Back on track. Another big game.

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.

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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.

Will

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Napoli: A Change of Midfield Philosophy?

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.

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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…

Will


Tales of Munich: You only sing ven you’re vinning

Those of you who have done the away European trip will know what I mean when I say it’s basically as good as it gets. Having lost 3-1 in the home tie, this leg had a different feel to it than Barcelona and Milan. The Arsenal fans were on holiday, they were in Munich to let their hair down in the knowledge that this could be the last Champions League away day in a long while, it would have to be a particularly memorable one.

With the game on the Wednesday we travelled Tuesday to Thursday. Pretty much the only occasion that I’m happy to get up ridiculously early for is this one. The easybus arrived at Stanstead at 8.30am. As we approached Wetherspoons we were greeted by the comforting sight of fans doused in red and white looking exhausted but with pints of cheap lager staring back at them nonetheless. Sadly, unlike in Barcelona, Munich airport border control doesn’t require a reason for travel. In barcelona the response is always ‘business’ and it’s always greeted with a wry smile.

Whilst trying and failing to conquer the Ubarn underground system on the way to the Hotel Wetterstein it became apparent that this is a charming place. Much nicer than Milan and on a par with Barcelona, Munich is a football city through and through. The people are only too happy to chat, although when inevitably the conversation turns to football they exhibit more than a touch of arrogance. Koscielny would put pain to that within 24 hours. If you’ve done one of these trips you’ll know that all you really need is a central square and nothing more. Munich provides this, however fans were forced to shelter in the famous beer halls as a snowstorm moved in. As well as the famous wheat-beer, the food deserves a special mention. Sausages, pretzels and pastries are the order of the day.

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Tuesday afternoon was spent in ‘the world’s most famous pub’, Hofbräuhaus. This is football fan heaven. A sprawling mass of well lubricated tourists, most of whom look as though they’ve scarcely been happier. A traditional Bavarian band play the occasional ditty in the middle. Each number provokes a response from the disinterested Gooners, ‘wha’dya think of Tottenham?’ ‘Weee wooon the leeeeeeeeague’. It’s a bizarre mismatch of styles but everyone apart from the security guards seems to be enjoying it, especially the Asian tourists most of whom look like the lager has sent them into a new dimension.

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News filtered through of Barca’s trouncing of Milan at the Nou Camp. Not too long ago it was us on the receiving end of Messi’s magic and not too many Arsenal fans were at all optimistic this time around either. A few more steins of beer and before we knew it we ended up in local establishment called La Dulce Vita. Inside it was basically exactly as you’d imagine. Most of the evening’s entertainment unpredictably came via a Jonjo Shelvey lookalike trying to persuade a stripper to come home with him. Suffice to say, if you look like Jonjo Shelvey no-one wants to shag you, even if you pay them.

Match day begun in bed next to my mate who was clutching an unidentified stein (picture below).

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One thing that set this trip apart from others was the amicable, sociable nature of the Gooners. The fact the tie was all but over meant everyone was slightly less aggressive than normal. We spent the afternoon chatting to some fans from Brighton, Ireland and even some random tourists from Texas. Having explained why we were crazy enough to follow our terrible football team to Germany for a match that we’d already lost, they asked us why we still want our manager to be our manager if we’re so shit? Mmmm. I tried to explain that a large proportion of our fan-base act unreasonably and disrespectfully towards him so my opinion is centred around avoiding this ‘Wenger-out’ mob and trying to balance the books. They didn’t really understand so I told them I felt like a homosexual 14 yr old who is mad confused about his sexuality and doesn’t really know what the hell to think or do anymore. I think they understood that.

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By about 6pm the bar was in full voice. A small collection of Bayern fans were doing a good job against the vast majority of Gooners. Occasionally a chant about the war or Jews would bubble and threaten to take off but the majority would show their displeasure which was nice to see. The funniest moment involved one Arsenal fan who got far too big for his boots and stood on the bar attempting to conduct the whole room. At first everyone ignored him but eventually hundreds of people turned on him with a raucous verse of ‘it should have been you, shot in Angola, it should have been you’. Needless to say he removed himself immediately.

As always the journey to the ground was fantastic. A nice mixture of Bayern and Arsenal fans made up our cramped carriage on the Ubarn. Chants included ‘mouth full of pretzel, you’ve got a mouth full of pretzel’, ‘sing ven you’re vinning, you only sing ven you vinning’, ‘my garden shed is bigger than this, it’s got a door and two windows, my garden shed is bigger than this’, and even a cheeky ‘only come to see Eboue’. What more would you want eh?

