Tuesday, December 30, 2014

West Ham 1 Arsenal 2

Arsenal ended 2014 on a high with their second win of the festive period, leapfrogging their opponents to the fifth place, level on points with fourth-placed Southampton. It has been a stop-start season with the Gunners struggling to put more than two wins together, but the hard-fought win brought some optimistic feeling back to the fans.

We were bracing ourselves for a stern test prior to the game. The bookies gave us shorter odds to win this game, but we were not outright favourites. If we can manage to mess up a straightforward game, like a home clash with a QPR side whose away home has been woeful this season, anything could have gone wrong in a game against in-form West Ham, who have already beaten Liverpool 3-1 and Man City 2-1 at Upton Park. The only source of our hopes was the Gunners' excellent stats against the east Londoners. Arsenal have won 10 and drawn 2 in their last 12 Premier League games against West Ham, having won the last 7 games in a row. Upton Park has been the Gunners' happiest hunting ground since the start of the Premier League.

Arsene Wenger made 3 changes to the side that started in a 2-1 win over QPR less than 48 hours ago. The team welcomed a fit-again Laurant Koscielny, which meant that Nacho Monreal moved to his more familiar left-back position as Kieran Gibbs started on the bench. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was passed fit to play on the right wing, coming into the side for Olivier Giroud, who started his 3-match ban after mindlessly headbutting Onouha in the last game. Francis Coquelin was given his first league start since January 2013 to replace Tomas Rosicky, who impressed in the game against QPR. Wenger revealed that Rosicky had cramps in the calves and hamstrings when he was replaced in the 83rd minute of the QPR game. As a result, Little Mozart was given a full recovery day. On the bench, David Ospina, Lukas Podolski, Joel Campbell, Calum Chambers, Theo Walcott, and Chuba Akpom occupied other places.

The boss admitted that he took a gamble on handing Coquelin a start. Rotation was inevitable in the busy Christmas schedule, but balance was the key. The deployment of the young French midfielder alongside Mathieu Flamini looked a little bit too conservative, but it was Wenger's tactics to give extra protection for the back four against West Ham's aerial threats. West Ham have been impressive this season with their free-flowing football and the change to more attractive style won back their fans' support for Sam Allardyce. However, Wenger's tactics were spot on this day as Big Sam had decided to adopt his old Bolton-style approach against us.

Talking about tactics, the fans' opinions were divided on Wenger's defensive-minded substitutions for the last 3 games in a row. After the Liverpool game, in which 3 defenders and 2 defensive midfielders could not help stop the Mersey-side team equalising from a set-piece in stoppage time, we expected Wenger might think twice on holding onto a narrow lead by bringing on more defenders. On contrary, the Frenchman resorted to the same tactics against QPR once we went down to 10 men. We ask ourselves if Theo Walcott and/or Lukas Podolski might have given us a goal that would have relieved all the pressure in these games, especially when we looked so dangerous on the break even with 10 men.

The significant moment of the game was arguably ex-Gunner Alex Song's disallowed goal. The assistant referee deemed one of the three West Ham players who were in off-side positions, namely Andy Carroll, to have obstructed Szczesny's view. As none of those West Ham players did not seem to have touched the ball, West Ham supporters and Sam Allardyce alike were extremely unhappy with the decision, however if a player lets the ball go through his legs he is in effect 'playing' the ball. We must say that we were lucky in that the linesman took the view that he did in this case as it does not always happen. That said, the decision was perfectly legal and the fact that Szczesny did not move at all backs the linesman's reasoning.

We had to endure another tense ending to a game as the scoreline stayed 2-1 for as long as 40 minutes, but Arsenal stood firm defensively for the majority of time. It was a pity that they allowed West Ham to score just after Per Mertesacker expertly cleared the ball under the pressure from Andy Carroll. On the attacking side, it was Arsenal who had better chances. Like against QPR, they created so many chances on the counter-attack, but finishes left a lot to be desired or wrong decisions were taken on the final ball at times, while on a few occasions, Adrian pulled off amazing saves. Santi's penalty in the 40th minute was virtually our first shot on target, but we managed 8 shots on target throughout the game.

