Saturday, February 28, 2015

Arsenal 1 Monaco 3 (Champions League Round of 16)

It was an extremely disappointing performance and disastrous result. We thought we got a favourable draw which was likely to see us through to the quarter-finals for the first time in 5 years. Pre-match reports revealed that Monaco were without a few key players through suspension and injuries. On top of that, we had home advantage. Our away form has been patchy this season, but we were much more solid at home. We knew that Monaco were a very organised team with mean defence, but we had world-class attacking players, well, at least on paper. In contrast, their lack of firing power was well documented. On balance, we went into the game as odds-on favourites. In the pre-match press conference, Arsene Wenger vowed that the north London club would not make the same mistakes, but the outcome was still the same: we have thrown away the tie in the first leg.

Arsene Wenger made two changes from the side that started in a hard-fought 2-1 win at Selhurst Park on Saturday. Hector Bellerin and Kieran Gibbs replaced Calum Chambers and Nacho Monreal, respectively at full-back. With Monaco renowned for their quick counter-attack led by pacy wingers, these changes looked appropriate. David Ospina was passed fit after suffering a back problem against Crystal Palace, retaining his place in goal. Wojciech Szczesny occupied a space on the bench, as well as Calum Chambers, Nacho Monreal, Gabriel, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky, and Theo Walcott.

For the first 15 minutes, we thought Arsenal didn't start too badly. They were on front foot, which was what they wanted at home against a defence-oriented team. Monaco's first goal was fortuitous as Kondogbia's shot took a heavy deflection on Per Mertesacker, which Ospina could do nothing about. However, Mertesacker was not totally innocent. In fact, Arsene Wenger was untypically critical about his player, stating "he turned a little bit and that's when you are most in danger with deflections - if you don't face the ball." Mertesacker's downfall this season is alarming. His lack of the pace is well known, but he has been compensating his shortcomings with his ability to read the game brilliantly, which has come under severe scrutiny this season.

On the other end, we were not clinical enough. Olivier Giroud had a few clear-cut chances in the 6-yard box, but it was just not his night. Considering that his improvement this season and his recent form (he was the Man of the Match on Sunday), those misses were somewhat unbelievable. If he had put away those chances, we could have won the game 3 or 4-0. In addition, Danny Welbeck's shot was blocked by a sliding-in Theo Walcott after the former Man United man ran onto a rebound from Theo's effort. Everything went against us.

The Ox's stoppage-time goal gave us a hope, which proved to be short-lived. The England forward was obviously devastated after he gave away the ball, which led to Monaco's third goal. However, he was 70 metres away from goal (not on the half-way line as Gary Neville claimed, though) and there should be defenders behind him. In fact, Koscielny was in our own half close to another Monaco player, but he did nothing to stop Monaco's counter-attack.

Arsenal were shambolic. It was plain that they lacked a leader on the pitch who has tactical astuteness and organisation capability. Ideally, we should have such strong leadership in a position, either as a holding midfielder or a centre-back. It was disappointing the fact that Per Mertesacker was one of the first Arsenal players to come out and criticise their own naivety. As a team captain on the day and club vice-captain, he should have taken more responsibility on the pitch. Knowing his lack of speed, he should never have ventured out under any circumstances.

Our big talking point after the match was who to blame. Was it down to tactical errors or players failing to perform? Judging from Wenger's reaction, he was as frustrated as we were. He knew how Monaco would approach to this game perfectly well. However, he could be blamed for not coming up with more concrete game plans and instructions. He allowed the players too much freedom, hence some players getting in each other's way or running around like headless chickens. With too many players wanting to play through the middle, the lack of width in attack was just playing into the hands of Monaco's compact defence. The introduction of Theo Walcott saw the Monogasque side's defence start stretching thanks to his positional discipline and runs in behind the defence. The freedom of movements has so far worked in some games, producing some breath-taking attacking moments, but it has its limitation especially against well organised teams.

