Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Arsenal 4 Sunderland 1

This game was the focal point of our annual Benidorm trip in 2014 and we couldn't have chosen a better weekend. The outcome of the game at the weekend always sets the tone for our annual trip, the best example being the famous 5-2 victory over Tottenham in 2012. This fixture turned out to be a perfect game to kick off our two days in sunny Benidorm. It was arguably the most comfortable win this season. Perhaps the Arsenal FC shared the feeling as they had arranged a half-time event to commemorate the unveiling of a Dennis Bergkamp statue. 3-0 up at half time, the Q&A with the Arsenal great was no wonder upbeat.

As expected, Arsene Wenger rang a few changes to the side that started in a 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich on Wednesday night. Olivier Giroud came in for Yaya Sanogo, which was fully expected after the 27-year-old striker was rested for most of the FA Cup tie and the entire midweek game. Some speculated that the French international was left out for the Bayern game because the private-life issue might have been affecting him mentally, but it was clear in this game that he was benefited from the rest physically. He was fit and sharp. Mesut Özil, who was under fire after the crucial penalty miss on Wednesday night was completely dropped, not even on the bench. In the post-match press conference, Wenger explained the German playmaker's omission from the squad as a forced change due to a thigh problem, but the boss assured that Özil should be available for the Stoke game. Rosicky took the No.10 role with Podolski on the left wing. Arteta replaced Flamini, after serving a European match ban. Monreal started in place of Gibbs who sustained a buttock injury during the Bayern game.

The team selection was spot on. It would be too harsh on Özil to conclude from this game that the Gunners are better off without Ozil. This was just the right kind of game for the right group of players with the right performances on the day. Rosicky had a great game in the No.10 role (Wenger praised him by saying that Dennis Bergkamp would be proud of the Czech's performance in the role the Arsenal legend is renowned for), pulling all the strings. All the players were sharp on this day and started brightly with high tempo, which was rewarded in the form of Giroud's 5th-minute goal. A mistake from a new Sunderland signing led to the second goal in the 32nd minute, followed by Rosicky's clever goal to finish off a well-worked-out build-up play just before half time. In contrast to the Bayern Munich game, everything went well for us in this game, apart from two injuries. 

The game was a demonstration of the Arsenal brand of free-flowing football, which is epitomised by Rosicky's goal. The Czech Republic captain finished the exquisite passing movement involving Wilshere and Giroud with a delightful chip over the keeper. This was a typical Arsenal game at its best, highlighted by stats: 64.8% possession, 691 total passes, 90.3% passing success rate and 12 shots in total of which 9 were on target.

In the last two games, Arsenal displayed more direct attacking play based on quick counter-attack with different personnel up front. The results were mixed, but their performances were equally impressive. This weekend, Arsenal showcased their trademark passing ability and got the result they wanted. It is encouraging that different sets of attacking players play their different games equally well. Hopefully, when Ramsey returns, Özil will rediscover his early form.

This day's strong performance seemed to have convinced many pundits of Arsenal's title credentials, which were severely questioned after the 5-1 defeat to Liverpool. Especially, they acknowledged the Gunners' bouncebackability. They have always come back with an answer to doubters every time they had a blip this season. Now we have gone though the tough run of February fixtures and we are just a point behind league leaders, Chelsea, and two points ahead of Manchester City who have a game in hand. What we have learnt from the difficult run in February is that everybody can drop points against any team and the title race is likely to remain tight.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 7
As Arsenal dominated in possession, there was not much to do, but when called upon, he made a couple of fine saves.

Sagna: 7
Started at the right-back and moved to the left-back at half-time as a result of an injury to Monreal, ending the game as a centre-back following Koscielny's injury. Did well at each position.

Mertesacker: 7
Rock solid.

Koscielny: 8
Scored with a bullet header. He seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed his goal by the look of his celebration. It was a worry when he was substituted through an injury, but after the match, the boss confirmed that it was a back problem but shouldn't prevent him from featuring in the next game. Although Vermaelen's return is imminent, the French centre-back is the rock of our defence. Besides, the Belgian may be needed as a cover for the left-back, now Gibbs is set to be out for 2-3 weeks.

Monreal: 6
Subbed at half-time due to a foot injury. The boss reckons that he should be available for the next game as it was only a kick in the foot. It is a relief as we only have one fit left-back at the moment.

Arteta: 7
Made 3 tackles, 4 interceptions and 120 passes with a 93% passing success rate. His display was not eye-catching because of the nature of his role, but he put in a reassuring performance in front of the back four.

Wilshere: 7
At the heart of creativity. In the post-match interview, he emphasised the importance of winning the ball back high up on the pitch. The stat backs it as he made 2 tackles in this game. Apparently, he had a tight hamstring. Hopefully, it's not too bad.

Cazorla: 7
Part of the impressive midfield.

Rosicky: 9
For me, Man of The Match. Always pushing to go forward and attack the opposition. Superb
goal after a great Arsenal move. Thank goodness he has renewed his contract.

Podolsiki: 7
Unlucky not to score when his fierce shot forced a superb save from Vito Mannone. It was not his best game by any means, but it was great to see him play together with Giroud rather than as his replacement and complete a full 90 minutes. 