The stats paint a totally different picture to Arsenal's typical games. Arsenal's dominance in possession was absent in this game with a mere 42% possession. Their passing success rate was also meagre at 65%, bringing down their average rate in the Premier League to 84.1%. After the match, Wenger admitted that you have to sacrifice your creativity for physical battles at times as it is a part of English football. His side coped well with West Ham's long-ball approaches. In his post-match interview, Santi Cazorla emphasised the importance of winning the second ball, which appeared to have been Wenger's instructions. Each player knew their part and played it well as a unit.

After the well-deserved 2-1 victory, Arsenal are just outside the Champions League spot with only the goal difference keeping them out of it. 6 points from the Christmas period is not a bad return, considering that Van Gaal blamed fixture congestion during the festive period for his players' lack of sharpness after Manchester United's goalless draw with Tottenham.

Games come thick and fast at this time of the season. Arsenal will face 4th-placed Southampton on New Year's Day. The game offers a great chance to climb the table, but it is going to be another tough test.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 7
Unusually came out to claim the ball on every opportunity. Failed to get the ball on only one occasion towards the end, but did well overall. Helped the defence immensely. On the other hand, his 26.5 % passing success rate indicates poor distribution, which is something he has to improve on.

Dubuchy: 7
Lower ratings have been seen for him because 
he was out-jumped by Kouyate and had a hand (or head) in the West Ham goal, but he put in a very combative display overall. Andy Carroll's elbow in the early stages of the game did not stop him playing. Combined with the Ox well at times to pose a threat going forward.

Mertesacker: 7
A lot more courageous display from a much-maligned defender. Made 4 tackles 3 interceptions and 9 clearances. On the other hand, poor passing (72.7% accuracy) from a normally assured passer.

Koscielny: 7
Glad to have him back. His 52.5% passing accuracy was shocking, though, even considering the pressure he went under.

Monreal: 6

Flamini: 6
Did OK.

Coquelin: 7
Made 4 tackles and 4 interceptions. As Wenger said, he faded in the last 20 minutes, but he put in a decent performance overall.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Provided an assist for Welbeck's goal with a pin-point low cross. He was dangerous on the break.

Cazorla: 8

Pulled the strings at the heart of Arsenal attack. He was the most creative player in the entire Premier League on this day with 8 key passes. Made no mistake from the spot after earning a penalty. Had 4 shots, 3 of which were on target.

Sanchez: 7
Usual hard working self, but not his best game. Had 7 shots, of which only 1 was on target.

Welbeck: 7
It was good to see him back on the scoresheet, but he could have scored 2 more goals. One attempt was denied by Adrian's superb save, while he blasted high when he only had Adrian to beat after gifted a loose ball.


Gibbs: 6
Replaced Welbeck in the 83rd minute.

Chambers: 6
Replaced the Ox in the 90th minute.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Galatasaray 1 Arsenal 4

Although Arsenal still had a chance to win  Group D and get a favourable draw for the next round, with their place in the knock-out stages already secured, Arsene Wenger's priority was clear as he left Alexis Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Kieran Gibbs, Laurant Koscielny, and Santi Cazorla at home to give them a breather. Maybe the Frenchman's estimate of 10% was right for Arsenal's chance to go through as the top of the group. Dortmund losing at home was almost inconceivable, while it looked an unlikely scenario that the Gunners would beat Galatasaray in Istanbul by six goals or more, combined with a draw between Dortmund and Anderlecht. For this final group stage fixture, the focus was thus on Arsenal's performance rather than a result, following their shocking defensive display in the first half against Stoke three days ago. The team needed to put things right, while some players had a point to prove.

Arsene Wenger took the unusual step of revealing his starting line-up 24 hours before the game. There were 5 changes to the starting XI that played in the 3-2 defeat to Stoke. Wojciech Szczesny, who missed 3 games through a hip injury and sat out one, replaced his deputy Emi Martinez, while Mathieu Debuchy made a much-awaited return after a 3-month lay-off through a damaged ankle ligament. Hector Bellerin was moved to left-back in place of rested Kieran Gibbs. Apparently, the 19 year-old Spaniard did play at left-back at times when he was with Watford on loan, so he was not totally unfamiliar with the position. Lukas Podolski, Joel Cambell, and Yaya Sanogo came in for Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sanchez, and Olivier Giroud. Six young players were on the bench, including Alex Iwobi, Chuba Akpom, and Glen Kamara.