Wenger also lamented the fact that his side rushed the game. He should have prepared his team better, reminding them that the tie is played in 120 minutes and this game is just the first-half. We have lost the first leg 4-0 against AC Milan, followed by a 3-1 and 2-0 losses to Bayern Munich in the first legs of this round in the past 3 years. Seemingly, the Gunners still haven't learnt the defence/attack balance in the Champions League knock-out stages.

Furthermore, Arsene Wenger was also critical about the team's naivety, but he did nothing to calm down the team or to encourage them to preserve a one-goal deficit when his side pulled back to 2-1 in stoppage time. Against Leicester in the nervy ending to a 2-1 win, he was seen instructing Mertesacker and Koscielny not to go up to the opposition box for corners but to stay back. The same cautions from the coach might have prevented a disastrous third goal.

Despite all the negativity prevailing post-match talks and headlines, the Ox's beautiful goal lit up the game. It was a great goal in its own right. Hopefully, more players will take a chance like the young Englishman did, rather than trying to produce easy-on-the-eye team goals on the end of hardly-ever-working one-twos in narrow spaces.

Now let's move on and concentrate on the domestic front, where we have still plenty to play for. We have two important league games coming in the next few days. Hopefully, we can get back to winning ways and cement our position in the top three.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Arsenal 2 Leicester City 1

After the very disappointing local derby defeat 3 days ago, Arsenal needed to bounce back and a home clash with bottom-of-the-table Leicester City appeared to have been an ideal set-up for returning to winning ways. The result and performance were a bit disappointing as we expected a much more emphatic response from the team. However, three points were absolutely vital in our push for a top-four finish and combined with Tottenham's 3-2 loss at Anfield on the same night, their superiority in the league table, as well as all the noises from the noisy neighbours, came to a swift end.

Arsene Wenger made 3 changes to the side that started in the 2-1 loss in the north London derby on Saturday. While the back-five remained intact, major changes were made on the offensive side. The big pre-match news was Alexis Sanchez's return to fitness. The Chilean's desire and tenacity were sorely missed in the local derby and the return of the talisman from injury was a timely boost mentally as well. Olivier Giroud was dropped to the bench instead. Theo Walcott came for Danny Welbeck, who also started on the bench. Tomas Rosicky replaced Aaron Ramsey in midfield.

Wenger's team selection perplexed us. As this was the second game in 4 days, with an FA Cup 5th-round tie looming in 5 days' time, some rotation was expected, but it appeared that the boss had made too big a structural change with the absence of a target man. A home game against a lower-ranked side was a good opportunity to get back to Arsenal's traditional style of possession-based football, but the set-up looked to be designed for counter-attacking football. After the derby, inviting pressure from the opposition did not look like a good idea.

Leicester started confidently, giving us a feeling that this game might not be as easy as widely predicted. However, it proved that we were more clinical in front of goal than Leicester and thankfully, Morgan lost his marking in a crucial time, allowing Laurant Koscielny to meet Özil's clever corner kick and strike it into the back of the net in the 27th minute. Arsenal extended their lead in the 41st minute, when Walcott smashed the rebound from Özil's fierce shot which Schwarzer could only parry back into the box.

Kramaric's 61st-minute goal made the game extremely tense. Arsenal's defence looked shaky for the first time since David Ospina's introduction to the back five. It was clear that the Saturday's derby loss severely dented the confidence of our defenders. In the end, Arsenal held onto the narrow lead thanks to Leicester's poor finishing and all three points stayed home.

However, the performance was far from satisfactory. The passing was atrocious once again. Is this just down to the lack of physical sharpness? What worries us is that this is not the first time we witnessed it. Wenger needs to get to the bottom of it. The good thing is that the players seemed to know that their performances were not good enough. After the match, Theo Walcott stated that "there will be quite a few disappointed guys in the dressing room even though we've won". He also urged the team to step up their game against Middlesbrough if they want to progress in the FA Cup competition.