Giroud 9
Scored 2 goals and made 1 assist. Had a great game. He took the first goal with precision and composure. The second goal may be regarded as a gift from Sunderland, but it still needed a clinical finish which the French striker provided. He took it with first touch. This day, he looked very sharp and did not look like the same player frequently associated with his frustrated gestures. 


Jenkinson: 6
Replaced injured Monreal at half time, slotting in at the right-back. Did well.

Flamini: 6
Came on for injured Koscielny in the 67th minute to be slotted into the left-back position. Worked hard as usual.

Gnabry: 6
73rd-minute substitute for Rosicky. Had a great chance after released by Wilshere's incisive pass, but failed to convert it by taking a touch too many.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Arsenal 0 Bayern Munich 2 (Last 16 of Champions League)

Like other Gooners, we found ourselves with mixed feelings at the final whistle. It was a shame that we conceded a late goal. As Flamini admitted after the match, we would have been happy to take a 1-0 defeat to Munich. However, we were proud of our team who put up a brave fight against the reigning champions as well as all the adversities.

Arsene Wenger made five changes from the side that started in a 2-1 defeat of Liverpool in Sunday's FA Cup 5th round tie. The number of changes was fewer than we expected. Szczesny came in for Fabianski, while Gibbs and Sagna replaced Monreal and Jenkinson, respectively, at the full-back. These changes were fully expected. Wilshere started next to Flamini in central midfield as Arteta was suspended for this tie after he was sent off in the last game of the group stage. The Ox got the nod again ahead of fully rested Rosicky. This came somewhat as a surprise, but what raised an eyebrow really was the inclusion of Yaya Sanogo. The young French striker impressed in the victory over Liverpool, but the selection was largely regarded as a means to give Giroud a breather. In fact, after the Liverpool match, we joked that we would never see the 21-year-old again, having known that Wenger always sticks with the same group of players week in week out. It was a surprise that he was given a start for the second time in 4 days, considering the fact that he had just come back from a 6-month lay-off and had only played 60 minutes in a U-21's match prior to Sunday's cup tie. In the post-match press conference, Wenger denied that he left out Giroud as a punishment for off-the-pitch incident (the breach of curfew), but it is interesting to see if the French striker will feature against Sunderland. Santi Cazorla started in place of Lukas Podolski.

Arsenal started the game very well, forcing a quality Bayern side on the back foot. Considering that we were 2-0 down within 20 minutes of the first leg at the Emirates last season, this was an encouraging improvement. In the 19th minute, the Gunners had a chance to take a lead, but Özil's tame penalty was well saved by Neuer. This is the second time Özil missed a penalty for us. In a 2-0 victory over Marseille at the Emirates in the group stage of the Champions League back in November, fortunately, that miss didn't count. Wenger accepted that the nonchalant way of penalty taking was the German wizard's style and the Frenchman even joked about a German missing a penalty. This time he admitted that he "preferred people that properly hit the ball". What baffled us was that Wenger was aware that Özil was clearly affected by the penalty miss. The Frenchman admitted that he saw the German playmaker was still shaking his head 10 minutes later. Nevertheless, he decided to sacrifice Santi when he was forced to make a change in the wake of Szczeny's sending off.

Wenger admitted that Szczesny misjudged the situation. Perhaps the Pole mistimed his challenge, but we think that he should have stood big and allowed Robben to come at him in the first place. We are not not complaining the sending-off, but it is a valid argument whether rules should be changed so that only a penalty and a yellow card should be given when a clear goal-scoring chance has been denied in the box. It's not because Arsenal were hard done by the rule in this game, but we always thought that a penalty with a yellow card should be sufficient to compensate for a denied goal-scoring chance. Having a player sent off is too much unless the foul has been committed outside the box, in which case the opposition would not be compensated for the loss of a goal-scoring chance. In fact, we have already seen a few referees opt for just a penalty and yellow card in the Premier League this season.

Combined with the loss of Gibbs to injury in the 31st minutes, the sending-off proved to be just one too many difficulty to overcome. From this point, there was little we could do but  defend. Prior to the match, if we had been offered a 0-0 draw, we would have taken it, but at this point of the game, going into the second leg with a 0-0 draw looked our dream scenario.

In the 54th minute, Bayern Munich took a lead through Kroos' sublime strike. There was nothing we could do about it. After that, we just had to dig even deeper and keep the goal margin minimal. The team did very well, putting in a resolute defensive performance. Arsene Wenger did not make a change until the 74th minute. He explained after the match that with two substitutions already made at early stages, he could not even bring on fresh pairs of legs in case there was another injury. His hesitation is understandable if you imagine what would have happened, had we gone down to nine men. That said, once again his substitution looked strange to us. The Ox was replaced by Rosicky, while Özil stayed on.

Thomas Muller's late goal was heartbreaking for us, especially when our boys were battling so hard to keep it at 1-0. Overall, we think that the team played well and they can only take heart from their performance. They were brilliant in the first 30 minutes against, officially, the best team in the world. And when everything went against them, they fought really hard.

One of the positives from this game was the high tempo and intensity of Arsenal's attack in the first 30 minutes, which was built on from their performance against Liverpool on Sunday. The same two players, the Ox and Sanogo, stood out in the attacking moves. Our game had been very slow and predictable before the Liverpool game, but in the last two games, it changed. Our attack is now based on quick, counter-attacking moves. Hopefully we can keep the tempo.

