Monday, October 27, 2014

Sunderland 0 Arsenal 2

This was the match Arsenal had to take maximum points from, following the disappointing 2-2 draw with Hull at home last weekend. Meanwhile, Sunderland suffered a humiliating 8-0 defeat at Southampton last Saturday. We didn't know how it would affect them on the day. Their confidence must have been shot, but they needed to respond strongly in front of the home crowd. Many speculated that Sunderland would ring quite a few changes if not wholesale, but options were limited given the depth of the squad. Arsenal went into the game as favourites, but a few pundits predicted a 1-1 draw, taking into account the Gunners' recent poor performances and Sunderland's possible response.

Arsene Wenger made three changes from the side that started in a dramatic 2-1 win in Brussels in midweek. Wojciech Szczesny replaced Emiliano Martinez in goal after serving a European ban. Mikel Arteta made a first start since his return from a calf injury he suffered in the north London derby, while Aaron Ramsey dropped to the bench after completing 90 minutes for the first time since his return from injury on Wednesday night. Jack Wilshere was suspended after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season against Hull. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came into the side instead. These two changes in the midfield indicated Wenger's focus on defending, with two defence-minded midfielders as double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This would release Sanchez into a more attacking role. The Frenchman has been emphasising the importance of clean sheets by stating that it is difficult to win a football match by scoring more goals than conceded, when you let in two goals every game.

The surprise inclusion in the squad was Theo Walcott, who made the bench for the first time since he was stretchered off with a ruptured cruciate knee ligament in the FA Cup third round against Tottenham at the beginning of January this year. In his pre-match interview, Wenger ruled him out of this match due to lack of competitive match time and assured the media of the Englishman's involvement in the next week's clash with Burnley. We suspected that Wenger's intention was to give Theo a run-out if Arsenal were cruising with no pressure in the closing stages of the game. Martinez, Bellerin, Rosicky, Campbell and Podolski occupied the remaining seats on the bench.

Arsenal enjoyed a large portion of possession in the first half, which was as much as some 70% in the opening 10 minutes or so. However, they struggled to find clear-cut chances as Sunderland defended deep, which was a natural reaction to such a big defeat that they have suffered recently. Then, Arsenal took the lead out of nothing. Alexis capitalised on Wes Brown's mistake and kept his cool to dink the ball over the former Gunner, Vito Mannone.

Falling behind, Sunderland came out to attack after the break, but this also presented us with opportunities to attack on the break at the same time. If our final balls had been better, especially Cazorla's finishing had been clinical, Arsenal could have won the game by a bigger margin, but we had to wait for a second goal to be completely relaxed until the third minute of stoppage time. We had to feel for Mannone who spent 8 years with Arsenal. At Doolan's Irish Bar, our goal celebration was rather subdued, but the final whistle brought a big cheer.

The two goals came from the opponents' errors and there is no denying that the Gunners were still far from their fluent best. However, we got the result we wanted and more importantly a clean sheet. Prior to the match, Per Mertesacker's comment that he lacked "motivation" after the Word Cup infuriated a section of Arsenal fans. However, as one of the fans pointed out, he probably meant "focus" rather than "motivation" and his "focus" in this game was spot on. His sliding challenge on van Aanholt was crucial as the subsequent clearance led to Brown's mistake and then our first goal. The clean sheet should help our defenders' confidence. When Gibbs was replaced after being injured the defence was reorganised and looked better balanced with Monreal playing in his proper role as left back, Chambers moving to the middle and Bellerin taking over at right back.

Looking back at the weekend results, winning all three points was imperative as Man City lost to West Ham at Upton Park earlier on Saturday, while Liverpool dropped two points to Hull at Anfield in a Saturday normal kick-off. Tottenham suffered a shock defeat to Newcastle at White Hart Lane at Sunday lunch-time, while Chelsea's victory was denied at the death by RVP's equaliser at Old Trafford on Sunday evening. It would have been great to see Chelsea's unbeaten run ended, but on the other hand, we didn't want to see Man U go a point ahead of us and gather momentum for their top-four finish aspiration.

We wouldn't like to repeat the old cliche used so often last season, "grinding out a result when you are not playing well is champions' trait". As we learnt last season from early February onwards, poor performances will eventually catch up with you. Arsenal need to start playing well quickly. Hopefully, we can build on this win now that our run of winnable games continues. The one thing for sure is that fifth place is closer to where we want to be than we have been this season.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 6
Rushing out unnecessarily in a situation well covered by our defenders, the Pole headed the ball straight at van Aanholt as he thought he was about to step outside his area. Thankfully, the full-back's attempt flew wide as Mertesacker ran to cover the goal. Other than that, he did his job all right against 3 shots on target created by Sunderland.

