The closing of the Premier League for Arsenal and Norwich City on Sunday brings an end to two seasons of polar opposites – one looking to build and move forward with a potential trophy and another banished to the dark depths of relegation.
Both Arsenal’s and Norwich’s 2013/14 season began with the classic case of early cautious optimism – both clubs made record signings in the summer in the form of Mesut Ozil and Ricky van Wolfswinkel, respectively, and early hope of a season of the club moving forward slowly moved into the realisation that both clubs would be fighting for where they were last season – Norwich in a relegation scrap and Arsenal settling for fourth (which, incidentally, is pretty much enshrined in the Premier League rule book). Arsenal, however, have secured their homely comfy berth of fourth and now face the very real possibility of a first trophy in nine years – ultimately, a successful season.
However, Norwich are now confined to the dark depths of relegation. Three seasons in the Premier League has proved enough for the Norfolk outfit, and hopes and dreams of mid-table obscurity a la Aston Villa or Swansea have been dashed as the Canaries are arguably put back to their spiritual home of recent years – the Championship. Ultimately, it is this that has so infuriated Norwich fans both this season and last – that expectations have not been reached, even that the lowest expectation of even the most pessimistic Norwich fan has been surpassed and beaten. It is the management of Chris ‘But he’s such a nice bloke’ Hughton that many have levelled their blame at, infuriated by Hughton’s negative tactics and reluctance to even try and win, rather, tactics that are formed around the concept to not lose. It is argued, contrary to Danny Mills and his band of merry Match of the Day pundits, that any relegation this year was not because Hughton was sacked too late by the Norwich board, it’s that he wasn’t sacked early enough. Indeed, Norwich’s finish of 11th last season was masked by two wins against West Brom and Manchester City on the last two games of last season. Norwich were still in a relegation scrap.
It is the performances of the players, however, that marks the big difference between last season’s finish and this. The usual stalwart of Sebastien Bassong at centre-back has been nothing short of dreadful this season, after being given the captain’s armband, and poor quality players like Bradley Johnson in midfield and Stephen Whittaker at right-back that have shown the teams Championship leanings at times. However, it is arguably the brand new, Champion’s League, international and Premier League experienced strike force that have been the biggest disappointment for Norwich fans this season – a combined tally of 8 goals between Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Gary Hooper and Johan Elmander in the Premier League makes guessing where Norwich’s problems have come from this season fairly easy. Indeed, even unlucky injuries to some of the better performing players such as Leroy Fer or Jonny Howson have made Norwich’s job considerably harder. Ultimately, it is the massive loss of Norwich ‘identity’ that maybe the fans can level their blame at – the loss of almost all players that were with the club through successive promotions, the manager that masterminded the operation, and the club talisman and 3 time Player of the Season winner Grant Holt all in fairly acrimonious circumstances means that the club has arguably lost its identity forged through the successive promotions of the 09/10 and 10/11 season and is now a club with an identity crisis. Indeed, the saga with the Wes Hoolahan transfer in January proves that all is not peachy behind closed doors at the club.
David Mcnally, Norwich’s Chief Executive, has stated that Norwich’s financial plans rested on the Yellows securing at least 17th season in the Championship, even with parachute payments and the like. However, maybe Norwich fans has a reason to be optimistic about a season in the Championship. Sure, it will be hard, because the Championship is a hard league, and the club will lose many of its Premier League quality players – Snodgrass, Fer, Pilkington, Ruddy, Redmond, and Hooper spring to mind – however, the club is as of this season externally debt-free, still has some decent players likely to stay with the club, can look forward to a new manager and can start again with a fresh challenge at promotion. We can even look forward to beating Ipswich again. However, is this optimism of this summer the exact same rosy optimism we felt of last year? One thing is certain – Norwich have failed on almost every level this season. Next season will decide whether the failure is long term or just a blip on the rise-to-the-top (‘top’ being a solid mid-table Premier League club) radar.
Struggling Fulham travel to the Emirates on Saturday, desperate for points, and with the fresh enthusiasm of our new management team being called into question.