Another positive was the team's spirit. It was always going to be a tough game and there was no shame in losing 2-0 to the reigning champions with 10 men. An Arsenal side in past would have spectacularly capitulated when a penalty miss, an injury, and a sending-off all happened at the early stages of a game.

With a 2-goal deficit, we have a mountainous task to qualify, but if we can repeat last season's feat in Munich, we still have a chance to go through after extra time. But before that, let's focus on the Premier League this weekend. After all, the league and the FA Cup are more realistic targets for us.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 6
Made a superb save to stop Kroos' effort in the 3rd minute, but made a wrong decision and got sent off.

Sagna: 7
Did OK.

Mertesacker: 7
Captain on the night showed his commitment.

Koscielny: 8
Excellent defensive display, also showed his desire to win, going forward. Had 1 shot on target, made 5 tackles, 2 of which were last-man tackles, with 10 clearances.

Gibbs: 7
Bayern's attack was concentrated on the left frank and he coped well until he sustained an injury. Replaced in the 31st minute. Contrary to what it looked like (we all thought it was a hamstring injury), it was a buttock injury, according to Wenger's injury updates. He is set to miss the Sunderland game, but hopefully he will not be sidelined too long.

Flamini: 7
Committed performance. Made a crucial block.

Wilshere: 7
Showed real desire to go forward, but he does not do enough defensively. Made no tackles nor interceptions, when even Özil, who has been accused of his lack of defensive contribution, made 3 interceptions and 2 clearances.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Lively. Always a threat.

Özil: 6
Missed a penalty, which could have changed the game totally.

Cazorla: 6
Had 2 shots, one of which was straight at the keeper. Taken off in the 31st minute in exchange of Fabianski. 

Sanogo: 7
Another encouraging performance. We liked him when he charged at the keeper. Unfortunately
had nothing to feed off in the second half.


Monreal: 6
31st-minute substitute for Gibbs. He was at fault for the penalty conceded. He should have spotted Robben's run.

Fabianski: 7
Came on for Cazorla in the 38th minute, following the sending off of Szczesny. Another reassuring performance from the second-choice keeper. He could do nothing about Kroos' opener. 

Rosicky: 6
Little impact.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1 (FA Cup 5th Round)

It was a great win, which saw Arsenal through to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Now only Everton and two further wins lie between us and a first trophy in nine years. However, what made us even happier was this night's performance from the Gunners. We have been top of the league and thereabouts for most of the season, but we haven't played well for a long time. This is arguably the best performance since our defeat of Tottenham in the third round of the FA Cup.

Before going into the details of the team's performance, we have to give credit to Arsene Wenger. He made seven changes from the side that started in a goalless draw with Manchester United on Wednesday night. This was a huge gamble for him, which could have backfired on him if the game hadn't gone according to his gameplan. In fact, prior to the match, a section of fans accused the French man of not taking seriously the competition which appears to be our best chance of winning something this season. On paper, this team looked a weakened side with a number of regular starters rested on the bench. On the other hand, it also meant that the players who came in for them were fresh and raring to go. Unlike those fans who were unhappy with Wenger's team selection, we saw his different approach to this game from Arsenal's usual style of keeping possession and passing teams to death, which we have been increasingly weary of recently. Actually, when we saw the teamsheet, the group of quick and more direct players up front excited us.

Wenger explained his team selection as changes mostly forced by medical reasons. Fabianski came in for Szczesny as the 28-year-old is a designated Cup goalkeeper. Carl Jenkinson replaced Bacary Sagna who was tired. Mathieu Flamini, who returned from a three-match ban, replaced Jack Wilshere. The England midfielder was dropped to the bench due to a stiff back. Contrary to our expectations, Mikel Arteta retained his place in the starting line-up. Perhaps the decision was influenced by the fact that he will not play a part in Wednesday night's Champions League match against Bayern Munich through suspension. The two centre-backs also kept their places in order to provide defensive stability (that's Wenger's reasoning, but what choice do we have with Vermaelen still injured?) Nacho Monreal got the nod ahead of Kieran Gibbs, which was a little uncomfortable selection for us after the Spaniard had a torrid time against the same opponents only eight days ago. Wenger defended his selection by citing Kieran Gibbs's muscular problem as the reason. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started on the right wing, with Lukas Podolski on the left flank and Yaya Sanogo in the lone striker role to replace Santi Cazorla, who was sick in bed on Friday, and "a bit tired" Giroud, respectively. Tomas Rosicky was rested completely, not even on the bench. According to Wenger, Bendtner is fit and sharp at the moment, but was not included in the squad.

We were not quite sure about Flamini-Arteta central midfield partnership prior to the match. Both of them sit deep and neither of them looks to get forward. The most recent example of the failure was the first half of the Southampton game. An interesting set of stats compare Premier League games with/without Arteta and Flamini together. Actually, the win ratio when the two played together is higher at 69.20%, compared with 61.5% without the two together. However, it may be worth while to note that these figures do not reflect other competitions, including the away game against Napoli, a worst example of games when the two played together. That said, the partnership worked well against this day's Liverpool side, not leaving the defence open to get exposed. In fact, leaving Wilshere on the bench might have done good on the attacking side as well because he is often a major culprit for slow, intricate passing moves.

