Monday, September 26, 2016

Arsenal 3 Chelsea 0

Arsenal were on a winless run against Chelsea stretching over nearly 5 years, bar their 1-0 Community Shield win in August last year. We also failed to score in any of the last 6 meetings and had players sent off against them more than any other club (7). Per Mertesacker, Gabriel, Santi Cazorla and Kieran Gibbs (for a mistaken identity) falling victim to Chelsea's tactics in those games were all fresh in our memory. All the players were more than aware that they had to keep 11 men on the pitch this time round. Despite these "inconvenient facts", the north London side were on the up, with newly found confidence from back-to-back emphatic wins away from home. That was the source of our belief that this season could be different.

 Arsene Wenger named unchanged starting XI from the side that started in a convincing 4-1 victory over Hull City at KCOM stadium last Saturday. Wenger's experiment to deploy Alexis Sanchez as a centre-forward continued even after Lucas Perez opened his goal-scoring account in the mid-week EFL Cup tie against Nottingham Forest. Olivier Giroud was only fit to start on the bench after recovering from a toe injury he sustained in the Champions League game against PSG. The exclusion of Granit Xhaka from the starting line-up raised a few eyebrows after the Swiss international scored two stunning long-range goals in the last 2 games in a row. However, for what was expected to be a feisty meeting, more experienced Francis Coqelin seemed a better choice to us, given Xhaka's dubious disciplinary record in the Bundesliga.

The game got off to an intense start fit for a London derby. When Koscielny took down Diego Costa just outside the box, the visitors appealed for a penalty. Alexis capitalised on Cahill's error in the 11th minute to coolly chip the ball over Courtois into the net. 3 minutes later, Theo doubled the lead by slotting home a Bellerin cross after a well-worked  build-up. We had waited for a league goal against the London rivals for the last 3 seasons. Now we got two. On 40 minutes, the goal tally increased to three. Ozil turned Kante (this match-up between the two midfielders was dubbed as the key battle of the game prior to the match), initiating a sweeping counter-attacking move. Ozil released Alexis with his perfectly-weighed pass and the Chilean picked out Ozil at the back post with a fine cross. Our passing was sharp and crisp, with quick movements throughout the pitch. The boss described it as an "nearly perfect" first half.

The second-half may have been a little quieter affair as Arsenal were happy to sit back and trying to attack on the counter. Perhaps, that's the reason why our possession was surprisingly low at 49% despite the dominance. We should have added a couple more goals, but Arsenal's inclination to overplay was to blame. Nevertheless, Arsenal were in total control. We stayed strong not to get Chelsea back in the game. Diego Costa cut a frustrated figure as Koscielny and Mustafi totally negated his threat and totally ignored his theatricals. Overall, it was a very strong team performance from the Gunners. We outplayed Chelsea in all areas.

The only negative was Coquelin's injury. The French midfielder was taken off in the 31st minute due to a knee injury. After the match, Wenger revealed that it was the same knee he injured last November. On that day, Coquelin was replaced by Mikel Arteta, who scored an own goal in his cameo appearance before being taken off through an injury to himself. The game ended in our 2-1 defeat to West Brom. It used to be that an injury to a major player would result  in a lesser player coming on but we now have strength in depth especially in midfield. On this occasion, Xhaka was introduced to fill the void Coquelin left, seamlessly integrated into the team. Coquelin's injury is a blow, but we now have some depth in the squad to mitigate it. Xhaka will probably be a starter in the absence of Coqulin, which should put an end to an argument as to whether Wenger is right to not start the £35 million signing. Elneny can also share the responsibility.

It took some time for us to get going this season, largely because of injuries and Euro 2016 exertion to the key players. Wenger may deserve criticism for the late arrival of reinforcement, but we are truly up and running now, with the Koscielny-Mustfi partnership starting to look a real force. Hopefully, we can build on this impressive performance. Before we get back to the Premier League action, we have a must-win home game against FC Basel on Wednesday night.

Players ratings

Cech: 6
With his former club registering no shot on target until 75th minute, he had little to do. But when he was called upon, he produced a brilliant save to deny Batshuayi's shot.  

Bellerin: 8
Delivered a perfect cross to set up Theo's goal. Used his pace well to make a last-ditch tackle on Pedro at a crucial moment.

Mustafi: 8

He has started proving a great signing for us as he has begun to form a solid central defensive partnership with Koscielny. Made 3 tackles, 6 interceptions, and 5 clearances.

Koscielny: 8

Took no notice of Costa's provocative actions. Kept him quiet throughout the game, together with Mustafi, with the result that Diego Costa only had 2 touches in the box. Made 3 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 7 clearances.

Monreal: 7
His positional play was a cause of concern for us in recent games, but he coped alright in this game. As usual he made a lot of overlapping runs down the wing.

Cazorla: 8

His powerful shot drew a fine save from Courtois in the early stages. Made more passes (85) than any other player on the pitch, with a 88.2% accuracy.