Chambers: 6
Struggled to contain Sunderland's attack on their left flank. Moved to the centre-back position on the departure of Kieran Gibbs in the 73rd minute and looked more comfortable in that position.

Mertesacker: 7
His concentration level was up to scratch in this game.

Monreal: 7
Made an impressive 5 interceptions and 9 clearances. Stood strong against a physical Sunderland side, but it was clear that he preferred playing as a left-back. He made a great run forward as soon as he had replaced an injured Kieran Gibbs at left-back.

Gibbs: 6
Picked up a knock (according to Wenger, it's a hip problem). He doesn't seem to be able to play 3 games running without getting injured and sidelined for a couple of weeks afterwards. Shame.

Flamini: 7
Tenacious. Made 6 tackles, 3 interceptions, and 66 passes with an impressive 95.5% passing accuracy.

Arteta: 7
Kept the ball well. Made 84 passes with a 89.3% passing success rate.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6
Quiet game. His passing completion rate of 67.7% was extremely poor. Doesn't seem to be able to put consistent performances together.

Alexis: 9

Where would we be without him? His persistent chase forced mistakes from Wes Brown and Vito Mannone. Had 5 shots, 3 of which were on target, and made 2 key passes. On the defensive side, the Chile international was also impressive with 5 tackles and 2 interceptions. He was's Man of the Match with a 9.7 rating.

Cazorla: 5
His finishing was woeful. Despite time and space he had with a clear sight of goal, some of his finishes were utterly appalling.

Welbeck: 6
Made 4 key passes. Had 2 shots, 1 of which was not too far off the target. Can anybody explain why he was shown a yellow card?


Bellerin: 6
Came on the pitch in the 73rd minute for an injured Kieran Gibbs. His first contribution was giving the ball away, but he tracked back quickly and won it back. Made a good run, but his cross was poor.

Ramsey: 6
Replaced Arteta in the 87th minute. Made a great breaking run. Had 1 shot and made 1 key pass.

Podolski: 6
Replaced the Ox in the 89th minute. No time to make an impact. Made just 1 touch.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Anderlecht 1 Arsenal 2

Arsene Wenger turned 65 this day, but the birthday did not help ease the pressure on him. Arsenal fans have been increasingly unhappy with their club's season so far, many of whom blamed the Frenchman for the disappointing start to the season. Their discontents are centred around his failure to sign a defensive back-up upon the departure of Thomas Vermaelen, struggle to find the best team and formation to get the best out of his side and inability to rectify the persistent injury problems.

The birthday boy made three changes to the side that started in a disappointing 2-2 draw with Hull City on Saturday. A 22-year-old Argentine, Emiliano (formerly known as Damian) Martinez started between the posts in place of Wojciech Szczesny, who was suspended after a needless sending-off last time out. The back-up keeper, David Ospina suffered the recurrence of a thigh problem, which is likely to keep him on the sidelines for two to three months (this could have been avoided had it not been for the Pole's poor decision as Ospina's rushed return into action without proper warming up seemed to have triggered the recurrence of the injury). A fit-again Aaron Ramsey started in place of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Calum Chambers replaced Hector Bellerin at right-back after serving a domestic ban. This raised  eyebrows as we expected Chambers to partner Per Mertesacker at the heart of the defence and Hector Bellerin to retain his place at the expense of Nacho Monreal. Although what caught Wenger's eyes was his performance as a right-back at Southampton, Chambers' best performance in Arsenal shirts so far came from the centre-back position, while Bellerin didn't put a foot wrong defensively against Hull, demonstrating his pace going forward, too. Besides, Monreal is not comfortable in the central-back position by his own admission. For all these reasons, we thought Bellerin at right-back and Chambers paired up with Per would be a better solution in the absence of Laurent Koscielny. 

In his pre-match interviews alongside the boss on the eve of the game, Jack Wilshere claimed that Arsenal's performances so far had warranted more points. If that is the case, perhaps they got more points than they deserved in this game for a change. Throughout the game, the Gunners did not create many chances, which allowed Anderlecht to grow in confidence as the game wore on. They had a good game plan against us (which is so difficult these days) and executed it well. We obviously lacked width, which made defending easier for the Belgian side. The deployment of Santi Cazorla on the left wing did not help keep the width, while the combination of Wilshere and Ramsey just crowded out the central channel. We were crying out for substitutions, in particular the injection of width and penetration through the Ox, who has also a good positional discipline. Nevertheless, that change did not come until we went 1-0 down in the 71st minute. Wenger seemed happy after the match that his "gamble" paid off, but he could have made changes before falling behind without weakening the defence.

