Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Arsenal 1 Tottenham 1

Premier League's top two in-form sides met at the Emirates for the second north London derby of the season. While the white half of the north London thought this was their best chance in years to finally overcome their local rivals away from home, the fixture could not have come at worst time for the red half. Prior to the game, we had 10 players on our injury list, which was the second longest in the Premier League after Newcastle (11) according to Spuds may have had a day fewer to rest after their last game played (what we call Spursday night football), but it can hardly compare to the exertion of travelling to Munich and playing 90 minutes against one of Europe's best teams.

Arsene Wenger made only one change from the side who started in a 5-1 thrashing by Bayern Munich on Wednesday night. Laurant Koscielny, who sat out the defeat due to a hip problem, was declared fit to play, which meant that Gabriel was dropped to the bench. Both David Ospina and Mikel Arteta came through their first full training after injury on Friday to make the bench. Among substitutes, Alex Iwobi was the only attacking player on the bench, which spoke volumes for our desperate injury situation.

As if Wenger hadn't had enough selection headaches –of a totally different nature to the one he had earlier this season–, there was an early scare about Santi Cazorla's health. The Spanish midfielder took the field, while Mathieu Flamini started warming up from the first whistle. In the post-match interview, Arsene Wenger cited Santi's condition as "dizziness" and "he couldn't move". That was the biggest factor behind our first-half struggle as our two-man midfield was outrun by the visitors' three midfielders. According to Wenger, Santi was at 30% of his potential. If we had had Ramsey in the squad, the Frenchman wouldn't have dreamed about taking a chance on Santi's fitness. In fact, the Spanish magician may have been afforded a rest a couple of games earlier, had our squad not been so stretched. Ramsey's finishing may leave much to be desired, but we sorely missed his work rate. There was no surprise in a wide gap in distances covered by both sides. We only had 9 fit outfield players against their 10 in the first half.

In fact, the hosts started the game better than we anticipated. They had a promising chance early on, but decided not to shoot and wait till other team-mates joined. The Gunners looked dangerous when Özil got on the ball in the final third, but as Wenger said, the German playmaker was often isolated without Santi making a run forward.

Then, the visitors took the lead through Kane's composed finish. It was very disappointing that we made the same mistake twice in four days. This time the culprit was our best defender, Koscielny, who tried to play an off-side trap, or perhaps he was in two minds, with another Tottenham player on the other side as well.

At the start of the second half, Mathieu Flamini replaced Santi. Then, Campbell's powerful shot drew the first meaningful save from Lloris. Giroud hit the crossbar with his header in the 53rd minute. Without pace up front, Arsenal seemed to have resorted to scoring from set-pieces. Özil was the architect of our attack, delivering excellent corners and free-kicks into the Spurs box. At the other end, Cech had to be at his best to stop Alderweireld's header.

In the 73rd minute, Wenger brought in Kieran Gibbs at the expense of Campbell. Normally, the England left-back comes off the bench to shore up the defence to see out a victory, but in this case,Wenger chose him as his "most offensive" player on the bench. And it worked. He stretched Tottenham's defence with his pace and got a very important goal after running into Özil's floating cross. We now had a momentum to get all three points. Giroud volleyed another excellent Özil corner over the bar and forced a save from Lloris, but a winner didn't come.

It was disappointing not to win a north London derby at home, especially when we had a chance to go two points clear at the top of the Premier League after the Manchester City dropped points against the league-bottom Aston Villa earlier on the day. However, given the number of injuries we had, getting over this tough period without losing a game in the league cannot be sniffed at. At least we did not lose any ground to Man City and remained joint top of the league.

We never felt an international break this welcome before. Arsenal are confident of having Bellerin, Ramsey and the Ox back from injury after the break. Santi was already feeling better by the end of the game. Thanks to Joachim Loew's decision to omit him from the Germany squad, Özil will be given a well-deserved breather. Monreal, Mertesacker, and Coquelin will also have a good rest. Unfortunately, Alexis Sanchez was called up for Chile's World Cup qualifiers, expected to play 180 minutes in South America. Let's hope that those who go out with their national teams will come back unscathed. We need to get back to winning ways quickly.

Players ratings

Cech: 7
Made match-saving stops.

Debuchy: 7

His much improved display proved that he is getting up to  speed after a couple of games under his belt. Made 7 tackles and 2 interceptions. According to Wenger, he took the French right-back off with 12 minutes left on the clock because Debuchy was tired (not due to the knock on his knee) after two consecutive starts following a long period with no game time.

