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Monday, 29 April 2013

Arsenal vs. Man United: Isn't he on our team?

Arsenal 1 - 1 Manchester United

Yesterday's game was one of fluctuating elation and frustration. It still felt surreal seeing the league's top scorer in a Manchester United shirt at our place, but hopefully it provided some kind of closure for the whole debacle. I stressed before the game how badly I wanted Arsenal to win, and I don't think I was too blinded by impartiality to think, as I still do, that it could have been our day.

The guard of honour that had been built up by fans and the media passed by with nothing controversial to speak of save a loud but not deafening chorus of boos. The Arsenal team and bench both looked strong again, despite the absence of Olivier Giroud and Jack Wilshere from the starting lineup. This in itself was promising: in the past when two or three first team players have been unavailable the team has looked flimsy on paper. If nothing else, replacing one extraordinary attacker with three very good ones has improved the squad depth.

The game's goals originated from players on both sides seemingly forgetting that Robin van Persie was a United and not an Arsenal player. In the second minute, the dutchman himself, apparently suffering momentary amnesia, pinged a pass straight to Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs and in one slick move (Cazorla - Podolski - Rosicky) Arsenal had the first goal. Theo Walcott just about put enough power on his shot to see it squeeze under David de Gea and into the net.

Elation. The cameras showed that Walcott had been just offside, but none of the officials or the opposition players noticed and, especially when you're playing United, it is easy to make the 'these things even out over a season' argument. For the rest of the first half Arsenal dominated but in their usual frustrating fashion by which they passed the ball around the outside of United's penalty box without really threatening to find the final ball. Most of the attacks were down the right flank, and I lost count of how many times Bacary Sagna got in a good position to cross and then decided against it.

In fact it was Sagna who was the next to be confused by last summer's personnel change. With half time approaching and under pressure from Nani, the Arsenal right-back played in none other than former teammate van Persie who made a beeline for Wojciech Szczesny's goal. Noticing his error with horror, Sagna did well to catch up with RVP inside the box, before promptly scything him down. It was an obvious penalty, and directly caused by one of the worst individual errors I've seen this season.

Frustration. Of course van Persie took the penalty. Of course he scored it. Szczesny did well to stare him down and guessed right with his dive, but it was a perfectly powered and placed shot. RVP did not celebrate.

The second half was a stalemate, with chances for both sides resulting in good saves, including a great one from Szczesny's face. The game was scrappy at times, with both sides, possibly still unsure which side RVP was playing for, mis-hitting some of their passes. Three Arsenal and five United players were booked by referee Phil Dowd who marshalled the game well overall. It was encouraging to see Arsenal not allowing themselves to be outmuscled, chasing every player down and making some powerful tackles. There was even a throwback to the Arsenal-United games of the noughties, with Jonny Evans squaring up (or down) to Walcott at one point.

It was a fairly even affair and frustrating that neither side really seemed that determined to find a winner. A draw was a fair result and not a bad one for Arsenal, but I can't help thinking if one of our players had taken the game by the scruff of the neck we could have dug out a victory. Walcott, Podolski and Cazorla all went awol at times, and Sagna looked worryingly out of touch. Perhaps starting Jenkinson in the next game would make him aware of the competition.

Focus remains on qualifying for Europe next season, Chelsea have a tough run-in but fourth place is still looking more likely than third and I know I'm not alone in prioritising finishing above Spurs. A point should not be complained about but the team needs to find some ideas on how to beat the biggest teams if they want to be in contention with them next season.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Arsenal vs. Man United: salt avoided, wound still raw

I can't say I'm usually a particularly emotional football fan. I have often watched in amusement while the die-hards rant and rail at the TV screen when things aren't going their team's way. I reserve a special kind of excitement for the north London derby and European ties with huge deficits to be overturned, but aside from that I'm more of a sulker than a screecher.

However even I'll admit that when I woke up on Tuesday morning and the first thing I saw on my computer screen through my hazy hungover eyes was that a Robin van Persie hattrick had won Manchester United their 20th Premier League title, my stomach plummeted.

It's not that this was particularly surprising: everyone knew that after the title race was won on goal difference last season, whichever of the Manchester clubs won the battle to sign last season's top scorer effectively had the title as theirs to lose. Yet the manner of United's victory still managed to worsen my day.

Many Arsenal fans are seeing Monday's result as a let-off for the club. Had United slipped up against Aston Villa, they would have had a very real chance of sealing the title on Sunday in front of 50,000 Gooners at the Emirates. A year ago the thought of seeing our best player and captain celebrate winning the league at our home ground whilst wearing a United shirt was incomprehensible; as it turned out this was just a few points short of becoming reality.

Whilst Arsenal have been spared the greater indignity, they still have to entertain the newly-crowned champions on Sunday, and know that defeat will deal another serious blow to the club's Champions League aspirations. No one will miss the poignancy of the juxtaposition. In the past year while their ex-captain has taken his career to the next level; Arsenal remain in exactly the same position.