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The Allianz Arena is easily the coolest stadium I’ve ever been to, both inside and out (apart from Highbury). It was glowing red for the occasion and whilst we were in the clouds it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the Nou Camp. A great trip was capped with a decent display and some restored pride. Now we can all sit back, relax, and watch the wheels come falling off. See you in Bucharest next year.

Nick


Do Your Homework: FC Schalke 04

Merely one week ago most Arsenal fans, especially with our incredible record of not losing at home in the Champions league to a foreign team since 2003, would have seen Wednesday’s game against Schalke as a tough but very win-able fixture. Domestic form over the last week has thrown a different complexion on tomorrow’s proceedings. We all know about Arsenal’s forgettable showing at Norwich, which stands in stark contrast to a very impressive away victory for Shalke over big rivals Dortmund, but what of the dark German horses?

Shalke are managed by Huub Stevens, a former Dutch international defender who has enjoyed a long and nomadic managerial existence, mainly in the Netherlands and Germany. This is actually Stevens’ second spell at Shalke. Between 1996 and 2002 he took charge for the first time, winning the UEFA Cup in 1997 and in 1999 the Shalke fans voted him the ‘trainer of the century’. Stevens returned to Schalke in September 2011 and has steadied the ship. Last season inconsistencies in key matches meant they finished just outside  of the trophies. They lost to Bilbao in the quarter finals of the Europa League, and lost all of their matches against the top two Bundesliga sides, Bayern and Dortmund, meaning they ended the season in 3rd.

So, does their victory over Dortmund on the weekend signal a significant improvement this time around? The danger man continues to be Klaas Jan-Huntelaar, a player Arsenal have been strongly linked to. Last season he scored 29 in the Bundesliga and 48 in total. In Tuesday’s press conference Wenger spoke of the danger he possesses and the relationship he and Thomas Vermaelen enjoy from their Ajax days:

Thomas knows him well. We have to be focused in the box with Huntelaar

They are well organised, dangerous on the counter attack, but I expect us to respond in a strong way

Huntelaar himself has been speaking of his respect for the Arsenal midfield and the importance of denying us space high up the pitch. He also hints at their fear of sitting too deep and inviting pressure, something that actually works against us all the time actually:

If we show the same attitude against Arsenal as we did against Dortmund, we’ve got a chance. We have to make sure we close down the spaces. Arsenal have very good midfielders. We can’t afford to concentrate solely on defending, though. We have to go forward like we did in Dortmund.

We’ll be really motivated going into the game, but that’s more to do with our opponents rather than the game against Montpellier. Obviously it was a shame that we gave away two points against Montpellier but we’ve put that behind us now. We’re totally focused on Arsenal and are determined to take something from the game – if possible, three points of course.

The late goal conceded at home to Montpellier meant Schalke added one point to the three they picked up in a 2-1 away win at Olympiacos on matchday one. It looks as though dangerman Draxler is still out with an arm injury picked up against the French but we also have to be wary of for Ibrahim Afellay, the speedy Dutchman on loan from FC Barcelona. You would expect Afellay to play on the left with Farfan on the right and Huntelaar through the middle. Holtby will be sitting at the top of a midfield diamond. Jenkinson and Santos will have to be constantly aware not to venture too far up the pitch leaving us exposed on the counter-attack. Arteta will need to be as disciplined as ever, keeping an eye on Holtby as well as watching Huntelaar whenever he chooses to drop deep as he did against Dortmund.

We’ll have opportunities of our own and you can bet our own Germans will be right up for this one. Podolski has a great scoring record against Schalke, bagging one in each of the league fixtures for Koln last year and both of our centre backs should know a fair bit about Huntelaar. Looking at the state of the group a draw wouldn’t be too bad a result but you feel we all need a win to banish the cobwebs of Norwich. Come on the Arsenal.

Nick


Gervinho: The New Thierry …

After two months out of the Arsenal loop, I returned to the Emirates for last nights game against Olympiacos. It is always refreshing to know that, in terms of build up, very little changes and the pre match traditions are upheld. On the pitch, as you all know, a lot has changed. Arteta’s successful switch to the defensive side of midfield was interesting to watch. I felt he successfully marshalled the team with a greater certainty than last year. Santi Carzola, despite apparently having a quieter game than usual, provided us with some incredible displays of touch and skill. Pre match, a fellow Gooner described his play as ‘erotic’; at times I find it hard to disagree. And of course the well documented rise of Carl Jenkinson was great to watch and I felt he had a very solid game.