Fulham are only two points off the bottom of the Premier League table, and in the eight league games Rene Meulensteen has overseen, our goal difference tally has dropped by 15. It doesn’t sound great. But even so, most Fulham fans would probably admit they are rather enjoying Meulensteen being at the helm.
He greets the press after each game with the energy and enthusiasm typical of a new manager: drawing a surprising amount of positives following a 6-0 thrashing, or accidentally spilling too much information regarding Fulham’s transfer exploits. But perhaps that naivety is what you need at a club whose confidence could not get much lower. A fresh face who can walk into the dressing room after a drubbing from a mid-table team, and tell them that we are not going to let this dampen our spirits. He seems wet behind the ears compared to his predecessor. But then again he hasn’t faced the years of board meetings and fan abuse that inevitably result from poor performances. He seems like the over-excitable foreign exchange student who, despite not quite ‘getting it’, still turns up for school everyday with a large grin on his face.
Despite these public relations though, we are also being entertained ON the pitch. Whereas Jol was trying to mimic Arsenal by playing four CAMs, Meulensteen has taken us back to basics. He has brought an end to what was perhaps the laziest front four to have ever graced the Premier League (Ruiz, Berbatov, Taarabt, and Bent) and installed a solid base to midfield (Sidwell, Parker, Karagounis) with some pacey wingers (Kacaniklic and Dejagah). Meanwhile, Taarabt and Bent have been sent on personal fitness programmes, whilst Ruiz has been loaned to PSV. It is only Berbatov (for now) who remains, as our creative indulgence. Astute moves from the ex-Manchester United first team coach, and alleged mentor of Christiano Ronaldo.
So why are Fulham in such a tense position? Well firstly, because of the competition. At the time of writing, there have been five new managers re-appointed in the bottom half of the table. Another two look like they could be gone in a month. All squads seem to have responded impressively to fresh appointments, and all of these so called six-pointers have been impossible to predict. An audience of Gooners are unlikely to believe this, but some of this season’s most exciting football is coming from the other end of the table.
Secondly, the issue that is of greater concern: Fulham’s truly woeful defending. For all of the improvements going forward and pressing high, Fulham are so quickly undone by basic errors at set pieces, or the centre-halves being caught out from counter attacks. The number of times that Hughes, Senderos or Amorebieta have been in the wrong place, at the wrong time, is getting a bit silly. “Unfortunate” deflections my arse. The return of Hangeland this week was a relief, but it pains me that one of our other centre backs will still have to partner him. Joleon Lescott would be the perfect buy this January, but he doesn’t seem tempted. And who can blame him.
In fact, a centre-back, left-back, long term striker, and box-to-box midfielders are desperately needed. This might sound like I’m calling for a squad overhaul in January, but leaving it to the summer may be too late. New owner Shahid Khan, has thoughtfully twiddled his moustache and brought in Alan Curbishley as Technical Director, and Ray “I’m ‘ard” Wilkins as Assistant Manager. But otherwise, there has been no real evidence of him opening his wallet for some new players. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
So what can you expect at the Emirates this weekend? Well, probably a really good game from your point of view. I imagine we will give it everything going forward, and waste some good opportunities in the first 10 minutes, only for Ozil to punish us, as he effortlessly provides a through ball for someone that can’t believe they were not being marked. We have a knack of scoring after half time at the moment (good signs, Rene), but even when you play Arsenal with a tight defence and fit midfield, you eventually succumb to that pressure. An informed prediction might guess a 3-1 victory to Arsenal. But there’s no fun in that, so I’m going to say 2-2. Arsenal with many more attempts, but denied by a surprise return to form by the Fulham defence, whilst Parker initiates a quick Kacaniklic/Kasami counter attack. Berbatov coolly finishes, reminding Arsenal why you don’t need to run around in order to warrant a January bid from Arsene Wenger.
Tonight sees us host Hull who are coming off the back of a big win against Liverpool at the weekend. It was a confident and complete win but it is worth bearing in mind that their only points on the road this season have come away at Newcastle. Hopefully they will be harboring some tired legs after the intensity of Sunday and we can bring their on-pitch joys crashing down.