Mertesacker: 6

Poor game. His pace is not going to improve, but his positioning should have been better. Made 3 tackles, 1 interception, and 5 clearances. 

Koscielny: 7

He was culpable for the goal, but after the mistake, he kept Kane pretty much quiet. Made 3 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 8 clearances.

Monreal: 7

He shouldn't have left Eric Dier unmarked at far post in Eriksen's free-kick.

Coquelin: 7

Added a bite to our defence. Made 6 tackles and 2 interceptions. 

Cazorla: 5

Withdrawn at half time. This day's poor display may be explained by his illness, but he has not been playing to his full potential for a few games by now, which worries us. Hopefully, he will get rotated when Ramsey comes back. 

Campbell: 7

Decent showing. Unlucky not to score. 

Özil: 8

Man of the Match chosen by Arsenal fans and stats-based Tottenham midfielders, Dier and Alli, won praises for their defensive work, but they could not stop Özil without fouling him. Özil was fouled 5 times in this game, suffering more fouls than any other Premier League player this weekend but he still created 7 chances for his team-mates and set up our equaliser for Gibbs with an astute lofted pass. Set a new Premier League record of the most consecutive assists in the same season (Cesc Fabregas made the same number of successive assists for Arsenal and Chelsea, but the feat was spread over two seasons 3 years apart) by making an assist in the 6th game in a row. If Giroud's finishing had been more clinical, the German playmaker could have claimed a few more assists. He was also the first player in Europe's top flights to make double-digit assists this season. He has started delivering on a regular basis, which is a big positive for our title challenge.

Alexis: 6

He was so out-of-touch in this game. We know what he is capable of when he is on form. Hopefully, we can give him a breather after the international break when we get some players back from injury.

Giroud: 6
Missed 3 gilt-edged chances. Had 5 shots, including one that hit the woodwork and one that flew agonisingly close to goal. 


Flamini: 6
Replaced Cazorla at half time. Was definitely an upgrade on a 30% Santi as we looked better with him in the team. Moved to the right-back position when Debuchy was taken off.

Gibbs: 7
Replaced Campbell in the 73rd minutes and made a huge contribution by scoring an equaliser. 

Arteta: 6

Made a cameo apperance after coming on for Debuchy in the 78th minute. Made 10 passes with an 80% accuracy, no tackle nor interception. Little impact.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Bayern Munich 5 Arsenal 1 (Champions League Group Stage)

Arsenal went into the game with renewed hopes of qualifying after an impressive 2-0 victory at the Emirates. Bayern Munich's recent goal-scoring form at home may have been frightening, but the north Londoners' recent results at Allianz Arena were encouraging enough with a 1-1 draw in March last year (the 2013/14 season) and a 2-0 win in the 2012/13 season. However, this night's damaging loss, combined with Olympiakos' victory over Zagreb which was secured by a 90th-minute winner, dealt a hefty blow to our ambition for qualification.

Arsene Wenger made two changes from the side that started in a 3-0 defeat of Swansea on Saturday. Both of them were forced ones, where Gabriel came in for Laurant Koscielny, while Mathieu Debuchy replaced Hector Bellerin. The French centre-back travelled with the squad only to be found just hours before kick-off not fit enough to play due to a hip injury. The Spanish right-back was ruled out the day before, suffering a "small" groin injury. We were underwhelmed with the prospect of Debuchy deputising him in such a big game, but the ironic thing is that we felt exactly the same about Bellerin ahead of the opening game of our Champions League campaign last season against Dortmund when Debuchy was out with a long-term injury. Arsenal's injury list has now extended to 10 first-team players, including Koscielny (hopefully, this was just a precaution). The desperate situation saw Jeff Reine-Adelade added to the travelling squad, fresh from the U-17 international duty with France, along with Alex Iwobi on the bench.

First and foremost, it was a very poor defensive performance from the Gunners. They didn't put any pressure on the ball. Mertesacker reflected that they were not brave enough in their defending. The vice-captain and captain on the night was one of those who stood off Bayern players and let them play. In fact, one of the first-half goals took deflection on him, which beat Cech at near post. Even when we had won the ball, we gave it away too quickly.

The injury woe arguably played a big part in the thrashing. If we had Bellerin and Koscielny fit for this game, the result could have been different. At least, Bellerin would have shown his newly-found defensive resolution again.