Not conceding a first goal was key to this set-up. We had wobbly moments at the start of the game, but largely thanks to Fabianski, we survived those moments. After we had scored the first goal, we could keep it tight at the back and attack on the break, which was well suited for this set-up with the pacy three players up front. We did exactly that. Then, after we had extended our lead early in the second half, we looked comfortable with the game under control until Liverpool got one back. The Merseyside club mounted pressure afterwards, but we remained calm and saw out the game.

The media talked up late threats from a Liverpool side, but as Wenger responded to the reporters in his post-match interviews, we also had chances to make it 3-1. Santi had a golden opportunity with time and space in his hand, but somehow the Spaniard managed to smash his effort high over the bar.

The biggest talking point was arguably the referee's decisions. Liverpool should probably have been awarded another penalty when the Ox ran into Suarez, but the Uruguayan's theatrical tumble did not help one bit. Raheem Sterling was lucky to escape a red card when he pushed Howard Webb in the chest. Many agree that Gerrard was also lucky to stay on the pitch after fouling the Ox when he had already been booked. Liverpool also benefited from Howard Webb's generous treatments.

Overall, we are very happy with the Gunners' performance. Stats depict a totally different picture to our usual games. Our possession was 42.7%, with a territorial advantage of 54.3%. Arsenal made 305 passes in total, which is significantly low by their standard, with a meagre 78.4% passing success rate vis-à-vis Liverpool's 82.5%. We have to admit that the stats were not impressive, but the performance was great. Perhaps Arsenal played a different game to their accustomed style, which also pleased us. They were energetic and full of desire. They took both chances very well, which was probably the ultimate difference between the two sides that determined the result. We particularly liked the swift movement leading to the second goal, which was what we had wanted to see from an Arsenal side.

The result was massive. Not only did it give Arsenal a path to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, but also allowed us to get the disappointing week out of system and gave the team confidence and self-belief ahead of an encounter with Bayern Munich. Hopefully, the team will build on their performance of this day.

Players ratings

Fabianski: 8
Made a series of fines saves. Apart from the mistake when he came out for Gerrard's free-kick but got beaten by Agger, he was flawless. It was an impressive display, considering the difficulty of staying match-fit and sharp when he didn't get playing time for so long. It is a shame that he is set to leave the club as he reportedly turned down a new contract.

Jenkinson: 7
Despite getting beaten by Sterling a couple of times, he coped with Liverpool's attacking threats relatively well. He didn't commit himself too high on the pitch like Sagna did at Anfield, but when he joined the attack, he was quick.

Mertesacker: 7

Koscielny: 7
Made 3 tackles, 5 interceptions, and 12 clearances.

Monreal: 7
Much improved performance from the heavy defeat at Anfield. Made 4 tackles and 7 interceptions. Earned a free-kick, which eventually led to the first goal. Well disciplined after shown a yellow card so early in the game.

Flamini: 7
Provided the team with steel. Gave good protection to the back four

Arteta: 6
Made 29 passes with 72% passing success rate, surprisingly poor figures from last season's best Premier League passer.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Scored the first goal and set up the second goal, which makes 3 goals, 1 assist, and 1 penalty earned in his last 4 appearances (including 1 as a sub). He posed a constant threat to the Liverpool defence. For the first goal, he showed great composure after collecting the rebound off Gerrard. He provided an assist for Poldi's goal through a inch-perfect cut-back after beating Agger on the right flank with his pace.

Özil: 7
This game showed that when he gets runners around him, he shines. He spotted the Ox's run on the right flank and released him behind the defender with a perfectly-weighed pass. His lofted ball back into the box created a chance for the first goal by finding Sanogo at far post. He had an angled shot himself after making a run into the box, which forced a fine low stop from Brad Jones.

Podolski: 7
Scored Arsenal's second goal. He made an incisive run into the box to get in front of the defender before hammering the Ox's cut-back with his weaker right foot. Gave away a soft penalty, though. He should have known better than tackling Suarez from behind.

Sanogo: 7
Very promising performance on his first start in a competitive game as an Arsenal player. One of the many positives from this game. He was strong and quick, involved in every Arsenal attack. He chested down Özil's floated ball to control it and released a goal-bound shot, which was blocked by Gerrard only for the Ox to slot home the rebound. He certainly offers an alternative to Giroud. Bright prospect for Arsenal.


Cazorla: 6
Replaced Podolski in the 69th minute. He had a glorious chance to stretch Arsenal's lead, but he blew it. It would have killed the game without doubt.

Gibbs: 6
75th-minute substitute for the Ox. It was a strange substitution when the Ox was putting in a man-of-the-match performance. He was slotted into the left wing to support and overlap with Monreal.

Giroud: 6
Came on for Sanogo in the 88th minute probably to prop up the defence against set-pieces. Little time to make an impact.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Arsenal 0 Manchester United 0

The stakes were high for the both sides. Three points would take Arsenal back the top of the table thanks to Chelsea's draw with West Brom the night before.  Both teams needed a positive response to their latest disappointments. Arsenal had to put the heavy defeat at Anfield behind them and get back to winning ways as soon as possible. Man U were in the position where they couldn't lose any further ground on their European competition rivals. Although a few pundits predicted that it would be a cagey affair as both sides could not afford to lose this game, most of us expected only one winner. We were second in the table, 14 points clear of the seventh-placed Manchester club and they were at the lowest point of their campaign so far (that's official by Moyes' admission after their late slip-up against the bottom-table Fulham). This Man U side is arguably the weakest we have ever faced (even with RVP and Rooney fit again and Mata added to the squad). This was our best chance in recent years to beat our old foes.