Pre-match, all the talk (bar some farfetched transfer news) has focused around the potential rotation of the starting line up. Over the past few seasons the thought of rotation, given the nature of our squad, had many of us dreading the consequences. However, with our relative lack of injuries the current setup is looking very capable of coping. Sagna is officially ruled out and we will see the somewhat suspect Jenkinson replace him. I feel for Jenkinson a little. He has had his struggles but it is worth remembering a decent run he had in the team last year, including an assured performance in Munich. There is no replacement for minutes on the pitch, which currently with the form of Bacary Sagna, he has little hope of getting. He is young and although I don’t see him as our long-term right back he is capable of ‘doing a job’. Aside from that I expect to see the center back partnership remain the same, with the potential for Monreal to fill in at left back. On Nacho, I challenge anyone to propose a better back up left back around at the moment, he does an excellent job late on in the games, coming on to sure things up defensively and is capable of playing in a number of positions. His performance against Marseille was excellent and there is no doubt in my mind that if he comes in tomorrow we will see another assured display. Aside from that I reckon we will see Santi drop out for Rosicky, Walcott on the right with Wilshere and Flamini in the hold. And I imagine Giroud and Ozil will have to deal with another hard working 90 minutes. The hint from Wenger has been that Ramsey will be out, a tough decision given his form but he covers as much ground as anyone and will be pinnacle to our success over the next few weeks. Even with such changes to the side, it is a very strong team with the added dimension Theo brings. He has historically thrived against the ‘lesser’ teams and if he does get his opportunity tonight I expect him to have an impact.
A word on the competition in the squad, it is so evident how the presence of it breeds excellence. Every player on the pitch tomorrow night will know that a good performance could result in a start for them in the coming weeks. They are all massive games and they all want to be involved. They are also aware that an off performance could lead to them losing their place and so many of them are thriving under this pressure. You can even tell when players come on late in the game how keen they are to impress. It is as much a credit to the attitude of the players as the situation, but the competitive nature embedding itself in the squad cannot be underestimated when accounting for our success. It is something that Arsene has been reluctant to introduce previously, maybe, as much down to lack of resources to sign new players than anything else, but on the current evidence it’s working wonders.
It will by no means be an easy game tonight but I remain confident of a positive result. Always good to get in an extra mid week game under the lights as well.
The weekend passes and we are back to the somewhat disconcerting feeling of comfort after an unspectacular win against the Saints. Entering the week absent of stress is a welcome change to previous campaigns when we would have somehow managed to lose a 2-goal lead to a side down at the bottom. It was a fairly poor game of football all round but coming away with the result highlights the maturing element to the side this year. They are making winning a habit and it is great to see. We were undoubtedly fortunate to be served a goal on a plate and the award of the penalty was a total lack of discipline on Fonte’s part. Regardless the history books will say 2-0 to the Arsenal and that’s all that concerns me.
Other results at the weekend also worked in our favour. I don’t want to speak to soon but a slight roll reversal seems to be in play with Utd. Them stepping up for the big game against us before failing to a team they should comfortable beat (sure Van Persie is enjoying that all too familiar feeling). Tottenham also got well and truly dispatched by Man City. I wonder when 5pur2 will stop pretending to be a big club and concede life outside the top 4 is set to continue. Calls for AVB’s head are madness from fans but I am of the belief that if they were to make such a rash call it really would spell the end of their era close to the top. So by all means let it happen.
Anyways enough smugness as it is bound to come back to haunt me. We host Marseille tonight and it is another huge game (as they all are these days), a win takes us to 12 points and should all but secure us qualification to the next round. This is the sort of game, given what’s on the line, which we would previously have potentially bottled but given my current confidence in this team I think we will get a solid win. Marseille are yet to get a point so far this year and from what I have seen of them there is little they possess that can pose a genuine threat.