Although it was an unconvincing display, we got all-important three points. In comparison to the Hull game, which we drew despite all the superior stats, one might say that it was a very efficient performance. However, there is something missing in an Arsenal side at the moment. Confidence? Hopefully, this game has provided it. At the Doolan's Irish Bar, we endured so much frustration during the game as none of our players tried to shoot. They need to be more direct. Theo Walcott's return cannot come soon enough for us, but who is going to feed him in the absence of Mesut Ozil.

There are still problems to be addressed. However, hopefully this win will serve as a springboard for the forthcoming run of winnable games. The one thing for sure is that the victory in Brussels has strengthened our chance of getting out of the group. Another win against Anderlecht at home should secure our qualification.

Players ratings

Martinez: 6
He had little to do in the first half, but made a fine save when called upon in the second half. 

Chambers: 6
He was guilty for the goal. Maybe due to lack of communications, both Flamini and Chambers marked the same player, leaving the other in the box free to head the ball into the back of the net. On the other hand, he provided an assist for Gibbs with an inch-perfect cross from the right flank.

Mertesacker: 6
Is it a World Cup hang-over or lack of consistency in the central-defensive partnership? He still hasn't hit his best form yet. He has been caught cold on too many occasions this season.

Monreal: 6
In the build-up to Anderlecht's only goal, he let Dennis Praet deliver a cross too easily. 

Gibbs: 7

Stats-based's Man of the Match. Scored an important late equaliser with a sublime volley. Made an impressive 9 tackles and 4 interceptions. 

Flamini: 6
Replaced in the 74th minute by the Ox. Let Anderlecht counter-attacks bypass him. 

Ramsey: 6
Had a quiet game apart from one attempt, which flew wide of the near post. He has been playing far too forward in a 4-1-4-1 formation this season, which doesn't suit him at all. He needs to make runs from deep to arrive in the box last minute without drawing defenders' attention. Also, we haven't seen his defensive prowess this season, which earned him a reputation as a complete midfielder last season. That said, it's good to see him complete 90 minutes for the first time since his return from injury.

Wilshere: 6
Held the ball too long. His passing success rate of 78.4% is disappointing when the team average is 89%. 

Alexis: 8
Usual hard-working self. Had a good chance with his goal-bound header. His grit led to Poldi's winner, when he decided to carry on playing instead of falling down on the floor. Had 4 shots, 1 of which was on target, and made 4 key passes. He was at the heart of anything good coming from Arsenal. He appears to be our only player that consistently puts in a good shift  heart and soul every game.

Cazorla: 6
Spurned a good chance in the first half after running onto Alexis' cut-back.

Welbeck: 6
Had 2 shots and only 34 touches. Shown a yellow card. Perhaps he could have done better when he met Alexis' right-wing cross with a header. Replaced by Campbell in the 74th minute.


Oxlade-Chamberlain: 6
Came on the pitch in the 74th minute to replace Flamini.

Campbell: 6
Also came on the pitch in the 74th minute to replace Welbeck. Not as influential as in the Hull game.

Podolski: 7
Replaced Wilshere in the 83rd minute. Had only 6 touches, but made an impact by scoring an injury-time winner. 1 attempt, 1 shot on target, 1 goal.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0

Arsenal suffered their first defeat of the season by the hands of the current league leader, Chelsea, but the game was a much closer contention than the last season's corresponding fixture.

Arsene Wenger made just one changes from the side that started in a 4-1 victory over Galatasaray in midweek. Jack Wilshere started at the expense of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who was dropped to the bench, as the former was fully fit to play for 90 minutes after recovering from an ankle problem he suffered in the north London derby. A fit-again Nacho Monreal made the bench as well as Campbell, Podolski, Rosicky and Coquelin. Damian Martinez was also on the bench in place of David Ospina who had a "slight" thigh problem (the Colombia international only played half an hour on Wednesday night and has already injured himself. Hope he will be fit by the time of the first Anderlecht match).