Arsene Wenger made two changes from the side that started in the 5-1 defeat to Liverpool on Saturday. As widely expected, Kieran Gibbs replaced Nacho Monreal who struggled to contain Liverpool's pacy wingers. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was dropped to the bench, while Tomas Rosicky rightly earned his place in the starting line-up on the right wing. There has been an argument whether out-of-form Mesut Ozil should be dropped from the starting line-up, but Wenger kept him in his side and his faith paid off. The German playmaker had a much better game on Wednesday night. Yaya Sanogo was declared match fit after completing 60 minutes in Arsenal U-21s' 0-0 draw with Southampton on Friday and the young French striker was on the bench.

Arsenal were a better side in our opinion, taking control for most of the game and restricting Man U to just two chances. We had the best of chances with 17 shots, of which 5 were on target. All the more, coming away with just a point is disappointing. Arsene Wenger talked up the quality of the Man U team in his post-match conference. Quality attacking players, the likes of RVP, Mata and Januzaj, always posed counter-attacking threats, which maybe restricted our game going forward. The experienced players, such as Vidic, Ferdinand, and Carrick defended resolutely, limiting our chances to very few. This was Wenger's view, which is a bit different to ours.

Man U didn't offer very much going forward. Wayne Rooney was the embodiment of their frustration (Mark Clattenburg must have more patience than other referees, who would have shown him a yellow card). In contrast, we had enough goal chances to win this game. Giroud had a free header but failed to convert the chance. The French striker had another chance later on, but he couldn't make a meaningful contact with a low cross from Sagna at the near post. Koscielny's goal-bound header was cleared off the line by Valencia. But what frustrated us more was the way the Gunners played. Their attack was toothless. What's more worrying is that this is likely to remain as a problem because that's the way Arsenal like to play. Even when they manage to break quickly, they stop in the final third and wait for the rest of midfield to arrive. Since the loss of Theo Walcott to a long-term injury, we have no Plan B. Podolski could play up front, but the team would still play the same way as they do with Giroud as a lone striker. We have to find another way to attack when passing football cannot find a way through the resilient defence lines.

Obviously we are all disappointed with the result. This was definitely two points dropped rather than a point earned against this Man U side. Wenger and his players seemed to be happy with the point as they pay more respect to their opposition than we do.

We were crying out for substitutions for the last 30 minutes. Our wish was partly granted in the shape of the Ox, who had little time to make any impact when he came on in the 74th minute. However, our call for Poldi was never answered. In the post-match press conference, asked about using substitutes, Wenger answered that they had plenty of offensive players on the pitch. He could have replaced a player or two without upsetting the defence-attack balance of the team. Any other striker would have been worth a try when Giroud was having such a bad game.

On the positive side, the Gunners showed their determination. It was a much improved performance from the weekend on the mental side. They were more energetic, tracking back, hustling their opponents, and trying to win the ball back. The result was not quite what we wanted, but a clean sheet has probably restored their defensive confidence. After the hefty loss, defence was the first thing to be addressed. Now they've had their confidence back in the defence, hopefully they can shift their focus to their attacking side.

A point from the possible 6 points was hardly the result we hoped for, but we are still in the thick of the title race. Unfortunately, our performance this night was not convincing enough to remain as genuine title contenders. To be honest, many of us were disheartened by Arsenal's attacking display. But we hope that a positive result this weekend will lift all the fans.

Players rating

Szczesny 7
His save of RVP's late header was arguably the save of the season. Apart from his pass to Arteta in the 3rd minute (we blame him for the nearly costly mistake, rather than Arteta being robbed of the ball by RVP), his performance was reassuring. 

Sagna: 7
Solid defensively. Delivered a fine cross for Giroud. Helped the attack going forward.

Mertesacker: 7
Made a vital interception to Rafael's cross to get in front of RVP. Didn't give much space to the Dutchman.

Koscielny: 8

Unlucky not to score. Solid defensive display.

Gibbs: 7
Kept the right wingers at bay. Nearly scored with the head.

Arteta: 7

Made 5 tackles and 5 interceptions.

Wilshere: 6
Worked hard, but made no tackles nor interceptions. We badly miss Ramsey in this role. Released behind the defensive line by 
Özil's pass and beat Vidic, but his shot was blocked by Smalling for a corner.

Cazorla: 8

His late two efforts forced good saves from De Gea. Had 5 shots in total, of which 2 on target. His defensive work was impressive, too.

Özil: 7

The big-money signing who is currently under pressure from his critics had a good game. His assist stats may have dipped recently, but it's not entirely his fault. The whole team's goal tally has dropped since they have lost two goalscorers, i.e., Walcott and Ramsey. He still creates chances, with 7 key passes in this game. Led a quick counter-attack, but he only had Giroud to finish it. We hope he will have more shots, though.

Rosicky: 6

Always drove the attack forward, but his passing left a lot to be desired in this game.

Giroud: 5
Missed two clear-cut chances. 



Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6
74th-minute substitute for Rosicky. Made little improvement to the team, when he came on.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Liverpool 5 Arsenal 1

It was a shocking result, but what hurts us more was Arsenal's poor performance, especially in the first half. Even Wenger admitted that they just didn't turn up with the right performance, including himself. He admitted that he was partly responsible for his side's sub-par display, but it's not certain that he implied his failure to motivate the team (we should have borrowed the Scottish masseur from Chelsea) or his tactics (or lack of them) for this game. Untypically, the Frenchman made no excuses, such as the ref's decisions, the pitch, or weather conditions. In fact, Liverpool's first goal should have been ruled out as off-side, but he simply blamed his side's poor performance for the hefty loss.

Going into the game, our anticipations were mixed. Liverpool had an excellent home form and they have so far turned up for big games this season, albeit often without end-results. Some said that they would take a draw, while others were confident that Arsenal would get at least a point, based on their stellar performance at the Emirates in early November, which was one of their best displays this season. In fact, we had the same XI available, apart from the injured Aaron Ramsey, that started on that day. The squad was even better now with the Ox and Poldi back from injury (Flamini was injured at the time of the reverse fixture earlier this season, while Wilshere was also out of the squad with an ankle injury). A 5-1 scoreline was beyond anybody's imagination.

Wenger made just one change from the side that started in a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace last Saturday. Fit-again Jack Wilshere came in for Lukas Podolski. The Ox was moved to the right wing, while Wilshere started next to Arteta in central midfield. We expected Rosicky to earn his place in the starting line-up, but it seemed difficult to drop the Ox after his man-of-the match performance in the last game. Also, when Wilshere came into contention for the central midfield berths, it was not difficult to guess he would be preferred to the Ox because of his experience in the position. After the match, Wenger was asked if he rushed Wilshere into the game. We agree with the boss on that the England midfielder didn't look less fit than any other Arsenal player. The whole team appeared to have lacked sharpness, physical strength and determination. If anything, Wilshere at least showed more desire than his team-mates. Wenger admitted that he could have taken off a lot of his players at half-time. He waited until 60th minute, which was earlier than the usual 70th minute, and it was wholesale changes. The three straight swaps highlighted Wenger's frustration with his arguably worst performers, namely, Giroud, Özil, and Monreal. After the match, Arteta revealed that he had never seen Wenger as furious as he was at half-time before.

We haven't played well for quite some time, but have been grinding out results by scoring just enough goals and not conceding many. However, it has finally caught up with us. You cannot keep playing below par and getting results, especially against great sides. Especially, we have been slow starters of late, but our solid defence kept us in the game until we started playing. However, we were finally punished for our slow start in this game.

We have been frustrated with the team's slow build-up and reluctance to shoot. The flash point of this game was arguably our missed opportunity just after Skrtel's opener. Cazorla broke with speed. Liverpool defence was caught by the counter-attack and our players outnumbered them. Cazorla's astute pass found Giroud in the left-hand channel, but the French striker was slow on the ball and allowed Skrtel to close him down. If Arsenal had levelled just after the opener, the dynamics of the game would have been totally different. We don't seem to be able to attack quickly.

Arsene Wenger's game-plan was clear even before the kick-off. He intended his side to dominate possession in midfield and cut off supplies to Suarez and Sturridge, just like they did at the Emirates. However, Brendan Rodgers learnt lessons from that game, in which our midfield overran their counterparts. Since that day, he had also ditched the 3-4-1-2 formation. They pressed Arsenal in midfield, just like Southampton did in the first half. Wenger's tactics may have just worked if his team were as energetic and sharp as this day's Liverpool side. Usually oppositions' such high-energy approaches barely bear fruit as they get tired as a game wears on. In fact, Liverpool's intensity dropped in the second half (we looked much better in the second half partly because of that), but by then they were comfortably sitting on a 5-0 lead. Conceding 4 goals within 20 minutes proved detrimental to the game-plan.

The frailty of our defence was a shock to us. The solidity in defence has been the difference this season. The Mertesacker-Koscielny partnership had never lost a game since January 2012 prior to the game, when they both played for 90 minutes. They were the only central defensive partnership this season that kept both Suarez and Sturridge out of scoring in a game. Sadly, these records came to an end. As Wenger stated, conceding two goals from set-pieces was a shock to our defenders and from there, our defence had been shaky. Hopefully, they will leave the game behind quickly and will not suffer too big a damage to their confidence. 

Pundits and journalists wasted no time to jump on the doom and gloom scenario they have been waiting for. Hopefully, come Wednesday night, the dismal performance will prove to be a mere bad day in the office. Arsenal have already done that after their defeat to Man City. Chelsea knocked us off the top of the league, but we ended the day second as Man City were held goalless by struggling Norwich City (this is certainly one of the shock results of the day, but the media hardly talked about it, only mentioning it as a "slight" slip-up). The last two results made Chelsea strong favourites in the title race, but we are still in it, a point below them and a point above Man City. Man City's draw has just pointed out that they could drop points against any opponents, just as Chelsea did against West Ham at Stanford Bridge several days ago. There is no denying that this day's anaemic performance had dented Arsenal's title credentials and as Wenger said, raised questions. But hopefully, they will put in a convincing performance on Wednesday night to answer all their critics and we can look back this result as just a blip.