Coquelin: 7
Played well until he got injured. Made 1 tackle, 2 interceptions and 22 passes with a 86.2% passing completion rate in his 31 minutes on the pitch. Hopefully, his injury is not too serious. 

Walcott: 9
As Wenger predicted, he is a different animal this season with a renewed hunger. The difference this season is his defensive commitment. He takes a great pleasure in keeping a clean sheet as if it was his foremost priority. Worked hard, tracking back, covering the right-back, and pressing the Chelsea players. Scored Arsenal's second goal. Unlucky not to score another. On another occasion, when he should have gone for a goal, he instead over-hit a cross for Alexis.

Özil: 9
Made 72 passes, including 3 key passes, with an impressive 90.3% accuracy. Good finish to complete the great counter-attacking movement he initiated. He even contributed to defending as well, making 2 tackles and 2 interceptions.

Iwobi: 8
Picked out Bellerin's run in the build-up to Theo's goal. 

Alexis: 9
Scored a goal and set up another. He was at his best in this role, showing his pace, composure and skills.


Xhaka: 7
Replaced Coquelin in the 31st minutes. His incisive pass to pick out Walcott's run on the right-hand side nearly paid off. Made 3 tackles, 1 interception, 3 clearances and 49 passes with a 93.9% passing success rate.

Gibbs: 7
Came on for Iwobi in the 69th minute to shore up the defence. It was also Wenger's offensive tactical change to respond to Chelsea's 3-men defence. While Iwobi tends to cut inside, Gibbs stays wide and runs to the byline, which stretched Chelsea's narrow defence. Astute substitution from Wenger.

Giroud: 6
Replaced Alexis in the 79th minute. He had a simple  task of keeping the ball up and failed to accomplish it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

2016/17 Premier League Fixtures

Premier League published the 2016/17 fixture list earlier today. Arsenal will kick off their campaign at home against Liverpool and finish the season with a home match against Everton under new coach Ronald Koeman. All the final games should be played on 21 May at the same time, but our opening game against Jurgen Klopp's side is likely to be rescheduled as TV companies will make selections later. As Friday night Premier League fixtures will be introduced next season for extended TV coverage, Saturday normal kick-offs will be even more of rarity in the 2016/17 season.

Then, we will travel to the King Power Stadium to take on the Premier League champions, Leicester City, on the following weekend. What sort of a team we will be facing remains to be seen. According to the media, a few key Leicester City players' futures are uncertain at the moment, including Jamie Vardy's. With the Champions League commitment for the first time in their history, Claudio Ranieri will be no doubt looking to expand his side as well.

The first north London derby will be held at home on 5 November (fireworks) unless we are drawn against Tottenham in the early round of the League Cup like last season. The reverse fixture on 29 April is expected to be an even feistier affair than usual as the game falls on the decisive part of the season.

Another fixture we first check when the fixture list has been published is a game around the end of February, when our annual trip to Benidorm takes place. The last season's Benidorm trip was replaced by the trip to watch the Champions League match in Barcelona, but we are hoping to go back to Benidorm in the coming season. Southampton away is always a tough fixture, but hopefully, we will get  revenge on last season's humiliating 4-0 thumping by then Ronald Koeman's side.

In addition to Everton (and obviously, Southampton), Chelsea, two Manchester clubs and Watford will all be welcoming new managers. Hopefully, Arsene Wenger will finally get his first league win over Mourinho next season. Arsenal will travel to Old Trafford on 19 November and host Manchester United on 6 May.

Premier League will also welcome three newly promoted clubs: Burnley, Middlesbrough, and Hull City. We are quite familiar with these new boys through the FA Cup ties over the last two seasons. They are expected to reinforce their squads with a financial boost given by the TV money, but we cannot see any problem against them at the moment.

We have experienced some disappointment over the last decade, but the 2016/17 season was arguably the most frustrating season. We added what looked to be a missing piece of the jigsaw in Petr Cech, following the two seasons of big name signings. We were top of the table at the beginning of 2016, after a promising 2015. Yet we fell short of winning the league again. We somehow managed to finish above Tottenham and clinched second place, but it was not really a consolation. With a £30 million-signing already under the belt, hopefully, we will see more reinforcement arriving before the season starts.

(All the dates are subject to changes)

13 Liverpool (H)
20 Leicester City (A)
27 Watford (A)

10 Southampton (H)
17 Hull City (A)
24 Chelsea (H)

1   Burnley (A)
15 Swansea City (H)
22 Middlesbrough (H)
29 Sunderland (A)

5   Tottenham Hotspur (H)
19 Manchester United (A)
26 Bournemouth (H)

3   West Ham United (A)
10 Stoke City (H)
14 Everton (A)
17 Manchester City (A)
26 West Bromwich Albion (H)
31 Crystal Palace (H)

2   Bournemouth (A)
14 Swansea City (A)
21 Burnley (H)
31 Watford (H)

4   Chelsea (A)
11  Hull City (H)
25 Southampton (A)

4   Liverpool (A)
11 Leicester City (H)
18 West Bromwich Albion (A)

2   Manchester City (H)
4   West Ham United (H)
8   Crystal Palace (A)
15 Middlesbrough (A)
22 Sunderland (H)
29 Tottenham Hotspur (A)