The omission of the Ox from the starting line-up caused some discontent among the fans. Against Galatasaray, many fans thought Arsenal had found a winning formula, but Wenger couldn't resist to re-introduce Jack Wilshere as soon as the England midfielder was fit enough to start. With the plethora of quality midfielders, whoever Wenger picks or drops, it is bound to raise criticism from some section of fans. In fact, Wilshere turned out to be one of our best players, but it was obvious that this team selection was poorly balanced. In the recent interview, Alexis revealed that his most preferred position is on the left flank so that he can cut inside and run at defenders as he is right-footed. Cazorla shares the same tendency when played on the left flank. Both Wilshere and Ozil are left-footed and prefer playing through the middle and drift towards the left wing. It's difficult to tell in what formation this Arsenal side was set up as they kept interchanging their positions, but it was clear that the starting line-up lacked a right-sided forward/midfielder.

On  Match of the Day 2 Extra prior to the game, Martin Keown confirmed our suspicion that Arsene Wenger does not have tactics tailor-made for the opposition. The Frenchman had a philosophy, but in the former Gunner's days it was the players who tweaked the details of the master gameplan according to whom they were going to face. Keown suggested that Flamini was likely to take initiative of organising the defence for this match, but we thought Per Mertesacker could be the man in charge as the vice-captain suggested that they would approach the game in a different way to the last season's 6-0 defeat.

A Sky Sports pundit, Chris Kamara took a positive view on Arsene Wenger taking into consideration the opposition, but does the Frenchman deserve the credit? We don't know, but it was good to see Arsenal rectify the last season's shortcomings and approached the game more cautiously, tightening up the defence. In fact, the two centre-backs kept Diego Costa quiet for the majority of the game, while Gibbs contained any attack on Chelea's right-hand side very well.

The flash point of the game was arguably Martin Atkinson's decision to not send Gary Cahill off for his challenge on Alexis in the 20th minute. The referee only showed a yellow card to the Chelsea centre-back. Jose Mourinho argues that three Arsenal players should have been sent off in the three incidents: Koscielny on Hazard, which led to a penalty and the Frenchman's booking; Calum Chambers' foul on Schurrle after a yellow card early on and Danny Welbeck's lunge into Fabreagas. However, Martin Atkinson set the tone for the rest of the game by not sending Cahill off. Also, in the Koscielny's case, more and more referees in England tend to opt for a yellow card and a penalty these days rather than the sending off of the offender on top of a penalty.

Besides, the possible sending off of Cahill could have changed the whole complex of the game and none of the aforementioned incidents might have happened at all subsequently. The loss of the centre-back might have led to the all important space Arsenal were craving for.

Arsenal also had a legitimate penalty claim when Fabregas slid in with both arms up to block Wilshere's effort, but the referee only gave the Gunners a corner kick.

The result was disappointing (even though we half expected it) and we are still to beat any of the big teams. On the bright side, there was an improvement from the last season. It was a lot more even game. There was not much between the two sides and it was clear in how much respect Chelsea paid to us. They made every effort to disrupt our rhythm by fouling us. Martin Atkinson failed here too, by allowing Oscar to stop our flow by repeatedly fouling our players for so long without being punished. The difference between the two sides was moments of individual brilliance. Eden Hazard's mazy run led to the penalty. After going down 1-0, there was always a risk of conceding another as we pushed forward for an equaliser. Then Fabregas spotted a chance and his brilliant long pass found Diego Costa. The Brazilian-born Spain striker took his goal superbly. We didn't have the quality in the final third to match these moments on this day.

Now our tough fun of fixtures is over. We had Everton away, Man City, Tottenham, and Chelsea away in the last 7 games. Apart from Everton, none of our rivals has faced as many as four other top-four contenders yet. Hopefully, we can put more points on board after the international break.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Arsenal 4 Galatasaray 1

After a disappointing draw in the north London derby last weekend, the Arsenal fans' mood was mixed on the 18th anniversary of Arsene Wenger's taking charge of the club. Although we all appreciated what he has achieved over the last 18 years, a question was raised after the derby draw whether he was the right person to guide the club to more success. Going into the north London derby, Arsenal were strong favourites as they had far more quality in the team on paper than their opponents after adding two world-class players in the past two summers. As much as Pochettino's tactics and his players' executing of them were praised, Wenger's tactical prowess was questioned.

In addition to the motivation to celebrate the boss' anniversary, this was a must-win game for Arsenal after they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat at Dortmund. Home wins are always vital in the Champions League campaigns, and also it was imperative for us to win in order to get out of the bottom of the group quickly.

Although the two teams had only met once apart from Galatasaray's 2-1 win in the Emirates Cup, the Turkish side's poor stats on the English soil made Arsenal heavy favourites, but few predicted such a comfortable win for Arsenal, which was not a surprise after the last weekend's derby draw. A tight game was expected.