As well as our passing, the referee's decisions were also appalling. First of all, he did nothing to stop Leicester's coarse approach to the game by allowing repeated fouls on our players. Alexis was on the receiving end of a heavy tackle by Upson, after which "he was not himself" according to Wenger. It took 64 minutes for Mike Jones to caution a Leicester player. Secondly, how both Wasilewski and Giroud ended up with the same decisions is a mystery. Giroud was running away from Schwarzer when the keeper's goal kick hit the back of the French striker, while Wasilewski was clearly trying to stop Ospina from delivering the ball to initiate the attack by fouling him. The Leicester defender's challenge could have hurt our keeper badly. Both players were landed with a yellow card, totally disproportional to what they have done.

The 2-1 victory came with costs in the shape of Ramsey and Alexis' injuries. Wenger admitted that the Welshman's injury did not look good and baffled him as this was the third time he suffered the same hamstring problem. Hopefully, fit-again Jack Wilshere can fill the void. On the other hand, Alexis seemed to have escaped a serious knee injury and could be fit to play on Sunday.

On the positive side, Mesut Özil maintained his fine form in this game. He played an instrumental role in both goals. Francis Coquelin was also as reliable as usual, making 5 tackles, after registering an impressive 9 interceptions in Arsenal's generally lacklustre display against Spurs.

The hard-fought win saw Arsenal move to fourth place before Manchester United beat Burnley the next day. The performance was disappointing, but the three points were priceless. We would take a win without playing well any day of the week rather than playing well and losing, like Leicester did, but we all know the results will catch up with you sooner or later. As Manchester City proved, if you are not at your best, the Championship high-flyers will beat you and one bad game can eliminate you from the entire campaign. Fortunately, the team seem to know it.

Players ratings

Ospina: 6
Made a couple of good saves. Although he might not have seen the ball until late, being beaten at near post was disappointing.

Bellerin: 6

Struggled to cope with Leicester's attack on their left flank.

Mertesacker: 6
Made a couple of crucial last-ditch clearances.

Koscielny: 7
Scored the opener. Made 3 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 9 clearances. An impressive 10 aerial duels won. Stats-based's Man of the Match with a 8.70 rating.

Monreal: 6

He was our best defenders against Spurs (and even got into the Premier League Team of the Week for his battling performance in the north London derby), but this was not his best game. 

Coquelin: 7
Made 5 tackles, 1 interception and 6 clearances. He was a bit unlucky in the build-up to Leicester's goal. He did everything he could do to defend, but what can you do when the opponent traps the ball under his body? The ref should have blown the whistle.

Rosicky: 6


Cazorla: 6

A dip in his form was widely talked about among the fans. He was not standout player in this game, but he still created 3 chances and was unlucky not to score when his goal-bound effort drew a superb save from Schwarzer. 

Özil: 8
Widely recognised Man of the Match. Made 3 shots, 2 of which were on target, and created 4 chances. Great to see his fine form continue since his return from injury. 3 goals and 2 assists (3 if his shot parried leading to Walcott's goal is counted) in the last 4 games constitute some impressive form.

Walcott: 6
Scored what proved to be the winning goal, but he did very little apart from that. He should have scored when
Özil's inch-perfect through ball found him. 9 passes with a 66.7% accuracy is a very poor stat. Didn't help Bellerin very much defensively. Replaced by Ramsey in the 73rd minute.

Alexis: 6
After suffering a knock, he did not look his usual lively self. Replaced by Giroud in the 67th minute.


Giroud: 6
Replaced Alexis in the 67th minute. 

Ramsey: 5
Came off the bench to replace Walcott in the 73rd minute only to be replaced by Flamini 9 minutes later due to the recurrence of a hamstring injury.