Another prospect that is exciting me is the return of Theo Walcott. People who have read this blog before will know that I am not his greatest advocate, but his small introduction on Saturday reminded me of just how quick he is. So far this year our team has been essentially void of it, there were a couple of times on the weekend that highlighted the threat he can create. One moment in particular was when he made one of his signature runs in behind the defence, Ozil played a curling ball from the left flank and although successfully blocked by Fonte it gave us a taste of what we have in stall. Ozil’s ability to pick him out behind the defence adds a whole new dimension to our game and his shear presence means no team can risk the high lines we have seen at times this year. The long awaited presence of the likes of Walcott and Chamberlain (proper wingers) is going to allow further developments to our game and I am intrigued to see how Wenger balances the team following their return.
What a difference a year makes! This last time I wrote for this site ahead of a trip to the Emirates both ourselves and the Arsenal were shite!
Look at us now, mocking those tin pot clubs like United and City who can’t keep up with us. Yes I am getting carried away but who can blame me!? This is the best football I have ever seen being played by my beloved Southampton FC, and for this reason, much like my trip to Old Trafford a few weeks ago, I genuinely look at Saturday’s game without any of the fear or dread that usually bestows a Saints fan for these types of occasions.
The season so far has been great for us. Particular highlights include a win at Liverpool and a last minute equaliser at United, but my own personal highlights have been our last two home games. Both first half performances against Fulham and Hull have been outstanding. The team is really working hard and for each other, and the feel good factor around St Marys is like nothing I’ve experienced before.
It’s great to see three of the big performers rewarded for their fine form with England call ups. Although I was slightly surprised with Jay Rod’s call up, I certainly wasn’t about Adam Lallana’s. His form last season was a bit patchy, mainly due to injuries and niggles that plagued him all season, but this season he has excelled and become one of the best creative players in the Premiership.
Probably the most impressive part of our game at the moment is how tight our defence has become. In my eyes our player of the season so far, Dejan Lovren has been a major reason for this. He’s a natural leader, something we were crying out for last season, and with two quality wing backs in Shaw and Clyne, a very good goalkeeper in Boruc and an ever improving Jose Fonte playing alongside him, Arsenal will have to work hard to break them down. Another new signing who’s done well after a slow start is Victor Wanyama. Although his passing is pretty poor, his ability to break up play is exceptional and he’s got a massive role to play if we are going to get something from the game on Saturday. I’m rather surprised Arsenal didn’t go in for him in the summer to be honest as he’s the type of player that I feel you guys could do with.
The less we talk about last year’s game at the Emirates the better. It was one of those games where you wish you weren’t there, 6-1 and it honestly could have been ten. I remember the best player on the pitch for a lot of the game was old boy Gervinho! I don’t remember much else. I tend to block those kind of games out of my memory. I’ve been to some great games away at Arsenal. A couple that stick out are when we nicked a 1-1 draw at Highbury. Wiltord scored and then late in the game a very average midfielder of ours Jo Tessem scored a header. Another that sticks out is a 2-2 draw when some kid called Robin Van Persie scored a 95th minute equalizer after Rory Delap had scored two identical headers from corners late on. A game that still haunts me now is when Arsenal were 5-0 up against us after about 25 minutes, I’ve never been to a game and seen supporters walking out after half an hour. I remember Robert Pires was near un-playable.
I’ve been very impressed with Arsenal so far this year, Aaron Ramsey especially. The boy has almost come from nowhere this season and his volume of goals already is incredible. I have a lot of admiration for Oliver Giroud as well, his movement is superb and he works his socks off. Mertesaker coming back is a huge plus for you guys ahead of the game as I quite fancied Lambert up against Vermaelen. I think that the January transfer window is huge for Arsenal if they want to seriously challenge for the title this year, the squad is a little thin compared to title rivals and I think a centre forward and a defensive midfielder are must buys.
Do I think Arsenal will win the league? no. Do I think Saints will finish in the top four? no, but I think Saturday is going to be a belter.
Probable Saints line-up:
Clyne Fonte Lovren Shaw
Ward-Prowse Schneiderlin Rodriguez Lallana
Prediction 1-1 Ramsey and Lambert to score.