The game started in a contrasting way to last weekend's clash with Stoke. Arsenal took the lead just 3 minutes into the game through Poldi's powerful shot from the left-hand channel. Ramsey's composed finish from inside the area and his breathtaking left-footed volley from 30 yards out put us in a comfortable position within 30 minutes of kick-off. Arsenal looked dangerous and purposeful every time they went forward, which was quite refreshing. In Germany, Dortmund and Anderlecht finished the first half goalless. At half time, an idea suddenly dawned on us that we might be able to win the group. A six-goal margin looked impossible prior to the game, but we were half way there.

At half time, Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini were withdrawn due to a tight hamstring and a calf problem coupled with a yellow card, respectively. After the match, Wenger assured us that they should be OK for Saturday's match. Gedion Zelalem and Ainsley Maitland-Niles were introduced in their place, but the withdrawal of the two senior midfielders clearly led to the loss of momentum in attacking. It is impossible to replace Aaron Ramsey when he is playing at his full potential. On top of that, those who were not used to play full games, such as Poldi and Campbell, visibly faded midway through the second half.

On the defensive side, as Galatasaray came out brightly in the second half, the memory of allowing Anderlecht to come back from 3 goals down might have come across our defenders' mind.

Galatasaray had an opportunity to give their home fans something to cheer about through Sneijder's free-kick. The Spanish referee gave Galatasaray the free-kick in a dangerous place as Mertesacker was adjudged to have handled the ball, but it was a harsh decision as he was turning his back to the ball and there was nothing he could do to avoid the ball hitting his arm in the close range.

There was still time left, though, for Arsenal to add the fourth goal. Poldi shrugged off two defenders to collect the ball back from Sanogo and slotted past the goalkeeper with his weaker right foot. It was virtually the last kick of the game.

It was a perfect response to the disappointment on Saturday. An Arsenal side proved that they are not a one-man team. Without Sanchez, they still produced 4 superb goals. There were encouraging signs that suggested Aaron Ramsey might have rediscovered last season's form. He was outstanding with his all-round display. He made an important and perfectly-timed tackle in the box, while he instigated the swift movement leading to Poldi's first goal by making a thrusting run from deep and set up the German striker for the goal with an incisive pass. His two goals demonstrated the different aspects of his finishing: accuracy, composure, technique and confidence. All of these were the traits of his peak performances during last season. Especially, both his goals came from his weaker left foot, which suggest that his confidence is back. Hopefully, he can build on from this night's performance.

Ramsey's second goal not only won plaudits from the pundits, but went viral. Interestingly, Arsene Wenger revealed that he wasn't impressed with the Welshman's decision when he saw him taking a shot from 30 yards out. We must say it was extraordinary luck for any Arsenal shot to hit the back of the net after evading all those bodies. It doesn't happen to us very often.

Another positive was the return of Mathieu Debuchy. The French right-back showed what we were missing for the last three months and his return will no doubt solidify our defence.

In addition, Poldi and Campbell had a rare full game. Their performances underlined Arsenal's depth of the squad in attack. After the match, Wenger was adamant that Campbell was not leaving in January.

Unfortunately, the 4-1 victory was not enough to win the Group D, but the team can take encouragement from their impressive first-half performance. In  hindsight, surrendering the 3-goal lead against Anderlecht cost us dearly. However, they have achieved the primary target for this game, which was to restore their pride and boost morale for the forthcoming Premier League games. The north London club await Monday's draw to find out who they are going to face in the next round of the Champions League, but before that, we have a massive game against an in-form Newcastle side.

Players ratings

Szczesny: 6
There were a few evidences of the lack of communications with the defenders. He doesn't command his area strongly enough.

Dubuchy: 8
Great to see a strong performance on his return after three months on the sidelines. Made 3 tackles, 6 interceptions and 5 clearances. Replaced by Stefan O'Connor in the 77th minute. Hopefully the game served as a good run-out for him ahead of a big match against his former club.

Chambers: 7
Much improved display. 4 interceptions and 9 clearances. This night's performance must have helped him to restore his confidence.

Mertesacker: 7
Looked solid. Made important blocks.

Bellerin: 6
Did OK in a relatively unfamiliar position.

Flamini: 7
Marked Sneijder well, but was shown a yellow card. Made 22 passes with an impressive 100% accuracy. Replaced by Ainsley Maitland-Niles at half time.