Flamini: 6
Came on in the 82nd minute to replace Ramsey and see out the victory.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Arsenal 5 Aston Villa 0

Arsenal were looking to register their third consecutive league win for the first time this season, going into this game. Although they were on a run of 4 straight wins in all competitions, that spoke volumes for their stop-and-start season in the Premier League so far. Now with key players back from injury and a defensive cover in Gabriel added to squad, our mood was optimistic. On the other hand, Aston Villa's decent record at the Emirates was a cause of slight concern (only Chelsea and Manchester United won more games than the Villans here). In the corresponding fixture last season, Villa beat us 3-1 on the opening day of the 2013/14 season and the referee in charge on this day was the same Anthony Taylor, who awarded a controversial penalty to Villa and sent off Laurent Koscielny for an unwarranted second bookable offence.

Arsene Wenger made 5 changes to the side that started in last Sunday's FA Cup tie with Brighton and Hove Albion. David Ospina was reinstated in goal, which meant that Wojciech Szczesny returned to the bench. We thought it was a fair decision since the Colombia international had so far done nothing wrong to be dropped, while Szczesny did not really prove himself in his last outing that he deserved to be between the sticks ahead of Ospina. Hector Bellerin started at the right-back in place of Calum Chambers, with Per Mertesacker paired with Koscielny after rested on the bench last weekend. Nacho Monreal moved to the left-back, which meant that Kieran Gibbs started on the bench. Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla replaced Mathieu Flamini and Alexis Sanchez, respectively.

A new signing, Gabriel was slotted into the squad straight away after his arrival from Villarreal, but he began his career as an Arsenal player on the bench. This was more or less expected as Wenger stated in his pre-match press conference that the Brazilian defender's lack of language skills could cost them goals. Besides, there was no reason why our first-choice central defensive partnership should be disrupted now Kos' achilles problem had seemed to be managed well and Per had just had a breather. Matheiu Flamini, last weekends' man of the match Tomas Rosicky, Chuba Akpom and Calum Chambers occupied the remaining places on the bench.

One of the major questions prior to the match was whether the Gunners could cope without their top goalscorer, Alexis. The Chilean was a doubt through a tight hamstring. Wenger believed he would unlikely risk the talisman and we agreed with him obviously with our minds on the next week's north London derby already. In the end, Alex's fitness was not even close to being considered for this game, but fortunately, we did not miss his service one bit during Arsenal's thumping of Paul Lambert's side. We had enough quality in the squad to see off an Aston Villa side, with Walcott and Özil shining in place of the impressive Chilean and Santi continuing his scintillating form. Who said Arsenal were a one-man team? 5 goals from 5 different goalscorers underlined Arsenal's squad depth. The absence of Alexis turned out to be a blessing in disguise, providing his injury is a short-term one. It opened the door for Özil to get back to his best, while the injury gave the Chilean a chance to get a rest that otherwise he would have refused to accept.

Another question was whether Özil and Santi can be played together. Prior to Özil's injury in early October, this meant either Özil or Santi had to be shunted to the flank as Wenger tried to accommodate Jack Wilshere at the same time. What we have learnt from the past was if Özil played on the wing, we might as well play with 10-men because the German playmaker was totally ineffectual on the wing either offensively or defensively. Coupled with that, Santi's recent resurgence to his best coincided with his return to the No. 10 position. Now Mesut Özil almost fully fit, which player should be dropped at the other's expense? In this game, Özil shone, while Cazorla maintained his buoyant form. Özil was initially deployed on the wing, switching sides with Walcott, but he was given freedom to roam, while Santi played deeper than the front three, developing a good understanding with Ramsey and Coquelin defensively.

Another positive was a clean sheet. This was Ospina's fourth consecutive clean sheet. Szczesny's father blamed the defenders for his son's poor form, but there is something in Ospina's presence that calms and reassures his defenders. The inclusion of the summer signing and Francis Coquelin in the starting XI is thought to be a major factor behind Arsenal's recent solidity in defence.