6   Manchester United (H)
13 Stoke City (A)
21 Everton (H)

Friday, May 20, 2016

Arsenal 4 Aston Villa 0

Arsenal went into the game as heavy favourites at odds of 1/8 against already relegated Aston Villa at the Emirates on the final day of the 2015/16 season. A point would secure an automatic qualification for the Champions League for the 20th consecutive season, but our target was to take all three points to overtake Tottenham to the second place in case Newcastle pulled off a shock victory over our local rivals. Perhaps the Gunners' emphatic win was not all that surprising, although they did their best to make it a hard viewing for us as usual, but the most astounding part of the story was Tottenham's capitulation in their 5-1 defeat against 10 men. When Sunderland sent their arch-rivals to relegation on Wednesday night, we thought our hopes of clinching the second place had all but faded. After all, however, Newcastle players' and fans' desire to convince Rafa Benitez to stay with their club seemed to have outstripped Spurs' determination to finish above their north London rivals.

Arsene Wenger made four changes from the side that started in a 2-2 draw with Manchester City at the Etihad last weekend. Mesut Özil, who missed the trip to the northwest through a slight hip problem, was restored to his usual No. 10 role at the expense of Alex Iwobi, who dropped to the bench. Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin, who were both impressive in the U-21s' promotion play-off final on Tuesday night, formed the central midfield partnership for the first time since their injuries in November. As some fans were becoming tired of the Elneny-Ramsey pairing in the middle of the park, this was a refreshing change. Jack Wilshere earned his first start since the final day of the last season. Meanwhile, to our sadness, Danny Welbeck was ruled out for 9 months after having surgery in the wake of a knee injury sustained during the Man City game.

Among the subs' bench were David Ospina, Kieran Gibbs, Mohamed Elneny, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Iwobi, Joel Campbell, and Mikel Arteta. The club captain was lucky enough to be given a chance to make his last appearance in an Arsenal shirts as he, Tomas Rosicky and Mathieu Flamini were to leave the Club at the end of the season when their contracts expire. Theo Walcott missed the final game of the season all together through a hamstring problem. After the match, Wenger stated that the England forward would be available for the Euro 2016 should he be called up to the England squad on Monday, but with Roy Hodgson in the stand on this day, Theo's absence probably put a nail in his coffin as far as his participation in the Euro 2016 is concerned.

Arsenal started the game with intent. Within 5 minutes of kick-off, we were 1-0 up thanks to Giroud's free header. The news was welcomed that Tottenham were trailing at St. James' Park, but we had to make sure first that we would take all three points from our game. As the Gunners struggled to take chances, Villa looked increasingly dangerous on the break. Arsenal dominated the game, but their intricate style of play frustrated us once again.

The game grew even more agonizing in the second half. Chances went begging and passes went astray. Substitute Elneny had a gilt-edged chance to score, but he volleyed high over the bar. Meanwhile, Lamela's strike at St. James' Park in the 60th minute looked to have signaled Tottenham's comeback, followed by Newcastle's goalscorer, Mitrovic's sending-off in the 67th minute. Despite our anxiety, 10-men Newcastle scored their third goal to put the game to bed. Now we really had to get our job done. With just 12 minutes remaining in normal time, relief was finally brought to us as Giroud met Özil's cut-back from the byline at the near post. The team celebrated it emphatically, with everybody running towards Rosicky. 2 minutes later, Giroud completed a hat-trick after being released by Bellerin's inch-perfect through ball.

Newcastle assured us that there would be no coming back of Tottenham as they added 2 goals in quick succession to make it 5-1 with 4 minutes to go. We were now enjoying the game to the full extent. Mikel Arteta and Joel Campbell were brought on in the 87th minute for the former to bid a farewell as he had decided to hang up his boots. In stoppage time, Alexis laid the ball on for Areta, whose fierce shot cannoned off the crossbar before it hit the goalkeeper and crept over the line. Arteta claimed the goal, although it was technically Bunn's own goal, but it was a dramatic ending to an amazing game.

The final whistle was blown, which was a cue for St. Totteringham's Day celebration. Never mind finishing above them, we once resigned to accept the prospect of our bitter rivals winning the league during the season. A lot of us admitted that they are a good team, which makes their collapse in the final few weeks all the more incredible.

All in all, it was a much better final day of the season than we braced ourselves for. Petr Cech won the 2015/16 Golden Glove outright with his 16th clean sheet. Mesut Özil finished the season at top of the assist table in Europe's 5 top-flight leagues with 19 assists. It was a shame that he fell short of Thierry Henry's league record (20), but there is always another season. With more clinical finishers in the team next season, he will have a good chance of setting a new record. Above all, Arsenal ended the season second in the league, the highest finish in 11 years. We have also achieved an automatic qualification for the Champions League, which means that we don't need to go through a tricky qualifying round or face fixture congestion as soon as a new Premier League season has kicked off.