Certainly one of the more surprising changes to the line up is the movement of Gervinho from the wide positions to the center of our attack. Picking a player
whose overwhelming weakness in the previous campaign was finishing seemed like madness, but to be fair he’s now netted five times this season surpassing his tally for the whole of last year.

After the game Steve Bould spoke highly of the team and Gervinho:

‘He is scoring goals so his confidence is sky high, He is a danger with his pace and movement – he could be a top player.”

Surprising comparisons have been drawn with Thierry to which Bould replied:

‘Well, if he gets anywhere near Thierry Henry we’ll take that all day long,”

For him to be mentioned in the same breath as Thierry is, for me, a bridge too far, but judging by the only live performance I have seen he seems to be
adapting to the position well. He is tireless and his movement was encouraging. Scoring and providing an assist, as well as setting up Carzola with a glorious opportunity most would have expected him to bury. It is clear that it will take Gervinho some time to win over many of the Emirates faithful and, given his previous record, this is understandable. There are calls from the stands for Giroud to be given more of a chance and it would seem logical that in the longer term a firing Giroud would be better suited to the current formation. Giroud adds a very different dimension to the attack highlighted by his excellent assist for Ramsey’s last minute goal. That sort of heading ability is something that Gervinho is not capable of.

It’s important to note that Gervinho is very much a work in progress. Even if that’s not what we want or need at the moment, there is no denying that he is
progressing into a more confident and dangerous attacker.

Is he to be the next Thierry? I highly doubt it, but I’ll gladly be proven wrong.

Will


Not so silent Stan & Marseille Preview

Morning all,

Although Robin is clearly the in-form front man in Europe at the moment, I have to say it wasn’t his performance that pleased me most on Saturday; it was our central 3 midfield players. Although our defence has been and continues to be a serious concern, up until Chelsea I had been really disappointed with the Alex Dimitri Song Billong, Arteta and Ramsey axis. Perhaps the disjointed underwhelming creative displays we had seen were the most we could expect from a trio including a new signing, a 20 year old who has been out for a year, and the loss of Wilshere. Stamford Bridge was different. They finally showed the kind of balance, shape, understanding and work rate that for whatever reason was missing against Blackburn and Sp*rs. More worrying beforehand was the apparent lack of creativity that we have become so used to seeing from central players over the last 20 years. I know I’m not alone in being surprised by how deep Arteta has been playing, putting a lot more pressure on Ramsey, but in one of the greatest tests of his career to date he rose to the occasion.

Arsene seems to agree:

‘We speak about Robin Van Persie but Aaron was out for one year when he was just getting into the first team. That is tremendous. It is completely normal that he improves now because he is young. And there is still a lot of improvement for him’.

‘Secondly he is back to his full physical potential which is huge. We see that when we analyse the games’.

In other news Silent Stan, after a few less than impressive words at the AGM last week, made another rare appearance this time in the dressing room giving what looks like a lecture to the whole squad. I have to say the fact that the pictures were put up on the official site makes it seem like an obvious PR move by a man who has recently been criticised for his lack of communication with the fans. I guess any communication is better than none at all. I wouldn’t have thought the players really care what he has to say.

Onto Marseille tonight and the team news is good. Jenkinson and Vermaelen are fit and ready to play if called upon. Chamakh has a small knee problem and Benayoun is back in the squad. When asked if he will rotate

Arsene says:

‘I have not decided yet, I have not picked the team’.

I think he will. Having seen the way Marseille performed in France we can expect to see a few new faces brought in before the visit of West Brom on the weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arshavin, Rosicky, Benayoun if he’s fit enough and maybe even Park after his goal against Bolton. It’s been a big shock for me how badly Borussia Dortmund have fared after their impressive showing against us in the opening game. From this position we really should top the group, something we failed to do last year and paid the price.

Just to finish off a little observation. Does anyone else think that Andre Santos is fast becoming the new Eboue? The crazily relaxed approach in extremely dangerous situations, the dance moves and the all round irrational jocular behaviour suggest we may have another cult hero on our hands…

Let’s hope for 3 points tonight.

N