Joel Campbell impressed in our victory at the Liberty Stadium, stepping up his game in the absence of the Ox and Aaron Ramsey, but he looked out of his depth against the European Giants. One may say that Wenger's faith in the Costa Rican backfired. Campbell was withdrawn in the 58th minute to give way to Kieran Gibbs, which prompted Sanchez's move to the right wing. There is an argument whether Wenger should have done the other way round. The shocking defensive display may be attributed to individual players' mistakes and under-performance, but if the manager had set up his side more defence-oriented and we had gone into the half time at 0-0 , we might still have had a chance. Conceding a goal so early was detrimental.

Wenger's tactical options were extremely limited due to injuries. What was effective in the home game against the Germans was the switch of strikers. The counter-attacking tactics worked well with the pace of Theo Walcott and when Olivier Giroud came on, Bayern defenders could not cope with changes in the style. When Giroud was taken off in the 84th minute after scoring a spectacular goal, we took it as Wenger's focus had already moved to Sunday's clash with Tottenham.

At Doolan's Bar, we had an outburst of criticism about Wenger's transfer policy during Bayern's first-half onslaught. Injury crises are annual affairs for us. Year after year, our title challenges have been hampered by injuries. We have to improve our squad depth. 

We wondered what could have happened if Mesut Özil's goal had stood. It would have at least boosted the team's morale. The referee was giving the goal, but the additional official ruled it out for handball. Replays on the TV seemed to us that the German playmaker's shoulder made a contact with the ball. The BBC match report thinks Arsenal had a legitimate cause to question the decision as Özil kept his arms by his side. On the other hand, the match report on site, which normally puts positive spins for obvious reasons, stated "Özil used his elbow to divert the ball past Manuel Neuer". We rest our case.

We take positives from our second-half performance in this game. We should have scored a few more goals, had we been as clinical as we were fortnight ago at the Emirates. The team did not let their heads drop, but kept looking for chances. We were totally beaten and outclassed on the night, but we know our best side can beat any team on our day, including Bayern Munich, which was proven two weeks ago.

Our chance of qualifying looks marginal now. We need to win both of our remaining matches, hoping that Bayern Munich will beat Olympiakos in the next game. Apparently, Mertesacker had already had a word with some of Bayern Munich players, who assured him that they would do everything they can do to win the next game. Reportedly, Pep Guardiola also assured Arsenal fans that Bayern would not settle for a stalemate, which will be enough for both sides to go through. By the look of their performance this night, we can trust them for defeating the Greek champions at home. Then, we still need to beat Olympiakos in Greece by a better scoreline than 2-3.

Before the famous win at the Emirates, qualifying for the knock-out stage was almost a lost cause for us. We thought that the exit from the Champions League might not be such a bad thing after all as we rarely progress beyond the round of Last 16. By being eliminated from the Champions League, we may be able to manage our Premier League and FA Cup schedules better with our small squad. The worst thing that could happen is finishing third in Group F and being demoted to the Europa League. It's difficult for us to envisage ourselves travelling miles away on Thursday nights and playing league games on Sundays or Monday nights.

We need to move on and focus on Sunday's north London derby. We are still joint top in the Premier League with Manchester City and this season could offer us the best chance to win the title in years with Chelsea already out of the frame.

In the post-match interview, Wenger revealed that we will be without Bellerin again for the home clash with Tottenham. Hopefully, Debuchy will finally deliver against the noisy neighbours. After all he is an experienced international player who played in the last World Cup. Also, keep fingers crossed that Koscielny will be fit to start. Mikel Arteta and David Ospina will join full training on Friday and could be in contention for the north London derby. After the international break, Ramsey and the Ox, then shortly afterwards, Theo Walcot could be back. It is a tough week and the north London derby could not come at worse time, but hopefully we have enough resources to keep pace with the title contenders. We believe in Arsenal's bouncebackability, expecting them to show the similar response to the one when they faced Man U at the Emirates after the disappointing loss to Olympiakos.

Players ratings

Cech: 7
With Bayern Munich registering 13 shots on target, it could have been even more emphatic scoreline, had it not been for him.

Debuchy: 5
Looked off the pace. He was culpable for one of the goals by losing his marker and letting him deliver a cross, but at least he made a Bellerin-esque last-man tackle when Robben had just got round Cech.

Mertesacker: 6
Responsible for the team's poor defensive display.

Gabriel: 5
He was guilty for Bayern's first goal by pushing up to try playing Lewandowski off-side. He was too slow, allowing the Poland international on side to get a free header. 

Monreal: 6
Struggled to contain Cowman. Slipped (or some claim that he tripped over his shoe lace) in the box when he was through on goal.