We finished the season on a high, but that cannot disguise the fact that this was a disappointing season for us with many lost opportunities We fell behind the champions Leicester City by 10 points, which was not good enough. After the match, Wenger hailed the team spirit that allowed Arsenal to finish second, but that team spirit should have seen a more solid run-in. We finished the season on an unbeaten run of 10 league games, but we shouldn't have dropped points in those four games of the five we drew during the current run.

We have now two major tournaments coming up during the summer, the Euro 2016 and the Copa America Centenario. Hopefully, all our players involved in the competitions will come back in good shape and have a good rest afterwards. Let's hope that we will do some good business in the summer transfer market as well. Wenger has acknowledged the fact that we need to sign outfield players this summer as three midfielders are set to leave the club, while we will be without Danny Welbeck for almost a season (On the other hand, he might say that Yaya Sanogo, Chuba Akpom and Jon Toral are just like new signings). The boss should know that the current squad is far from adequate to challenge for the title next season, when all other clubs are set to have significant reinforcement.

Players ratings

Cech: 6
With Aston Villa registering only 2 shots on target, he had little to do. When he was called upon, it was his defenders (Koscielny and Monreal) who came to rescue.

Bellerin: 7
Provided an assist for Giroud's third goal by releasing him with a long through ball. Made 3 tackles, 4 interceptions and 1 clearance.

Gabriel: 6

Beaten by Jordan Ayew twice. He has learnt little this season. With Per Mertesacker not getting any younger nor faster, we need a new experienced centre-back. 

Koscielny: 7

Our best defender throughout the season. Did well to make a clearance off the line, arriving just in time. Made 1 tackle, 7 interceptions, and  5 clearances.

Monreal: 7
Rarely troubled defensively, but made a crucial interception to Sinclair's pass in the box. Claimed an assist for the opener with a cross thanks to Aston Villa's atrocious marking.

Cazorla: 7

Looked as if he had never been away. We sorely missed him for the last 5 months. His return to fitness came too late for him to earn a place in Spanish Euro 2016 squad.

Coquelin: 7
Encouraged by his offensive contribution to U-21s' play-off win, he made 2 key passes. Also made 1 tackle and 5 interceptions. 

Wilshire: 6
Proved his match fitness with nothing eye-catching. He had a great chance to score when Alexis' cross found him unmarked at the far post, but he couldn't put his shot on target with his right foot. Replaced by Elneny in the 67th minute.

Özil: 8
Claimed an assist for Giroud's second goal. Created 4 chances for his team mates. If Alexis had converted those 2 chances created by Özil for him, the German playmaker could have set a new Premier League assist record.

Alexis: 8

Had 5 shots, one of which was on target. Created 4 chances for his team mates. Great to see him finally rediscover last season's form.

Giroud: 9
Arsenal fans chosen Man of the Match in the second game in a row, after breaking his 15-game goal drought last weekend. Completed a hat-trick with three totally different types of goals: a header, a sliding-in at the near post, and a one-on-one with the keeper after latching onto a long through ball. Statistically, this was his best season in an Arsenal shirt with 24 goals in all competition, including 16 in the Premier League. He may not be as bad as some think, but we desperately need another potent striker we can rely on when Giroud is having a goal drought.


Elneny: 6
Replaced Wilshire in the 67th minutes. Made 21 passes with a 100% accuracy, but he really should have scored. Had 2 shots, both of which were off target.

Arteta: 6
Came on for Cazorla in the 87th minute. What a memorable appearance to end his career! It may not have been recorded as his goal, but he had a huge hand in Arsenal's 4th goal. Had 1 shot, which was on target, and made 1 key pass. He was reportedly offered three options by Arsenal. Where he will start his coaching career is yet to be seen.

Campbell: 6
Replaced Ozil in the 87th minute. Little involvement in the game with 7 touches to his name.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Manchester City 2 Arsenal 2

The significance of this match could have been much different. At the beginning of the season, or in fact, at the start of the year, this match was regarded as a title decider by many. Since then, both sides have faded away from the title race. Amid the disappointment of the fans, this encounter still presented some importance for both  sides. Going into the game, third-placed Arsenal were 3 points ahead of fourth-placed Man City, whose reaction to their limp performance in their Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid was under the spotlight. We knew a win at the Etihad would guarantee our place in next season's Champions League without going through the increasingly difficult play-offs. After Tottenham's 2-2 draw with Chelsea on Monday night and resulting confirmation of Leicester City's crowning as Premier League champions, you could sense that Arsenal players' ambition had been turned to a second-place finish. To encourage their belief, the Spurs succumbed to a 2-1 defeat by Southampton earlier in the day, throwing away the lead again. This should have served as an extra motivation for the Gunners.

