Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Everton 2 Arsenal 2

This game was Arsenal's first acid test of their title credentials as they visited one of the top six for the first time this season. The manager and the players alike were all aware that they had to make improvement on those games in order to mount a serious title challenge this season.

Arsene Wenger made 4 changes from the side that started in the goalless draw in Istanbul. The return of Per Mertesacker, combined with injury to Mikel Arteta, offered an intriguing option of Calum Chambers deployed as a defensive midfielder role. However, the boss decided to give Laurent Koscielny a breather ahead of the crucial Champions League qualifier on Wednesday. The French centre-back was carrying an Achilles injury that almost ruled him out of the midweek game. As a result, Chambers was paired up with the BFG in the central defence. In  midfield, Wenger opted for a more conservative option of playing Mathieu Flamini in place of the injured club captain. Mesut Ozil came in for Santi Cazorla, who started from the bench. After arguably Giroud's worst display in Arsenal colours, few was surprised to see the French striker dropped to the bench. The Ox was slotted in on the right flank as one of the front trio, with Alexis Sanchez moved to the centre forward position.

This Arsenal side was set up for counter-attack, which was not a bad idea, but the problem was that it was executed poorly. Transition from defence to attack was too slow to take advantage of Alexis' pace. In the first half, we saw the same old Arsenal: no penetration, too many intricate short passes around the box and reluctant to shoot. Arsenal finished the first half with only 5 shots on goal, all by the Ox, none of which were on target.

Giroud made a significant difference when he replaced Alexis at half time. The change was widely interpreted as Wenger's admission of the failed experiment of using the Chilean forward as a central striker. Arsenal found the focal point of their attack in Giroud and a clear-cut chance arrived as quickly as within 60 seconds of the second half, when the Ox's curling ball found Giroud at the far post. However, the French striker spurned the glorious chance by blazing it over the bar from close range. It was a game-changing moment.

Wenger made double substitutions in the 74th minute, bringing on Santi Cazorla and Joel Campbell. Both substitutions were effective. With 7 minutes of normal time remaining, Santi found himself some space on the left side in the area to deliver an incisive low cross for onrushing Ramsey, who converted it from 5 yards. The Welshman didn't celebrate his second goal in as many league games. Instead, he carried the ball to the center cycle for the immediate re-start of the game. The Gunners piled pressure and in the injury time, Giroud finally redeemed himself by scoring an equaliser. Nacho Moreal did very well to keep Ramsey's over-hit ball in play and whipped an inch-perfect cross for Giroud to head home.

As Arsenal ended the game on the front foot and considering the fact that Everton's second goal should have been ruled off-side, we felt that we deserved more than a point. The officials' decisions were poor throughout the game. In the build-up leading to Everton's second goal, Lukaku fouled Mertsacker before carrying on his run. Replays showed that Naismith was clearly off-side. It's difficult to comprehend why such an experienced assistant referee got his call wrong.

Did Arsenal do enough to prove their title credentials? Their performance was still far from convincing. The defence looked to remain vulnerable against counter-attacks, while the attack lacked the cutting edge. They made the same mistake of conceding goals early. However, Arsenal's tenacity and determination attracted plaudits as one of the champions' traits. The team showed their character for the second time this season. Considering that we had only just had two of our key players back and a few players are still not up to speed, there will be more to come from this side. Besides, Walcott's imminent return will add more pace and different attacking options. In fact, the bench already looked decent, bar defensive options. Rosicky could have come off the bench to make a difference.

It was a good point to take away from home. Prior to the game, a 1-1 draw seemed to have been the most popular bet. If a 2-2 draw had been offered at half time, we would have happily taken it. It was an improvement over last season's corresponding fixture, in which we were well beaten by 3 goals to nil. A point is always useful against your rivals as it also means that they have dropped 2 points. In this case, Everton must be feeling exactly that.

Now we have a massive game Wednesday night. If we can get our job done, it could help wrap up some transfer business before the dead-line day.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 6
He could have done better to stop Everton's first goal going in as he got his hands to Coleman's shot and it was at a good height

Debuchy: 6
Caught out of position a few times but showed good pace going forward

Chambers: 5
It was a difficult game for him, with Arsenal put under a severe pressure in the first half and against a good counter-attacking side. Being paired up with yet another different partner, who had just returned to competitive football, didn't help. He had been outstanding before this game, which proved that he still has a lot to learn. Hopefully, once the Kos-Mert partnership has been up and running again, the 19-year-old can continue his development (as a cover for Debuchy or a holding midfielder) at his own pace.

Mertesacker: 6
Struggled with Arsenal's high defensive line, but was fairly decent, considering that this was his first game back from the World Cup.

Monreal: 6
A mixed performance. He struggled defensively, but he didn't give up running forward and his tenacity was rewarded with an important assist for the equaliser.

Flamini: 6
Did his job OK. Made 53 passes with a 92 passing success rate. A yellow card was extremely harsh.