Coquelin: 6
Worked hard, but with no help from Cazorla or Özil, it was a hard task. His back pass that fell short nearly gave us a heart-attack. Delivered a fine cut-back for Cazorla in the second half, which the Spaniard spooned in the close range.

Cazorla: 6
Had a shot straight at Neur after going clean through. On another occasion, he got in a great position after a great team movement, but spurned the glorious chance. One of Bayern goals stemmed from him getting outmuscled and dispossessed. 

Campbell: 6
Disappointing performance. When he got chances to go into the final third at the beginning of the first half, he wasted them. Was withdrawn in the 58th minute.

Özil: 7
He kept his head up and always looked for a killer pass. Made more (51) passes than any other Arsenal players with a 94.1% accuracy when the team's average passing rate was 78%. It might not be his best performance, but he certainly didn't disappear.

Alexis: 6
Had 2 shots, none of which were on target. Provided an assist for Giroud's goal. He kept the ball too long only to be dispossessed. His attempts to dribble into Bayern defenders annoyed us.

Giroud: 7
Scored an exquisite goal with a scissor kick. Created 2 chances for his team-mates. 


Gibbs: 6
Replaced Campbell in the 58th minute. His introduction seemed to have given an impetus going forward.

Iwobi:  N/A
Replaced Giroud in the 84th minutes.

Chambers: N/A
Came on for Cazorla in the 87th minute.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Swansea 0 Arsenal 3

Arsenal needed to leave behind a shock 3-0 defeat at Hillsborough quickly and re-focus on their Premier-League title quest. What was more disheartening for us was to learn the lack of depth in the squad and the way the team played, with no desire nor leadership, rather than the exit from the Capital One Cup itself. Besides, the injuries to the Ox and Theo were bigger blows than the result.

Despite the mounting injury concerns and criticism against the medical team following the midweek game, the only forced changes from the side that started in a 2-1 win over Everton last weekend was the one for the right wing position. Another change was in the central defence, where Per Mertesacker, who missed the Everton game through illness, was restored at the expense of Gabriel. Giroud led the line as expected, as we no longer have a luxury of rotating the strikers depending on the opponents or our tactics.

Prior to the game, the big talking point was who was going to start on the right flank. Aaron Ramsey had been playing there out of position for some time, but he succumbed to a hamstring injury during our 2-0 defeat of Bayern Munich. Now we are without the Ox as well, who looked set to enjoy regular playing time in the absence of the Welshman. Wenger suggested that he could play Santi Cazorla, with Mathieu Flamini next to Francis Coquelin. However, he was reluctant to do so as the little Spanish magician has been a revelation in a deep-lying role and his presence there has been instrumental to the team's quick transition from defence to attack. The boss also weighed up the options of deploying Joel Campbell or Alex Iwobi in the position, but after their underwhelming performances against Sheffield Wednesday, we preferred the idea of Hector Bellerin playing there with Mathieu Debuchy behind him. However, at his pre-match press conference on Friday, Arsene Wenger appeared to be inclined to hand Campbell his first Premier League start. The Frenchman praised the Costa Rica international's hard work in training and was convinced that he was ready to step up to the next level.

We expected a tough game. Swansea has proved to be our bogey team in recent years, having done the double over us last season. Although the Welsh side is currently far from enjoying  fine form, the Liberty Stadium is a difficult place to go for any team. The game started with a slow tempo. The hosts saw more of the ball, while the visitors were tentative going forward, with few committed into the box. We were clearly second best in the first half and it was crucial not to concede a goal in this period, for which we largely owed Bellerin's last-ditch tackle to deny Gomis' seemingly inevitable goal-scoring chance.

However, the second-half was a different story. Arsenal stepped up the gear and it only took 4 minutes to take the lead. Giroud scored from an Özil corner. This was the Gunners' 2000th goal under Wenger's just-over-19-year reign. Then, the tide had turned. We were in the ascendancy.

Our second goal might have been unusual rather than controversial. Koscielny did not commit a foul in his challenge on Fabianski. The French defender clearly ducked down to avoid interfering with the Swansea keeper getting to the ball, but unfortunately for the former Arsenal keeper, he couldn't get a firm hold of the ball, which fell kindly for our centre-back. Apparently, Olivier Giroud, the closest bystander, said to him that he could take a shot, which Koscielny did. We were surprised to see the goal given only because goalkeepers are always favourite in this kind of decisions.