Arsene Wenger made two forced changes from the starting XI who played in a 1-0 victory over a relegation-threatened Norwich side at the Emirates last Saturday. Gabriel replaced Per Mertesacker, whose season was over after suffering a hamstring injury during the narrow victory. Mesut Ozil missed out on a trip to the northwest due to a slight hip problem. Danny Welbeck came in for the German playmaker, deployed on the left wing, with Alex Iwobi in the No. 10 role. Much to the fans' displeasure, Wenger once again stuck with Olivier Giroud. Among the subs  were David Ospina, Kieran Gibbs, Francis Coquelin, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, and Joel Campbell.

It was believed that Arsenal had a blueprint for the success at the Etihad Stadium. Everybody thought that Wenger would copy the template of their 2-0 victory in last season's corresponding fixture or a 2-1 win at the Emirates Stadium earlier this season, in which the Gunners conceded possession and attacked on the break. However, Arsenal's starting line-up on this day looked too cavalier, with Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey in central midfield. Was Wenger carried away with the prospect of finishing second after the news of Tottenham's loss?

Our fear soon materialised. Man City started brightly and took a deserved lead in the 8th minute. It was a familiar story. We didn't close down. Elneny was deceived by Aguero, with Koscielny behind the Egyptian just watching Aguero's shot pass him. It was disappointing to see a goalkeeper of Cech's calibre beaten at his near post.

However, Arsenal fought back to equalise within seconds. Giroud headed an Elneny corner into the roof of the net. We hoped that the goal had woken up our team, but no. This was going to be a long late afternoon. Danny Welbeck's injury didn't help. He wasn't moving well since an early knock, but he could no longer continue, giving way to his England team-mate, Jack Wilshere, in the 24th minute.

Arsenal managed to end the first half with parity, but City took the lead again through De Bruyne's goal. It was a carbon copy of Bolasie goal a couple of weeks ago. Once again, we failed to close down and Cech was beaten at his near post.

Wenger made an early substitution by his standards to introduce Theo Walcott in place of Iwobi. Theo made an uncustomary impact when he came on. In the 68th minute, Arsenal equalised once again with Giroud turning to  provider with his brilliant flick. Alexis finished Giroud's lay-off with composure. This was a great example of Arsenal's swift counter-attacking moves. Santi was ready to come on before the goal, but the goal changed Wenger's plan. The Frenchman brought on Coquelin at the expense of Elneny. His thought was clear: if you cannot win, don't lose it.

It was disappointing that we could not fully capitalise on the north London rivals' loss, but the hard-fought point saw us move another step closer to securing next season's Champions League football. The result was far more beneficial to us than the hosts. If Manchester United lose or draw on Tuesday night in the final game at Upton Park, we will secure at least a play-off spot for the next season's Champions League. No matter how other games pan out, a draw with Aston Villa on the last weekend of the season will seal our automatic qualification for the Champions League. Playing in front of their families and loved ones, hopefully, our players will play to their full capacity. Besides, we still have a chance of finishing second, depending on how successful Newcastle  fare against Spurs at St James's Park next Sunday. It was vital to grab a point from this game in order to keep any chance of overtaking Tottenham alive.

Overall, it was another frustrating performance from the Gunners especially the very poor passing, but they deserve the credit for their resilience, fighting back twice to earn a point. Another positive was their efficiency in front of  goal, which has been a problem this season. Arsenal scored 2 goals from their 2 shots on target. The worrying thing was that we only had 5 attempts throughout the game. Hopefully, with Özil's return to the side, we will see more goal-scoring chances created at the Emirates next weekend.

Players ratings

Cech: 5
Beaten at his near post twice, it was a disappointing display from the world-class keeper.

Bellerin: 6
Struggled defensively on the right flank at times. Made 2 tackles, 4 interceptions and 3 clearances.

Gabriel: 6

Some blame Bellerin for De Bruyne's goal, but Gabriel could have done better to stop the Belgian from shooting.

Koscielny: 6

Recovered well from the shaky start. Made 1 tackle, 4 interceptions, and a whopping 10 clearances. 

Monreal: 6
Struggled to cope with Navas' attacking threat. Made 2 tackles, 5 intercept
ions, and 8 clearances.

Elneny: 6

Claimed an assist for Giroud's goal. He has started taking corners and free kicks recently, which is a positive for us. His defensive stats (1 interception and 1 clearance) were disappointing on this day. Replaced by Coquelin in the 76 minutes.

Ramsey: 6
Made 7 tackles, but he was dispossessed too easily and too often for our liking. Covered more ground (10.6 km) than any other Arsenal player but his passing accuracy was poor at 69.1% even when the team's average rate was uncharacteristically low at 70%.    

Alexis: 7
He was having a quiet game until he scored an equaliser. Made 3 tackles, 3 interceptions and 1 clearance.

Iwobi: 5
He was out of his depth. Somebody with more experience, such as Campbell (if Santi was not fully match fit) should have started in his place.

Welbeck: 5

Early retirement due to a knee injury. Keep fingers crossed that it's not too bad.