Ramsey: 9

Sky Sports and Arsenal fans' Man of the Match. Scored 2 goals and set up another. Replaced by Gedion Zelalem at half time.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 8
Provided an assist for Aaron Ramsey's first goal. The Daily Mirror named him Man of the Match. Made 3 key passes and a total of 61 passes with a 90.1% passing success rate.

Campbell: 7

Looked dangerous. Unlucky not to score when he was released behind the defenders only to be denied by a superb save from Bolat.

Podolski: 8
Had 4 shots, of which 3 were on target, and also hit the crossbar. He even tracked back. One of those gutsy efforts (to be honest, another referee could have given Galatasaray a free-kick for that) led to Ramsey's first goal. 90.6% passing success rate was impressive for a striker.

Sanogo: 6
His holding-up play left a lot to be desired.


Zelalem: 6
Replaced Ramsey at half time.

Maitland-Niles: 7
Replaced Flamini at half time. The 17-year-old winger made his first-team debut. Wenger's instruction for him was to mark Wesley Sneijder tight, and he did a good job. Made 3 tackles and 1 interception.

O'Conner: 6
Replaced Debuchy in the 77th minute at right-back. The 17-year-old centre-back became the second player to make his first-team debut this night. Made 3 interceptions and 3 clearances.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Stoke City 3 Arsenal 2

Arsenal almost completed a great comeback after falling 3-0 down at half time. Our defence was shambolic in the first half, but we take heart from our spirited fight-back in the second half.

Arsene Wenger made three changes from the side that started in a hard-fought 1-0 win over the second-placed Southampton on Wednesday night. Kieran Gibbs was fit again in time to replace an injured Nacho Monreal. Laurant Koscielny was not risked for a third game in a week after an 8-week layoff through Achilles tendinitis. Calum Chambers was moved to the central defence, while Hector Bellerin started in his second Premier League game at right-back. Wenger seemed to have been very reluctant to play two 19-year-old defenders together, but the injury crisis at the back left him no option. Danny Welbeck, who needed a breather as well as suffering a minor groin problem, was replaced by Olivier Giroud. A 19-year-old defender, Semi Ajayi and a 17-year-old forward, Ainsley Maitland-Niles were among substitutions, along with Koscielny, a fit-again Wojciech Szczesny, Lukas Podolski, Welbeck, and Joel Campbell.

We had been calling for the deployment of Chambers and Bellerin as a CB and a RB, respectively, rather than playing Moreal and Chambers out of position. We thought Wenger was just too stubborn to listen to the others, but at least he proved in this game that he was right to be reluctant to play two inexperienced defenders together. Another draw-back of this back four was Per Mertesacker playing as a left-sided centre-back, which we had already been aware of. It seemed to have totally confused his positional sense. In fact, after the match, Mertesacker admitted "sometimes when you’re not used to a position, you can find yourself one or two yards from the right position". On top of that, when Mertesacker tries to play Koscielny's role in the central defensive partnership, i.e., anticipating and winning the ball as high up on the pitch as possible, his lack of pace always lets him down as he cannot get back in time to cover for the other centre-back. It's impossible for him to replace the French centre-back. Koscielny was sorely missed.

Arsenal went into this game on the back of three straight wins and three clean sheets. Previously, Wenger had admitted their defensive fragility earlier in the season and said that it was very difficult to win a football match if they conceded two goals every game. Never mind two goals, it proved to be just too big a task to overcome a three goal deficit. The improvement in defence was a major factor behind Arsenal's recent revival, so it was quite disheartening to see poor defensive performance again in this game. The problem was largely attributed to injury to key defenders, but Wenger has only himself to blame. He started the season with only 6 defenders for 4 positions (obviously, Bellerin was not fully in his plan), which was totally inadequate given our injury history.

There were two significant  points in this game. The first one was Olivier Giroud's miss when he had a free header only to beat Begovic, but he couldn't even put it on target. At that time, we were only 1-0 down. A quick equaliser could no doubt have changed the game. The second significant point was when Alexis Sanchez hit the post after waltzing past Shawcross and rounding Begovic. We never doubted for a second he would find the net in this situation as he repeatedly did it even from more difficult angles. However, it wasn't to be.

