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


Dortmund – Savour it

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.

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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!

COYG!

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


Alternative XI & Montpellier preview

The Highbury Barn was the source of much pre-match entertainment on Saturday lunchtime. James Callen, responsible for last weeks guest article, was the recipient of some horrendous but nonetheless hilarious abuse. Walking to the stadium we were slightly more anxious we than we might have been, having received the news that Giroud was on the bench and Gervinho would be taking up something of a central role. Yes, Gervinho is a man in form, but he is also one of the worst finishers I have ever seen in an Arsenal shirt (at least thus far).

We all know what happened next. I can’t remember the last time I went to the Arsenal and 60,000 people were certain of the three points within 25 minutes. It made a welcome change from the heart-wrenching stuff of seasons past. Podolski was excellent again, completing 100% of his passes. Gervinho’s movement was confusing everyone, me included, whilst Oxlade-Chamberlain put in another fantastic shift.

The consensus leading into the Southampton game seemed to be that we are strong all over the pitch but a world class striker is all that’s missing. If Giroud gets injured then Podolski, more of a wide man in my eyes, is all we have left. Perhaps Wenger’s deployment of Gervinho in an unpredictable kamikaze front three is one reason why he didn’t attempt to buy another last minute striker.

Arsene said after the game: ‘You know we transform all wingers into central strikers and all strikers into wingers’.

Words that brought home nightmarish memories of Bendtner flailing around on the right hand side.

‘I decided that during the tour of Asia when I tried playing Gervinho there against man City in that position. I liked what he did and it was in the back of my mind’.

‘He is such a great mover and he is so quick so when he is central, once he gets ahead of the central defender it is difficult to catch him’.

In other news the official squad photo was taken last week. I was assessing it and I got all excited at the depth we seem to have this year.

If you compare it to the squad from 2009/10, just three years ago, it looks a completely different group.

Clearly the losses of RVP, Nasri, Clichy, Cesc and Song are huge, but the additions of Gervinho, Arteta, Mertesacker, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Podolski, Cazorla and Giroud will, for me, more than replace them.

Players like Wilshere, Diaby, Gibbs, Rosicky and Walcott are still around but have all made significant improvements over the last three years.Perhaps most significant is the amount of dead-wood we’ve managed to offload. Thank God the squad isn’t clogged up with the likes of Traore, Eboue, Senderos, Silvestre, Vela, Merida, Denilson, Bendtner, Gallas and even Eduardo (post injury).

Before Saturday’s match I was thinking about the players we were missing and the potential alternative Arsenal XI. Here’s what I came up with.

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Sagna Koscielny Djourou Santos
Diaby Wilshere Rosicky
Walcott Giroud Arshavin

Not bad for a second string eh? Maybe we’ll have a chance in the Capital One Cup!

So, looking forward to Tuesday’s clash in Montpellier. Arsene begins his period on the sidelines having been banned last season. Big Steve Bould will get his first, and much deserved chance to take charge of the squad. Good luck to him and anyone on the receiving end of his hairdryer. Incidentally it’ll be the first time he gets to use that too (oh dear…).

The rumours are that Giroud and Walcott will start and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that at all. Walcott’s pace has caused problems away from home in Europe before, whilst Giroud will enjoy going back to his old Club. The Mail is reporting that Ramsey will play as well. He made a good cameo on Saturday so let’s hope he can push on this year. I think I’d rest Diaby, even if he’s fully fit, and save him for the City game. His personal battle with Yaya Toure could prove pivotal.

Enjoy, Nick