Giroud: 7
Arsenal fans chosen Man of the Match. Scored his first league goal in 15 games and claimed his 6th league assist. As Wenger stated after the match, the French striker was sharper than he had been in recent games, in one of which Ramsey was seen shouting at him when he didn't make a run for the Welshman's through ball.


Wilshere: 6
Replaced Welbeck in the 24th minutes. Great to see him get a chance to prove his fitness. Had a decent game with team highest passing completion rate of 86.7%. 

Walcott: 6
Came on for Iwobi in the 59th minute. Made a few good runs with/without the ball.

Coquelin: 6
Replaced Elneny in the 76th minute to prop up defence. Made 3 tackles, 1 interception and 1 clearance.
Made 6 passes with a 50% passing accuracy.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

West Ham 3 Arsenal 3

It was a captivating game for neutrals, but the result was no good for either side. West Ham's aspiration for a Champions League spot was dealt a blow, while Arsenal's faint title hopes all but ended. In normal circumstances, a draw would have not been a bad result against an in-form West Ham side, who went into the game atop of the London-derby mini-league with 14 points, including their opening day win at the Emirates and 1-0 defeat of Tottenham at Upton Park. However, what was most disheartening for us, Gooners, was the way our team threw away a 2-0 lead. The capitulation came after an encouraging few weeks and, in fact, a reassuring display in first 35 minutes of this game.

True to his words prior to the match, "I am reluctant to change anything that works", Arsene Wenger named the unchanged starting XI who started in impressive wins over Everton and Watford in the last 2 weeks. This meant that fit-again Petr Cech remained on the bench alongside Per Mertesacker. Other places on the bench were occupied by Aaron Ramsey, who has returned from a thigh injury that kept him on the sidelines for a month, Calum Chambers, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, and Olivier Giroud.

The team sheet raised a few eyebrows among us who were unaware of Wenger's pre-match comment. Against Andy Carroll's physical threat, Mertesacker seemed to have been a natural answer to us. The English striker is not known for his speed, so BFG's lack of pace is unlikely to be exposed. In the post-match interview, Wenger stated that he did not expect Carroll to feature in this game as he hadn't played for the last 5 or 6 games. It was Diafra Sakho who mainly led the line during the period and he was omitted from the matchday squad all together. The official reason for the absence was a minor injury, but rumours are rife that the Senegalese striker had fallen out with Slaven Bilic. So we don't know whether the West Ham coach's decision to play Carroll was a tactical or forced one, but the selection proved effective.

Another talking point prior to the match was whether Cech should replace Ospina. The Colombian keeper has put in an almost impeccable performance since deputising for the first-choice keeper during his injury lay-off. It would have been unfair to him if he had had to be dropped to the bench as soon as Cech had returned. On the other hand, some think that the first-choice keeper should play whenever he is available. Also, Ospina's relatively small build for a goalkeeper was always regarded disadvantageous against big strikers. Cech's commanding presence in goal and his ability to communicate with defenders and organise set-pieces might have been helpful in this game.

After feisty and eventful opening stages, Arsenal were 2-0 up thanks to goals from Özi and Alexis. Just when we thought we were going into half time with a two-goal lead and our team were totally in control, Carroll struck twice in 160 seconds just before the break. At Doolan's Bar, the buoyant mood was wiped off.

Carroll was a continuous menace after the break and completed a hat-trick (although this will be disputed at the Dubious Goal Committee without doubt) 7 minutes from the restart. Wenger made offensive changes, bringing on Ramsey and Giroud at the expense of Coquelin and Elneny. Laurent Koscielny restored the parity and both sides looked for a fourth goal, which wasn't to be.

A few decisions by the officials came under spotlights. After Lanzini's goal was chalked off as off-side at early stages, replays suggested that Hector Bellerin kept him just about on side. Some pundits and West Ham supporters claimed Slaven Bilic's side has been the victims of wrong decisions in recent weeks, including the eventually overturned suspension of Kouyate, but we also have a case here to complain about a decision. Andy Carroll was lucky to get away with his late and potentially dangerous challenge on Koscielny with only a yellow card and he was even luckier when his flailing arm caught Gabriel in the face early in the second half. On  balance, you may say West Ham were not as unlucky as they claimed as they could have Carroll suspended for Wednesday night's FA Cup quarter-final replay against Manchester United and of course, he scored their third goal after his challenge on Gabriel, when he shouldn't have been on the pitch.

We argued what Wenger could have done to prevent the defensive capitulation. Maybe another defender, perhaps Mertesacker, should have been brought on specifically to mark Carroll. But the Frenchman never makes early substitutions unless there is an injury. Especially, a defensive change is beyond his imagination. In contrast to Wenger's tactical rigidness, Bilic replaced Tomkins for Emenike at half time, when he had witnessed enough evidence for West Ham's 3-4-2-1 system being ineffectual, with both Ozil and Alexis exploiting space behind defenders through the left-hand channel for their goals.