The third goal was more typical of the north London club. Özil and Sanchez exchanged the ball near the edge of the box and the German playmaker, who made a run into the box through the left-hand-side channel, picked Campbell at far post with his low cross. The Costa Rican took a touch and slotted it into the far corner. It was a great finish to cap his impressive performance on his first Premier-League start.

In the end, it turned out to be a comfortable win for us. We still had enough time to threaten the Swansea goal on a few more occasions, which was a worry for some of us whose wagers were on a 3-0 to Arsenal. Wenger could even afford to do some experiments in playing Gibbs and Chambers in midfield and giving Alex Iwobi game time.

All in all, it was a brilliant afternoon for us, filled with encouraging signs for the Gunners' title challenge. They have turned around the game after the sluggish first-half and imposed themselves in the second period. We could have lost this kind of games in the past or drawn at best. Giroud continued his fine goal-scoring form (with the midweek game considered to be a blip due to the lack of service). Koscielny scored his second goal as many games. Mesut Özil added two more assists to his tally of 9 as the leading Premier League assist providers. However, the most encouraging sign of all was Joel Campbell's energetic performance. His work rate was phenomenal both defensively and offensively. We thought he was not skillful enough to get into the first team by the look of him playing against Sheffield Wednesday, but he looked the part on this day. Arsene Wenger hopes that he will turn out to be a Francis Coquelin or a Hector Bellerin of this season, who both grabbed their chances last season, when first-choice players were out through injuries, and established themselves as regular starters. Hopefully, Joel Campbell will successfully fill the Ox's boots (or even more).

Arsene Wenger regarded the victory as progress from the last season. This fixture has seen Gary Monk gain the upper hand in terms of tactics in recent years. Most famously, the Arsenal boss was heavily criticised for leaving Calum Chambers to be roasted by Montero on the right wing last season. This season, the Frenchman successfully turned around the game at half time and the comfortable scoreline even allowed him to give the young English defender a chance to exorcise his traumatic experience.

The three points ensured that we kept pace with the league leaders, Manchester City, who are level on points with us but have a superior goal difference. Three goals without reply narrowed the gap in the goal difference to 4 goals. Our title challenge continues.

Players ratings

Cech: 8
His presence had a big part in putting Gomis off. On the one-on-one with the Czech Republic international, the French striker tried to go round him, which gave Bellerin time to catch up with him. Made a couple of fine saves as well.

Bellerin: 8
His last-man tackle in the first half was arguably the turning point of the game. He also made a brave save off the line, crashing into the post. Although Andre Ayew was adjudged off-side, it highlighted his resolve and progress as a defender. Struggled to contain Jefferson Montero in the first half, though, even with his pace.

Mertesacker: 6
His positioning was questionable when Gomis was through on goal. Replays showed that he handled Sigurdsson's free-kick in the area, which was missed by everyone, including the ref and Swansea players.
Koscielny: 8
Scored a back-to-back goal. Made one tackle, 5 interceptions and 6 clearances.

Monreal: 8
He rarely puts a foot wrong. Made 4 tackles, 5 interceptions and a clearance, winning 4 aerial battles. Solid display.

Coquelin: 7
Quietly did his job. Made 6 interceptions.

Cazorla: 7
Quiet game by his standard, but made more passes (76) than any other Arsenal player with an 89.5% accuracy.

Campbell: 8
Made 3 tackles 2 interceptions and a clearance. Helped out Bellerin on a few occasions to cope with Montero in the first half. Had 4 shots, 2 of which were on target (and another was not far off, either). Scored his first goal in Arsenal colours.

Özil: 8
Widely regarded as the Man of the Match. Set up the first goal from the perfect delivery of a corner kick and the third with a low cross, creating 5 chances in total. Had a shot on target.

Alexis: 7
Had 4 shots, none of which were on target, but he worked hard as usual, making one tackle, one interception and 2 clearances. Created 3 chances for his team mates. 

Giroud: 8
Claimed his 6th league goal. He pulled Mertesacker back to make space for himself and shrug off his marker and placed his header perfectly. He had more (15) headed goals than any Premier League player since his debut, a fact that underlines his development, given he only scored one headed goal for Montpellier in the year when he was named as the joint top Ligue 1 scorer.


Gibbs: 6
Replaced Giroud in the 83rd minute. Made 3 passes with a 66.7% success rate and one shot blocked.

Chambers: 6
Came off the bench to replace Campbell in the 83rd minute. Arguably the slowest winger in the Premier League, but somewhat managed one key pass. Made 2 tackles.

Iwobi:  N/A
Replaced Alexis Sanchez in stoppage time. Had 2 touches.