Tonight sees last year’s finalist and one of the best teams in Europe visit The Emirates. A team built on a great footballing philosophy with a passionate coach, an exceptional group of players and a phenomenal fan base. They have set an example to the rest of Europe of how to build from a relatively humble beginning into a team capable of beating anyone on their day.
There is no denying that they bring the kind of test that we are yet to experience so far this year, the thought of this game has filled me with excitement for some weeks and now it is within touching distance.
The weekend’s performance has allowed us to build our confidence further and the team should go into this game with genuine expectations of the win. The news of Mathieu Flamani’s expected absence is a blow, his exceptional performances have been well documented this season and it will be vital for someone to step up into his place and take on both the defensive and organisational responsibility.
It was telling at the weekend that in the period between him going off and half time the team struggled with their shape. Norwich were allowed more space in between the midfield and defense and produced their best period of the game.
It was also interesting and slightly worrying to see how the atmosphere of the stadium changed in that short period. For the most part the fans were, once again, sensational. However, during this spell of Norwich dominance that the old groan, that we all know far to well could be heard around the stands. With the exquisite football we are playing at the moment it is frustrating to see loose passes and sloppy play but there are going to be times when we are not dominating the opposition. There will be occasions this season when we lose and lose to teams that many of us would consider inferior. This, sadly, is the way football goes.
Tonight represents a real challenge and there will be very tough periods. But it is worth remembering how privileged we are as fans to have these teams come to town. Champions League nights, for me, as for the many are some of the greatest sporting spectacles around and some times in the absence of trophies it is easy to take these nights for granted. Barca at home will live long in all our memories despite a trophyless season that year.
It does not get much better than Dortmund under the lights. My prediction is a well fought draw and it would represent a great result, but even if it doesn’t go to plan, savour it, cause it’s not everyday we are treated to such nights!
I am sure many of you, as I have, have spent the last 24 hours attempting to read every last article on Tuesday night’s victory as possible. For that reason I will not go over the details. What I will say is as a regular visitor to the Emirates that was not only one of the best performances I have seen on the pitch, but also one of the best from the stands. There is a new attitude to us all within the ground, we walk to our seats with a renewed sense of optimism and excitement. This a much welcome replacement from the constant knife edge that we were on until just a few weeks ago. Chants of “We’re the North bank Emirates’ etc have not been heard for years, if ever. Supporting The Arsenal is fun again and long may it continue.
A distinct feature of Tuesday night was the set up in midfield, a line up perhaps born more out of necessity than choice. All five of the starters deployed would almost certainly consider themselves to be central midfielders. With this in mind one might have expected a lack of balance and an overloading in the centre of the park. What we experienced, however, was far from this. Arteta and Flamini provided the perfect platform to allow the front four the freedom to drift in between the lines and they did so with wonderful effect. One minute Ramsay would be wide right, the next playing centrally or wide left. The same could be said for both Ozil and Rosicky and this constant movement left Napoli with no answer. It was as close to a complete midfield performance than we have seen since the glory days.
In the aftermath of this win and given the skill displayed, it got me thinking if this is a way we could play regularly. Admittedly the likes of Ramsey would prefer a central role but his link up play with Giroud for the first goal was sublime and he provided the excellent assist for Ozil. It will be interesting to see if we try this set up more regularly. With Santi returning to the team, the skill we could posses in midfield is mouthwatering.
With both goals coming from the right hand side of the pitch I have to question whether our starter at the beginning of the season, Walcott, would have been able to produce such assists. For all of Walcott strengths he does not possess the sort of footballing ability that was on display Tuesday night. He has often come unstuck against top full backs and his decision making in tight positions is poor. I do think that Walcott has a part to play in the side. He has the ability to terrorise lesser full backs and as an impact player (arguably his best position) he can be very effective. But based on last nights performance his previously secure position in the midfield could well be under threat.
Last nights line up was not one that I thought would act with the devastating effect that it did. The introduction of Ozil provides a creativity that we have not had since the Fabregas era and the players he had around him last night responded phenomenally to it. For me there is no real reason to make changes from last night, despite some being played ‘out of position’. Let me know if you think differently…