After the match, Arsene Wenger pointed out his side's vulnerability against headers in the box since the start of the season. If he has identified the weakness, why hasn't he sorted it out yet? Leicester is not where they are for no reason. Ranieri successfully transformed an attacking side with a "you score, we score" approach (which was taken advantage of by Arsenal in their 5-2 win at King Power Stadium) into a solid defensive unit in the middle of the season, which was key to their sustained run of form during Vardy's goal drought.

Our target remains the same: to win all the remaining games. It is interesting to see if Wenger's "if it is not broken, don't fix it" approach will be forced to change now the frailty of his new unit has been exposed. In particular, will Koscielny-Gabriel pairing continue? Will Cech reclaim his place in the team? Can Ramsey return to the starting line-up, breaking up Coquelin-Elneny partnership? As Koscielny called for more help in defence from wingers in his post-match interview, defending is a collective responsibility. We allowed West Ham to cross too easily. We hope this game -both performance and result- did not undermine the team's confidence and spirit that had been built over the last few weeks. Hopefully, we will put things right before the next game and get back to winning ways quickly.

Players ratings

Ospina: 6
Could not do much about Carroll's goals.

Bellerin: 6
He should have closed down and stop crosses in.

Gabriel: 5

Struggled to cope with Carroll's aerial presence. For West Ham's second goal, he managed to block Carroll's initial scuffed attempt, but he should have reacted more quickly to the rebound and not allowed him to have another chance. West Ham's third goal was arguably his own goal.

Koscielny: 7

Captain on the day was our best defender, winning 5 aerial battles and scored an important equaliser.

Monreal: 6
Struggled to cope with Antonio's pace and allowed to him to run past him in the build-up to West Ham's third goal. Unlucky to not score when his fierce low shot was cleared off the line. The rebound fell for him, but he shot it high.

Coquelin: 6

Subbed in the 61st minute. He initiated moves leading to goals by finding Iwobi. 

Elneny: 6
Gave way to Giroud in the 68th minute. Making 64 passes with a 93.8 % accuracy was impressive, but failed to help defence more on the flank when needed.

Alexis: 7
Composed finish for his goal. In Arsenal's search for a fourth goal, he took wrong options.

Özil: 7
Scored his 8th goal of the season. Created 3 chances. Faded in the second half.

Iwobi: 8

Claimed assists for Arsenal's 2 goals in the first half with his through ball to Özi and lofted pass to Alexis, but he was anonymous in the second half.

Welbeck: 6

Claimed an assist for Koscielny's goal. Worked hard, but largely ineffectual.


Ramsey: 6
Replaced Coqulein in the 61st minutes. Showed some fine skills.

Giroud: 5
Came on for Elneny in the 68th minute. Had 1 attempt at goal, which was a header just wide.

Walcott: 5
Replaced Welbeck in the 81st minute. Little time to influence the game, having only 4 touches.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Arsenal 4 Watford 0

Revenge was sweet. Arsenal put four past a former Tottenham keeper, Heurelho Gomes, who said "When you see Arsenal playing against big teams, they look like a small team" after his side knocked out Arsene Wenger's men out of the FA Cup competition 3 weeks ago. The north London side brushed aside Watford with a convincing performance. Nyom's blatant foul on Özil, which should have seen him sent off, epitomised Watford's sheer frustration during the game.

Arsene Wenger named the same starting XI after his side's impressive 2-0 victory at Goodison Park 2 weeks ago. Petr Cech made a return from injury only to make the bench. It would have been cruel to David Ospina, who hadn't put his foot wrong since the Czech international's injury.

Stats indicated our indifferent starts at home in recent games, but in this game we didn't wait for long to see our team open the scoring. Iwobi's inch-perfect curling cross met Alexis' header, which drew a fine save from Gomes, but the Chile international was quick to pounce on the rebound and poked it into the top corner. It took the Gunners no more than 4 minutes from kick-off. They kept moving the ball around, dominating in possession, but Watford was slowly growing into the game. A one-goal lead is never enough to settle the nerves even when we are on top. A second goal finally arrived in the 38th minute in the form of Alex Iwobi's second goal in as many games.

This season we tend to shut up shop when we are 2-0 up, invite pressure and hold on the lead. As a result, we made struggling teams, such as Newcastle and even Aston Villa, look good. We lacked ruthlessness this season. However, this game was different. Arsenal came out with the same attacking intent after the break and was soon rewarded through Bellerin's fortuitous goal. We have been saying exactly what the 20-year-old Spaniard said about his goal after the match: You have to try, otherwise you won't score. Theo Walcott made it 4-0 with his close-range shot after some good work from a fellow substitute Joel Campbell. Who knows it may all come down to goal difference at the end of the season.

After the game, many questioned why Arsenal couldn't beat this side 3 weeks ago. In fact, we should have been 2-0 up in the first half on that day, but we were not clinical enough in front of goal. Today, we produced 12 shots on target from 19 goal attempts, in comparison with 4 shots on target from 20 attempts in the FA Cup quarter-final. We were more efficient in front of goal in this game.