Players rating

Szczesny 6
Made a couple of great saves, but he could probably have done better against some of the goals.

Sagna: 6
Totally caught out of position for the third goal. He was nowhere near the box.

Mertesacker: 6
Not his reassuring self.

Koscielny: 6

The pacey defender looked slow. Guilty for the second goal by allowing Skrtel a free-header.

Monreal: 6
Struggled to cope with Liverpool's attack down the right flank.

Arteta: 6

Scored the consolation goal from the spot. His free-kick was unlucky not find the back of the net, forcing a great save from Mignolet. On the other hand, he failed to protect the back four.

Wilshere: 6
At least he tried.

Cazorla: 6

Not at his best.

Özil: 5

His errors led to two goals. He has been under pressure from fans and pundits alike to step up his game and make a difference in big games. He had to deliver in this game, but failed. They say that form is temporary, but class is permanent. Hopefully, he will rediscover his early form soon.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6

Earned a penalty.

Giroud: 5
His touches deserted him on this day. He had no control of the ball. "Really poor performance" by his admission.



Rosicky: 6
60th-minute substitute for 

Podolski: 6

60th-minute substitute for Giroud.
Gibbs: 6
61st-minute substitute for Monreal.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Arsenal 2 Crystal Palace 0

At the Rendezvous bar, the biggest pre-match talking point was Arsenal's transfer activity. BBC had just revealed that Arsenal's only signing in the January window had already been injured. On the previous day, Swedish media reported that Kim Kalltrom had hurt his back during his first training session at London Colney and the injury would likely keep him on the sidelines for two to three months. However, according to Sky Sports, the north London club were quick to play down the severity of the injury by stating that a "slight" injury ruled out the Sweden international for the Crystal Palace game. We mourned our luck. It's typical that an Arsenal player gets injured before he even plays his first game. In fact, Kallstrom didn't attended training at all as he fell on his back while playing football on a beach in Spartak Moscow's pre-season tour in Abu Dhabi two days before he joined Arsenal on loan. Arsenal medical team were aware that the Swedish midfielder had a micro-fracture in the vertebra, but the club decided to go ahead with the loan deal, with Kallstrom to undergo rehabilitation with the north London club. He was meant to be a short-term cover during Flamini's suspension and the lay-offs of Wilshere and Ramsey. The Swede is now set to miss 6 games in February at least, which means that even Ramsey, who is thought to be the longest absentee of the three, could be back before Kallstrom becomes fit. If the temporary cover is sidelined for a longer period than the players he was supposed to be covering, what is the point of signing a 31-year-old midfielder on loan?

We were all furious about the farce surrounding our only January signing. On the other hand, our reaction to the much-rumoured Julian Draxler deal was rather mixed. It would have given a huge morale boost to Arsenal's title aspiration, if it had materialised, especially, after losing Theo Walcott to a long-term injury and Ramsey's return delayed for further 4-6 weeks. However, £37.8 million (or as much as £40 million according to some newspaper reports) is a huge price tag for an unproven, cup-tied 20 year-old winger/attacking midfielder, no matter how talented he may be. Some fans call it an "investment", but perhaps it is more appropriate to call it a "gamble". In light of the fact that Juan Mata, a Premier-League proven 25-year-old Spain international, cost Manchester United £37.1 million, the price of signing Julian Draxler is hard to justify. We were not as deluded as a section of the fans to believe any world-class striker would be available in the January transfer window. Clubs do not let their best players leave when they are pushing for domestic titles or the Champions League. All the same, the lack of January signings left us supporters deeply disappointed.

Arsenal went into the game as favourites, but with the negativity surrounding the Club's unsuccessful January transfer activity, we were not as optimistic as bookmakers or pundits. Crystal Palace were a well-organised side under Tony Pulis, not shipping many goals. In fact, all the stats comparing pre-Pulis and post-Pulis were a bit scary. Prior to the game, Wenger praised the home crowd for their newly found patience, but we feared that if Arsenal did not come out of the blocks, the crowd might be quick to get on their back amid their discontent with the transfer business. The situation reminded us of the Aston Villa game on the opening day at the Emirates, but the difference was that the transfer window is firmly shut this time. Also, this weekend saw a number of shock results, including Man U beaten by Stoke 2-1, Newcastle thrashed at home in the Tyne-Wear derby, and Tottenham and Liverpool held by relegation-threatened Hull City and West Brom, respectively. One more upset would have hardly raised an eyebrow.

Arsene Wenger made two changes from the side that started in a 2-2 draw with Southampton on Tuesday night. As Flamini started his three-match suspension from this game, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain started alongside Mikel Arteta in central midfield. Lukas Podoski replaced his compatriot, Serge Gnabry, on the left wing. Santi Cazorla was moved from the left to right flank. Tomas Rosicky was fit again, recovering from a broken nose, but only to make the bench. We expected Gibbs to get the nod for this game after Monreal's disappointing display against Southampton, but Gibbs started from the bench. Wenger explained his selection in his post-match press conference by stating that he did not want to gamble on Gibbs' fitness after they had had some concern about the recurrence of the England left-back's calf problem. Mysteriously, there was no sign of the club captain, Thomas Vermaelen, not even on the bench. The Belgian centre-back made a return to the bench on Tuesday night after missing three games through a knee injury he sustained four weeks ago. According to Belgian sources, Vermaelen suffered a setback in training last week, picking up a slight calf strain. Instead, Gedion Zelalem, who has just turned 17, filled the bench.