Arsene Wenger was forced to make 3 changes from the side that started against Tottenham due to injury blows suffered during the north London derby. Mathieu Flamini replaced Mikel Arteta. After the costly mistake the French midfielder made last weekend, some expected Francis Coquelin might get a chance, but the boss opted for the experience. Santi Cazorla came in for Aaron Ramsey, who is expected to be sidelined for up to four weeks, in a deeper position than the Spaniard usually plays. Alexis Sanchez started in place of Jack Wilshere, who started on the bench after recovering from an ankle problem he suffered 4 days ago. As these changes were implemented, Arsenal began in a 4-2-3-1, with Mesut Özil in his favourite No. 10 role. It became clear that Wenger's tactics were better thought out than his counterpart's. Prandelli set his team up in a 3-5-2 formation, which turned out to be disastrous, giving too much space for Arsenal's speedy front men to exploit.

On top of the result and Danny Wellbeck's hat-trick, there are so many positives to take from this game. Despite all the possession Arsenal had in the first half, their three goals came from swift counter-attack, not the end-results of intricate build-up play in and around the box. This is what we expected from the signings of Alexis and then Welbz. It was refreshing and pleasing after we had seen Arsenal's tiki-taka football against the solid wall of defence fail so often. We hope to see the same formation and style of play more often, especially with Walcott's return imminent, but without a powerful defensive midfielder and solid defence, it is very difficult to play counter-attacking football against better teams.

Against Aston Villa, we thought the Welbz-Özil partnership could take off, and we now see the potential of the Welbz-Alexis partnership. After the north London derby, newspaper reports emerged that Sanchez was dropped because he slows down Arsenal's passing game. This game told us that he will certainly fit in Arsenal's counter-attacking football.

Wojciech Szczesny's red card was the sole blemish on an otherwise perfect night for us. His substitute, David Ospina, could not stop us from conceding a goal and the sending-off allowed the Turkish side get back into the game. Anti-Arsenals say that Arsenal were as good as Galatasaray were poor, but as Wenger pointed out after the match, they can be a dangerous side when they are allowed to play. Galatasaray took full advantage of their numerical superiority and gave us a scare even though we had a three-goal cushion. On the bright side, Ospina proved that he was still the same keeper we saw in the World Cup. We shouldn't miss the Pole too much against Anderlecht.

The win saw Arsenal leapfrog both Galatasaray and Anderlecht to second in the group table. With back-to-back clashes with Anderlecht coming up next in the Champions League rounds, we have a good chance of strengthening our position to qualify for the next round. But before that, a big match at Stamford Bridge awaits us next.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 5
His concentration level was questioned after this game. He rushed out of his area in the first half when Koscielny was totally in control of the situation. Then, in the 60th minute, he was sent off for hauling down Yelmaz. This is not the first time. He should have learnt by now. 

Chambers: 6
His passing left a lot to be desired at times.

Mertesacker: 7
Made 9 clearances.

Koscielny: 7

Gibbs: 7

Linked well with Alexis and one of those link-plays led to Welbz's first goal.

Flamini: 6
If he continues to lose possession in dangerous areas at this rate, he could soon be a liability. Shown a yellow card for a needless foul on Sneijder. To start with, what was he doing there in the Galatasaray half?

Cazorla: 7
He put in a good shift in his unfamiliar deep-lying midfielder role. Made 4 tackles and 1 interception, making more passes (76) than any other Arsenal player. He even made a breaking run towards the end of the game. Unlucky not to score as his shot was cleared off the line.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Set up Welbz's third goal. Energetic display as usual. Set up a goal for Welbz to complete his hat-trick.

Özil: 7
In comparison with Alexis' passion and industry, Özil gets unfair stick because of his subtle and efficient style. He did his job quietly, providing an assist for Alexis with a brilliant through ball. Made an impressive 5 key passes.

Alexis: 8
Scored one and set up another for Welbz. Very industrious.

Welbeck: 9
Stats-based's Man of the Match with a 10.0 rating. Had 6 shots, of which 4 were on target. Scored his first career hat-trick. His movements outside the box earned plaudits as well. He was still trying to make forward runs even when nothing appeared to be left in his tank. A true team player. Even after the match, his humility caught people's hearts.


Ospina: 7
Replaced Alexis in the 60th minutes following the sending off of Szczesny. Made some stunning saves.

Rosicky: 6
Had a poor game against Southampton and once again not up to his usual high standard. Replaced the Ox in the 67th minute. 

Wilshere: 6
Replaced Özil in the 76th minute.