Ramsey: 7
He continued to demonstrate his ability to pop up in the right place at the right time. Made more passes (69) than any other player on the pitch.

Wilshere: 5
So far Wenger's persistence with the England midfielder has been obvious. In order to accommodate him as a box-to-box player, Arsenal have been playing a 4-3-3 formation. No successful tackle recorded in his name was pretty poor as a box-to-box player (and he was shown a yellow card for his late challenge). It's interesting to see how Ozil's return will affect Jack's future. Replaced by Cazorla in the 74th minute, which turned out to be a good move, but this was likely to be a move with the anticipation of Jack's involvement on Wednesday night. He needs to step up his game to fill in suspended Ramsey's boots against Besiktas.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6
Lively and he looked like the only Arsenal player to have shots, but was wasteful at times. He failed to convert a great chance, when Coleman cleared the straight to him. 93% passing success rate was a massive improvement.

Ozil: 5
Totally anonymous in the first half. He was guilty of loosing his mark, which led to Everton's first goal. Nevertheless, good to see him complete 90 minutes in his first game back. His second-half performance was a bit better, finishing the game with 65 passes with a 86% completion rate, creating 2 chances.

Alexis: 5
Made 26 touches, no shots, and 1 key pass with a 63% accuracy.


Giroud: 7
Replaced Alexis at half time. Had 5 shots, 2 of which were on target (although the other was a fairly tame attempt). It was a positive that he scored in a big match away from the capital as his goalscoring record outside London was pretty meagre.

Cazorla: 7
Came in for Wilshre in the 74th minute. Set up for Ramsey's goal.

Campbell: 6
Brought on in the 74th minute to replace the Ox. Involved in attacking movements and showed his hunger to impress. Encouraging debut to his Premier League campaign.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Arsenal 0 Monaco 1 (Emirates Cup)

As Valencia beat Benfica 3-1 in the early kick-off, Arsenal only needed a draw to claim the first Emirate Cup win in four years.

Team: Szczesny, Debuchy (Bellerin 90), Chambers (Miquel 46), Koscielny, Monreal, Arteta, Ramsey, Wilshere (Flamini 73), Cazorla (Zelalem 73), Sanchez (Akpom 73), Giroud (Oxlade-Chamberlain 46)

Monaco was expected to present a sterner test and Wenger responded to the prospect by fielding a strong side. Replace Monreal with Gibbs, and this could be a starting line-up to face Crystal Palace in Arsenal's Premier League opener as Mertesacker, Özil and Podolski are set to miss the start of the season.

The previous day's euphoria was quickly fading as Arsenal started the game at a pedestrian pace. Debuchy, Koscielny, Giroud and Sanchez only joined training this week, while the other players were still physically recovering from Saturday's high-tempo game against Benfica. Arsenal struggled to create chances. The best of those half chances fell to Giroud and Chambers, but the former tumbled when he had only the keeper to beat and the latter blasted high. Giroud was not ready at all by his own admission  and the manager. In the 37th minute, Monaco took the lead through a free-kick, which was given as a result of Jack Wilshere's lunge that also saw the England midfielder booked. Unmarked Falcao headed home from close range. This was the second time we conceded from set-pieces in two days. Some blame zonal marking for this, but it seems that miscommunication or in fact, a lack of communication seemed to be the problem. Whoever  Chambers or Miquel pairs up with Koscielny in central defence before Mertesacker return, somebody (naturally, more experienced Koscielny) should take a leadership and organise defence against set-pieces.

The introduction of the Ox in place of Giroud livened up the game in the second half. The English midfielder injected what the team needed, "some penetration and some power" according to Wenger. This was a cue for Alexis to play through the middle. Wenger explained that he had to take Giroud off at half time as he was not fit, but his post-match interview on the previous day suggested that Alexis playing a centre-forward role at some stages of the Monaco game was always part of his plan. Alexis was more involved in his new position after playing on the flanks for 45 minutes.

The major talking point of the game was the ref's decision. As Zelalem's pass sent a lively Chuba Akopm clear, the young English striker was brought down by the Monaco keeper Subasic. The referee, Martin Atkinson initially pointed the spot, but an assistant referee contradicted his decision. Replays showed clearly that the contact was made inside the area. We were cursing our luck all through last season, asking what would have to happen for Arsenal to be given a penalty, but if you don't get a right decision in your favour in your home tournament, what chance have you got? Arsene Wenger also questioned the referee's final decision to change his mind as the referee was in a better position to witness the incident but he still allowed his assistant referee's decision to overrule his. A 1-1 draw would have seen the north London leapfrog Valencia with 10 points and win the first trophy of the season. Still, if this was all the bad luck we get this season, we would happily take it for a pre-season friendly defeat.