Another factor is personnel. Since the defeat, Arsene Wenger seemed to have found better partnerships throughout the team: Welbeck and Iwobi up front with pace and mobility, Coquelin and Elneny in the midfield with the right attack-defence balance to protect the back four, and the pacey central defensive pair of Koscielny and Gabriel, who can play a high line to complement a high pressing game.

In the Cup game against Watford, Wenger recognised the lack of penetration and tried to bring on the triple substitutions of Welbeck, Walcott and Iwobi before we went 2-0 down. The effect of changes was obvious with Welbeck reducing the deficit but he could not convert the chance to earn a replay. With Watford defence compact and organised, full-backs' involvement in attack was also essential to stretch their defence. Bellerin and Monreal did this job well today.

Deployed on the right wing, it seemed to have drawn the best out of Alexis, too. He was successful on the left wing last season, stating that it is his best position because he can cut inside with his preferred right foot. This season, however, he tended to dribble into the center and try to beat every player until he got dispossessed. He has more opportunities to make runs without the ball and crosses on the right wing.

Pundits and journalists have sniffed at Arsenal's back-to-back victory, regarding it as an "annual late run after the pressure is off", but is the pressure really off? The win at Goodison Park came when we had our back against the wall and the situation was the same prior to this game. This "late run" is attributed to finding the right formula rather than mental elements. Wenger has been keeping the faith in the same starting XI for the last 3 games. Before the Barcelona game Welbeck had to be eased into games after a long lay-off, while Iwobi's emergence was a revelation even to Wenger. The Coquelin-Elneny partnership has flourished as both equally share offensive/defensive responsibilities. Although Santi's delayed return is bad news for us, Elneny's rise softens the blow.

If mental factors have anything to do with the late surge, it's the team's focus. As Mesut Özil pointed out, the team seemed to have gone into some of the games, thinking just turning up was enough to earn points. In the run-in, they will have enough time to prepare themselves for the next game, playing only one game a week, except for the rescheduled match against West Brom. Hopefully, the boys will keep the same focus they showed in this game till the end of the season.

Players ratings

Ospina: 7
With Watford registering only 2 shots on target, he had little to do, but when he was called upon, he produced a fine save to keep a clean sheet.

Bellerin: 8

He didn't go forward often enough for our liking in the first half, but got more involved in attack as the game went on. Scored his third goal in an Arsenal shirt with his weaker left foot.

Gabriel: 7

Made 6 interceptions and 7 clearances. Largely untroubled, but his slip nearly gave us a heart attack. Fortunately, Bellerin came to a rescue.

Koscielny: 7

Made 6 interceptions and 6 clearances. Kept Ighalo quiet. So much so, the Nigeria international was taken off at half time. He dithered after having won the ball and nearly lost possession under pressure from 2 Watford players. He needs to eradicate this bad habit. 

Monreal: 7
He was always available on the left flank. Made 2 tackles, 3 interceptions 5 clearances and 1 block. His heading clearance off the line helped a clean sheet.

Coquelin: 8

Made 4 tackles, 4 interceptions, and 1 clearance. He also initiated a slick move leading to Iwobi's goal by releasing Alexis up the right wing.

Elneny: 8
Put in a tireless shift in his 8th game, including AFCON qualifiers for Egypt, in the space of 4 weeks, constantly covering 12 km or more per game. His energy and work rate have made a big difference in recent weeks.  Made more passes (127) than any other players on the pitch with an impressive 96.1% accuracy, which meant he completed more passes (122) than any player in a Premier League game this season. He rarely loses  the ball. 

Alexis: 9
Had 4 shots, all of which were on target. Made 5 key passes. Scored Arsenal's first goal and set up the second. Replaced by Campbell in the 78th minute after he was seen holding his hamstring. Hope he is OK.'s Man of the Match with a 9 rating.

Özil: 7
4 goals and he didn't claim assists for any of them. However, he was still pulling the strings for Arsenal's attack. His perfectly-weighed long pass to Campbell led to Arsenal's fourth goal. Had 2 shots, 1 of which was on target, creating 3 chances for his team-mates. Made 111 passes with a 90.1 % passing success rate.

Iwobi: 9

Arsenal fans' and Barclays Man of the Match. Set up Alexis's goal and got on a scoresheet himself. Had 4 shots, 3 of which were on target, making 3 key passes. He is one of bright spots of a disappointing season. 

Welbeck: 7

Had 3 shots, 1 of which was on target. He should have done better when he had a chance to put a shot away in the box. Replaced by Giroud in the 63rd minutes. Wise decision as he does not seem to have completely recovered from the knee injury that kept him on the sidelines for 10 months.


Giroud: 6
Replaced Welbeck in the 63rd minutes. Had 1 shot, which was on target. 

Walcott: 7
Came on for Iwobi in the 68th minute. The lack of eagerness was clear on his face when he came on, in contrast to an enthusiastic reception from the home crowd for out-going Alex Iwobi. A low-key celebration of his goal also suggested that he might be on his way out.

Campbell: 7
Replaced Alexis in the 78th minute to play on the right wing. Set up Walcott's goal.