.

As Brendan Rodgers admitted afterwards, our midfield (namely Özil, Rosicky, Cazorla, Ramsey and Arteta) was superb in terms of technical quality and mobility. We may lack recognised wide players at the moment, but when these midfielders are in full force, it is difficult to stop Arsenal's attack. Özi, Rosicky, and Cazorla in the advanced midfield provide so much creativity. 

With a clean sheet against the most prolific partnership in England's top flight, our defenders deserve credit as well. Mikel Arteta has done a very good job of what he was doing all last season. Our two centre-backs kept Suarez and Sturridge quiet. The back four contained the dangerous substitutes, Coutinho and Victor Moses, effectively.

Overall, it was an excellent performance from the league leaders against a joint second-placed Liverpool side. However, there is still room for improvement. Liverpool nearly scored from our free-kick at the other end, when Suarez broke and Sagna had to foul him to stop his run. Rodgers was obviously unhappy with the referee's decision to pull back play, but if we had been more alert, the controversy (not to our eyes, though) could have been altogether avoided. Later on, Mertesacker was seen giving Rosicky instructions when he went up for set-pieces, so hopefully our defenders are more aware of the danger of counter-attacks now.

Arsenal's impressive performance was convincing enough for Brendan Rodgers and even Liverpool fans to think that the better team won. The comprehensive win against one of Premier League's in-form sides seemed to have convinced more pundits that Arsenal CAN win the title this season, but many still think that Arsenal WILL NOT win the title. In fact, at the Arsenal Playa Flamenca Supporters Club, many of the members don't believe that Arsenal will win the Premier League, although everybody hopes it. Wenger understands such supporters' feelings by citing the Club's 8-year trophy drought as a reason. We, the seasoned supporters, have seen our team's form collapse late February after we had had a good start to the season during those eight years.

The fact that Chelsea lost 2-0 to Newcastle earlier on the day speaks volumes for the importance of consistency. Mourinho was not happy with his side's lacklustre display (the shock result surprisingly received little publicity. Imagine how the media would have reacted if it had been Arsenal), but it just goes to show that even a team of quality players like Chelsea cannot just turn up and win a game. We are just happy that our team play easy-on-the-eye football most of the time, scoring some beautiful goals (the other north London club must be jealous). And when they cannot do that, then they grind out the result at the moment. It is simply wonderful that the team deliver both performance and result in a big game like this.

Whether Arsenal are real title contenders or not, time will tell (perhaps, haters like a certain ex-Newcastle striker will continue denying Arsenal's title credentials until the last game of the season, just like he maintained that the north London club would not finish in the top four last season). We just need to concentrate on the next game. The one thing certain is that the team will go into the next game full of confidence after the win. Sunday's match at the Old Trafford poses totally different complexion from the past seasons. At least bookmakers seem to think that we have a better chance to win the title than Man U at the moment. But before that, we travel to Germany for another massive game.

Players rating

Szczesny: 7
Almost impeccable display apart from a careless throw which fortunately bounced back into his arms.

Sagna: 8
Solid defensively. His crosses have been improving significantly, one of which picked up Cazorla and led to the first goal. 

Mertesacker: 7
Solid apart from one pass directly to a Liverpool player.

Koscielny: 8
Kept SAS quiet.

Gibbs: 7
Made good runs forward. Suffered a calf injury and replaced by Vermaelen in the 78th minute. Hope his injury is not serious as he has been in such a good form this season, but Nacho showed that he is more than a capable deputy against Chelsea. We are not too much worried about it.

Arteta: 8
Influential. Protected our defence well and when he went forward, he delivered a perfect pass to Sagna, whose cross then led to Cazorla's goal. Made 7 tackles 2 interceptions and 106 passes with a 94% passing success rate.

Ramsey: 9
Scored a stunning goal. Had 2 shots on target and made 6 tackles, 2 interceptions and 84 passes with a 82% completion rate.

Özil: 7
Quiet game by his standard, but he still had 2 shots on target. Provided his 4th assist in the Premier League, which took him top of the assist table alongside Giroud and Ramsey.

Rosicky: 8
After the end of excellent movement he started, made a shot from a tight angle, which drew a finger tip save from Mignolet. Had a good game.

Cazorla: 8
Scored his first goal of the season through 
a superb half-volley from the rebound of his own powerful header which hit the woodwork. His celebration showed how much the goal meant to him. Getting back to his best after injury, more is expected from him.

Giroud: 7
Had a couple of clear-cut chances, but failed to convert them. Disappointing as his touches and finishing have been impressive this season. On the other hand, his hold-up and link-up play was good. 


Monreal: 7
72nd-minute substitute for Rosicky to ensure that the team would see out the 2-0 victory. Made good runs on the left flank. We were saying that Wenger didn't make these defensive substitutions before this season, but this day's bench might be one of the reasons. Bendtner and Akpom wouldn't have offered a strong attacking option. Wenger didn't have much choice. 

Vermaelen: 7
Came on for injured Gibbs in the 78th minute. Reliable.

Jenkinson: 6
Replaced Cazorla in the 84th minute. It was a good gesture from Arsene Wenger to give the 21-year-old a chance to redeem himself after the error in the midweek game and to show his faith. However, he was shown a yellow card for an unnecessary foul in his short appearance, of which sole purpose was to shore up the defence. On the other hand, he did well to keep the ball at the other end in the dying minutes.