This was our first chance to watch Mathieu Debucy in Arsenal colours. In the press conference prior to the Emirates Cup, Wenger looked back at those financially restrained years. The move to replace Bacary Sagna with a proven Premier League right-back signals Arsenal's new era and indicates Wenger's intent for title challenge. In those days, the Club would have resorted to "internal resources"(i.e., giving a chance to a young player or converting a player to the required position). The former Newcastle right-back's performance was not eye-catching, but he didn't put his foot wrong, either. It was a solid display in his first appearance as an Arsenal player. He suffered cramp towards the end of the game and clearly he was not 100% fit. Arsene Wenger assured fans that he would be better next week, so let's hope the boss will be right.

Jack Wilshere has shown some improvement over the previous game. He was one of the worst players on the pitch on Saturday along with Mikel Arteta, but at least Wilshere got himself in great positions in this match. Wenger's post-match interview suggests that the English midfielder might be at the stage where Aaron Ramsey was two seasons ago. After fully recovering from a serious injury, he now needs playing time. But where do you play Wilshere? Who would you bench in place of him? Wenger made it clear that he will not use Wilshere as a holding midfielder, so that's a relief. Hopefully, we are still looking for a defensive midfielder. 

Calum Chambers had another solid game. Aside from the argument as to who should have been looking after Falcao in that set-piece, he kept the £53million striker fairly quiet after that. Wenger described the 19-year-old defender's performance as one of the biggest positives from this pre-season tournament.

The result was disappointing, but it's only a pre-season friendly. Hopefully, the players will be in a better shape in one week's time and more understanding among the players will have developed by then.

Arsenal 5 Benfica 1 (Emirates Cup)

Arsenal hosted an annual Emirates Cup competition again this year after failing to lift the trophy for the past 4 years (in 2012, the tournament was suspended due to the London Olympic Games). The competition offered us a chance to watch Arsenal play at the Emirates for the first time since May 1 and in the new PUMA home kit for the first time. Also, we were excited to see new faces in action after refreshingly busy July in terms of transfer activity.

Team: Martinez, Bellerin, Chambers, Monreal (Miquel 73), Gibbs, Ramsey (Arteta 59), Flamini (Coquelin 59), Rosicky (Wilshere 59), Oxlade-Chamberlain (Cazorla 46), Campbell (Sanchez 73), Sanogo (Akpom 73)

As a new signing, David Ospina was ruled out of the competition through a minor thigh problem (a typical Arsenal player already), Damian Martinez got the nod. What raised our eyebrows was the central defence. Monreal has already played as a centre-back in the pre-season, but pairing with a new signing, Calum Chambers, who is equally unfamiliar to the position looked highly experimental. Nevertheless, it confirmed our belief that Wenger thinks the 19 year-old new singing's future is in the centre back. Interestingly, Arsenal.com's online poll this week revealed that almost the same proportion of fans believe that his future position could be either right-back, centre-back, or central midfield (centre-back is marginal more than the other at 35%). As Per Mertesacker is not likely to play any competitive game before the Champions League qualifier and Vermaelen is officially "injured" at the moment, a centre-back cover is an urgent agenda at the moment. Another new face in the starting line-up was Joel Campbell. This was his first appearance in an Arsenal shirt. After his impressive World Cup adventure with Costa Rica, we were itching to see how he would fit into an Arsenal side.

There were chances on either side at the beginning of the game. Nacho Monreal saw an early yellow card when Benfica looked to break quickly. This was an ominous sign, but Arsenal started commanding possession, the defence was not too much of concern. The hosts gradually found their rhythm and they were knocking on the door. In the 26th minute, Yaya Sanogo finally opened his goal account for Arsenal. Campbell followed the suit in the 40th minute. Thanks to two more goals from Sanogo, Arsenal were 4-0 up at half time. Sanogo added his fourth to the tally in 4 minutes into the second half. But Benfica improved and a number of substitutions on both sides interrupted Arsenal's flow. The introduction of Alexis Sanchez was met with a warm reception from the home crowd, to which the Chilean responded with a smile. Arsenal still managed to keep the pressure on in the latter stages of the second half. Alexis showed flashes of his quality in his cameo appearance, while Ignasi Miquel's header hit the crossbar and Francis Coquelin's effort was denied by the post. 

The team as a whole played well. Arsene Wenger expressed his delight in the post-match press conference. The team played the way he wants them to play. The Frenchman's side attacked en mass. There were always plenty of options in the box. Aaron Ramsey made runs forward from deep, while Hector Bellerin was always involved in attack. One of those runs the Spanish right-back's made led to the second goal via his incisive lofted cross to Campbell.

There are three stand-out players among the team: obviously Sanogo, Campbell and Bellerin. Campbell was lively, posing a constant threat to the Benfica defence. His display was strong enough to convince Wenger. After the match, the Frenchman made it clear that he has no plan to let the Costa Rican striker go on loan again and he wants to keep him at Arsenal.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying afternoon, but with hindsight, if Arsenal had been more ruthless, they could have won the Emirates Cup on Day 1. They took 8 points from this game (3 points for a win plus 1 points from each goal), which appeared to have put the hosts in pole position to lift the trophy, but it wasn't enough.