After the defeat, Arsene Wenger was under even more pressure from the fans, but he deserves credit for his bold decision to replace Bellerin for Welbeck at half-time. He was criticised after the Swansea game for not adapting his tactics even though Chambers was clearly struggling to cope with Swansea's pacy left winger. His substitution was spot on as Welbeck made an immediate impact. On this occasion, the Frenchman even changed the formation as well as personnel. With three centre-backs at the back, Arsenal pushed for goals.

Another talking point was the referee's decisions. Antony Taylor made some poor decisions. This was the referee whose two wrong decisions cost us three points on the opening day of the last season against Aston Villa. To point out a few, Alexis was fouled on the left flank, but instead of showing a yellow card, Taylor gave a free-kick to Stoke. It was baffling why Charlie Adam was allowed to stay on the pitch after he was witnessed with his arm tightly around Alexis' neck.

Calum Chambers was sent off after shown a yellow card for his innocuous looking foul. Peter Crouch was allowed to commit far worse fouls all through the game, but got away with just one yellow card. Danny Welbeck was tripped by the Stoke right-back when the England striker was about to get behind the Stoke defence, latching on to a long ball. Not only the stoke defender escaped a booking, but the referee gave a throw-in to Stoke.

The biggest positive to take from this game was undoubtedly the character the team showed. Their spirited fightback sent Stoke into panic and they finished the game on front foot despite a man down.

Another positive was the goal sources. Santi Cazorla stepped up to take a penalty in the absence of Mikel Arteta, the first-choice penalty taker and scored his first goal of the season. Aaron Ramsey was also back on the scoresheet with his superb shot.

Our day could have been better if the Gunners had completed their comeback, but still it was not the end of the world. Chelsea's unbeaten run was ended earlier in the day, which meant the Invincibles' record remained intact for another season. Tottenham and Liverpool only drew, while Everton lost.

We are glad that Arsenal have already qualified for the knock-out stage of the Champions League. Although we still have a chance to win the Group D, Wenger is unlikely to risk any key players on the edge of getting injured for this game. For example, he has already made it clear that Alexis would not travel to Turkey. Koscielny is also ruled out for Tuesday's game, but expected to be back in contention for the next Premier League game against Newcastle after being rested. Chambers will serve his suspension against Newcastle, but the timely return of Mathieu Debuchy should mitigate the situation. Wenger suggested that the French right-back might even be included in the squad against Galatasaray. Hopefully, with the return of Koscielny and Debuchy, our defence will be much improved. Wenger will strengthen the defence in January without doubt.

Players ratings

Martinez: 6
He had strong performances in the last three games and was given another chance even after Szczesny was fit again, but he looked a little shaky at times.

Bellerin: 4
Couldn't cope with the intensity of the game, getting dispossessed too easily. On the other hand, he made a good run, making the most of his well-known pace, and delivered a perfect cross from the by-line. Replaced by Welbeck at half time.

Chambers: 5
At fault for Stoke's first goal by missing his header to attack Nzonzi's cross and for the second goal by not checking Bojan's run.

Mertesacker: 6
Not the same without Koscielny. He should have shown more leadership as team captain and most experienced defender in the back four.

Gibbs: 6
He was culpable  in the build-up of the second goal by letting the cross in.

Flamini: 6
Earned a penalty with his run into the box. He was moved to right wing-back in the second half. His crosses left much to be desired.

Ramsey: 7

It was a difficult game for him as Stoke fans constantly booed him for having his leg broken. He couldn't match the Stoke midfield in the first half, but he took his goal very well. We hope to see him more in that situation, popping up in the box unexpectedly.

Oxlade-Chamberlain: 7
Made 3 key passes, had a shot, which was off target.

Alexis: 7

Worked hard and influential in our attacking play as usual, but missed a gilt-edged opportunity. Made 4 key passes, had 4 shots, of which 2 were on target and 1 hit the woodwork.

Cazorla: 7
His performances were rather disappointing in the last two games after we thought he had finally hit his best form against Dortmund and West Brom. Scored form the spot.

Giroud: 5
He should have at least hit the target.


Welbeck: 7
Made a big impact when he came on at half-time. Looked dangerous. 

Podolski: 6
Replaced Giroud in the 62nd minute. Had 1 shot, which was on target.

Campbell: N/A
Replaced Gibbs in second-half stoppage time. No time to make difference.