We desperately needed three points to move back to fifth in the Premier League as Tottenham temporarily leapfrogged us after their 3-0 win at the Hawthorns a day earlier. With Manchester United and Liverpool also having won on Saturday, we had to keep up the pace. After the emphatic win over the Midlanders, combined with Southampton's shock defeat to Swansea at St. Mary's, Arsenal are now fifth in the table, level with fourth-placed Southampton on points, with only one goal difference separating the two teams.

We are now on a roll, which sets a perfect platform to build on with a north London derby looming on next Saturday. More than bragging rights are at the stake as we look to push on for a top-four finish. Hopefully, with Alexis and Welbeck returning to the squad, the boss will face once again a pleasing headache. Let's hope all of our players will be at their best next weekend.

Players ratings

Ospina: 8
Pulled off two top-class saves to keep a clean sheet for the fourth time in as many appearances. The defenders' confidence in him is visible in their back passes because he is always where he is expected to be. His distribution was also better than Szczesny's. His quick throw initiated the counter-attack leading to the third goal by finding the Walcott's run on the left flank. Even after Arsenal had secured three points, the Colombian keeper did not drop his concentration level and made a spectacular save to deny Westwood's excellent long-range effort in stoppage time. 

Bellerin: 8

Defensively sound with 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and 4 clearances, and good going forward, delivering 5 crosses. Scored his first goal for Arsenal. It's great to find a capable deputy during Debuchy's long-term lay-off.

Mertesacker: 7
Won 6 aerial duels and kept Benteke's aerial threat at bay. He looked more like his old self in this game.

Koscielny: 7
Also won 6 aerial duels. Solid.

Monreal: 7

Another good game this time in his familiar left-back position.

Coquelin: 8

After an early talking-to by the referee, he controlled himself well. He has been improving in every game, no longer shown a yellow card in recent games. Made 5 tackles and 5 interceptions.

Ramsey: 7

Showed a good engine going up and down the field, making some good passes to set up chances for his team-mates. Had 2 shots, one of which stung Brad Guzan's palm. Replaced by Flamini in the 76th minute.

Cazorla: 9
Stat-based Whoscored.Com's Man of the Match with a 9.8 rating vs Ozil's 9.5. Provided assists for Walcott and Bellerin, hit the woodwork and scored from the spot. With sheer power of his spot kick, the goalkeeper got a hand to it only to direct the ball into the corner of the net. Covering more ground (11.6 km) than any other player on the pitch, his contribution to the team was enormous. Another stellar performance defensively as well, with 3 tackles and 1 interception.

Özil: 9
Sky Sports' Man of the Match. His exquisite flick to send Giroud racing clear highlighted his two major assets: vision and world-class technique. In the first half, his goal was chalked off, flagged for offside, but replays suggested it was a wrong call as he was played onside by a Villa defender. You cannot fault his work rate in this game, covering 11.2 km, only second to Santi among his team-mates. Set up Giroud's goal and scored a goal himself with a composed and inch-perfect finish.

Walcott: 7
Scored his first Premier League goal since the New Year's Day 2014 and his second in a row in all competitions. Great to see his hunger and confidence back after intercepting Santi's pass intended for Giroud and curling a right-footed shot into the bottom corner. 

Giroud: 8
Scored the opener, which was his fifth goal in his last 6 games. Set up a goal for
Özil. Unlucky not to get on the scoresheet twice as his header struck the cross bar.


Rosicky: 6
Came in for Walcott in the 70th minute.

Akpom: 7
Replaced Giroud in the 70th minute. Made several good runs and earned a penalty. We want to see the 19-year-old given more chances. Amid the rumour that he is stalling his contract extension talk, Wenger was probably urged to give him another chance rather than the need to rest Giroud after the knock on his leg in the first half.

Flamini: 6
Came off the bench in the 76th minute to replace Ramsey.