Arsenal struggled to break down Palace's stubborn defence in the first half. Arsenal tried to play their football, but they were predictable and lacked penetration. After Özil's lofted pass found Monreal in the left-hand channel in the 3rd minute only for Speroni to block Monreal's attempt, Arsenal's best chances were limited to dead-ball situations. It was difficult to find space in well-organised Palace defence.

A breakthrough came within two minutes from the restart though the Ox's well-taken goal. A 73rd-minute goal from the same goal-scorer gave us some breathing space.  Both goals came from quick build-up play and the Ox's excellent run through the line, not from intricate passes in and around the box. Palace continued to press, but the Gunners saw out another 2-0 home victory with ease.

It was not a vintage performance from an Arsenal side by any means, but it was an important win after the disappointing 2-2 draw in midweek. Amid all the negativity ahead of the match, anything less than a win would have severely hurt the fans' sentiments and the players' belief. The Ox's return to his best and the testimony of his rich promise as a box-to-box player were the bright spots of the game, lifting the supporters' mood. Pundits used well-worn Arsene Wenber's expression, "just like a new signing", but seriously, the Ox's rise gave us something to get excited about. A 20-year-old steps up and fills in for injured key players and a new signing (!). He still has massive room for improvement as a central midfielder, but when Wilshere comes back (as early as this weekend if Wenger's prognosis is right), the Ox will certainly give the boss something to think about.

After the match, Wenger revealed the truth about the signing of Kim Kallstrom. Basically, As they found out the extent of his injury with only 6 hours left before the deadline, it was the Swede or nothing, so the Frenchman took the injured midfielder in case we might need a player in March or April, considering the alarming rate at which Arsenal midfielders have been getting injured. You may blame Wenger for leaving the deal so late, but we had an abundant choice of central midfielders till Tuesday night when Flamini was shown a red card and Ramsey had had an injury setback on the previous day. Good news is that it was a free loan and Spartark Moscow will pay his wages while he is injured. Even if Kallstrom might never play for Arsenal, as Wenger admitted, the deal wouldn't be disastrous for Arsenal. It is time for us to move on from the January transfer and concentrate on what we have at the moment.

The three points saw Arsenal move back to the top of the league and as a result of Man City's defeat to Chelsea on Monday night, we are now two points clear of Man City and Chelsea at the top of the table. With no midweek game this week in the Premier League, we will stay top until Saturday afternoon at least. A tough run of fixtures starts this weekend with a trip to Anfield.

Players rating

Szczesny 7
Made two brave saves. His decision and timing was spot-on, when Chamakh made a run at goal. It reminded us of the horrible mix-up between the Pole and Koscielny in the Carling Cup final 3 years ago, but this time Koscielny was calmer and fully trusted his keeper. 

Sagna: 7
After a goal-scoring chance in the first half, he was quieter than usual on the attacking front, but reliable defensive display.

Mertesacker: 7
Put in some great tackles.

Koscielny: 7

Solid display.

Monreal: 7
Unlucky not to score. Posed a constant attacking threat on the left flank.

Arteta: 7

Back to his usual self as the hub of the team. Made a whopping 127 passes with an impressive 96% success rate, with 2 key passes. Made 6 tackles. He should have had a shot himself rather than passing to Poldi, though. He ended the game limping. Hopefully, he will recover from the knock in time for the next game.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Showed real improvement in this game (even between the two halves) and put in a-man-of-the-match performance. He made a great run into the box, took a touch with his right foot to control Cazorola's lofted pass and chipped Speroni with left foot for his first goal of the season. The second goal was also well taken following a neat one-two with Giroud. We love the Ox's direct style of play. He had 4 shots, of which 2 ended up at the back of the net. He was obviously suffering from cramp towards the end of the game, but it was great to see him complete a full 90 minutes for the first time this season. Welcome back, "the Ox in the Box"!

Cazorla: 7

Set up the first goal for the Ox through a shrewd pass to go over the Palace defenders after making space for himself with a couple of step-overs and picking up the Ox.

Özil: 7

Created an early chance through a lofted pass to release Monreal behind Palace defence. His floated 25-yard free-kick also gave Koscielny a chance to flick into the Palace net, which was brilliantly saved by Speroni. Made more key passes (3) than any other player on the pitch.

Podolski: 6

Lively and was a threat, but did not live up to our expectations. Missed two half decent chances.

Giroud: 7
Set up the Ox's second goal through a neat one-two while holding back the defender. His hold-up play was good and he was mobile to link up with his team-mate. It is mystery how the ref, Jon Moss, missed him being held firmly down by Jedinak when an Arsenal corner was taken. It should have been a blatant penalty.



Rosicky: 6
72nd-minute substitute for Podolski. Made an immediate impact by initiating the fluent move leading to the Ox's second goal. Great to have him back. His collision with the Ox in the face worried us enormously, but his nose seemed to be OK. Hopefully, he will be fit to start soon.

Gibbs: 5
84th-minute substitution to replace 
Özil. Little impact.

Bendtner: 5
Replaced Giroud in the 84th minute. With only 3 touches made, he wasn't involved.