As far as RVP's reception on Sunday goes, I feel the fans have a right to make their opinions heard. I sincerely hope there won't be a repeat of the vulgar abuse that some subjected Emmanuel Adebayor to after his departure, but Arsenal are right to feel betrayed. Even if it is too much for a club to ask that their players stand by the team they have professed their love for, despite said club's inability to offer instant success, it is surely not too much to request that said player not be sold to their arch rivals. All parties had justifications for the move, but to deny fans the right to show their outrage at it is unreasonable.

I don't think even the calmest fan can claim any level of indifference to the outcome on Sunday. It could be the biggest game of the season... again. In fact, this weekend's match is the most I can ever recall wanting Arsenal to win a game.

And that's why after that quick vent, I'm going to put the matter out of my mind. Arsenal need to use the circumstances as a motivation, not a distraction, and European qualification (both this season and long-term) is all that the club should be focussing on right now.

The United game will be extremely difficult, with their confidence and form peaking right about now, and a record points tally in the forefront of their minds. The following three games, though against much lowlier opposition will also require hard graft. Though QPR are all but doomed, Wigan and Newcastle are both even more desperate for points than we are, and will be giving it their all. Any more slip-ups will almost certainly mean Arsenal being leapfrogged by Chelsea and Spurs.

Provided the injured players return to the fold and no more are lost, a top four finish is within reach. Olivier Giroud will miss all but the last of the games through suspension, but this could provide Lukas Podolski with his long-awaited chance to prove his worth as a central striker. The German has earned the 'super-sub' tag in the second half of the season, and has played the full 90 minutes just twice in the league overall. Let's hope he's been saving his energy for the run-in.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Do Arsenal deserve to be in the top four?

Just the four goals against Reading this time, Arsenal? You clearly aren't trying hard enough...

Saturday saw a convincing win for Arsenal against this season's whipping boys Reading, who had already been on the receiving end of a 5-2 and a 7-5 scoreline against the Gunners earlier in the campaign. It was by all accounts a one-sided affair, with Arsenal again dominating possession and chances created. Whilst a three-goal margin is a resounding victory on any occasion, Arsenal could and should have put more goals past bottom-of-the-table Reading, the one team in the league who are almost unanimously tipped for relegation.

Against the team with statistically the worst defence in the Premier League, Arsenal might have been expected to convert more of their twenty-three shots on goal. They should also rue the fact that the opposition were able to spoil their clean sheet, despite only managing four attempts on goal all game. Reading's one in four conversion rate tops Arsenal's one in six, making Reading the more clinical side in this encounter.

It is not difficult to imagine that against most other Premier League defences, Arsenal's attackers would not have been allowed such an easy ride. Gervinho, praised by many after having a hand in all but one of the goals was still guilty of dithering on the ball in the build-up to all three and against more adept defenders would have found it much more difficult to produce (his and Arsenal's holy grail) the end product.

I do not mean to be too harsh on the Ivorian; a goal is a goal no matter who the opposition. But at the top of the top level (a position we Arsenal fans still believe our team to be clinging on to), you need to be able to perform against the top teams. Just ask that other tenacious Ivorian Didier Drogba. Gervinho is not the only member of the Arsenal team yet to prove he is capable of this.

One of the things that has been most humiliating for Arsenal this season (one which has included losses to Bradford and Blackburn - as if you'd forgotten) has been their form against the 'big' teams. Of those defeated by Arsenal this season, Bayern Munich are the one side I would consider as being within this category, though even that game was a hollow victory as it only confirmed another trophy-less campaign.

The table below illustrates just how dire Arsenal's results against the best teams in the country have been this time around. It shows how many points each Premier League team has gained so far this season in their fixtures against Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. The brackets show the maximum points each team could have earned from these games.


Points gained against the 'big three'

7   (/15)
7   (/18)
5   (/18)
4   (/12)
West Ham
4   (/12)
3   (/15)
3   (/18)
3   (/15)
3   (/15)
West Brom
3   (/15)
2     (/9)
1   (/15)
1   (/15)
1   (/15)
1   (/15)
Aston Villa
0   (/12)
0   (/15)

Aside from the surprise of seeing Southampton and QPR both in the top three, the next most noticeable anomaly is Arsenal's embarrassingly low position in the table. The fact that only Aston Villa and Wigan have won fewer points against the 'big three' is poignant testimony to Arsenal's below-par performances when faced with tougher opposition.

The argument could be made that Everton, Tottenham and Liverpool would be more deserving of a Champions League spot than Arsenal, as they have all demonstrated their ability to compete against the best teams in England - something Arsenal have failed to do. Would one of theses teams be more hungry for success in Europe than the Gunners?

Out of this season's remaining eight fixtures, undoubtedly the biggest game is at home to Manchester United at the end of this month: Arsenal's last chance to land a blow on one of the teams trying to push them further away from the top of the English game.

Arsène Wenger needs to look at his team's record against their rivals this season and act to make sure that the club does not allow these big fixtures to become forgone conclusions. Finishing inside the top four this year would be a lot more justifiable, not to mention easier if Arsenal had managed to take a few points off the other contenders.